Iran: How assaulting eight women and girls can make you a “gay man” (updated)

Abandon hope: Surreptitiously taken photograph of the entrance to Lakan Prison, Rasht, Iran

Abandon hope. Surreptitiously snapped photograph of the entrance to Lakan Prison, Rasht, Iran

Note: Update at the bottom of this post

Let’s start with Washington, that pale cold city. The Washington Free Beacon is a right-wing US webzine edited by Matthew Continetti, who used to write defensive hagiographies of Sarah Palin. The zine is disarmingly blunt about its specialities: a) attacks; b) propaganda. (“At the Beacon, we follow only one commandment: Do unto them.”) Examining its mission statement when it launched two years ago, an Atlantic critic burst into adjectives: “flawed, soulless,” “vicious and unethical.” The Beacon loves guy stuff, neocons, and wars. It actually has a reporter named Adam Kredo — who sounds like a DC Comics supervillain, particularly since his name on the website is trailed by a Twitter command: Follow Kredo0.  

They turn to me, not to you, Spider-Man. Soon I will rule the world!

They turn to me, not to you, Batman. Soon I will rule all Gotham!

On March 3, Kredo published a piece declaring that “Iran executed two gay men on Sunday for the crime of ‘perversion’…The head of Iran’s judiciary department in the northern city of Rasht announced on Sunday that two homosexual men had been executed for ‘perversion,’ which is considered a severe crime under Iran’s hardline Islamic law…  As the Western world negotiates with Iran over its contested nuclear weapons program … While Iran is known to plan and fund terror attacks across the globe …” And on and on.

Where is Rasht? It is the capital of Gilan province, not too far from Tehran as an ambitious crow might fly, but a long way by land over the mountains. Thirty kilometers south of the Caspian Sea, the city once called itself the Gate to Europe: opulent trade with Russia and beyond rumbled over its pine-lined roads. In its prison last week, executioners put two men to death. Were they gay? The rumor trade, richer these days than spices, reached America.

L: Gilan province in Iran; R: Rasht and vicinity

L: Gilan province in Iran; R: Rasht and vicinity

These stories, about gays murdered in Iran, waken questions. The stories are recurrent and they all resemble one another, without enough detail to individuate them. They’re all unsourced — usually there’s a newspaper article the writer never actually read. They have their own life and appear in locust cycles, not so much out of design as from a summer swelter of fear and xenophobia, whenever a crisis between the US (or Israel) and Iran is imminent, or wanted. I’ve seen them many times before. The repression of LGBT people in Iran is real. These stories have little or nothing to do with it.

Instead, these rumors seize the lives of distant human beings, hollow them out, and use the husks. The victims become both mannequins and messages, static and imperative like propaganda posters. They also distort the reality of death as it’s actually dealt out to prisoners in Iran. Look at the gays, they say, the “innocent” ones like us, twisting our attention away from the scope of atrocities and the other dead who aren’t assimilable or attractive.

The stories play out in entirely predictable, functional ways. For Kredo0 (adding that extra zero to his name is irresistible) it’s mainly about showing his cojones to cowardly lefties who love the Muslims.

adam kredo gay iran

For Jamie Kirchick, it’s about how Iran never changes. (On Twitter, Kirchick lathers praise on Free Beacon and its editor Continetti with the ardor of someone angling for a job — the webzine supposedly has a cushy seven-figure starting investment.)

kirchick iran copy

But basically it’s about getting the gays to stop worrying and love that bomb graph Netanyahu used to hold.

iran israel copy

Nobody bothered to check Iranian sources. But I wanted to know what the real story was. 

Here it is.

In the last week, the local press in Gilan province reported just one case of two people executed together. The two men were killed on Wednesday, February 26 (7 Esfand,1392). The story first appeared in KhazarOnline.ir the next day. (Xazar is the Farsi name for the Caspian Sea.) It’s headlined “Two corrupt Rashti men were executed for the crime of desecration of 8 women and girls.”

Two predators were executed yesterday morning (Wednesday) at Rasht Central Prison … About two years ago, the defendants locked girls and women in cars for the keeping of livestock. The public affairs office of the Gilan judiciary said the two men were executed for raping eight women and girls.

There you are. How did these rapists become “gay men”?

That’s a story in itself. It’s an Iranian game of Telephone. On Saturday (March 1, 10 Esfand) another Gilan website, DiyarMirza.ir, covered the case: “Execution at Rasht Central Prison of two accused of harassment  [آزار و اذیت].” It’s not clear why the charge has gotten vaguer and weaker-sounding in this telling. My suspicion is that concern, or pressure, to protect women victims’ honor mitigated against offering detail. (Moreover, the item is buried as a short postscript to a longer story about the execution of three other men for drug dealing — one of the most serious offenses in Iran.) The one paragraph gives the initials of the dead, and their parents’ first names.

Culture of killing, from the cradle to the grave: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

Culture of killing: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

This is not a very important item. It’s not till Sunday (March 2, 11 Esfand) that it reaches Tehran, when it’s picked up by the national Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). It makes just a blip on their website, saying that “two men aged 28 and 30 years were executed today in Rasht Central Prison,” based on information from the Gilan judiciary. It gives the offense as “unlawful acts” [اعمال خلاف شرع].  You can more or less see what happened: either IRIB gave Gilan a routine call to see if they had any news, or the Gilan PR people decided to phone their executions in, but in either case they gave only a cursory account of a really negligible slaughter. It would seem, moreover, that IRIB got the date wrong. (I checked. The Gilan news sites have no report of executions after February 26.)

Late Sunday, though, the generally respected Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), which tries to draw attention to all executions in Iran, carried the story. HRANA was set up in 2009, after the Green Revolution, to disseminate news of abuses and resistance; it has essentially relocated to the US now. “According to IRIB,” they reported, “two men were executed today in Rasht Central Prison,” for “unlawful acts.” Then, because HRANA is particularly concerned with the pretexts for which Iran kills people, they try to hone in on figuring out the “unlawful acts” phrase. It

consists of acts that are prohibited by law and by Islamic shari’a law, and the penalty for them is set on the basis of the religious laws in Islam. Acts of crime and sin can be included such as: lavat [ لواط] (men having sex with men), masaheghe [ساحق] (women having sex with women), zina [ زنا] (sexual relations between men and women who are not married to one another), moharebeh (attempting to overthrow the Islamic Government), drinking alcoholic beverages, sabolnabi (cursing the prophets and the imams), theft (stealing another’s property covertly), and ghazf (accusing others of zina or lavat) – and in general acts that are opposed to shari’a. 

I see some unlawful acts here: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

I see some unlawful acts here: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

HRANA published a version of this article in English as well. That concluded by noting that “The specific charges of the 2 men hanged in Rasht on charges of unlawful acts against Sharia Law are not clear.”

But that warning went nowhere; because the next to take up the story was Iran Press News, in the United States. Iran Press News, a site dating from 2004, offers content in both Farsi and English, with a right-wing bent especially in the latter. One item in the HRANA lists of “unlawful acts” had jumped out at them. In Farsi, IPN published only a bare mention; but the headline was now “Two young homosexuals [ همجنسگرا ] were executed in prison in Rasht.”

The public affairs office of the Gilan judiciary announced that two men, aged 28 and 30 years, were executed today in Rasht Central Prison. The two men were guilty of unlawful acts … Unlawful acts as a crime in the Islamic state is usually used to suppress the execution of homosexuals. [Emphasis added]

This was the first suggestion in the whole trail that the men were homosexual; it was based entirely on the fiction that “unlawful acts” could only stand for one crime in the HRANA roster.

How did the “homosexual” version leap from Farsi to English news sites? Answer: Banafsheh Zand.

Just a few centimeters more: Cartoon by

Just a few centimeters more: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

Banafsheh Zand is an Iranian exile in the US who couples far-right inclinations with a strong fetish for the gays. She’s been a regular for Fox News, Front Page magazine, and the National Review, though all seemed to inch away eventually from her extravagant insights. An immigrant herself, she pals around with racist, ferociously anti-foreigner Michelle Malkin; but she also gamely frequents Glenn Beck‘s paranoiac show to cheer for the homosexuals against Ahmadinejad. She’s a fount of conspiracy theories. Here, on the fringe Newsmax site, you can hear her descant on Egypt, only days after the military massacred a thousand civilians this summer. That leaves her unfazed; she’s still worried that Iran, through the dead Muslim Brotherhood, may overrun the country. Never mind that the Sunni Brotherhood oversaw what Amnesty called an “unprecedented level of sectarian violence against Shi’a Muslims” during its brief reign. “There are major Shi’a strongholds in Egypt,” she intones. Also, Iran has “forty thousand trained suicide bombers” planted worldwide, waiting to bust like balloons.

 I can see Ayatollah Khameini from my house: The mullahs are coming to Cairo

She’s part Scheherazade, part salesman, marketing stories. I encountered her first during the frenzy of July 2005, when GayWorld exploded over the “gay teenagers” hanged in Mashhad, Iran, and she played a central role. Peter Tatchell and Doug Ireland were devouring fictions fed to them in part by Iranian exile cultists; headlines burgeoned; and Zand was hourly calling up the offices of New York’s Gay City News, claiming she had incontrovertible proof the children were lovers and had been raped by mullahs in detention. (At the time she styled herself, uneuphonically, Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi: but Signor Bonazziwhoever he was, has since decamped into Shah-like obscurity.) Back then, and for years after, she was English editor of Iran Press News. I believe she helped found it. This time, she may have given the IPN story its “homosexuals” slant. If not, she knew how to run with it.

On the killer's trail: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

On the killer’s trail: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

The hard-right website Gateway Pundit picked up the story on Sunday evening, March 2, only hours after IPN carried it. Zand had translated the IPN text for them; their version ended, “Hat Tip Banafsheh Zand.” (They added the obligatory, morbidly exploitative photo of “Iranian gay teens” in 2005 being prepared for hanging.)

From there, it easily made its way to Adam Kredo0 and the Washington Free Beacon. Despite his title of “Senior Writer” on “National Security & Foreign Policy” for the Beacon, Kredo0 seems to have limited international experience, apart from five swell months interning at the Jerusalem Post. Zand probably overwhelmed him. He quotes her all over. “Not much is known about the two men executed over the weekend due to” — an inability to read Farsi? — no, “Iranian efforts to sweep such executions under the rug, according to Banafsheh Zand, an Iranian political and human rights activist.” “‘When people talk about the nukes, the nukes are a symptom,’ said Zand.” And so on.

So there you have it. It is, of course, just possible that there was another execution of two men in Rasht last week, and both those men were gay; it’s also just possible that those stories of eight women raped were make-believe, like Obama’s birth certificate. But it’s not likely.

By Mana Neyestani

By Mana Neyestani

Rather, everything suggests this was a heterosexual rape case that quickly got turned into a “homosexual” story — the moment it reached the US. It was reshaped deliberately, deceptively, and opportunistically, as a small stratagem to persuade US gays to mobilize in opposition to Iran, Rouhani, and any possible nuclear accord. It’s another instance of what happened in 2005: facts manipulated to rouse a constituency’s intense emotions. We haven’t absorbed much since about skepticism or evidence. Possibly the Washington Free Beacon didn’t realize they were baited. But they didn’t try hard to learn. Adam Kredo0 didn’t look for the source article, or call any Iranian diasporic LGBT groups, or speak to anyone except Banafsheh Zand. Expedient distortion and lazy journalism cooperated to deceive. By the way, I did contact the under-resourced but always resourceful Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO), an extensive, reliable, and diverse network of activists centered in Canada. They hadn’t heard of the Rasht “gay” story — bad sign for its veracity — but are investigating. If those hardworking people can add, contradict me, or confirm, I will let you know.

US gays have a little bit of political power now, in the Obama era. That augurs an intensified competition to get you to take somebody’s side, to seduce you into backing bombing or demanding droning, with the illusive wiles of solidarity.

But this story is also a reminder of how neither I nor you have ever thought hard enough about Iran. The one sensible thing Kredo0 did for his article was to quote my colleague Hadi Ghaemi, of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran: describing the case of Ruholla Tavana, who faced the death penalty for things he said in a private video on his personal computer. (Kredo0 didn’t bother to call Ghaemi, just used a press release.)

This is an unbelievable act of inquisition at its worst ….The Iranian Judiciary’s insistence on the death sentence calls into question whether these sentences are politically-motivated and intended to confront the wave of international protests against the trend of ever-increasing executions in Iran.

What Ghaemi points to is that all these sentences are “politically motivated,” meant to send a message about the state to its citizens as well as external foes. There is no special status for LGBT people in Iran; they’re not “innocent victims” to be preferred to others, to the rapists and murderers we can cast off when we find the unpleasant facts of their stories. The Iranian state lives increasingly on the death penalty, and the death penalty is an extreme assertion of ownership over the limit point of everybody’s bodies and life-spans. There is no distinction. The state is saying it wants to control anything it can, and those who resist that even in the inmost crevice of private spaces can lose their lives. The casual indifference with which its officials toss off the figures and details — another two dead, “unlawful acts,” today or last week, like Don Giovanni’s thousand-and-third in Spain — suggests the degree to which the allocation of death has become an ordinary business of living. The crime (rape, murder, warring against God, sodomy, harassment) matters less than the message, which is that your existence is submissive to power, is porous.

Hanging toys: Cartoon by Mana

Hanging toys: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

LGBT people live in oppression in Iran. The constant possibility of the death penalty is part of that, though it’s been inflicted for consensual lavat only rarely in the last decade. Far more comprehensive, though, is the intrusion that the death penalty stands for: the claims of the state over life as well as death, over clothing and skin and hair, orifices and closets, bottles and bedrooms and belief; the quality of the air you breathe (intolerable in many places), the onetime plenitude of water now being drained away, the things you whisper or write that turn out to be criminal after the fact. Everybody faces those in some measure. We outside gravely mistake that situation if we think we fulfill our responsibilities by showing our solidarity with respectable people: the nice attractive gays (the young, clean, virgin ones you can write your dreams on), the secular published authors, the decent political prisoners. Resistance comes from everywhere, and the strength of the movement LGBT people are building lies in its unexpected solidarities. Resistance hides amid the secret drunks, with the down-and-out heroin addicts in Artists’ Park, who don’t want to be told what they can put in their bodies. (To read the crime pages on Iranian news websites is to see in the mind’s eye a ceaseless parade of drug users marched to execution: it’s possibly the main pretext for the machinery of killing in the country.) It rests with the sex workers who spread their legs despite divine animadversions and don’t even bother to shield their hair, with the stoned street kids even more than with the North Tehran parties, and even with the rapists who, whatever else they may have done, don’t want to die. Feeling sympathy with likeness is one thing, but solidarity can’t stop with sympathy. Our local obsession with identity is a weak distraction. It divides and detracts from the struggle against the state of death.

If you want to read one thing about Iran, read this summary of longtime human rights lawyer Mohammad Mostafaei’s advice for how to roll back the death penalty, in an Islamic state where execution is not just policy but religious precept. “Stop using slogans and save lives,” he says. Don’t deal with generalities or identities; talk about individuals and their cases. Every accused is worthy. “Nobody is born a criminal.” Every person has a story. All that matters is that the stories be true, and theirs.

"Sweet moment of release from prison in Rasht": Yousef Nadarkhani, a Christian preacher imprisoned for  four years, is freed in January 2014; by joindhands on Flickr

“Sweet moment of release from prison in Rasht”: Yousef Nadarkhani, a Christian preacher imprisoned under threat of the death penalty for four years, is freed in January 2014; photo by joindhands on Flickr

Note: Several friends I can’t name assisted me with research and translation here. All errors are my own. The drawings are by the remarkable Iranian cartoonist Mana Neyestani. Among Neyestani’s other distinctions, he’s one of the few Iranian artists of a political bent to have addressed themes of LGBT people’s oppression in his work:

cartoon 2 copyImportant Update: Ali Abdi, an Iranian-born anthropologist studying at Yale, has done his own research on this situation since I published this post, and has helpfully shared with me what he’s discovered. He did the sensible thing, and went to the website of the Gilan provincial judiciary to look for cases there. Here’s what he found:

a) The case of two men raping eight girls (reported in KhazarOnline.ir) and the case of two men executed for “harassment” [آزار و اذیت]; reported in DiyarMirza.ir on March 1 (or 10 Esfand) actually do seem to be separate ones! In fact, the execution of two men for eight rapes appears to have occurred all the way back in December. The Gilan judiciary website recounts it, dated December 19, 2013 (or 28 Azar 1392). The details are a bit different from the Khazar Online version but it certainly looks like the same basic story.

Ali caught me in one significant error: the Khazar Online story is dated 1 Esfand (February 19), not 8 Esfand as I reported. My apologies. But in any case, if the execution happened in December, why did Khazar Online resurrect it after two months, claiming it was recent? Abdi speculates that they were looking around for clickbait and hoped that “rape of women and girls” would lure readers. If so, it worked; the story is still one of the most viewed on their main page.

b) The Gilan judiciary website has a short announcement of the execution of two men on March 1, 2014 (10 Esfand); “harassment” [آزار و اذیت] is the only description of their crime. This is apparently the story that DiyarMirza.ir carried the same day. It got picked up by IRIB the following day; they substituted “unlawful acts”  [اعمال خلاف شرع] for “harassment.” It seems to me quite possible that IRIB jumbled together the rape case and the “harassment” case, each involving two executions, which the Gilan media had headlined in recent days. (Remember, the rape case was still prominent on the Khazar Online front page.) That might explain why they used “unlawful acts,” to cover the confusing multiplicity of accusations.

HRANA then took up the story, and included a list of things that “unlawful acts” might mean; their possibilities included extramarital sex, theft, blasphemy, false accusation, and lavat or sodomy. From there, Banafsheh Zand and right-wing hacks in the United States seized on the “sodomy” possibility as the only one that interested them. They started spreading their propaganda about “gay executions” to the American LGBT public. And so it goes.

Women's equality: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani (apologies, of course, to the Human Rights Campaign)

Women’s equality: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani (apologies, of course, to the Human Rights Campaign, which probably has that symbol copyrighted)

c) So what does “harassment”  [آزار و اذیت} mean? It’s not a crime in Iranian law, which makes it strange to see on an official judicial website. A quick survey of Farsi media suggests it’s commonly used for “sexual harassment” in the generally-understood sense, particularly intrusive attacks in public places which have become an issue throughout the region. However, those would probably not make a capital crime in Iran. But it also seems to be used widely for sexual assaults on minor girls, including by people in authority (see here or here). And Abdi confirms this thought. Faced with an assault against an adult woman, he writes me, officials would refer openly to “rape” (and possibly try to publicize the state’s paternal efforts at protection.) But an assault against a girl might be shrouded in euphemism: “when a minor is raped, assaulted, etc. there is a conscious effort not to bring it up.” (Ali believes this would hold for assaults on minor boys as well. This makes sense, although in the Mashhad executions in 2005, the rape of a minor boy was widely publicized as such — as lavat beh onf, “forcible sodomy“.) There is certainly no reason at all, though, to think that “harassment” is a cover for consensual male homosexual acts.  

d) I’m very grateful to Ali Abdi for his research. Updating and correcting information is a basic part of honest human rights work. This, others writing on Iran might learn. Gay City News, for one, has never published a correction on any of its messily flawed Iran reporting, (Or anything else. Even when the late Doug Ireland, in one of his last pieces for them, confused Belarus with UkraineGay City News never corrected itself.) As for the egregious Peter Tatchell, he never admits to error; instead he stirs up a storm of invective, threats, and distractions in PR blasts and social media, in the hope that the facts, like light in the ambit of a black hole, will bend themselves before his mistakes and mendacities. If these folks had just done some basic checking back in 2005, they could have spared us a world of trouble.

It is, of course, beyond rational expectation that the Free Beacon would double-check anything. You have to live in reality to recognize the possibility of error.

e) Oh, and one thing about the Gilan judiciary’s helpful site. So user-friendly, so transparent! Truly, this is reform. Indeed, when they’re posting announcements on stuff like meetings, conferences, and judicial sentences carried out, the very avatar lets you know the topic, and the result:

Gilad judiciary copy

I don’t even need to try my feeble hand at translating. Then when you do clink the link (maybe with a tingle of trepidation, like turning a doorknob in a slasher movie), atop the announcement perch the images like Poe’s raven on the bookcase, reminding one, far more powerfully than any bureaucratic lingo, what the state in its might and majesty can do for you:

ImageHandler

Words fail me.

On not being well

Michael Ancher, "The Sick Girl," 1882

Michael Ancher, “The Sick Girl,” 1882

My mother died when she was 51 and I was 17. Here is how it happened. She had gone to Ohio — we lived in Virginia — to see her own mother, a solitary and sometimes bitter woman; an argument had broken out; my mother was struck by chest pains, and an ambulance took her to the hospital with angina. She’d never had heart problems before. That was on the Fourth of July, 1980. The next day, my father and I drove the hundreds of miles across monotonous mountains to her. Prone in the metal bed, she was pale and distracted. She asked me to rub her back. As I did so a small volcanic spike erupted on the monitor behind her, connected to her chest by wires. We left her, seeming a bit better we imagined, and my father and I went to a Howard Johnson’s somewhere nearby to eat silently. When we returned, the outer hall of the intensive care ward looked strange, congealed, like light glancing off obsidian. Nurses were gathered, and my mother’s beloved aunt was there. A band of bright fluorescent light showed under the door to my mother’s room, and I started toward it, and someone stopped me and told me rapidly what had happened. A massive heart attack, nothing anyone could do …. My great aunt held me. After a while they asked me if I wanted to see her, and I said no. I couldn’t have stood it. Many of these memories are blurred now — I don’t recall exactly who stopped me, or who told me. I remember those jagged peaks on the monitor, and I remember the color of that band of light as clearly as if it were shining in the next room now. It was only some years later, in graduate school, when I read The Duchess of Malfithat I found words to match in some degree what I must have felt. Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young. 

The ensuing years involved the usual inept evasions of guilt and sorrow. An event like that, especially when you are 17, does not enforce lessons, even if it should. Now I am 50. Ten days ago, I woke up in Cairo with a straining pain in my left leg: the kind of pain that suggests a bad soprano trapped inside there, trying to sing something from ToscaI knew what it was, but for 24 hours I persisted in hoping I had simply pulled a muscle. The next day I took a taxi downtown, and discovered I couldn’t walk at all. A familiar cafe near Bab el-Luk had just opened after Friday prayers, and the waiter propped me there and I started calling friends for help. The pain now indicated that the soprano and the orchestra were working from different scores in different keys. After a while my friends Tarek and Fady arrived with a car, and took me to a hospital in Giza. My leg had swollen to the size of one of those limbs of cattle that hang in butcher’s shops here, and was as red, but with a necrotic blue noli me tangere tinge of rot. As I lay in the emergency room, a doctor told me I had a “massive” deep vein thrombosisWhy massive? Why do they always call them massive? I asked myself. The caterwauling in my leg and in my head had reached a point where the orchestra was trying its hand at a Mahler symphony while the soprano, drunk and flu-ridden, was howling out Pierrot Lunaire.

What it felt like, generally: Caricature of Gustav Mahler conducting, 1900

What it felt like: Caricature of Gustav Mahler conducting, 1900

I spent five days in the hospital, laid flat and depressively eating flavorless soups, while the musicians gradually sobered up and wound down. I am home now, but the clot is still there, diminished but undefeated. I can’t walk much: even staggering to the corner pharmacy to pick up medicines makes the leg swell up again. I inject myself with something in the stomach daily, intrigued by how this doesn’t hurt. Kind friends are staying with me, to cook and run errands and clean. There’s no travel, no boarding an airplane till this is over, and I’m not sure when it will be over.

This isn’t the first time for me. Modernity has done wonders, for those of us in rich countries, to expand the life-span; specimens of homo sapiens in the European Middle Ages were lucky to grasp the goalpost of 35. But the payback is the onslaught of technologically demanding ills that start in the forties, as a reminder that what lies ahead of you is a stretch of undeserved and unnatural existence endowed by civilization’s artifices, that you owe this borrowed time to the bank.

Warfarin way back when

Warfarin way back when

My mother was diagnosed with high blood pressure in her forties. Almost four years ago, I had my first thrombosis. That one started in my leg too, but showed no traces there; it climbed — they’re natural mountaineers — unnoticed to my chest and nested there as if in a Himalayan cave, and I still felt nothing till one night, running to catch a bus on a New York street, things went white and I collapsed. There were massive blood clots (there you go again) in both lungsMy heart almost failed.

After that came two years of staying on blood thinners. The most popular one, Warfarin, was invented by the Wisconsin Agricultural Research Foundation (WARF) decades ago, in search of a humane way to kill rats by bleeding them to death internally. I went to sleek offices to have blood drawn all the time — little pipettes and big bleeping machines became my neighbors, like the vampires civilisés of True Blood – to test my “international normalized ratios,” (INRs) which determine the “extrinsic pathway of coagulation.” You get used to the jargon. Then 18 months ago my doctors took me off the drugs experimentally, since I seemed to be doing reasonably well. Bad call. 

Warfarin now

Warfarin now

In a condition like my current one, you lie in bed all day and think. The first fact about not being well — it should be obvious, but isn’t to the young and healthy — is how boring it is. The second, related, is that your horizon shrinks: all reality concentrates in the point or body part where you hurt or fear, and neither action nor emotion can happen without reference to the fundamental given of what’s wrong with you. How’s my clot today? That question obliterates the sunrise and the revolving world.  Auden wrote a poem about the sick:

They are and suffer; that is all they do:
A bandage hides the place where each is living,
His knowledge of the world restricted to
The treatment metal instruments are giving.

They lie apart like epochs from each other
(Truth in their sense is how much they can bear;
It is not talk like ours but groans they smother),
From us remote as plants: we stand elsewhere.

This is why visiting the hospital-bound or the very old is so horribly dull for everybody else, to be avoided like (literally) the plague, or turned into a quick drop-off of chocolates or floral arrangements, surgical as a Special Forces raid. What have they got to talk about? Their skin is the absolute limit of their interests. I don’t know how my friends, who have been generous with their time, can stand it.

Brooklyn Navy Yard hospital ward, ca. 1900

Brooklyn Navy Yard hospital ward, ca. 1900

At the same time, in high Western modernity, we’re obsessed with disease. With the idea of disease. This is understandable, since we are, as I say, living on borrowed time. Stolen, really: every year we eke out beyond our fourth decade is not just the gift of our technological civilization, but a robbery from other people whom we deny the diet, the drugs, the requisite machines.

Life expectancy in the rich US is 78.62 years these days. (Almost thirty years to go, Scott –voice shrinking to a whisper — insh’allah.)  That’s lower than Monaco, which has hit an amazing 89.63 (insert joke about a good gamble, please) but well above Egypt, where I am now. A cheap, efficient medical system, the legacy of Arab socialism, can’t overcome radical poverty to raise the allotted time above 73.19. In Sudan, just south, the expectancy falls to 63 years; from there on, as you follow the paths of slave caravans and colonial explorers across the continent, it keeps plummeting, to 54 years in Uganda, 53.86 in Zimbabwe, 52.78 in Malawi. Finally, in South Africa, it reaches 49.48 years, one of the worst in the world (in 2013 only Chad was lower), the aftereffect of forty years of apartheid and twenty more of equality deferred. Democracy does not heal; it does not cure history. These figures don’t just map out disease or poverty. They are a geography of power, because who has power has life. (It’s no coincidence that I’m getting the numbers from the CIA.) As a bedridden American in Cairo, on the broad Northern shelf of Africa, I’m sitting atop an inverted pyramid of injustice.

Life expectancy by country plotted against average annual income, 2010: From www.gapminder.org

Do click on this chart. Life expectancy by country plotted against average annual income, 2010: From http://www.gapminder.org

There’s always some symbolic sickness in the West, a disease representing how we think about these powers and inequities: a condition that stands in for what we know about our place in the world, or what we’d rather forget. Cancer used to be the great symbol. Its origins were obligingly inexact; either there were Enemies Within (anonymous little Communists in the liver or the lungs) or Enemies Without, chemical or biological opponents like Third-World dictators making the whole known environment unstable. (Todd Haynes’ Safeabout a woman rendered sick by almost everything in the plastic life around her, is still one of the scariest American films.) Thirty years ago, HIV/AIDS displaced cancer as an imaginative malady. We figured out what caused it fast enough — that retrovirus — but it was easily attributable less to a microscopic invader than to lifesize Others whom we disliked. There were a lot of them. Haitians, homosexuals, and heroin users for US paranoiacs were quickly joined by fearsome cousins around the world: Bulgarian nurses, Zimbabwean migrants, sex workers, black men on the down low, black women who slept with them, Africans in general, foreign tourists, foreign truck drivers, that ethnic minority who stink, the whole sick crew. It’s a truism that HIV prevalence provides a chart of inequality. But HIV mythology provides something almost as valuable: a chart of hate. The political power and the ideological convenience of HIV have always lain in its double gesture: simultaneously exposing injustice, and giving hate a justification.

I’ve watched relatives die of cancer, and friends live and die with HIV/AIDS. The kind of thing I’ve got is different: not worse, certainly, just different. There’s a reason heart disease and its associated syndromes have never become such symbols, such subjects of imaginings. They’re just there. Their ultimate cause is generally in the genes or in some combination of accidents; that multiplication of factors doesn’t lend itself to mythology. In my case, the blood just clots the wrong way, much like my mother’s did. I will have to take modified rat poison for the rest of my life to thin it. This is not intolerable. (The rats are happy.) The problem is, of course, that as a condition it’s controllable but not excisable; it doesn’t go away, and there is always that low basso ostinato uncertainty about whether or when you’ll wake up with a strange pain in the leg that gets more insistent, or keel over in the street. It’s impossible to interpret something like that in any meaningful or order-instilling way. It’s an existential insecurity insusceptible to the consolations of metaphor. It teaches nothing except that the body is frail, unreliable. In no sense can that be made reassuring, not in the way that it’s always comforting to identify some chemicals to eschew, some culprits to loathe, some immigrants to expel.

Jean Bourdichon, The Four Conditions of Society : Poverty, ca. 1500

Jean Bourdichon, “The Four Conditions of Society: Poverty,” ca. 1500

Nobody likes these uncertainties, from which there’s nothing to be gained or learned. Nobody likes knowing the body is weak and prone to betrayal.  All that money, all our accumulations of political power, all those drugs we hoard behind patent laws, all the debt we extract from others to fund our happiness, all the food we store up while others starve, all our drones and armies and the authority our societies claim, can’t contend against our physical random flaws, doesn’t alter the aleatic vulnerability of the individual body. It’s an old cliché:

Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade. …
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair.

But do we ever hate hearing that.

The rich die well, but they still die: Paul Delaroche, Cardinal Mazarin's Last Sickness, 1830

The rich die well, but they still die: Paul Delaroche, “Cardinal Mazarin’s Last Sickness,” 1830

You would think that Western gays, after years of confronting HIV, would have come to terms with the body’s unreliability. But no. In fact gays particularly hate the idea. Maybe it’s because their identities are so tied to a set of physical acts that to admit bodily weakness would undermine their selfhood in a particularly drastic way. Maybe it’s because one common reaction to AIDS has been an extreme compulsion to look and act healthy. Back when I came out, in the 80s, you were required to be buff and butch and the picture of wellness (odd that the Marlboro Man, a pitchman for killer cigarettes, served as icon of this vital manhood). The slightest sag into infirmity or unaccountable cough, and no one would touch you for fear of infection. We queers measure triumph or disaster by our bodies. We can’t afford to let them be mistrusted.

I learned this in a curious way, the last time I got seriously sick; I learned it from a bunch of people who don’t like me. When I resigned from Human Rights Watch, I discussed the blood clots in my lungs that triggered my departure, in a letter that made its way around the Internet. What struck me about the many responses was that people who disliked me for political reasons felt compelled to turn that into medical mistrust; they simply didn’t believe I could get sick. This took nasty forms. The ever-love-filled and litigious Peter Tatchell repeatedly circulated e-mails to thousands, saying that “Scott Long left Human Rights Watch. He claims it was because of ill-health. Others suspect he was sacked.” Peter’s friend Michael Petrelis, the crank-slash-stalker in San Francisco, developed this theme, blogging that “Long developed a severe case of a Soviet-style case of the flu … His official explanation for moving on would have delighted the editors of Pravda in Brezhnev’s day, it was so full of obfuscation and self-pity.” Melanie Nathan, a peculiar West Coast blogger, just three months ago sent me an series of messages saying — among many other things — that “We all know that your ‘embolism’ was a convenient excuse” (not clear for what). She also called me a “vile bucket of anal slime,” which I think is a quote from some website. There were more. I would have to be superhuman not to be angry at these creeps; I felt like sending them my medical charts as proof, or maybe my medical bills. Some of these folks were crazy, some permanently enraged, and some simply hadn’t a clue what they were saying. But — trying to stand back slightly — I hear in all this vituperation a very human fear. Your foes are always supposed to be there, even more so than your friends; they’re an identity and linchpin, a pole against which you define yourself. They’re spectres and ideas, not frail and physical people. God forbid they should have bodies; God forbid their bodies should do them wrong. I’m sorry I got sick, and I’m sorry that unsettled Tatchell and Petrelis so much. Perhaps I can understand, though, why the news of somebody else’s sickness roused them to so much anger. “Rage against the dying of the light” translates quickly into a rage against those who remind us of the dying.

So here I sit in Cairo, thinking about my body.

Edvard Munch, "The Sick Child," 1885-86

Edvard Munch, “The Sick Child,” 1885-86

My mother died when she was a year older than I am now: much too young. I can’t remember her without seeing, almost like a light beneath her skin, the banked fires of things undone. The memories don’t grow easier. I cannot read Paul Celan‘s poems about his lost mother without breaking into uncontrollable tears:

Rain cloud, above the well do you hover?
My quiet mother weeps for everyone.

Oaken door, who lifted you off your hinges?
My gentle mother cannot return.

Celan’s mother died in the Holocaust, in Transnistria. It’s presumptuous to compare personal loss to historical catastrophe. But loss is what it is, always different in its circumstances and in other ways always the same. My mother died because her body failed her. It was part of a world in which she’d suffered, and also where she had a relative degree of safety: a world where she had tried to compensate for both by a constant, wearing labor of compassion. It didn’t matter. My mother died because her body was part of the world, and the world is perishing.

It’s strange that I’ve spent so much of the years since then working on things like “sexual rights” and “bodily autonomy.” Bodily autonomy is a beautiful ideal. Like so much in human rights, it gestures toward a vision of a perfect cosmos, lit by Platonic concepts that burn in the corridors like inexhaustible candles. Yet our bodies are not autonomous. Our bodies are part of the world. They are subject to its vicissitudes, implicated in its weakness, its injustices, its power, its deaths. They live with the world’s joys and fail with its wrongs. This is a fact, not a lesson. It can be said; it can’t be learned. I will only learn it by dying.

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

Nikolai Alekseev and Peter Tatchell respond: In solidarity, again

Tatchell and Alekseev, Moscow Pride, 2007

Tatchell and Alekseev, Moscow Pride, 2007

I believe — I’ve always believed — that everyone should have their say. That includes both Nikolai Alekseev and Peter Tatchell, whom I critiqued in the last post. It’s true that both Tatchell and Alekseev rarely stop talking. But that’s even more reason to ensure they get every opportunity to be heard. So addicted are they to soliloquy that, deprived of the microphone even for a moment, they might go on some awful withdrawal rampage, smashing up the premises like a minor cast member from Reefer Madness or Breaking Bad. 

Cycle of addiction

Cycle of addiction

Doug Ireland posted his long-postponed criticism of Nikolai Alekseev on the Euro-Queer e-mail listserve this weekend. Nikolai wrote in to comment — mainly on me, and my refutation:

Hi friends,

Just a few corrections on Mr. Long’s corrections in Mr. Ireland’s article. :-)

We just counted and tried to make it as accurate as possible. If that is what matters for Mr. Long and Mr. Ireland. I was arrested by police 13 times for civil public protests in Russia since first Moscow Pride in 2006. [I had questioned Ireland's extravagant claim that Alekseev was arrested 40 times.] This is a rough estimate. But I guess this is very important whether it is 1, 40 or 13.

Mr. Long wrote that political art groups in Russia appeared before Moscow Pride. This is totally wrong. Group Voina, which Mr. Long is quoting officially formed in 2008. This can be checked in Wikipedia here.  I don’t know if those gentlemen know the existence of such an international resource … Moscow Pride first announced in July 2005 and first action took place in May 2006. At this time there was no even a hint on any known political art groups. …

It is true that I never supported any opposition political protests and never will. LGBT human rights fight has nothing to do with politics in Russia and GayRussia as well as Moscow Pride will always stay as purely non-political groups. We will co-operate with any politician who supports LGBT rights in Russia, whether in power or in opposition. This is our credo!

As for anti-semitism, I just need to have concrete proof of anything I said in 2007, as Mr. Long is saying. Otherwise it is a libel.

Hope that once again explains who Mr. Long is and who Mr. Ireland became.

All the best to all,
Nikolay Alekseev
GayRussia
Moscow Pride

That makes it all clear, then. I dealt with Nikolai’s actions in 2007 in detail in my earlier post. As for the Russian anarchist arts collective Voina: I mentioned it in my post as the group that gave rise to Pussy Riot, since Doug Ireland had claimed falsely that the real inspiration for Pussy Riot was Alekseev himself. It’s true Voina only “announced itself to the public” in 2008, but as its website notes, its founders Vor and Kozlenok (pseudonyms of Oleg Vorotnikov and Natalia Sokol) started working together in 2005 — they’d married years before. Vor had been doing street art since 1995, on his own and with others. They have never had anything to do with Alekseev.

This brings us to Peter Tatchell. Tatchell Tweeted defensively about all this last night — defensive, I mean, about the idea that he was perhaps a little lax in ignoring or excusing Nikolai’s anti-Semitism over the years:

Tatchell tweet on Alekseev copy

“10.09am BST 3 Sep!” Sorry one missed that. Maybe a single Tweet is not the firmest way to dissociate yourself from a politically intimate ally of long standing. But let’s consider the “criticism” he made back in 2011. It came in an October 2011 article by Tatchell titled, suggestively, “A Tribute to Nikolai Alekseev.” In the fifth paragraph, Tatchell wrote:

Over the years, Nikolai said and did a few things that were in my opinion mistaken (but haven’t we all made errors?). … . I disapproved of Nikolai’s remarks which appeared to be anti-Semitic (although I personally doubt that he is prejudiced against Jewish people).

If you say that remarks only “appeared” to be anti-Semitic, and actually did not reflect any anti-Semitic feeling, you cannot claim later to have criticized the speaker for anti-Semitism. 

That one paragraph was far outweighed by the rest of Tatchell’s article:

Huge thanks to Nikolai for his amazing, ground-breaking work over many years … Even his harshest critics cannot deny Nikolai’s immense dedication and courage. … Not many people would have dared continue to put themselves in the frontline and take on the power of the ruthless tyrannical Russian state, having seen so many human rights defenders beaten, framed on trumped up charges and even murdered. But Nikolai did. Not once but dozens of times. [sic]

Then Tatchell turned on Alekseev’s critics, including those who had accused him of anti-Semitism:

Nikolai was sometimes subjected to poisonous smears and sectarian attacks by other LGBT activists, which caused him great hurt, as they were mostly without any truth and delivered with the venom you’d expect from the far right, not from fellow LGBT campaigners. Sadly, too many people were ready to believe some of the malicious things said against him.

Those of us who champion LGBT human rights surely have a duty treat others in ways that are consistent with human rights values?

Now, let’s say –just hypothetically, I’m not making any comparisons — I write an article called “A Tribute to Joseph Goebbels.” In it, I say that I disapprove of the way the guy stupidly made himself look anti-Semitic, though I don’t really believe he was. I go on to praise his his groundbreaking work, his courage — which you losers can’t deny whatever you may think of him – and to attack those sectarian people who smeared him with malicious accusations of racism and so on. I wonder how it would go if, later, I announced the article proved I’d been an anti-Nazi all along.

Obviously, Alekseev is no Goebbels; it’s an interesting thought experiment, that’s all. The truth is that Tatchell (and Ireland, and quite a few others) didn’t care about Alekseev’s politics one way or the other. All they cared was that cameras followed Alekseev wherever he went. By following him in turn — or playing his PR agency, in Ireland’s case — they could bask in the borrowed light of the paparazzi. Other Russian activists, who believed in democracy and weren’t racists and were doing serious and important work, didn’t offer the automatic promise of getting your name in the papers. The cult of Alekseev revolved around publicity, from beginning to end.

Media at Alekseev speech before Moscow Pride, 2011: © Charles "Chad" Meacham

Cameras at Alekseev speech before Moscow Pride, 2011: © Charles “Chad” Meacham

Tatchell followed up tonight by posting in Euro-Queer himself, in the thread about Doug Ireland’s article. He didn’t criticize Alekseev, naturally. He just criticized me. In full:

Scott Long has made factually inaccurate assertions about me and others. But I will not bother to refute them.

Euro-Queer was not established so that activists can abuse it to attack and smear fellow activists. Sectarian attacks have no place in the LGBT and human rights movement.

We should all concentrate on working together for the common good, whatever our differences. Fight homophobia, biphobia and transphobia – and all human rights abuses – not each other. Solidarity! Peter

Yes, this is clear, too. Peter’s not going to “refute” me, because he can’t. But he also thinks it more important to knock me than to state an opinion of Alekseev’s prejudices or past history. (I think my name can be substituted for “all human rights abuses” in the final sentence.) And once again he sees Nikolai — who claims I “libelled” him — as a victim of “sectarian” attacks. Comrades, the real enemy is among us!

The more things change, the more Red Square stays the same

The more things change, the more Red Square stays the same

As they resume “working together for the common good, whatever our differences,” I can only wish Peter and Nikolai the best of fortune. My only question is this. Alekseev has now made clear that he “never supported any opposition political protests and never will. LGBT human rights fight has nothing to do with politics in Russia.” So you have to wonder: Who’ll be their target, unless other activists? What exactly are Alekseev and Tatchell going to do?

NOTE. Ruslan Porshnev has kindly included the full English text of his thoughtful article on Moscow Pride 2011, in the comments section of my last post. Check it out! It’s from AntiDogma, an important collective online resource on LGBT Russian issues. Queerussia today also carried an article in English on the Alekseev controversies, and his Western advocates’ (at least partial) desertion.

A Russian activist colleague also writes me with an interesting question about the new direction taken by Alekseev’s one-man show, GayRussia. For years Alekseev has insisted that no genuine activist can accept funding — something relatively easy for him to say, since he’s wealthy enough to fund his own activities; it’s been a way to bash the human rights groups in Russia that rely on grants to perform their vital work. This summer, though, he set up a fund in Switzerland to support GayRussia. From back in August:

alekseev fundraising 2 copy
As my friend points out, this fund can’t legally be used to pay fines. Russian law says these must be paid

by Russian citizens using Russian banks and currency. [To pay them from Switzerland] is close to illegal “money laundering” from foreign sources, or – see the next point. …

The most interesting part. Right now Russia has a draconian law against foreign financing of NGOs. Any NGO which is caught using foreign money for “political” activities (whatever that means – nobody understands this), is subject to severe fines. An NGO can escape fines only by registering itself as a “foreign agent.” Right now there is not a single Russian NGO which did this. All human rights activists all over Russia refuse to do this because it puts a shameful label on them being “foreign agents” acting in favor of their western sponsors, who are, obviously, right now enemies number one for Russia’s integrity and safety. I’m sure you are familiar with this rhetoric.

But this suggests an ominous possibility about what Alekseev is planning to do.

My thought is that Alexeyev and his Fund are being prepared to become the first self-registered foreign agent in Russia, since nobody wants to do this voluntarily. Alexeyev never spoke against this law while this is a number one hot issue for all Russian NGOs right now (many of them are under trials or in the process of closing down). Look what GayRussia writes on Facebook: “We are determined to become the ONLY fully transparent LGBT organization in Russia.”

In other words, Alekseev would break with the defiant consensus of real human rights groups in Russia, and become Putin’s first Potemkin NGO under the law — proof, for international consumption, that groups can register as “foreign agents” and do just fine. My friend adds that Alekseev’s proposal to meet with Putin “is in same line with all this”: volunteering to serve as window-dressing, to show the regime is rights-friendly. It seems unlikely Alekseev would go that far. On the other hand, those who have really paid attention to him for the last seven years know there’s no predicting how far he will go.

Doug Ireland and the Nikolai Alekseev circus: Lone Ranger fantasies in the wild, wild West

I cover the waterfront: Nikolai Alekseev in full Battleship Potemkin gear, as Grand Marshal of Vancouver Pride, Canada, 2010

I cover the waterfront: Nikolai Alekseev in full Battleship Potemkin gear, as Grand Marshal of Vancouver Pride, Canada, 2010

I hadn’t planned to say another word about Nikolai Alekseev, Russian activist and anti-Semite. But yesterday Doug Ireland (“International Affairs Editor” for Gay City News) published a piece in which he tries, after seven years of nonstop flattery, to cut his ties to Alekseev. Ireland was perhaps Alekseev’s greatest promoter to non-Russian audiences. This might, then, be a chance to admit that mistakes were made. But no. Doug insists he was right to praise Nikolai so fulsomely all along. It’s just that, in the last few days, the “brilliant and charismatic young lawyer” and “respected gay activist” has “gone over the edge into madness.”  Who’d have predicted it? At GCN, “We were,” he writes, “shocked by Alexeyev’s diatribes in recent weeks” –shocked! Ireland sounds exactly like the neighbor interviewed after the reclusive loner’s rampage. He seemed like such a polite young man. I never thought to ask why he wanted all those missile launchers. We never had a clue.

Some sample Tweets from early September: We do not laugh here, or there either

Some sample Tweets from early September: We do not laugh here, or there either

Ireland’s innocence is a put-on. He, and Nikolai’s other non-Russian supporters, had all the evidence years ago of the man’s instability and hatred. It’s important to tell the truth. It’s important, because the Alekseev story reveals a lot about the potential pathologies of gay activism: the cult of celebrity, the belief in saviors rather than social movements, the way Westerners project their desires and fantasies onto other countries. Why did Doug and others keep promoting Alekseev, and actively denigrating other Russian activists?  They damaged the whole Russian LGBT movement in the process. They shouldn’t get off the hook. And we need to learn lessons from how they went so wrong.

1. What did they know? and when did they know it?

Let’s go back to 2007. A slew of foreign activists and celebrities descended on Moscow for several days that May, in support of Alekseev’s second annual attempt to organize Moscow Gay Pride. Peter Tatchell was among them. Andy Harley, editor of UK Gay News –  a big fan of Alekseev’s, who makes a regular trip to Pride every year – reported on Day One that “Mr. Tatchell hit out at some Russian human rights activists who refused to include gay and lesbian rights in their campaigns.” Attacking Russian human rights activists for their supposed homophobia was Tatchell’s theme that year. He picked it up in his keynote address at the Pride Conference in Moscow’s Swissotel.

It is sad to see some human rights activists here in Russia distance themselves from the LGBTI human rights campaign — and from this weekend’s bid to stage the Moscow Pride march. When human rights activists pick and choose which freedoms to defend, they undermine and compromise the whole human rights agenda.

Now, I was in the audience (I went to Moscow in 2006 and 2007, to lend support); and I knew, and everybody in the hall knew, that Peter’s accusations were wrong. Mainstream human rights groups in Russia (specifically, the Moscow Helsinki Group, which Nikolai had been viciously, publicly defaming all that week) hadn’t “distanced themselves” from Pride because they were cherrypicking freedoms. They weren’t there solely because another person was there, sitting at the dais. The reason was Aleksei Mitrofanov.

White nights: Mitrofanov clubbing with TV hostess Olga Buzova, 2011

White nights for white people: Mitrofanov clubbing with TV hostess Olga Buzova, 2011

Mitrofanov, a Duma member from Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s far-right, neo-fascist, racist party, was infamous for inciting violent hatred against immigrants, Chechens, and Muslims. He was also one of very few prominent politicians whom Alekseev recruited to support Pride that year. He wasn’t doing it for “human rights” reasons. Mitrofanov, who got his start as a music promoter, was in business with the titillatingly lesbian-themed pop group t.A.T.u. He hoped Pride would bring publicity for the band (and a weird movie project about them he was pushing on Hollywood). He also hoped the European politicians who’d flown to Moscow for the festivities would help him wangle visas to Western capitals: the E.U. barred most Zhirinovskyites from entry because of their extremist xenophobia.  A boxcar of a man in an Armani coat who looked the very image of the Russian VIP and vozhd, Mitrofanov loomed over Pride like a mountain over a profitable molehill.  Alekseev, glued to his side, fawned on him as an honored ally. Indeed, Nikolai announced at the conference that he would run for the Duma himself in the fall, as a candidate either of Zhirinovsky’s party or of President Putin’s own. (Mercifully, that never happened.)

Peter Tatchell knew perfectly well why the Moscow Helsinki Group refused to attend the conference. It wasn’t a secret; Lyudmila Alekseeva (no relation to Nikolai), the Group’s revered head, had told the press forthrightly. They refused to sit on the same stage as the racist Mitrofanov.

Alekseev’s indulgence for right-wing racism is nothing new, then. It should come as no surprise to Tatchell, Doug Ireland, or anybody else who’s followed his career closely.  The evidence was right at center stage in 2007. Tatchell defamed the Moscow Helsinki Group without ever talking to them directly. (In fact, the day after Pride, the Helsinki Group held a press conference to condemn the crackdown, as well as to discuss other human rights abuses against Russian LGBT people — proof they weren’t “distancing themselves” from the issue. I was one of the speakers. Tatchell sat in the audience, drawn by the prospect of press attention. He left, however, without saying one word to anybody from the Helsinki Group.)

Outside Tverskoia police station, central Moscow, May 27, 2007. That’s me in the foreground; my expression probably indicates my opinion of Aleksei Mitrofanov (R), talking to MEP Marco Cappato in the background.

Outside Tverskoia police station, central Moscow, May 27, 2007. That’s me in the foreground; my expression probably indicates my opinion of Aleksei Mitrofanov (R), talking to European Parliament member Marco Cappato in the background.

Other problems with Nikolai Alekseev were evident in that year’s Pride disaster, for all to see. There was the fixation on media and stardom; there was his indifference to what happened to ordinary Russian LGBT folk. Mitrofanov furnished lawyers for Alekseev and the foreign celebrities who faced arrest. But Alekseev made it clear that no “unauthorized” pride marchers would get legal assistance. 13 young lesbians and gays who showed up to support Pride were arrested and taken to Presesenskaya police station far from Moscow’s center; they were kept in an unventilated, overheated truck outside the jail. Their plight got no mention in press accounts, which focused on the glossy figures of famous Europeans in custody. (I was arrested too, very briefly – a fact I never even tried to make an issue of. The Russians who were arrested risked far worse abuse than any of us foreigners – and talking about ourselves was just a distraction.) I went to Presesenskaya with Alexey Kozlov, a heroic leftist activist and experienced protester, almost the only person who tried to help the arrested men and women. No one from Alekseev’s circle showed any interest in their condition. (HRW and ILGA-Europe’s 2007 report on Moscow Pride gives a detailed account.)

Toward midnight on the day after Pride 2007, a journalist in the US addressed Alekseev on a listserve: “You are a hero, Nikolai, and history will say so.” Exhausted and exasperated in Moscow, I typed out a private answer on my Blackberry. I sent it to the reporter; after thinking a moment, I forwarded it to Doug Ireland too. Here it is, misspellings and all.

Lyudmila Alekseeva, Moscow Helsinki Group

Lyudmila Alekseeva, Moscow Helsinki Group

I have been here for three days investigating 20 hours a day, and between us and in confidence, I can assure you nikolai is no hero.  He deliberately refused to organize any form of legal assistance (or doctors on hand, or even a rendevous point so that people could determine who needed help or who was missing) in advance, putting in danger everyone who attended.  Dozens of young lesbians and gays who showed up at their first pride were left to fend for themselves callously. Its not as though this is forgetfulness on nikolai’s part.  I approached him about this … others did as well, and his answer was that mitrofanov had promised there would be no trouble, so there would be no trouble.  Mitrofanov is a fascist, racist, and anti-semite.  Nikolai allied himself with him because he thought mitrofanov could manage the skinheads, and apparently because nikolai wants to run for the duma, I guess on the zhirinovskyite ticket.  When asked at the press conference–where he placed this nazi front and center–about mitrofanov’s vocally expressed opinions on chechens, immigrants, and others, nikolai said, “I haven’t heard of any such opinions.” Meaning he’s been in a coma for three years, because everyone in russia had heard of them. Mitrofanov’s only interest in this has been to get respectability by appearing on the dais with serious European politicians, and getting publicity for tatu, which he apparently half-owns.  Three days before pride the moscow helsinki group offered nikolai legal assistance for any arrestees. Furious becaause they had refused to appear at a previous press conference because they”d have to appear with mitrofanov as a fait accompli (and you must realize the moscow helsinki group would under no circimstances appear with a thug like mitrofanov) nikolai told them he would not accept legal aid because they are “extremists.” This is the Moscow Helsinki Group, the spiritual and institutional heirs of sakharov and yelena bonner: and nikolai calls them extremists?  … Last year dima makarov and alexey kozlov of Green Alternative furnished almost the only Russians who came to Pride and stood on the street and braved the skinheads–most gay russians were too scared (legitimately, which is why it’s so sad the gay russians who showed up this year got screwed by the organizers). Dima and alexey are straight but they did it because as genuine activists they believe in human rights, and they wanted to support nikolai.  And how did nikolai show his gratitude this year? When they objected to mitrofanov being at the center of events, nikolai banned them from coming into the swissotel during “his” human rights conference. … This year, alexey kozlov stood for hours outside jails trying to get help to those arrested sunday.  When the partner of volker beck [German MP] called alexey last night at 11 trying to find a lawyer for nikolai [who was in custody], since most human rights lawyers had been personally insulted by nikolai and wouldn’t touch the case, alexey ran off to try.(He found one: his wife was willing to represent nikolai, from what I understood: but by then mitrofanov had found some other nationalist lawyer, and nikolai preferred him). I will also note that since his release some 8 hours ago nikolai has shown no evident interest in the others who were arrested, many through his own incompetence. …

The most obvious hero of the last few days has been alexey kozlov, who has been working constantly and selflessly but whom yoiu won’t read about in the gay press, or any other press, because he is allergic to publicity and spends his time arguing with police captains rather than looking for cnn.  Nikolai alexeev has certain defined pr skills but he is neither the only nor really the bravest advocate of lgbt rights here.

Aleksei Kozlov, a hero of Moscow Pride

Aleksei Kozlov, a hero of Moscow Pride

Nor did Ireland need to take my word. As self-described leftists, both he and Tatchell surely read the article about Moscow Pride 2007 by a member of Russia’s Sotsialisticheskoye Soprotivleniye (Socialist Resistance), published in English by Socialist World that June. The Russian author told how Moscow’s progressives urged Alekseev to

build a wider movement with other oppressed peoples facing economic and social discrimination, and to take the issues of discrimination and freedom up within the workplaces and colleges. This approach has been opposed by the organizers of Gay Pride. Unfortunately, they represent a layer of the “gay elite” … who use their sexual orientation for their own benefit and public relations purposes. This was clearly demonstrated in the discussions in the run up to last Sunday’s events. The whole structure of the parade was undemocratic and restricted to those people who agreed with the organizers. The aim of the event was not to attract and involve a wider layer of gay and other activists but to ensure the participation of gay “VIP”s. For example, when the question of legal aid for anyone arrested was raised, it was stated by the organizers that only certain people would be helped ….

It came from behind: Vladimir Zhirinovsky receiving inoculation against gay cooties and related propaganda

It came from behind: Vladimir Zhirinovsky receiving inoculation against gay cooties and related propaganda

Even worse however, is the blatant political positioning of the organisers with Vladimir Zhirinovskii’s “Liberal Democratic Party” [LDPR]. Zhirinovskii first came to the world’s attention when his party won a considerable number of places in Parliament in the early days of Yeltsin’s reign. Then many commentators described his party as fascist. … It is therefore viewed with disgust by many gay activists that the organizers of Gay pride have promoted an alliance with one of the leading deputies from the LDPR in the forefront of their activities. This individual, Mitrofanov, the best known member of the LDPR after Zhirinovskii, was given pride of place at the pre-march conference. …  As one activist commented “this just proves that the organizers are more interested in public relations for themselves than genuinely campaigning for the rights of ordinary gays. I won’t be surprised to see some of them as LDPR deputies after the election!”

Socialist Resistance tries to protest Mitrofanov's speech, Pride conference, 2007

Socialist Resistance tries to protest Mitrofanov’s speech, Pride conference, 2007

Discussion on this question was, of course, not allowed. Activists who wanted to raise the issue were not allowed in to the conference. “Socialist Resistance” members who raised a banner of protest saying “Mitrofanov – Non passaran” when he was speaking were quickly ejected from the hall. As a result of the tactics of the organizers, Sunday’s [Pride march] has not been productive. It gave the media the opportunity to demonstrate that gays are extremely isolated within society. In addition, the participation of Mitrofanov will strengthen the impression of many people that this was not a genuine protest against discrimination but a public relations spectacle.

Doug Ireland can’t say he wasn’t warned.

2. Shared fantasies and beautiful friendships

Ireland, Tatchell, and the rest should have done two things. They could have looked objectively at the problems in Alekseev’s politics and person as far back as 2007, and stopped promoting him as the only legitimate Russian gay voice. And they could have talked to other Russian LGBT activists, to get a picture of their work, goals, and strategies. They did neither.

Instead, they heaped unqualified praise on Alekseev, and they actively insulted other Russians’ struggles.  After Moscow Pride 2009, for instance, Tatchell took to the Guardian to declare himself “awestruck by the masterful strategy and tactics of the organisers,” and added a gratuitous swipe at other Russian LGBT groups:

The gay parade organisers realise that the conferences, glossy reports and low key vigils of other Russian gay organisations have little or no impact on the government — or on public consciousness.

In 2010, Tatchell called Alekseev “a real pioneer and hero.”

His actions are supporting, broadening and strengthening the wider democratic and human rights movement in Russia … Alekseev’s campaigns show him to be a man of great bravery and moral principle. He is risking his life for the sake of liberty and freedom.

2012 pro-democracy protest in Moscow: The kind of thing in which Alekseev never took part

2012 pro-democracy protest in Moscow: The kind of action Alekseev never joined

The odd idea that Alekseev had any part in the broad anti-Putin, pro-democracy movement was one that both Tatchell and Ireland regularly spread. It was completely false. As I’ve noted above, in 2007, Alekseev even announced (with Tatchell present) that he proposed to run for Parliament as a Putin supporter. For years he made it clear that his beef was with the Mayor of Moscow, not Russia’s President. He has always refused to support pro-democracy marches or demonstrations, and has insulted democracy activists as “extremists” (a Putin-era code word for terrorists) or worse. (See the endnote below for more on this.)

Doug Ireland kept up the drumbeat. (Gay City News has, strangely, taken down many of Ireland’s articles on Russia. No use hiding evidence, though: many are still online elsewhere.)  Ireland admits he has “has done more reporting on Alexeyev’s activism and interviewed him more frequently than any other [journalist].” In 2010 he called him “Gay Moscow’s Man of Action,” “intrepid, militant,” and “the internationally recognized symbol of the nascent new generation of liberated Russian queers.” (Funniest line: “the dauntless Alexeyev, who rarely talks about himself.”)  Alekseev’s “indomitable courage and perseverance” made him “the principal catalyst for modern Russian gay organizing.”

Barechested boys feel Slavic Pride: Pan-Slavist poster from the US

Barechested boys feel Slavic Pride: Pan-Slavist poster from the US

There were ample other incidents of Alekseev flirting with right-wing ideologies. When, in 2008, he renamed Moscow Pride “Slavic Pride,” allegedly in solidarity with other former Soviet nations, some Russian gays pointed out the Slavophilic and ethnocentric implications. (Putin had already revived 19th-century ideas of “Slavic unity” as part of his imperial discourse.) Not all citizens of Russia or the rest of the old USSR are “Slavs,” they observed, and the name excluded Asians, Muslims, Jews, and others. Surreally, Peter Tatchell praised the idea of a “broader panSlavic movement for queer liberation.” (This is a bit like praising the homo-friendliness of the Black Hundreds.) Tatchell took it upon himself to reprove Viacheslav Revin, a distinguished Russian activist, who raised doubts:

As this Slavic Gay Pride took place in Moscow the focus was on homophobia in Russia. In future the focus will be on homophobia in Belarus and other Slavic [sic] countries. I do not think it is helpful to criticise a successful protest that has done so much to raise awareness of gay people and gay issues. [Tatchell to Euro-Queer listserve, May 19, 2009]

Then consider how Ireland and friends dealt with earlier evidence of Alekseev’s overt anti-Semitism, when it emerged in 2011. Ireland conveniently omits any mention of that incident in his recent article. He’s forgotten completely.

I played a role in outing Alekseev that time. In early 2011, a Russian colleague alerted me to something Alekseev blogged during the Egyptian Revolution: commenting on Israel’s apparent support for Mubarak, Nikolai went off against “the Jews.”

And who, after this, are the Jews? In fact, I knew already who they are.

Nikolai Jews 2011 copyI posted this on a listserve. Alekseev was about to launch a tour of the US; some of the sponsoring organizations, such as Equality California, indignantly withdrew their support for his gigs.

What hue and cry! John Selig, a blogger and friend of Ireland’s, wrote on the Bilerico Project: “Scott Long is scum in my opinion.” Someone named David Badash published a long defense of Alekseev, arguing that of course Alekseev wasn’t a bigot, because Doug Ireland said I was a bad person. In a fine example of circularity, Doug Ireland then reposted Badash’s article, claiming it disproved the “nasty and absurd accusations against Nikolai.” The anti-Semitic comments were “justified criticism,” Doug said.

Ireland anti-Semitism copy 2Gay City News also intervened in Alekseev’s defense. In an adulatory article on Alekseev’s speech in New York, it dismissed the anti-Jewish slur by “Russia’s foremost LGBT leader” as merely a critique “regarding the State of Israel’s support for Egypt’s dictator.” Gay City News accused Alekseev’s critics of “blacklisting” him:

“Gays have no way to express themselves [in Russia],” [Alekseev] said. “If you are gay, lesbian, homosexual, you are blacklisted.” Blacklisting was something Alexeyev risked being subjected to in his US visit as well, once news of the Israel-Mubarak blog post went viral … “I have respect for everyone,” Alexeyev said. “My comments were misinterpreted.”

The puff piece was headed, “Nikolai Alexeyev tells New Yorkers why he remains an optimist.” Why not be an optimist, when you’ve got friends who’ll excuse anything you do?

In fact, Ireland is still pushing the Alekseev myth: claiming that Nikolai always was the unique and fearless leader, before his descent into “madness” two weeks ago. He now writes,

The courageous young women of the agitprop punk band Pussy Riot, now serving a two-year prison sentence … and the equally brave female Russian Olympic athletes who staged a same-sex kiss in front of the cameras to signify their opposition to Putin’s anti-gay repressions in a photo seen around the world, are both linear descendants of [Alekseev’s] Moscow Pride street activism, which no doubt inspired them.

“Linear descendants”? Ridiculous. The anarchist and punk movements that gave rise to Pussy Riot are exactly the ones Alekseev expelled from “his” Pride in 2007, and vilified after. (Ireland might want to look up Voina, the street-art collective from which Pussy Riot sprang. It’s older than Moscow Pride. And “street activism” in Russia far predates Alekseev, and needed no inspiration.)  Anyone who has seen Pussy Riot’s work, and who’s been to Moscow Pride (Ireland never attended) knows there’s no relation between the former’s po-mo visual shock, and the latter’s traditional march-and-picket style. As for the “same-sex kiss,” Doug obviously is ignorant that the two women athletes have insisted their embrace had nothing to do with protest, gays, or Putin. He might want to check these things before going to print.

Alekseev could never be so anarchistic: Pussy Riot members protest in Christ the Savior Cathedral, Moscow, February 21, 2012

Alekseev could never be so anarchistic: Pussy Riot members protest in Christ the Savior Cathedral, Moscow, February 21, 2012

Then Doug offers up this gem:

Recalling how Alexeyev had been kidnapped and drugged by Putin’s security forces in an attempt to pressure him to drop his lawsuit against Russia before the European Court of Human Rights — while Putin-controlled news media put out a phony story that Alexeyev had sought political asylum in, of all places, the homophobic dictatorship of Ukraine! — we thought it was not entirely impossible that the anti-Semitic garbage being attributed to Alexeyev was the work of hackers from Putin’s sophisticated Internet control operation working to discredit Russian gay activists.

First off, by “Ukraine” Doug means “Belarus”— after all these years writing on “Slavic” lands, Doug still confuses countries. The incident he referred to happened in late 2010. Scheduled to board a flight to Switzerland at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, Alekseev disappeared, and went incommunicado for two days except for cryptic calls and SMSes. (Reports that he was seeking asylum in Minsk came from Belarusan state media, not Putin’s.) Doug and his friends understandably tried to rouse international concern – I even advised some worried people on how to contact UN human rights experts. When he resurfaced in Moscow, Alekseev claimed he’d been arrested, drugged, and pressured to withdraw his lawsuits.

But none of this happened; almost as soon as he surfaced, we knew it was all fake. Russian human rights activists will tell you what really transpired: airport police refused to let Alekseev board and then detained him, after he flew into violent fury when asked to remove his shoes. Having texted his “kidnapping” to a waiting world, though, Alekseev had to follow through on that story. If evidence is needed that the incident was trumped up, it’s that the litigious Alekseev – who sues mayors, cops, and human rights activists almost weekly — never pressed a case against police, airport, or airline for the alleged abduction. Alekseev’s onetime “kidnapping” doesn’t suggest that his present statements are forced. Instead, Ireland might ask whether Alekseev’s present instability isn’t more proof that the kidnapping was a fraud.

In one ear, out the other: Ireland, played by noted actor J. J. Hunsecker (R), receives news

In one ear, out the other: Ireland, played by noted actor J. J. Hunsecker (R), receives news

Doug Ireland is perhaps a uniquely awful case. I’ve dealt with many strange reporters over the decades, but Ireland stands out in his favoritism, his mendacity, his capacity to mishear or misrepresent the simplest of facts. He’s loathed me for years, because for years I’ve been on to him; I figured out how he works – or how he doesn’t work: the facts he never checks and the mistakes he never corrects, the basic laziness with which he treats his stories. It’s a reputation that goes back a long way. Friends at The Nation recount how, before they fired him, he used to bellow with rage when editors insisted on correcting his slothful translations from the French. He’s notorious for never interviewing more than one source for a story – less, if he can get away with it; like the Unitarians, he believes in at most one God. (You’ll notice that for his new piece on Alekseev, he spoke to absolutely no one else, in Russia or beyond.)

Still, it’s not just Ireland. Many journalists inflated Alekseev’s reputation over the years; many ignored the signs of trouble. What won him this persistent fan club?

First: It didn’t hurt that Alekseev was on the rich side, with a wealthy Swiss partner. Alekseev flew Peter Tatchell and US military campaigner Dan Choi to Moscow Pride at his own expense. Some gay journalists, like the UK’s Andy Harley, he invited to sojourn in his chalet in the Vale of Chamonix.  When these people went on to write in Alekseev’s extravagant praise, you might expect them to mention their material debts to him. In the tiny worlds of gay activism and journalism, though, with their omertà and codes of silence, ethical standards often don’t apply.

Second: a connected but more important fact. To many Western eyes Nikolai wasn’t just a Russian. In Joseph Conrad’s phrase: he was one of us.

Alekseev had long lived in France, was fluent in both French and English. (Cold-War educational xenophobia left many Russian rights activists monolingual; it puts them at a serious disadvantage if they want to attract foreign attention.) But Nikolai’s attractiveness went beyond his multilingual charm — and beyond his blond good looks, though the number of times Ireland describes him as “young” is certainly suggestive. For Westerners, he offered reassurance that their ways of working were really better, and would work anywhere.

When I met Nikolai back in 2006, I thought he was an idealistic activist with a lot of potential. I also recognized him immediately as a type I knew from years in Eastern Europe: the exile who returns home full of notions about how things should be done, determined to override the provincial idiots’ inadequate ideas. I saw these people flooding Hungary and Romania in the 1990s, flush with ambitions to Westernize everything. In most cases, they got realism knocked back into them quickly, along with a sense of indigenous possibilities, though not without alienating a lot of the people they wanted to help. However, Nikolai was cushioned from ever discovering Russian reality — by the foreigners who discovered him.

Playing to the gallery: Media, mostly Western, at  Moscow Pride conference in 2011. © Charles "Chad" Meacham

Playing to the gallery: Media, mostly Western, at Moscow Pride conference in 2011. © Charles “Chad” Meacham

From the first, in 2006, Moscow Pride played to the foreign gallery. As Moscow authorities announced they’d quash it, foreign activists started signing up to attend in solidarity. By the time I arrived that May, I found it was hardly a Russian event at all. When, at the last minute, Alekseev suggested calling off the march for safety reasons, only about 10 out of more than 100 people in the conference hall were his compatriots; the rest, us tourists. I suggested that the non-Russians leave the room so that only Russians could decide – a move that enraged Nikolai. He’d identified his main audience.

Western adulation meant that Alekseev didn’t have to give a damn about what Russians thought. He confirmed to Westerners that their methods – visibility, marches, rainbow flags – were universally valid; he adjusted his demands to imitate what Westerners wanted, pushing for marriage rights instead of protections from violence. The Prides turned into a repeated drama played for the Western press, detached from Russian reality. Indeed, they fed xenophobia, and helped stigmatize LGBT issues as a foreign intrusion. Evgeny Belyakov, Andrey Demidov, and Igor Yassin have written:

Well-educated, arrogant, wealthy, and flamboyant, Alexeyev presents an elitist and “bourgeois” image of what it means to be gay. Some have even argued that his position is a repetition of the postcolonial discourse depicting Russia as being a “barbarian” country that has much to learn from the “civilized” West.

Sometimes, Westerners just get in the way. Activist Ruslan Porshnev has described perceptively how the 2011 beating of a single, sympathetic Russian — lesbian journalist Elena Kostyuchenko (whom Alekseev never invited to Pride) — affected public opinion far more deeply than years of antics by foreign guests.

Elena Kostyuchenko, taken into custody at Moscow Pride 2011 after an Orthodox protester struck her with a rock

Elena Kostyuchenko, taken into custody at Moscow Pride 2011 after an Orthodox protester struck her with a rock

Third: People relentlessly projected their own fantasies onto Alekseev. In him, disaffected Western activists could see their own dreams of heroism, prestige, and power.

The story of Alekseev that Tatchell and Ireland spun was that of a single, heroic figure changing the world not through politics but through gesture: by sheer force of personality. This wasn’t about Alekseev. It was about themselves. Alekseev vindicated their isolation; they described themselves in him. He embodied the idea that “direct action,” symbolic activism, solo stunts, could move mountains. Media coverage meant more than movement building; as Tatchell wrote,

It is only visible and challenging actions, like the [one-man] gay parades, that put queer issues on the public and political agenda. The same has been true all throughout history. It has been direct action by radical campaigners like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King that has most dramatically and effectively overturned injustice. [emphasis added]

The arrogant pleasure of comparing yourself to King and Gandhi is only one agreeable byproduct. The main joy lies in arguing that your loneliness makes you special. When Tatchell condemns the “conferences” and “low-key vigils” of other Russian LGBT groups, he’s telling us that community organizing and collective effort are secondary. It’s the solitary martyrs, madmen, and gunmen who make history. They’re accountable to nobody and untrammeled by obligations. Gay politics fades into the wild, wild West; the Western, or Westernized, hero rides across its lunar landscape, masked and ready — the Lone Ranger.

The Lone Ranger (cover)

For some of Alekseev’s allies, these self-aggrandizing fantasies were urgent. Doug Ireland’s career as a journalist was pretty much washed up by the time he staggered into the Last Chance Saloon of Gay City News. Hitching himself to Alekseev’s ascending star looked like a smart move. A romantic collusion of matching narcissisms, of insecurities and delusions of grandeur, it was as if Doug’s desperate dreams and Nikolai’s strode off together into the credits: the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The people who suffered for it, though, were Russian LGBT folk. Because individuals don’t move politics: movements do. Dozens of LGBT groups in Russia have slowly been creating broad-based social movements. They’ve been building their communities, making spaces for youth, women, the gender-nonconforming. They’ve been connecting to other political movements and human rights groups that can offer not only support but services. They’ve been trying to carve out a place in the historic pro-democracy campaign. They’ve been reaching out through less confrontational means — film festivals, art exhibitions, publications — to a wider public. It’s not just that Ireland’s and Tatchell’s obsessive promotion of Lone Ranger Nikolai marginalized them and made their work invisible. It’s that the Lone Rangerism made LGBT rights in Russia revolve, in media narratives and then in popular paranoia, around a few flawed, foreign-identified figures. Alekseev’s polarizing prominence was a walking cry for backlash. Alekseev’s fans and fantasists have to answer for the damage.

Alekseev may be finished as a figure, but the forces that dreamed him up live on. Already activists in the West who work on Russia are looking for a new Lone Ranger: somebody else to be the “go-to person,” “new and prized leadership, an imperative voice for the plight of LGBTI Russians.” When they find the guy (it’s usually a guy), they’ll forgive almost anything as long as he gives fodder to their fantasies and says what they want to hear. Just consider this. Alekseev is a racist and an anti-Semite. He finally rubbed his supporters’ faces in it so hard they had to let him go. Michael Lucas, porn king and political commentator, is a racist and Islamophobe. He has a column in Out magazine, and white guys hang on his words for wisdom about the Russia situation. The only difference between the two? Lucas, a professional at feeding other people’s fetishes, knows better than to Tweet while drunk.

NOTE: There is no question that Nikolai Alekseev showed genuine bravery in subjecting himself to arrest on a number of occasions. Some realism about these incidents is necessary, though. First, there’s the matter of their numbers. Ireland claims in his recent piece that Alekseev was “arrested some 40 times in civil disobedience to Russian bans on gay demonstrations.” That’s strange, because after Moscow Pride in 2009 Ireland wrote, accurately, “This is the fourth time the young lawyer has been arrested for holding a gay rights protest.” Either Alekseev was arrested four times in his first three years of activism, then 36+ times in the next four, or Ireland is simply making up figures out of whole cloth. Doug Ireland is serially inaccurate; of course he’s inventing the numbers.

The perhaps six or seven times that Alekseev has actually been arrested for exercising his right to free assembly represent a grave violation of human rights.  However, he has never spent more than 24 hours in jail as a result. It is simply wrong for Ireland to compare him to the women of Pussy Riot, now serving a two-year sentence under inhuman conditions. (It’s even more immoral for Ireland to suggest falsely that Alekseev somehow galvanized Pussy Riot to action.) Equally inappropriate is equating the dangers Alekseev faced to those braved by dissenters whom Putin’s regime murdered, including dissident journalists and others.

Peter Tatchell claimed in late 2011 that “Nikolai’s activism put him in great personal danger from bashings – even assassination … Not many people would have dared continue to put themselves in the frontline and take on the power of the ruthless tyrannical Russian state, having seen so many human rights defenders beaten, framed on trumped up charges and even murdered.” The fact is, though, that Alekseev has consistently disclaimed any affiliation with human rights defenders or the anti-Putin opposition. He is not a pro-democracy activist. There is no evidence that his life has ever been in danger. It does no credit to the courage he actually showed to place him in company where he does not belong, or to exaggerate the circumstances. And in doing so, Tatchell and Ireland insult the memory of activists who have paid the hardest price for truly supporting democracy.

Anna Politkovskaya, journalist, murdered in Moscow, 2006

Anna Politkovskaya, journalist, murdered in Moscow, 2006

Promoting homosexuality versus promoting one homosexual: Putin, Nikolai Alekseev, and the publicity machine

Brokeback Moscow: Everything is fine here in Marlboro country

Brokeback Moscow: Everything is fine here in Marlboro country

Vladimir Putin dabbled in the promotion of homosexuality this morning. After all, he can get away with it. In an interview published by AP, he praised the notoriously decadent Tchaikovsky, and promised that everything for LGBT folks in Russia will be fine, fine.

I assure you that I work with these people, I sometimes award them with state prizes or decorations for their achievements in various fields. We have absolutely normal relations, and I don’t see anything out of the ordinary here. They say that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a homosexual. Truth be told we don’t love him because of that, but he was a great musician, and we all love his music. So what? There’s no need to make a mountain out of a molehill, there’s nothing horrible or scary going on in our country.

Great; unlike scary Syria, which understandably took up most of the conversation, Russia continues in the peace that passeth understanding. In response to a question that has all the marks of being planted (“You said earlier that President Obama was welcome to meet with members of gay and lesbian groups in Russia. Would you also be willing to have such a meeting?”) Putin voiced eagerness to listen not only to the musical gays, but to the ones who just talk.

If any of them would like to meet me then, by all means. But so far there hasn’t been any such initiative. We have many such groups, various organizations, societies, and as a rule I meet with anyone who voices a request for a meeting and offers to discuss an important problem. So far there haven’t been any such requests, but why not?

Convenient. It cocks a snook at Obama, and allows Putin to show that civil society (all those “groups, various organizations, societies” now hamstrung by draconian registration requirements under his laws) is functioning just fine despite everything.

In an interval so brief that subatomic particles would envy it, anti-Semitic activist hero Nikolai Alekseev announced he is asking for a meeting.

Quick, before the Jews find out:  "A formal letter requesting a meeting today will be sent by me to the Administration of the President of Russia." "Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich! I ask you for a meeting to discuss the situation of LGBT people in Russia and around the world!"

Quick, before the Jews find out:
“A formal letter requesting a meeting today will be sent by me to the Administration of the President of Russia.”
“Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich! I ask you for a meeting to discuss the situation of LGBT people in Russia and around the world!”

For a long time, some activists in the West — along with the US and UK gay press, and others — have proclaimed Alekseev the leader of Russia’s gay movement, despite ample evidence of his pathologies and prejudices. They didn’t give a damn, either, about the disinclination of Russia’s actual, vibrant gay movement to follow Alekseev’s erratic lead. “Not many people would have dared continue to put themselves in the frontline and take on the power of the ruthless tyrannical Russian state,” Peter Tatchell wrote in 2011 (this despite Alekseev’s insistence, over many years, that he was in no way an opponent of Putin). “Sadly,” Tatchell added, “too many people were ready to believe some of the malicious things said against him.”  Alekseev’s faithful scribe and oddly fawning promoter Doug Ireland called him, in Gay City News in 2010, “the internationally recognized symbol of the nascent new generation of liberated Russian queers.” 

Now, for the first time, Russia’s government agrees with them.  The official news agency RIA Novosti referred to him today as “the leader of the Russian gay movement.” The Presidential press secretary told the agency that “Putin is always a supporter of dialogue. Certainly, it is important to determine the theme of the meeting …  If he wants to ask a burning question, of course, I am confident that the meeting will be considered as [a matter of urgency.]“

If this meeting happens — and if Putin is smart, he will do it, perhaps after putting some tranquilizers in the samovar — you can expect a communique from the duo saying that everything is fine across all of Russia, maybe even for the gays in Syria too, that those crazy human rights activists (whom Alekseev was deriding as “extremists” as far back as 2007) should be jailed, and that the law really doesn’t make any difference. Maybe Moscow Pride will finally be allowed, as a moneymaking venture, as long as it’s indoors. Maybe Alekseev will get one of those State prizes. Maybe he will even sing Evgeny Onegin for Putin, in a command performance.

I am not one of those who believe (as Oleg Kashin speculates today at Svobodnaya Pressa) that Alekseev has somehow been captured, bullied, or blackmailed by the Kremlin and is now under their control.  That easy explanation seems to me a product of the same naiveté about the man that his Western fan club helped promote. The government doesn’t need to pressure Alekseev for him to be erratic and divisive. They just need to wait. Anybody who’s watched him for years knows that jealousy and opportunism come to him as second, or first, nature.

What’s at work isn’t State intimidation; it’s much simpler. It’s Alekseev’s passion for publicity, something that he’s learned at the feet of stuntmen, pseudoactivists, and journalists in the West. He could certainly use some good publicity right now; here’s a way to get it. His pursuit of the paparazzi, and Putin’s need for a friendly headline, have just converged. Alekseev’s fan club plucked the man from obscurity, kept him in the limelight for years despite burgeoning doubts and questions, ignored and actively insulted other Russian activists doing serious and important work, and fed his hungry ego till it burst. They made him. He’s their golem – a Jewish legend Nikolai wouldn’t like, but in which he might feel the shock of recognition. But unlike the golem of the old stories, Alekseev can’t hurt his makers. Instead, it’s Russia’s LGBT community whose rights will suffer.

 

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

Thunder on the left

Last month Karma Chavez of WORT FM in Wisconsin did an hour-long interview with me about various things LGBT and global: Iraq, Iran, homonationalism, neocolonialism, ethical activism, Peter Tatchell, and other usual and less-usual subjects all came up. Here’s the whole thing. You have to skip over the scree-scraw noises at the beginning where a failed attempt to Skype me — I was in a remote foreign land — led to an explosively resounding reverb effect. Thunder on the left, the Romans thought, was a sign that Jupiter was pleased.