Policing Pride

Stonewall riot, New York City, June 27, 1969

Stonewall riot, New York City, June 27, 1969

Forty-five years ago yesterday, the Stonewall riots began, the reason Pride happens at this season. I have a Dark Gay Secret: I’ve never enjoyed most Prides. Mostly it’s because of how I deal with crowds. Prides are peculiar marches, not about specific goals but about visibility itself as a general good; the exultant pointlessness, which is the point, disconcerts me slightly, and I feel like a guy who comes to a lazy cocktail party thinking it’s a fancy-dress ball. I swing into a different state of mind, perversely, if there’s a chance the police or a mob might attack. Then I’m poised to document, record, act, a good human rights gnome, as I’ve done at tiny embattled Prides from Budapest in 1992 to Zimbabwe in 2000 — or at probably hundreds of other demonstrations from Romania to Egypt. That I know how to do. But otherwise I stand around wondering what’s the value of my personally being visible — does anyone want to see me? — and why the hell I’m there.

This is by way of explaining that in sixteen or so years of living in New York, I only went to Pride once. It was 1998. A friend and I staked out sidewalk space on lower Fifth Avenue and watched the platoons go by. It was fun till we heard a roar of exuberant welcome, a surging surf of cheers, billow down from a few blocks before; as the thunder neared we saw a blue-uniformed brigade the crowd was wildly applauding, and someone told us it was the first-ever contingent of LGBT police officially allowed to march in the parade. This was nine months after Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, had been raped by policemen in a Brooklyn jail. I turned away. I asked my friend: how could they go all jismic over an institution that, however many gays it hired, was historically their oppressor, still firmly in the business of oppression? (This was the warm noon of Giuliani time.) He frowned dourly. “They love power,” he said.

Today is Pride in London. (A few years ago it was renamed to avoid the whole annoying question of whose identities were included — L? G? B? T? Q? — and make it more a self-lauding celebration of the city’s own diversity, however unspecified.) A good if only slightly jargony article by Huw Lemmey asks questions similar to mine in more detail. He describes how the festivities welcome the Metropolitan Police, parading in full uniform.

Their bodies are used as symbols, building an image of the police as an inclusive and tolerant body reflecting the makeup and values of society as a whole. …It is wrong to say Pride is now a depoliticised event: it is more politicised than ever. It has been turned over to the service of the dominant ideology, and so is harder to distinguish from the cruelties and injustices of everyday life. We have lost Pride.

We'e here, we're queer, don't move, motherfucker: Metropolitan Police march in Pride in London, 2013

We’e here, we’re queer, we love you, really: Metropolitan Police march in Pride in London, 2013

As this shows, it is easy to see the privileged police participation as symbolic of things a lot of people dislike about Prides these days, though fewer and fewer find language to resist them: their mainstreaming, commodification and corporatization, symptoms of a movement demobilized. For “corporate and state institutions,” Pride’s an opportunity. The “’visibility’ of their employees on a public march associated with youth, diversity and openness became a positive boon.”

Police kettle Climate Camp protesters at the G20 summit, London, 2009

We’re here and fuck you: Police kettle Climate Camp protesters at the G20 summit, London, 2009

It’s equally sensible to see in the cops’ presence a more precise historical wound: an insult to those who preserve the memory of police violence, whether against an Abner Louima in New York or a Jean Charles de Menezes in London, or the many others whose unreported stories they represent; or a white- or pink-washing of the ways security forces deal with less anodyne demonstrations. Faced with gatherings more militantly “diverse” than Pride and more impelled by politics than pleasure, British police crack down hard. They routinely “kettle” or encircle any nonviolent protest, isolating it from public view, enabling brutality, dangerously crushing the participants. The Guardian calls this a method for “authoritarian governments” that “brook no opposition and contrive a compliant society.” Since I haven’t been to a demo in London since 1993, I’ve mainly seen the practice in open, diverse, democratic Egypt, where twice I was almost trampled to death in a protest constricted by a tightening security cordon. Meanwhile, the Mayor of London has bought three watercannon for his city this summer, to soak menacing subversives who cannot make it to the beach.

State Security (Amn el-Dawla) forces encircle a small anti-war demonstration, Sayyeda Zeinab, Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 15, 2003: photograph by Scott Long

State Security (Amn el-Dawla) forces encircle a small anti-war demonstration, Sayyeda Zeinab, Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 15, 2003: photograph by Scott Long

Since in New York or London (like so many other patrolled and guarded cities) victims of state violence tend to be people of color or other marginalized minorities, critiques of the police presence also resurrect suppressed questions of identity and justice within queer communities themselves. When “law enforcement become[s] part of the corpus of Pride,” Lemmey writes,

other bodies are necessarily erased. …  how can we ask people materially, psychologically and physically oppressed by the police (or the financial services institutions, or the Army) to “come out” and be proud of a collective political project which so visibly and proudly features those institutions that oppress them? …. By excluding those bodies from Pride, we perpetuate a public image of LGBT people limited to those who have no conflict with the police in their daily lives, ensuring a vicious circle of erasure for the excluded.

There is a fourth issue, which also grows out of the troubled history of LGBT people with policing. As long as the police are around (and, as Raymond Chandler wrote, no one has figured out how to say goodbye to them yet), they’ll be called on to protect LGBT people against violence, as well as to eschew homophobic violence themselves. All the sensitivity trainings and diversity hires and appearances at Pride serve this end: opening the institution to the benefit of people it’s supposed to serve, but hasn’t. The ability to claim the state’s protection when you need it is a constituent part of citizenship. But protection against whom? When these establishments promptly move on to identify other enemies, other aliens, new outsiders, new victims, are these vaunted openings also making LGBT people the privileged clients of repression? And when does a client become an accomplice? “I must distance myself from this complicity with racism, including anti-Muslim racism,” Judith Butler, declining the “Civil Courage Prize” she was offered at Berlin’s Christopher Street Day in 2010, said: 

We all have noticed that gay, bisexual, lesbian, trans and queer people can be instrumentalized by those who want to wage wars, i.e. cultural wars against migrants by means of forced islamophobia and military wars against Iraq and Afghanistan. In these times and by these means, we are recruited for nationalism and militarism. Currently, many European governments claim that our gay, lesbian, queer rights must be protected and we are made to believe that the new hatred of immigrants is necessary to protect us. Therefore we must say no to such a deal. To be able to say no under these circumstances is what I call courage. But who says no?

That’s still a question.

Police raid a migrants' camp in Munich, Germany, 2013

Police raid a migrants’ camp in Munich, Germany, 2013

World Pride, a putatively global confab, has been going on in Toronto, Canada this week.  Although people can attend panels to hear about particular abuses by particular police forces in, say, Uganda or Russia, one subject that’s unlikely to come up is how security techniques, surveillance, and control have gone just as global as Pride has. Yet Toronto’s cops learn from Giuliani’s how to deal with the intrusive and unwanted, and a rich cross-fertilized discussion of how to round up people and neutralize or kill them goes on between those enlightened cities and Cairo or Sao Paulo. Mike Davis warned a decade ago that the defining question of the twenty-first century city will be how to police the poor. This is ever more evident. Queer Ontario has put out a “Statement of Concern Regarding the TAVIS Policing of the Downtown Eastside during the World Pride Event,” and I will reproduce it in full:

Queer Ontario is very concerned about the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) policing initiative of the downtown eastside scheduled to coincide with the World Pride (WP) event. As many visitors to Toronto are expected during this major tourism event, we are concerned that the police are stepping up their intervention and surveillance of marginalized and vulnerable downtown eastside residents. We are concerned that the police are using a global tourism event as a pretext to crackdown on the area’s poor residents, the homeless, street-based sex workers, drug users, and others essentially engaging in an “undesirables cleansing” of the area.

We are concerned that the rights of our most vulnerable citizens will be violated during the TAVIS policing effort as its policy of targeted ‘prevention’ of crime does little to address the social and economic marginality that the area’s residents face — a social and economic situation marked by poverty, racism, gender violence, homelessness and discrimination. Especially vulnerable are the area’s female and female-identified transsexual and transgendered street-based sex workers and the local drug-using population. Adding to the problem is the fact that the downtown eastside is where many of the social services that the residents rely on are located – forcibly displacing local residents would thereby compound their difficulties.

Anti-poverty activists demonstrate against TAVIS in advance of World Pride, June 2014.

Anti-poverty activists demonstrate against TAVIS in advance of World Pride, June 2014.

As the TAVIS policing effort is contemporaneous with the World Pride event, we are especially concerned that the World Pride Committee not remain silent on this issue facing our poor and disenfranchised residents of the downtown eastside, and area which is adjacent to the Church Street Village and which is home to many of the city’s LGBTQ population. We are asking the World Pride organizers not to remain silent on this issue and to remember the history of policing in our LGBTQ communities. Heavy-handed and discriminatory practices by the police are not unknown to LGBTQ folks, past and present. Everyone has a right to the city and to unhindered access to the services many need to survive; not a few of whom will be directly affected by the TAVIS effort will themselves be LGBTQ people, and are, by and large, unable to afford many of the events WP has to offer.

We at Queer Ontario urge you to take this issue seriously as there are many people in our communities and beyond who are expecting World Pride organizers to remember our queer history and to act accordingly, working with the police to temper their activities during this time. We hope WP does not choose to engage in a shameful silence when the cops do the work of violating the rights of some of the most vulnerable members of the public and our poor citizens. We urge you to consider your role, as leaders of global events attached to a Human Rights Conference to not become a force for denying the same rights that queers/trans folks have had to fight for decades to obtain.

This is a very important issue for how events are going to be organized in this city now and for years to come. We ask that WP organizers step up and make their voices heard for the more marginalized citizens in the downtown area. We request that they not let a major global event become a handmaiden of short-sighted policing efforts and the displacement of the poor and marginalized, which have often accompanied such global entertainment and sporting events worldwide.

Sitting pretty: TAVIS forces on patrol in Toronto

Sitting pretty: TAVIS forces on patrol in Toronto

TAVIS, a “police unit that swoops into violence-prone pockets of the city to gather intelligence and connect with regular people,”  has severely “strained relations with heavily policed communities,” the Toronto Star phlegmatically reports:

TAVIS officers stop, question and document citizens at the highest rate of any other police unit, as they are expected to do. They also have the highest degree of carding of blacks, which, to be sure, is partially a reflection of the demographics of where they are most often deployed. …

With 22,000 arrests to its name in five years, TAVIS scares a lot of people — although not the city’s white, rich, criminal, drug-smoking mayor. But the anxieties about World Pride also draw on events like the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, where police sweeps and harassment drove sex workers and other undesirables out of their neighborhoods, doing serious harm to their livelihoods and (by limiting their access to health services) lives.

From ‏@stonewalluk  , 2013: "London Met Police came to visit us at the Pride family area, St Anne's Churchyard and took a couple of our stickers!"

From ‏@stonewalluk , 2013: “London Met Police came to visit us at the Pride family area, St Anne’s Churchyard and took a couple of our stickers!”

Large urban Pride fests like New York’s or London’s are not just celebrations for LGBT communities, or for their host towns. They’re tourist events, chances for neoliberally refurbished cities to show off their vibe and neutered variety to a consuming world. Queer Toronto gets the broad point right: Prides are now in the same class as giant sports carnivals – which, as I’ve written before, always feed fears of alien identities tarnishing the urban image, and always lead to policing the unwanted into either prisons or invisibility, the latter sometimes temporary, sometimes lasting. Among folks expelled from view when Pride comes to town may well be many ostensibly fitting into the LGBT lineup, but in practice not: sex workers, migrants, people of color, the poor.

There’s a growing number of studies of how sports events provide pretexts for social cleansing, from the London Olympics to the Rio World Cup. So far as I know there have been no similar investigations of how Pride is policed: who benefits from “protection,” and who are its victims. Absent such knowledge generalizations are irresponsible, but it needs looking into. (As one starting point, note this statement from the North Star Fund in New York, highlighting the coalition work of three of its LGBTQ grantees — the Audre Lorde Project, FIERCE, and Streetwise & Safe — to combat discriminatory policing.) The police presence at Prides is hardly just the nice symbolic gesture of marching and carrying flags. The logic of security forces does not brook their being decorative. Police also intervene in the layout and life of the city, to mold them to the Pride image; their appearance among the marchers promotes a certain apathy toward what they may be up to at the margins. How much violence happens in the name of safety? Look at that picture of Stonewall at the top. Then, next time you’re at Pride, ask yourself: Which side of the barricade are you on now?

Security forces encircling an antiwar protest at the Cairo Book Fair, Egypt, January 31, 2003: Photograph by Scott Long

Security forces encircling an antiwar protest at the Cairo Book Fair, Egypt, January 31, 2003: Photograph by Scott Long

 

Brutal gender crackdown in Egypt: The tomorrows that never came

An epitaph for Egypt's revolution: "Remember the tomorrows that never came?" Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer (https://www.facebook.com/KeizerStreetArt)

Heartbreaking epitaph for Egypt’s revolution: “Remember the tomorrows that never came?” Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer (https://www.facebook.com/KeizerStreetArt)

You go home, you lock your door. If you live in a place like Cairo where everybody talks about crime, maybe you bolt it two times, three times. The door is centimeters thick but it marks an almost geological division: between your life, your self, and all those other lives that have no place in yours. Yet one knock, one blow of a fist, can tear through that integument like tissue paper. The flaccid walls melt, the architecture of a dream; they fold like cardboard stage-sets in a hurricane.

Arrest is an instantaneous, shattering thrust, expulsion, somersault from one state into another…. Need it be said that it is a breaking point in your  life, a bolt of lightning which has scored a direct hit on you? … The Universe has as many different centers as there are living beings in it. Each of us is a center of the Universe, and that Universe is shattered when they hiss at you: “You are under arrest.” …

Everyone living in the apartment is thrown into a state of terror by the first knock at the door.

That’s Solzhenitsyn. But in each repressive society, among every persecuted people I’ve ever known, from old Bucharest to Bedford-Stuyvesant, the knock on the door takes on an almost metaphysical meaning: the barriers around your personhood dissolving. It’s a signal of intimacy, now transmuted into dread.

There is a crackdown, now, in Egypt. Activists calculate that, since last October, 77 people have been arrested, but the real figures are surely higher. The prison sentences are draconian; one victim got twelve years. It is one of many crackdowns. You could compile an honor roll of endangered people in Egypt: atheists, journalists, revolutionary protesters, Islamist supporters — of whom the army slaughtered more than 1000 last summer alone. What’s distinctive about this particular pattern of arrests isn’t so much its breadth as the peculiar intensity of its assault on intimacy and privacy. The police burst into people’s homes and apartments; they’re seizing those whose main offense is that their clothes and hair are different. Didn’t we hear a year ago — from everybody including the well-paid Tony Blair — that the Muslim Brotherhood had to be overthrown and its members murdered because they wanted to trample personal freedoms, impose compulsory hijab, to turn Egypt into a new Iran? So why are its successors, Sisi’s military dictatorship and its supposedly secular henchmen, the ones enforcing a dress code with truncheons and guns?

"Alignment of the Hearts (Morning Shot)." Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer

“Alignment of the Hearts (Morning Shot).” Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer

The current wave of arrests started last autumn, as far as anyone can make out; back then I wrote on this blog about the first two cases. On October 11, police in El Marg, a working-class neighborhood in eastern Cairo, raided a bathhouse and gym and arrested fourteen men. Residents of the quarter had seemingly complained about the comings and goings in the place — they sacked it in rage after the raid. Beaten and abused in detention, the men were charged with fugur or “debauchery,” the term of art by which male homosexual conduct is criminalized in Egyptian law. The arrests got good press; Al-Akhbar Al-Youm, a semi-official newspaper, picked up the story immediately; and that must have provided encouragement. On the night of November 4, in the western suburb of 6 October City, police raided a private party in a detached villa. Among dozens in attendance, they picked up ten people (including a woman working as bartender). Here, the pattern began to set, like an obscene drawing scrawled in wet cement:

  • The invasion of a private dwelling.
  • The focus on gender nonconformity — after the proprietor of the house, police singled out the most “effeminate” guests, including a male bellydancer. (The link to the military regime’s exacting standards of manhood was very clear. The immediate motive for the raid was apparently that visitors to the house who passed a nearby, post-coup checkpoint had offended the soldiers’ sensibilities; the troops called the police in the nearby village of Kerdasa to come do something.)
  • The draconian sentences handed down. Eight defendants got the maximum permitted by the law on fugur – three years in prison; the host had a battery of related charges thrown at him, including “corrupting” others and managing a house for purposes of “debauchery,” and got nine years. (The woman was acquitted.)

Since then, the arrests have come in an accelerating rush, till now a new raid happens virtually every week. Some incidents:

  • In the Red Sea resort of Hurghada,on December 14, police arrested two men (according to their IDs) who were wearing “women’s clothing and wigs” in a nightclub; they found “lipstick and condoms,” “makeup and creams” on them, according to the media.  The press also reported that the morals (adab) police perceived a pattern of “young people aged 16 to 20 from the Western provinces and Cairo” coming to Hurghada to “wear women’s clothing, carrying handbags with makeup tools and accessories and sexual creams and condoms.” In April, a court sentenced one of the two victims to three years in prison; the other was sent to a juvenile facility.
  • In February, the same Hurghada vice squad announced the arrest of three more “deviants,” aged 19, 20, and 23: “dressed as ladies and carrying handbags, in which an inspection found cosmetics and women’s clothing.” They confessed they wanted to “turn into women.” The police reassured the public that a “security crackdown” on deviance was in progress. There have probably been more Red Sea arrests of which we know nothing.

    Major General Hamdy el-Gazar, of the Red Sea Security Directorate, who took credit for the Hurghada "security crackdown" on trans people: from El- Dostour

    Major General Hamdy el-Gazar, of the Red Sea Security Directorate, who took credit for the Hurghada “security crackdown” on gender-nonconforming people: from El- Dostour

  • On March 11, the newspaper Youm7 headlined a court conviction for a “prostitution ring” in the Mohandiseen district, in Cairo west of the Nile: “a mixed network of girls and ‘third sex.’” Among the five defendants they mentioned, two were women and three were (biological) men; two of the latter apparently had women’s nicknames. The defendants’ ages ranged from 17 to 23, and the paper cheerfully printed their pictures. They had apparently been arrested, after “the receipt of information” and “investigations,” in a vice squad raid on an apartment they shared. They received one-year prison sentences.
  • On the very same day, March 11, Youm7 also reported the vice squad in Alexandria had arrested nine university students for “practicing sexual deviance,” in a raid on an apartment in the Montazah district. The newspaper said they had been caught “in flagrante delicto.” Egyptian LGBT activists later reported they had been released without charge, but it has been impossible to confirm this for certain.
  • On April 21, the vice squad in the Suez Canal city of Ismaïlia arrested a 22 year-old with male identity papers, who was wearing women’s clothing in a public park. The victim faces trial this month; the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has sent a lawyer. Youm7 reported the case and printed two photographs of the defendant, face fully exposed, seemingly seized from her house or phone.
  • On April 1, vice police in Nasr City — a district of eastern Cairo — arrested four people in an apartment. Their ages ranged from 18 to 31; according to their friends, two of them identified as male-to-female transgender. They had only moved into the flat the day before; it seemed that neighbors or their new landlord reported them. Prosecutors charged them with fugur. A lawyer who went to the jail to help them heard police calling them the “four faggots [khawalat].” The case moved extremely quickly; on April 7, a Nasr City court convicted them all for”debauchery.” The oldest also was found guilty of “facilitating debauchery” and maintaining “premises for the purposes of debauchery,” under provisions of the same law. He received eight years in prison, while the other three took three-year sentences.
Anti-security forces, anti-police graffiti in Alexandria: From http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

Anti-security forces, anti-police graffiti in Alexandria: From http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

  • Also in Nasr City, during the first week of May, the vice squad arrested five more people in another apartment raid. Marsad Amny (“Security Observer”) printed their full names. It also reported that they were “clients” of those arrested in the earlier raid; activists believe the cops found them through the phones or friends’ lists of the previous victims. According to police, they confessed that they “hold private parties and drink  alcohol and liquor, and then they imitate women and [practice] vice with men.” The press also pruriently reported they had acknowledged “abusing pills” (presumably hormones) for breast enlargement and to “soften the voice and remove unwanted hair from their bodies. … They said that taking the pills helped them to acquire the shape, parameters, and characteristics of the female body.” And they owned “industrial tools for the practice of sexual deviance,” which is anybody’s guess. Today — May 19 — the Egyptian Initiative for Personal rights told me that one of the accused has been given a four-year prison sentence; three received eight years; and the court sentenced the flat’s main tenant to twelve years.
  •  On May 4, police arrested six people in a flat in the Cairo district of Heliopolis. Youm7, which carried a report the next day, called them “effeminates” (mokhanatheen, مخنثين, sometimes translated “shemales” or “sissies,” sometimes more respectably as “intersex” or “androgynes”) and claimed they were part of an “international sex network,” apparently because one had a Moroccan passport. The paper carried three successive, sensational stories based on information the police leaked, including pictures of the defendants and even two videos filmed in the lockup. Another paper said they confessed to “suffering from excess female hormones in the body and having sex hundreds of times.” The media also quickly announced that two of the accused “had AIDS,” suggesting an HIV test had been carried out in detention. Charged with “debauchery,” they are facing trial.
Major General Hisham el-Sawy of the Minisry of Interior, who claimed credit for the Heliopolis arrests, from El-Dostour

Major General Hisham el-Sawy , director of the general administration of the morals police, who claimed credit for the Heliopolis arrests, from El-Dostour

The news accounts and police statements actually suggest a still wider crackdown coming. The stories stress again and again that the “deviants” “advertise themselves through social networking sites,” or “through the pages of Facebook.” I interviewed a man arrested a year ago who recounted how the cops told him, “We know the cafes where you people gather, and we know the websites you use too.” Some of the recent court decisions adduce defendants’ personals ads, on sites like “Worldwide Transsexual Dating,” as evidence against them. Plenty of LGBT Egyptians use apps like Grindr, or have ads on multiple sites, or have posted indiscreet things on their own Facebook pages or in supposedly secret groups. A few strategically placed informers, and these people — thousands of them — could wind up in prison.

All that has happened before. From 2001-2004 Egyptian police arrested thousands of men for “debauchery,” entrapping many over the Internet. I can say with pride that this crackdown ended because we at Human Rights Watch, together with Cairo activists, documented it in clear detail, including the sleazy methods undercover cops used to delude and capture people. (“It is the end of the gay cases in Egypt,” a high Ministry of Interior official told a well-placed lawyer in 2004, “because of the activities of certain human rights organizations.”) For the next eight years, excepting an abortive spate of arrests of gay men suspected of being HIV-positive in 2008, no one went to prison for fugur in Egypt.

"A salute to our martyrs:" A Hitler figure representing military and police delivers a hypocritical salute to the revolutionary dead. Graffiti in Sidi Gaber, Alexandria, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

“A salute to our martyrs:” A Hitler figure representing military and police delivers a hypocritical salute to the revolutionary dead whom military and police killed. Graffiti in Sidi Gaber, Alexandria, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

Years of relative calm, then this. What underlies these new horrors?

First, media sensationalism feeds the arrests. Each juicy story gives police more incentives to pursue publicity. Youm7 (Seventh Day“), a privately owned paper, is the worst offender. They’ve blared out each new arrest with hungry glee, publishing names and faces, marching into jails with police collusion to capture the miscreants on videocamera.  Founded six years ago under Mubarak, Youm7 has parlayed its official connections to become one of the most popular papers, and websites, in Egypt. Since the Revolution, it’s become unofficial mouthpiece for the military and the security state. During the Morsi presidency, it whipped up hysteria against the Muslim Brotherhood (most famously, it claimed that the Brotherhood had dispatched roving medical vans to perform female genital mutilation door-to-door in rural Egypt, a story that spread widely before people noticed there was no evidence). More recently, its editor-in-chief was one of the elect anointed to tell a waiting world that Generalissimo Sisi planned to run for President.

A typical headline from Youm7: “Crackdown on a network of shemales in Nasr City. Ahmed says, ‘I changed my name to Jana after being raped by the grocer and my psychologist. We get our clients from Facebook and we act like females by wearing makeup and adopting feminine attitudes. Are they going to put us in a men’s or women’s prison?” Photo caption: “Ahmed, the accused.” The face was not blurred in the original.

A typical headline from Youm7: “Crackdown on a network of shemales in Nasr City. Ahmed says, ‘I changed my name to Jana after being raped by the grocer and my psychologist. We get our clients from Facebook and we act like females by wearing makeup and adopting feminine attitudes. Are they going to put us in a men’s or women’s prison?” Photo caption: “Ahmed, the accused.” I blurred the face: Youm7  didn’t.

Youm7 and its imitators dehumanize the arrested “deviants,” portraying them as both pathological and irrefragably criminal. Each article offers new images and verbiage of degradation.

But here’s the second point: of course, the government is feeding these stories to Youm7. And spreading stigma is a defining mark of the post-coup military regime. The whole strategy of Sisi’s government has been to divide and conquer Egypt, with a thoroughness earlier rulers never achieved in living memory: by creating instability, conjuring up threats and then assigning faces to them, it gins up the impression of necessity around its palsied grip on power. It started last summer, portraying the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters (at least a quarter of the country) as not just terrorists but rabid animals whom only death could discipline, indifferent to life, including their own. Stripping humans of their humanity, however, unleashes an energy that brooks no confinement to particular targets. The circles of lives unworthy of living, of those expelled brutally from both the society and the species, keep expanding. Egypt is now devouring itself in an infuriated quest to define who is no longer Egyptian. The “perverts” are just the latest victims.

Police and media together have generated a full-fledged, classic moral panic. Just ten days ago, walking downtown during Friday prayers, I heard a sermon piped over loudspeakers in the very heart of Cairo: “Why do we now see men practice abominable vices?” the imam demanded. “Why do they put on makeup, lipstick, and behave in the way of women?” I forget the answer. The question was the point. These forms of “deviance” are now the common topic in corner mosques as well as national news. All the typical tropes come up. Youm7 interviewed pundits about the “problem” — a psychologist, a professor of Islamic history, and a “security expert,” who compared queerness to drug addition.

Recently a serious phenomenon has surfaced in our society, with devastating  effects on individuals, society and the nation. This phenomenon is the crime of homosexuality ["الشذوذالجنسى," sexual deviance].

Advocating personal freedom, which our society could not apply correctly, does not mean that the individual is free in his actions regarding his personal and physical requirements. Affronts to legitimacy and legality should be disciplined, so that they do not conflict with the laws of nature or violate human dignity. But “homosexuality” is an affront to all humanity.

“Homosexuality” is filed as a taboo — but we must open it up whatever the reaction. It is a phenomenon that has swept Egypt following the revolution. Although it existed before it has now risen to the surface. …  It has even appeared in the recent involvement of some Arab princes in the practice of “homosexuality.”

As that suggests, you can subsume plenty of other enemies under this sweeping rubric. Revolutionaries, dissidents, and even Gulf magnates who may have given money to the Brotherhood are all tarred. In a violently xenophobic atmosphere, Western criticism of the arrests only proves there’s a foreign conspiracy against Egypt’s morals and manhood.

And, third: manhood is basic here. The crackdown mainly targets the people in Egypt’s diffuse and fragile LGBT communities who are most vulnerable and visible, those who defy gender norms. This is despite the fact that, while Egyptian law does criminalize male homosexual conduct, it says nothing about “crossdressing” or “effeminacy.”  Still, in many of these cases people were convicted of homosexual acts with no evidence but their looks (or the clothes or makeup in their handbags) alone.

Evidence survives that Egyptian cultures before the advent of British and French colonialism had specific niches for the gender non-conforming. Khawal is now an insult for men who engage in homosexual conduct, regarded as a terrible term of opprobrium. In the 19th century, however, it meant male dancers who dressed as women, who enjoyed (like some South Asian hijras) a recognized role as celebrants at events such as weddings.

Postcard in French and Arabic from the first decade of the 20th century: "Egypt - haywal [khawal]: Eccentric male dancer dressed as a female dancer."

Postcard in French and Arabic from the first decade of the 20th century: “Egypt – haywal [khawal]: Eccentric male dancer dressed as a female dancer.”

Whatever those niches were, though, in the 20th century they closed. Khawal came to mean not a gendered role but a sexual practice. Despite a few well-publicized cases of Egyptians seeking sex reassignment surgery, there was little social space for most people – particularly men – to cross gender lines for anything like a significant section of their lives. Only in recent years has there been a growing awareness of “transgender” identity, and an expanding willingness by a brave, determined few to live in at least a liminal space where gender blurs. Many of these folks don’t define themselves as “trans,” nor are they bound to particular gendered pronouns.

“The Revolution continues: the Brotherhood brings shame.” 2013 anti-Morsi graffiti showing a suspiciously homoerotic kiss between Egypt’s embattled President and the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie.

“The Revolution continues: the Brotherhood brings shame.” 2013 anti-Morsi graffiti showing a suspiciously homoerotic kiss between Egypt’s embattled President and the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie.

One way to put this is that “gender identity,” if it means anything in Egypt, often exists in a continuum with “sexuality” rather than as a disaggregated axis for identity. But the development of downtown Cairo and a few other urban zones as places where all kinds of self-consciously “alternative” styles tacitly tolerate each other; the burgeoning availability of Internet information; and the discursive and personal freedoms the Revolution pried open, all encouraged a lot of people to experiment with new ways of appearing and even living, with being “ladyboys” (a term often heard in LGBT people’s Arabic), or fem, or trans. It hasn’t gone unnoticed.

The attention also meshes with other potent anxieties. I’ve written here before how the Revolution raised a nervous question about what Egyptian manhood meant. The generals who seized control of the country after Mubarak fell began at once to disparage dissenting youth as effeminate: long-haired, culturally miscegenated, and incapable of masculine virtues like loyalty and patriotism. As if in reaction, revolutionaries adopted a language of attacking others’ manhood: “Man up,” a call to courage and defiance suggesting that opponents were wusses, became a running cliché of revolutionary speech.

Grafitti on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, 2013. On the left, the original version disparages the police as "gay." Activists painted over the insult and turned it into a statement on homophobia.

Grafitti on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, 2013. On the left, the original version calls the police “gays.” Other activists painted over the insult and made a different statement: “Homophobia is not revolutionary.”

What resulted? An environment where all sides constantly debated masculinity and leveled accusations at its absence. Coupled with a fear of national vulnerability and diplomatic irrelevance (which the military governments carefully cultivated) this created ideal conditions for defaming transgressors against gender as traitors to culture and country. A stridently soldierly, macho dictatorship could hardly look for a more useful bogeyman than the mokhanatheen, who embody like a freeze-dried concentrate all the vices it attributed to its enemies.

Anti-police graffiti, Cairo. At bottom: "The names change, the crime remains the same." The left panel lists the sites of police massacres, the right panel lists Ministry of Interior officials.

Anti-police graffiti, Cairo. At bottom: “The names change, the crime remains the same.” The left panel lists the sites of police massacres, the right panel lists Ministry of Interior officials.

Fourth: the crackdown is convenient for the reputation of the police. In the Revolution’s wake, Egypt’s police forces stood discredited and despised. The cop represented the point where most citizens met and suffered from the power of a regime beyond the law. Almost everybody had a personal story of police extortion, or arbitrary harassment, or torture. After February 2011, the police almost disappeared from most Egyptian streets – loathed and cowed figures, fearing for their lives.

With Sisi’s ascendancy the cops are back with a vengeance. You see them at every traffic circle, big-bellied, smug, hitting up taxi drivers for their daily bribes. The regime’s purchased politicians praise the gendarmerie whose lucre-fueled alertness saves the nation from Islamist terror. Their presence hasn’t necessarily made them popular; memories of their abuses die hard. But going after still more despised enemies of virtue gives their image a lift. The news stories hammer home the moral: when it comes to “deviance,” our security forces are on guard.

Anti-police graffiti in Cairo. At top: "Those who appoint a successor never die." a parody of a proverb. At bottom: "O system! You're afraid of a pen and brush. ... You long to fight with walls, to have power over lines and colors." ACAB: "All cops are bastards."

Anti-police graffiti in Cairo, 2012. At top, Mubarak’s face emerges under that of General Tantawi, his Minister of Defense who overthrew him: “Those who appoint a successor never die,” a parody of a proverb (“Whoever has a child never dies”). At bottom: “O system! You’re afraid of a pen and brush. … You long to fight against walls, to have power over lines and colors.”At upper right, a policeman is beating a graffiti artist. ACAB: “All cops are bastards.”

Finally, you have to notice that this crackdown so far doesn’t proceed by policing public spaces like cruising areas or cafes, or by sneaking into pseudo-public spaces like Internet pages or chatrooms. It may go there, but not yet. It’s private homes the police invade. With each news story, they tout their X-ray ability to peer through the walls like cellophane.

And this is the grimmest message, though at first it may not seem so. If Egypt’s Revolution had one collective goal, it was to roll back state power. State surveillance of personal life, of people’s rooms and bodies, was the precondition for the state’s other abuses: especially torture, the crime that all the Arab Spring revolts most focused on, the ultimate assertion of government authority over people’s physical existence down to their bones and nerves and skin. The Revolution rebelled against the policeman’s eyes at the window, his ears in the walls, his clawed hand on the shoulder.

That’s over. There is no privacy. The hand is a fist, and it is knocking at the door. The knock is a reminder that the state is still there, that it can control whatever you do, what you wear, what your bodies desire. The knock insinuates itself into your dreams. It’s trans or gay or lesbian people, or effeminate guys or mokhanatheen, who hear and fear it now; the message reaches them first, in the early stages. Accustomed to dread, they’re an attentive audience. (A gay man with nothing exceptional about his appearance told me three nights ago that he is afraid to answer the door these days, afraid to go out of doors lest his neighbors see him and suspect something and report him to the police.) But it’s a message for everyone, and eventually everyone will listen. The Revolution promised “personal freedoms,” but forget it; “our society” couldn’t “apply them correctly”; they’re a corrupt aspiration, an evasion of the necessity of control. Remember all those dreams of tomorrow? Tomorrow went away.

"Shut up! because your freedom doesn't help me": Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer, 2012

“Shut up! because your freedom doesn’t help me”: Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer, 2012

 

 

Jeddah Prison, Cell 18: Entrapped in Saudi Arabia

Baiman Prison, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: from a video leaked to international media in 2012 to expose overcrowding (see http://observers.france24.com/content/20120201-leaked-images-overcrowding-saudi-arabian-prisons-mobile-phone-video-jail-jeddah-khoudar-hygiene-crowded-health)

Braiman Prison, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: from a video leaked to international media in 2012 to expose overcrowding (see http://observers.france24.com/content/20120201-leaked-images-overcrowding-saudi-arabian-prisons-mobile-phone-video-jail-jeddah-khoudar-hygiene-crowded-health)

“Ahmed” is not his real name, and I’m afraid it’s not a very inventive substitute. As we sat trying to brainstorm a proper pseudonym for him, he told me he’s always wanted to be called “Ginger.” But he doesn’t look like a Ginger: he’s a dark and slightly stolid-looking figure in his 30s, conveying a composed center of gravity that probably stood him in good stead through everything he had to endure.

I talked to him the day after he’d been forcibly deported back to his native Egypt from Saudi Arabia.  He spent more than two years imprisoned in Jeddah, for visiting a gay chatroom.

Here is his story.

I was working as a pharmacist in Saudi, in Jeddah.  I worked in one hospital for four years, but then I transferred to another hospital because of a disagreement about the salary. When I changed to the second hospital there was a problem about the accommodation. In my first hospital I was living alone, I had my freedom. When I was transferred to the second hospital I was living with two other foreign guys who were straight, and they knew I was gay. They refused to have a gay with them, they forced me to leave the apartment. I handed in my resignation, came back to Egypt, stayed maybe three months, found a new contract for another hospital in Jeddah. I returned, and I enjoyed working in the third hospital.

In that place I think they realized that I was a gay, but they accepted me because I was doing my work, I wasn’t doing anything bad.  There was another guy at the hospital, a doctor from East Asia, and everyone knew that he was a gay—he’d flirt very openly with guys he liked, saying “We can hang out together if you can teach me Arabic.”

There’s a lot of life, everything is available in Saudi. For gays there are parties. Makeup, men in dresses… everything you can imagine or you cannot imagine. But for sure it’s hidden. There were foreigners in the scene, but it was mostly Saudis. So many Saudis like gays. If they know that you are gay, they will like you. Not everyone is hating! Some of them are enjoying having sex!

So one night in 2011 – I was working night duty – I finished and came home to my flat. I had something to drink – I knew some guys who could get it for me. Then I got onto a public chatroom, and I started to search for people. A guy said, Can I know you? How old are you, how do you look?

I told him my A/S/L [age, sex, location] and my e-mail. I offered to show myself on the cam. At that time, I was wearing my hair up, wearing some lingerie and my makeup and stuff like that.  I was looking cute.

He said, Can I come to you? You have a place. So he came to my home. He sat around with me, talking and joking.  But we didn’t do anything. He said, We can meet again this evening. I have my own flat, and I don’t feel comfortable here. I knew some guys didn’t feel right in a stranger’s place, and I respected that.

The evening came, around 7 PM or so – I still remember it vividly. He called and told me, I gave you my word, and I’m not lying, I’m coming to you. He said, I have a gift for you.

Then he told me also to bring my things, lingerie and makeup and stuff like that. I trusted him.

I went down to the front of the building to meet him. Just after I got in his car, maybe after a few minutes, I found the government, the guys in the religious police [Gama’t al-Amr be al-Ma’arouf], opening the door of the car, putting the cuffs on me. Of course he knew my home, so they came back there and took everything, the lingerie, condoms, my laptop, which contains porno movies and some pictures of myself

Then I found myself in the police station.

Preventing vice, encouraging virtue: Saudi religious police

Preventing vice, encouraging virtue: Saudi religious police

I was in a horrible state, crying — I think I had a nervous breakdown. They accused me of being a shazz jenseyyan [sexual pervert]. Everything they asked, I told them yes. Was I taking a contraceptive pill for females [for hormones]? Yes. The lingerie is for you? Yes. You’re a shazz, you’re getting fucked, you feel deeply inside yourself that you are a girl. Yes. But I said, Even if I do feel something like that, it’s not hurting anyone.

I knew the law, because it’s a religious country — not just religious but it’s a country where you must be straight. I know what happened before in Egypt [the Cairo 52 case and the subsequent crackdown] and that was in Egypt – what about a country like Saudi Arabia? Each time I went out on a date, I had a fear that I would be arrested. I expected it. But I did not expect that I would stay in prison so long.

The police didn’t use any violence against me. It’s not a matter of violence, it’s a matter of the whole process being unfair. I wish they had treated me with violence, instead of leaving me in jail for two years.

The manager in the hospital visited me in the jail. He told me that because I’d confessed, I would be deported.  To me this was something good: at least I would be free.

Instead, after a week, they summoned me from jail to the court. The judge was an awful judge, the worst. He told me, You are a sexual pervert.  I didn’t know how to answer. I answered I have dressed and made myself up like that but I’m not having sex — I’m just showing off. He did not tell me or ask me anything after that.

That day, I was handcuffed to another guy from the same cell. He was also in a gay case, but his hearing was before another judge, so we were led together to my judge, then together to his judge. His judge was reading the case file, asking him about the details, what happened, what they were saying – telling him, If you want I will call the witnesses, but if they say it’s all true, the sentence will be double. If you want to confess now, I can help you. I was astonished. Why was no one investigating my case that way? Why didn’t I even have the right to make a defense?

Two or three weeks later, they told me the judge wanted to transfer my case to the higher court [al-Mahkama al-A’ama] and he was asking that court to give me the death sentence.

The higher court, which can impose the death sentence, only can do that in cases where two people are arrested together and they each say, yes, he did that with me. Or if you have previous convictions. Or if you are married – it’s much worse to be accused of homosexual acts if you are married. None of that was true of me.

I waited in jail for four months or five months, and nothing happened. After that I was summoned to interrogation again.

The person who questioned me is called an interrogator (al-mohaqqek), but he’s the same rank as a wakil niyaba (deputy prosecutor) here in Egypt. The question he asked over and over was whether I was married, or had ever been married. Finally he wrote on a paper that I had not, and I put my fingerprint, and he said, Your case belongs in the jurisdiction of the lower court.

I was so happy that day.

But I waited for another four months. My birthday passed. Another summons came from that interrogator again. I had a lawyer by now. (It had been really hard to find one; nobody my friends approached in Saudi would take the case, because it was so dirty. Finally I asked my father in Egypt to look for a lawyer there who could pull strings with Saudi colleagues to get them to represent me.) I got in touch with my lawyer and told him my case was back with the lower court.

But in two weeks he called me to say, no, it was still in the hands of the higher court. Then he told me that instead it had been referred back to the interrogator. And the interrogator summoned me again, and he went over every point in the case. The new point that they asked me about – it was only the second time it had come up —was about the pictures on the laptop. There was a photo of two guys having intercourse, but the photo was only of their bodies, no faces. One of them was actually me; but there was no way of proving that. In the police station they’d asked me about it, and I’d claimed it was photoshopped or something, that it wasn’t me.  Now the interrogator asked about it again and I told him I had no idea who the men were — but he said, You already confessed to the police that it is you. I protested, I never said that! Where is my confession? But on that basis he transferred the case to the higher court again.

After maybe six weeks, they summoned me to the higher court. The lawyer was with me now, and the judge was very correct, asking me lots of questions.  The only point I admitted was that I had some feminine clothes and I like sometimes to look like a girl, but only inside my home. But they kept insisting that I had sex.  The only proof of this was that I had condoms. I admitted that I owned the condoms, and when I did that, they convicted me, saying it proved I was having sex in Saudi Arabia.

If you buy now, comes with a free three-year prison sentence: Vintage Orientalist condom packet from the US

If you buy now, comes with a free three-year prison sentence: Vintage Orientalist condom packet from the US

At least the request for the death penalty was refused. They sentenced me to three years and 300 lashes, to be delivered over six sessions, 50 lashes each.

In the end I spent two years in Braiman Prison in Jeddah, and I only went through three sessions of the lashes, 50 lashes each time. Finally I was released by a pardon of the king, a general amnesty.  The homosexuality cases are included under these and the amnesties happen regularly, so that most people convicted in a homosexuality case don’t spend too long in the jail. There was a guy with us whose sentence was seven years and he got out after one year. I was unusual, I stayed more than two years.  And after I was released, they deported me.

In prison, I understood that the purpose of the judge in the lower court, when he sent the case to the higher court, was just to keep me in jail for a long time waiting for the court decision, since I couldn’t be amnestied till I was convicted. He just wanted to prolong my jail time.

I spent those two years in Cell 18 in Braiman Prison. It is the special cell for people convicted for homosexual acts. There are a lot of men there. The day I arrived, there were maybe 50, 55, or 58 in the cell. But when I left there were 75.  Most of them feel like girls – we call each other by feminine names. We were sleeping on mattresses on the floor.

A lot of them had been arrested on the Internet, I can’t count now how many. The chief of the cell was arrested over the Internet, through chat on Palringo.  Some had been arrested on Hornet, someone on U4Bear, some on WhosHere — the religious police know all the apps and chatrooms. Some of them had got a phone call asking to meet, from someone they’d talked to before on WhatsApp, and that guy turned out to be police.

That handsome, bearded man wants YOU to prevent some vice and encourage some virtue

That handsome, bearded man wants YOU to prevent some vice and encourage some virtue

I actually enjoyed getting to know these guys in the prison. Some were Saudis but most were from [a nearby country].  From there they go to Saudi legally, some for regular work, some for prostitution. And those are making so much money. Maybe for fucking just one time they can rake in 300-500 Saudi riyals [$75-125 US].  The religious police were more concerned with targeting foreigners than Saudis. The foreigners don’t have complete rights in Saudi. It’s a kind of racism.

No one knew of anyone who had been executed [for homosexual conduct]. People would talk about one case that had happened a long time ago. One guy, an Egyptian in our cell, gave me some details; but I don’t know if he was telling the truth. He said these guys were arrested at a party. They stayed in in jail for maybe two or three years without even getting a sentence, and they could tell they would stay more and more. That guy told me that they were having sex in front of everybody in the cell, prisoners and officers, and they were even singing at the time of prayer. [The authorities] told them it’s not right to do that, you have to stop. And you are in jail, so there must be some kind of repentance.

They refused to stop. So their case was transferred to the higher court. And the guy heard they were executed. This, he said, was maybe two decades ago. He told me he had been arrested once in Saudi maybe ten years back, and heard about this from other prisoners as something that had happened five or ten years before that.  But I don’t believe everything he said.

Since then, though, because executions were getting bad publicity in the media, they stopped the death penalty for most cases of homosexuality – only for rape of a child, a boy, a man, something like that. In cases like mine, they just hold the sentence over you as a threat, to scare you; but it’s not actually going to happen.

But it’s not easy to look at a paper in jail and read that the judge is demanding that you be put to death.  It’s difficult. It scares you. It still scares me.

Still from leaked footage: A cell in Braiman Prison, Jeddah, 2012

Still from leaked footage: A cell in Braiman Prison, Jeddah, 2012

Last word on Kuwait: Unfortunately

Tawfiq Khojah, director general of the Executive Office at the Gulf Cooperation Council's Health Comittee

Gene genie: Tawfiq Khojah, director general of the Executive Office at the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Health Council

“Told you so” is no pleasure in this life. Still. Arab News (an English-language Saudi paper) this evening published a piece confirming most of what I wrote about Kuwait’s proposed policy. It entails gender tests, not exams for “gayness,” and it targets migrant workers, not tourists.

The Kuwait Ministry of Health has proposed tightening genetic tests for immigrant workers in order to prevent transgender migrants from entering the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council job market.

Tawfiq Khojah, director general of the Executive Office at the GCC Health Council, said, “The health checklist for migrant workers now contains a mandatory examination to determine gender.” … The proposal will be made in a meeting for the Central Committee for foreign workers’ at the Health Council to be held on Nov. 11, Khojah told Arab News.

Youssef Mendkar, director of the Public Health Department at the Kuwait Ministry of Health, confirmed that the proposal aims to prevent transgender migrants from working in GCC countries. The tests determine the gender at birth. Gender is also determined through the worker’s medical history.

According to local media, sex conversion operations are considered normal in some countries which supply manpower to GCC countries. He said that statistics from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Interior show that some foreign workers had a different gender recorded on their identity documents.

Khojah also said that the exams are already in operation in some GCC countries – “More than 2 million expatriate workers underwent the new gender tests in 2012” – but didn’t say where. The tests are probably chromosomal samples, and there are questions enough about these and the definitions of “sex” they imply; but the reference to “medical history” also raises the possibility that still other kinds of investigation, including abusive forensic examinations, may be involved.

One of the more thought-provoking comments on my last post came from HIV/AIDS activist Gus Cairns, who wrote on Facebook – I’m oversimplifying– that if you can rouse public outrage on an issue by saying it’s about gay men, and you can’t by saying it’s about trans migrants, surely there’s a case for saying what’s strategic. Terrible abuses based on gender under Kuwaiti law have gotten little notice over the years. I admit I feel some nagging guilt for helping burst a balloon that, floating over the ravaged rights landscape, at least had the possibility of drawing some attention to them.

In the end, though, I don’t think you can get far by advocating about fictions. Inevitably the Kuwaiti government would be able to respond, blithely, “You don’t know what you’re talking about” — and there would go any traction to the claims. Moreover, the problem with slants like this (a “gay exam” targeting privileged white tourists) is that they aren’t just popular because they’re sensational: they draw unwanted strength from releasing the darkest, rottenest impulses of the collective psyche, which float up from the depths like dead manatees. Gay superiority (over the L and B and T), gay imperialism (over other minorities and their needs), chauvinism, homonationalism, Islamophobia … these may not fully have reached the surface, but they were bubbling around under the reactions to this story. They lurk undesired in some of the furor over Russia as well, which is why, despite the surfeit of good intentions, so much of that still leaves me viscerally uneasy: not least because I respond to them too. The 24-hour Twitter cycle, the quick swell and ebb of anger, offers little time to think about what the facts are, much less what our words imply or why we use them. But we should be alert to these concealed beliefs and motives, and militant in resisting them. They pollute both the language of rights and the dream of liberation.

If you wonder about some of the politics behind the Kuwait tale, consider this: why was a group called Act for Israel (“Mission: to represent Israel’s interests in US through new media”) urging Peter Tatchell to take it up; and why did Tatchell answer by boasting that he’d already “helped break this story”? What was that all about?

Tatchell Kuwait IBT copyThe last word? I hope not. It remains formidably hard to whip up concern over the fates of poor workers, or foreign laborers, or trans people, and even harder to build a movement around the intersections. But I hope at least some of the folks who got agitated about this case when they thought it was a threat to football stars and white tourists will continue to follow it now that they know it’s about the marginal, the migrant, the despised. A simple Google search (try Kuwait gay tests) will turn up the names of notables who worried about FIFA and the limelight. Now let them show they care about those who don’t make the headlines. I remember (the music is at the end of the clip below) the frightening lines Brecht wrote at the very terminus of the Threepenny Opera:

Some in light and some in darkness
That’s the kind of world we mean
Those you see are in the daylight
Those in darkness
Don’t get seen

Kuwait’s “medical screening for gays”: Truth, fiction, and why it’s not a “gay” issue

"Illegals" -- foreign violators of Kuwait's labor and residency laws -- under arrest in a police station after May 2013 raids

“Illegals” — foreign violators of Kuwait’s labor and residency laws — under arrest in a police station after May 2013 raids

I first noticed it yesterday on Pink News, the UK’s G-and-sometimes-LBT news website: a new horror from the Persian Gulf. “It was revealed that Gulf Cooperative Countries introduced new rules to ‘detect’ and ban gay people from entering the country.” It doesn’t take long for any story about Arabs and sex to go viral. In this case, given that Qatar is hosting the 2022 World Cup, the headlines hitched a ride with anxieties over the Sochi Olympics, and turned into warnings about threats to sports. Peter Tatchell leapt in headfirst, proclaiming that “FIFA now has no option but to cancel the world cup,” because “gay players and spectators will be banned from attending.” The story was soon in the Daily Mail: “Gulf states to introduce medical testing on travellers to ‘detect’ gay people.” Russia Today picked it up (probably hoping that they could lure Jamie Kirchick to move his strip show to Al Jazeera). Of course it spread all over Twitter. Tommy Robinson, the leader of the UK’s thuggish and Muslim-bashing English Defense League, should have been thinking happy thoughts on his very own special day – he was collaborating with the Quilliam Foundation, a doubtful British affair that calls itself “the world’s first counter-extremism organization,” to announce his departure from the Fascists and conversion to tolerance and understanding. But he wasn’t too busy to send out a Tweet suggesting that his about-face, like the Qulliam Foundation itself, was a bit of a put-on. Islamophobia dies hard:

What about this story? Some of it is true, but only sort of. Some of it’s grossly distorted.  Let’s try to unpack what the truth is.

FIRST: Are there “new rules”? Not yet. It’s still just a proposal.  It comes from Kuwait, not Qatar – specifically, from the Director of Kuwait’s Department of Public Health, Dr. Youssef Mindkar, who discussed it with the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai yesterday. He said a new proposal

aims to discover the “third sex,” “gays” [al-mithliyeen], during the clinical medical examination procedure upon arrival, to prevent the entry into Kuwait and the Gulf of those certified as “improper” [ghair la’eq]. Mindkar spoke to Al-Rai of “strong measures to be included in Gulf regulations on employment screening, especially in respect of the third sex.”

So let’s be clear: this is a matter of employment screening – of people coming into the Gulf to live and work, people who already have to undergo medical testing on arrival. It’s not a screening for every arrival at the airport. It does not mean, as Tatchell claimed, “that gay players and spectators will be banned from attending the football world cup.” Whatever Dr. Mindkar has in mind, the sacred anuses of fans and footballers will be exempt, unless they plan to settle down and get jobs as gardeners or drivers in the Gulf after the games are through.

Trust me, you won't feel a thing: Dr. Youssef Mindkar

Trust me, this won’t hurt a bit: Dr. Youssef Mindkar

SECOND: Who decides on this? It’s not clear.The first Al-Rai article quoted Dr. Mindkar as saying “the project will be proposed during the meeting of the Central Committee of the Program on Expat Labor [of the Gulf Cooperation Council or GCC], which will take place on 11 November in Oman with a view to amending the regulations.” The Gulf Cooperation Council is a 22-year-old organization for economic and political cooperation between BahrainKuwaitOmanQatarSaudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. It tries to develop common policies on everything from patent regulations to labor policy to crushing and killing dissidents (its Peninsula Shield Force invaded Bahrain in 2011 to put down demonstrations). The Oman gathering will address the second concern: how to treat foreign workers. One recurrent issue is health – that is, protecting the region from diseases that migrant labor supposedly carries. Already, incoming workers must undergo medical screenings on entry; Mindkar is suggesting the meeting could recommend adding some new procedure.

Al-Rai is a newspaper close to Kuwait’s government. So it’s interesting that it followed up next day with an article interviewing Kuwaiti parliamentarians about the idea. This suggests they don’t feel it’s just a simple tweak of medical procedure – it’s a visa policy change that might need legislative action, in which case it would only apply to Kuwait, not the rest of the Gulf. It also suggests this is mainly for domestic political consumption. (Most of the MPs were supportive: the move would “safeguard our children … from abnormal behaviours contrary to religion.” Only one expressed some qualms: “Generally I reject legislating for legislation’s sake. Any legislation must be based on scientific study, and must be legal and constitutional.”)

In practice, the Gulf states are even worse than the EU at coming up with joint policies in the sensitive areas of work or borders. (A Schengen-like proposal for a common tourist visa has been discussed interminably.) In other words, even if some new policy is adopted by Kuwait itself, it’s still not clear it would affect Qatar or other states.

Raise your hand if you're a manly man: Session of Kuwait's National Assembly

Raise your hand if you’re a manly man: Session of Kuwait’s National Assembly

THIRD. What kind of “medical screening”? And for whom? Here’s where it gets interesting. Both Al-Rai articles repeatedly said the screening would search for the “third sex” (al-jins al-thaaleth). Only once in each article did they use the word al-mithliyeen, which is a politically-correct, recently invented term (derived from mithliyyu al-jins, “same sex,” constructed by analogy to “homosexual”); it’s sometimes translated “gay.”

What is the “third sex” to Kuwaiti ears?

Popular Arabic doesn’t contain any word (even mithli) that corresponds exactly to the way English-speakers and other Westerners use “gay” – which doesn’t stop Western reporters and the rest from jumping on this story and announcing it’s about “gay” people. This isn’t just about translation, it reflects different social norms: different concepts of identity. In the US, Europe, and much of Latin America, for instance, a strong, almost defensive distinction has grown between “gay” men and people who are “trans” or “transgender” (or “travesti,” or other words). The cultural importance of maintaining this difference is one reason the aggressive gay male Penis Police break out in anxious sweats when faced by someone they find ambiguous – somebody like Johnny Weir who’s too man-identified to be shoveled off into what they see as the transgender trash can, but who is just not their kind of man.

The distinction can be irrelevant in many other parts of the world, though. Here in Egypt, for instance, a separate female-to-male “transgender” identity is only starting to be articulated among middle-class people. (Many elements go to make it up, some local and some patterned after non-Egyptian possibilities. Demotic, working-class subcultures of men who danced in women’s clothes were well-known in 19th century Egypt, even if they didn’t cross the gender line full-time. On the other hand, a recent trip to Alexandria with a trans-identified friend involved more repeated viewings of RuPaul’s Drag Race than I care to remember.)

This is important because people who think the Kuwaiti proposal is an anti-“gay” measure clearly haven’t followed what’s been happening there in the last decade. In Kuwait for seven years now, “third sex” has mainly been a term of abuse for people whom the US or Europe might call “transgender.” A major moral panic has been raging (also in other Gulf countries, especially Bahrain). Press, preachers, and politicians rant about the dangers of men who aren’t “manly,” or women who are too much so. (Sometimes they refer to the latter as al-jins al-rabi, the “fourth sex” – or sometimes just “boyat,” as in boys.) This peaked in 2007, when Kuwait’s parliament passed a provision to punish anyone “imitating the opposite sex in any way” with a year’s imprisonment, a hefty (US$3,600) fine, or both. MP Walid al-Tabtabai, who drafted the law, said repeatedly it was aimed at stopping the “third sex.” Here he is on YouTube feeding the fires of panic: “Imprisoning ‘third sex’ and boyat is a law I’m proud of.”

 Boys will be boys, and if they won’t, send them to me

During my years at Human Rights Watch, we monitored the panic and the resulting police crackdowns from 2006 on. My colleague Rasha Moumneh, now sadly moved on from HRW, wrote an excellent 2011 report about the Kuwaiti situation. While police abuse of transgender-identified women has been especially violent and brutal, she stresses that the law does not just single out a “transgender” identity, much less “gay” sex, but rather targets anybody who doesn’t follow gender norms. It’s easiest for police to pick out biological men who are overtly wearing women’s clothing – but all men seen as effeminate, or women seen as butch, are potential victims.

Gender and sexuality often become foci for broader anxieties in times of rapid social and political change. The criminalization of “imitating the opposite sex” in Kuwait is one  element of a broader regime of gender regulation that began to take hold after 1992, when  tensions between “liberal” and “traditionalist” Kuwaitis after the Gulf War intensified as  each tried to establish their status as influential political entities. The battle over women’s rights and role in society constituted one of this conflict’s most  prominent arenas, and presented an opportunity for traditionalists and Islamists to join forces. … Given this long-running controversy within government and society over the appropriate  roles of men and women, it is not surprising that parliament would turn its attention towards those who visibly challenge these gender roles.

HRW documented how people arrested under the Kuwaiti law are often subjected to bodily inspection by a forensic doctor, to determine what their “real” sex is. It’s likely this is the meaning of the “medical screening” that Dr. Mindkar proposes: a doctor checks potential entrants to find their biological sex, and if it doesn’t correspond to their demeanor or the clothes they’re wearing, goodbye.

Protester at 2012 Lebanese rally against forensic anal exams. “Together against tests of shame: Whether anal or vaginal, they are rape on the prosecution’s orders.”

Protester at 2012 Lebanese rally against forensic anal exams. “Together against tests of shame: Whether anal or vaginal, they are rape on the prosecution’s orders.”

By no means do I minimize the abusiveness and intrusiveness of these examinations, or the humiliation they can inflict. Probably doctors would limit themselves to inspecting genitals at the border. But in part because “transgender” and “homosexual” are not neatly separated categories, it’s quite possible that indications a biological man has been anally penetrated can serve as proof that he “imitates the opposite sex.” I spent years documenting the forced forensic anal examinations practiced by the Egyptian police on thousands of victims. Such fraudulent tests were also part of the Lebanese police’s repertory. Though they prove nothing except the obscene prurience of the responsible officials, they have been blessed in the past with pseudoscientific imprimaturs. For example, sitting on my shelf is a 1993 Arabic publication by the World Health Organization’s East Mediterranean Regional Office, on “Forensic Medicine and Toxicology”; it recommended them as a way to discover the “habitual bottom” (ubna). It’s conceivable that the Kuwaiti border’s anti-deviance armory could include forcing these tests on suspect migrant workers. We just don’t know.

FOURTH. Isn’t this just more proof of the exotic, barbaric practices of repressed Muslims? Yes, of course, if you believe everything you read. It’s amazing how a story like this allows people to bring in every little tidbit about sheikh-and-terrorist sex that they garnered from the rumor mill, or from having wet dreams about Lawrence of Arabia. It’s as if, every time you mentioned gerbils, you had to segue to that friend of a friend of a friend who told you how Richard Gere ….

For instance: the International Business Times filled out its story on the border controls by informing you that

In 2012, Kuwaiti police officers arrested two men for allegedly having homosexual acts in a car at a café’s parking lot in Kuwait city. Police also found the men had a four-year-old “marriage contract” and were planning to travel abroad to obtain a legal marriage certificate. According to many Arab LGBT organisations, it is common practice among Arabian Gulf gay couples to sign a marriage contact as a sign of love and commitment.

I have to doubt “many Arab LGBT organisations” said this, or were even asked. It also seems odd to mark this as a distinctive, slightly primitive custom among “Arabian Gulf gay couples,” when oodles of gay couples in Amsterdam and San Francisco are doing the same thing. Did the Dutch read about this ritual called “marriage” in some anthro textbook on exotic Arabia, and decide to mimic it? But what does this have to do with anything?

Your anus is looking funny. Or funnely: Auguste-Ambroise Tardieu

Your anus is looking funny. Or funnely: Auguste-Ambroise Tardieu

The idea of medical testing for sexual or gender deviance is not an Arab one. It came from the West. The forensic anal examinations I discuss above were – as I’ve written before – the brainchild of Auguste Ambroise Tardieu (1818-1879), a French scientist who largely invented the techniques for forensic examination of sexual crimes. The fact that his theories about how “abnormal” sex changed the bodies of its practitioners were idiotic and bizarre does not make them less French. The myths and modes of investigation he advocated remain powerful, and not just in the Middle East.  His theory that frequently-penetrated assholes turn “infundibuliform” or funnel-shaped even found its way into the avant-garde poetry of the Comte de Lautréamont:

Oh incomprehensible pederasts, I shall not heap insults upon your great degradation; I shall not pour scorn upon your infundibuliform anus.

Thanks, thoughtful Frenchman!

Our pundits also assume that any different understanding of gender and sexuality must be a deficient one: that the absence, for example, of a concept exactly like “homosexuality” in another culture implies a lack to be filled, rather than discursive space already occupied by another valid concept. So Arabs don’t know what “gay” means? We’ll teach them! But, if anything, the coverage here clearly shows how our English-language terminology and thinking are stunted and inadequate to other situations. In particular, although we do formal obeisances to the “inclusive” terminology of “LGBT,” we’ll throw out everything but the G given half a reason.  Why is this a “gay” story? Why does everybody translate “third sex” as “gay” alone? Why do they ignore Kuwait’s recent history on gender issues as irrelevant? Why do they describe it as “homophobia” when only a slight look below the surface shows how deeply it’s a question of gender?  Why, given that vicious persecution of transgender people in Kuwait has been documented for seven years, does nobody even think to raise the T word (much less the L word!) when a report like this arises? What fears, what phobias enforce that silence?

FINALLY: There is a history to Kuwait’s worries about its borders. This story is not just “about” gender or sexuality. It’s also about citizenship and belonging. 

From Nasra M. Shah, "Recent Labor Immigration Policies in the Oil-Rich Gulf: How Effective Are They Likely To Be?" at

From Nasra M. Shah, “Recent Labor Immigration Policies in the Oil-Rich Gulf: How Effective Are They Likely To Be?” at http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1055&context=intl

The other huge moral panic going on in the Gulf for years has been over migrant labor. And Kuwait lies at the heart of the vortex of arrests, abuses, deportations. The whole region survives on the sweat of foreign workers. Four-fifths of Kuwait’s labor force is non-Kuwaiti; two-thirds of the country’s residents are non-citizens. Qatar and the UAE have similarly high figures; but Kuwait is unique in that it endured the trauma of foreign invasion in 1991, and doesn’t forget. Back then, Kuwaitis perceived guest workers — many resentful over their exploitation — as a fifth column welcoming Saddam Hussein’s troops. After Bush the First drove out the Iraqis, Kuwait expelled Palestinians en masse, including tens of thousands who had lived there for decades. Other guest workers, however, quickly took their places. The last time Kuwaiti nationals made up a bare majority in the country was the year of its independence, 1961.

From Nasra M. Shah, "Migration to Kuwait: Trends, Patterns and Policies," at http://www.aucegypt.edu/GAPP/cmrs/Documents/Nasra_Shah.pdf. PACI = Public Authority for Civil Information, Government of Kuwait

From Nasra M. Shah, “Migration to Kuwait: Trends, Patterns and Policies,” at http://www.aucegypt.edu/GAPP/cmrs/Documents/Nasra_Shah.pdf.  PACI = Public Authority for Civil Information, Government of Kuwait

Most of these foreigners are from poor countries, particularly in Asia and Africa, many serving in demeaning domestic jobs. They’re needed but feared. Migrant Rights, a website on migration in the Middle East, notes that “demeaning spectacles” and “popular myths” surround guest workers in Kuwait. They’re promiscuous, they’re drug addicts, they’re criminals. The press “vilifies undocumented workers through vague, unfounded assertions of the miscellaneous ‘danger’ they pose to society at large.” In addition to moral menaces, medical fears also play a role. Just a casual search shows that much of Dr. Mindkar’s work at the Department of Public Health involves protecting the Kuwaiti public’s health from the strangers in its midst. He makes sure domestic servants get re-tested and re-vaccinated when they return from holidays! He visits Egypt to stiffen the standards of clinics that pre-screen migrants there!

The stigma leads to violence. Bosses don’t just exploit guest workers; they abuse and beat them. And the country recurrently tries to chase out undesirables — who could be anybody with the wrong passport.  Since early 2013, Kuwait has been carrying out a “fierce crackdown” on foreign workers, jailing and deporting thousands without appeal. The numbers keep mounting: one day sees 86 arrests, another day 491 across the country.

South Asian domestic worker in Kuwait shows injuries inflicted by her employer

South Asian domestic worker in Kuwait shows injuries inflicted by her employer

This is the context for the new, proposed test of foreign workers’ genitals and morals. It’s another excuse, founded in fears for national purity, to drive people out. It’s doubly ridiculous, then, to claim the proposal’s wrong because it somehow endangers the World Cup. Zillionaire football stars and tourist fans won’t suffer any hiccups at the border: it’s obscene to put their situation on a level with that of impoverished migrants who face torture and the loss of livelihood. It’s equally absurd to claim that “Banning gay people [sic] from entering the country will deter foreign investors and companies. They won’t want to subject their employees to such barbaric, medieval humiliations.” Executives for Exxon or Royal Dutch Shell will breeze through Kuwait’s medical tests, whatever they may be, because they’re wanted in the country; if they happen to have some ailment, their company just bribes them in. The exams are meant to intimidate poor Nepalis or Sri Lankans or Pakistanis, to exclude those who are too recalcitrantly different. Talking about the imaginary inconvenience to corporations and guys in Porsches completely misses the point.

I hate to play the game of equivalences, to measure any human rights violation against another. Kuwait’s proposal is appalling, part of a disgusting system of policing gender — and part of a repressive history of exploiting a non-citizen helot class. Fight it! But to treat it as some “barbaric” or “medieval” invention unprecedented in modern immigration law is a self-exculpating fantasy.

Consider the US, where the Atlantic magazine made fun of those stupid Arabs: “We wouldn’t want to be the ones to break it to Mindkar that gay people come from the loins of straight people, meaning any attempt to keep your country gay-free is all but impossible.” Yeah. The US still bars foreign sex workers and drug users from entering the country, a policy that banned thousands of people from participating in the last World AIDS Conference held in Washington, DC. See if that keeps America drug-free, or sex-work-free. Meanwhile, the Daily Mail excoriated the Kuwaiti policy. That’s in the United Kingdom, a country famous for welcoming immigrants with songs and sex and flowers, and for its particular friendliness to LGBT asylum-seekers, who get free chocolate cakes and feather beds upon arrival! The Daily Mail itself loves immigrants. It loves immigrants so much that it just accused the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition of being anti-British because his father was a Jewish refugee. Stupid, stupid, stupid Arabs.

Oh, yes, I mentioned the rich Quilliam Foundation, a favorite of Tony Blair and the terror-fighting crowd. (Peter Tatchell, after enunciating his version of the Qatar Kuwait story, went off to a fifth-anniversary event for the Quilliam Foundation, and tweeted “Bravo”!) Blogger Fagburn has asked where Quilliam gets its money, aside from British taxpayers. Here’s one answer. In 2008 Quilliam’s head told Susannah Tarbush, writing for Al-Hayat, that it received “private Kuwait funding.” Kuwait’s a small country, and “private funding” usually passes through pockets of the royal family. Kuwait is happy to fund organizations that oppose “extremists,” which to the royal family means anybody who dissents. They also torture foreigners, Islamists, students, transgender people … the possibilities are endless. Those concerned about Kuwaitis’ and non-Kuwaitis’ rights might stop going to the Quilliam Foundation’s parties, or ask it to stop laundering Kuwaiti money. But I won’t hold my breath.

Palestinians at the Kuwait border await deportation after the Gulf War, 1991: Palestinian refugees at Kuwaiti border waiting to be deported, 1991. © Isabel Ellsen, Corbis

Palestinians at the Kuwait border await deportation after the Gulf War, 1991. © Isabel Ellsen, Corbis

He’s our bigot. Leave him alone.

L: Bad but unboring Russian activist holds easily comprehensible sign, Moscow, September 25; R: Good but boring Russian activists hold signs nobody cares about, Moscow, September 24. Police equally unimpressed.

L: Bad but unboring Russian activist holds easily comprehensible sign, Moscow, September 25; R: Good but boring Russian activists hold signs nobody cares about, Moscow, September 24. Police equally unimpressed.

John Aravosis published an article about Nikolai Alekseev’s latest Moscow protest on his blog today. It’s interesting how he excuses doing this. He objects to other media covering Alekseev (“I’ve noticed some top gay ‘news’ sites continuing to go to the anti-Semite Alexeyev for comment”) but not to himself covering Alekseev. He squares the circle by pretending that Alekseev wasn’t behind the demonstration (“it’s unfortunate that the protesters included in their group known anti-Semite, Nikolai Alexeyev“) when of course Alekseev didn’t simply happen along for the ride, he organized the whole thing. It’s all a bit like: I didn’t want to show you Britney Spears’ privates on my blog, people, it’s just that they walked right onto my computer screen. 

The truth is, it’s much more sexy and clickworthy, from an American perspective, to run photos of Alekseev holding an catchy English-language sign (no Google Translate needed!) and getting chased by police, than photos of other Russians holding up Russian slogans about substantive things like the fate of Russia that only Russians care about. It would be nice if Aravosis would admit this — and admit there’s a symbiotic relation between the Alekseev lust for controversy and the Aravosis lust for blog hits. It would spare us all the denials.

Aravosis’ piece contains the following remarkable line:

When it comes down to it, no one would fraternize with a “human rights activist” who calls blacks the n-word, calls Latinos “wetbacks,” or calls gays “fags.”  There’s no excuse for the tolerance some in our community, and some on the left generally, show when the victims of bigotry are Jewish.

One reason this is remarkable is that a couple of hours later, Aravosis was Tweeting:

Aravosis FAG copy

I’m not even going to get into the question of whether it’s as OK for gay people to use the F-word (about non-Fs) as for black people to use the N-word. I don’t think the F-word is “like” the N-word, or homophobia is “like” racism, or so on. I just find this a curious coincidence.

Now, what Aravosis said on his blog about Marco Rubio, the Senator from Florida, was this:

I was at my parents’ house last summer, watching the Republican convention … when I looked up at the TV to see who was speaking, saw some cherubic-faced yet-ageing man, and said to myself, “who’s that queen?” It was clear to me that whoever was at the dais must be gay …

Rubio and wife: Lose the beard, my alarm bells are ringing

Rubio and wife: Lose the beard, my alarm bells are ringing

That’s all the evidence. My own gaydar is sufficiently bad that I wouldn’t call somebody a “big fag,” in public, on its sole basis. Probably Aravosis’s gaydar is a precision instrument by contrast, capable of picking up distant quasars of queeniness, like the Hubble Telescope. I bet he was born with a super-keen eye for queens, that is, for men who aren’t quite manly. We’ve already seen this with Johnny Weir, whom he pegged instantaneously as one of those unreliable pseudo-guys bending like a fey reed in the wind. You might well ask, though: can this go too far? Should a human rights activist define his relationship to trans* people’s rights by asking what on earth he has “in common with a man who wants to cut off his penis, surgically construct a vagina, and become a woman”? Should a human rights activist call an effeminate man a “freak of nature“? Well, obviously it’s OK, because nobody says “sorry,” and we keep fraternizing.

But wait a minute. Another question.

What should John do about a “human rights activist” who says things like black people “are racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic” — “Why does everyone attack the Mormons, but they’ll never go after African-Americans?” What would you say about a “human rights activist” who calls the Koran “today’s Mein Kampf,” a book that “fatuously and ridiculously” claims to be a guide to “a Supreme Nincompoop called Allah”? Any thoughts on a “human rights activist” who claims Muslims “have not contributed to civilization in any way, in any field—political thought, science, music, architecture, nothing for century after century”? How would you respond to a “human rights activist” who alleges that a proposed Islamic cultural center in New York is actually a “monument to Muslim terrorism”? Is it OK for “human rights activists” to incite hate against whole communities? is John down with that? How about a a “human rights activist” who says that Arab immigration is leading to “a Europe where liberal institutions will be replaced with mosques and minarets, the glass of wine with a glass of camel milk, Speedos and miniskirts with jellabas and burkas, music with calls for prayer, and gay parades with public executions”? What would you do about a “human rights activist” who smears a whole people, those of Palestine, by saying their conflict with Israel is a choice

between civilization and barbarism; between freedom and oppression; between democracy and dictatorship; between human rights and violations of human rights; between those who treat gay people with respect and those who murder them, jail them, torture them, and dismember them; between those who treat women like equals and those who treat women like camels.

What would you say about a guy who uses that line about  “a woman is equal to a camel” over, and over, and over, as if part of the fun is that he gets to insult women and Arabs at the same time

Under the limelight: Lucas in his element

Under the limelight: Lucas in his element

This fellow, who has a long record of defaming whole groups based on their race or religion or immigrant status or nationhood, is porn intellectual Michael Lucas, of course. And I haven’t heard a word of objection from John Aravosis about him — about the fact that he sets himself up as a leader in the anti-Russia campaigning, and gets to use the Advocate and Newsweek as platforms for his bile, and writes about “freedom” and “equality” as if he knows what the words means,  and marches off to Queer Nation meetings to tell activists what to do. Any complaints that “the protesters included in their group known racist Michael Lucas”? None. Not from Aravosis, or Melanie Nathan, or most of the other people who feel or feign horror at Alekseev’s diatribes. Nathan even recommended Lucas’s opinions (“Michael Lucas wrote a very good article encapsulating the downfall of Nikolai Alekseev”), and Aravosis linked to him, without any hint that there might be a bit of irony about one open racist condemning another.

It’s all so inconsistent. I’m not entirely sure what Aravosis means by “the tolerance some in our community, and some on the left generally, show when the victims of bigotry are Jewish.” (Is there anybody relevant, except Peter Tatchell, who’s failed to voice loud anger over Alekseev’s attacks?)  I do know, though, about the tolerance some show when the purveyors of bigotry are rich, and famous, and have influential friends, and draw the hungry attention of the cameras: and when the victims they vilify are powerless, marginal, despised. Alekseev, in his minor way, lived off that syndrome for a long time. I’m waiting for John Aravosis to notice the fact that Michael Lucas keeps doing it.

Members of NYC Queers Against Israeli Apartheid stage a sit-in at the New York LGBT Center to protest a Michael Lucas-inspired ban on Palestine-related events, June 8, 2011

Members of NYC Queers Against Israeli Apartheid stage a sit-in at the New York LGBT Center to protest a Michael Lucas-inspired ban on Palestine-related events, June 8, 2011

Decision on Guyana’s dress code: Teheran on the Caribbean

 My Wardrobe, My Right: Trailer for documentary on the dress-code law, made by SASOD (Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination), Guyana

Around 8:30 on the night of February 6, 2009, two young women, Falatama and Gulliver, were planning to go off to a snack shop in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital. Instead, as they stood on a street corner waiting for a taxi, a police car drove up. Officers arrested them both.

They were hauled to Brickdam Police Station, photographed, and made to strip. Then the policemen threw them in a cell, and held them there for a weekend during which three other arrested women joined them. They asked repeatedly why they’d been detained, but the cops refused to answer. They were denied a lawyer or a phone call. Only on Monday, when they were all dragged before a magistrate, did they learn the charges. This inaugurated a court case that, pursued to higher tribunals, lasted four-and-a-half years. The issue was never what they were doing on that streetcorner, but what they were wearing:  Falatama, a jersey top, skirt, and slippers; Gulliver, a pink shirt and tights. Those clothes were against the law.

Brickdam Police Station, Georgetown, Guyana

Brickdam Police Station, Georgetown, Guyana

That month, police in Georgetown launched a crackdown on trans* folk. Between February 6 and 10, cops arrested at least eight people, picking up some twice. Police ordered them to “bend over” for a “search” after they stripped in the police station; they told them to put on “men’s clothing.” Chief Magistrate Melissa Robertson fined detainees GY$7,500 (US$36) each, under a law dating from 1893, when Guyana was a British colony. It criminalizes anyone who

being a man, in any public public way or public place, for any improper purpose, appears in a female attire; or being a woman, in any public public way or public place, for any improper purpose, appears in a male attire.

The magistrate also offered them free (except for the $7,500) advice: to “go to church and give their lives to Christ.”

Last week, on September 6, Guyana’s Chief Justice delivered a ruling in the case. I’d followed the matter since the victims were first arrested — early on, Human Rights Watch produced one of the first international statements on the arrests — so it held more than usual interest for me. The decision was a mixed bag. One victory: the justice found the police had violated the claimants’ rights by holding them incommunicado and denying them contact with a lawyer; he awarded them damages. Curiously, he held that there was no particular inconsistency in a magistrate, an officer of a secular state, telling the arrested victims to go to church:

The Court has extreme difficulty in accepting the proposition that the mere exhortation … to the applicants to attend Church and to give their lives to Jesus Christ constituted a hindrance to their freedom of thought and of religion of the applicants. Otherwise, every religion leader, in propagating the religion to which he or she subscribes would be guilty … At the highest, the Chief Magistrate can be accused of proselytising. But, proselytising does not constitute a hindrance to freedom of thought and of religion.

The way is thus clear for every local judge to bellow and Bible-thump like a street-corner preacher.

But the Chief Justice refused to find the “cross-dressing” law unconstitutional. He held that it was not discriminatory (after all, he wrote, it applied to both biological men and biological women); moreover, he considered its appalling vagueness (what defines the masculinity or femininity of “attire”?) not to be a constitutional issue. He tried, at the same time, to constrict the law’s ambiguity somewhat in his decision. For instance, he observed that attire means only textiles, not other bodily accoutrements.

It is not an offence for a male person to wear a female head wig or ear rings in a public way … Nor is it an offence for a female person to wear a pair of male shoes or finger rings.

This is OK. Just don't try putting on a necktie: Guyanese policewomen wearing sensible shoes

This is OK. Just don’t try putting on a necktie: Guyanese policewomen wearing sensible shoes

The Justice’s most important concession, though, lay in emphasizing the one significant limitation in the text of the law.

It is important to reiterate that neither male nor female is prohibited … from being cross-attired in a public way or place if the purpose of doing so is not improper … It is only if such an act is done for an improper purpose that criminal liability attaches. Therefore it is not criminally offensive for a person to wear the attire of the opposite sex as a matter of preference or to give expression to or to reflect his or her sexual orientation. [emphasis added]

This is generous, and surreal. Never mind that the decision seems to confuse “gender identity” with “sexual orientation.” What the hell is an “improper purpose”? It’s for courts to decide. It is “ultimately a question of fact in the prevailing social conditions and particular circumstances.” This of course leaves individuals in exactly the state where the law should not leave them — in a quandary as to whether any particular act is illegal or no. I want to go to the snack shop. Is that an improper purpose or not? You can’t be sure till you’re arrested. Tell it to the judge: he’ll determine your motive’s decency. Every courtroom becomes a priest’s confessional, exposing inner states of mind. Gulliver — legal name “Quincy McEwan,” now head of Guyana Trans United — said after the ruling, “The trans community is very worried, and still fearful of arrests, in light of this decision.” 

It’s easy to see, in fact, what was on this particular judge’s mind. Same-sex sex is still illegal in Guyana, under another colonial law that has been debated lately, but is not yet near repeal. Sex work is also criminal, despite the advocacy of a nascent sex workers’ rights group. And laws against loitering are meant for use against both groups — against cruising or gathering with others of your own kind. Those purposes are “immoral.” So both “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” are relegated to the realm of pure expression. You can dress to express, but the minute you dress to impress – to attract attention, to encourage somebody to find you attractive, to be noticed at all — you’re potentially a criminal. This leaves hardly any room to breathe, or to be, at all. 

I know many people on the excellent legal team working on this case, and, despite the partial victory, it is good news that they intend to appeal. The judge’s ruling reveals the insane niceties of distinction inherent in enforcing any gendered dress code. What is improper? What, indeed, is “attire”? The built-in ambiguities — for as the definitions multiply, the uncertainties also amass — reveal the scope for repression that still remains: as well as the room for Puritanical inquests, not just into the character of clothing, but into the nature of a person’s yearnings, purposes, and desires. Such a law is intrinsically oppressive. It gets not only into your clothing choices, but under your skin. Dress codes are no less totalitarian, in their demands upon their victims, in Georgetown than they are in Teheran. 

FEMEN objects to hijab and male oppression, with large phallic object behind

FEMEN objects to hijab and male oppression, with large phallic object behind

But where are all the humane and earnest internationalists who lament the horrors of the hijab? Where are the North American and European interventionists who urge bombing Iran to burn the veils off women? Where is FEMEN, that coven of bare-breasted opponents of all repressive dress codes? Why aren’t they dancing on the streets of Georgetown in solidarity with their forcibly clothed sisters? Could it be that the mammary-loving male Svengali who decides their deeds and schedules dislikes the tropical climate?

The truth is, most of our Western activists object only to dress codes that target women like them: their middle-class sisters who dream, at least in the Western imagination, of a liberation contiguous with their own. They don’t know about the other codes that hem in and constrain the poor, the different, the transgender, the sex worker and the street-bound. And if they knew, they wouldn’t care. Consider British writer Suzanne Moore’s complaint last winter about the “Brazilian transsexual” who represents all the bodily norms she and her friends resent and resist. Never mind that Brazilian trans* people get murdered right and left. What matters is, they look like women we don’t like.

There’s still a deep narcissism in our conception of rights. It’s just that self-love is now disguised by being globalized, subsumed in and then projected on a planetary scale. In this economy of imagined neighborhoods, sympathy is easy, because you find your likeness in far-off places: countries you can’t and wouldn’t visit but that are, exactly in consequence of their opacity, no terra incognita but a reassuring mirror. And outside this circuit of similarities, there are the unfamiliar and unimaginable. Don’t worry: they can make no claims.

Valdecir, trans* woman murdered in Brazil, February 2011

Valdecir, trans* woman murdered in Brazil, February 2011

Here is the press release on the Chief Justice’s decision, from the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), Guyana Trans United (GTU), Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVC), Caribbean Forum for Liberation and Acceptance of Genders and Sexualities (CariFLAGS) and the Faculty of Law University of the West Indies Rights Advocacy Project (U-RAP)

Constitutional Court rules that Cross-Dressing is not a Crime if Not for “Improper Purpose” - Rights Groups Plan Appeal on Dubious Decision

Georgetown, Guyana

On Friday afternoon, September 6, 2013, the Honourable Chief Justice (Ag.), Mr. Ian Chang delivered his judgment in Quincy McEwan, Seon Clarke, Joseph Fraser, Seyon Persaud and the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD)   vs. Attorney General of Guyana. Section 153(1)(xlvii) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) provision makes a criminal offence of a man wearing female attire, and a woman wearing male attire, publicly, for any improper purpose. The Chief Justice said that cross-dressing in a public place is an offence only if it is done for an improper purpose.

The Chief Justice also found that the police violated the human rights of the four litigants in the case during their crackdown in February 2009 when they arrested them under section 153(1)(xlvii) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act and he awarded each of the four arrested compensation of $40,000 (GYD) for breach of their rights to be informed as soon as reasonably practicable as to the reason(s) for their arrests under Article 139 (3) of the Guyana Constitution.

20090319another-235x300

Fur counts as attire, apparently: Cartoon from Stabroek News, March 2009

Chief Justice Chang also decided that section 153 (1) (xlvii) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act, is immune from the constitutional challenge brought by the four transgender litigants and their supporting organisations. As an 1893 law, pre-dating Guyana’s independence, the Chief Justice said “legislative rather than curial action is necessary to invalidate the provision.” The litigants are preparing to appeal this and other aspects of Friday’s court decision.

Colin Robinson, manager of the CariFLAGS secretariat based in Trinidad, praised the court’s finding that “It is not criminally offensive for a person to wear the attire of the opposite sex as a matter of preference or to give expression to or to reflect his or her sexual orientation.” The court also found that the law applies only to “attire” and not other gendered accoutrements such as head wigs, ear rings or even shoes. “The learned Chief Justice, however, has confused sexual orientation with gender identity,” Robinson commented.

Reacting to the judgment, the first-named applicant, Quincy McEwan, better known as Gulliver, who is also the Director of Guyana Trans United (GTU), noted that, “The Chief Justice was relatively clear that once you are expressing your gender identity, it’s not criminal for a man to wear female attire. But the law really stifles us, because what could be an improper purpose? The trans community is very worried, and still fearful of arrests, in light of this decision.” The court did not clarify what improper purposes gave rise to the arrests in this case.

Tell me about your purpose: Chief Justice Ian Chang

Tell me about your purpose: Chief Justice Ian Chang

The Chief Justice was not convinced the cross-dressing law amounted to ‘discrimination’ on the basis of gender, which would have been in violation of the Guyana Constitution. The court also ruled that the prohibition in the 1893 law is against persons of both genders for the same conduct and, as such, does not amount to discrimination based on gender. Se-shauna Wheatle is Jamaican and Lecturer in Law at Exeter College at the University of Oxford and a researcher in the fields of comparative human rights law and comparative constitutional law. Wheatle, who is the author of the 2013 report “Adjudication in Homicide Cases involving Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Persons in the Commonwealth Caribbean,” said that “The constitutional moment presented by this case demanded more detailed assessment of the issue of discrimination against transgender persons.” She observed that “The reasoning of the learned judge omitted any discussion of the prescription of gender roles to individuals according to their sex and the consequent requirement that individuals dress according to those prescribed gender roles. There was no discussion of the way in which the challenged section reflected such prescription of gender roles or the impact of this dynamic on persons who are transgender.”

The court also ruled that SASOD had no locus standi (standing) in the matter since the individual applicants brought the claim in their own names as the persons who were personally aggrieved. The Guyana Constitution was the first in the English-speaking Caribbean to give “an association acting on behalf of its members” the right to bring a claim before the Constitutional Court that there has been a breach of the guaranteed fundamental rights. The standing of SASOD is one of the issues which the litigants expect to argue before the Court of Appeal.

Similar sentiments were echoed by Zenita Nicholson, Secretary of SASOD’s board of trustees. “I feel the court lost a golden opportunity to give life to the Guyana constitution by vitiating this 1893 law against cross-dressing and establishing that all Guyanese are entitled to fundamental rights and freedoms, including our transgender citizens, who unfortunately will continue to be vulnerable to human rights abuses, with this dubious decision. We must appeal it,” she said.

Instructing counsel Gino Persaud

Instructing counsel Gino Persaud

Dr. Arif Bulkan who argued the case on behalf of the litigants is a lecturer in constitutional law and human rights law at the Faculty of Law, UWI, St. Augustine and a coordinator of the Faculty of Law UWI Rights Advocacy Project (U-RAP), which has managed the litigation. Dr. Bulkan said that“This case raises issues of great public and constitutional importance relating to the scope of the restrictive savings law clauses in the Constitution that limit challenges to repressive colonial laws and the new provisions in the Guyana Constitution dealing with equality and non-discrimination. The region is closely watching this case.” He added that the legal team for the litigants, which includes Mr. Gino Persaud as instructing counsel, looks forward to arguing these important human rights concerns before the Court of Appeal. He said “In the content of our laws and details of our conduct, we must give meaning to the strong commitment in the Constitution to eliminate ‘any and every form of discrimination’ in Guyana.”

The case of McEwan, Clarke, Fraser, Persaud and SASOD v. Attorney General was initiated four years ago following the February 2009 conviction and fine of seven individuals for violating section 153 (1) (xlvii) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act. The 1893 law makes it a criminal offence for men to wear female attire and for women to wear male attire “in any public way or public place, for any improper purpose.” Other activities criminalised in section 153(1) are: grooming an animal in a public place; placing goods in a public way in town; beating a mat in a public way; flying a kite in the city; loitering around a shop and hauling timber in a public way. Unrepresented and unaware of their rights, the defendants were detained in police custody over the weekend, and then hustled through the legal system and fined $7,500 (GYD) each.

Arif Bulkan

Arif Bulkan, University of the West Indies

U-RAP co-founder, attorney-at-law and public law lecturer at the University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine, Dr. Arif Bulkan explained that this colonial law was part of repressive penal regimes instituted in the second half of the nineteenth century throughout the Caribbean to severely constrain the lives and actions of recent freed Africans and the newly arrived indentured servants. Bulkan notes that “Despite the discriminatory aspects of these colonial laws, and their low regard for the majority colonial populations, vagrancy laws like section 153(1) have been kept in effect long after independence.” He adds that “The law is plainly at odds with the Guyana Constitution which states that it is committed to ‘eliminating every form of discrimination.’”

 Tenth anniversary video produced by Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), Guyana

Peter Tatchell begs Hillel Neuer to sue me

Catherine Brennan with iconic refutation of gender theory. Don't worry: There are dicks everywhere.

Catherine Brennan with iconic refutation of gender theory. Don’t worry: There are dicks everywhere.

About six weeks ago, Samantha Allen, a trans* activist and scholar in the US, published an incisive piece at Jacobin – a site I always find thought-provoking.

I’m an endangered species. Nearly half of people like me attempt suicide. Hundreds of us are murdered annually and, worldwide, that rate is only increasing. Those of us who have a job and a place to live often lose them both; too many of us can’t acquire either in the first place. What I am is a transgender woman, one of the lucky ones.

I’m lucky because I’m white, and because I have employment, housing and health insurance. I can’t get too comfortable, though, because every few days, a tragic headline reminds me of how fragile we are as a group: “Anti-Transgender Bathroom Bill Passes,” “Transgender Inmates At Risk,” “Transgender Woman Shot.”

What she runs up against is that it’s perfectly easy to be a victim in the US media, but once you start defending your life instead of letting it be described, all hell breaks loose.

While the article deals with many threats to trans* existence, her focus is not physical violence but political erasure. There’s still a strong phalanx of Western feminists who hate the idea of “gender.” They believe in woman as biological essence: they reject the notion that sexual roles are produced by social forces, and instead trace social repression back to women’s genital-given ability to make babies (which patriarchy needs to harness to keep going). This is at least a defensible idea, but one of its adherents’ traits is a deep loathing of transgender people, who embody, if that’s the right word, all the gendery blurriness they abjure and abhor. To them, trans* women are deluded men who want to weasel into women’s spaces, at best as spies, at worst as rapists.

Ideas exist not in an ideal but in the real world, and one way to judge them is not by their consistency with other ideas but by whether they have victims. By that standard, an idea that breeds hatred — in this case, against an already vulnerable group of people — has its problems.

Allen points to Catherine Brennan, a Maryland attorney, as an example among many. Brennan is fairly notorious. In 2011, she famously co-wrote a letter to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, opposing legal protections for gender identity, and asking the UN to condemn such anti-discrimination laws in the US. The appeal came at a particularly crucial time in the UN’s negotiations over sexual orientation and gender identity. As Allen says, Brennan “effectively allied herself with those on the Right who viciously deter trans* folks’ attempts to secure employment, housing and safe public spaces.” Brennan also descends to more individual forms of opposition. Recently, for instance, she posted online the court docket information of a trans* woman who was petitioning to change her legal gender, and encouraged others to ask the judge to quash the petition. Last year, she sent a trans* activist a weird but instructive picture:

Cathy Brennan tweet
Allen’s essay was mainly a positive call for the left to take trans* issues seriously. But Brennan, a litigious soul, particularly disliked the paragraph about her. She didn’t try to refute any of the points. She threatened to sue the publisher.

Brennan’s action was in obvious imitation of Peter Tatchell, who has threatened various people in the past — publishers both small and large, and, on at least two separate occasions, employers — with lawsuits in response to criticism of his work and tactics. (Some accounts of Tatchell’s attempts at censorship can be found here, and here, and here, and here.) Until it was partially reformed this year (after a number of researchers and scholars had been hauled into court, accused of defamation for disagreeing with others), England’s libel law was among the worst threats to free speech in any soi-disant democracy. As the UK’s Libel Reform Campaign (a joint project of Index on Censorship, PEN, and Sense about Science) said, the law was “chilling global freedom of expression, by silencing writers, journalists, bloggers and human rights activists in the UK and around the world.” It was Peter’s favorite weapon. Unsurprisingly, libel reform is perhaps the one widely popular campaign in Great Britain, short of the EDL, that Tatchell never endorsed.

Some activists oppose power instinctively. Some activists instinctively love power. There’s a long history, for example, of feminists who honorably oppose patriarchy turning to the patriarchal State, not just for protection but to silence their opponents. Real activism does not succeed through seizing power, though, but by transforming it. Its progress is impossible without critique and disagreement. When you shut down criticism by other activists and movements, and police your way into a specious authority beyond argument, you lose your claims to credibility. You also poison the atmosphere of diversity and debate, the only air that true thought and politics can possibly breathe.

I thought of this recently, after I wrote my own criticism of Hillel Neuer and his baltageya at “UN Watch.” Neuer’s group is not, in any proper sense, a human rights organization. Instead, they spend their time attacking human rights activists, mostly for insufficient adulation of Israel. In this case, Neuer had launched an assault on the reputation of Mona Seif, a heroic campaigner against military rule and military trials in Egypt. I pointed out the indefensibility and falsehood of Neuer’s allegations, and his obvious political motivations.

I got a number of poison-pen letters, but at the bottom of one threat there was … Peter Tatchell. Literally. The following e-mail, from one S. Brodsky, offered the usual rhetoric:

Brodsky email May 20
Fine. (It’s the Southern Poverty Law Center, by the way.) This came at the top of a chain of forwarded emails urging people to “do something” about me, which the sender apparently forgot to delete. But when I scrolled to the bottom, through archaeological layers of abuse, I discovered that the originating email came from Peter Tatchell, imploring Hillel Neuer to sue me.

hillel neuer tatchell 1Hmm.

It may be true that I’m “impervious to criticism,” at least in comparison to Peter, who takes note of every mild demurral for future retaliation. I don’t think it’s possible to do human rights activism unless you have a thicker skin than that. On the “appeals to conscience,” though, I am in doubt. I have checked with my conscience, which is in session 24/7 with special judges on hand for night court, and it has no record of such a case being referred to its jurisdiction by a lower tribunal. I’d encourage Peter to pursue this recourse, and submit his documents as soon as possible. My conscience can’t wait to see what the appeal would look like.

Night court of conscience: Tell it to the judge

Night court of conscience: Tell it to the judge

This all serves as a reminder that the full documentation of Peter’s attempts to go after me deserves to be online, and I really should post it for the connoisseurs.

For the rest: it’s amusing to find Peter as the fairy, or toad, at the bottom of this particular e-mail garden. Yet it’s also sad. Peter’s been harassing me in his obsessed fashion — on occasion directly, more often through various minions — for years. Some weeks ago I found he turns up in my followers’ list on Facebook, as does the beautifully named “Patrick Lyster-Todd, Lieutenant Commander Royal Navy,” who is or was the “Acting General Manager” of the “Peter Tatchell Foundation.” My Facebook page is open to the world, you can check it any time, but Peter and his employees want to make sure they don’t miss anything I might post that could be employed against me. Lyster-Todd, whom I am afraid I can only envision as an evil twin of Captain Crunch, wrote a long email two years ago to Harvard Law School to complain that I worked there:

Lieutenant Commander Patrick Lyster-Todd, Royal Navy

Lieutenant Commander Patrick Lyster-Todd, Royal Navy

Dear Dean,

I am the acting General Manager for the Peter Tatchell Foundation, a small human rights non profit organisation in London, United Kingdom. …

May I ask – openly, honestly and without any hidden agenda – whether Mr Long is entitled to sign himself as a Visiting Fellow of the School and, if so, whether it can therefore be inferred that he [speaks]  with the tacit or other support or authority of the Harvard Law School? I cannot believe that you would wish this. …

Sincerely,

Patrick Lyster-Todd
Lietenant Commander Royal Navy
General Manager
Peter Tatchell Foundation (PTF)
Tel: 020 3397 2190 Email: patrick@petertatchellfoundation.org
Web: www.petertatchellfoundation.org

Harvard told him to climb back in his yellow submarine. Nonetheless, the whole thing suggests a degree of drivenness in Peter’s pursuit of me that pushes at the pale of sense.

When Peter reaches out to UN Watch, though, it’s not funny. For him to embrace that band of Likudnik thugs puts the lie, at a minimum, to his intermittent professions of support for Palestine. As I said above: bad ideas have victims. Tatchell allies himself with a State-sponsored enemy of the United Nations’s rights work, of Israeli civil society, of Palestinian aspirations for freedom, and of genuine human rights heroes like Mona Seif in Egypt; and what can you say? He reveals that his carefully cultivated idea of himself doesn’t care about the consequences. No rights activist should prefer Hillel Neuer to Mona Seif and the Egyptian revolutionaries. But Peter’s amour-propre is prepared to inflict collateral damage on anybody who gets in its way.

Peter obviously would like to scare me himself, and I doubt that his lack of funds is a deterrent; surely the “Peter Tatchell Foundation” could contribute its resources to a rights-advancing lawsuit. The reasons, rather, are twofold: my lack of funds, and the fact that he’d rather move furtively and through figureheads than in the open. But if he’s willing to come out, I can certainly help. I don’t take Peter seriously; most human rights activists don’t. He is primarily concerned with self-promotion. His advertisements for himself exploit the work of serious grassroots activists in the global South while disregarding their agency — and sometimes callously endangering their safety. For the most part, he puts out a stream of press releases with endless quotations from himself. These do little to dislodge injustice, but they do qualify him as what the French call, expressively, a pisseur de copie. Finally, like many so absorbed with themselves, he is deeply insecure; he tends the delicate flower of his minor celebrity with an intemperate rage at those who question or critique him. He’ll take down real activists like Mona Seif and others if they are in the line of fire.

Now, Peter: Please sue. I look forward to hearing from you. Hillel Neuer (and Catherine Brennan) will have to wait in line.

Meanwhile, there are constructive lessons. It remains important to defang these people who are too absorbed by the vicissitudes of reputation to address criticism or participate in discourse. You can learn about the UK Libel Reform Campaign (which still has work to do) here. To support Jacobin Magazine, and the principles of independent journalism, please donate to their legal defense fund here.

Living in truth: Chelsea Manning in prison

Chelsea Manning in happier days, in male drag

Chelsea Manning in happier days, in male drag

Little more than a week after the brutal liquidation of the brave Cameroonian gay activist Eric Ohena Lembembe this July, a trans* woman was killed in Barranquilla, Colombia. Wizy Romero was 21, a community activist “widely known for her leadership in the barrio and district,” especially in sports. While she chatted with friends in the street on the night of July 23, two men on a motorcycle shot her dead. It was the eleventh known murder of an LGBT person in the Caribbean region of the country since the year began.

A few days before Lembembe’s murder, on July 10, friends found a trans* woman’s body at her home in Kuşadası, Turkey: circumstances much like the discovery of Lembembe’s slaughter. An unknown assailant had stabbed Dora Özer to death. Violence aganst trans* people is epidemic across Turkey.  “Every year a few of my friends get killed,” one activist, remembering Dora, said. “I often think of the question, ‘when will my friends hear about my death?’ Saying this is very painful. But I don’t even know one transsexual who died of natural causes.”

Dora Özer, murdered July 9, 2013

Dora Özer, murdered July 9, 2013

On July 22, just days after Lembembe’s killing, Jamaican police in Irwin, near Montego Bay, discovered the mutilated body of a 16-year-old whose identity papers said  “Dwayne Jones.” The story, as slowly reconstructed, was typical of trans* and non-conforming youth in many places. The father threw the child out of the house at 14 for “effeminacy”; the community drove Dwayne out of the neighborhood. Dwayne had gone to a street party dressed as a girl. A crowd chased the child into the street, stabbed her and shot her, till she died after two hours of multiple attacks.  They beat and tried to rape an older trans* friend who was with her; she managed to escape.

People mourned, condemned, protested Eric Ohena Lembembe’s death around the world. Nobody much noticed Wizy Romero’s or Dora Özer’s killings. Human Rights Watch produced a press release on the murder of Dwayne Jones. The contrast with their response to Ohena Lemembe’s killing is instructive. They invited you to take the crime against Eric personally. His murder evoked tributes to his character: “Advocating for equal rights in Cameroon, where LGBTI people face severe discrimination and violence, takes tremendous courage,” the organization said. ” Dwayne was depersonalized. Nothing suggested the heroic individuality of a 16-year-old who braved the cruel streets as herself, not a cipher; she blurred into a lesson for “Jamaican authorities,” who  “need to send an unequivocal message that there will be zero tolerance for violence” against all “LGBT people.” (By contrast, the Associated Press was able to speak to Dwayne’s friends and “humanize” her, though they still referred to “him.”)

A murdered gay man is a symbol. A murdered trans* woman is a symptom.

Amnesty International also wrote about Dwayne’s killing. In a blog post, they described her as “gay” in pointing to the larger lesson: “Gay people’s rights in the Caribbean have to be respected.” Like Human Rights Watch, they said “he was cross-dressing” — an irritating term implying mere fashion choices at cross-purposes with the person’s genital-given gender, which is inescapable. We don’t in fact know whether Jones saw herself as mainly male or female at the time of the murder, but HRW and Amnesty make the decision for her. Eric Ohena Lembembe’s friends remembered him in death. Dwayne Jones’ advocates erased her.

Known murders of trans* people in 57 countries in five years: from http://www.transrespect-transphobia.org/en_US/tvt-project/tmm-results/march-2013.htm. Note high numbers for the free US as opposed to tyrannical Putin's Russia

Known murders of trans* people in 57 countries in five years: from http://www.transrespect-transphobia.org/en_US/tvt-project/tmm-results/march-2013.htm. Note high numbers for the entirely free US as opposed to tyrannical Putin’s Russia.

I thought of this in the dramas yesterday around Bradley Manning’s sentencing. Let’s call her “him,” and “Bradley,” in this paragraph for the last time. Manning received 35 years in military prison on various charges, “including violations of the Espionage Act, for copying and disseminating classified military field reports, State Department cables, and assessments of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.” He’d been acquitted of the simultaneously most serious and ridiculous charge, “aiding the enemy,” but in the end this didn’t seem to matter. In fact, the symbolic message of the sentence (everything has a “lesson” these days) was that spreading information is abominable even if it doesn’t aid some enemy. Silence is life, silence is breath. Silence is a value for its own sake. Gays in uniform or no, the military’s mantra remains: Don’t tell. Don’t tell. Don’t tell.

The long prison term is likely to hearten national security officials who have been rattled by the subsequent leaks from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Manning’s conviction might also encourage the government to bring charges against the man who was instrumental in the publication of the documents, Julian Assange.

You can read Manning’s statement after sentencing here. “In in our efforts to meet this risk posed to us by the enemy,” Manning wrote, “we have forgotten our humanity.”

We consciously elected to devalue human life … When we engaged those that we perceived were the enemy, we sometimes killed innocent civilians.  Whenever we killed innocent civilians, instead of accepting responsibility for our conduct, we elected to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability.

“Sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society,” Manning said.

Manning being escorted from courthouse after a sentencing hearing, August 20, 2013, Fort Meade, MD

Manning being escorted from courthouse after a sentencing hearing, August 20, 2013, Fort Meade, MD

A day later, Manning’s lawyer read another statement from the prisoner on TV.

I want to thank everybody who has supported me over the last three years. Throughout this long ordeal, your letters of support and encouragement have helped keep me strong. … As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility).

The prosecution painted Manning as a “narcissist” during the trial: apolitical, unconstrained by responsibility to society. (“I only wanted to help people,” Manning said after sentencing.  “When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others.”) Thus it’s predictable how her coming out as trans* is playing today. She’s just selfish, trivializing her own claims to higher purpose, and chasing the will-o’-the-wisp of sick fantasy to boot. “So Manning wants to live as a woman,” looney Laura Ingraham tweeted. “Let me guess, we have to pay for it.” Then there’s Adam Baldwin. I don’t know why we should care how Adam Baldwin addresses this or any other issue, but his avatar predicts his answer:

Adam Baldwin. "American Individual. Amiable Skeptic." Male impersonator.

Adam Baldwin. “American Individual. Amiable Skeptic.” Male impersonator.

GayWorld’s reaction will also be interesting to behold.

That Manning’s gender identity was ambiguous, and that she might prefer to be identified by it rather than as “gay,” was no secret. The information’s been out there for years. Living (like many closeted people these days) a fuller life online than in the physical world, she’d come to trust Adrian Lamo, a well-known hacker, in the months before her arrest. Lamo published their chats after he turned Manning in for whistleblowing. Manning wrote him that “I wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed, so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me … plastered all over the world press … as [a] boy.” Military doctors later leaked to the press that the soldier considered herself female, and a few voices referred to her as a “transgender hero.”

There may not have been enough information for supporters to affirm unequivocally that Manning was trans*: but there was certainly an ambiguity demanding to be respected. Yet it was effectively covered up.  As Emily Manuel wrote in late 2011, the media, and many if hardly all Manning’s supporters

continue to refer to her as male  (for instance, this Glenn Greenwald segment on Democracy Now  still using male pronouns, and still conflating gay and transgender, or Michael Moore’s steady stream of supportive tweets and blog posts).  But at what point will progressive media, those who are at least pay lip service to the idea of being LGBT allies, decide to respect the most likely scenario of Manning’s preferred gender ID?

Several things showed here, not least Manning’s defense team’s fear that, if homophobia in the military was slowly ebbing, transphobia remained rife. To admit a trans identity would alienate the court. It would suggest she was a double traitor, not just a leaker but an undercover woman in a masculinity-obsessed institution: a wolf in sheep’s clothing or a she in warrior’s clothes. Manning, unlike the information she revealed, had to stay behind the veil.

Manly men keep other men in their crosshairs: Frame from a video (released to WikiLeaks by Manning) shot by a US Army Apache helicopter shows civilians on an eastern Baghdad street, July 12, 2007.  Subtitle at bottom is dialogue within the helicopter. Moments later the gunship opened fire, killing eight, including two journalists.

Manly men keep other men in their crosshairs: Frame from a video (released to WikiLeaks by Manning) shot by a US Army Apache helicopter shows civilians on an eastern Baghdad street, July 12, 2007. Subtitle at bottom is dialogue within the helicopter. Moments later the gunship opened fire, killing eight, including two journalists.

There’s something else, though. As Manuel wrote, “Why do we assume that ‘hero’ and ‘transgender’ are mutually exclusive, and are unwilling or unable to imagine rallying around a transgender woman rather than a bright-faced young man?” As the stories I told above show, a gay man murdered means courage. Trans women murdered can quickly be forgotten. Some of Manning’s defenders found it far easier to describe a brave “he” in uniform.

Mentioning gender identity became the province of those who smeared her, like the dreadful Jamie Kirchick. “Manning is gay and reportedly suffered from gender identity disorder, at one point adopting a female alter ego,” Kirchick noted in Out magazine. Why being a woman should be an “alter ego,” except to Jamie’s ego, is anybody’s guess. But: “Bradley Manning is no gay hero,” Kirchick concluded. Pointing to Manning’s femininity helped Jamie undermine both descriptions, and unsettle the “many gay activists” who refused to “condemn him as the traitor he is.” 

They also serve who only stand and Tweet

They also serve who only stand and Tweet

There’s a longer history here, though: a twinned history of gay men dominating the movements, and of activists dictating to subalterns whom they won’t let speak for themselves. Peter Tatchell has, typically, been particularly militant in demanding that Manning accept the identity assigned to her. “Bradley Manning is openly gay,” he declared; “he has participated in Pride marches” — something trans* folks apparently never do. Tatchell urged people to send messages to “the gay military whistle-blower” (if Manning feared having her image plastered over the Internet “as [a] boy,” she might perhaps have been still more alarmed to get thousands of missives addressing her as “gay”). Tatchell continued proclaiming this till the morning she announced her trans* identity. (As usual, when questioned on his facts, Tatchell goes — no pun intended — ballistic; when I pointed out the ambiguities some months ago, he accused me on e-mail of “factually inaccurate, sectarian smears.”)

But Peter has a long record of deciding how people should identify themselves, regardless of how they actually do. In some cases, he picks on the dead, like Whitney Houston. In some cases, it’s the living; his insistence that certain Iranians were “actually” gay (while, being in prison, they couldn’t address the question in person) has probably contributed to the killing of at least one victim. In 2010, when Malawi charged a couple, Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, with “unnatural acts” under its sodomy law, Tatchell intruded in the case. His stream of press releases cemented their depiction as “gay” and a “same-sex couple,” even though it was clear to most people that Tiwonge didn’t identify as a man. Gender identity is an undefined area in Malawian law. If a court could have been persuaded that Tiwonge’s gender identity made them an opposite-sex couple, there was a slight chance they might have gone free. Instead, aided by Tatchell’s publicity and aversion to trans* identity, they got 14 years.

Getting it right, but a bit late: Protester at the Malawi High Commission carries a sign, 'Tiwonge is a Trans Woman," May 29, 2010. Perhaps because his gay message was disrespected, "Peter Tatchell was unable to attend." http://www.demotix.com/news/341347/malawi-high-commission-protest-london#media-341341

Getting it right, but a bit late: Protester at the Malawi High Commission in London carries a sign, ‘Tiwonge is a Trans Woman,” May 29, 2010. Perhaps because his all-gay message was disrespected, “Peter Tatchell was unable to attend.” http://www.demotix.com/news/341347/malawi-high-commission-protest-london#media-341341

In other words, GayWorld’s fear of a trans* corner of the planet has consequences. 

Manning’s gender identity came to the fore only at trial’s end, in the sentencing phase. Then her attorneys introduced it, to prove she was “confused” and troubled in the lead-up to the leaking. In no way do I criticize anything the defense said to mitigate Manning’s punishment in an unjust, torturous system. They were doing their best for her, though it does demonstrate that lawyers don’t have the last word about a person’s selfhood, any more than human rights activists do. But the strategy invited the court to see Manning’s gender issues as an illness — and the attendant media seized the opportunity.

Pretty much all the press coverage of Manning’s sentencing treats gender identity as disease. It’s a sickening boost to the worst transphobia. The Guardian, in the UK, throws the book at him. “The odds were stacked against Manning before he was even born … he had characteristics of an infant with fetal alcohol syndrome.” Manning “was still only being fed baby food when he was two years old.” But all these oddities build up to the Real Enchilada, or lack of it, which is her failure to be a man. “An email Manning sent his sergeant, containing a picture of himself in a wig, dressed as his female alter ego [again!], Breanna, gave some insight into his motives.” Does it? What I can’t comprehend is why somebody so infantile, so Dr.-Phil simple, so anxious to return to (and turn himself into) the womb, would do anything so adult — so inimical to childish comfort — so conscious of and caring toward the outside world, as noticing his country’s criminality and leaking a whole slew of highly political information. It’s as if a baby in a Pampers commercial started spouting Shakespeare. Could it be they have Manning and her manliness all wrong?

Military psychologists examined Manning three times, as Kevin Gosztola summarizes. 

His therapist in Iraq, Cpt. Michael Worsley, diagnosed him with GID ["gender identity disorder"] after he opened up to him in May 2010. The sanity board that reviewed whether he was fit to stand trial diagnosed him with GID in April 2011. And the forensic psychologist, who was tasked with reviewing Manning’s records for the defense, Navy Captain David Moulton, diagnosed him with GID and found that to be the primary disorder of which he was suffering.

Keep your laws off my body and your labels off my mind: Protest against American Psychiatric Association and "Gender Identity Disorder," 2009

Keep your laws off my body and your labels off my mind: Protest against American Psychiatric Association and “Gender Identity Disorder,” 2009

Let’s be clear. This suggests that Manning was under stress, and sustained a strong view of her own gender. None of it indicates that she had “gender identity disorder.” “Gender identity disorder” doesn’t exist. Indeed, the belief that categories in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual have some independent existence in reality, aside from psychologists’ use of them to place patients in convenient pigeonholes, is a myth on the order of supposing that medieval lists of angels’ names prove that heavenly beings perched on the roofs of Notre Dame back in the fourteenth century. What all this diagnosing demonstrates is that the US military has a primitive understanding of gender. “Gender identity disorder” (more recently called “gender dysphoria”) is a disease invented by the psychological profession out of a peculiar, mid-last-century confidence that doctors had a fix for everything: that people whose sense of self wasn’t at one with their biological sex were sick, and that medicine or surgery could cure them. Trans* people have found this diagnosis useful at times, to get medical care when none was otherwise available, and to access medical procedures they need. For the most part, though, the “disorder” has malignly pathologized gender itself as a sickness: if you actually think your self and your sex are different, there’s something wrong with you. By this standard, Plato, Joan of Arc, and Judith Butler are all as dysphoric as Bradley Manning. Shock therapy for all of us!

Anyone who’s ever dealt with psychologists knows that you can get them to say anything, particularly if paid. The last of Manning’s examiners, Captain Moulton, was particularly febrile in his rhetoric.

Repeating a diagnosis made famous by the 1995 film “Clueless,” a forensic psychiatrist testifying in defense of Pfc. Bradley Manning on Wednesday emphasized that the WikiLeaks source was in a “post-adolescent idealistic phase.” The phrase is unrecognized in clinical psychiatry. “It’s a period of time when people are more focused on, become focused on making a difference in the world, societal changes, things like that,” Navy Capt. David Moulton testified. …

Turning to this case, the doctor surmised: “Pfc. Manning was under the impression that his leaked information was really going to change how the world views the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and future wars actually.”  This thinking was unavoidable in Manning’s “post-adolescent … little world,” Moulton said.

Mandela and Martin Luther King also suffered from deluded post-adolescent regression, then, and would probably be played by Alicia Silverstone in the movie. Of course, Manning’s leaked information really did change “how the world views the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” a minor detail, but that doesn’t make him any less crazy for focusing on “societal changes” and things like that! Jesus Christ, what kind of fucking world do you want? You want to live in some fucked-up suburb of BizarroLand where any teenage loser thinks he can make a difference, instead of worrying about what really matters, playing football and praying to Tim Tebow and keeping his balls out the claws of Jerry Sandusky? And fuck Jesus Christ while you’re at it. He was a “post-adolescent” too.

Holy writ: Against the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual

Holy writ, wholly shit: Against the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual

Fine, they adduced all this crap in an effort to spare Manning jail time. Given that the trial and the whole national security system are run by lunatics, the best you can probably do for some lost idealist caught in their paranoid webs is to pretend he’s a lunatic too. That doesn’t mean, though, that the rest of us have to believe it. As another psychiatrist remarked to the press, “Tagging a ‘pseudo-diagnostic’ string of polysyllables on a defendant’s behavior is a common practice in court proceedings.” And he added, “Many young people are idealistic, but so are many older people.” (Idealism in the old is called “Alzheimer’s,” and that drooling nursing-home inmate Mahatma Gandhi is a fine Dr. Oz example.)  “Gender identity disorder” is only more slab of crap, nine more syllables of this garbage jargon. Anybody who truly believes it, or thinks this language gropes up out of its garbage can to hold a mirror to a reality, and that this reality somehow bears on Chelsea Manning, has a dysphoria of his own, which is beyond treatment.

I have a different understanding of Chelsea Manning.

484
I lived in Eastern Europe for six years just after the 1989 revolutions. I read Vaclav Havel obsessively, mostly while travelling with Romanian friends on slow and decrepit trains. In “The Power of the Powerless,” an essay I once almost knew by heart, Havel describes a greengrocer who regularly “places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: ‘Workers of the world, unite!’”

That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be.

But what if, one day, that combination of conformity with an unspoken, underlying fear gives way? Even the powerless can act, if only in negation. Imagine:

Something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. … He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth. …

[T]he power structure, through the agency of those who carry out the sanctions, those anonymous components of the system, will spew the greengrocer from its mouth. The system, through its alienating presence in people, will punish him for his rebellion. It must do so because the logic of its automatism and self-defense dictate it. The greengrocer has not committed a simple, individual offense, isolated in its own uniqueness, but something incomparably more serious. By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie.

There, not in the shrinks’ reports, is the record of what Manning has done. And her personal ordeal not only runs parallel to her political one, but is inseparable from it. Her whistleblowing and her coming out are each a journey toward life in truth. It’s hard to imagine the first happening without the second.

Miroslav Hucek, "Mr. Makovička' s Wings," photograph, Prague, 1972

Miroslav Hucek, “Mr. Makovička’ s Wings,” photograph, Prague, 1972

I can already hear GayWorld’s Jamie Kirchicks spluttering in complaint: How can you compare a … a cross-dresser and a traitor to Vaclav Havel, to Angelina Jolie, to Tom Cruise playing Claus von Stauffenberg, to our saints and role models?

But it was an ordinary greengrocer Havel described resisting, not a saint. His point was that the powerless have the power to live in truth and to say no: not soldiers, not athletes, not celebrities, not people with perfect childhoods and perfect teeth. Manning is a true dissident and a true heavyweight because she wasn’t born to be one. Being a hero, like being a woman, is part of her becoming.

Bravery has something to do with suffering; and, as Theodor Fontane wrote, “True heroism, contrary to military heroism, is always bound up with insults and contempt.” It’s interesting to compare Manning’s heroism to incidents in the recent career of Jamie Kirchick. Kirchick was all over the Web in recent days because, invited to Russia Today’s Stockholm studio to discuss the Manning sentence, he instead went into an on-air rant over Putin’s anti-gay laws. It makes for interesting TV; Kirchick impersonates morality convincingly. But from GayWorld’s hysterical reaction, you might suppose he was Solzhenitsyn scribbling in the Gulag, or a lone soldier standing up to Mongol hordes. “The best word to describe this man: BRAVE! WTG!!!!” one comment gushed. And famous person Stephen Fry tweeted“Truly magnificent! Articulate, passionate, brave and JUST what is needed. Three cheers to James!!!!”

Clark Kent in rainbow suspenders: Young Kirchick confronts the evil minions of Mr. Mxyzptlksky

Clark Kent in rainbow suspenders: Young Kirchick confronts the evil minions of Mr. Mxyzptlksky

What these innocents neglect, of course, is that Kirchick drew fleeting attention to the persecution of LGBT people in Russia — but only by derailing a discussion of a persecuted trans* person in the United States. So much for striking a blow for LGBT rights! “I’m not really interested in talking about Bradley Manning,” Jamie began. And of course, Kirchick cared rather less about dissing the Russians than about defending America’s stained virtue. He was eager to stop listeners from learning about Manning’s torture and Manning’s sentence, because Kirchick believes the pervert got off light

What’s most distasteful is the preening praise for Kirchick’s “bravery.” No one menaced him in the Russia Today studio; his only suffering came when they tried to cancel his paid car service to the airport. Kirchick loves to dream of a military heroism that both prudence and reality deny him, which perhaps accounts for why he hates Manning. Famously, Jamie once imagined an all-gay unit in the US army, mandated to take out Muslims and vindicate the Kirchick masculinity in the process: a Village People fantasy where “Taliban fighters” would bite the dust at the hands of “warrior homosexuals.” This macho wet dream was notable only in that Kirchick himself played no part in it. The longed-for vindication was vicarious. Jamie never enlisted in anything. The kid has bellicose reveries of being a he-man (he likes to call himself “JK-47″), but, a classic chickenhawk, he has never served in any army. So far as I can see he’s done little that’s brave, in any real sense, in his life. When he merely repeats the things that millions are saying, though, he gets applauded for a fake, factitious courage that’s lacks both risk and substance. 

We're in Jalalabad, and where is Jamie? AWOL from the gay brigade

We’re in Jalalabad, and where is Jamie? The lonesome gay brigade

While Jamie goes viral, Chelsea Manning goes to the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, to start serving a 35-year sentence. This is bravery.

Manning has already undergone inhuman treatment in pre-trial detention. For 11 months she was held in extreme solitary confinement, a purely vengeful measure. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture condemned the cruelty, noting that “imposing seriously punitive conditions of detention on someone who has not been found guilty of any crime is a violation of his right to physical and psychological integrity as well as of his presumption of innocence.” (The judge struck 112 days from Manning’s sentence in acknowledgement of “unlawful pre-trial punishment,” a curious and risible compensation for her suffering.) Now, with her trans* identity a matter of public knowledge, she can reasonably expect the abuse redoubled.

US_incarceration_timeline-clean-fixed-timescale.svg
More than almost any country in modern history, the US relies on prisons as its primary means of social control. Its incarceration rate is the world’s highest (almost 40% higher than the Russia Jamie Kirchick hates). The values of violence, secrecy, and masculinity that Manning rejected rule our prisons, distilled, intensified, and concentrated. Gender policing may be the most constant form of authority. It’s how the prison population is led to regulate itself; its norms are enforced by guards, guns, and the whole official hierarchy.

Rape is ubiquitous, meted out on those who are too weak or can’t conform. T. J. Parsell was thrown in an adult prison because, as a 17-year-old, he stole $53 from a photo store with a toy gun.

On my first day there — the same day that my classmates were getting ready for the prom — a group of older inmates spiked my drink, lured me down to a cell and raped me. And that was just the beginning. Laughing, they bragged about their conquest and flipped a coin to see which one of them got to keep me. For the remainder of my nearly five-year sentence, I was the property of another inmate.

That’s only one among thousands of stories of prison rape. No one knows the exact figures; most inmates who suffer sexual abuse won’t, or can’t, report it. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” takes on its most malign meaning here. And rape is only one of the punishments dealt to the vulnerable and exposed.

Trans* inmates are among the worst abused. “Gay and transgender inmates are perhaps the hardest hit by sexual violence in custody,” the advocacy group Stop Prisoner Rape declared in 2006.

A study of one institution reported that 41 percent of gay inmates had been sexually assaulted, a rate that was three times higher than that for the institution overall. … Contributing to the heightened risk that gay and transgender inmates face are the reckless and indiscriminate classification practices that most facilities continue to use. For example, transgender inmates are often automatically placed either in protective custody with few opportunities to participate in prison programs, or with the general population without regard to their unique needs and physical appearance.

Harassment of trans* prisoners: From a report by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, http://www.thetaskforce.org/downloads/reports/reports/ntds_full.pdf

Harassment of trans* prisoners: From a report by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, http://www.thetaskforce.org/downloads/reports/reports/ntds_full.pdf

Nobody knows what conditions will face Manning in Fort Leavenworth. What’s certain is that her gender identity won’t be taken into account in placing her: she’ll be shunted into a men’s ward. If there’s abuse or violence from inmates, solitary confinement — a form of punishment, not protection — is likely to be the authorities’ only answer. She’s asked for medical assistance. It won’t be granted. “The Army does not provide hormone therapy or sex-reassignment surgery for gender identity disorder,” a Fort Leavenworth spokesman told the press. Some courts have begun to mandate giving such care to trans* prisoners in some state institutions, but the decisions are still on appeal. It will be a long time before a precedent reaches the Federal prison system, or before it does any good for Chelsea Manning. (The US has 51 prison systems, in effect: one for each of the States, and a Federal one for people convicted under national law, like Manning. A detailed fact sheet on trans* rights in US prisons has been assembled by the National Center for Lesbian Rights.)

It’s important to speak out for Manning over the coming years. It’s important to call her trans*. Erasing the identity Manning expressed only reinforces the silence she sought to undo — and anticipates the violence she’ll face in prison. Fighting for trans* people’s safety within the prison-industrial complex may be the best way to fight for Manning now. The National Center for Transgender Equality has recommendations for trans* rights in Federal prisons here. To summarize:

  • Access to Healthcare. Demand that the Federal Bureau of Prisons guarantee trans* prisoners all medically necessary health care, including therapy and surgery for their transitions.
  • Classification of Prisoners. Demand that the Federal Bureau of Prisons  issue policies on the placement of trans* prisoners that take strongly into account each person’s self-identification, as well as his or her safety.
  • Safe Housing of Prisoners. Demand that the Federal Bureau of Prisons develop measures to protect the physical safety of trans* inmates, without relying on automatic segregation, isolation, or solitary confinement.
  • Prison Rape Elimination Act Regulations. Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, and the Prison Rape Elimination Commission which it created has proposed standards to protect trans* people. Demand that the Attorney General act on these to safeguard trans* Federal prisoners from sexual assault.

Stop Prisoner Rape, the National Center for Transgender Equality, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, the TGI Justice Project, and the Transgender Law Center are among the organizations working on trans* prisoners’ rights, and they need your support. Critical Resistance and End the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) are resources on prison abolition.

Chelsea Manning has asked for mail from her supporters. She can be written at:

Bradley E. Manning
89289
1300 N. Warehouse Road
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
66027-2304

It’s one of the system’s first indignities that the envelopes must read “Bradley Manning” for them to be delivered. In the inside text, though, letters should address her as Chelsea.

NOTE: A commenter points out that Dora Özer’s murder was hardly ignored by everybody: it led to protests by sex worker activists worldwide. See http://jasmineanddora.wordpress.com/. This still points, though, to the grim divide between sex worker movements and LGB ( and a few T) activists, who don’t give a damn about sex workers in their own community, much less about the principles involved. They just don’t get the intersections or why issues of sexual freedom cut across identities and practices. That’s disgraceful. And it’s a post and a history in itself.

 (I am especially grateful to the members of the Real Pride, Real Issues coalition in San Francisco, whose members have kept up the pressure on SF Pride for its disgraceful abandonment of Manning, and whose Google group is a constant source of information.) 

Vindicating the honor of the tribe: A huge Bradley Manning continent marches in San Francisco Pride, June 30, 2013

Vindicating the honor of the tribe: A huge pro-Manning continent marches in San Francisco Pride, June 30, 2013

Bradley Manning, Bayard Rustin, and the perversion of Pride

Can I join?

Can I join?

That eminent critic and activist Edward Said was given, from time to time, to quoting Hugh of St. Victor, a twelfth-century mystic:

The person who finds his homeland sweet is a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign place. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong person has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his.

Said was, of course, a terrorist, and that is just how terrorists think. “Mystic” is another word for “fundamentalist”; and praising foreigners and rootless people? You’re siding with disloyalists, Luftmenschen, cosmopolitans, Jews! (I mean Muslims, sorry.)  In these confusing days when any displaced or misplaced or misprinted person could be a mad bomber — Saudi nationals, Moroccan high school students, dead Brown University undergrads, or citizens of the Czech Republic — it is imperative to find a refuge from the roiling chaos of mistaken identities, to settle on the facts you know when you don’t know anything about the folks around you, and to REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE. Fortunately the gays are good at this. Decades of practicing identity politics have left them secure in their own labels. The heroism of role models like Michael Lucas and J. Edgar Hoover has taught gays to be grateful to anybody who gives them a promotion. Thank you, Barack, thank you, Hillary, for handing us our rights!  We love you forever!  This is our country, and no one can take it from us, and please bomb all those places that are foreign as much as you damn well like!

Michael Lucas, gay role model and former head of the FBI, prepares to waterboard a suspect

Michael Lucas, gay role model and former head of the FBI, prepares to waterboard a suspect

I was reminded of our queer community’s collective patriotism by fast-moving happenings last night in San Francisco. To summarize: SF Pride held a vote and Bradley Manning — the gay or trans (it’s not entirely clear how Manning identifies) soldier who disseminated the great Wikileaks trove of secret US documents — was elected a Grand Marshal of this year’s shindig, which will happen in late June. There are a bunch of Grand Marshals every year, and each one gets to ride in a car during the long parade, wave at the crowd, and accept adulation. In Manning’s case,the soldier was in no position to do the accepting. Manning is under lock and key at Fort Leavenworth, facing charges including “aiding the enemy,” which under the military code can carry the death penalty.  Daniel Ellsberg, the great whistleblowing opponent of the Vietnam War, agreed to join the festivities in Manning’s place.

J. Edgar Hoover, porn star and gay icon, gets ready for his cum shot: They hate us for his freedoms

J. Edgar Hoover, porn star and gay icon, gets ready for his cum shot: They hate us for his freedoms

No need; within hours the board of SF Pride stepped in and rescinded the honor. Lisa Williams, the board president, issued a statement. “I am against honoring Bradley Manning,” she said, “as he was a traitor to the good old United States of America. If we all had felt the way he did back in the Forties, Hitler would have ruled the world.”

Soldiering on: Lisa Williams, board president, SF Pride

Soldiering on: Lisa Williams, board president, SF Pride

Oh … I’m sorry again. It’s early in the AM where I am, and I haven’t had coffee, and I keep screwing up. What Lisa Williams actually said was just about the same, but with slightly different wording. From her statement: 

Bradley Manning will not be a grand marshal in this year’s San Francisco Pride celebration. His nomination was a mistake and should never have been allowed to happen. … [E]ven the hint of support for actions which placed in harms way the lives of our men and women in uniform — and countless others, military and civilian alike — will not be tolerated by the leadership of San Francisco Pride. It is, and would be, an insult to every one, gay and straight, who has ever served in the military of this country.

I get confused, you see, because Lisa Williams — in addition to being “president and owner of One Source Consulting, a firm which does political consulting, ” and the former “Northern California deputy political director for the ‘No on 8′” gay-marriage campaign — is also the chair of the political action committee of the Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition. That’s an estimable group that tries to promote black LGBT political participation in the Bay Area. And the quote above, the one about Hitler and the traitor — well, it was actually about Bayard Rustin; so you can see how I mixed them up. Rustin, if you remember, was one of the great figures of 20th-century America: a pacifist, a war resister, an icon of civil disobedience, and the key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. (Also a gay man). Rustin spent three years in Lewisburg Penitentiary as a conscientious objector during the Second World War.  The quote (slightly tweaked) came from a citizen of West Chester, PA, back in 2002, who objected to naming a school after Bayard Rustin. After all, the traitor broke US law, encouraged others to do likewise, and opposed the military and domestic policies of the United States.

Interesting, then, that Lisa Williams works for the Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition. Because her story shows that you can honor somebody like Rustin– indeed, even serve an organization named after him! — without caring or sharing what he believed in. Since that’s true, there’s really no reason SF Pride shouldn’t honor Bradley Manning.

But Pride is not a protest march, Mr. Rustin. These days we have nothing to protest.

But Pride is not a protest march, Mr. Rustin. These days we have nothing to protest.

I don’t mean to imply that Bradley Manning is Bayard Rustin redivivus, or in any sense his spiritual or political heir. In fact, we know remarkably little about Manning, and a cloud of speculation, much of it absurd, still surrounds his motives. Even that pronoun “his” is questionable. (Speculation persists, supported by chats Manning apparently had with an inquisitive hacker, that she identifies as a trans woman and that advocates and attorneys are suppressing this fact: perhaps to preserve Manning’s “respectability” for the trial. In an attempt to respect the uncertainty, I alternate pronouns.)  The fact that Manning’s been held incommunicado allows everyone to project whatever politics, priorities, or fantasies they like on the mute figure. For homophobes, Manning is a disgruntled and untrustworthy gay man, a living argument for ask, tell, and expel queers from the armed forces. For military interventionists like Dan Choi and Peter Tatchell, he’s an emblem of the kind of inclusive army they’d like, one where all your government secrets will be safe if the officers just welcome the homos with open, loaded arms.

We do know that brutal treatment has been inflicted on Manning while in US military jails. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture — denied an unmonitored meeting with Manning to investigate his well-being — warned the government that “imposing seriously punitive conditions of detention on someone who has not been found guilty of any crime is a violation of his right to physical and psychological integrity as well as of his presumption of innocence.”  And the Rapporteur, Juan Mendez, a distinguished human rights activist from Argentina who was himself tortured under the US-supported miitary dictatorship, told the press:

I conclude that the 11 months under conditions of solitary confinement (regardless of the name given to his regime by the prison authorities) constitutes at a minimum cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of article 16 of the convention against torture. If the effects in regards to pain and suffering inflicted on Manning were more severe, they could constitute torture.

Of course, that’s the UN for you: a gang of Communists. Good American gays reject it and all its works and pomps. The UN, writes young neocon and would-be gay mercenary Jamie Kirchick in our favorite gay news source The Advocate, is “more often than not an actively pernicious force in world politics.” (Kirchick loyally tweets about Manning as “traitor Bradley Manning,” because, after all, who needs a trial?)

Advertisements for my elf: Young Kirchick promotes his twittery on treason

Advertisements for my elf: Young Kirchick promotes own published typing, misspells “Marshal”

Why exactly was this UN fellow Juan Mendez tortured? you well might ask. There’s no smoke without fire; you don’t pull out people’s fingernails unless there’s something under them you want; you don’t torture people unless they were asking for it. Surely he was a Communist, which explains why the UN hired him. Really, how can you appoint a torture victim to investigate torture? How can he be objective? And these UN bigots always defend those gays in foreign lands who don’t appreciate the United States; they never give the US credit for how well it treats gays here. How dare the sissies diss us!

Juan Mendez, tortureworthy pro-treason opponent of enhanced interrogation methods working for the Communist International: not a gay role model

Juan Mendez, tortureworthy pro-treason opponent of enhanced interrogation methods working for the Communist International: Not a gay role model

Now, in some other, more sensitively disposed polities, evidence that a suspect was tortured would give occasion to drop the charges. Not so in the United States, which has acquired an admirably stoical attitude toward inhuman treatment!  In this, though, one detects what perhaps is the root of Manning’s own difference with his country’s policy. Manning didn’t like torture. Irrationally, he didn’t like it even before he was tortured. He didn’t like his country’s complicity in torture; he didn’t like the abuses and crimes that the US committed and encouraged in its occupation of Iraq. And he saw enough of that first hand.

It was from Iraq that Manning sent materials to WikiLeaks, and in Iraq she was arrested. Kevin Gosztola writes — and it’s worth quoting at length:

In 2010, while stationed at Forward Operating Base Hammer in Baghdad, Pfc. Bradley Manning decided to approach a superior officer in his chain of command to voice his concern about something he had stumbled upon in his capacity as an intelligence analyst. His unit had been helping Iraqi federal police identify suspects for detention and discovered that fifteen men had been arrested for producing “anti-Iraqi literature.” … Manning discovered that the writing was hardly criminal; it was a “scholarly critique” of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But his superior officer did not want to hear about it. Manning knew if he continued to assist the police in identifying political opponents, innocent people would be jailed, likely tortured, and “not seen again for a very long time, if ever,” as he told a military courtroom in Fort Meade, MD … Hoping to expose what was happening ahead of the Iraq parliamentary election, on March 7, 2010, Manning shared the information with WikiLeaks….

Since his arrest, the media has focused on Manning’s mental problems, his poor relationships with family members, his sexual orientation, and the fact that he considered becoming a woman. Such a caricature, of an unstable youth rather than of a soldier with a conscience, has enabled the government and other detractors to maintain that Manning had no clear and legitimate motives when disclosing the information.

Bradley Manning

Bradley Manning

But in fact Manning’s first statement in court offered a clear account of what led her to the leaks. She

included an explanation for why he released the video that would be titled “Collateral Murder” by WikiLeaks, and which revealed an aerial attack on media workers and Iraqi civilians, including children. Manning said: “The most alarming aspect of the video to me was the seemingly delightful bloodlust they appeared to have,” Manning said. “They dehumanized the individuals they were engaging and seemed to not value human life by referring to them as quote ‘dead bastards’ unquote and congratulating each other on the ability to kill in large numbers.” …

Of the cache of over 250,000 US State Embassy cables, Manning said: “The more I read, the more I was fascinated by the way that we dealt with other nations and organizations. I also began to think that the documented backdoor deals and seemingly criminal activity didn’t seem characteristic of the de facto leader of the free world.”

Here, at least, Manning distinctly does share something with Bayard Rustin.  For Rustin, at his best, fought US rights abuses at home and abroad. He was no less an internationalist than Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. John D’Emilio, his brilliant biographer, describes how his rejection of US warmongering led to repeated confrontations with the law:

At the height of the Cold War, when sirens blared, all Americans were supposed to duck for cover. Rustin and a few other comrades said, “This is insane,” and they sat instead in City Hall Park in New York. Indicted and found guilty, they did it again, and again, until many thousands of Americans followed their lead. Rustin organized protests against nuclear weapons in the Nevada desert, the south Pacific, and the Sahara. Soon, the nuclear powers abandoned atmospheric testing.

You may be right, Mr. Rustin. But we can teach democracy by invading other countries and killing people. Can't we?

You may be right, Mr. Rustin. But we can teach democracy by invading other countries and killing their population. Can’t we?

During the Vietnam War, Rustin protested in terms almost exactly applicable to the US’s current exercises in humanitarian killing. He called it

a useless, destructive, disgusting war …We must be on the side of revolutionary democracy. And, in addition to all the other arguments for a negotiated peace in Vietnam, there is this one: that it is immoral, impractical, un-political, and unrealistic for this nation to identify itself with a regime which does not have the confidence of its people … I say to the President: America cannot be the policeman of this globe!

Well, it can still try.

Rustin urged that those who rejected the US’s domestic and foreign criminality wield a variety of tools and strategies: “Non-violent strike, economic boycott, picketing, non-payment of taxes, mass emigration, noncooperation, and civil disobedience.” Whistleblowing wasn’t on the list, but there was no Internet and no WikiLeaks in his day.

And for all this, of course, Rustin was called a “traitor,” and still is, by the Jamie Kirchicks of his time, and ours. I have no idea how he’d feel about Bradley Manning. But I have a fair idea how, as a civil rights activist, a war resister, an anti-miliitarist, and a gay man, he’d feel  if he read the rants of Manning’s opponents. For instance, “Stephen Peters, president of American Military Partners Association,”a brand new non-profit of unknown provenance, declared: 

Manning’s blatant disregard for the safety of our service members and the security of our nation should not be praised … No community of such a strong and resilient people should be represented by the treacherous acts that define Bradley Manning.

The “strong and resilient people” are apparently Pride’s attendees, whose resilience has not been tested by torture, but nonetheless is surely there. Meanwhile, Sean Sala, an LGBT Military Activist, wrote (with free, Germanic use of capitalization):

Bradley Manning is currently in Military tribunal for handing over Secret United States information to Wikileaks’ Julian Assange. … San Francisco has spit in the face of LGBT Military by using a traitor to our country as a poster child. … Manning makes Gay military, the Armed Forces and cause of equality look like a sham. He deserves no recognition … This is a sensitive time for the LGBT Community, we have spent fifty years trying to garnish equality and Manning cannot and will not represent Gay Military patriots.

They said the same kinds of things about Bayard Rustin.

Kiss me, honey, those big guns turn me on

Kiss me, honey, those big guns turn me on

SF Pride’s decision, of course, shows what gays value in the course of “garnishing equality,” at this self-congratulatory, triumphant, but still above all “sensitive” time.  Equality doesn’t just mean the right to marry, or the right to wear a form-fitting and extremely attractive uniform. It’s not just symbolic. It’s both privilege and responsibility, and don’t you forget it. It means equal and uncomplaining participation in the full panoply of the United States’ domestic injustices and imperial extravagances. It means an equal right to repress, in redress and revenge for all that history of enduring repression.  It means you no longer have to lobby the government for anything; your only job is to lie back and endorse whatever it does. It means that you can rest in the serene knowledge that other people are being tortured, and you won’t object, because torture is a great equalizer, a silent democracy of abasement. It means that you finally get to be one of the killers, instead of the killed.

One weirdness of SF Pride’s swift retraction is that they claim to be defending some kind of superior democratic process, against a dictatorial “systemic failure” related to how we let actual people influence our nonprofits. Board president Williams declares that

what these events have revealed is a system whereby a less-than-handful of people may decide who represents the LGBT community’s highest aspirations as grand marshals for SF Pride. This is a systemic failure that now has become apparent and will be rectified. In point of fact, less than 15 people actually cast votes for Bradley Manning. These 15 people are part of what is called the SF Pride Electoral College, comprised of former SF Pride Grand Marshals. However, as an organization with a responsibility to serve the broader community, SF Pride repudiates this vote. The Board of Directors for SF Pride never voted to support this nomination.

Americans bringing democracy to Iraq

Americans bringing democracy to Baghdad

This is a very bizarre conception of democracy — not, in fact, unlike the one the US imported to Iraq. The system SF Pride has followed so far allows the general public to vote for a slate of Grand Marshal nominees, while an “electoral college” of previous Grand Marshals has the right to choose a few more. It seems that the electoral college chose Manning; but even if he got only 15 votes, that’s rather more than the Board of Directors could provide, since it has only 9 members in total. “Less than a handful” indeed! Moreover, the Board of Directors elects itself. It may feel a “responsibility to serve the broader community,” but it doesn’t let the community choose its members. Meanwhile, that “electoral college” mostly includes ex-Grand-Marshals who were picked in the public vote; it’s more democratic than the Board.  So SF Pride proposes to close itself down still more, retreat into its Green Zone, and become still more a model of corporate governance, insulated from the desires or decisions of the people it asserts it “serves.”  This is a rather perverted vision of community. On the other hand, Paul Bremer would probably feel happy on the Board.

I’m not in the US now; I’m sitting in Egypt, writing early in the morning. I feel I’ve become one of those imperfect people, not yet alien to all places, but alien to my ever-less-comprehensible native land. I certainly feel alien to whatever SF Pride represents these days: a sorting of people into the loyal and disloyal, the us (the US) and them, that stands at odds with the evanescent but putatively redemptive values of which queers and other rebels were once able to be proud. Plenty of immensely “strong and resilient people” in two hemispheres of alienation have memories of US overt or covert interventions:  Cubans and Nicaraguans, Dominicans and Haitians, Guatemalans and Iranians, Afghans and Iraqis. Apparently that resilience isn’t the sort that counts; or it’s eminently forgettable amid the fogs of San Francisco Bay. We remember our own kind, not the sufferings of others.

I’m afraid that the gay movement in my country, if it still moves at all, has aged into the matronly complacency that John Betjeman once described, as he imagined a respectable English lady offering a prayer in Westminster Abbey during the Second World War:

Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans,
Spare their women for Thy Sake,
And if that is not too easy
We will pardon Thy Mistake.
But, gracious Lord, whate’er shall be,
Don’t let anyone bomb me.

This is what democracy looks like

This is what democracy looks like