Speaking Out

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Fri Oct 9, 2009

Homophobia, Camouflaged as Religion and Cloaked in UN Blue

By Sohaila Abdulali

The United Nations General Assembly has a new president, Dr. Ali Abdussalam Treki of Libya.  He’s been making some interesting public statements.  It looks like he hired different speechwriters for each one, and they forgot to consult each other.

In his acceptance speech, he said, “It is imperative that we stand firmly for the realization of human rights.” He pointed out that this involves basic necessities such as food and water, medicine and the means to “fight dangerous diseases, such as HIV/AIDS.”  He finished the sentiment by expressing his desire to create a better world, in which everyone’s basic rights and freedoms are respected.

He also held a press conference, in which he said that he is not in favour of the UN resolution decriminalizing homosexuality.

"That matter is very sensitive, very touchy,” he said.  “As a Muslim, I am not in favour of it . . . it is not accepted by the majority of countries… I think it's not really acceptable by our religion, our tradition.”

I’m a Muslim too, and once again I’m gnashing my teeth because some man invokes the M-word to spew vitriol and justify hate.

This week Julia Greenberg, AIDS-Free World’s Associate Director, and I will go to the Dominican Republic, and write about it as part of our advocacy work in the Caribbean region.  In the Dominican Republic, where homosexuality isn’t illegal, the HIV prevalence rate in the general population is 1%.  Among men who have sex with men, it is 11%. In Jamaica, where homosexuality is illegal, the prevalence rate in the general population is a little over 1%, and among men who have sex with men, it is 30%. In Jamaica, gay men are routinely attacked for being gay – for hugging another man in public, for instance.  We are working with local groups who are trying to change this, legislatively, culturally, and practically.  The last thing they need is an international leader telling them he cares about their human rights but so sorry, his beliefs forbid them to exist.

I don’t know if Dr. Treki has read some of the sublimely beautiful poetry by ancient Muslim poets.  Much of it was written by male poets for their male lovers.  When Rumi, in the 11th century, spoke of “a house of love with no limits, a presence more beautiful than venus or the moon, a beauty whose image fills the mirror of the heart,” he wasn’t talking about his wife.

But this is about more than love poetry.  This is about life. About a virus that has millions in its grip because too many of us are uncomfortable with men having sex with each other, so we would really rather they die than live.  About my cousin in Delhi who couldn’t understand why her husband refused to touch her, and who in desperation asked him herself if he would rather be with a man, whereupon he broke down, wept into her lap, and finally came out.  About HIV spreading unchecked among communities of people who are too frightened to ever go near a clinic to learn how to protect themselves.

And, Dr. Treki, it’s about the UN and its role in the world.  Is the United Nations the upholder of tradition, no matter how damaging, or is it the world’s most powerful champion of the basic human rights you swore to uphold?  You can’t have it both ways.