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The Quiet Americans

How America's gay rights establishment is failing gay Iranians.

In late July, news surfaced that Iran had executed two gay teenagers--ostensibly for sexual assault, but most likely for the crime of being gay. As pictures of their executions spread around the Internet, American gay and lesbian activists responded swiftly: The president of the Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest gay and lesbian political organization, sent a letter to Condoleezza Rice urging her to take action; the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and the gay and lesbian division of Human Rights Watch both issued statements on their websites; news outlets like The Washington Blade and Gay City News uncharacteristically led their coverage with an international story; and gay journalists like Doug Ireland and TNR senior editor Andrew Sullivan--who sit on opposite ends of the political spectrum--publicized the news on their blogs.

For the most part, however, interest was short lived. Last month, when Iran's hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to New York to visit the United Nations, he was greeted by thousands of Iranian protesters from the United States and overseas. America's gay and lesbian activists did not join in. Ireland, who has tirelessly reported abuses against gays and lesbians in Iran, was livid; he wrote that the failure of gay activists to protest Ahmadinejad represented the "the death of gay activism."

But Ireland was only half right. When it comes to the oppression of gays and lesbians in Muslim countries, gay activism hasn't died; it never really existed. Gay activists have used two types of excuses to justify their failure to aggressively mobilize for the rights of gay Muslims--moral and strategic. The moral argument is that Americans are in no position to criticize Iranians on human rights--that it would be wrong to campaign too loudly against Iranian abuses when the United States has so many problems of its own. Then, there are two strategic rationales: that it is better to work behind the scenes to bring about change in Iran; and that gay rights groups should conserve their resources for domestic battles.

The strategic rationales are not especially compelling, but it is the moral argument that is particularly troubling, because it suggests that some gay and lesbian leaders feel more allegiance to the relativism of the contemporary left than they do to the universality of their own cause. Activists are more than willing to condemn the homophobic leaders of the Christian right for campaigning against gay marriage; but they are wary of condemning Islamist regimes that execute citizens for being gay. Something has gone terribly awry.

Take the moral rationale first. Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), told me that when George W. Bush was a governor, "there wasn't a peep about the execution of juveniles in Texas. ... Let's not have double standards because it's a different part of the world." Foreman, who worked within the U.S. prison system for ten years, says that the United States still engages in "barbaric behavior" at home. "If we think that psychological torture and physical torture and rape and inhumane conditions are not part of our own criminal justice system, than people don't have a clue about the reality of our nation, let alone the conditions of Guantánamo, let alone the sanctions to keep prisoners in Afghanistan." To Foreman, it would be hypocritical for U.S. gays and lesbians to criticize Iran if they haven't been criticizing America's own prison system all along. Faisal Alam, founder of the Al-Fatiha Foundation, a U.S.-based non-profit for LGBT Muslims, also used the news of the Iran hangings to point a finger at the United States. "While we condemn the executions of gay teens in Iran, we must remember that until March of this year, our own country was one of only five in the world that executed juvenile offenders," Alam wrote in an August Washington Blade column.

Foreman's and Alam's comparisons are specious. America and Iran may both have flawed systems of punishing criminals; and, to be sure, juvenile executions are an illiberal practice, whether carried out in Houston or Tehran. But only Iran convicts those criminals simply because of their sexual orientation. That's a pretty important distinction. Furthermore, U.S. gay rights organizations don't have an inherent responsibility to take up the crusade for the rights of juvenile criminals; they do, however, have a responsibility to speak up when gays are executed simply for being gay. There's nothing admirable about using one injustice as blinders for another.

Paula Ettelbrick, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), is the most obvious spokesperson for the gay and lesbian movement on international human rights abuses. Yet for strategic reasons, Ettelbrick told me, pressure for gay rights in Iran "can't come from the West, it has to come from Iranians or perhaps from countries with close connections to Iran." The IGLHRC, Ettelbrick said, has chosen to work behind the scenes rather than organizing protests. If these attempts are publicized, Ettelbrick fears that the Iranian government would "ignore the global consensus that these atrocities are gross human rights violations simply because the message is coming from Western gays and lesbians." As a result, Ettelbrick wasn't willing to discuss what progress the organization has made; so it is hard to know whether whatever the IGLHRC is doing is effective or not. If the IGLHRC truly is doing work under the radar of the media, then good for the organization. It certainly is necessary work. But is it sufficient?

I would argue that it is not. Public protest can increase support and, ultimately, political pressure. Vast social problems usually don't change through the work of one or two activists or diplomats. It takes legions. Dissidents in the gay rights community have already begun to challenge the IGLHRC's silent strategy: Sullivan termed it "craven"; Michael Petrelis, a San Francisco-based gay-rights activist, called it "abhorrent"; and Ireland recently lashed out against the IGLHRC as well, writing that "A strategy of keeping silent about oppression, for fear of riling the oppressors, has never worked at any time in human history."

One historical model for gay-rights leaders to consider is the anti-apartheid activism of the 1970s and '80s, when students tried to force their universities to divest from companies doing business in South Africa. Not only did many groups succeed in convincing their college administrators to divest, they also pushed the plight of black South Africans to the forefront of American attention--on college campuses and beyond. Their victories may have been mostly symbolic, but protesters can also plausibly claim credit for having raised awareness of the issue to the point where Congress imposed sanctions on South Africa over the veto of President Reagan. The efforts of American students ultimately benefited black South Africans; perhaps analogous efforts by gay Americans and their straight allies on behalf of gay Iranians would yield similar results today.

Of course, there is always the issue of how groups should spend their resources. Foreman points out that the NGLTF's mission is national in scope, not international. Michael Cole, communications manager for the Human Rights Campaign, explains his group's limited response to the Iran hangings this way: "Frankly, our purview is not so wide to respond or deal with international incidents. ... It's a question of resources." I would argue, however, that any organization premised upon the universality of inalienable rights and liberties ought to take as part of its mission the fate of those rights and liberties everywhere. And the organizations themselves concede this. The NGLTF's website notes that the group works "to create a world that respects and makes visible the diversity of human expression and identity where all people may fully participate in society." The IGLHRC's site states that the organization is "a leader in the global movement to demand accountability for [anti-gay human rights] violations by state and non-state actors." Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese, in his letter to Condolezza Rice condemning the July hangings, wrote, "We hope you join us in our belief that every inhabitant of this world, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, has the inherent right to be free from human rights abuses, and will take action to highlight these injustices and condemn those countries that commit such inhumane acts." Gay rights are either universal or they are not. If gay rights organizations believe that they are, then they cannot pretend that their missions are limited to domestic concerns.

It is good to see the gay rights community having this debate. But gay activists need to come to a consensus sooner rather than later because, while they argue, Iranian lives are on the line. For now, mainstream gay organizations have made clear where they stand. As President Ahmadinejad, a man who is partially responsible for these brutalities, passed through New York last month, gay activists failed to confront him. Now he has returned to Iran, where those who are proven to be gay are thrown in jail, tortured, and executed on trumped-up charges. When it comes to the Muslim world, gay and lesbian leaders are evidently uncomfortable talking in moral absolutes. But if this is not absolute evil, then what is?

Rob Anderson is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.