The Rainbow Struggle: A primer for the global gay rights battle

UNITED NATIONS — This June the UN Human Rights Council narrowly passed its first-ever resolution calling for universal gay rights with the support of more than 80 countries. It was an historic milestone, a global recognition that gay rights and human rights were finally synonymous, at least on paper, here in New York at the world body.

How these rights play out in the real world is a very different story, and it is the subject of this GlobalPost “Special Report” which will examine the rights of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) through a series of reports over the next two months from every corner of the world.

In South Africa, for example, the very country that introduced the successful resolution, there is a domestic crisis of rampant gender-based violence. That violence includes a uniquely horrifying brutality known as “corrective rape” which is a targeted sexual attack against lesbians. The full extent of this disturbing phenomenon is not known, but human rights advocates have reported 10 cases per week in Cape Town alone.

And in response to the ‘Rainbow Nation’’s effort at the U.N., several African nations admonished it for allying with Western countries on homosexuality — often painted as non-native to Africa.

Such is the incongruous nature of what GlobalPost has dubbed “The Rainbow Struggle.” It is an international movement that has achieved enormous social and legal victories in the past 10 years — spanning from the Netherlands‘ landmark gay marriage legalization in 2001 to the end of the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in September. But it is a human rights movement facing a counter-movement for ‘traditional values’ that is better funded and equally fervent, tending to see homosexuality not only as a threat to humanity but also humanity’s relationship with the divine.

The result is a global culture war steeped in religion and politics, and it is a battle that is now at a critical juncture.

On one hand, Christian anti-gay advocacy groups like Abiding Truth Ministries are relatively unknown in the United States but carry great weight in countries like Uganda, Latvia and Russia, where it has established outposts and partnered with local religious leaders.

Abiding Truth president Scott Lively and two American colleagues visited Uganda in March 2009, hosting a three-day event that demonized homosexual behavior as a threat the African family. Six months later, Ugandan parliamentarian David Bahati introduced what has been dubbed the “Kill the Gays Bill,” initially including a death sentence for gay sex acts. The bill is now on hold in Uganda’s parliament after a sustained international outcry against it.

But the message Abiding Truth’s Lively and his allies delivered is unequivocal: “Homosexuality is not a benign, morally neutral social phenomenon,” Lively argues. “It is an insidious and contagious form of sexual perversion condemned by God as an abomination.”

In the global struggle for gay rights, according to these activists, God is the LGBT movement’s greatest opponent. And in Lively’s opinion, gays are winning.

“The homosexual agenda represents an existential threat to Christian civilization and we’re in the final phase of the war, losing badly,” Lively believes.

But men like Jose Mantero, the Roman Catholic priest who was removed from the priesthood in 2002 shortly after becoming the first Spanish priest ever to come out as gay, disagrees wholeheartedly.

“I have seen the anguish that homophobic sermons can cause gay people who are perfectly good Christians,” Mantero says.

The divine opposition

In coming out, he confronted a hulking assembly of political and religious bodies — ranging from the Vatican, which oversees the world’s 1 billion Catholics, to the worldwide Anglican Communion, which presides over the churches of some 100 million Anglican — or Episcopal — followers, to the Organization of the Islamic Conference and various groupings of Orthodox Judaism.

These larger established religious organizations devote literally hundreds of millions of dollars annually to their mission. And from the pulpit in churches, mosques and synagogues, they promote their traditional view of religion which views homosexuality as a grave sin. In addition, there is a number of more active, evangelical American groups like the Exodus Global Alliance, which ministers to what it estimates as “155 million homosexuals who struggle with homosexuality.”

Working in different capacities with foreign leadership and the ground, they seek to influence policy and law in foreign nations by serving as experts on the dangers they associate with homosexuality, such as HIV/AIDS, the breakdown of the family unit and spiritual decay. As mainline Christian denominations argue about how to handle homosexuality, their more extreme brethren hold the banner high in denouncing it.

Key battlegrounds in the “Rainbow Struggle” include much of Africa, the Caribbean, Middle East and Eastern Europe. Although much of Western Europe, Asia, and the Americas have moved away from criminalization of homosexuality toward greater rights, countries like Iran, Uganda, Nigeria, Russia and Saudi Arabia are moving in the opposite direction.

Indeed, 76 countries still criminalize same-sex sexual activity, and it is punishable by death in five. In many of these places, police and military harassment and brutality are commonplace. Gays have few if any public places where they may socialize openly, particularly outside major cities. Government raids on gay venues persist, lengthy prison sentences handed down with regularity. In most countries, LGBT people are the most likely minority to fall victim to hate crimes.

A relatively nascent movement

On the other side of the fight is a formidable LGBT rights movement that has plugged itself into mobile technology at an accelerating rate, connecting demonstrations in Moscow to those in New York City and Buenos Aires, and sending representatives from city to city in a highly flexible operation. Entrenched organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have helped globalize the battle, spotlighting cases of abuse against LGBT people and funneling resources toward efforts to change policy.

International activists like Lt. Dan Choi, the face of the successful movement to overturn the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, Moscow Pride founder Nikolai Alexeyev and Australian gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell have formed a loose but effective alliance, serving as international foot soldiers. Organizers in Cuba, Montenegro, Russia, China and the Czech Republic have hosted sanctioned gay pride parades for the first time over the past two years.

It is a highly decentralized movement, its leaders say, and its funding base pales in comparison to that of large religious activist groups like the American Family Association and the Family Research Council. Many participants in the global campaign to increase gay rights are self-funded while many participants in the counter-movement against gay rights are able to tap into larger reservoirs of funding from traditional churches and evangelical groups.

“If you take the budgets of the top 10 American LGBT organizations and combine them, it’s still less than Focus on the Family,” said Julie Dorf, senior advisor at the Council for Global Equality. The organization reports an annual budget around $100 million. “The right wing’s budget so far outweighs gay organizations that it’s amazing we make progress at all.”

And yet, she believes, the American gay rights movement is winning. Dorf cited May 2011, the first time that a majority of Americans said they favor legalizing gay marriage in a Gallup poll. And many LGBT rights advocates say the tide is turning even among American conservatives, who have gay friends and family members.

Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center agrees with Dorf.

“Anti-gay ideas are losing currency in the U.S. — no question,” Potok said. “The religious right is losing the battle and the field is shrinking, but there is a huge open field in Africa and elsewhere.”

The larger struggle across Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere is a huge territory for global gay rights’ groups to cover with limited resources. Surveying the international landscape of LGBT groups, Dorf said that the majority are less than 10 years old, composed mostly of volunteers, with budgets under $50,000 annually.

“It’s an extremely nascent movement,” she said, noting that a microscopic fraction of U.S. foreign development money — less than one one-hundredth of one percent — reaches LGBT rights groups around the world.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has emerged as one of several prominent leaders lending support for global gay rights.

In September he heralded the launch of Kaleidoscope Diversity Trust, established to lobby for LGBT rights in Africa and the Middle East.

And in August, ambassadors from 13 countries chastised the administration of Czech President Vaclav Klaus after he publicly criticized what was to be Prague’sfirst gay pride parade, calling it “a pressure action and a political demonstration of a world with deformed values.”

Since the inauguration of President Barack Obama, Dorf said, the U.S. State Department has become a vital ally to pro-rights interests, diligently working with its embassies to educate overseas populations about gay culture, help bring justice in cases of anti-gay hate crimes and lobby foreign governments to support resolutions like the one before the U.N. Human Rights Council in June.

“The non-headlines are the things I’m most excited about,” Dorf said of the behind-the-scenes diplomacy. “It’s not particularly sexy, but I’d say it’s a damn good use of taxpayer dollars.”

Globalizing the battle

Graeme Reid, LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch, explains the urgency of the current moment: “Globalization has had paradoxical effects — on one had it has facilitated the gay movement and on the other provoked a backlash. New possibilities for communication and connectivity have given impetus to international solidarity. But globalization has also seen the growth of religious fundamentalisms. Many people feel that their traditional way of life is changing too rapidly, and LGBT people are often the scapegoats.”

Even in countries like Sweden, Spain and Argentina, three of the 10 countries worldwide that have legalized gay marriage, church-affiliated political parties have steeled themselves against recognition of any further LGBT rights. And in overwhelmingly Catholic Spain, where a progressive surge in 2004 swept the Socialist Workers’ Party into power — paving the way for gay marriage — the Church-affiliated Popular Party is poised to retake the majority and has promised to repeal the legislation.

Brazil, which enjoys a reputation as one of the world’s most gay-friendly countries, has itself encountered an evangelical Christian backlash against gay rights.

In schools across the country around the world, millions of young people suffer bullying and abuse for their sexual identities, kept in the closet or barraged with vitriol that would push them back in. The world’s largest religious bodies continue to cite scripture in excluding LGBT people from their communities. Few protections exist in any country for transexuals, and gay adoption is not an option in most of the world. And although six U.S. states offer marriage licenses to same-sex couples, 39 now explicitly prohibit it.

As former Army Lt. Dan Choi said a few weeks before the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal was set to take effect, “There’s still a lot that’s left undone. Our civil rights movement depends on this idea of publicly having integrity. So it’s very effective for the opposition to make it harder and harder for us to come out.”