Sarah Clarke works for PEN International as International Policy and Advocacy Manager. She leads on policy development across the organisation and frequently speaks about these issues at international conferences and to the media.
On 27 March 2016, Dmitry Tsilikin, a writer and culture critic, was stabbed to death in his St Petersburg apartment. Days later, a neo-Nazi student admitted the murder and claimed that he had met Tsilikin online and carried out the killing as crusade “against a certain social group” believed to refer to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT).
Less than a month later, over 6,000 km away in Dhaka, Bangladesh, men posing as couriers gained entry to the home of Xulhaz Mannan, an editor at Bangladesh’s first and only LGBT magazine, Roopbaan. Using machetes, they killed him alongside his friend and fellow LGBT activist, Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy. Ansar-al-Islam, an Al-Qaida-linked group, claimed responsibility for the murders, stating that Mannan’s open declaration of his homosexuality, his ‘coming out’ on the internet in the weeks before the attack warranted his killing according to Sharia Law. Days later, Bangladesh’s Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal stated, “[O]ur society does not allow any movement that promotes unnatural sex.”
Two brutal murders, in profoundly different societies, linked by a common aim: to silence the writer and terrify those who dare to exist and express their sexual identity.
Violence against LGBT writers and artists, and attacks on their freedom of expression, is of enormous concern to the PEN community, and a growing area of our research, advocacy and protection work.
The right to freedom of expression for members of sexual and gender minorities should be universally respected as part of the most fundamental human rights, as enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While acknowledging the extraordinary successes of the LGBT activist movement around the world in slowly but steadily achieving the repeal of laws criminalising same sex relations – most recently in Belize and the Seychelles – in many states deeply disturbing patterns of censorship and repression remain entrenched and are even growing. As of November 2017, more than seventy countries around the world – over half the globe – still criminalise same-sex relations. In at least eight the death penalty may be applied.
Many of the most repressive criminal and civil laws relating to sexual orientation and gender identity focus particularly on freedom of expression. PEN recognised this when we formalised our position on LGBT and free expression in a landmark resolution at our 80th Congress in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan 2014.
Laws and policies which criminalise same-sex relationships and gender identity, particularly in regard to its expression, directly lead to violence and discrimination, and further human rights abuses such as hate crimes, death threats and torture. PEN America’s report Silenced Voices, Threatened Lives examined the impact of Nigeria’s 2014 “anti-gay law” which amongst other draconian measures prescribes a prison term of ten years for anyone who “directly or indirectly makes public show of same sex amorous relationship”. Their research documented how the passage of the law was immediately followed by extensive media reports of high levels of violence, including mob attacks and extortion against LGBT people. While existing legislation had already criminalised consensual same-sex conduct in Nigeria, the passage of the act in many ways authorised abuses against LGBT. In effect, the law declared open season on LGBT individuals.
Nigeria’s anti-gay law was just one example of a series of global anti-LGBT legislation which has been introduced in recent years particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and former Soviet nations. These laws are often characterized as populist measures to bolster support for politicians and provide a convenient scapegoat to distract the electorate from other domestic discontent. While they may be cynical in their origin, they are deadly in their impact on LGBT communities. In Uganda, for example, the passage of the anti-gay law there was followed by a ten-fold rise in attacks on LGBT people, including torture, arrests, evictions and suicide.
Where violence ensues, these same laws prohibit individuals from speaking out against it and securing justice. Impunity for violence against LGBT writers and activists is widespread, perpetuating a climate of violence. Take the case of Eric Lembembe, the Executive Director of the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS), an LGBT rights activist and author of several chapters in the 2013 book, From Wrongs to Gay Rights. He would be just thirty-seven if he were alive today. In July 2013 his body was found; he had been beaten to death. His murder followed a number of attacks on the offices of human rights organisations including those campaigning for equal rights for LGBT people. The investigation into Lembembe’s death remains at a standstill at the time of writing. The Cameroonian authorities’ utter failure to stem homophobic violence sends the message that these attacks can be carried out with impunity.
A new legal vehicle which has been increasingly employed is to either equate information about sexual and gender diversity to pornography, or to deem them intrinsically harmful to children and/or offensive to society at large. In Russia, a 2013 law banning the dissemination of information about so-called “non-traditional sexual relations”, frequently referred to as the “Gay Propaganda” law, is actively enforced by the authorities. The law prohibits the dissemination of information that normalises same-sex relationships or portrays them to minors as acceptable and of equal value to heterosexual relationships. The adoption of the law has coincided with a serious rise in incidents of violence against LGBT activists.
In April 2017, the leading independent Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, reported that the police Chechnya had abducted over 100 gay men, held them prisoner in six different detention sites and tortured them. Three men were killed. Others were returned to their families who the police told were gay, an extraordinarily dangerous act in such a conservative country. In at least one case, the ‘outed’ individual was killed by their own family.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed Head of the Chechen Republic Kadyrov has repeatedly denied reports of a purge, based on his claim that there are no gay people in Chechnya. He told one interviewer that if there were any gay people in the region, they should be removed “to cleanse our blood”.
The very act of exposing this LGBT-motivated violence led to threats against the journalists who uncovered it. Elena Milashina, the prominent investigative journalist who first broke the story, said that she would temporarily leave Russia after she received death threats.
No members of the state security forces in Chechnya have been arrested or convicted for these LGBT-motivated crimes, and no adequate investigation has been undertaken by the Russian Federation.
Indeed, Russia is actively exporting the legislation which has sanctioned this ‘queer-baiting’ to other states in their sphere of influence. Similar ‘copycat’ bills of the Russian legislation were introduced in Moldova and Kyrgyzstan in 2016 but have not yet entered into law.
These laws and practices force writers and artists to self-censor, hide their work and in some cases leave their countries. As a result, LGBT writers continue to seek assistance in places of safety abroad, reflecting ongoing persecution in their countries of origin. In recent years, PEN has seen a rise in applications to the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) from writers and artists from all regions who are persecuted on the grounds of the expression of their sexual orientation.
From PEN’s research with our network of writers, bloggers and screenwriters it is clear that another effect of pervasive violence and intimidation, with little or no state protection, is self-censorship. As a result, in 2015 PEN launched pen-outwrite.org, a publication platform for expression – writing, film, interviews and advocacy materials - focusing on LGBT issues and voices from around the world.
PEN has also increased our advocacy alongside other organisations at the national and international levels. Major achievements in decriminalising same sex relations, increasing laws which protect LGBT groups from discrimination and legal recognition of same-sex relationships are grounds for celebration and encouragement in the fight ahead. Sustained advocacy at the United Nations by hundreds of organisations including PEN led to the June 2016 establishment the office of the Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI), a great development protect and advance the human rights of those under its mandate.
Justice at the national level in Cameroon for the murder of Eric Lemembe remains illusive but LGBT activists managed to push for the May 2014 African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights resolution condemning violence on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, and calling on African countries to ‘[ensure] proper investigation and diligent prosecution of perpetrators.’ We must continue to raise these cases at all levels of government in the fight against impunity.
In the years ahead PEN is committed to growing our work in monitoring and reporting on violence and censorship relating to LGBT free expression. We will continue to fight against impunity for these crimes, to advocate for the repeal of laws which prohibit free expression in the context of SOGI and to grow the platforms for LGBT writers and voices.
While the enormous strides in increasing the rights, visibility and expression of LGBT communities must be celebrated, violence and entrenched discrimination continue to pose significant challenges for the free expression and artistic communities. The call to secure the full freedom of expression for LGBT groups must be vigorous and unflinching.