IGLHRC’s Failure to Stand Up to Anti-Gay Iran

The September 23 Washington Blade reprints as a column a press release from Paula Ettelbrick, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), headlined “Standing Up for Gays in Iran.”

I found Ettelbrick’s column disingenuous and hypocritical in the extreme. Here’s why.

Ettelbrick’s screed jumps off from the visit of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, to the United Nations two weeks ago, with a sub-headline that hollers that “No One Raised Questions at the United Nations” about the terrifying situation facing Iranian gays today.

I say that Ettelbrick’s comments are hypocritical because among those who stayed silent during Ahmadinejad’s visit was IGLHRC, the organization she heads. IGLHRC refused to call a public demonstration on behalf of Iran’s gays aimed at the Iranian president’s visit.

One would never know from reading Ettelbrick’s piece that there is a massive and highly organized government-run pogrom against gay people going on today in Iran that has included a number of executions on charges which, Iranian gays say, were invented by their government. The most recent anti-gay Iranian government action Ettelbrick cites is two years old.

But readers of Gay City News are certainly aware of this frightful anti-gay crackdown, since I have reported on it in these pages in five different articles since July. Just last week, the newspaper published as its cover story my interview with Amir—a 22-year-old gay Iranian victim of government torture—who testified about the widespread government-run Internet entrapment campaign that ensnared him and is being deployed daily to identify and round up Iranian gays who use net-based chat rooms to establish contact with other same-sexers. Not a word of this Internet entrapment campaign made it into Ettelbrick’s column.

Indeed, in a memorandum dated September 21 which Ettelbrick sent to a couple of dozen gay activists (a copy of which I obtained), she explains her strategy of silence, specifically acknowledging that the British gay rights group OutRage has “chosen a full fledged public campaign to draw attention to the dangerous situation for LGBT people in Iran. I met last week while in London with Peter Tatchell from OUTRAGE! to talk about our different strategies for pursuing change in Iran, and elsewhere where execution of LGBT people is prevalent. The end result: we simply use different strategies and operate from different philosophies about how best to promote human rights.”

In an attempt to justify IGLHRC’s passive, behind-closed-doors, anti-activist approach to the crisis gays in Iran are facing, Ettelbrick’s memorandum goes on to say, “Often we are specifically asked not to [conduct public campaigns] for fear of putting gays abroad at further risk or complicating the political situation presented by public pressure from external sources, in particular the West.”

But Ettelbrick does not offer any evidence for her claim that Iranian gays are asking IGLHRC to play dead and refrain from public protest about their situation. However, as I have repeatedly reported, Iranian gays themselves are literally begging me and others in the West to expose their government’s vicious anti-gay campaign that is destroying hundreds of gay lives, and are pleading with Western gays to maximize public protests about their situation. They have done so in numerous phone calls, and in a pile of e-mail messages that I have kept on file, as well as in public statements and releases from Iranian gay organizations and underground gay publications. IGLHRC has not been “Standing Up for Gays in Iran,” as Ettelbrick’s column claims, which is why I call her argument disingenuous. Indeed, as her memorandum cited above confesses, she and IGLHRC have deliberately adopted a strategy of public silence.

A strategy of keeping silent about oppression, for fear of riling the oppressors, has never worked at any time in human history. Ettelbrick’s position reminds me of that of certain Jewish elites here just before and during World War II, who said that no public attention should be called to Hitler’s lethal depredations aimed at German Jews, because to do so would only increase Americans’ anti-Semitism. Such a strategy failed miserably then, and it will not succeed now.

The public response of IGLHRC under Ettelbrick to the lethal gay crisis in Iran has consisted so far of three press releases, two of which date from July, while the third appeared in the Washington Blade last week. The first two IGLHRC releases reacted to the hanging of two gay teen-agers in the Iranian city of Mashad—and accepted at face value the Iranian government’s charges of “rape” against the two teens used to justify their execution. As I have reported in these pages, multiple gay Iranian sources—including three gay sources inside Mashad—have said that the “rape” charge was invented by the government as an excuse to hang the two youths.

What is even more shocking is IGLHRC’s failure to contact those with knowledge that contradicts the Iranian government’s constant use of criminal charges to imprison and execute gay men. The very first to expose the falsity of the “rape” charge against the hanged Mashad gay teens—based on reports from gays inside the city—was Afdhere Jama, the dedicated editor of Huriyah, an e-zine for Muslim gays. It would have been a simple matter for Ettelbrick and IGLHRC to contact Jama since he is based in San Francisco. But as Jama reiterated to me this week, “I have never been contacted by IGLHRC about the Iranian situation.”

Ettelbrick’s Blade column says, “We must reach out to and work with our Iranian colleagues.” But the Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization (PGLO)—whose secretariat is in Norway and whose human rights commission operates out of Turkey—tells me they have never been contacted by IGLHRC, even though the PGLO has been trying very hard to publicize the Iranian government’s anti-gay crackdown and has been urging gays in the West to protest. Nor has IGLHRC contacted the editors of an underground gay e-zine for Iranians published from Tehran, its editors tell me, even though those editors—like the PGLO—have repeatedly insisted that the “rape” charges against the Mashad teen gay duo were hatched by the government as a cover. They have likewise warned Western gays against accepting Iranian government criminal charges against gays at face value, while urging maximum worldwide publicity for the perilous plight of gays in Iran.

Sharia Islamic law in force in the Islamic Republic of Iran requires four witnesses to prove a charge of homosexual acts. That is why it is easier for the government to invent spurious criminal charges against gay people than to prove they engaged in same-sex relations. And as Amir, the young gay Iranian torture victim, related in his Gay City News interview with me last week, torture, beatings, and intimidation are commonly used by the Iranian sex police to force gay people to confess to crimes they have not committed.

The charges against Amir after he was entrapped by the sex police included “sexual preference, sexual contact, illicit speech, illicit dress, makeup, and mannerism”—and for these “crimes” Amir was sentenced to a public flogging and received 100 lashes, after being brutally beaten and tortured while in the custody of the sex police. Surely this sort of cruel and inhumane persecution of gay people merits the widest public protest. It is the sort of thing the Ahmadinejad government is inflicting on Iranian gays every day. But, far from urging U.S. gays to militantly protest Iran‘s anti-gay crackdown, Ettelbrick’s column confines itself to urging “world leaders to speak out against imposing the death penalty everywhere in the world in cases involving sexuality.”

In years past, I admired IGLHRC for the work it did because it embraced an activist perspective. But the organization has, sadly, seen better days, and under Ettelbrick is particularly somnolent. For example, in its publicity for its coming October 4 forum at New York University on “gay activism,” the group doesn’t even mention Iran. You may want to show up at that forum and ask IGLHRC’s representatives to explain the organization’s anti-activist, silent strategy on Iran.

DOUG IRELAND can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at http://direland.typepad.com/direland/. For background on the new wave of gay repression in Iran, see my previous articles: July 21–“Iran Executes Two Gay Teenagers” (Updated); August 11—“Iran Sources Question Rape Charges in Teen Executions”; August 12–“Two New Gay Executions Scheduled in Iran, Says Iranian Exile Group”; August 17—Iran’s Deadly Anti-Gay Crackdown: With Two More Executions Scheduled, the Pace of Repression Steps Up”; August 25–“Iran’s Anti-Gay Purge Grows: Reports of New Executions´; September 20–“Next Time, You’ll Be Executed: A Young Gay Iranian Torture Victim Speaks Out” at gaycitynews.com/gcn_438/nexttimeyoullbe.html.