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7 Sep 2011

US embassy’s pride celebrations in Islamabad: More damage than support

Hadi Hussain, a gay activist living in Pakistan, writes that the already unaccepting and hostile climate has turned even worse after the US Embassy in Islamabad hosted a recent LGBT event which triggered a media frenzy and drew the ire of conservative Islamic groups.

In accordance with the US President Barack Obama’s May 31, 2011 GLBT Pride Proclamation that, “we rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity,” US Ambassador for Pakistan, Richard Hoagland and members of Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA) hosted an event declared as ‘Islamabad’s first ever Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (GLBT) Pride Celebration’ on June 26, 2011 in the Federal Capital of Islamic Republic of Pakistan. This high profile event was reportedly attended by 75 people including Mission Officers, U.S. military representatives, foreign diplomats, and leaders of Pakistani LGBT advocacy groups who showed their “support for human rights, including LGBT rights in Pakistan at a time when those rights are increasingly under attack from extremist elements throughout Pakistani society”.

Unthankfully, all the sensational and flowery claptrap peddled around this event turned out to be a disaster for the budding underground Pakistani LGBT movement as the US Embassy conveniently oversaw the repercussions this event would have brought in an already critical country which is fighting against terrorism and radicalization while sacrificing its peace, its liberty, its sovereignty and countless lives of its law enforcement agencies and civilians alike.

Ambassador Richard E. Hoagland greets guests at GLBT Pride celebration on June 26, 2011. Photo via islamabad.usembassy.gov. The US embassy posted a statement on its website saying: "This gathering demonstrated continued U.S. Embassy support for human rights, including LGBT rights, in Pakistan at a time when those rights are increasingly under attack from extremist elements throughout Pakistani society.

Within a few days, the streets of major urban cities of Pakistan namely Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore were hailed with the students and political workers of Jamaat-e-Islami, a religious political party, chanting slogans at their highest pitches against homosexuals and America. For them it was a golden opportunity to kill both ‘the evils with a single stone’. Banners were displayed in major cities, especially in the federal capital, within a few days demanding persecution of gays and accusing Americans of propagating and imposing this ‘westernized’ idea. The lash back didn’t remain limited to the Jamaat-e-Islami only but sooner most of the political parties joined this bandwagon to form a coalition against the government for their menial political interests.

On the other hand, the Pakistani media, especially the local Urdu newspapers and channels dealt with the issue with their usual approach i.e. lacking all the required sensitivity and knowledge to handle this crucial issue. Their sole concern was to raise their TRP’s and circulations and that’s all. Although a few liberal and sensible voices were raised through articles by Nuwas Manto, Hashim bin Rasheed, Marvi Sirmed and Mohsin Sayeed but most of these were published in English dailies or in their online o-peds and blog sections while leaving a huge void for majority Urdu readers. There was a dire need to represent a sensitive and sensible portrayal of the issue in the Urdu media to counter the venomous articles and hate speeches by Orya Maqbool Jaan, Aamir Liaquat and Ibtisam Elahi Zaheer, who not only openly condemned homosexuals but also denounced them as sinful, non-Muslims, lesser than human beings and demanded capital punishment for them with full zeal.

Meanwhile, our media circulated and aired all this hate speech while completely overlooking its ethical and social responsibilities. I guess it’s high time that our mushrooming news channels and newspapers start differentiating between free speech and hate speech because without it, they are only damaging the fabric of an already complex and fragile society.

This unnecessary brouhaha by our sensational media started not only an untimely debate in our society but also in our households. I had never heard my mother, an ardent Urdu daily follower, having any strong stance against anyone, say it a murder, a rapist or a dacoit but one day she said, “All homosexuals should be stoned to death.”

Being a gay, living in Pakistan, from a traditional Muslim family background, it was already an ordeal to be myself but after this US Embassy triggered media frenzy things have turned even worse. The people I am out to, are now looking at me with a different perspective. They either consider me an undercover CIA agent with hidden agenda to ‘westernize’ the cultural values of Pakistan or look as if declaring that when the rogue mullahs will come and deliver me from my deadly sins, they will religiously mind their own business. This isn’t solely my own story but of several completely out or partially out queers in Pakistan. On the other hand one can imagine the suffering and tension of all those unheard, closeted voices, which were already afraid of coming out and pretending to be ‘normal’. The level of concern and uneasiness resulted from this highly inefficient and implausible event has made them even more vulnerable at the hands of the society, which is always ready to prosecute anyone different.

Surprisingly, it has also been reported that US embassy which claimed to “support LGBT rights in Pakistan” isn’t going to entertain LGBT Pakistanis for asylum. It’s as if that after starting a storm in the cocktail, they are also having an easy way out.

After talking to several local LGBT activists I have gathered two main stances regarding this whole fiasco and the future of Pakistani LGBT movement. A very small number of activists suggested that this event should be considered as a golden opportunity to come out formally and launch a full blown LGBT movement in Pakistan, after we had missed a similar opportunity in 2007 at the time of Shazina-Shumile case. On the other hand, the majority of the activists opined that it’s very sensitive and crucial time to come out and it’s better to remain underground for the survival of this movement. Change can be brought slowly and gradually, in safe and calculated ways. The recent incident where a young LGBT activist Falak Ali of Neegar Society was severely beaten up by the mullahs in the streets of Multan, a southern Punjab city, in the presence of police is just an example of the reaction of the public about this whole issue.

Still, Pakistani LGBT activists are hopeful and determined about the future of LGBT movement in Pakistan and they strongly believe that whenever there’s going to be any LGBT movement in Pakistan, it will be most definitely by Pakistani people for Pakistani people. No one else can decide or force the time for what and when we need to emancipate ourselves from the restrictions of the heterosexist society. We can have allies and support from other international organizations but the primary reinforces and stakeholders will be ourselves. Let’s hope for the times when Pakistani LGBT movement will be in full swing and our government will start accepting the existence of Pakistani LGBT.

Hadi Hussain is a writer and gay rights activist in Pakistan. He is a member of the Organization for Protection & Propagation of Rights of Sexual Minorities, the first LGBT organisation to be set up in Pakistan. This column was first published by gaylaxymag.com on Aug 24 and is republished with persmission from the writer.


Reader's Comments

1. 2011-09-08 06:35  
Unfortunately, given the currently sour relationship between the two countries - as well as the opportunistic extremism that such an event would have fostered amongst certain anti-gay groups - the organisers of this event Should have had the straightforward common sense (or "cop-on", as we say in Ireland) Not to have US involvement in the event.

Certain Pakistani extremist groups - and others looking to score some easy political points - would, predictably, have seized upon this event as America trying to "undermine traditional values" blah blah blah blah.

While I don't expect every country or people out there to be as sharply cynical as Most Irish people are, I'm still surprised if the event's organisers were That naiive that they didn't understand how American involvement at this unfriendly political juncture between America and Pakistan could have a negative impact on their event.

A pity, indeed... this is how hard lessons are learned...
Comment edited on 2011-09-08 06:37:38
Comment #2 was deleted by its author on 2011-09-13 11:11
3. 2011-09-08 10:22  
These are sensitive issues especially when contemplating such events in a muslim country. The goal is lofty and good but may be counterproductive without taking into the cultural differences between Western and Eastern views on such matters.
4. 2011-09-08 11:27  
There is nothing that brain-dead muslims like more than an opportunity to demonstrate their hate and their tendency to turn violent at every opportunity. Seems to me it was a private event on private property and a great opportunity for the US government to show that they are not about to have their principles compromised by the idiots of Islam
5. 2011-09-08 15:48  
I wonder if the poster above knows any 'idiots of Islam'?

He certainly doesn't seem to have any respect for Muslims - however, I'm sure he could shout from the steeple about every last one of His rights, and how He is 'right' with His faith...

6. 2011-09-08 16:41  
It is very sad, if it is indeed the case, that the U.S. Government has used this event for its own political ends. Whoever planned this event knew that the fundamentalist brigade would jump on it immediately, calling it U.S. interference with Muslim and Pakistani affairs and trying to pollute the youth, blah..blah..blah..

I know a few Muslims, who accept me for what I am, who are perfectly gracious and friendly. However, they have a book that tells them that homosexuality is a sin, so, on the surface, everything is fine, but dig a little deeper then all you see is grudging acceptance. I assume because I am straight acting they forget about my sexuality. I do not mention gay topics with them as the mood quickly changes :(

I'm an atheist and while I tolerate the existence of theism and understand we are what we are taught to be, but, underlying that we are all fellow human creatures, with the pleasure and sadness that brings, there are battle lines to be drawn to protect our rights to live in peace.
7. 2011-09-08 19:01  
i do agree that I'm sure the US has a very thought out motive behind its hosting of this event, but i totally disagree with the idea behind the article.

Running and hiding from the extremist instead of standing up against them (at least verbally) doesn't work.
8. 2011-09-09 02:06  
i would think that this is not a good move but a noble attempt nonetheless.

maybe they need more time?

9. 2011-09-09 02:18  
A great effort by the US Embassy in Pakistan. Actually American embassies in a number of countries around the world and consulates marked this LGBT Day. Just to hold an event is not interference in the internal affairs of a country. Please.................

What about International Womens Day or Labor Day ? LGBT is no different, its about equality and human rights.

I am not sure, but Pakistan has probably signed a number of international treaties and conventions on human rights.

Comment #10 was deleted by its author on 2011-09-09 05:09
11. 2011-09-09 05:09  
When will the Americans learn not to impose its ideology on others? If its ideology works, then prove that it does by making the United States a great country, and the other countries would automatically follow it gradually. But showing its strength by attempting to force cultural taboos down others' throat and, worse, use military actions, can only show how barbaric it is. It's not that I am opposed to the Americans promoting human rights or other noble ideologies. But the manner in which it's done ought to be proper.
12. 2011-09-09 15:35  
This was a mistake, instead to help now is worse. The "washing brain" from muslin is very strong and dangerous. They target everyone that is against they own point of view. This world will be better without any religion, specially muslin, because this is not only religion it's a ideology that want to change and convert everything for their own benefit.
13. 2011-09-10 00:41  
This is like coming out, but orders of magnitude larger. It's just as if your friend does you a "favor" by outing you to your parents. Even if your friend means well, Mom and Dad might not be ready to hear that yet. If your friend had given you the time to prepare your parents and deliver the news your own way, maybe your parents would have been receptive. But, telling them too early only makes them panic, and your life becomes hell.

I'm an American, and I think we can be a bit myopic sometimes. We try to 'reform' cultures more conservative than ours, but balk at those that are more liberal, as if everyone should keep exact pace with our cultural evolution.

Fifty years ago, a pride celebration in the U.S. would have been greeted with the same contempt as was felt in Islamabad in June. Yet, today we in the U.S. still have no federal recognition of marriage--only at the state level, and only in a handful of states.

I wonder what the American reaction would be, if the nations that recognized same-sex marriage tried to 'reform' America by offering marriage ceremonies to American same-sex couples in their U.S. embassies...
14. 2011-09-11 01:37  
Well said JohnJohn7 (#13), unlike the bigotry displayed by denseaus (#4). Good intentions on the part of the US embassy (who have been supportive of GLBT issues in other South Asian countries), but boy, the time and place to do it is not now in Islamabad.
15. 2011-09-11 16:45  
This had backfired, and not only could the Americans not succeed in promoting more tolerance and respect towards the LGBT there, it had given the bigots another excuse to 'justify' that BOTH the Americans and the LGBT are evil invaders of their traditions. We don't appreciate such 'help' which is like attempting to extinguish a fire by pouring oil onto it. And, I'd appreciate if #4 could show more respect to the Muslims.
16. 2011-09-12 08:40  
I am really quite sick and tired of hearing all this US bashing coming from such a site as this. It seems many people here are quite content with pretending that hate against gays and gay people should just be ignored. These people iin Pakistan who hate gay people are not going to change their minds just because we do what they want us to do. We should uphold what we believe in and not pretend that biogtry is the same and just because it is of a religious nature doesn't make it right.
Comment #17 was deleted by its author on 2011-09-14 09:50
18. 2011-09-16 00:53  
@13 & 14, I have read that you can actually get married or CP'd in Embassies of countries that have these laws, wherever they are located, even in Singapore, as you are technically in that country when you are in their embassy. So I expect an American can at least marry a Canadian in the Canadian embassy.

The writer of the article makes good points, but it seems unlikely the event was without cooperation with local gay people. I'd be interested to also read a different point of view from someone else, who had attended the event.

19. 2011-11-05 17:56  
Why kow tow to fears of backlash??? Well done to the usa for backing gay rights in uncivilized nations. The only way to give a win to the forces of bigotry and evil is to back down to them. Go USA!!

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