I Was Afraid To Speak Out About Iran

BY LAWRENCE D. MASS | I have a confession to make regarding my attendance at the vigil held July 19 in front of the Iranian Embassy to the United Nations in Midtown, to protest the persecution of gay people in Iran by its totalitarian government. Because of the withdrawal of the vigil’s original sponsors, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, the event was smaller than it might otherwise have been. There were about 50 of us there.

The vigil and a competing forum sponsored by IGLHRC and Human Rights Watch held at the same time at the LGBT Community Center to debate the controversies regarding protests over Iran’s policies were covered in stories in Gay City News (Jul. 20-26 and Jul. 27-Aug. 2) by editor Paul Schindler and associate editor Duncan Osborne.

What I have to confess is that when Andy Humm, who picked up responsibility for spearheading the vigil when IGLHRC abruptly dropped out, opened the mic to anyone who wanted to speak, I chickened out, even though I had prepared some remarks. I can only blame myself for my cowardice on this occasion. Over the years, I’ve participated in many demonstrations for a broad range of issues and concerns—against apartheid, against the war in Viet Nam, for the federal Equal Rights Amendment, and of course for gay rights and against government intransigence on AIDS. At an AIDS demo in Washington D.C., I was arrested and spent hours in jail.

More recently and even more fearfully than at the other demonstrations—feeling politically incorrect—I once marched in the Israel Day Parade in New York.

But I had never been invited to be a guest speaker at any of these events, nor had I ever taken the opportunity of an open microphone, except at memorial services.

So why did I chicken out? The answer, to put it bluntly, is because I felt engulfed and intimidated by a politics—both tacit and outspoken—that does not allow for any connection to be made between the homophobic persecutions and pogroms of Iran and its Hitlerian hostility to Israel and “the great Satan” America. To most of those present and most of those who spoke at the vigil, it seemed more important to circumscribe criticism than to make any generalizations which might be construed as undercutting the certainty of the presumption that Bush and America are the principal villains in the bigger picture of global jihad.

My undelivered remarks ran something like the following:

We gay people have a long and ongoing history of confrontations with religious intolerance—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, with each of these major religions causing its share of suffering. Most of the current opposition to gay marriage is powered by religious orthodoxy. As Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson revealed in the aftermath of 9/11, mass scapegoating and persecution of homosexuals would no doubt emerge here in America were fundamentalists to gain power.

There can be no question that deep within its heart, all fundamentalist intolerance—and I include radical socialism and communism among these orthodoxies—is murderous. Today, however, it is not the Christians or even the communists that have traversed the greatest distance from orthodoxy to political policy. Today it is Islam. Today, it is fanatical Islam—that blew up the great Buddhist statues of Afghanistan—which is for me the supreme symbol of what we are dealing with. Let us not be blindsighted by the homophobia of the Bush administration when examining the extreme danger of the current leadership of Iran. When it comes to his support of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, to say nothing of his handling of the war in Iraq, his policies on the environment, stem cell research, and too many other -areas of concern to mention here, George W. Bush is a genuine nemesis.

But when it comes to his assessment of the extremism and extreme danger of Iran today, how far off the mark is the president?

I have a gay friend who is… well, jingoistically gay, even after all these years. Intrepid, he and his lover had planned to go to World Pride in Jerusalem. They had purchased their plane tickets and secured accommodations. But still they worried about going—not only because of the current war but also in light of the extreme hostility shown by all the fundamentalists there to the so-called abomination of homosexuality. Tellingly, opposition to homosexuality—exemplified by condemnation of this gay gathering in a holy city to three major religions— is perhaps the only thing today’s conservative religious leaders can all agree on, a classic display of how political unity emerges around scapegoating.

Even though marching in Jerusalem today is decidedly a risky venture, it says something about the courage of gay people that the gathering and my friends’ trip are still planned. Ironically, it is the other leg of their travel plans—to Amsterdam!——that now seems in doubt.

“Why’s that?” I asked.

The wave of Islamic extremism in Holland has put a real damper on gay life there, my friend explained. I’ve long since stopped going to Europe, so I had no idea of the extent of the fallout on this world capital of gay life from the confrontations in the Netherlands precipitated by Islamic extremism.

I may be overly simplistic and reductionist, but to me Iran’s hostility to homosexuals, to Israel, and to America are all of a piece—and they are what they appear to be. These hatreds and hostilities don’t seem to be about building a better socialist world, unless you’re talking about the National Socialism of Hitler. No less than in the case of Hitler and Europe at the start of World War II can we back down from extremist bullies. To Iran’s calls for the execution of homosexuals, the annihilation of Israel, and the vilification and hatred of the United States, we must stand firm. Iran has truly become an evil empire, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is, as Churchill so correctly identified Hitler, a monster of intolerance and war-mongering who must be stopped by any means necessary.