BUILDING BRIDGES: EUROVISION AND THE LGBT COMMUNITY

By Carla Diot
Staff Writer

On May 23rd, 2015, millions of people tuned in to watch the Grand Final of the Eurovision Song Contest. The song competition, celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, brings countries from both inside and outside of Europe to present performances hand-selected by each competing country. The final brought 27 countries together to compete for a trophy and the opportunity to host the competition the next year. Receiving 365 points total, Sweden emerged victorious, with its energetic and uplifting performance of “Heroes,” by Måns Zelmerlöw.

The song contest was initially conceived as a light-hearted means of bringing countries together after the divisive and destructive World War II. Countries who joined the European Broadcasting Union were eligible to participate, including countries outside of Europe’s geographic borders, leading to entries from Morocco, Turkey, and newcomer Australia. However, with its 60th anniversary, it seems appropriate for the European based song contest to return to its roots by honoring the theme “Building Bridges.” The theme is timely, given the state of Europe in 2015. The theme comes at a time where Greece and Great Britain’s possible exits from the European Union have become common points of speculation among the European press, and the European Union is fighting to keep those bridges from burning. Furthermore, instability in Ukraine has inflamed tensions between Russia and the European Union, causing Ukraine to withdraw from the 2015 edition.

While Eurovision is seen as a campy celebration that has brought viewers dancing babushkas, monsters singing metal, and an Ukrainian disco ball, it has also been considered a significant indicator of the political conflicts rocking Europe. Songs with political messages are explicitly banned from Eurovision, but countries often use song titles or other symbols to evoke political messages. The most recent example of this comes from Armenia, which has launched a campaign for political recognition of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. The discourse on the recognition of the genocide seeped into the Eurovision contest after the Armenian entry for this year was forced to change the name of its song from “Don’t Deny” to “Face the Shadow.” This was due to accusations from Turkey and Azerbaijan that the song title was a direct reference to their denial of the Armenian genocide. The official music video also garnered controversy for featuring images of individuals in World War I attire disappearing. The group performing the song, Genealogy, includes artists who are reportedly descendants of survivors of the genocide. The group, as well as the head of the Armenian Eurovision delegation, have denied the song’s political involvement, stating instead that its themes of genealogy and family instead focus on love and unity. Regardless, the performance was controversial, and Armenia was awarded only 22 points (compared to Sweden’s victory, consisting of 365 points total).

One of the characteristics of Eurovision has been its inclusion of LGBT audiences and performers. A first milestone for Eurovision was transgender singer Dana International’s performance in 1998. Her performance of the song “Diva” dominated the contest, as she secured a victory of 172 points. Last year’s contest saw the victory of drag queen Conchita Wurst. Overnight, Conchita Wurst, Thomas Neuwirth, became a sensation, being invited to return to Eurovision to perform. Wurst was also able to use her fame to launch a political platform, addressing the European Parliament on the subject of discrimination across Europe. She was also invited to perform at the United Nations Office in Vienna. The timing of Wurst’s victory was poignant, considering that it came in the midst of debate over Russia’s law banning the promotion of non-traditional sexual relationships, a law that was interpreted as clearly targeting the LGBT population. Even after Wurst’s rise to stardom, she faced opposition from the Russian government. A parade honoring Wurst organized by Russian fans was banned by the Russian government, who argued that the parade would result in clashes between activists and their opponents. Subsequently, speaking in Saint Petersburg, President Putin claimed that while Wurst had the right to live as she pleased, her manner of portraying herself was aggressive and against traditional values.

The controversy over Russia’s anti-LGBT law and further debate over inclusive rights for LGBT populations across Europe continued to make its presence known in Eurovision’s 2015 contest. In Vienna, the city celebrated its tolerance by installing traffic lights that displayed images of gay and lesbian couples ahead of the contest. Wurst returned to Eurovision as a co-host, inciting another round of criticism from Russian politicians. When Polina Gagarina, the Russian entry, posted an Instagram photo posing with Wurst during the semifinals, she faced backlash from Vitaly Milonov, a member of the Legislative Assembly of Saint Petersburg and anti-gay activist who argued that Gagarina had no right to speak for Russia.

The contest itself attempted to discard the anti-gay controversy, installing sound reduction technology in order to prevent booing of Gagarina’s performance. This came after Russia’s entry, the Tolmachevy Sisters, were booed during their performance in 2014. This year, Gagarina’s performance was immensely popular, securing 303 points. Despite the stunning results, hosts reminded the audience not to boo Russia, by stating that the results were about the music, as opposed to the politics. The contest continued to include symbols of acceptance, with Lithuania’s act including same-sex kisses during their performance. Although same-sex acts have been legal since 1993, the move was seen as progress towards acceptance of LGBT populations in Lithuania.

This year’s Eurovision was incredibly competitive, with Sweden, Russia, and Italy going head to head against one another. In the end, Sweden secured a victory with Måns Zelmerlöw’s performance of “Heroes.” The victory was seen as controversial among LGBT circles, however, as they had noted that Zelmerlöw was responsible for homophobic comments in the past, including an infamous appearance on a cooking show, where he deemed homosexuality abnormal. Zelmerlöw has since apologized for the comments, and demonstrated his support for the gay community through acts such as hosting events specifically for the LGBT community. In his acceptance of the Eurovision trophy, Zelmerlöw thanked his fans in an inclusive speech, stating in reference to his song that “we are all heroes, no matter who we love, who we are, or what we believe in”. Regardless, his victory stirred debate among LGBT circles.

Since its inception, Eurovision has developed into a safe-space for the European LGBT community. Europe has since seen a positive movement towards the protection of rights for sexual and gender minorities. In April, a groundbreaking law came into effect in Malta that recognized gender identity as an inherent part of a person. This provided transgender and genderqueer people with procedures that would allow them to change their gender identity on government documents. In the same month, the Council of Europe passed a resolution on transgender rights, encouraging members of the council to pass laws that would protect transgender individuals from hate crimes, provide them with adequate health care services, and allow them the opportunity to have their gender recognized by the state. Most recently, Ireland became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage via a public referendum, with sixty-two per cent of voters supporting the initiative. Although these can all be seen as victories for the provision of rights for sexual minorities, there are steps remaining. However, it is clear that despite Eurovision’s attempts to remain apolitical, its tolerance has allowed it to become a safe and accepting space for the LGBT community.

Photo by European Parliament

LGBT RIGHTS IN UGANDA: ADDRESSING A RETROGRESSIVE LAW

By Viet Tran
Contributing Writer

On August 1, the Constitutional Court of Uganda struck down a retrogressive anti-gay law that imposed a sentence of life imprisonment and criminalizes any form of sexual relations or the promotion of such relations. In a courtroom in Kampala, Uganda, five judges announced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill invalid because it had been passed during a parliamentary session that lacked quorum. Even though this is a small victory for the LGBT community in Uganda, the courts nullified the legislation in a manner that would allow a similar discriminating measure to be undertaken or for Parliament to pass the bill again.

Uganda did not always harbor this anti-gay sentiment. Under colonial law, homosexuality was illegal, but it wasn’t a political issue; rarely if ever, was someone arrested or prosecuted because people usually turned a blind eye to it. However, that atmosphere shifted completely in 2009 when American Christian evangelicals entered Ugandan communities, preaching of a ‘gay movement’ that claimed homosexuality was targeting Ugandan children in an attempt to destroy traditional values. The conservative visitors addressed the Ugandan Parliament with a compelling narrative that further fueled the doubt many Africans already have of the post-colonial west; they also stressed the importance of parental guidance in Uganda, which, with nearly 50 percent of its population under 14 years old, is the world’s most youthful nation. The movement gained even more momentum in February 2014, when President Museveni signed the bill into law. In response, many activists declared that, “President Museveni has legally murdered Ugandan gays.”

An Analysis of the Current Situation

As a response to the enactment of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, the United States imposed several sanctions on Uganda. Cuts have been made to aid, funding, such as that for the construction of a health institute, stopped and even a scheduled military exercise was dropped. But will these economic sanctions be effective in stopping such discriminatory legislation or will they produce even more issues for Ugandan population? The implementation of international sanctions throughout history raises questions about their effectiveness. Dr. Kim Nossal from Queen’s University states that sanctions are legal instruments which are used to enforce law. However, Nossal suggests that these “legal instruments” merely reveal the imbalances of power in the contemporary world order. Repeatedly, the actions of the United Nations (UN) demonstrate a perpetual harm to the impoverished and the innocent, in a futile attempt to discipline their leaders. 



If we look back in history, there are various case studies depicting the ineffective use of international sanctions. The case in Libya highlights how imposed sanctions created medical complications for the civilian population. The air embargo blocked the evacuation of a large chronically ill population, and affected the delivery of medical supplies that were often damaged in transit or unable to reach Libya on time to be useful. Another example illustrating the inequities of sanctions is the 1990 embargo in Iraq. The economic sanction resulted in extreme food shortages, creating an unstable and unsustainable infrastructure that Iraq continues to struggle with to this day.



An Alternative Medium

Is there a more efficient way to address human rights violations in Uganda? I attended a panel discussion hosted by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. called “Freedom of Expression and LGBTI Rights in Africa.” Panelist Richard Lusimbo of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) was an honored guest and I recall his words suggesting the need to raise greater awareness; he said that “our actions are strong in Uganda, but what about our brothers and sisters in Nigeria – before you know they may be passing this discriminating legislation.” Furthermore, I had the privilege of speaking with Prince Ermias Sahle Selassie, grandson of the last monarch of Ethiopia, Emperor Haile Selassie, who said that in order to tackle human rights issues, we need an “educated populace.” In both of these statements, implied is the need for more awareness, efficient communication and the institution of effective modes of education that can bring the said awareness to communities. There is a need to promote intelligent discourse and to create avenues to understand that LGBT rights are human rights.

When Ugandan politicians and members of Parliament sponsored the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in 2009, the roots of the legislation were sermons made by American Christian evangelists; they spoke of a “gay agenda” that threatened the core family values to which a majority of Ugandans strongly adhere. Clearly, the initiative to create this bill stemmed from a “discredited education” that socialized homosexuality as unacceptable. Instead of imposing international sanctions, an alternative, sustainable and progressive resolution could be the creation of liaisons who are able to provide spaces of open dialogue and representation to re-educate communities and re-socialize the dissented norm of homosexuality in Uganda.

Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts introduced the International Human Rights Defense Act of 2014 to Congress in June with the hope of creating a LGBT State Department representative position; the position is meant to help coordinate LGBT policies for all bureaus of the U.S. State Department and in international programs of other federal agencies. The legislation currently has 24 co-sponsors in the U.S. Senate and is supported by over 10 prominent human and civil rights NGOs.

Following the vote in favor of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill earlier this year, Uganda’s LGBT and HIV activists mobilized to prevent mass discrimination and protect HIV service provisions throughout Uganda. However, UN Special Envoy Speciosa Wandira-Kazibe did not utilize her platform as a UN representative to address the condemnations occurring in Africa. With one of the highest prevalence rates of HIV/AIDS in the world and the infections occurring the most among MSMs (men who have sex with men), the lack of representation for this community emphasizes the necessity for a more competent and outspoken envoy. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay publicly stated that anti-gay legislation was a violation of a “host of fundamental human rights” that “will have a negative impact on efforts to prevent transmission and provide treatment for people living with HIV.” In one instance, when Wandira-Kazibwe was asked to address a prominent Ugandan seeking asylum – she asserted her inability to take action because there lay no proof that gay Ugandan activists were actually being persecuted. Wandira-Kazibwe’s failure to represent not only the HIV/AIDS community and its activists, but also the greater population of Africa, demonstrates her tacit compliance with Museveni’s anti-gay legislation. A recommendation for her termination would be appropriate seeing as she has failed to uphold the credibility and impartiality of the position, and lacks the ability to both promote greater awareness of the issue and protect the rights of her large African constituency.

We live in a generation where media pervades and education is the foundation to understanding one another. While the current invalidation of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda provides a moment of relief, we have to understand that the animosity towards homosexuals is instilled within the nation’s people. Instead of imposing economic sanctions to repudiate the legislative discrimination, the United States can take a more sustainable approach by creating a foundation to educate the people on these issues. It must be internalized in social and international norms that LGBT rights are indeed human rights, not just to us or the people of Uganda, but to the rest of the world as well.

Photo by Viet Tran

THE STRUGGLE FOR RIGHTS WITHIN UGANDA’S LGBT COMMUNITY: AN AMERICAN DEBATE RELOCATED

by Andrew Muse-Fisher
Staff Writer

In late 2009, the Ugandan parliament introduced a bill that would allow life imprisonment of homosexuals, and in some instances, the death penalty. Though the bill expired after having been tabled for two years, the Ugandan parliament passed a similar bill in late 2013. [1] President Yoweri Museveni, after some hesitation, signed the bill into law in early 2014. [2] Though it may appear as if the president and parliament were just acting to meet the demands of the Ugandan majority, there is much more going on in the background. In the battle over LGBT rights in Uganda, those in favor of the bill have received support from American evangelical missionaries. On the other side of the debate, those against the bill have heard support from international groups and individuals, including U.S. President Barack Obama. Indeed, it appears that this is not simply Uganda’s fight, but also represents an international “spillover” effect from the ongoing debate over LGBT rights in the United States.

Prior to the Anti-Homosexuality Bill introduced in 2009, homosexuality was already illegal in Uganda. The point of the bill was to go one step further and make “aggravated homosexuality” punishable by death. [3] “Aggravated homosexuality” is defined as repeated homosexual behavior and/or homosexual behavior by people who are HIV positive. [4] To many, this came as an extreme addition to an already draconian set of laws. The law outlawing homosexuality had been in place for nearly a century, so the sudden necessity of a new law suggests it is politically motivated; the old law is still an effective discriminatory instrument. A window into those considerations might be found in the fact that Minister of Parliament David Bahati, before introducing the bill, attended a meeting with evangelicals from the United States who promote converting homosexuals to heterosexuality through prayer. [5] The timing was symbolic in that Bahati, when proposing the bill, chose to highlight a link between American evangelical influence and the bill, albeit indirectly.

American voices also spoke against the legislation. Both Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton were quick to warn the Ugandan parliament against passing the bill. Furthermore, Congress reacted by passing a resolution to advise Uganda and other countries against taking such extreme action against the homosexual community. [6] If stern words from the American government were not enough to cause hesitation within the Ugandan leadership, others have raised the issue that the legislation might conflict with the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which allows participating countries to receive preferential access to U.S. markets. [7] It then became a question of whether or not Uganda wanted to risk its preferential economic status in order to further suppress the rights of homosexuals. Ultimately, those speaking against the legislation succeeded in suppressing the bill long enough so that it expired. This, however, did not prevent increased homophobia in the country, nor did it prevent the resurgence of the bill in 2013.

The Anti-Homosexuality Bill introduced in 2013 is very similar to the 2009 bill, though the punishment of execution was taken out, possibly in response to the outrage of international organizations. Despite the changes, the bill met similar opposition. [8] Secretary of State John Kerry compared the law to apartheid, while the World Bank withheld a $90 million loan that would have gone towards improving health in Uganda. [9] With these and other sanctions facing the nation, it would seem that the Ugandan parliament would have acted quickly to vote the bill down. This assumption seemed especially valid in light of a change of heart on the part of some of the American evangelicals. When the second version of the bill surfaced and gained traction, evangelical groups in the U.S. claimed they neither played a role in influencing the passing of the bill nor support its harsh punishments. [10] Not everyone abandoned their support for the old position: pastor Scott Lively for instance, who gained support for the bill in 2009 continued to openly support the bill. [11] At the same time, Bryan Fischer from the American Family Association mistakenly celebrated the passing of the bill in 2012 as a chance for the U.S. to do the same. [12] That is, Fischer saw Uganda’s progress against the LGBT community as an example of what the U.S. could achieve. With such contradicting opinions from evangelical groups, and international groups taking a strict stance against the bill, it is surprising that the bill passed in December of 2013. In the end, it was left to President Museveni to decide the fate of the bill. At first, he was hesitant because a quorum was not present when the vote on the bill occurred; eventually he agreed to sign the bill into law if he could be offered proof that homosexuality was not genetic. [13] After consulting a committee of scientists, Museveni signed the bill. He sent a letter to President Obama stating, “Their unanimous conclusion was that homosexuality, contrary to my earlier thinking, was behavioral and not genetic. It was learnt and could be unlearnt.” [14] The Anti-Homosexuality bill became law, yet neither parliament nor the Ugandan people offered any major opposition. Instead, the law seemed to reflect the will of the country’s Christian majority.

Uganda’s population is 85% Christian, which gives power to religious officials in shaping public opinion, especially on an issue concerning sexuality. [15] It is not surprising that religious beliefs openly overlap with politics and that a majority then is in favor of limiting the rights of homosexuals. It is quite possible the evangelicals used this to their advantage in supporting the bill. Evangelicals spread their message largely through broadcasting networks that air mostly religious programming. This programming is a mixture of moderate and more conservative belief structures that, to the audience, are nearly indistinguishable. Evangelicals use these and other networks to gain funds, which then go into social and religious programs as well as toward reinforcing the viewpoints of these groups. [16] This task is made easy by the fact that the majority is already Christian. Why would parliament or the president refuse passage of the bill when the Christian majority wants it? Lydia Boyd makes the argument that the people are not only in favor of the bill because of religious beliefs. Boyd states that it is also because of a Ugandan mentality that promotes respectability and limits freedom based on the idea that too much independence causes problems within society. [17] Though it is not clear whether it is religious beliefs or Ugandan mentality that is more prominent in shaping opinion against homosexuals, the two have enough overlap to help explain this common opinion. This opinion, regardless of the law, is a major factor in reducing the social acceptance of the homosexual community. When the law passed, a Ugandan tabloid responded by listing the names of 200 people it believed were homosexual. This caused Ugandans to act out violently against those listed, as well as other members of the Ugandan LGBT community. [18] Even when the 2009 version was tabled, some Ugandans denounced the homosexual community, declaring them sub-human, threats to children, and “un-African.” [19] These declarations testify to the fear and hate Ugandans directed towards homosexuals, the sentiment providing a reason for the bill itself, and its passage providing reassurance for the outraged. In passing the bill into law, parliament was only working to mitigate the fears of the majority of the people.

With the wants of the Ugandan people met, the question remains of the role of the United States in the debate over homosexuals in Uganda. Evangelical missionaries used religious and social values of the Ugandan people to promote and influence the passing of the bill, while the U.S. government appealed to Uganda’s existing trade agreements and need for aid. The fact that either of these groups played such a large role in Uganda’s debate is reminiscent of the debate over gay marriage in the U.S. The opposing sides are the same, but there are two main differences: the setting and the stakes. In the U.S., homosexuals were and are fighting for marriage equality. In Uganda, homosexuals were fighting to avoid life in prison. The outcomes, however, differ greatly. Before Uganda passed the Anti-Homosexuality bill, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down DOMA, moving in the exact opposite direction. Because of this, the U.S. has established a stronger platform to make similar advances on an international scale.

It is not unheard of that the United States has used the conflicts of other nations to promote its values, but it is still uncommon for the U.S. to take such a solid stance when LGBT rights are concerned. It was only relatively recently that Obama came out in favor of gay marriage and what’s more, Americans, regardless of political party, are increasingly likely to support marriage equality. The country is making steady progress to the extent that its message of equality is spilling beyond its borders. If the U.S. government keeps up its support for the LGBT community, its efforts, though against the will of the Ugandan people, may yet stand as a precedent to continue speaking out against countries that discriminate against and diminish the rights of LGBT communities.

Photo by Kaytee Riek

Notes

[1] Englander, Daniel. “Protecting the Human Rights of LGBT People in the Wake of Uganda’s Anti Homosexuality Bill, 2009.” Emory International Law Review. 25.3 (2011): 1263-1316.
[2] “New Anti-Homosexuality Laws Raise International Concerns.” Vax 12.2 (2014): 3.
[3] Ewins, Lucy Heenan. “Gross Violation: Why Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act Threatens Its Trade Benefits with the United States.” Boston College International & Comparative Law Review 34.1 (2011): 147-171.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] “New Anti-Homosexuality Laws Raise International Concerns.” Vax 12.2 (2014): 3.
[9] Pulliam Bailey, Sarah. “Evangelical Leaders Decry Uganda’s Antigay Law.” Christian Century. 131.7 (2014): 16-17
[10] Ibid.
[11] “U.S. Evangelicals Played a Key Role in Uganda’s Notorious Anti-Gay Bill.” Church and State 67.4 (2014): 21
[12] Ibid.
[13] Dockerman, Eliana. “Ugandan President to Sign Anti-Homosexuality Bill.” Time.com (2014): 1
[14] “New Anti-Homosexuality Laws Raise International Concerns.” Vax 12.2 (2014): 3.
[15] “Listen, then Speak: Uganda’s Anti-Gay Bill is Making Cross-Cultural Relations More Complex than Ever.” Christianity Today 54.2 (2010): 53.
[16] Kaoma, Kanya. “How US Clergy Brought Hate to Uganda.” Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. 17.1 (2010): 20-23.
[17] Boyd, Lydia. “The Problem with Freedom: Homosexuality and Human Rights in Uganda.” Anthropological Quarterly 86.3 (2013): 697-724.
[18] “U.S. Evangelicals Played a Key Role in Uganda’s Notorious Anti-Gay Bill.” Church and State 67.4 (2014): 21
[19] Englander, Daniel. “Protecting the Human Rights of LGBT People in the Wake of Uganda’s Anti Homosexuality Bill, 2009.” Emory International Law Review. 25.3 (2011): 1263-1316.