A day of beauty and soul, World Poetry Day, falls on the same day as the South Africa’s Human Rights Day, which remembers the fight against Apartheid and particularly the 1960 Sharpeville massacre of 69 black South African demonstrators and further killing of another 21 on the 25th anniversary of that day in 1985. It also became the UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 1966 and today still says, “We need to fight racism everywhere, every day”. It is fitting that we celebrate human writes and rights together. Whether it’s the campaigning of organisations like the United Nations and Amnesty International, or the placards of activists, or poems of voices of discontent and history, we cannot be silent to ongoing racism, its history, and its continued scourge.
Yes we need action more than just words, but 15 years ago, at a World Conference Against Racism in South Africa, the Durban Declaration sought to combine words with action:
“People of African descent have for centuries been victims of racism, racial discrimination and enslavement and of the denial by history of many of their rights… they should be treated with fairness and respect for their dignity and should not suffer discrimination of any kind.” – Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, 2001
“Fifteen years after the Durban Conference very little progress has been made in tackling racism, afrophobia, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”
Maya Angelou – be part of “the possible”
Maya Angelou died in 2014 but 45 years before that, in a decade of American civil rights activism, she wrote the first of her autobiographical books, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). The book describes her early years including racism, and a rape which led to a traumatised silence for 6 years, it goes on to document her rise from child victim to young woman, mother and adult voice.
“The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
Of things unknown but longed for still
And his tune is heard on the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom”
She has become renowned as a woman full of inspiration, and love not hate, reminding us how to be better humans through her best-loved poems which she would write from a motel with, nearby, “a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry in the room”.
Watch Maya Angelou read her poem “A Brave and Startling Truth“ which she wrote for the United Nations 50th anniversary in 1995, here is a section of it:
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe
We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness …
… We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
It would be great if we, “the possible, the miraculous, the true wonder of this world”, would stop hating and discriminating.
Maya Angelou – Still I Rise
In Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise”, are the words: “Out of the huts of history’s shame”. She’s said before, the truth is that:
“A person who does not have a clue to his or her history stands a very poor chance of mapping out a future.” – Maya Angelou interview (1m40s)
She was not one to be cowed or subjugated, instead, she found her voice and gave hope to others.
The full text of her poem, “Still I Rise”:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Be amazing, A rainbow in someone else’s cloud
Maya Angelou also said, echoing a similar sentiment of Albert Camus:
“If you are always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be.”
Perhaps, we could also paraphrase that, if you are always following the crowd, buying into cheap national and racial stereotypes you will never discover not only how amazing you could be but also how amazing others are, irrespective of the colour of their skin or some other characteristic of difference. “Human beings are more alike than unalike”, she has said.
“The thing to do, it seems to me, is to
prepare yourself so you can be a
rainbow in somebody else’s cloud.
Somebody who may not look like you.
May not call God the same name you
call God – if they call God at all. I may
not dance your dances or speak your
language. But be a blessing to somebody.” – Maya Angelou
She wasn’t all “turn the other cheek” love, she also saw humour as a defence, and since “life’s a bitch”, the need to “go out and kick ass”.
Perhaps, unsurprisingly, Iran too, despite its own record executions, has compared Saudi Arabia to ISIS. Ayatollah Khamenei the self-titled “Leader of the Islamic Revolution” calling it a “White ISIS” and asking whether there are “any differences” between them.
Other atrocities apart, and excepting the variant methods of execution (Saudi still has stoning and flogging punishments, though often commuted to jail time, not to mention posthumous crucifixion), what is the difference between the continued practice of state executions by America, China, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the so-called Islamic State, all of which have executed dozens of people a year. Iran has executed hundreds – perhaps a 1000 making its condemnation of Saudi Arabia somewhat hyprocritical. Pakistan has 6-8,000 people on its death row and in 2015 carried out 316+ executions a massive increase on the handful of 2014. Egypt (500+) and Nigeria (650+) have also been resorting to issuing death sentences (2014 figures).
Ironically, the Saudi Arabian national flag features a sword – the very means of public execution, before each of which verses from the Koran are read justifying the sentence. Offences can include atheism, drugs crimes, homosexuality, insulting Islam, and sorcery!
The Death Penalty
Whilst just over a dozen countries had abolished the death penalty 30 years ago, today over a 100 have ended the practice. Some among those that have kept it, though, have increased its use in recent years in the name of countering ‘terrorism’.
Thousands a year are sentenced to death worldwide but fewer are carried out, some 20,000 people are incarcerated under a death sentence, yet to be carried out. In 2014 over a 110 people in 9 countries had their death sentence reversed, leaving them exonerated as innocent. This is the biggest reason to end the practice. Three times as many countries commuted death sentences to other forms of punishment.
Twelve countries still use hanging and ten use shooting, only Saudi Arabia and Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) behead people, swift but brutal. US executions peaked at 98 in 1999 and have steadily fallen since to 28 in 2015, but over 3,000 remain on death row.
“The UK opposes the death penalty in all circumstances and in every country. The death penalty undermines human dignity and there is no evidence that it works as a deterrent.”
Perhaps the UK should criticise America, Saudi Arabia, Iran and China’s position on capital punishment, alongside Islamic State? As David Cameron was challenged to do and amongst excuses for close ties with Saudi responded with:
“We oppose the death penalty anywhere and everywhere” – David Cameron, October 2015
Executed Shia Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr
Arrested in 2012 and sentenced to death in 2014, Sheikh Nimr had opposed violence calling instead for peaceful protesters to resist the Saudi state and police bullets using “the roar of the word” and non-violent agitation, though he was not opposed to celebrating the deaths of tyrants. Mohammad al-Nimr, his brother, was arrested for merely tweeting about the death sentence but has since called for calm despite his own son on death row. Al-Nimr was pro-democracy and against “murder in the name of God”.
“The [Saudi] authorities depend on bullets … and killing and imprisonment. We must depend on the roar of the word, on the words of justice”…We do not accept [force of firearms]. This is not our practice…We welcome those who follow such attitude…Nonetheless, we cannot enforce our methodology on those who want to pursue different approaches…The weapon of the word is stronger than the power of bullets.” – Sheikh al-Nimr
“The oppressed should unite together against the oppressors, instead of becoming tools in the hands of the oppressors. The Khalifa family [in Bahrain] are oppressors, and Sunnis are not responsible for their actions. These are not Sunnis, they are tyrants. The Assad family in Syria are oppressors, and Shiism is not responsible for their actions. Never defend an oppressor. It is never justified for someone who is oppressed to defend [another’s] oppressor.” – Sheik al-Nimr, 2012
Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr Crufixion
Ali al-Nimr, nephew of executed Nimr al-Nimr, was arrested when just 17 for participating in Arab Spring pro-democracy demonstrations against the Saudi Arabian government. He was subsequently convicted by confession under torture. He is now 21 but in 2015 he was sentenced to death by beheading and then posthumous public crucifixion. As of today over 1.5 million people have signed just one of the several petitions to commute or cancel his sentence.
The UK Government believes that it can “achieve most by speaking privately and regularly to our Saudi interlocutors” rather than publicly confronting its ‘ally’. The Foreign Secretary recently said that he did not expect Ali al-Nimr to be executed and Shadow Minister Hilary Benn has called on him “to seek fresh assurances that he will be reprieved.”
However, by threatening death to so many, and carrying out more than previous years, it is easy for Saudi Arabia to mollify the West with a couple of concessions and reprieves without denting its religious and political ethnic cleansing of opposition.
Back in November 2011, after the fatal shooting of four Shias, Sheikh al-Nimr had called for:
“[the] release of all those detained in the [Arab Spring] protests, and all prisoners of conscience – Sunnis and Shias.”
Raif Badawi Flogging
Saudi Arabian political blogger and recent recipient of the EU’s Sakharov prize for Freedom of Thought, Raif Badawi, is serving a lengthy prison sentence for “insulting Islam” and also received the first tranche of 50 or a 1,000 lashed whipping sentence. Subsequent installments have been suspended based upon his poor health, exacerbated by his latest hunger strike, these last three weeks which has led to a deteriorating medical condition.
Wahhabism and Saudi Arabian History
Saudi Arabia has a wealth of cultural and religious history, is the birthplace of Islam, home to Mecca, Medina and Mohammed. It is rich in oil and other resources but beyond poor when it comes to human rights, democracy, and accountability. It offers the West tokenistic concessions in exchange for continuing its own ruthless totalitarianism.
Its brand of Islamic belief is Sunni as opposed to Shia, and an extreme version of that called Wahhabism or Salafism. They are stricter forms of Sharia Law based Islam, literalist, anti-Western and puritanical. Jihad, whether missionary or military, can be seen as a legitimate expression as well as expansion of Islam against its detractors.
Saudi Arabia, Extremism and Terrorism
Dr Yousaf Butt, senior advisor to the British American Security Information Council and director at the Cultural Intelligence Institute, says of Saudi Arabia:
“…one thing is clear: the fountainhead of Islamic extremism that promotes and legitimizes such violence lies with the fanatical ‘Wahhabi’ strain of Islam centered in Saudi Arabia. And if the world wants to stamp down and eliminate such violent extremism, it must confront this primary host and facilitator.”
He goes on to quote Wikileaks and other sources that purport to show Saudi’s financing of terror groups, several thousand Saudis are alleged to be in ISIL’s ranks. More easily verified is the funding of extremist Wahhabism via mosques and madrassas worldwide.
Whilst Saudi Arabia has appeared to give women token political rights in recent municipal elections, they still can’t drive. Restrictions on political dissent and freedom of speech continue unabated and punishments for religious disagreement, in particular Saudi’s Wahabi version of Sunni Islam. As a result Freedom House’s freedom index ranks Saudi Arabia bottom on all counts.
Saudi Arabia is also the largest market for the British arms industry along with billions of other business deal tie-ups. As a result Britain is unlikely to publicly condemn Saudi too often, human rights will remain compromised by commercial interest. Indeed, a senior Government minister today defended close links with Saudi Arabia arguing that they enabled us to “tell them what we think”. True and unhypocritical condemnation of executions can only come when America and other countries also end the death penalty. Equally, rightful opposition to Islamic State (ISIL) should be accompanied by calling state-sanctioned extremism by Saudi Arabia, Iran, China and others to account too.
Human Rights Day – Universal Declaration of Human Rights
International Human Rights Day celebrates 67 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a precursor to the European Convention on Human Rights and the UK’s own, in peril, Human Rights Act. In the aftermath of the Second World War, on December 10, 1948, The United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Universal was the hope and aspiration of the world’s most translated document, into some 300 languages. The application and implementation, however, remains inconsistent. Many leading nations treat it as a pick-n-mix document, usually ignoring the principles against torture or discrimination on grounds of sex or sexuality.
“Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,…” – UDHR preamble
European Convention on Human Rights
In 1950 the Council of Europe’s initial 10 members including the UK drafted the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and brought it into force in 1953 for its 14 early member states, now 47 including Russia which joined in 1996. Vatican City is a notable exception to its agreement. Whilst Russia has signed it, like Azerbaijan it has not agreed to Protocol 13 – the complete abolition of the death penalty.
Article 14 is wide reaching in prohibiting and protecting against discrimination based on “sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status” – the latter has now been taken to include sexual orientation.
Article 12, however, provides a heterosexual right to marry and have a family, which has legal precedent for including transsexuals under their post-operative gender status, but not for same-sex couples. See Rees v United Kingdom (1985/6), Cossey v UK (1990) and Goodwin v UK (1995-97).
UK Human Rights Act
The 1998 Human Rights Act (HRA) became law in 2000 in order to integrate the ECHR into UK national law to avoid people having to go to Europe to obtain recognition of their human rights as described and protected in the convention.
Human Rights are more extensive than the protected characteristics outlined under the 2010 Equality Act. We are all human so all protected. That is why it is essential the HRA remain enshrined in law and is not watered down into a British Bill of Rights, because it goes beyond the Equality Act.
Today the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) launched its Human Writes, issue 1 calling on “People Power” to “protect what protects us all, our Human Rights Act”. That means writing to MPs and being vocal about human rights issues and laws both here and abroad.
Since 2009 and indeed earlier, Amnesty International has run its Write for Rights #Write4Rights letter writing campaign. Activists in more than 200 countries and territories write millions of letters, emails, tweets and petitions to those in authority and to the human victims of human rights abuses.
“Across the world, governments are afraid of people power and are cracking down on dissent. And that’s why we need to stand with people who are risking everything to speak out…Our words are powerful. We need to use that power to push for change, now.” – Amnesty International
BIHR also ran a full page advert/letter in the The Times signed by 157 organisations supporting the retention of the HRA. It notes that the UDHR is an:
“international Magna Carta for all humanity [that] has inspired so much, including our own Human Rights Act.”
The letter calls on Britain’s political leaders to;
“stand with the Human Rights Act recognising it is the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights made law here at home.”
Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam
Some 45 Islamic nations have signed the alternative 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI), more in accordance with Sharia law, and notably omitting rights based upon sexuality, gender, religious conversion or protecting against FGM. The freedoms that do exist are subject to “not being contrary to the principles of the Shariah”, as such there is no freedom of religion other than Islam. Article 24 states: “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Sharia.” Article 19 sounds like it protects against going beyond Sharia law – an already harsh system: “There shall be no crime or punishment except as provided for in the Sharia.”
The Arab Charter on Human Rights (ACHR) tries to incorporate the UDHR and CDHRI. It was written in 1994 but even by 2008 only 7 states had adopted it, 13 by 2013 including Saudi Arabia.
Human Rights Violations
In a mammoth opinion piece in the Guardian Eric Posner has suggested that international Human Rights laws are failing for being too general and being ignored by several leading democracies despite their theoretical protections pan-nationally against authoritarian states.
“it seems that the human rights agenda has fallen on hard times. In much of the Islamic world, women lack equality, religious dissenters are persecuted and political freedoms are curtailed. The Chinese model of development, which combines political repression and economic liberalism, has attracted numerous admirers in the developing world. Political authoritarianism has gained ground in Russia, Turkey, Hungary and Venezuela. Backlashes against LGBT rights have taken place in countries as diverse as Russia and Nigeria. The traditional champions of human rights – Europe and the United States – have floundered.”
Peace, education, sex/gender equality, LGBTI rights, slavery, no discrimination based upon race, colour, nationality, freedom of speech and the press, the right to bodily integrity for all, irrespective of gender or age, are but some of the rights that 67 years later are not yet universal despite the Universal Declaration.
As the Swedish politician Anna Lindh has remarked:
“Human rights are praised more than ever – and violated as much as ever.”
Today is a day to reduce those violations, and call more people and nations to account over them, and make sure the rights that do exist are known about and extended to those that may not know their rights or have the wherewithal to claim them.
On Africa Day it is worth reflecting on diversity as much as the so-called unity of the African Union. Africa may be a continent but it is far from united or content. Nor need it be. Diversity and difference, religious, economic and national identity struggle, are features of growth as much as peace and unity are. For now, discontent still rules whether in North Africa’s culturally Islamic Arab Spring countries or in Zimbabwe and South Africa’s continued issues. In between, Nigeria, Sudan and Kenya struggle with North-South divides, extremist groups and campaigns of terror. There are many Africas, not just one.
Whilst shaking off the shackles of historical European colonialism, no one African identity has emerged but dozens. Self-determination, battles for independence, and religious and tribal/civil wars have ensured that national identities and stable futures are still fighting for supremacy. Africa is still making and creating its modern history.
War and Conflict
Africa leads the world on at least one thing, its 161 conflicts in 26 African countries, half of the continent. Peace One Day? and prosperity are yet distant horizons. The poor, dispossessed, women and children are so often the innocent victims in conflict. Africa needs peace, but that is not the same as unity.
Africa Day, itself, celebrates the May 25 founding in Ethiopia, by 30 African leaders, of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963, which in 2002 became the African Union whose motto is “united and strong”. Its current chairperson is Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and his statement today is AU president Robert Mugabe’s Africa Day statement 2015.
Geography and the Clash of Civilisations
When was the last time anyone thought of Egypt, ancient or modern, as part of Africa rather than part of the Middle East? Geographical unity is a false guide to religious, cultural and national identity unity. Again, when we talk of the ancient world Africa is usually forgotten, yet Egypt is African, Nubia too, and what about historical Mali and the medieval literary and learning centre of Timbuktu.
Arabic, English, French, and Swahili, may be the most well known African languages but many forget the 500 languages of Nigeria, or indeed the 2-3,000 across the whole of Africa making it the most diverse location on Earth, linguistically. South Africa has 11 official languages, more than anywhere else, only Somalia has just one. Most countries will speak ex-colonial languages alongside indigenous ones. 75% of Africa speaks over a dozen different languages but 25% speak hundreds more.
African Economics & Absolute Poverty
Many in African still survive – and that is a dubious description, on less than $1-$2 a day.
“Over the last 30 years, worldwide absolute poverty has fallen sharply (from about 40% to under 20%). But in African countries the percentage has barely fallen. Still today, over 40% of people living in sub-Saharan Africa live in absolute poverty.” Our Africa – Poverty
Nigeria, riven by conflict, violence, corruption, is nonetheless on target to continue to grow as Africa’s strongest economic nation, in the main due to oil.
African Women and Gender Equality
The theme of Africa Day, this year, is the “Year of Women Empowerment and Development towards Africa’s Agenda 2063”. Gender equality is far off with Boko Haram continuing to kidnap young girls and make sex slaves or forced marriages of teenage women. Education is still not an equal right in many states and countries, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) remains a health and human rights issue barely being tackled at all.
“a recognition of centuries of African women and women from the Diaspora to the struggles against slavery, racial and gender discrimination, and for the emancipation of our continent and African men and women everywhere.
Women and girls continue to play critical roles – paid and unpaid – in their families, communities, countries and regions, that directly impact on economies and societies.
Despite the constraints that they continue to face, we have made strides, as a result of different waves of struggles by the women’s movements. Since the historic Beijing Conference twenty years ago, and the recognition of women’s rights as human rights, we have seen progress on women’s representation, in the advancement of reproductive rights, on equal pay for equal work, on access to education and basic services.
At the same time, it is estimated that if real change happens at the same [pace], it will take us 80 years before reaching full gender parity.”
Unity and equality in Africa are a long way off, slow progress is being made and conflict in various forms continues to destabilise economic and cultural development. Individual hopes, educational and economic opportunity, health and women’s rights, are bigger issues than a surface unity this Africa Day. African rights are human rights and abuses remain ignored by pan-African and international communities. News stories, unless they be of thousands of migrants or hundreds of schoolgirls, go ignored or buried by the international news services. Africa needs greater news coverage and the spotlight of global media, as well as economic aid, in order to progress both human rights and economic development.
The annual, since 2005, IDAHO Day celebrates the 1990 removal of homosexuality from the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD). That it took 17 years from the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) initial tentative removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) demonstrates how long change in these areas can take.
Whilst IDAHO initially concentrated on homophobia and lesbophobia – though rarely naming the latter, gay rights have moved on. Over time they have become Lesbian and Gay, LGB, more recently LGBT, with even Stonewall England & Wales now Trans inclusive. The debate over that may be over, but the inclusion of I for Intersex, Q for Queer, and a panoply of other letters including Pansexual, Asexual, Non-Binary and more, still rages.
Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOBiT)
The addition of ‘T’ for Transphobia, turning the acronym from a US state into the less likely to be confused IDAHOT, happened in 2009 but for many has still not taken root. Bisexual erasure is sadly commonplace and the explicit inclusion of Biphobia is more recent still, creating the more fun acronym IDAHOBiT, that sounds like a type of Middle Earth hobbit! Will adding yet more letters create an even more mythical sounding alphabetical chimera?
What about including Intersex?
Do intersex people even suffer interphobia? Yes of course they do. It can, however, appear as any of the other phobias as cases of mistaken or misunderstood identity. Nor is it really an identity, it is not a sexuality or gender, but a sex that may not be fully male or female or varying degreed of combination of the two.
Interphobia may exist in cases of law, sport, services or facilities, which may be defined only in male/female terms, excluding and discriminating against those whose nature may not wholly fit into one of those narrowly defined sex categories. Thus, interphobia is a form of sexism – which itself is often binary-sex defined. The worst case of interphobia is still that exhibited by medical clinicians and some parents who often try to shoehorn intersex children into one bodily sex category or another via non-consensual surgeries (on the part of the child).
Some LGBTI and LGBTIQ/LGBTQI groups have taken to including intersex as the ‘I’ of HOBIT, erasing the original purpose as the ‘i’ of Bi. It is, furthermore, doubtful whether intersex advocacy organisations were even asked whether they wanted to be part of HOBIT, or indeed HOBiTI. “Nothing About Us Without Us” was the appropriate battle-cry of disability activists, which might be co-opted here – with respect. That said, few would turn down the opportunity for increased understanding and awareness, so long as the education is accurate and publicity helpful, which it is not always. Misplaced good intentions and misappropriations can do more harm than good.
OII UK, the UK arm of the leading international intersex organisation, has praised the United Nations Human Rights commissioner for drawing attention this IDAHO Day to the plight of not only LGBT youth but also intersex youth stating that:
“intersex children and young people may be subjected to medically unnecessary, irreversible surgery and treatment without their free and informed consent. These interventions can result in severe, long-term physical and psychological suffering, affecting children’s rights to physical integrity, to health, privacy and autonomy and may constitute torture or ill-treatment. States should prohibit such interventions.” – Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
What about the Others?
Pansexuals can be accused of not being real or be erased, somewhat ironically, by bisexuals – usually the chief victms of erasure. Non-binary and agender folk can experience something similar. Asexuals can often be misconstrued and misunderstood. A Facebook post by the 1.5-million-followers popular Lizzy the Lezzy page ran a comical post on asexual attitudes to sex which had some 2000 shares and hundreds of illuminating comments, many spot on, but some exhibiting the abusive assumptions that “sexuals” may have, that “having sex” should be an entitlement within a relationship.
Diversity and equality should mean full and equal inclusion for all, It can, though, become unwieldy over time, as the tail becomes longer than the original dog, and those at the head of “gay rights” begin to resent being wagged by the ever-lengthening tail, which few may understand except those in MOGAI, AVEN, Alt and Fetlife communities. In the same way, in the UK, Race Equality, Sex Discrimination and Disability provisions were eventually combined with anti-homophobia initiatives to create the 2010 Equality Act. At some point IDAHO Day will need to become the International Day Against Hate and Discrimination Based Upon Sex, Orientation, or Identity. Quite a mouthful but shorter than IDAHOBiTIQA…XYZ. In short, human rights and respect – something in the 21st century we should all be moving towards, if not arrived at. “LGBT rights are human rights” as the recent Council of Europe report reminds us.Until that day, IDAHO/Bi/T reminds us that we are not there yet, but still undeniably a work in progress.
70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen
It’s 70 years today since the liberation of Bergen-Belsen (#Belsen70), another example of man’s inhumanity to man and what happens when you scapegoat an entire – or rather several – people groups, dehumanise, persecute, incarcerate and attempt to wipe them out. It is also 33 years since I visited Belsen as a 15 year-old, the same age as the famous diarist, Anne Frank, who died there just months before its liberation. It left indelible memories on me and a life-long belief in human rights for all people.
The concentration camp had various purposes during the Second World War, from Soviet and Italian POWs, Jewish internment, as well as housing other people groups including Czechs, Poles, homosexuals, Christians who opposed Nazism, Romani and Sinti ‘gypsies’.
The Dutch Jewish teenager Anne Frank is remembered through her diary “The Diary of a Young Girl”. The UK based Anne Frank Trust, whose motto is “Challenge Prejudice, Reduce Hatred” ran a social media campaign on 14 April under the hashtag #NotSilent in which people recorded themselves reading one-minute extracts from her diary about life in hiding in Nazi-occupied Netherlands.
“We’re much too young to deal with these problems, but they keep thrusting themselves on us until, finally, we’re forced to think up a solution, though most of the time our solutions crumble when faced with the facts. It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.
It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too will end, that peace and tranquillity will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals. Perhaps the day will come when I’ll be able to realize them!” – 15th July, 1944, Diary of A Young Girl, Anne Frank
Her hopefulness echoes the words of Nelson Mandela:
“People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite” – Nelson Mandela
Another internee was Josef Čapek, from what is now the Czech Republic, a Cubist painter, cartoonist, writer and playwright. He wrote the utopian play “Land of Many Names” and is credited by his brother as being the first to invent and use the word “robot”. He was critical of Hitler and Nazism and was arrested in 1939 upon the invasion of Czechoslovakia, though he managed to write “Poems from a Concentration Camp” at Bergen-Belsen, though died in 1945 shortly before liberation.
British Liberation of Bergen-Belsen
Some 50-70,000 are though to have died, some 30,000 of them Jewish, among the 120,000 held there, escalating to 20,000 a month before liberation put a stop to it. It was far from the worst of camps, and yet it was enough to shock those that discovered it, almost by accident.
The camp was liberated on April 15, 1945, by the British 11th Armoured Division who discovered approximately 60,000 prisoners inside and at satellite camps, mostly emaciated and/or seriously ill with typhus or similar. Lying, unburied, around the camp lay 13,000 corpses and even some still living among them. Another 14,000 died of infection and starvation in the 10 weeks following liberation.
“Over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which… The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them … Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live…This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.”
The BBC also recently interviewed one of the few remaining survivors, Gena Turgel.
Memorials to Bergen-Belsen
The SS destroyed most of the inmate records and the British, after making the SS build mass graves for the unburied, then destroyed the camp by fire because of the disease there.
Whilst nature was allowed to take over the remains, in the way that only nature does, the mass mounds of graves containing up to 5,000 people each remained obvious. Over the following months wooden monuments were erected by varying groups and a year later a stone monument was erected by the Central Jewish Committee of the British Sector.
We ignore growing ethnic & sectarian division and hatred at our peril – particularly in the #MENA region. We must never forget #Belsen70
In 1952 Germany’s president, Theodor Heuss, called on the German nation to never forget what had happened at Bergen-Belsen. Nor should we, whether Jew, Christian and other faiths, gypsy, mentally ill or disabled, political enemy or prisoner of war, all deserve human rights and not inhuman treatment or attempted genocide.
In Saudi Arabia Raif Badawi remains in prison under threat of 950 more lashes and 9 more years of a 10 year sentence and a further 10 year travel ban upon release, as punishment for “insulting Islam”. Additionally, his trial lawyer, Waleed Abulkhair, who set up a human rights monitoring organisation (MHRSA) in Saudi, was also subsequently charged himself for various breaches. Both had their sentences recently increased by half again, not cut or commuted.
Waleed Abu Al-Khair
Among other things, Waleed Abu Al-Khair (also written as Abulkhair) was accused and convicted of “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and sentenced to a 15 year prison term in 2014 and a 15 year travel ban upon his release, he was already prohibited from travel since 2012.
Abulkhair had defended many people for socio-religious and political crimes in Saudi, including a British national when he was hired by the British embassy. If political is even a word that can be voiced in a state that is an absolute rather than even a constitutional monarchy. Opposition and democracy are thus, inherently illegal.
He ran, in his own home, a mixed sex politico-religious discussion group or salon called Smood (“resistance”) and used Twitter and Facebook for further discussion, somewhere he felt free at last. Indeed, Forbes magazine listed him as one of the Top 100 Most Influential Arabs on Twitter.
Social media activity is an uncensored medium that has got away from Saudi Arabia, which has the largest number of Arab Twitter users and a Facebook user base second only to Egypt. Perhaps the United Nation’s big #SocialUN gathering on 30 January and discussion of digital diplomacy will foster awareness of those imprisoned for freedom of speech on social media.
“Do I hate anyone?” I wonder, particularly those who have insulted me and my family, using the foulest of words in the course of the investigations? Do I hate those who imposed a travel ban on me for years with no legal reason? Do I hate the judge who ordered that I be put in jail simply because I have a signed a statement calling for fair trials? Or should I hate the Prince, whose emissaries have continuously threatened me with being put in prison for years if I refrain from signing an affidavit? Do I hate men of religion who drafted heinous reports about me to the security agencies – full of lies and proclaiming me an apostate? Or should I hate the people using pseudonyms on new media outlets, so they could lie about me and my family so as to damage my reputation further?
I reach deep within my heart and find that I bear no grudge against anyone. I realize that I rather feel sorry for them, the same way I feel sorry for those who decided to give up their freedom, just like an alcoholic who roams aimlessly after willingly giving up his mind to liquor.
Freedom of expression on social media hasn’t stopped Saudi reaching beyond international boundaries to extradite and imprison one Hamza Kashgari for questioning Islam via Twitter. Thousands of Saudis backed calls for this young man’s execution for apostasy and support of the Arab Spring. He served 2 years after apologising but was banned from writing again.
Kashgari described his original actions in the following terms:
“I view my actions as part of a process toward freedom. I was demanding my right to practice the most basic human rights – freedom of expression and thought – so nothing was done in vain. I believe I’m just a scapegoat for a larger conflict. There are a lot of people like me in Saudi Arabia who are fighting for their rights.”
Raif Badawi was arrested in 2008 and again in 2012 for apostasy and insulting Islam by electronic means, i.e., he set up the website Free Saudi Liberals to enable discussion of religion and politics. Cited charges included “ridiculing Islamic religious figures” and “going beyond the realm of obedience” – whatever that means!
The Saudi court ordered him to undergo 50 lashes every Friday for 20 weeks, publicly outside a mosque on a religious day just after prayers, only the first instalment has been delivered to date, in the middle of the square in front of Al-Jafali mosque in Jeddah where a large crowd gathered to witness the flogging. Last Friday, he was again not caned – the third time the punishment has been postponed, allegedly due to his previous wounds not having healed enough, but also likely due to international media attention on Saudi following the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the death of King Abdullah.
Religion and Punishment
What kind of religion or state combines faith and flogging, prayer and punishment, in such a way? Well perhaps ancient Judaism might have done. Certainly, biblical texts of the Torah allow for the stoning of those caught in adultery, for instance, or tell of the clinical purging of an enemy for idolatry. That the populace tried to pick up stones, to stone an alleged adulteress, as recorded in the gospels, proves that the law was still known, if not in use, though there’s little record of it being enacted. Jesus intervened, in this case, and it didn’t happen. Likely as not, the Romans would have had a problem with people literally taking the law into their own hands anyway.
So, just because Jesus stopped a public punishment, does that place Christianity above Judaism in ethics? Far from it. Church history records the Crusades and the Inquisition, brutal tortures, executions, burnings of heretics, witches, liberals. Some countries and US states continue to commend the death penalty based upon biblical texts.
Islam – Peace or Violence?
Ironically, whilst Islam means “submission” it stems from the same root as the Arabic salām سَلاَم meaning “peace”. Numerous people have referenced its over 100 verses suggestive of killing varieties of “unbelievers”, yet it also condemns the taking of a single “innocent life” as equivalent to murdering the whole world. Like all religions, it seems, there is plenty of Scripture to cut and paste and formulate one’s own intolerant beliefs, or to foment and indoctrinate via human interpretation.
“Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from error; whoever rejects evil and believes in God has grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold that never breaks. And God hears and knows all things.” – Qur’an, Al-Baqarah, 2:256
Indeed, all three monotheistic religions have scriptures calling for tolerance, mercy, love and peace. What we choose to focus on, judge by, is therefore, a function of our beliefs, not something we can justify by selective religious reasoning.
State Sanctioned Hypocrisy
The hypocrisy of not only Saudi Arabia, but those nations and leaders that visited the country in the wake of the recent death of the king, even flying flags at half-mast, like England but not Scotland, is visible to all. Transparently and desperately trying to get in with the new king to gain access to oil, defence, and trade agreements.
As Abulkair has written:
“As long as the oil keeps flowing, the world will turn a blind eye if Saudi Arabia continues to crack down on freedom and human rights.”
Saudi’s own hypocrisy lies in not exercising mercy and tolerance in order to deserve the same, principles cited by Muhammad himself:
“No mercy would be shown to him who does not show mercy”, Muhammad in Sahih Al-Bukhari and in Sahih Muslim
“Be tolerant to be tolerated”, Muhammad narrated in Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, Musnad 1/248.
Tolerance, or samah, in Islam is considered to also mean leniency.
Furthermore, it has been pointed out that they extreme flogging sentence breeches even the grounds and interpretation of Quranic and Sharia punishments.
Human Rights Campaigns
Various Change.org and Amnesty International campaigns are keeping the pressure up, but governments are turning a blind eye to Saudi, tolerating one form of extremism over another, Islamic State. Mainly, it seems, because IS (ISIL/Daesh) is missionary, i.e., wanting to expand and conquer, whilst Saudi is content to rule its own citizens with an iron rod, beheader’s sword and flogger’s cane.
Other international human rights, humanitarian, peace and journalists organisations have continued to publicise Badawi and Abulkhair, giving them prizes and awards to draw attention to their plight and honour their fight. For instance Badawi has been awarded the PEN Canada One Humanity Award 2014, the Reporters without Borders Netizen Prize 2014, and Aikenhead Award 2015 of the Scottish Secular Society.
Whilst the حديث ḥadīth or saying(s – technically أحاديث ʾaḥādīth is the plural) of the Prophet are outside the Quran, they like the Mishnah and Talmud for Jews, form a significant part of traditional interpretations for Muslims. Indeed, much Shariah law is derived from the Hadith. For those campaigning for the release of Raif Badawi and Waleed Abulkhair you could do no worse than to quote the following hadith to them:
“It is better for a leader to make a mistake in forgiving than to make a mistake in punishing.” – Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 1011.
In fact it is an injunction of one hadith to call Islamic oppressors to account:
Allah’s Apostle said, “Help your brother whether he is an oppressor or an oppressed,” A man said, “O Allah’s Apostle! I will help him if he is oppressed, but if he is an oppressor, how shall I help him?” The Prophet said, “By preventing him from oppressing (others), for that is how to help him.” – Sahih Bukhari 9.85.84
Abulkair finished his final letter pending imprisonment with this:
“…freedom is cultivated, its seeds are those who have sacrificed a lot and have made the sky the limit to their sacrifice… There will always be free souls in this world who will not be silenced by oil!”
Please, and especially in the wake of Charlie Hebdo, do not forget those in prison for standing up for freedom of expression in the Arab world. Keep the pressure on governments, agencies and media alike to Free Raif Badawi and Free Waleed Abulkhair.
On Sunday morning in Ohio, USA, whilst many were attending church, an unnecessary tragedy struck. 17-year-old teenager Leelah Alcorn, took her own life. Whilst some reported it as an accident – including her family, her death on I-71 by a trailer truck was clearly suicide by her own admission on her Tumblr blog (now deleted at her parent’s request but accessible by web archive). It was sadly preventable.
Within days of her death on 28 December she has set the world alight in terms of trans activism, vigils, messages and memorials of sympathy, petitions of change, Facebook campaigns, Twitter trending hashtags, blogs and comments deleted, backed up, reported, reposted. There has also been, what can only be described as “hate”.
Transphobic Hate, Anger at Leelah’s Parents
The calls for criminal charges and invective targeted at her parents may be understandable but in the immediate period of grief perhaps misguided and inappropriate, for now at least.
She will certainly never now be forgotten and may trigger a change in the very society she sought to “fix”.
Leelah herself regarded her domestic situation as “shitty parenting” not criminal abuse, others might disagree and regard the things that happened, as outlined below, as abusive.
Reaching out for help via Reddit
After coming out to her parents, she had her Internet access revoked and laptop removed, but upon their return (after submitting to reparative Christian therapy) she began to reach out on social media again. Whilst her Tumblr blog suicide note made the news after her death she had previously posted in the Reddit asktrangender community, at the end of October:
I really need help.
Hi, I’m Leelah, 16 and MtF/dmab. Ever since I was around 4 or 5 I knew I was a girl, just like most of the lovely ladies on here, but I didn’t actually understand that it was possible to successfully change genders until I was 14. As soon as I found out what transgender meant, I came out to my mom. She reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong, and it felt awful.
She then proceeded to tell my Dad without my consent, and they were both extremely angry with me. They never physically hurt me, but they always talked to me in a very derogatory tone. They would say things like “You’ll never be a real girl” or “What’re you going to do, fuck boys?” or “God’s going to send you straight to hell”. These all made me feel awful about myself, I was christian at the time so I thought that God hated me and that I didn’t deserve to be alive. I cut myself at least once every couple days, and I was constantly thinking about suicide.
I wanted to see a gender therapist but they wouldn’t let me, they thought it would corrupt my mind. The would only let me see biased Christian therapists, who instead of listening to my feelings would try to change me into a straight male who loved God, and I would cry after every session because I felt like it was hopeless and there was no way I would ever become a girl.
Eventually I lied to them and told them I was straight and that I was a boy, and then the derogatory speech and neglect started to fade. I tried my absolute hardest to live up to their standards and be a straight male, but eventually I realized that I hated religion and my parents. I came out as gay in school, hoping to ease my friends into the whole LGBT thing before I came out as trans. Although my friends reactions were mostly positive my parents were beyond pissed. They took me out of public school, took away my phone and computer, and wouldn’t let me on social media websites, so I was out of contact with any of my friends. I was like this for 5 months, completely and utterly alone. I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone outside of church and I wasn’t allowed to be with any of my friends, I just had to stay in my house and be quiet.
Eventually they came around and gave me my phone back, but they heavily monitored my facebook/twitter/tumblr profiles in case I did anything “stupid” again. Although I got my friends back I wasn’t allowed to talk to them about anything LGBT.”
“I’m sure someone on here can convince me not to kill myself…Can someone please give me a reason to live”
It is clear from the wider context of her post that Prozac anti-depressants were not helping what should have been a case of referring someone to a Gender Identity clinic or specialist. That, unfortunately, was not something with the worldview of her Christian parents who preferred to send her for “conversion therapy“.
Trans Positive Parenting
It has been clearly demonstrated that parental attitudes have a huge impact on the mental wellbeing of transgender youth and according to a 2012 Canadian report, can lead to a:
“93% reduction in reported suicide attempts for youth who indicated their parents were strongly supportive of their gender identity and expression”
Without that support, some 57% of young trans people attempted suicide, even higher than the averaged-out figure for trans of all ages and domestic backgrounds. (See below for more on suicide risks)
Leelah was born Joshua and went by Josh too. That is the name and gender by which her parents still knew her, despite her protestations and requests to be allowed to transition after her 16th birthday.
Her mother posted on Facebook, but upon the press contacting them about Joshua also being Leelah – which the family confirmed, they requested privacy, and have now made their profile private blocking access to the following post:
“My sweet 16-year-old son, Joshua Ryan Alcorn went home to heaven this morning. He was out for an early morning walk and was hit by a truck. Thank you for the messages and kindness and concern you have sent our way. Please continue to keep us in your prayers”
Whilst Leelah herself left another Tumblr note, an apology to certain friends, it did not include her mum and dad and explicitly said:
“Mom and Dad: Fuck you. You can’t just control other people like that. That’s messed up.”
I understand the frustration and the pain that led to her suicide, and nothing excuses parental non-acceptance of their own child. Certain behaviours they may not be accepting of, certain identities they may not understand – my own took years to understand, but accepted and loved me from the outset of coming out.
The cries of “murderers” and “evil” seen on some news and social media comments, are “unhelpful“, though. Many parents have become LGBTI advocates after experiences such as these. The grief of losing a child is still losing a child, whether you accepted their gender or not. Certainly, they could have diminished the likelihood and reduced the family factor leading up to the loss of life, but suicide very often has multiple causations, as I know only too well. Family and faith were factors, but society, friends, and not being able to see any future happy outcome as male or female, also contributed.
Religious repression and Christian confusion
I can understand from personal experience that it takes time for family to come around to a name change, let along a gender change, and the accompanying pronouns, but Leelah’s parents were doubly burdened, it would seem, by their personal faith – they were Christians. Whilst there are some inclusive Christian groups out there, in the UK, for example, the Metropolitan Church, Changing Attitude, Greenbelt festival, there are even Accepting Evangelicals, many would regard a transgender Christian as an oxymoron. I experienced attempts to “pray away the gay“, exorcise the trans demon, heal and cure my “twisted” gender – as it was termed by a charismatic Christian healer, who was also an Ob/Gyn consultant.
I know it is hard, too, for believers to step away from the idea that since “God does not make mistakes“, gender is somehow fixed. I theologically tortured myself, repenting and repressing my gender dysphoric identity for decades. I prayed – when I believed, for God to take away the “curse” of being trans. I too tried suicide on more than one occasion. My psychiatrist called me “the most reluctant transsexual he’d ever met” because of my own religious repression.
I know people currently or previously involved in Christian reparative therapy, some willingly undergo it, only for them to revert to their true nature (trans or gay) later – sometimes called ex-ex-gay and ex-ex-trans. Neither ex-gay conversion therapy nor psychotherapies to prevent gender transition are endorsed by UK or US psychiatric and psychological professional bodies, eg. APA, AMA, APA, BACP, BPS, UKCP etc. It is hard to outlaw it completely if some people actively seek it. Many in those circles call it “unwanted same sex attraction”, the unwanted bit gives them pseudo-legitimacy to offer it. In Leelah’s case it was very definitely imposed, and an unwanted intervention.
Quite rightly, a call to reign in “conversion therapy” was made at the London vigil for Leelah, by Sarah Brown, the full text of her speech can be read here.
“presumably … the conversion therapist assured them [the parents] that their therapy could “fix” their child and turn Leelah into the dutiful straight cisgender son they wanted. That the trans feelings could be “cured” … We have known for a long time that conversion therapy, whether it be aimed at changing gender identity or sexuality does not work. We also now know that if a trans person has stated the need to transition, and things are done to block them, there is a better than evens chance that they will try to kill themselves.”
Trans Suicide note left on Tumblr
Leelah’s suicide note showed up on the social media site Tumblr along with some personal posts on scheduled release. It began:
“If you are reading this, it means that I have committed suicide and obviously failed to delete this post from my queue.”
“Please don’t be sad, it’s for the better. The life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living in… because I’m transgender. I could go into detail explaining why I feel that way, but this note is probably going to be lengthy enough as it is. To put it simply, I feel like a girl trapped in a boy’s body, and I’ve felt that way ever since I was 4. I never knew there was a word for that feeling, nor was it possible for a boy to become a girl, so I never told anyone and I just continued to do traditionally “boyish” things to try to fit in.
When I was 14, I learned what transgender meant and cried of happiness. After 10 years of confusion I finally understood who I was. I immediately told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong. If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids. Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.
My mom started taking me to a therapist, but would only take me to christian therapists, (who were all very biased) so I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression. I only got more christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help.
When I was 16 I realized that my parents would never come around, and that I would have to wait until I was 18 to start any sort of transitioning treatment, which absolutely broke my heart. The longer you wait, the harder it is to transition. I felt hopeless, that I was just going to look like a man in drag for the rest of my life. On my 16th birthday, when I didn’t receive consent from my parents to start transitioning, I cried myself to sleep.
I formed a sort of a “fuck you” attitude towards my parents and came out as gay at school, thinking that maybe if I eased into coming out as trans it would be less of a shock. Although the reaction from my friends was positive, my parents were pissed. They felt like I was attacking their image, and that I was an embarrassment to them. They wanted me to be their perfect little straight christian boy, and that’s obviously not what I wanted.
So they took me out of public school, took away my laptop and phone, and forbid me of getting on any sort of social media, completely isolating me from my friends. This was probably the part of my life when I was the most depressed, and I’m surprised I didn’t kill myself. I was completely alone for 5 months. No friends, no support, no love. Just my parent’s disappointment and the cruelty of loneliness.
At the end of the school year, my parents finally came around and gave me my phone and let me back on social media. I was excited, I finally had my friends back. They were extremely excited to see me and talk to me, but only at first. Eventually they realized they didn’t actually give a shit about me, and I felt even lonelier than I did before. The only friends I thought I had only liked me because they saw me five times a week.
After a summer of having almost no friends plus the weight of having to think about college, save money for moving out, keep my grades up, go to church each week and feel like shit because everyone there is against everything I live for, I have decided I’ve had enough. I’m never going to transition successfully, even when I move out. I’m never going to be happy with the way I look or sound. I’m never going to have enough friends to satisfy me. I’m never going to have enough love to satisfy me. I’m never going to find a man who loves me. I’m never going to be happy. Either I live the rest of my life as a lonely man who wishes he were a woman or I live my life as a lonelier woman who hates herself. There’s no winning. There’s no way out. I’m sad enough already, I don’t need my life to get any worse. People say “it gets better” but that isn’t true in my case. It gets worse. Each day I get worse.
That’s the gist of it, that’s why I feel like killing myself. Sorry if that’s not a good enough reason for you, it’s good enough for me. As for my will, I want 100% of the things that I legally own to be sold and the money (plus my money in the bank) to be given to trans civil rights movements and support groups, I don’t give a shit which one. The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up” and fix it. Fix society. Please.”
(Leelah) Josh Alcorn
Leelah’s feelings are both unique and somewhat typical. I resonate and empathise having experienced something similar. In my case it was my own Christian fundamentalism that kept me down, my Anglican parents were none the wiser, and unlike Leelah, I didn’t discover the word transgender till my 20s, even then, that was before social media and Internet support groups.
Transgender Suicide Stats
Her desire for her death to mean something, “to be counted”, not just as a statistic, but an individual life, that should not have been added to the toll of trans deaths by murder or suicide that is already way too high.
She remarked, and it is worth repeating:
“My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up” and fix it. Fix society.”
Transgender suicide stats are horrific. I co-spoke with a psychiatric medical director at an NHS seminar on “Gender, Sex and Mental Health” less than 2 weeks ago. Putting up a PowerPoint slide that reports trans young people as 8x more likely to attempt suicide than other teens, and that that figure is 48%, is enough – or at least should be, to stop an audience in its tracks, and for someone to cry “enough!”
The reality is that repeated surveys in the UK, US and Canada, show figures of 32-48% trying suicide to end their dysphoria and felt-rejection by family, partners and society. Up to 80% consider suicide but don’t act on it. In the UK alone, 30% of trans under the age of 26 had attempted suicide in the past 12 months.
The most recent US statistics were published earlier this year:
“The prevalence of suicide attempts among respondents to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS), conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality, is 41 percent, which vastly exceeds the 4.6 percent of the overall U.S. population who report a lifetime suicide attempt, and is also higher than the 10-20 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual adults who report ever attempting suicide.”
News reporting of Trans stories
It has long been a bugbear of trans persons that many newspapers and websites will report a trans story using the wrong pronouns, focusing on tales and pictures of before and after, or erase our identities and histories in some other way.
Local news sites were still misgendering Leelah – if they even mentioned her female identity, and ignoring her social media suicide note, hours after people online had caught up with the facts. It seems both the family and media outlets were in denial about her being trans. The main local reporting on WCPO took nearly 2 days to post an editorial update after 3 stories had already aired about “Joshua’s accident”.
Editor’s note: WCPO.com posted an update to this story on Tuesday. The update connects Joshua Alcorn to a blog post by a “Leelah” Alcorn in which Leelah says she was transgender and committed suicide.
Finally the WCPO news source reported about Leelah rather than, or at least, as well as Joshua, within the last few hours. Further updates and later news stories were now acknowledging that Joshua preferred to be called Leelah and termed her Leelah Joshua Alcorn and managed the tightrope walk of journalistic caution by subsequently calling her just Alcorn but now using female pronouns. Not all related stories had been fully updated though.
A supportive feature on Cincinnati.com included an interview with a friend and fellow young teen artist, Abigail Jones, to whom Leelah came out as trans last July. Abigail described Leelah as “super bubbly and upbeat, with a really brash sense of humor; she could make anyone laugh”.
Of all papers, the Daily Mail, in the UK ran a properly gendered article about her suicide, using respectful and correct – as per her self-identification, pronouns.
Positive political support came from Chris Seelbach, Cincinnati City Council’s first openly-gay elected politician, who wrote about Leelah on his Facebook page, re-shared some 16,000 times:
“Cincinnati led the country this past year as the first city in the mid-west to include transgender inclusive health benefits and we have included gender identity or expression as a protected class for many years….the truth is….it is still extremely difficult to be a transgender young person in this country.”
He went on to appeal for donations as an “investment in our trans kids” for TransOhio.org. Many other trans support groups in the US have been listed on a Storify post.
High School Memorial
As Joshua, Leelah’s former school offered a memorial and counselling advice. “Beloved Son, Brother, Friend – 1997-2014” was the inscription on the memorial meme. After complaints, it was removed but is still referenced here.
Some social media users created and circulated an alternate memorial of a “Beloved Daughter, Sister, Friend” instead, also citing Leelah’s last wishes.
Indeed, Facebook, Tumblr with tens of thousands of notes and reblogs, and Twitter were the primary sources of information, respect, and concern, these last 48 hours.
Of all the thousands of trans suicides worldwide each year it is Leelah’s that has struck a chord with people and reached the #1 trending topic on Twitter. Hopefully, enough to make a difference.
For all the flack social media gets it should be remembered that they can be a primary source of support for, especially young, trans people seeking help and advice. Leelah was forcibly deprived of access for months at a time, along with Christian therapy, to ween her off being trans, something that could not be done. Nonetheless, Leelah also realised that even social media friends may not be that deep, and with “hating herself” as she was and not seeing any future for herself as man or woman, she could not even be a friend to herself in her desperate isolation in the real, online , and her own internal worlds.
Public Memorials and Vigils
Various locations in Ohio, and elsewhere worldwide, are holding vigils to commemorate Leelah Alcorn, hundreds are set to go to each of them. Trafalgar Square in London, also hosted one on Saturday 3 January. Some of the pictures can be seen on the Facebook event wall.
Rowan Davis, one of the London vigil organisers, said of Leelah Alcorn that:
“Her death was a political death. When a member of our community is brutalised at the hands of oppression we must all fight back.”
The London vigil press release had four stated aims of the event:
To remember a life cut so short by someone that shared our struggles, a girl killed by systemic transmisogyny.
To remind people that her death was a political death, that when a member of our community is brutalised at the hands of oppression we must all fight back.
A reminder to other folks that we are more than just individuals in this struggle, that as a community we are stronger and that we can create positive change.
It is deeply saddening that Leelah’s parents are still refusing to give her the basic respect she deserves, even in death, and so the fourth purpose of this vigil is to do what they will not and mourn a sister.
My Chemical Romance – Musical Memorial
Ray Toro, former My Chemical Romance guitarist, has released “For The Lost and Brave“ and dedicated it to Leelah Alcorn. Reviews have described the simple poignant song as, “absolutely beautiful”, “giving assurance and comfort…really freaking good”, “perfectly articulate an alienated teenager’s perspective”.
The only true and lasting memorial would be if Leelah’s wishes in death were honoured, unlike her wishes in life. She wrote in her suicide note:
The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something.
This we can do. Can’t we? As families and individuals we can respect the human rights of a trans person to identify according to their felt-gender, preferred name, and requested pronouns. As Christians, churches, and other faiths, we can stop theological pathologisation of trans as somehow sinful – when in fact to be true to yourself is one of the highest forms of honesty and integrity.
Gender Identity Teaching in Primary School
As teachers, educators, and policy makers, we can make sure that “gender is taught in schools, the earlier the better”, something that I have been saying for years. I occasionally get to speak on gender in schools but never below the age of 15. Leelah was aware from 4 and convinced by 14.
Professor Stephen Whittle, OBE, should know as a trans man father of several kids, whom he and his wife and have been open about gender with. In a recent blog post he discussed how they had shared with even their 3 year old about gender being a best guess at birth subject to a child’s affirmation or change as they grow, it was simply and superbly put, and their other child’s response was “ok”:
“As the baby’s parents we make a guess – but it is only a guess. When the babies grow up, if it turns out to be the wrong guess, and either or both of them turn out to be boys, they will tell us. And then we can make the changes they would like us to make.”
Instead of only trying to eradicate homophobia and teach about homosexuality from puberty, given that gender identity is awake and aware from ages 3-8, gender “options” should be taught about earlier. I was aware by 5, yet had no language or option to discuss it and so closed up. Other studies have shown that the age of first gender realisations is 3-5, first transgender awareness on average around 7, and yet, coming out can take decades – that’s years of self-repression, often self-loathing, and, delays to and denials of being oneself – a basic human right, surely?
A basic human right that Leelah Alcorn was denied in life and in death, as she was buried and remembered by family under her male birth name in complete denial of her identity, though undeniable grief at her loss, in the main it seems due to their dogmatic evangelical faith.
If we don’t do something we will keep seeing more trans teen suicides. Indeed, in the 2 months after Leelah Alcorn took her life, at least 3 more US trans teens died from suicides and others tried but survived. These others have echoed the call for better and earlier gender education “about male and female and all the other genders”. Twitter campaigns via #HisNameWas… and #HerNameWas… have sought to affirm their names and gender in death as lasting memorials.
Third/Non-Gender passport options could be debated in the UK Parliament following a lengthy campaign by people outside the male-female gender binary who feel erased and discriminated against.
[UPDATE – Government “considering” changes to gender identity laws, passport and driving licence changes. Maria Miller, chair of the Commons Women and Equalities committee, said a person’s sex was “not relevant” on official documents, and it created an “unconscious bias” in job applications. Gender details on passports also do not assist with identification, she added. The committee will publish a report on transgender discrimination in January 2016. In an interview with The Times, Miller said gender stereotyping can be as “damaging” for men as women.]
A motion was tabled yesterday (5 June 2014) in the UK Parliament to allow non-binary M/F passport gender markers in the UK, to aid those that identify as non-gender, non-binary, agender, bigender, or intergender – or simply hate gender construct labels. The internationally allowed X marker already allows this, not as some compulsory trans or third gender marker which could be used to reduce people’s rights as citizens, but as a self-selected optional marker for those that feel they do not fit the only 2 options given in UK and most nation’s passports. Australia and New Zealand accept the non-gender specific X passport as do India, Nepal and Pakistan. Canada is debating change; Malaysia are allegedly considering removing gender from all passports. Argentina makes switching between Male & Female easy, without legal-medical requirements for trans, intersex, genderqueer, or anyone else for that matter – a move, it has been announced, that Denmark looks set to follow.
This motion is essentially a re-tabling of previous attempts, but taking advantage of a new Parliamentary session – it will need hundreds of signatures to even trigger a full debate.
“Although there is very little prospect of EDMs being debated, many attract a great deal of public interest and frequently receive media coverage … In an average session only six or seven EDMs reach over two hundred signatures. Around seventy or eighty get over one hundred signatures. The majority will attract only one or two signatures. An EDM is not likely to be debated even if it gains a large number of signatures.” Parliament.uk
The move follows LibDem sponsored Government reviews into this since 2011, and yet progress had stalled. The new early day motion has been sponsored by Julian Huppert (LibDem) and is supported by Jeremy Corbyn (Labour). Non-gendered Christie Elan-cane has long fought for non-gendered passports and had her case taken up by MPs such as David Blunkett (Lab), Liberal Democrat MPs Lynne Featherstone and Simon Hughes and Baroness Sarah Ludford MEP.
Some of the last 3 years’ history on this has been blogged about here.
One might think that just two options M/F on passports prejudices just trans, intersex and genderqueer people but if part of a family then gay, lesbian and trans are also affected as the designated parents on child passports. Some countries, including the US have thus adopted gender-neutral parenting option on children’s passports, not mother/father but parent 1/parent 2.
The words “mother” and “father” were being removed from American passport applications and replaced with gender neutral terminology, the US State Department said in 2011. The UK and Australia were said to be following suit.
Legal documents that reflect a person’s gender – or non-gender identity are a basic human right. Denying them, restricts, travel, identification, and citizen rights such as voting or access to welfare benefits.
“The denial of existence is the worst act of discrimination by the gendered majority against the non-gendered“ – Christie Elan-Cane
Elan-Cane prefers ‘per’ in place of him or her and the honorific title Pr, short for Person, neither Mr nor Ms. Shouldn’t we all be entitled to be seen as persons first, and not primarily gendered categories?
Facebook now has some 50+ gender options, why do we need any on official documentation? The military does not use gender as a means of identification, just name and rank. Height, eyes, and finger prints should be sufficient on biometric passports. Gender, race and identifying marks are invasive, insufficient and inappropriate. Nationality, for the sake of legal travel rights and repatriation. But I cannot see how gender matters.
[An early version of this article first appeared here.]
Update on “X” Gender not specified UK Passports
During the current April-May 2015 General Election campaign, several parties, initially just the Greens and LibDems, but now both Ed Miliband (Labour) and David Cameron (Conservative) have pledged to re-examine X-Gender passports:
“The Conservative leader also said he would consider following Australia and New Zealand in introducing ‘Gender X’ passports for people who do not identify as male or female – after Ed Miliband also pledged to review the issue in his PinkNews Q&A“
IDAHO day, the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia
May 17, each year, is IDAHO day, the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, since 2009 called IDAHOT to fully incorporate Trans people. I’ve always prefered the longer IDAHOBIT to include Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexphobia and Transphobia, not to mention the little people with hairy feet from Middle Earth!
May 17 was the day that homosexuality was removed from the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) of the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1990. IDAHO day first took place in 2005 with activities taking place around the world including the first ever LGBT events to take place in the Congo, China, and Bulgaria.
In 2009 Transphobia was added to the day’s remembrance and activism although, unlike homosexuality, trans activists are still campaigning to have Gender Dysphoria removed from the various mental health classifications (ICD10/11, DSM-IV/V), though France was the first country to do so that same year. In May 2012 Argentina passed a radical groundbreaking Gender Identity Law depathologising trans and providing medical access for all without psychiatric hoop-jumping. Argentina should be watched and observed to see if its model becomes one that could be followed by other nations and allow for the safe and full depathologisation of transsexuality.
ILGA LGBTI Report
Times have changed and things improved since the removal of the criminal threat and mental health stigma from homosexuality, at least. If a recent ILGA LGTBI report is to be believed, Britain is the best place to live if one is lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or intersex.
Launched to mark IDAHOT day, the ILGA Rainbow Europe Map “reviews the standing of European countries against essential legal benchmarks for LGBTI equality, while the Annual Review of the Human Rights Situation of LGBTI People in Europe 2014 provides an analysis of trends and an overview of key political and social developments country-by-country.”
For many there were improvements, such as same-sex marriage (although not in Northern Ireland) and for some to the East of Europe, such as Russia, a deteriorating situation of LGBTI freedoms and protections.
Apparently, the UK has the best laws (the 2010 Equality Act was pretty groundbreaking), rights and freedoms, even better than the Netherlands, Spain, or Scandinavia. This is partly down to some nations being gay and lesbian positive but then failing on trans and/or intersex, and usually totally ignoring and hence erasing bisexuals.
Homophobic & Transphobic Hate Crime
Here in the UK, homophobic and transphobic crime seems to be on the rise, although this may just be perception and/or data inflation, since increased numbers may just be better victim reporting and police recording, rather than increased incidence of hate crimes or incidents. We’ve been tackling racism for decades and it doesn’t go away over night. Just ponder the upcoming European elections and the 30% vote share that UKIP the party of xenophobia are likely to gain. Fear of difference is still endemic everywhere.
A recent NUS report into the experience of gay and trans students demonstrates that schools and colleges are still not safe places for LGBTI people. Only 20% of trans students feel safe or accepted in higher education. 20% of LGB+ students and 33% of trans respondents experienced at least one form of bullying or harassment on their campus, making them 2-3 times more likely to drop out of education, affecting future job prospects, and mental health and wellbeing.
Trans students are 2.5 times more likely to have a disability in addition to being transgender. They are, furthermore, the group at the greatest risk of suicide with 34% attempting it and up to 80% considering it. Thankfully, the UK is better than many other places and these figures are greatly increased elsewhere, e.g., the USA, Eastern Europe, etc.
Other Rights Still Not Equal
The right to bodily integrity of people with Intersex conditions (people with differences of sexual development, sometimes unhelpfully termed “disorders”, DSD) is an issue still being fought for. Just because gay rights are seemingly “in the bag”, same-sex weddings won, does not mean trans or intersex people have the same or equal benefits, nor does it mean that any LGBTI person is free from bullying, hate crime or prejudice in the workplace.
Equality itself is not yet equal, either between different strands of the diversity umbrella of protected characteristics nor across different countries in the EU, Commonwealth, or world. Some 80 nations have laws that still criminalise homosexuality, some with the death penalty. Just because a civil rights battle is part-won in one country does not mean that is everyone’s experience, either at home or abroad. So days like IDAHOBIT, regional and national LGBTIQ Prides, are still needed to remind us of how far we have come, and… how far we still have to go to achieve equality, acceptance and freedom for all.