Podcast: Episode 7 ~ LGBTI rights

Sara speaks with Paula Gerber, internationally renowned legal scholar on LGBTI rights, criminalisation of homosexuality, and human rights law.  She is Associate Professor at the Monash University Law School and Deputy Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law. Paula also manages the website antigaylaws.org that provides up-to-date information about countries that still criminalise homosexuality. 

In 2007, human rights activist Sizakele Sigasa who fought for the rights of the LGBTI community in South Africa, went to a bar in Soweto with her friend and fellow activist, Salome Masooa. While standing outside of the bar, the two were heckled by a group of men who shouted out names like “tomboys”. That evening, both women were found dead in a field in Meadowlands after being raped, stripped of their underwear, bound and shot execution style. They are not the only one’s in a country with the world highest rate of violence again women that, in addition to such horrendous murders, an average of 10 women who identify as lesbian are raped every week in South Africa in order to “correct” their sexuality, that is, to make them realise that they are supposed to be sexually attracted to men and not women.

In Chile, Daniel Zamudio was brutally beaten and tortured by four men when they found out that he was gay, and he was left with severe brain damage and broken bones, cigarette burns and cuts on his body that were shaped as swastikas, and he suffered for almost a month before his body gave up and he died.

Aseel Balalta, a third year medical student from Algiers, was murdered and with his blood, the perpetrators wrote on the wall “he is gay” in English not long after Human Rights organisations had requested that the government repeal article 338 of the Algerian Penal Code, that punishes anyone who “commits an abnormal sexual act”.

More than 70 countries around the world criminalise homosexuality, the penalty being between 10 years to a life sentence. Numerous countries actually implement or have the legal possibility of implementing the death penalty just for being gay, including Iran, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Mauritania, Pakistan, Qatar and UAE, Brunei enacting laws that make gay sex punishable by stoning to death.

Even in countries were the rights of the LGBTI community are legally enforced, ongoing and widespread discrimination continues, where men and women are unable to find employment, and if so, are denied promotions, and are often harassed including ostracised, ridiculed and just generally treated differently that leads to a decline in mental health and wellbeing, economic security that ultimately means challenges with buying a home or even accessing education, and probably worst of all is not being able to engage in a public life, keeping their personal preferences secret, hiding, trying to avoid direct and indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation all of which continues even in the most advanced societies.

I remember when I was 13, I was mesmerised by a much older boy in high school named Dean. I was in year 7, and he was in year 11, and he looked like Daniel Johns, who was the lead singer of Silverchair with his glistening, long blonde hair and guitar that he would carry around school. It was so obvious that I was attracted to him, my knees would wobble, and my heart would skip a beat whenever I would see him, even from a distance. While it was still very early for me to understand the desire and sexuality behind my infatuation being so young, which, honestly, did not really arrive until much later in life, it was very clear that I liked boys.

I cannot imagine what it would have been like being so young and not fully conscious of my own sexuality to be told that my feelings were abnormal, that something is wrong with a person like me to have liked a boy like Dean, to be threatened of being hurt or ostracised or even cut off from my family. How confusing it would be to feel one thing, and be told that this feeling is disgusting and wrong, to feel so alone, so different, and likely afraid of my own feelings.

We thrive and feel wonderful when are accepted and understood, when we feel like we belong and are connected to something bigger than ourselves. If I was told that my feelings for men were wrong and disgusting, I would feel disconnected and different, I would lack self-esteem and feel hopeless, and in doing so, I would have felt like I did not deserve to be in a loving relationship, that I would not be capable of getting married and starting my own family, maybe I would lose sight of any hope for a future that I would eventually stop caring, hurting myself since no one is going to care about me anyway.

When I was in high school, my best friend at the time was gay. We were both sporty and careless about our appearances, and we both loved film and would often make short movies and mockumentaries, we both loved star trek and talking about how stupid people were, especially teachers. How is it, other than our sexuality, that we are in any way different? She is attracted to women, she probably doesn’t understand how I am attracted to men, just as much as I don’t understand how she is attracted to women, and that’s exactly the point, she is not supposed to because she is gay and I am not supposed to because I am heterosexual. We can only trust and respect one another as two conscious, consenting people who are the only one with the authority to understand their own feelings.

I have no authority to force her to believe she is mistaken or wrong or even abnormal only because I don’t understand her feelings. And as humans, that is what we do, we construct these ideas of ‘normal’ based on what we experience and we force gender stereotypes that we expect other people to follow as though these categories verify our normalcy.

These violent ideologies are fundamentally patriarchal systems controlled by these false beliefs that they reinforce by using power as a tool to threaten people into accepting these false believes and in order to authenticate their authority. You know, tough guys, privilege, superiority, telling us what to believe and how to think because we are too stupid to know any better, but the root cause of Othering is nothing but fear.

Most people in society conform to their environment, they do what everybody else is doing and can’t seem to distinguish their own feelings and emotions. I knew I was heterosexual and there was no way that I was going to go beyond that, that despite being approached by many women, it was very easy for me to say no because I am not gay and I am aware of who I am and what I want, but I think there are a lot of people out there who have no idea who they are and because they are told that it is bad or wrong, they feel threatened and think that it is better to simply eradicate the possibility of temptation by being hostile and aggressive to avoid some non-existent risk of yielding to temptation. 

I believe in God, and while I don’t follow a religion, my religion is to be a good person, and I have stuffed up many times in my life because I am human. I can get really angry, I can say stupid things, I have made many many mistakes and so I am certainly no expert in what it takes to actually be a good person, but I do know that being good and bad is socially constructed, and the stories that we are told to try and explain or articulate the difference between good and bad all boils down to interpretation.

When I read the story of Sodom and of Lot, I don’t read anything in that that attests to the immorality of homosexuality. I know many homosexual couples, as I do heterosexual couples, who live with their partners in a loving, monogamous relationship where, just like any other couple, face their challenges, share incredible experiences, and work hard to make things work. They respect themselves and they respect other people.

The moral of the story is about the wrongness of a person who sees another person as a sexual object, it frowns upon engaging in promiscuous behaviour, or vanity, and egotism – whether you are a man or a woman, whether you are gay or straight – because a person who moves further and further away from their own self-hood, their own morality and self-care and love, and who see themselves and other people as sexual objects, lose that part of them that makes them human. 

The interpretation of that story as simply being that homosexuality is bad goes back to institutions that are patriarchal and how they interpret that story, I mean, why else does it seem acceptable that Lot offered his virginal daughters, two quiet and passive women who do what they are told, to a bunch of screaming men, and that is apparently okay. And don’t get me started on what happens afterward Sodom is destroyed.

Today, these gender stereotypes and concepts of masculine and feminine are starting to change, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. The sexual spectrum is broadening, where categories that pigeonhole identities are slowly expanding and enables people to think about and explore their own identity without feeling any sense of shame or stigma and being told what they should or should not be. Not too long ago, an incredible young woman told me that I must be demisexual, someone who can feel sexual desire but only towards someone that I deeply love, and she told me that she was pansexual and described her experience of sexual attraction as directed to both men and women regardless of gender. It is now slowly becoming okay to be gay or lesbian, bi-sexual or transsexual or even asexual or those who don’t experience sexual attraction to any gender.

It is having the freedom to be yourself.

My next guest, Paula Gerber, was a former lecturer of mine when I studied my masters in human rights law at Monash University and is an internationally renowned legal scholar on LGBTI rights, criminalisation of homosexuality, and human rights law.  She is Associate Professor at the Monash University Law School and Deputy Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law. Paula also manages the website antigaylaws.org that provides up-to-date information about countries that still criminalise homosexuality. So please welcome, Paula.

You can also visit https://paulagerber.com/ for more information about Paula and her work as well as on Twitter with a list of citations available on Google Scholar.