Friday, 15 January 2010

Interview with Scott Long, director of Human Rights Watch's LGBT Rights Division

Source: Rex Wockner
He's arguably the most knowledgeable person on the planet about international LGBT issues. Scott Long, director of Human Rights Watch's LGBT Rights Division, and I chatted recently in the organization's offices in the Empire State Building. There's a lot of background and context on the Ugandan "kill the gays" bill about 1/3 of the way into the interview.
Rex: There (are) about 195 countries in the world, and over the years I've asked you random questions about probably a third of them, and I can count on one hand the number of times you didn't pretty much have the answer on the tip of your tongue. How is that possible?

Scott: We do a lot of research. Basically, human rights work is about information. It's like journalism. It's about producing information that's accurate and usable for people and for policymakers, and getting it out there. So, our reputations, our credibility, our effectiveness ride on our ability to know what's going on in the world. ... I think human rights workers, whatever the field, are kind of glorified nerds in many ways. But it's also satisfying in that if we know what's going on, if we're on top of the facts, we can actually use the facts to, I hope, improve people's lives from time to time.

Rex: I'm also asking about the inside of your brain. How does it literally fit?

Scott: Well, the inside of my brain is not terribly organized, I have to say. It's like my office. It's a lot of things strewn around in different places. But it's accessible. I mean, I spend a long time not just accumulating facts (but) getting to know people in different movements around the world and figuring out who else in the world out there has information on, you know, Moldova or Uganda or Canada or India. And probably that's the most important thing. It's not so much that I know all of these things, but over time I've gotten to know the people out there who do know this stuff because they live with it every day. And being able to access what they know and their experiences and their, you know, strategic political senses -- it's obviously invaluable to me. It's also really a tremendous privilege to see the folks out there who are planning and building their own movements in their own countries, and really do know what's going on there.

Rex: ... One of the most challenging aspects of my job is when people contact me from -- it doesn't matter which, you know, developing country it is (and) I have to somehow be able to make a determination if they're heroic, altruistic, amazing activists taking on these tasks under incredibly difficult conditions, or if ... they have some ulterior motive for doing what they're doing. Maybe they want to get invited to conferences, all expenses paid, in foreign countries or maybe they want to emigrate. ... How do you separate the good guys from the not-so-good guys in this work?

Scott: Well, it used to be a lot harder than it is. I remember years ago when I was at IGLHRC (International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission), we were working with this group which had contacted us by letter, basically -- this was before e-mail was widely disseminated across Africa. They were in eastern Nigeria and they had stories of lesbian women being targeted by these roving gangs of young men who operate in many Nigerian cities, and these were really compelling stories. And I'm still convinced that there was kind of a level of truth to some of what was going on. But as time went on, their own accounts of their own activism began to get just disproportionate to what I thought was possible in provincial Nigeria. I mean, this was the mid-1990s and they were telling stories of basically doing consciousness-raising workshops for lesbians across the Niger Delta and, as I began to look more closely at the material they were sending to us, there were little things like where newspaper articles about their work didn't match the typeface of the rest of the Xeroxed newspaper page that they were sending us and, you know, by talking to colleagues who knew Nigeria at the time much better than I did, who knew the kind of overall shape of civil society in Nigeria, it became clear that a lot of what they were feeding us was really a fraud. But that was at a time when, you know, there probably wasn't another group within 200 or 300 miles of there that was doing work on LGBT issues or that cared about them in any way. I mean, much of the feminist movement in Nigeria at the time wouldn't have touched these issues with a 10-foot pole. That's not true anymore in most places. There are networks who can vouch for people and who can help build people's capacity on the local level to become more credible and to be more in touch with the facts so that now, if somebody contacts us from Rwanda ... there are human rights organizations, there are activists in surrounding countries like Burundi, who can help us vouch for what some of these isolated voices are saying.

It's not always true though. When I got involved in the cases in Egypt, which took up a good part of three years of my life, basically -- I often tell the story: One night when I was sitting in my office alone and I got this e-mail from an anonymous person ... in Cairo who said that his roommate was one of dozens of people who'd been arrested on the Queen Boat. And it took a week or so of reading the Cairo press -- and we had nobody in the office then who spoke Arabic; this was when I was working with IGLHRC, so we had to call in translators -- before we could really determine that what he was saying was true. About a year and a half ago, I was sitting here again late one night and I had Yahoo! Messenger on. This guy started buzzing me and at first I thought it was just a random annoyance, the equivalent of a penis-enlargement spam, and it turned out that he was a 21-year-old guy living in Gaza whose parents were trying to kill him and he was in hiding and really had nowhere to turn. And we spent ... about a year trying to get him out of Gaza. It was at a point where the Israelis had closed all the border crossings around Gaza. He'd actually gotten a visa to Lebanon but he couldn't leave. Finally, after a year or so, he managed to escape into Egypt and then he got arrested in Egypt; he finally wound up in the Netherlands. But there was a certain level, in that case, of just kind of intuitively having to trust that this was someone who really was in trouble.

I think a lot of the folks who we contacted in Iraq, it was the same way. There was no way of exactly figuring out whether they were really in trouble or just wanted a quick exit. But the situation was urgent enough that you kind of had to believe them. You had no choice. And at moments like that, all you have to go on, honestly, is your own gut and a certain kind of basic trust in humanity. And I wouldn't want to reach the point where -- you know, there are a lot of liars and there's a lot of fraud and there's a lot of self-promotion -- but I wouldn't want to reach the point when you lose that kind of basic trust in humanity because unless you have that, the whole notion of human rights, you know, it doesn't mean much.
Rex: What are two or three LGBT or ... sexual-minority issues going on, on the planet right now that keep you from falling asleep at night? Just two or three that you are particularly obsessed with right now.

Scott: Uganda. This bill has been introduced in Parliament; the text of it begins with "homosexuality is an offense" -- not "homosexual conduct," not "homosexual sex" -- "homosexuality is an offense."

Rex: I read it.

Scott: It goes downhill from there, right? It ... would effectively criminalize every aspect of human rights work and human rights and human life that's connected with homosexuality, and I think there's a very good chance that it will pass.

(Specifically, the bill would imprison for life anyone convicted of "the offense of homosexuality"; punish "aggravated homosexuality" -- including repeat offenders, or anyone who is HIV-positive and has gay sex -- with the death penalty; forbid the "promotion of homosexuality" and jail rights defenders who work on LGBT rights; and imprison anyone for up to three years if they fail to report within 24 hours anyone they know who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, or who supports their human rights. [A Dec. 9 news report by Bloomberg said officials plan to "drop the death penalty and life imprisonment for gays ... to attract the support of religious leaders who are opposed to these penalties." On Dec. 13, the bill's author told Britain's The Observer there is no such plan.])

Rex: ... That bill would give straight people who don't report something gay going on in their neighborhood 24 hours to report it or they're going to prison for three years.

Scott: Yeah, it's incredible. (I)t could pass very fast if the government wants it.

Rex: I read a column ... claiming that right-wing forces in the U.S. had something to do with this bill.

Scott: The preamble to the bill was, I think, pretty clearly written by U.S. evangelicals or folks who are connected with U.S. evangelicals. We know that (U.S. evangelicals were) doing evangelical missions to Uganda earlier this year and raising the red flag about homosexuality. We know, moreover, that PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief) under the Bush administration was not only funding evangelical, homophobic, Christian -- and in some cases Muslim -- movements in Uganda, but they were also funding U.S. evangelical churches to go over to Uganda to promote quote-unquote abstinence-only, which, mind you, is homophobic by definition because the idea of abstinence till marriage excludes people who can't marry from any access to sex.

So the U.S. under the previous administration was implicated in this up to its elbows and U.S. right-wing churches are in this up to their elbows. And they're targeting Africa, not just Uganda. ... (I)n Zambia, in Namibia, in Kenya, in Nigeria, these folks are operating all over the map. And that's one reason why the Uganda bill is so alarming. It's not just what it represents for Uganda, where things are bad already, it's that it represents a foothold by these forces inside Africa ... in creating new legal prohibitions on sexual autonomy, on homosexuality, and using homosexuality as a wedge issue to establish their own power.

Rex: How does it benefit them back in the U.S.? ...

Scott: First of all, they can raise money. It's great for their congregations and their funding forces to be able to say (they) fought the scourge of homosexuality in these far-flung places that most of their folks can't even pronounce. ...

Rex: This Ugandan proposed law, if you leave Uganda and go get married in the Netherlands and come back, you're going to spend life in prison for having done that. I mean, it's the most amazing anti-gay bill ... I think I've ever read.

Scott: When we first were leaked the text of it, a bunch of us were just looking at it in astonishment. (T)he preparation for it has been laid by years of fanatical homophobic agitation in Uganda that comes from the president and comes from the first lady and comes from ... the minister of ethics and integrity, James Nsaba Buturo, who are all obsessed by homosexuality. But the groundwork has also been laid, again, by these years of religious agitation, which has been promoted by U.S. evangelicals. And to get back to your question about what they get from it -- I think part of the joy for them is also that in Uganda they can say all these things that in the United States and Canada just aren't respectable to be said anymore, you know?

Rick Warren, when he gets up in public, has to make nice on the issue of homosexuality to some degree. He can say, you know, "They can't marry," "they're sinful," but if he says, "They should be thrown in jail," it would alienate a certain part of his constituency here and he wouldn't get to stand with President Obama on the podium. But! He can invite Martin Ssempa -- who's this genuinely, fascistically homophobic preacher from Uganda who's burned condoms in public to send a message that they don't work -- he can invite Martin Ssempa to stand on the podium with him at Saddleback Church -- the wonderfully named Saddleback Church -- and, you know, he can know that Ssempa is going to go back to Uganda and say all the things that Rick Warren can't, and I think they really get a thrill out of that at this point.

(Under pressure, Warren sent a video message to Uganda on Dec. 10 saying he "completely oppose(s) and ... vigorously condemn(s)" the bill. "The potential law before your Parliament is unjust, it's extreme and it's un-Christian towards homosexuals, requiring death penalty even in some cases," Warren said. "This law would also imprison anyone convicted of homosexual practice." According to Newsweek, in October, Warren said that Saddleback "completely severed contact with Mr. Ssempa ... in 2007." For more on Warren and Uganda, see last night's Rachel Maddow Show here.)

Rex: What's another hot spot, if you will, that's taking up a lot of your thought processes right now?

Scott: Iraq and the Middle East. The stuff we saw in Iraq, the killing campaign this year, is a very extreme version of what we've seen in other places in the Middle East, which is, you suddenly get basically a moral panic around the issue of homosexuality where a lot of other social anxieties about, you know, westernization, social change, change in gender roles, masculinity, they all get wrapped up into one issue and somebody's scapegoated, someone is targeted. The Queen Boat arrests in Egypt were very much like that, in that all of these fears about rock music and Satanism and heavy metal and effeminate men and long hair suddenly got transmuted into the issue of homosexuality. And we've seen kind of smaller eruptions like that in places from Morocco to Turkey over the last few years. It is very complex because it is connected to the reality of very swift social change that people find unsettling, in many cases terrifying. It's connected to the reality of westernization and of very swift and unsettling economic changes as well. I mean, the anxieties behind it are real. The scapegoat is fictional, but the people who suffer are also real, and I think, you know, what we need across the Middle East is not just LGBT movements who are capable of responding to this -- that will take a long time -- but we need a stronger commitment from mainstream human rights organizations to fight moral panics and to stand up for the human rights even of the most marginalized, stigmatized people in the community.

Rex: The kind of homophobia that we see in that Ugandan bill and in the activities in Iraq -- I mean, they've been supergluing gay men's anuses shut and feeding them something to cause diarrhea, which I guess can kill you -- is that kind of homophobia below the surface across the planet or is there something unique about places where this stuff breaks through? I mean, is it controlled everywhere else? You know what I'm saying?

Scott: Yeah, it's a really good question. I wish I had an answer. In both Iraq and Uganda, I think the fears and the violence of the response -- the kind of legal violence that's being proposed in Uganda and the really literal violence in Iraq -- are certainly enabled by a long history of violence and social collapse. You know, Uganda has gone through 25 or 30 years of civil war. You can stand in Kampala and it looks like a beautiful, placid, just lovely place, and then you remember what's happened to many of the people walking by you on the street in the last two decades, and you remember the civil war that's still raging in the north, and you realize how much fear there is underneath the surface. And I think the Museveni government has been actually very clever at focusing all of people's anxieties on homosexuality as kind of the universal target and the universal scapegoat.

In Iraq, it's quite true that homosexuals were never particularly targeted under the Saddam regime. He had other enemies. But to the other enemies, he was absolutely brutal. You know, the stories of nails and drills being driven into people's skulls, of enemies being castrated, these go back to what the Baath party was doing in the '80s and '90s. The sanctions, and then the just-total U.S.-induced collapse of security after the invasion, have created an environment where everybody lives in anticipation of violence and where everybody feels that being ready to be violent yourself is the only safeguard. And the militias, the Mahdi Army, are the product of that -- they're a bunch of young men who see no future for themselves and whose only social role that they can imagine for themselves if they don't have jobs, they don't have stable family structures, they don't have stable lives, the only role they can imagine for themselves is enforcing some imaginary version of morality. So I think the circumstances are somewhat special, but, you know, these very deep-rooted fears about sexuality, sexual difference, gender -- I really think the issue of, you know, what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman are at the core of much of this homophobic violence as much as people's kind of fantasies about what other folks are doing in bed.

These fears are not just limited to Iraq and Uganda; you see them everywhere. I mean, the trans folks who get beaten up on the streets of New York are facing the same kinds of fears in a different version. It's just that you have certain social situations which allow them complete sway.

Rex: It has become apparent to me that this could be a five-hour interview.

Scott: I talk a lot.

Rex: Well, no, not because you talk a lot. Because you and I spend a lot of our days working in the same universe. I'll just ask you one final question. ... There's only so many hours in the day, there's only so many people on your staff, there's only so much money. ... If you have a choice between working to improve the general situation in a country to help a whole bunch of people in some kind of long-term way versus helping one individual person who is in a crisis situation, how do you make that determination?

Scott: ... We've never had a point where we had to say, you know, we've got to let the long-term legal strategy go because of this one case or this one group of people. But in this program at Human Rights Watch we do a lot more work with individuals than any other part of Human Rights Watch does. For the most part, Human Rights Watch focuses on the big picture. We look at patterns of violations and policy recommendations to fix them. And I think that's very important in dealing with LGBT rights, partly because we get told so often that these abuses are sporadic or unsystematic or accidental or they just don't happen, you know? I think being able to demonstrate: "No, there is a syndrome, there is a pattern, these are serious, they happen to a lot people" -- it's critical for getting attention paid to them. But the fact is that in most countries in the world, still, things that happen to queer folks are shrouded in secrecy and stigma and shame. People don't want to talk about them or they can't find somebody to talk to them about because mainstream human rights organizations, the police, the people who are supposed to protect you, will ignore you, will say, "Go away." So, it's not as though in this division, in doing LGBT rights work, you kind of get the abuses handed to you on a platter. ... "Here, neatly served up, are 20 people or 40 people who have stories of police abuse or torture to tell you." It requires much more effort for us to find the stories and to find people who are willing to talk to us and to find people to whom this has happened. And because of that, we need to pay attention to the individual abuses because they are often our only key to finding out what the larger pattern is. It's only by grabbing that single thread that we can untangle the whole carpet of abuses that people are facing.

So, I make it very much our policy here that when we have somebody come to us with an individual story that's serious, that is life-threatening, where their life or their liberty or their bodily integrity are in danger, we should always try to answer and figure out what we can do, because, you know, I mean, if we hadn't done that in Iraq we would never have found out the scope of what was going on there. If I hadn't answered that one guy in Egypt (who said,) "My roommate has been arrested," we would never really have opened up the full intensity of the crackdown that was going on there. It's really critical.

Rex: That's amazing because if you talk to Lambda Legal, they work on impact cases ... that are trying to make law and change law with precedent. (So) if you can help 25 or 30 people who are living in a horrific situation in Baghdad -- gay people or men who have sex with men -- get out of Baghdad and escape to Lebanon or wherever, versus somehow making a difference for, you know, a million other men who have sex with men, who are never going to be able to escape Iraq, I mean, are you doing both simultaneously, are you managing to do both? Because I know you've helped some gay people get out of Iraq. ...

Scott: We have to try to do both simultaneously. I mean, my basic philosophy is that every case is an impact case, that every case in some incremental fashion -- every success, every life saved, every person got out of immediate danger, every person who's freed from the threat of jail -- advances that larger process of change in some fashion. And because of the nature of our communities, you know, because we don't wear our identities on our skins by and large -- we're not kind of united publicly in most countries into big families of queer people living, working together; most of our communities are fragmented and underground and isolated -- you are not going to be dealing with the million people there. You are going to be dealing with the one person whose story opens up the stories of 10, 20, 100, 1,000 others. My feeling is always that by getting that individual's story out, you can illuminate the lives of others and help them, but if you can't do something for that one person, then you're not ultimately going to be able to do much effectively for the 1,000, the 10,000, the million.

Rex: Thanks, Scott.


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