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Brickbats and bouquets as UK celebrates the decriminalisation of homosexuality

EARLIER this year the BBC announced that it was launching season of programming to mark the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which partially decriminalised homosexual acts that took place in private between two men over the age of 21.

Conservative Christian commentators reacted in various ways to the Gay Britannia season, some grudgingly supporting it and some, like Stephen Green of Christian Voice UK, above, going into meltdown.

On July 27, 50 years to the day after Britain changed the law under which gay and bisexual men could face a maximum sentence of life in prison, Green wrote on his hate-filled website that “the BBC will be unwatchable and unlistenable for a week at least.

“Especially today, all BBC channels will be awash with ‘Gay Britania’ (sic). One can argue the BBC is simply reflecting the Establishment. It is impossible to be a candidate for Labour, the LibDems or the Tories without being a ‘Diversity’ wonk. Plaid Cymru, SNP and Sinn Fein are almost as bad.  And anyone Christian or just pro-family in government needs to keep his views to himself.

“Moreover, in the broadcast media, Sky, ITV and Channel 4 news will no doubt be promoting what they will see as a joyous day.”

The deranged bigot continued: “The homosexual mindset is never satisfied. Neither with life as a whole, nor with sexual expression, nor indeed with political gains. It was never enough just to be left alone to do whatever they were going to do in private. As it happens, we all now know rather more than we ever wanted to about what homosexuals do in private. That is largely owing to the AIDS crisis, forcing gay charities like Terrence Higgins Trust to list homosexual activities in order of health risk.

“In 2004 Tony Blair enacted Civil Partnerships. The BBC celebrating that event with footage of happy couples. Nevertheless, civil partnerships were not good enough . . . Therefore, a Conservative Party Prime Minister, David Cameron, inflicted same-sex ‘marriage’ on the nation in 2013.  More celebratory BBC footage, this time of gays getting gay-married.

“And now the elite are moving on again. They want to allow anyone, for any reason or none, to change his gender at will. The Government have announced a new ‘Gender Recognition Bill’ for the autumn.”

Green continued: “It is difficult to promote homosexuality politically any more. The activists have achieved virtually everything. Accordingly, the BBC is simply leading today’s celebrations. Of course, reparative therapy offering people a progression out of same-sex attraction is still a target, because the idea there could be something wrong with being homosexual is anathema to the ungodly.  

“But one UK institution in particular remains a thorn in the activists’ collective side. The stronger elements of Christianity are still holding out. Homosexuals demand full acceptance from the church. Tolerance is not enough. So our openly-lesbian Education Secretary has demanded churches offer ceremonies for people getting gay-married. According to the Daily Mirror, Justine Greening said: ‘I think it is important that the church in a way keeps up.’”

Despite his insistence that “the BBC will be unwatchable and unlistenable for a week at least” I’m convinced that Green did not miss a single item because he clearly finds the subject utterly irresistible.  

In announcing Gay Britannia, the BBC said it would feature “bold and provocative stories that celebrate the LGBTQ community as well as challenging existing preconceptions and prejudices. The season will also cast a fresh light on the history of gay Britain, as well as highlighting just what it means to be gay in Britain today. Contributors include Susan Calman, Andrew Scott, Val McDermid, Olly Alexander, Sandi Toksvig and Simon Callow.”

It is to be congratulated on following through with output ranging from the compelling drama Against the Law, starring Daniel Mays as journalist Peter Wildeblood (who was found guilty of homosexuality in the 1950s, in the explosive Montagu Trial) to the first screen drama from best-selling British novelist Patrick Gale, Man in an Orange Shirt, starring Vanessa Redgrave.

There were also important and timely documentaries such as Is it Safe to Be Gay in the UK? which used testimony and found footage to explore the rise of attacks on lesbian, gay and transgender people.

What Gay Did For Art (BBC Two) celebrated the contribution lesbian and gay people have made to popular culture, the visual arts, literature, theatre and film; while Prejudice and Pride: The People’s History of LGBTQ Britain, presented by Susan Calman and Stephen K Amos on BBC Four, revealed the precious mementos and memorabilia that have changed the lives of LGBTQ people over the last 50 years.

Also on BBC Four, Gluck charted the modern British history of female homosexuality and its representation in culture, literature, fashion and art, through the untold story of the celebrated artist Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein, 1895-1978) who defied her contemporaries’ definitions of gender and sexuality; and Mark Gatiss offered his and other writers’ responses to the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act in Queers. On BBC Three, Olly Alexander, lead singer of Years and Years and a powerful voice on LGBTQ rights, explored why the gay community is more vulnerable to mental health issues, as he opened up about his own long-term battles with depression in Olly Alexander: Growing Up Gay.

Highlights on BBC radio included Val McDermid presenting Queer Britain on Radio 4, exploring the many ways that the LGBTQ community was accepted, tolerated, despised and ostracised and how this was reflected across culture, society and politics.

On Radio 2, a two-part series celebrated out and proud LGBTQ performers who utilised their sexuality to push boundaries, defining the sound of their generation. On Radio 3, the drama Victim traced the bravery behind the 1961 film of the same name, which was the first English language film to use the word “homosexual”.

Patrick Holland, Channel Controller for BBC Two, said: “This is a rich and compelling set of programmes that challenge us all. This season is a powerful examination of how far we have come – whilst also exploring how much further we have to travel.”

Islamists oppose Lebanon’s first gay rights celebration

BACK in 2014, human rights campaigners celebrated a landmark legal ruling in the Middle Eastern country of Lebanon, where a judge struck down a law that criminalised gay sex and other acts that “contradict the laws of nature” and punishes them with up to a year in prison.

Judge Naji al-Dahdah cleared a transsexual woman of having a same-sex relationship with a man, an act criminalised under Article 534 of Lebanon’s penal code.

After the ruling was handed down, Georges Azzi, a prominent activist for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights who is also the co-founder of Helem, a Lebanese group that has long been campaigning to change the law said: “It’s a big step; it shows we’re moving in the right direction,”

The ruling had the effect of galvanising lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists, who ramped up their demands for greater equality, and in May this year Lebanon became the first Arab country to stage a series of Pride events over the course of a week.

A particant in Lebanon's first Pride event unfurls a rainbow flag

However, the opening event at the start of the festivities was cancelled after Islamists threatened violence.

Proud Lebanon, a non-profit group promoting equal rights, was due to host a cultural event as a kickoff to the entire week, but said it was dropped by the venue after threats from the Association of Muslim Scholars in Lebanon, a Salafist group.

Bertho Makso, director of Proud Lebanon, said the week marked a watershed in gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender life, despite the threatened violence and some local opposition. “It’s really amazing. It’s a big achievement. It’s a bigger exposure,” Makso told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Before we used to be individual NGOs, here and there, doing activities, but now it’s a whole week of activities taking place around the city. It will reach more people and spread more tolerance.”

Most countries in the region do not tolerate an open celebration of LBGT life, with few Middle Eastern countries according rights to gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender citizens.

Many risk fines, jail and even death, with reports of social exclusion and abuse commonplace.

Turkey hosts a gay pride parade in Istanbul each year and Israel holds a week of events in Tel Aviv every June.

Pride events are typically held during June – LGBT Pride Month – or at a time that commemorates a turning point in a country’s own LGBT history.

The May event marked Lebanon’s International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biophobia and the man who initiated the milestone pride week said it was no coincidence.

“I wanted to pick a symbolic date, a day that would be hopeful,” Hadi Damien, who set up Beirut Pride.

While there have been anti-homophobia rallies in Lebanon in the past, the 28-year-old said he wanted to make sure the inaugural event did not focus on protests or repealing laws.

“What we need to have is to make sure that people are aware is that diversity is totally okay. And what is not okay is when you have one mould in which you want to put everybody in.”

Damien said a pool party that was planned for a Saturday had also been cancelled by a Beirut venue because of “internal commercial reasons”.

Instead of the usual gay pride parades seen in the West, Beirut Pride included an exhibition on gender fluidity in fashion as well as a storytelling get-together  centred on coming-out stories and a gay-themed party in one of the Middle East’s biggest night clubs.

Several anti-homophobia events and demonstrations have taken place in Lebanon in recent years, but activists hailed Beirut Pride as a “first”.

“This is definitely a big milestone. I’m very excited that this is happening,” said Diana Abou Abbas, a member of the queer community since its genesis more than 15 years ago and manager at Beirut sexual health centre in Marsa.

A still from Crepaway's lesbian ad

The event broke significant ground, just as a recent online and television advertisement did by featuring a lesbian couple. One of Lebanon’s oldest and largest restaurant chains, Crepaway, commissioned the ad – a first for Lebanese advertising – “to include people we see everywhere around us,” its head of communications Mario Thoumy said.

Crepaway received an outpouring of support after the ad ran. “Now we realise more and more how much this has affected people who needed someone to give them attention or respect,” Thoumy said. “We really didn’t want to exclude anyone.”

Abou Abbas thinks the ad goes a long way toward affirming lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights. “It’s really significant that a corporation as huge as Crepaway and that has been present as part of Lebanese culture for a while acknowledges that even if you are a lesbian couple you are welcome to come to Crepaway,” said Abbas.

The organisers say Beirut Pride is an event of the city’s own making – a culmination of years of grassroots mobilisation that first emerged from secret meetings and online chat rooms.

Hadi Damien, initiator of Beirut Pride,said that the first week-long Pride campaign with more than a couple dozen events was the result of many meetings with non-governmental organisations, artists and nightclubs. They came together to help improve the visibility of LGBT people across multiple venues and audiences.

Damien said that Beirut Pride was not looking to promote legal rights such as gay marriage – Lebanon has not fully legalised civil marriages. Instead this was an initiative denouncing  –  in a very peaceful manner – all kinds of hate and discrimination.

“But we specifically work with sexual identity,” Damien added.

Asked if Beirut Pride could have come any earlier, activists CNN spoke to answered with a resounding “no.” They said the movement’s history has been rife with backlashes from the country’s religious and security apparatus.

Various anti-homophobia campaigns have been met with protests, and venues have been reluctant to host their events. According to organisers, the hotel in central Beirut that was meant to serve as a venue for a Beirut Pride launch event cancelled less than 24 hours before it was set to begin after saying it had received security threats.

There have also been a series of security crackdowns on gay-friendly night clubs and bathhouses, events that stirred sizable debate in the national media.

But there are indications that resistance to LGBT rights may be weakening. Earlier this year, a fourth Lebanese judge ruled against Article 534 in a court hearing. And in 2015, the Lebanese Psychiatric Society called for its abolition.

“Now is the right moment,” Damien insisted. “I just feel it. We must be catalysts.”

One feature of Beirut Pride was a night of storytelling by members of the LGBT community. On the roof of a repurposed warehouse, people took to the stage, picked up a microphone and laid themselves bare.

Palestinian exile publishes book about his rejection of Islam

BARRY DUKE reports

FROM time to time I’ll spot someone on Facebook who appears particularly interesting, and I will send the person a friend’s request. The last time this happened was in mid-August this year when I noticed that Waleed al-Husseini was a friend of Maryam Namazie, of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain.

Well, I thought, any friend of the very courageous Maryam ought to be a friend of mine, and I messaged him accordingly. An instant acceptance came back, and at this point I realised I had made contact with a an equally courageous individual – one who founded the Council of Ex-Muslims of France in 2013 and recently published a book entitled The Blasphemer: The Price I Paid for Rejecting Islam.

Amazon describes it thus: “Like many of his generation, Waleed Al-Husseini began a blog in his twenties. However, unlike many, Waleed also had the misfortune of having been a blogger in Palestine; worse yet, he often criticised Islam and its adherents – and declared himself an apostate – in his writings.

“The Palestinian Authority did not take well to this and eventually put Waleed in jail without a trial or even a wisp of legal justification. As if this was not bad enough, they placed Waleed in solitary confinement. This state of affairs continued for 11 months. Over the course of this time, Waleed was tortured and suffered innumerable indignities and deprivations simply for having the audacity to speak his mind. Eventually his unjust imprisonment began to draw international attention from foreign governments and human rights organsations, which pressured the Palestinian Authority and finally forced it to provide him a trial and parole. After being paroled, Waleed fled Palestine, first to Jordan and then to France, where he has become an outspoken advocate for freedom of speech and a critic of the state of contemporary Islam.

The Blasphemer is a sobering, impassioned recounting of this Kafkaesque experience as well as a searing polemic against the corruption and hypocrisy that define contemporary Palestine.”

I then discovered that Husseini established a Facebook page – I’m Proud to be an Atheist – in 2010. It has so far garnered more than 158,000 likes, and has over 152,000 followers.

Digging further, I discovered more about Husseini in an extract from Brian Whitaker’s book Arabs Without God. He wrote: “In the Palestinian town of Qalqilya, 25-year-old Waleed al-Husseini hit on an amusing if irreverent idea. He decided it was time for God to have a Facebook page  –  and set about creating one. He called it Ana Allah (“I am God”) and announced jokingly that in future God would be communicating directly with people via Facebook since despite having sent prophets centuries ago His message had still not got through.

“The imaginary instructions from God posted by Husseini included one written in the style of Qur’anic verses forbidding people from drinking whisky mixed with Pepsi; ‘God’ ordered them to mix it with water instead. In another post on the Divine Facebook page, ‘God’ recommended smoking hashish.Waleed al-Hussaini

“The Palestinian authorities were far from amused, however, and a few days later Husseini  –  an IT graduate who had been unable to find a proper job since leaving university  –  was sitting in a cafe playing cards when two members of the secret police came in and arrested him.”

Whitaker says that the story of Husseini’s conversion to atheism is in many ways typical. He grew up in Palestine in what he describes as a normal Muslim family but in secondary school he started asking questions  – “questions like whether we are free to choose or not”.

“Without realising it at the time, he had stumbled into a debate about free will and predestination (al-qada’ wal-qadr in Arabic) which has exercised the minds of theologians for centuries. If God is all-knowing, He can surely foresee evil deeds; if He is all-powerful He must be capable of preventing them; if He is good, why does He allow evil deeds and then punish people for them? A verse in the Qur’an says: ‘Ye shall not will, except as Allah wills.’”

Husseini put his questions to a teacher at school. “The teacher said it’s haram [forbidden] to ask about that,” he recalls. “I didn’t have an answer so I went to an imam in Qalqilya and I got the same reply.

“This kind of response  –  that such questions should not be asked  –  is a familiar one in authoritarian societies and it is a response described by many other Arabs who have since abandoned religion. By prompting them to look further afield for answers, it has probably done more than anything else to set young Muslims on the road to disbelief,” wrote Whitaker. Later Husseini launched a couple of blogs  –  one in Arabic called Nour al-Aql (The Light of Reason) and another in English called I’m Proud to be anAtheist.

“I started discussions. I was just looking for the truth,” he said. “It wasn’t much, and in the beginning nobody was following me.” In a blog post at the end of August in 2010  – two months before his arrest  –  Husseini wrote:
“Muslims often ask me why I left Islam. What strikes me is that Muslims can’t seem to understand that renouncing Islam is a choice offered to everyone and that anyone has the right to do so.

“They believe anyone who leaves Islam is an agent or a spy for a western state, namely the Jewish state, and that they get paid bundles of money by the governments of these countries and their secret services. They actually don’t get that people are free to think and believe in whatever suits them …

“I would like to emphasise that by writing this article I did not mean to imply that Christianity or Judaism were better than Islam, and the reader should not fool himself into thinking that I only reject Islam among religions, all of which are to me a bunch of mind-blowing legends and a pile of nonsense that compete with each other in terms of stupidity.”

Husseini was eventually charged with insulting Muslims, defaming religions and inciting religious strife but it was four months before he appeared in court. In all, he says, he made more than ten court appearances and each time the case was adjourned without a full trial. He suspects his arrest was more connected with politics than religion itself  –  rivalries between the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and the Islamist Hamas movement in Gaza. Hamas was accusing the PA of not being religious enough, and the PA wanted to display some religious credentials.

After ten months’ detention he was released but told not to use the Internet or make phone calls, and he had to report to the police station every evening. However whenever the authorities spotted something new on the Internet criticising Islam, Husseini came under suspicion and he was repeatedly arrested. “They arrested me on Thursday evenings [the start of the Muslim weekend], because on Friday and Saturday there is no court.

“So I spent all the time there [under arrest] and on Sunday they would say: ‘OK, go. It’s not you.’ After this kept happening I was in touch with an American journalist in Jerusalem. She knew my story and said maybe I should leave.”

Homosexuality remains illegal in India, but encouraging moves towards equality are surfacing

IN 2009 there was jubilation among LGBT communities in India when Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which made same-sex relationships punishable by law, was declared unconstitutional by the Delhi High Court. But in 2013 the Supreme Court overturned that ruling, stating it was the job of legislators to change the law.

However, in February 2016, the Supreme Court agreed to reconsider its judgment, stating it would refer petitions to abolish Section 377 to a five-member constitutional bench, which would conduct a comprehensive hearing of the issue. Since then no progress appears to have been made. Many believe that this inaction is due to the fact that religious organisations in India remain implacably hostile to the idea of decriminalising homosexuality.

When the Supreme Court overturned the High Court decision, the move was applauded by homophobic Hindu, Muslim Christian and Jewish leaders.

Maulana Madni, of the Islamic organisation, Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, declared that “homosexuality is a crime according to scriptures and is unnatural. People cannot consider themselves to be exclusive of a society . . . In a society, a family is made up of a man and a woman, not a woman and a woman, or a man and a man. If these same- sex couples adopt children, the child will grow up with a skewed version of a family. Society will disintegrate. If we are to look at countries in the West who have allowed same-sex marriages, you will find the mental tensions they suffer from.”

Rabbi Ezekiel Isaac Malekar, honorary secretary of the Judah Hyam Synagogue, in applauding the judgment, was quoted as saying “In Judaism, our scriptures do not permit homosexuality.” And Reverend Paul Swarup of the Cathedral Church of the Redemption in Delhi stated: “Spiritually, human sexual relations are identified as those shared by a man and a woman. The Supreme Court’s view is an endorsement of our scriptures.”

The Daily News and Analysis called it “the univocal unity of religious leaders in expressing their homophobic attitude. Usually divisive and almost always seen tearing down each other’s religious beliefs, leaders across sections came forward in decrying homosexuality and expressing their solidarity with the judgment.” The article added that Baba Ramdev India’s well-known yoga guru, after advising that journalists interviewing him not to turn homosexual, stated he could cure homosexuality through yoga and called it a bad addiction.

Despite all this hostility, India has turned a blind eye to a variety of gay events that have taken place in different parts of the country. On June 29 2008, five Indian cities (Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata, Indore and Pondicherry) celebrated gay pride parades, and since then many other events have been staged, including Asia’s first Genderqueer Pride Parade at Madurai in 2012.

Encouraging news emerged this summer when the Health Ministry for the first time acknowledged that homosexuality actually exists in India. It did so by releasing new resource material for adolescent school children that  informs them that it is okay to be attracted to people of the same sex.

The material further suggests that the most important aspects of all such relationships are based on mutual consent and respect. The script of the material, which is in Hindi, states that adolescents often fall in love and they fee    l attracted to a friend or any individual of same or opposite sex. It further says that these feelings are perfectly normal.

The material also helps kids understand that it is also okay to talk to the person for whom one might have feelings – but in a respectful manner and, most importantly, understand that when a girl says “no”, it means no.

The material is to be circulated to all states as a part of the adolescent peer-education plan.

Prepared by Health Secretary C K Mishra, the material deals with the issue of same-sex attraction with a level of maturity unexpected from the deeply conservative  government. It also addresses contraception and violence based on gender discrimination. It has information on abortion and informs about the need for parental consent if the concerned girl is underage.

Speaking to reporters, Mishra said that, despite social media and the Internet, there were many questions that youngsters wanted answers to, and the new material planned to provide those answers.
The resource material was created with the United Nations Population Fund as partners and dispels severe gender stereotypes. It says that it is okay for boys to cry and calling somebody a “sissy” or a “tomboy” was not right. It also deals with drug addiction, smoking and alcohol.

India’s Financial Express commented: “In an Indian society that has been going back in time in terms of social development and freedom, binding people in the chains of gender stereotypes, gladly adapting patriarchy as a part of the tradition, this resource material is a beacon of hope.

“For it is only when the children are truly educated that the future secures itself. Yes, it is okay to have homosexual feelings. It is okay to have sexual feelings. But it is not okay to be rude and pursue after a girl says no. Sex education has been shunned in the classrooms far too long by either the government, or the teachers who just read along the lines as giggles go around the class. Hence, it is important to have a better-equipped person teaching kids about sex-ed than some half-baked biology teacher whose only aim remains to just get through the terror of the chapter of reproduction.”

Other initiatives

Last year, top British actor, outspoken atheist and veteran LGBT rights campaigner Sir Ian McKellen was a guest at the seventh Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival, India’s only mainstream LGBT film fest.

Sir Ian McKellen

The openly gay actor said that India was at a juncture where it needs to decide whether it wants to move towards equality or remain stuck in the past as far as protection of LGBT rights is concerned. “It is appalling and ironical that India would use a colonial law to oppress its homosexuals. India needs to grow up. India needs to realise that it doesn’t need to follow British laws anymore.

“It seems to me that India is at some crossroads or another. Join the rest of us, who are simply prepared to accept that we are all born equal, be it the colour of our skin or hair,” he told reporters in Mumbai.

“Whatever our sexuality, whatever our taste, we must all be treated equally. That is the world Nelson Mandela fought for. That is the future, I believe, Mahatma Gandhi dreamt of seeing,” the veteran actor added.

Bollywood actress Sonam Kapoor also addressed the issue of homosexuality, saying discrimination on the basis of one’s sexual preference is not right.

“I feel most of my fans, who follow me, are either women, gay men or lesbians. If they support me I support them too . . . Hopefully one day there are no labels and everybody is just a human being.

“It is about humanity and not gay, lesbian, transgender, transsexual or anything. It’s just a person likes another person and they be who they want to be. I hope that day comes,” she said.

This year Mumbai hosted India’s biggest LGBT Pride March on January 28. It was organised by Queer Azaadi Mumbai and an estimated 10,000 people participated. Mumbai Gay Pride started almost a decade ago and has developed into an international festival attracting people from across the globe.

Bismaya Kumar Raulo, programme coordinator at Impulse New Delhi, which was involved in the Mumbai event said: “Each and every citizen of the country deserves to live their life by their own terms. No one should be discriminated because of their sex, caste, gender and sexuality. This Pride is a day of celebration where we say that ‘yes! We do exist in this world.”

Simran Shaikh, board member of Impulse New Delhi and a transgender activist added: “It is my goal to love everyone. I hate no one. Regardless of their race, religion, their proclivities, the desire of their heart and how they want to live their life and the decisions that they make. I can even respect people’s decisions and lifestyle choices just as I hope they have the courtesy to respect my decisions and my choices.”

Dr V Sam Prasad – country programme director of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation – said “As a global organisation, AHF believes in equal rights for every individual. However in India, the scenario is quite different. The LGBT community has been always discriminated against and neglected by society as well as the government. Even today, the LGBT community is still fighting for their existence and identity in India.

“That’s something that really bothers me. As an ally, I am here to support the community.”