Google “Idaho” and “gay” in an average American’s mind, and you’ll get some strange results. Maybe something about Idaho becoming the 19th state to legalize same-sex marriage (although an appeals court has put the ruling on hold for now). Or maybe something about Governor Butch Otter’s wife, Gay, or his name, which is very gay.
To LGBT activists elsewhere in the world, IDAHO has a very different meaning: the International Day Against Homophobia, which takes place this year on Saturday, May 17. IDAHO—recently renamed IDAHOT to include transphobia in the acronym—is, as the name implies, an international day of parades, flash mobs, toothless political pronouncements, and other statements in support of the idea that LGBT people deserve to be free from violence and discrimination.
The fact that most Americans have no idea that the day even exists should give us pause, especially as the hard-won gains here seem to be provoking a backlash all around the world. Our ignorance and isolation is itself part of the problem.
Created in 2004, IDAHOT itself is run by a small nerve center of international activists, but mostly it serves as a focal point for campaigns around the world. The first page (of 11) of events on the IDAHOT web page includes events in Iran, Mongolia, Greece, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, South Africa—you get the picture. U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon, as well as the directors of UNAIDS and the UN Development Programme, have all issued statements.
Some IDAHOT events are being planned and executed under threats of violence and persecution. In China, for example, Fan Popo, a leading LGBT activist and director of the documentary film Mama Rainbow, told me that all but one of this year’s IDAHOT events have been shut down by the government—and the one that went on (on May 16) took place while the organizer was in a police station. In South Africa, where the legal regime is favorable to LGBT people but social homophobia is on the rise, a full day of films, panels and performances in planned for Johannesburg. And in Russia, a flash mob is set to take place in the center of St. Petersburg, coordinated by Coming Out St. Petersburg, one of the organizations targeted by the Putin regime.
But not much in the United States. All that’s listed so far is a party in Omaha and a grassroots “day of action” in New Orleans.
There are many reasons for this relative lack of attention. Typical American exceptionalism, for one. Who cares in Kansas about what happens in Kyrgyzstan? We don’t do “international” here.
Another reason is the American nonprofit industry, with behemoths like the Human Rights Campaign focused on their own agendas and development campaigns. These organizations don’t raise money by being part of a vast international network; they raise money by branding themselves and their initiatives. IDAHOT doesn’t generate ROI.
And then there’s the negative focus of the day itself, which seems to run against our sunny American optimism. Pride, sure. But a day focused on the continued violence against LGBT people in far-off places? Sounds like a bummer.
Yet while Americans may be unaware of homophobia around the world, homophobes around the world are quite aware of Americans.
First, there’s our own homophobia-for-export industry. On May 19, PBS will air the film God Loves Uganda, which exposes the work of American evangelicals to spread lies about LGBT people in Africa. The same people—Scott Lively, the World Congress of Families, the Alliance Defending Freedom, Exodus Global Alliance, and many more — have also spread their venom in South America, Russia, and elsewhere. I won’t go into the details here; watch the film to see the evidence for yourself.
Second, there’s the increasing power of the homosexuality-is-Western meme, particularly used as a wedge issue by opportunistic politicians. Russia’s Vladimir Putin is the best known example—he recently blamed the crisis (if that’s what it is) in the Ukraine on “gay Nazis.” But the same meme has appeared in such far-flung places as Brunei, Kyrgyzstan (there it is again), Tanzania, and Jamaica. Remarkably, in all these widely disparate cultures, politicians claim that homosexuality is a Western plot. As if our own homophobes, and these countries’ own LGBT people, simply didn’t exist.
And yet, there is a certain truth to these outrageous claims: thanks to globalization, America’s current infatuation with all things gay has become more visible around the world. As a result, many countries have become volatile mixtures of 1950s attitudes and 2010s media. Children may watch Glee on their smartphones, but their parents still think gay people are pedophiles.
The fact is, Dan Savage’s encouragement notwithstanding, things are not getting better. In many parts of the world, they are getting worse.
Many in the United States are familiar with Uganda’s new anti-homosexuality bill. And indeed, according to a harrowing report by Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), the post-“Kill The Gays” reality is one of arrests, prosecutions, torture, harassment, closures of HIV clinics, and threats of further legislation. In the four months since the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was signed into law, SMUG has documented 162 incidents of attacks, intimidation, and other harassment.
But Uganda is just the beginning. Elsewhere in Africa, new anti-gay laws have been proposed in Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. Anti-gay violence has been increasing across the continent.
Likewise, Russia’s “Anti-Propaganda Law” has caused a spike in anti-gay violence in Russia, and similar measures are to be proposed in neighboring countries Kazakhstan, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Georgia, and, yes, Kyrgyzstan.
Nor are things “getting better” in Asia. China has recently cracked down on LGBT activists, arresting nine in a sweep on Wednesday, and four more on Friday. The tiny sultanate of Brunei, as reported in The Daily Beast, has implemented a harsh form of shariah which threatens women, gays, and non-Muslims. South Korea has even redefined the word “love” to mean only “a feeling or affection for a person of the opposite sex.” I guess no girls love their mothers in South Korea.
In short, while we in the United States face inward and celebrate the remarkable cascade of good news on marriage equality and other issues, LGBT people in many parts of the world are literally and justifiably afraid for their lives. Some of this deterioration is a backlash against the high-profile progress of gay rights in the United States and Europe, some is instigated by Americans themselves, and some is political opportunism. But on precisely the day in which LGBT activists and allies around the world are coming together to fight homophobia and transphobia, Americans seem blissfully ignorant.