A priest of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church rests inside the 13th century rock-hewn Church of Bet Giorgis, Lalibela, Ethiopia, November 1, 2007. Photo by A. Davey via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.
On September 1, 2019, an ad hoc committee formed by Oromo clerics from the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC), declared their plan to establish a new regional parish administration unit in Oromia Regional State. They want to establish a regional “episcopacy” — in church speak — that caters to the spiritual, administrative and linguistic needs of the Orthodox Oromo people.
The EOTC currently has over 50 million members comprised of members from all over Ethiopia.
Oromo church members say that inefficiency and corruption hinders EOTC from addressing their spiritual, linguistic and administrative needs and members of the ad hoc committee threatened to take measures into their own hands — including the launch of a distinct, separate administrative unit — if they don’t hear back within 30 days from EOTC’s ruling body, known as the Holy Synod and Church fathers.
The EOTC has its own unique administrative structure that does not match Ethiopia’s federal government structure, which constitutes nine autonomous ethnic regions — among which Oromia is the largest. The Oromo clerics want to reorganize the church’s structure to follow Ethiopia’s federal political system.
The EOTC has about 35,0000 churches throughout Ethiopia. Some reports suggest about 7,000 are in Oromia. This constitutes about 20 percent of all churches.
If Oromos create a regional parish administrative structure without approval from the Holy Synod, it could create an administrative conflict.
The clerics believe that reorganizing the church’s administrative structure will help revitalize empty and neglected churches whose followers left them for expanding Protestant churches in Oromia.
According to the head of the ad hoc committee, arch-scholar Belay Mekonen, there is already a precedent for doing this. He says that the church has changed its governance structures throughout history to match changes in government structures.
He also insisted that new administrative unit will help the EOTC realize its apostolic mission by bringing the church closer to Oromia people, with plans to consolidate and institutionalize the use of Afan Oromo (the Oromo language) within the EOTC.
Unlike Protestant churches that offer services Afan Oromo, Oromo clerics say the EOTC expects Oromos to worship in Ge’ez, the church’s liturgical language, or Amharic, the working language of Ethiopia’s federal government. But Ge’ez is an ancient language that most people barely understand — not only in Oromia but throughout Ethiopia. And Amharic is a language spoken mainly by people who reside in major cities and towns in Oromia, and less so in rural areas, where Afan Oromo is prevalent.
Another member of the ad hoc committee said the new administrative unit will help to bring the people who felt alienated back to church.
A monk reads Ge’ez, the liturgical language of the Ethiopia Orthodox Tewahedo Church, October 15, 2018. Photo by Rod Waddington via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.
Stinging, holy rebuke
The committee’s push prompted a stinging rebuke from the Holy Synod, setting up a protracted intra-institutional administrative conflict.
Opposition to the committee has also come from Orthodox faithfuls, who feel the push to establish a separate administrative unit is profoundly disturbing. They say their church is a sacred institution only willed by God.
Others variously labeled the move as an opportunistic shot or attempt to destroy the defining element of their national, cultural and religious identity:
This why I think these new rebels aren’t EOC institutionalists who seek greater inclusiveness. They are cultural vandals who have suddenly got the opportunity to economically and politically profit from the chaos and crisis in one of humanity’s greatest institutions. https://t.co/zyvHonOC9V
— Abiye Teklemariam Megenta (@abiyetk) September 1, 2019
I don’t think I will ever identify with any specific religion anymore but I have a soft spot for EOTC [ which I used to taunt in my college days when I was “ woke” ]It’s historic and was nurtured and protected by our forefathers. I am proud of EOTC and its wisdom. https://t.co/5ZUOBPiDEX
— Mady Yonas (@Madyyon) September 2, 2019
Numerous Addis Ababa-based EOTC organizations and parish administrators have scheduled to hold a rally on Sunday, September 15, 2019, protesting an escalation of violence against Orthodox clerics, laity and the destruction of churches.
Rally organizers said the demonstration is planned to demand the government to provide protection for Orthodox Christians throughout Ethiopia. They emphasized the planned rally has nothing to do with the Oromo clerics and could be called off if they get a practical response.
But the planned rally takes on added significance because the organizers say they support the response the Holy Synod has given to Oromo clerics.
The Oromo clerics have also gotten lukewarm support from an unlikely source: Daniel Kibret, a prominent EOTC personality, writer and strong ally of Ethiopia’s reformist prime minister, Abiy Ahmed.
In a lengthy blog post, he wrote that while he agrees with the clerics’ analysis of the problem in the EOTC, he also wrote the clerics’ solution is wrong.
But members of the ad hoc committee insist that they do not want to splinter the EOTC in Oromia. They have not proposed a distinct theological element nor introduced a new canon and ritual activities, they say.
Religious tension, ethnic rivalries
Crucially, the dispute has also become an important manifestation of religious tension freighted with ethnic rivalry among political elites of Ethiopia’s several ethnic groups.
On social media, the clerics’ move has amplified increasing ethnic tensions, due to a long-standing rift between Amhara and Oromo people, two of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups: Conflicts over land, history, economy and culture have intensified, nearly a year after their ruling elites entered a tactical alliance within the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party (the EPRDF), to bring down the supremacy of Tigryan elites who ruled for 27 years.
Both Amharas and Oromos practice a wide range of religions. Christianity and Islam are the main ones.
Statistically, 30.4% of 25 million Oromos follow the EOTC, while 82.5% of 19 million Amharas are Orthodox faithfuls.
The Amharas have a tangled relationship with the EOTC. A prominent historian Harold Marcus describes the Amharas alongside the Tigrayans as inheritors and avatars of Orthodox Christianity.
This contrasts sharply with the Oromos’ relationship with EOTC. Although there is a significant number of Orthodox Oromos, some argue Oromo nationalists have tended to promote the development of secular nationalism as a unifying ideology.
In fact, a long-held belief among Oromo nationalists asserts that when Oromos and other southern peoples of Ethiopia incorporated into modern Ethiopia, the EOTC was an active agent for assimilationist policies of successive Ethiopian emperors.
They contend that most of bishops and priests historically appointed to Oromia were native Amharic speakers who aimed to “Amharize” Oromos by discouraging the use of Afan Oromo in church.
The latest dispute between Oromo clerics and the Holy Synod is a new incarnation of a long-standing strand of EOTC’s intra-institutional conflict — albeit with different features and players.
In 1991, after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) troops assumed control of the country, a prolonged intra-institutional conflict broke out within the EOTC, when the TPLF-led regime plotted to force the abdication of the fourth Patriarch, Abune Merkorios.
Following the abdication of the Patriarch, a movement supported by members of the Ethiopian diaspora in the US formed a Holy Synod in Exile in 1996.
This resulted in division among clergy and faithful that stemmed from ethnic and political tension between the Amhara and Tigray.
The EOTC in exile also operated as an anti-EPRDF body based in Washington, DC.
In July 2018, Prime Minister Abiy assisted the reunification of the Synod of the EOTC and the Synod of the EOTC in exile.
Regardless of one’s ethnic background and recurring intra-institutional conflict, most Orthodox followers consider the church a defining element of Ethiopian national identity. Even people who describe their affiliation to the church as cultural rather than faith-based feel a connection.
But Ethiopians who live in regions dominated by non-Orthodox faiths emphasize that their identity is not predicated on Orthodox religiosity.
Screenshot from Youtube.
The following post is the English version of a Chinese feature story published on the Stand News, a Hong Kong independent news outlet, published on 11 September 2019. It is published on Global Voices under a content partnership agreement.
1 October is the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. While the Hong Kong government is preparing for the official ceremony, tens of thousands of Hongkongers are performing a new protest song in the streets and in shopping malls across the city.
The song, “Glory to Hong Kong”, has been dubbed Hong Kong’s anthem by netizens and many different versions have been circulating online. Below is a classical orchestra presentation of the protest song presented by a group of Hong Kong musicians and artists dressed as protesters:
The song was first released to the public on 31 August and went viral soon after as the lyrics captured the sentiment and spirit of the protests [Note: The English version below is copied from the officially released translation]
何以 這土地 淚再流何以 令眾人 亦憤恨昂首 拒默沉 吶喊聲 響透盼自由 歸於 這裡何以 這恐懼 抹不走何以 為信念 從沒退後何解 血在流 但邁進聲響透建自由 光輝香港在晚星 墜落徬徨午夜迷霧裡 最遠處吹來 號角聲捍自由 來齊集這裡 來全力抗對勇氣智慧 也永不滅黎明來到 要光復 這香港同行兒女 為正義 時代革命祈求民主 與自由 萬世都不朽我願榮光歸香港
We pledge: No more tears on our land,In wrath, doubts dispell’d we make our stand.Arise! Ye who would not be slave again:For Hong Kong, may Freedom reign!Though deep is the dread that lies ahead,Yet still, with our faith, on we tread.Let blood rage afield! Our voice grows evermore:For Hong Kong, may Glory reign!Stars may fade, as darkness fills the air,Through the mist a solitary trumpet flares:“Now to arms! For Freedom we fight, with all might we strike.With valour, wisdom both we stride!”Break now the dawn, liberate our Hong Kong,In common breath: Revolution of our times!May people reign, proud and free, now and ever more,Glory be to thee, Hong Kong!
The composer behind the city’s anthem is a local musician in his twenties known simply as “Thomas”. He is a member of a local band, and although he has composed many pop-rock songs before, this is his first classical piece.
The idea behind the song was to create a piece that could capture the spirit of Hong Kong protesters and united them. The composer looked to other national anthems and battle music, including Battle Hymn of the Republic and Gloria in Excelsis Deo, as a reference for his song.
On 26 August, Thomas released his demo on the Reddit-liked LIHKG forum, inviting users to give feedback. He amended the melody and lyrics such as adding protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of the times” and asked LIHKG members to help recording the song. Three days later, more than 20 LIHKG members appeared at a studio for the recording.
Through the song, the composer wants to deliver the following message:
Hong Kong people is now in a battle in defense of people’s conscience, justice and freedom. It will be a long battle and the battlefield is not restricted to the streets, nor in the Legislative Council over a certain law. It is about people’s values and morality. Hong Kong people are no longer defined by utilitarian interests, there is something more important than money and even above life.
Thomas has taken part in a majority of the protests over the past two months but he was not on the front lines. He sees music as his best protest weapon:
Music is a very important tool. In former USSR, the government had strict control over music because it knew that music could connect people’s hearts and touch people more effectively than words, slogans and images.
Since its initial release, tens of thousands of people have participated in flash mob performances in major shopping malls all across Hong Kong. Below is one of the performances at TaiKoo City Plaza on 9 September:
Just now at #TaiKoo—#HongKong Fight Anthem sang by Hong Kongers in Cityplaza shopping mall. So beautiful!#聽出耳油Video via Telegram#AntiELAB #HongKongProtests pic.twitter.com/ZZZLPDosqJ
— #AntiELAB Fight for Hong Kong (@Fight4HongKong) September 9, 2019
When the Chinese national anthem was played at the World Cup qualifier match against Iran on 10 September, it was booed. During a break, Hong Kong football fans sang “Glory to Hong Kong” instead:
Audiences sang our HK National Anthem “願榮光歸香港” “Glory to Hong Kong” at HK stadium when hk take on Iran in World Cup qualifier.
We are #hongkong #HKprotest #HKprotesters #FreedomHK #FreeHK #FightForFreedom #standwithhk #standwithhongkong #WorldCupQualifiers #glorytohk pic.twitter.com/hOqZ3kN2OD
— Pegs (@Peggy_fung) September 10, 2019
The first Bosnian-Herzegovinian (BiH) Pride March in Sarajevo on 8 September 2019. Photo by Sanjin Buzo (@sanjinbuzo), used with permission.
The streets of Sarajevo were bursting with merriment on Sunday 8 September as the several hundred participants in the first Bosnian-Herzegovinian Pride March paraded through the city demanding protection of the human rights for all.R
Read more: Bosnia-Herzegovina to hold first ever Pride Parade in Sarajevo on September 8
The concerns expressed during the build-up about possible violence by forces that have used homophobia as political weapon proved unfounded. Anti-Pride manifestations on the eve and the morning of the parade took place peacefully. Along the prada route, police took all the necessary security precautions, and the day passed without incident.
Activist Sanjin Bužo summed up the general feeling among the participants:
Mi smo dokaz da ova drzava, kakva god da jeste, može osigurati vladavinu ljudskih prava, kad hoće, može, bilo gdje i bilo kad!
We are a proof that this state, with all its limitations, can ensure the rule of human rights. When it actually wants, it can, any where and any time!
Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) consists of two entities, the Federation of BIH and Republic of Srpska; the Federation is subdivided into 10 cantons. The highest government official of the Sarajevo canton kept his promise and joined the Pride Parade.
Premijer Kantona Sarajevo @EdinForto nije iznevjerio #ImaIzać #ImaIzac pic.twitter.com/vRHHg2cz94
— Dragan Mocevic (@DraganMocevic) September 8, 2019
Tweet 1: I don’t expect much from the politicians today. They mostly invoke EU values as a mix of demagogy and populism. But at least I hope some of the social-democrat ekipe (SDP, DF, NS) tweeps like Edin Forto, Srdjan Mandic and some others, while from Republika Srpska only Boislav Borenović.Tweet 2: The Prime Minister of Sarajevo Canton Edin Forto didn’t betray. #DoorPlease
Balkan Insight, however, reported that while top national-level Bosnian politicians “failed to attend the march, the US Ambassador to Bosnia, Eric Nelson, showed his support along with many other diplomats and representatives of non-governmental organizations in Bosnia.”
Parade participants stressed that as they fulfill their obligations toward the state, they count on the state to fulfill its obligations towards them, as it should for any other citizen.
While Sarajevo holds its landmark first #Pride parade today, Vildana from @Fondacija_CURE highlighted that institutions in Bosnia still need to do much more to ensure the rights of Bosnia’s LGBTQI community are respected.#imaizać pic.twitter.com/eZAe9021eg
— Balkan Insight (@BalkanInsight) September 8, 2019
The Pride Parade received expressions of solidarity from around the region, which included visits by members from pro-democracy groups from nearby countries. Participants used the hashtags #bhpovorkaponosa (Bosnian-Herzegovinian Pride March) and #imaizac (“[Open the] Door, please!”) to share photos and videos as the event unfolded.
Koliko samo ponosa i srece danas u Sarajevu! @BHpovorkaponosa #imaizac pic.twitter.com/OZyUKc5P9A
— Asja Kratovic (@kratovich) September 8, 2019
So much pride and happiness today in Sarajevo!
A rainshower toward the end of the Parade produced a rainbow over Sarajevo. A number of Twitter users made took photos of this serendipitious coincidence.
U Sarajevu je kiša čekala da završi šetnja. A onda smo mi čekali da se ukaže duga. Sve je bilo kao režirano. I evo je. ? photo by Nineta Popovic pic.twitter.com/L4TGyNoNaA
— Damir Imamovic (@damirimamovic) September 8, 2019
In Sarajevo the rain waited for the walk to end. And then we all waited for the rainbow to appear. It all seemed as pre-directed. Here it is! 🙂 Photo by Nineta Popović.
Returning to the normalcy of cosmopolitan and antifascist life
Before the breakup of Yugoslavia and the subsequent wars, Sarajevo held the reputation of being of one of the most multiethnic and multi-religious capital cities in the federation. It was also a cradle of modernity—along with Belgrade and Zagreb, it was one of the three main engines of Yugoslav popular culture, including the grassroots New Wave of rock music. Hosting the Winter Olympics in 1984 further bolstered the city’s cosmopolitan image.
But the Bosnian War and the 1992-1995 siege of Sarajevo, in particular, seriously depleted the city’s pre-war diversity and secularism. The city become divided into two sectors with homogeneous Bosniak Muslim and Serbian Orthodox Christian populations, each receiving an influx of people from rural areas who brought with them more conservative attitudes underpinned by obedience to religious authorities which officially disapprove of equal rights for LGBTQ+ people.
Yet the multiethnic urban population, located mostly in the central part of the city, still clings to the cosmopolitan traditions for which Sarajevo was once known. Some social media users commented on this aspect of the counter-protests.
Gledam sad fotke sa skupa “tradicionalnih porodica” u Sarajevu i kažem sebi: ako mi neko dokaže da je na skupu bilo više od 5 posto Sarajlija, uključujući onog nesretnog Zahirovića i mahalca Gljivu, odmah ću odjaviti svoj TW account..
— Almedin Šišić (@AlmedinSisic) September 7, 2019
I look at the photos of the gathering of “traditional families” in Sarajevo and I say to myself: if someone can prove to me that this even included more than 5% of indigenous citizens of Sarajevo, including those unfortunates Zahirović and neighborhood kid Gjiva, I would promptly shut down my Twitter account…
Two different groups organized counter-protests. The first took place on Saturday, with several thousand people marching for ‘traditional family values’—and getting trolled online because their choice of visual elements echoed the color schemes of the LGBTQ+ worldwide movement.
Organisers of the ‘Family Values March’ in Sarajevo today clearly didn’t realise they were inadvertently handing out balloons in the colours of the trans flag. Perfect to be used at @BHpovorkaponosa tomorrow! pic.twitter.com/YEs3aHNgtv
— EuroPride • EPOA (@EuroPride) September 7, 2019
Across the Balkans, social media users also shared a timely article by the Croatian satirical website News Bar alleging that the Islamic Community had asked the believers not to take part in Sarajevo’s Pride Parade because “the tradition affirms that marriage is a union between a man and a woman and a woman and a woman and a woman”—a reference to the Koranic stipulation allowing polygamy.
The second counter-protest took place on the morning of the day of the parade in Ciglane, a working-class neighborhood. According to independent news portal Buka, it featured a group of several dozen people organized by the Muslim Association Iskorak (“Step Forward”), whose slogan is “Faith, People, State.” Participants displayed signs with homophobic slognas such as “Don’t be a [slang for faggot], keep your dignity,” “LGBT are hypocritical scoundrels with sick desires,” “Keep your homosexuality between yours 4 walls,” and “Should I be ashamed for being a man and having a wife?”
For these reasons, the Pride Parade also attracted many non-LGBTQ+ participants who are simply tired of politics based on ethnic and religious divides. For many, this also was an opportunity to also express anti-fascist sentiments, which were part of the official program.
Well-known Sarajevo-based singer Damir Imamovic plays the Italian anti-fascist Partisan song Bella Ciao during the closing performance at today’s first-ever Pride parade in Bosnia’s capital.#imaizać pic.twitter.com/MSzBqSSj7t
— Balkan Insight (@BalkanInsight) September 8, 2019
Cover image of the social media presence of the first Bosnian-Herzegovinian Pride March. Source Twitter profile @BHpovorkaponosa, Fair Use.
The first ever Bosnian-Herzegovinia (BiH) Pride Parade is scheduled to take place in the capital, Sarajevo, on Sunday, September 8.
The event will also function as a protest against inequality and violations of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex and queer people in the country. Its main demands are an end to widespread violence against LGBTQ+ people, and equal access to public spaces that they are entitled to as citizens.
After North Macedonia held their first Skopje Pride event on 30 June, Bosnia and Herzegovina remained the only Balkan country where a pride parade had not taken place.
As elsewhere in the region, the event has been organized under the shadow of threats of violence and in an atmosphere of homophobic backlash in the traditional and social media, formally lead by organizations advocating for ‘traditional family values.’ The police have announced increased security measures.
In the past, Sarajevo authorities have denied permission for similar marches and protests. This time, cantonal government institutions again asked for the parade to be postponed, citing security concerns, but the organizers have been adamant it will take place as planned.
Povorka ponosa ne promovira ekstremističke stavoce, ne podstiče na nasilje, ne ugrožava bilo koje pravo drugih. Nema osnova da se zabrani ili da se organizatore prisiljava da je otkažu. #bhpovorkaponosaIz presuda Evropskog suda Plattform “Ärzte für das Leben” v. Austria (1988): pic.twitter.com/l3Ly6Ojhsy
— Sevima Sali-Terzic (@SaliSevima) August 23, 2019
The Pride March doesn’t promote extremist positions, doesn’t incite violence, and doesn’t infringe on any right of other people. There’s no legal ground to forbid it or to pressure the organizers to cancel it. Check the verdict of the European Court of Human Rights in the case Plattform “Ärzte für das Leben” v. Austria (1988).
The campaign in support of the march has been in effect since the spring under the slogan “Ima izać”—a local slang expression commonly used by passengers to address bus or tramway drivers meaning literally “there’s someone who wants to go out,” and loosely translated by the March organizers as “[Open the] door, please!”:
…It also refers to opening the door of the proverbial closet when LGBTIQ people come out—that is when they reveal their sexual orientation, gender identity and/or sex characteristics to themselves or others.
Low visibility is still among the biggest problems of the LGBTIQ community in BiH. By coming out and participating in the Pride March we empower ourselves and other LGBTIQ individuals who still don’t have the courage to take that step. That’s why we say “Door, please!”, because this is a march of LGBTIQ people who deserve the chance to come out of the closet and proudly claim their place in the society.
Several civil society groups fighting for human rights expressed support for the March from the moment it was announced. The annual Political Accountability and New Technologies – POINT Conference, for instance, incorporated a rainbow flag into the visual elements of its 8th edition held in May, to help promote the March.
It’s amazing to see the ?️? at #point80 at the #disinformation session. Especially thinking about Poland and how much #fakenews we have about #lgbt community. Also great support for the first #pride to happen in #Sarajevo pic.twitter.com/jw76eflASc
— Anna Kuliberda (@adrebiluka) May 16, 2019
The March is also being strongly promoted online with the hashtags #bhpovorkaponosa (Bosnian-Herzegovinian Pride March) and #imaizac (“Door, please!”). Organizational channels such as the Twitter account @BHpovorkaponosa have been posting messages of affirmation, such as testimonials from people from different walks of life who support the event, including many non-LGBTI+ allies who simply wish to live in a society free of discrimination of any kind.
?️? Vidimo se 8. septembra, jer #imaizac za slobodu svih! ?️?✊✊✊✊✊Danas sa vama dijelimo poruku od profesorice sa Ekonomskog fakulteta Selma Kadic-Maglajlic, blogerke Quantum of Science-Društvo za promociju prirodnih nauka “Nauka i svijet” Jelena Kalinic. pic.twitter.com/3LbCGwZgsg
— BH. povorka ponosa (@BHpovorkaponosa) August 26, 2019
Tweet: See you on 8 September because we need to go out for freedom of all!Today we share the messages from the professor of Faculty of Economics Professor Selma Kadić – Maglajuć, and Jelena Kalinić a blogger at Quantum of Science, blog run by Association for promotion of natural sciences “Science and the world.”Video: SKM: “…I don’t want to live in a Medieval society where someone claims right to determine who should be allowed to love someone else and whom, and in what way… Precisely because of that I shall walk for human rights!”JK: “We are not free unless everybody is free. Science doesn’t support discrimination. Open the door please!”
Some of the messages are provided in English translation, a proven tactic used by similar events in the region to attract participants from abroad.
?️? Povorka ponosa je za sve nas ?️?“Ja ću 8. septembra šetati za LGBTIQ osobe, ali i za radnike i radnice, Rome i Romkinje, osobe sa invaliditetom, i sve druge marginalizirane skupine čije se postojanje ne vidi ili se želi zabraniti ili ograničiti.” Masha DurkalićVidimo se 8.9.! pic.twitter.com/w3CpzvNlab
— BH. povorka ponosa (@BHpovorkaponosa) September 3, 2019
“I will go out on 8 September and walk for the [rights of] LGBTIQ persons, and also for the male and female workers, male and female Roma people, persons with disabilities, and all other marginalized groups whose existence is invisible or someone wants to forbid it or limit it.” – Masha Durkalić.See you on 8 September!
Influential activists from other countries, such as Mona Eltahawy, and individuals such as UN Women representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina David Saunders have sent messages of support. In general, the intiative has received robust support from the international community.
Some event supporters have addressed the homophobia that has become part of the public discourse within Bosnia and Herzegovina ahead of the Pride March. The Facebook page “They are all witches” (Sve su to vještice), for example, had been posting memes quoting the ‘greatest hits’.
“The most impressive thing for me is that those who are the loudest in opposition to the Pride March think that it will be all about latex, naked butts, sadomasochism, and things like that.Oh brothers of mine, how have you been suffering!”
The organization BH Journalists, a member of the Association of European Journalists and the European Federation of Journalists, has condemned the media’s violation of the human rights and jeopardzing of the safety of LGBTQ persons by spreading hate speech and inflammatory rhetoric about the Pride March.
They called upon the journalists and editors of online portals to also pay attention to user comments which have the same effect, and to moderate those that “oppose freedom of expression, acknowledgment of diversity, pluralism of opinions and preventing all forms of discrimination.”
Le Anh Phong, the main character of the movie Find Phong. Photo used with permission.
Living as an LGBTQI+ person in a Communist society often means the state determines to what extent one can be visible in public space. While this identity is purely denied in North Korea, and admitted only in the private sphere in China, Vietnam presents an interesting example of growing tolerance and increased visibility for LGBTQI+ people, including in media. One telling example is the 2015 documentary movie ‘Finding Phong’ that portrays the daily life of a Vietnamese transgender woman. As Le Anh Phong, the main character in the film, and Gerry Herman, the producer of the movie came to Prague in July 2019 to screen their movie and discuss it with Czech and Czech-Vietnamese audiences (over 80,000 people of Vietnamese origin live permanently in the Czech Republic, close to one percent of the total population), I interviewed both of them to understand changing attitudes towards the LGBTQI+ community in Vietnam today. The interview with Le Anh Phong was done with the help of a translator.
Filip Noubel (FN): How would you describe the situation of the LGBTQI+ community in Vietnam today?
Le Anh Phong: There is undoubtedly a growing emergence of this community. The first reason is due to the role played by the media that now openly covers LGBTQI+ issues, including inside the country. The second reason is that the Vietnamese National Assembly will review a draft law that would guarantee medical support to citizens requesting sex reassignment. This has created a flow of public and online discussions.
Gerry Herman: The LGBTQI+ rights movement has also been actively supported by international organizations and several embassies, including those from the United States, the Netherlands, Germany and Canada. A number of trainings, campaigns, study tours have been organized, and this has changed the general atmosphere. My impression is that Vietnamese authorities do not view LGBTQI+ issues as particularly sensitive or overly political.
FN: What is the situation for transgender people who face an entirely different set of challenges in daily life?
Le Anh Phong: In Vietnam, there is a lot of confusion within the public opinion about a set of different laws that affect the transgender community. First, in November 2015, a law was passed that changed provisions in the Civil Code allowing people who had a sex change to register legal documents under their new gender. This became effective as of January 2017. Now we are waiting for the next step: a law guaranteeing access to health care, such as hormonal therapy and psychological support. There is a draft of this law, and the National Assembly has announced it would review it by 2020.
Personally, I haven’t experienced much challenges: I still haven’t changed my legal documents, so very often officials at the bank or at the airport asked me why I still don’t have new documents [reflecting my current gender]. In the end, they do provide the services I require from them.
FN: What inspired you to tell your personal story in a most public way: a documentary movie?
Le Anh Phong: When I started my transition, I had almost no information about the process. I did this movie so that others [the transgender community in Vietnam is estimated to reach nearly 300,000 people] would find out about the issues, the challenges, the solutions. The second reason is that I wanted to have memories of my own journey.
The most difficult part for me in the making of the movie was to introduce the camera in the privacy of my family, and have my family members get used to this intrusion. I wanted the whole thing to be humorous, so people would take it lightly. When we shoot the movie, I was working, so usually the filming happened after work, sometimes as late as 3 a.m. I was very tired, but I wanted the film to capture the authenticity of the moment.
FN: What has been the reception of this movie inside Vietnam?
Le Anh Phong: Initially, the movie was shown only in international documentary film festivals outside abroad. But in 2018, it was shown for the first time in commercial cinema theatres in Vietnam. The reception was so positive and got such good reviews in the media and from government officials that the screening was prolonged for a second week. For me, the most positive aspect is that the audience is no longer not limited to LGBTQI+ community. In fact, parents came and stayed during the entire film, which I did not expect.
Gerry Herman: It was also the first documentary movie played in commercial cinema theaters in Vietnam. Amazingly, the censorship allowed nude scenes which are always taken out in films shown in cinemas in Vietnam. Perhaps because of the topic of the movie, the censors did not intervene, which is a rare precedent.
FN: How did you decide to make this movie as a film producer?
Gerry Herman: I met Phong at a social gathering, and I heard the following story: “everybody thinks I am a gay boy, but in fact I am a straight girl in a boy’s body.” I became fascinated by the story of a young boy who grew up in central rural Vietnam with no exposure to notions of transgender identity. When Phong told me she had contacted other transgender people telling her about the underground hormone market and contacts with cheap doctors in Bangkok, I proposed a deal: we would make a documentary about her journey provided she would agree to do the transition with appropriate medical support.
I also contacted a transgender filmmaker who alerted me about the pain that most transgender people experience in regard to their past. They usually burn pictures taken before their transition. For Phong, it was the opposite, she wanted the whole story to be captured. In the end, the real challenge was the editing: two years of filming ended with over 250 hours of footage.
FN: What are chances that Vietnam could become the second country in Asia, after Taiwan, to pass same-sex marriage law?
Le Anh Phong: I was very happy when I saw the news in Taiwan because it is a place not far away from Vietnam. This means our lawmakers know about this law. Now transgender groups are also advocating for a same-sex marriage law, but the priority remains on the sex reassignment support law. People believe once this law has been passed, the same-sex marriage law will be much easier to adopt. The reality in Vietnam is that a lot of same-sex couples live together, but of course they have no legal protection of their rights currently.
Gerry Herman: There are two stages to a marriage in Vietnam: a ‘family marriage’ and then a civil, government-registered marriage. Until five years ago, it was illegal to have a gay ‘family marriage’, the police would disrupt such ceremonies. Now it is not legal, but also no longer illegal, it is tolerated and we witness many gay and lesbian marriages. This indicates growing acceptance, including from the authorities.
Azerbaijani journalist Ismail Djalilov. Photo courtesy of Ismail Djalilov.
“A friend reported you.” It’s a phrase I find utterly disconcerting and one which unfailingly appears on my phone’s screen each time I hear the familiar chime of a new Facebook message. Given that my inbox is now flooded with this ominous warning, I’ve had a lot of time and reason lately to ponder its meaning. I find those words not just disconcerting but Orwellian, conjuring up images of smiling blonde children cheering for a Dear Leader. Maybe that’s just the way my mind works; maybe it’s my fault that I have these unhealthy associations. To my mind, a friend does not falsely report a friend to any authority, be it the government, or a digital authority. Things shouldn’t work that way, at least not in the universe I want to live in.But then again, I’m a journalist from Azerbaijan. The universe I want to live in feels a long way off.
Here I should stress that I am writing not as a journalist, but as a private citizen who has had—and continues to have—profoundly eye-opening and terrifying experiences. I write as somebody who is not used to climbing the pedestal of victimhood. I write as an openly gay man and an overt secularist whose worldview is deeply informed by political openness and faith in democratic participation. Those values set the tone for my day, wherever I happen to be. Thus I am not at all surprised to be on the receiving end of a barrage of insults and disgusting comments from trolls. I just did not expect these trolls to come from the opposition.
And to cover all of that, I have to depart from the comfortable style and principles of objective, strictly fact-based journalism and enter the intimidating world of opinion.
I realise that my task is daunting, especially as an immigrant who has lived across the ocean from his homeland for half of his life, for whom a mixture of romanticism, longing, and detachment comes into play. Recently I half-jokingly wrote on my Facebook page (which is temporarily shut down and unavailable to me at the time of writing) that “being from Azerbaijan is a terminal diagnosis incompatible with happiness.”
In my native Azerbaijan, any journalist striving to preserve a shred of their impartiality has to navigate many landmines and risk confrontation with powerful forces. Our government is not too keen on criticism, to put it mildly. Those who do criticise it are often fined, imprisoned, tortured, and even killed. In a society where rulers impose such savage rules of the game, others have to adjust their actions and strategies to survive.
My thesis is, if the government employs trolls, those opposing it are forced to do so too. If the government uses harsh rhetoric, some in the opposition are forced to respond in kind. That is the corrosive effect of a despotic government: it imposes its own rules on everybody, stifling democratic inclinations others may have by invalidating them a priori. It lowers the level and quality of political discourse and legitimate political struggle.
My own contribution to raising that bar plays an important role in this story. Last winter, I launched a very small YouTube channel whose name translates from Azerbaijani as “straight talk” (the English pun does not quite translate into Azerbaijani, where “straight” does not have sexual connotations). After more than two decades of lurking on the margins of the Azerbaijani public consciousness, I kicked aside my self-doubt and briefly stepped into the limelight to comment on the outrageous situation in my home country. After that, running back into the shadows didn’t prove as easy as I had hoped.
On 12 November 2018, the BBC’s Azerbaijani service interviewed me as an Azerbaijani emigre now living in the United States. In retrospect, I am astonished by my lack of self-awareness. My interview was a long and angry tirade, but a cathartic one.
I laid into the regime. It felt as though I had finally exhaled for the first time in two decades.
I talked about violence against women and a culture which facilitates it. I talked about the utter crisis of education and healthcare. I talked about the lack of tolerance for the LGBTQ+ community and railed against the widespread ignorant conviction that sexual orientation has something to do with personal choice and willpower. It was ugly, I was a mess. I woke up early for the interview, and bellowed so much so I awoke my husband in the wee hours.
The interview had all the elements of a modern day made-for-Instagram drama. It made waves on social media, but the only thing people seemed to pay attention to was my sexuality. It wasn’t a public coming out; that took place decades earlier when I was pushed out of the closet with a bang during a live radio broadcast. Nothing else mattered: not education, not corruption, and not violence against women.
In a subsequent interview with another Washington-based colleague, I criticised a certain Azerbaijan-based journalist, a former colleague at a now-shuttered independent TV and radio company. I drew attention to his reemergence as a government lapdog. I called him by name, reminding him how he used to be: fearless, fair, outspoken, and captivating. He responded with an insulting tirade containing nothing but allusions to my sexuality (fair game), and with an intentional slip of the tongue called my late father (certainly not fair game) a homosexual. I filmed an indignant, yet measured and polite video response on the spot. It was picked up by an opposition newspaper and aired on their website, gaining more than 400,000 views. (It is still the most-viewed video on my little channel.)
So I stayed in the limelight, and while there I started to interview politicians and newsmakers in Azerbaijan. I grew accustomed to the trickle of trolling comments and insults. As my channel grew in popularity, so did the troll attacks. Many of them weren’t aimed at me, but at guest of mine, the chairman of an opposition movement who had criticised another opposition leader.
I was caught in the crossfire. I spent two full days deleting insulting comments from my channel’s comments section. Over time, the attacks were made not only against my channel; trolls launched a concerted effort to report my Facebook account, claiming that I was impersonating somebody else. An absurdity that could have been resolved by a reasonable human being comparing my pictures with my live videos was dealt with by Facebook bots as yet untrained in the intricacies of human interaction. I woke up to see the “A friend has reported you” message from Facebook. My page was gone.
I had to go through the indignity of sending a picture of my photo ID. Hours later, I was asked to send in a picture of myself holding my photo ID. At the time of the writing in mid-June, my Facebook page has been deactivated eight times in the span of six days in response to complaints by trolls. There is no way of knowing how many more times it might disappear.
For objectivity’s sake I must add that I have no direct evidence of the source of these attacks; such is the nature of the faceless mass of internet trolls. But my suspicions are painful to comprehend: I believe that I was attacked not by pro-government trolls, but trolls working for those I had considered my friends and allies. I was not the only one to be attacked by these trolls; the list of their previous victims is quite long. Given the identity of other targets, I am confident enough to believe a certain party was responsible.
Once my Facebook account was restored, I made a rather emotional video appeal to the leadership of the party I had suspected all along, asking them to rein in the trolls they control. It was not my proudest moment. I felt that I lost my balance due to anger, outrage, disgust, and shock. I demanded that they either deny that these trolls worked for the party, or join with me in condemning their role in distorting public discourse in Azerbaijan. But their response was a blanket denial from mid-level party officials, as well as their numerous supporters. Although I called him out, saying that I no longer believed he was a friend to free media, the party’s leader did not acknowledge my appeal.
Sadly, this episode made clear to me that when a despotic regime attacks freedom of speech, it has a domino effect. Those in opposition feel the need to respond in kind. They do so either to protect themselves from the government, its henchmen and trolls, or out of a mistaken desire to level the playing field a little in their own favour. Whatever the thinking behind it, free and independent media suffers, as does its ability to inform the public and guarantee a free flow of impartial information.
I could go on, but I won’t. I must interview a grieving father of a 14 year-old girl who died at the hands of our incompetent and corrupt education and medical systems—a father who has just discovered that his child’s grave was desecrated. The least I can do for him is not make him wait. The story of my own victimisation will have to wait till later. Much later.
A photo of Yelena Grigoryeva at a church service in memory of the murdered activist, July 28, 2019. Photo courtesy of Valentin Nikitchenko.
When Yelena Grigoryeva’s body was discovered on July 21, it had been lying in some bushes outside her apartment building in St Petersburg for 12 hours.
That same day, the city’s investigative committee opened a criminal case into the murder of the 41-year-old LGBTQ+ activist. On July 25, investigators announced the arrest of a 38-year-old man from Kyrgyzstan on suspicion of the murder. Another suspect, known to this man, was detained on August 1. Police investigators claim that Grigoryeva had known her killer, and that the two had been drinking together on the evening before the murder. Grigoryeva had allegedly died in the course of a “sudden domestic dispute” with her killer, during which she was stabbed at least eight times in the back and face, dying from her injuries at the scene.
Grigoryeva’s friends and colleagues have been quick to share their grief and anger on social media, along with their suspicions about the police’s account of events. They suspect that she was killed for her activism; specifically her LGBTQ+ activism. Their comments were posted under the Russian hashtag #ЗащититеЛюдейОтПилы and the English hashtag #ProtectPeopleFromSaw.
Я не верю, что Елена Григорьева была зверски убита обычным дворником-мигрантом, в то время как незадолго до убийства ей поступали угрозы от гомофобных нелюдей из группировки Пила
Я требую тщательного расследования. Государство не должно потакать убийцам #ЗащититеЛюдейОтПилы pic.twitter.com/f7VjXkr82b
I don’t believe that Yelena Grigoryeva was brutally murdered by some regular migrant worker, given that not long before her murder she had received threats from the homophobic non-people from the homophobic Saw group.
I demand a thorough investigation. The state should not appease murderers. #ЗащититеЛюдейОтПилы
— ᴀʀɪɴᴀ ᴅᴀᴢᴇ (@onprendra) July 23, 2019
Many were quick to point out that Grigoryeva’s name had featured on what appears to be a hit list from the homophobic website “Saw Against LGBT.”
The photojournalist George Markov writes:
В Петербурге все также проявляется активное давление на активистов. Если раньше это были аресты и уголовки – теперь это уже убийства. Политактивистка Елена Григорьева, сторонница ЛГБТ взглядов и просто человек с активной гражданской позицией была убита. […] Также хочу напомнить что Елена была в списке гомофобного сайта “Пила” который уже достаточно долго угрожает ЛГБТ-активистам по всей стране
In St Petersburg there is still active pressure on activists. If earlier it was arrests and criminal charges, now it’s murder. The political activist Yelena Grigoryeva, a supporter of LGBT views and simply a person with an active civic position, has been killed. […] And I also want to remind you that Yelena was on the list of the homophobic site ‘Saw,’ which has been threatening LGBT-activists throughout the country for a long time already.”
– George Markov, Facebook, 22 July 2019
While her colleagues said that Grigoryeva had reported violent threats to law enforcement before, the city’s branch of the Ministry of Internal Affairs insisted that she had filed reports related to “various conflict situations” – but not death threats. The St Petersburg activist Dinar Idrisov, who knew Grigoryeva personally, rejected this account:
Лена и ее адвокат обращались в правоохранительные органы и по факту насилия, и по факту угроз, но заметной реакции не было. Все в стиле “будут убивать – звоните”, позвонить не успела.
Yelena and her lawyer had reported on violence and threats [of violence] to law enforcement agencies, but there was no discernible reaction. It was like they said “If they kill you – call us.” She wasn’t able to make that call.
– Dinar Idrisov, Facebook, 22 July 2019
Earlier this month, screenshots from the “Saw Against LGBT” website began circulating online after the group (named after the American horror movie franchise “Saw”) posted an “anniversary” message on July 1. Featuring a picture of a noose, the post outlined plans for anti-LGBTQ+ acts and promised “dangerous and cruel gifts” to dozens of Russian LGBTQ+ individuals, activists, allies, and journalists. Yelena Grigoryeva herself was among those who saw the group’s message containing her name. She even shared a screenshot of the threatening post on Facebook on July 3.
“Saw against LGBT” declares its five-year “anniversary,” promising a “new season” in its campaign against LGBT people. Website screenshot, taken from Yelena Grigoryeva’s Facebook page.
The list also named the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta and Radio Svoboda, RFE/RL’s Russian language service, as well as several civil society organisations. The Yekaterinburg LGBT Resource Centre also reported receiving a threatening email from “Saw” on July 16. The Resource Centre has formally requested that local police investigate the email as a hate crime, and has previously been successful in persuading courts in the Sverdlovsk region to issue fines for homophobic comments on social media.
Following complaints by the Yekaterinburg-based NGO, the “Saw” website was blocked on July 17. LGBTQ+ rights activists have apparently been trying to get the authorities to investigate who is behind the website since it first appeared in spring 2018. Furthermore, the site has been responsible for leaking personal data on activists and anybody known or presumed to be LGBTQ+, and allegedly even offered to pay “gay-hunters” to attack people.
Grigoryeva’s death came as a shock to others whose names appeared on the “hit list.” On July 23, YouTube star Andrei Petrov shared his reaction on Instagram, stating that although he had initially dismissed the list as a “provocation,” Grigoryeva’s killing made him fear for his life. In a video the following day, Petrov shared the first threatening email he received from an alleged member of “Saw,” telling him to transfer money into a Sberbank account if he wanted to “avoid a gift.”
On July 28, self-described “openly gay” Youtuber Zhenya Svetsky shared what he called his “last video” in response to Grigoryeva’s death, saying he feared for his life because his name had also appeared on the list. In an accompanying Instagram post, he explained that he had been receiving threats from a member of “Saw” since February and that on June 20 he was given a month to leave Russia.
Recent days have also seen international support for an investigation into the suspicious murder. The German Foreign Office condemned Grigoryeva’s murder on Twitter, writing that they “expect a complete and transparent investigation of the circumstances, particularly whether her murder was related to her work for LGBTI rights.” On July 24, protestors also gathered outside of the Russian Embassy in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, to call for an investigation into the activist’s killing.
According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, a Ukrainian NGO, the appearance of more hate speech against Grigoryeva online in response to her murder is further evidence that she may have been targeted for her activism. For example, self-proclaimed anti-gay “civic activist” Timur Bulatov referred to Grigoryeva’s murder as a “moral Jihad” and asked “who’s next?” on social media.
Nikita Tomilov, a lawyer and human rights activist, shared one of Bulatov’s posts with the words:
Вот такое вот сообщение пришло мне сегодня на Wattsap от Тимура Булатова по поводу убийства Елены Григорьевой. Я более чем уверен, что связь Булатова с этим убийством есть! Сейчас я призываю все ЛГБТ организации и правозащитников писать заявление о проверке сведений на причастность Булатова к группе «Пила».
Here’s a message I just received today on Wattsap [sic] from Timur Bulatov about the murder of Yelena Grigoryeva. I am more than certain that Bulatov has a connection to this murder. I now call on all LGBT organisations and human rights defenders to file a statement requesting an investigation be opened into Bulatov’s involvement in the “Saw” group.
– lowayerTomilov, Facebook, 23 July 2019
Social media posts dedicated to Grigoryeva’s memory also include photos demonstrating her extensive involvement in activism. After moving to St Petersburg from her hometown of Veliky Novgorod, Grigoryeva became a prominent member of the Alliance of Heterosexuals and LGBT People for Equal Rights, an organisation defending LGBTQ+ rights in Russia. Grigoryeva also opposed Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014, speaking out on behalf of Ukrainian political prisoners jailed in Russia and against repressions against Crimea’s Tatar population. More recently, she demonstrated in support of the Khachaturyan sisters – three teenagers who are being charged with murder for killing their father after suffering years of physical and sexual abuse.
However, Grigoryeva’s background has also prompted debate over her political leanings. Grigoryeva was known to have supported nationalist causes in the past, and a July 2016 photo Grigoryeva posted to the popular Russian social network VKontakte displays a tattoo on her arm, which she described in the comments as “a matryoshka with a machine gun and the Odal rune.” Although the Odal rune is a symbol associated with Nazi movements, Grigoryeva’s colleagues claim that her political leanings had shifted towards more “right liberal” views over the years
В последнее время она становилась жертвой насилия и ей часто угрожали убийством. Было ли эти нападения, угрозы и теперь убийство связаны с ее политическими взглядами, которые менялись от националистических до праволиберальных и лгбт, с ее несомненно активной жизненной позицией, характером и стилем поведения – абсолютно не важно. У каждого человека есть право на жизнь. И государство Россия обязано было ей право на жизнь гарантировать.
Whether these attacks, threats and now the murder are linked to her political views, which changed from nationalist to right-wing liberal and LGBT, to her undoubtedly active lifestyle, character and patterns of behaviour – is absolutely unimportant. Every person has the right to life. And the Russian state was obliged to guarantee her the right to life
– Dinar Idrisov, Facebook, 22 July 2019
On July 23, dozens of people, including Grigoryeva’s friends and colleagues, took part in “solitary picket” protests in St Petersburg to mourn her death. Their demand is that the authorities seriously consider the idea that Grigoryeva was murdered for her political views. The next day, LGBTQ+ rights activists from Vykhod – a St Petersburg organisation (whose name is translated on their site as “Coming Out”) offering free psychological and legal support to the LGBTQ+ community – formally requested that police investigate the “Saw” group’s possible involvement in Grigoryeva’s death.
Grigoryeva was buried at a village cemetery in Russia’s Novgorod region on July 28.
But Saw’s story might not be over yet. “They think that they’ve blocked our site and that now we won’t be able to find an audience, that we won’t be able to attract the people. We’ll start soon. Everybody’s interested to find out who’s next,” reads a message posted on July 31 by one of the group’s Telegram channels.
Pride parade in Port of Spain, Trinidad on July 31, 2019. Photo by Maria Nunes. Used with permission.
The following is an edited version of a short essay posted on Facebook by Trinidadian poet Shivanee Ramlochan, on the occasion of the second year of public Pride celebrations in Trinidad and Tobago.
Pride in the bedsheets crumpled with the weight of the lover who is your other self. Pride in the boardroom with lavender garters licked with frills beneath your sharp, sharp suit. Pride in the whip coiled like a sleeping snake next to your hymnal, nestled in the drawer for your best churchgoing panties. Pride in the parking lot on the fifth floor of the Port of Spain high-rise, after the expensive dinner, before the slow drive home, savouring what you have eaten, soft thanks in your throat for the man who passed between your lips and called you good, good food.
Pride parade in Port of Spain, Trinidad on July 31, 2019. Photo by Maria Nunes. Used with permission.
Proud to be out, placard waving, the bottom inherited from generations of buxom Black Rock aunties bubbling, a small rainbow flag iridesced onto your cheek, for quinting and for kissing. Proud to be in, curled up in bed, witnessing the revolution via livestream, holding your girlfriend’s hand, two towers of manga framing your pink laptop, its plastic case bejewelled in “Trans Lives Matter” and “Support Your Sisters, not Just Your Cisters”. Proud to be breathing queerasfuckly whether you star in protests or blog about them, whether you put your body on the line or your voice on the threaded tweet, declaiming.
Pride parade in Port of Spain, Trinidad on July 31, 2019. Photo by Maria Nunes. Used with permission.
Pride is beautiful. And it is political. And it is born of a bloody, mutinous theirstory, from the roots of a radical understanding that acceptance was not the only striveable goal, at least not acceptance from the come-to-Christer, from the corporation, from the oligarchy, from the evangelical, from the elite. And so whether your body was visible in the parade, or not, to exist queerly is its own breathtaking defiance of the statutes of raw hatred. You are alive. All the cells in you, incandescently gay. Irrepressibly lesbian. Outstandingly bisexual. Terrifically transgender. Indisputably intersex. Notwithstanding societal bullshit, non-binary. Queer as quantum joy.
Pride parade in Port of Spain Trinidad on July 31, 2019. Photo by Maria Nunes. Used with permission.
See? That’s a parade. You are a parade. You choose to be here, as you are, on your own terms, in your own skin, existing. Breathing. Raised fist or clasped hand. Atheist or acolyte. Devout or ill-disciplined. You have outlived something old and gnarled and toxic, something that has wanted you or someone like you dead, converted or decommissioned, in our time stretching back to antiquity.
You deserve to be proud of yourself, you rare, riotous beauty. Go on, give yourself a huge, rafter-rattling cheer.
Shivanee Ramlochan’s 2017 poetry collection, Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, was shortlisted for the 2018 Felix Dennis Award for best first collection.
On June 13, Brazil’s top court ruled that homophobia and transphobia should be framed as crimes under Brazil’s existing racism legislation.
There are no laws in Brazil’s penal code that explicitly address prejudice or violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The court says the new ruling addressed a legislative omission that failed to protect Brazil’s LGBTQ+ population.
Those who commit acts of violence against LGBTQ+ peoples could be punished with prison sentences of one to five years. Those are the current penalties for discrimination based on ethnicity, skin color, race, religion, or nationality according to a penal code provision in place since 1989.
The 11-member Supreme Court voted 8-3 for the criminalization in response to a lawsuit moved by the Brazilian Association of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transvestite, Transgender, and Intersex (ABGLT, in Portuguese) and the Popular Socialist Party (PPS).
Dia 13 de junho de 2019: o Brasil se torna o 43º país no mundo a criminalizar a homofobia e a transfobia.
Conforme a decisão do STF, se torna crime “praticar, induzir ou incitar a discriminação ou preconceito” em razão da orientação sexual da pessoa.#ÉCrimeSim #LoveWins #AEQSE pic.twitter.com/JUHavYGFJE
— #AgoraÉQueSãoElas (@AEQSE_) June 13, 2019
June 13, 2019: Brazil becomes the 43rd country in the world to criminalize homophobia and transphobia.
According to the STF decision, it becomes a crime to “practice, induce or incite discrimination or prejudice” because of the sexual orientation of the person.
Image by Grupo Gay da Bahia, used with permission.
In addition to punishing acts of violence, the court’s decision makes it a crime to deny educational and professional opportunities, as well as access to public services and government buildings, based on sexual orientation. The promotion of discriminatory attitudes or events on social networks and other media could also be punished under Brazil’s racism law.
Brazil has one of the highest murder rates of LGBTQ+ people in the world, coming behind Mexico, the United States, and Colombia.
In 2018, 420 LGBTQ+ people were killed — one every 20 hours, according to the Bahia’s Gay Group, one of the oldest LGBTQ+ rights groups in Brazil. Of those, 72 percent were homicides, and 24 percent were suicides.
When stating her vote for criminalization, Justice Cármen Lúcia said that “all prejudice is violence, all discrimination is a cause of suffering.” She noted that discrimination often begins at home, separating families and friends, and added:
Não há como negar a jurisdição a todos a quem foi negado, às vezes, o direito à vida. Na maioria das vezes, o direito à liberdade e à dignidade, pela ausência de uma legislação ainda 30 anos depois do início de vigência dessa Constituição.
We can’t deny jurisdiction to those who have been denied, at times, the right to life. Most of the times, the right to freedom and dignity, due to the absence of legislation still 30 years after the entry of this constitution.
Justice Luiz Fux, another vote pro-criminalization, said that “symbolic violence is as alarming as physical violence” and that a law that identifies homophobic and transphobic behaviors as such can help to change the people’s culture. He says “there is a global concern about the epidemic levels of homophobic violence,” but legislators remain inert and oblivious.
Over the past 20 years, there have been several attempts to introduce legislation that criminalized homophobia in Brazil, but the religious and conservative culture kept them from advancing in Congress.
Legal debate divides opinions
Fernanda Gonçalves, a criminal lawyer based in Rio de Janeiro, has told Global Voices that some legal experts say that the decision violates the so-called “principle of legal reserve,” which means that a criminal offense can’t exist without an existing law:
No Brasil, temos três poderes independentes – Legislativo, Executivo, e Judiciário. A função característica do Legislativo é criar leis e a do Judiciário é julgar. Enquadrar atos homotransfóbicos na lei de racismo via interpretação, em tese, extrapola a função do Judiciário, por mais nobre que seja a intenção e a causa envolvida.
In Brazil, we have three independent powers — Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary. The characteristic role of the Legislative is to create laws and the one of the Judiciary is to judge. Framing homotransphobic acts in the law of racism via interpretation, in theory, extrapolates the function of the Judiciary, even if the intentions and the causes are noble.
She says there is a danger when the Supreme Court, composed of justices appointed by the president rather than elected by the people, creates a criminal law:
E se, no futuro, um Presidente da República eventualmente nomeia ministros do STF que decidem que a Lei Anti-terrorismo se estende para atos praticados por ativistas e integrantes de movimentos sociais? Abre-se um precedente perigosíssimo.
What if, in the future, a president eventually appoints justices who decide that the anti-terrorism law extends to acts practiced by activists and members of social movements? It opens a dangerous precedent.
A few activists and researchers have cited the mass incarceration of the country’s black and poor population as yet another issue to be considered in creating another penal provision. Brazil has the third-largest prison population in the world after the United States and China.
That opinion is shared by Iran Giusti, an activist and founder of Casa 1, a space in Sao Paulo that welcomes LGBTQ+ people who have been expelled from their homes. Speaking with Global Voices, Iran he says we must be cautious:
Precisamos rever todo o nosso sistema penal e carcerário. Quem é punido no país? Quem é encarcerado no Brasil? Basta olhar os dados para saber que são as pessoas negras.
We need to consider our entire criminal and prison system. Who is punished in this country? Who is incarcerated in Brazil? All one need to do is look at the data to conclude that it’s black people.
It was also by a Supreme Court ruling, in 2013, that same-sex marriage was made legal in Brazil. The same decision grants gay couples the right to adopt children.
Victories and setbacks move in parallel
Foto: Antonio Cruz/Agência Brasil, use permitted with attribution.
The ruling contrasts with Brazil’s current political landscape as president Jair Bolsonaro was elected in 2018 on an explicitly homophobic platform. In the past, he said that he would rather have a dead son than a gay son. Recently, he spoke out against gay tourism in Brazil.
Acreditamos que o punitivismo não deveria ser o caminho para regulamentação, mas, por enquanto, que vivemos em uma sociedade que só se reorganiza a partir de leis, é uma determinação importante. #lgbt #lgbtqia+ #transgender #vidastransimportam #vidaslbgtsimportam #pride pic.twitter.com/iY3YwjTfoO
— Erica Malunguinho (@malunguinho) June 13, 2019
We believe that punitivism should not be the way for regulation, but for now, since we live in a society tha only reorganizes itself with laws, it is an important decision. #lgbt #lgbtqia #transgender #translivesmatter #lgbtslivesmatter #pride
Earlier this year, Jean Wyllys, one of the first openly gay Brazilian legislators, gave up his seat at the Chamber of Deputies after receiving death threats. He says the threats were ignored by the federal police. Another gay man, representative David Miranda, took over Jean’s seat. In late May, when the Supreme Court’s deliberation on homophobia was resumed, David tweeted:
Amanhã estaremos acompanhando o retorno dessa importante votação no Supremo Tribunal Federal. Não podemos fechar os olhos para tantos e tantas de nós que são violentadas e morrem diariamente.#LGBTfobiaMata #ÉCrimeSim #CriminalizaSTF pic.twitter.com/iKYWnRpbtC
— David Miranda (@davidmirandario) May 22, 2019
Tomorrow we will be following this important vote in the Supreme Court. We cannot close our eyes to so many of us who are abused and die daily. #LGBTphobiaKills #ItsACrime #CriminaliseItSTF
In early May, David proposed a new bill that aims to curb violence against LGBTQ+ people. On a Facebook post, he explained:
Se aprovada, essa Lei poderá garantir uma série de medidas protetivas que poderão salvar milhares de vidas. Será um avanço civilizatório importante em tempos de obscurantismo. Mais um passo em direção à construção de uma sociedade verdadeiramente mais justa e democrática.
If approved, this bill could guarantee a series of protective measures that will save thousands of lives. It will be an important civilisational advance in times of obscurantism. One more step towards building a truly just and democratic society.
Participants demanded equal rights, including same-sex marriage, and were able to educate people about the diversity of the queer community, well beyond the term LGBTQ+.