By John Bavoso, Africa Contributor
Each year the LGBT community and its allies celebrate Gay Pride, the philosophy and movement which asserts that sexual minorities should be proud of their sexual and gender identities and are deserving of equal rights and treatment. In 2000, President Clinton declared June to be Gay and Lesbian Pride Month in the United States and this time of year has come to be celebrated with parades, parties, memorials, protests and educational events around the world. June was chosen in honor of the Stonewall Riot of 1969-a riot which resulted from a raid on the Stonewall Inn gay bar in New York City-which is considered to be the beginning of the modern gay rights movement.
While many members of the LGBT community in the Unites States debate the merits of different celebrations meant to mark Gay Pride, the annual nature of such events provide observers both on the inside and outside of the gay rights movement an opportunity to check up on year-to-year changes in the status of sexual orientation as it relates to human rights around the world. Mass gatherings of sexual minorities proclaiming their identities and demanding rights present an obvious challenge to repressive governments and conservative societies. As a result, the governmental and civilian responses to Pride events can reveal a lot about the state of human rights for sexual minorities within a given country and how they are progressing worldwide. Earlier in this space I discussed gay rights in sub-Saharan Africa-Gay Pride Month offers an opportunity to formally evaluate these issues on a global scale.
Each year a larger number of countries host their first gay pride events. This year some countries were also able to expand their existing events. In India, a country in which it remains a crime to engage in homosexual behavior, Pride celebrations branched out from the city of Calcutta and marches, speeches, and candlelight vigils were held in New Delhi and Bangalore as well. Indian activists highlighted the dual nature of all Pride celebrations, which is often forgotten about in many Western countries. “Pride in India is at a stage where it’s not just pure celebration, it’s always part protest. A reminder of how difficult things are,” said Gautam Bhan, a gay rights activist. India’s discriminatory laws date back to colonial times and many Indian homosexuals view their struggle for equal rights as patriotic in nature as well.
One country which came close to hosting its first Gay Pride event this year was Cuba. The gay rights movement in Cuba, which faces a great deal of opposition from the country’s Catholic Church officials, is famously led in part by President Raul Castro’s daughter, Mariela Castro. The movement has made several strides forward under the new administration, including campaigns meant to combat homophobia and the passage of a law allowing for government-paid sex-changes. Cuban gay rights organizations partnered this year with Florida’s Unity Coalition to plan the country’s first Pride march for June 25th. The event, however, was cancelled just before it was to start because it was not officially sanctioned by the government. These events highlight the sensitive interplay of government officials and activists and how the addition of international groups can both help and hinder the efforts of gay activists within a country.
Gay Pride also offers an opportunity for the governments and civil society groups of Western countries with more progressive laws to reaffirm and advance these principles of equality even further. This commitment was shown this year in a strikingly similar way in both Canada and England. In both countries for the first time gay and lesbian members of the armed forces were allowed to not only march in Pride parades, but to wear their uniforms as well.
In Canada, uniformed soldiers were allowed to participate in Toronto’s parade on June 24th. This was a change from other marches throughout Canada, whose organizers prohibited military personnel from participating due to accusations of human rights abuses committed by the armed forces around the world. In this case, homosexuals in the military specifically expressed interest in participating and Toronto’s Gay Pride organizers agreed.
In England the circumstances were reversed. Last year, the Royal Army strictly banned all soldiers from appearing in London’s Gay Pride parade in their uniforms. The Army stood out from the other branches of the military in this regard-the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy lifted similar bans last June. As the result of societal pressure, for the July 5th march, the Army agreed to waive this ban as long as military discipline was maintained throughout the march by all participating personnel. For gay and lesbian members of the Canadian and British armed forces, these official changes demonstrated that the government and society which they are serving respect their basic right to identify as both soldiers and homosexuals.
The international community’s eyes this month were primarily on two Pride events whose outcomes were vastly different: Jerusalem’s Gay Pride march and Bulgaria’s inaugural Pride celebration, which was held in Sofia.
The world was watching Jerusalem as it prepared for Gay Pride month in order to see what difference a year would make. Jerusalem’s Pride events represent on a grand scale the interplay between politics, human rights, and religion-the city is considered holy by the adherents of the three major world religions and its Pride march draws protesters from orthodox and fundamentalist sects of all three. Last year’s event drew a large number of right-wing protesters whose rioting cost the city over $100,000. This year, these same activists filed a petition meant to prevent the event from happening in the first place. The city’s High Court rejected the petition, saying: “a proper balance must be maintained between the desires of the gay/lesbian community to march and the feelings of the city’s residents-it is important that such parades become a matter of routine instead of causing a commotion every year.” As a result, the protesters scaled back their plans after noting that their actions actually drew attention to the march. In this case, everyone’s rights were respected and thousands turned out peacefully to celebrate or protest Gay Pride.
The LGBT community in Bulgaria, unfortunately, was not so lucky. The organizers of Bulgaria’s Pride celebration-the nation’s first-ran into the same opposition from the country’s religious right. The event was moved from downtown Sofia to a remote park because of security concerns, but that did not stop extremists from attacking the parade’s participants with rocks, glass bottles and homemade bombs, which led to 88 arrests. While there are many countries in the world where these arrests would not have even taken place, it is still disconcerting that such widespread violence and intolerance exist in a member-state of the European Union, an organization with many formal human rights guarantees.
Gay Pride celebrations are often viewed as frivolous throughout much of the Western world where basic human rights for sexual minorities are sometimes taken for granted. At its heart, the Gay Pride movement around the world is meant to show unity and support for the LGBT community, demand rights and celebrate how far the modern gay rights movement has come in past few decades. Given how infrequently issues related specifically to human rights and sexual orientation make it into the mainstream media, an added benefit is that the international community is forced to take notice and reevaluate itself at least one month each year.