Today, Friday 28th May, is #AmnestyDay, the day that Amnesty International calls on us to remember the importance of human rights. My grandfather Sean Mac Bride co-founded Amnesty and served as Chairman from 1961 to 1975. His work with Amnesty International was one of his proudest accomplishments.
In November 2020 Amnesty International signed and promoted a letter by Transgender Equality Network Ireland. As a member of the LGBT community, I support Amnesty in fighting for human rights for all members of the community. But I read this letter in dismay and horror. The letter attacks the fundamental human rights of freedom of expression and freedom of association.
Amnesty came late to the fight for LGBT rights. They first included sexual orientation in their campaigns for prisoners of conscience in 1991. The remit was very limited and reflected a deep social conservativeness in the organisation.
In 1991, I was living in San Francisco. It was a time that a second wave of HIV hit the gay community. So many men had died in the first onslaught of the virus it meant there were few elders to look up to. Young men my age were dying. Some days it seemed like they could see no future and so they inexorably danced their way to death.
So many people I cared about died. Lovers were unable to say goodbye. They were excluded from hospitals and bedsides as families took ownership. There was no legal way to be designated as next of kin to your gay lover.
My friend and roommate was banned from attending her long term lover’s funeral. We created our own memorial service and planted a tree in her lover’s memory on the hill behind our apartment. Buena Vista Hill. So called because it has a panoramic view and on clear sunny mornings you can see the sun glint off the San Francisco Bay and shimmer all the way around to the Pacific Ocean. It was a defiant and hopeful act in a sometimes hopeless time.
Rights and acceptance, that we couldn’t even imagine becoming real in the 1990s, are available to all who live in western democracies now. None the less same sex desire and love remains criminalised in 70 countries. In 11 countries men who have sex with men are subject to the death penalty. One of those countries is Iran.
On 13th May Amnesty International launched a campaign relating to Alireza Fazeli Monfared, a twenty-year-old Iranian gay man, who was brutally murdered and beheaded by the men in his family on 4th May. He had been outed when his half-brother opened an envelope containing a military exemption card issued based on his sexual orientation.
I first read about this chilling murder some days prior to the Amnesty campaign. I was very surprised to see their campaign video titled “Demand Justice for 20-year-old Alireza who was killed in relation to his gender expression in Iran.”
Amnesty claim Alireza self-identified as non-binary and go on to report that he wore make up and lip synched to Persian songs.
Alireza Fazeli Monfared, a twenty-year-old Iranian gay man, was brutally murdered and beheaded by the men in his family on 4th May 2021
In almost a week of coverage this was the first reference to a non-binary identity I had seen. The Iranian Lesbian and Transgender Network identify Alireza as a gay man. The only other references to non-binary I have seen claim Amnesty as their source.
Perhaps straight allies will ask why it matters if Amnesty adds a transgender identity to a gay man. He was killed because he was a member of the LGBT community. Surely the only thing that matters is he was murdered?
It matters enormously. In framing their campaign this way Amnesty International commit an insidious form of cultural imperialism. They tacitly give a seal of approval to Iran’s inhumane and pitiless treatment of same sex attracted people and project a western definition of masculinity on to gay man living in a very different culture and circumstance.
In 2007 President Ahmadinejad of Iran speaking at Colombia University stated, “We do not have homosexuals in Iran”. Perhaps he believed that the 2005 execution of two young gay men by hanging in a public square had banished the scourge of homosexuality from the land.
Mahmoud Asgari was sixteen and Ayaz Marhone was eighteen. Two young men brutally executed because of their sexual desire for each other.
In Iran lesbians and gay men are seen as an abomination. Sexual acts between two women are punishable by flogging. In sex between men the ‘passive’ partner is subject to the death penalty however the “active” partner is only subject to the death penalty if he is married, committed rape, or if he is a non-Muslim engaging in sex with a Muslim.
Transexuals face discrimination in Iranian society where sex-roles are rigidly defined and policed. But transsexuality is seen as a disease rather than a perversion, one that can be fixed by sex reassignment surgery.
Sex reassignment surgery is used as a form of conversion therapy for same sex attracted people. Arsham Parsi who runs the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees estimates up to 45% of sex change operations are performed on same sex attracted people to “cure” them of their sexual orientation. The Iranian government provides loans to people who undergo sex reassignment surgery.
Maryam, a young lesbian, was reported to the police because of her sexual orientation. Over several days, they burnt her skin with cigarettes and subjected her to psychological torture. She signed a confession and was referred to a psychologist who encouraged her to undergo a sex change operation.
She describes the experience, “No, I’m Maryam, a girl, and I do not want to be a man!” The female doctor told me, “If you don’t change your sexuality and you continue unlawful acts, your future will be a death sentence”.
There are gay men all over the world who wear make-up and lip sync to songs. They are not murdered because they don’t conform to a rigid western notion of masculinity. They are murdered, criminalised and executed because desire and sex between men is deemed dangerous and perverse. Amnesty should not attempt to sanitise and erase same sex desire.
Iseult White’s grandfather Sean Mac Bride co-founded Amnesty
Amnesty was part of the fabric of my childhood. Much of the work was done from my grandparent’s home. We stuffed envelopes and served tea and biscuits to volunteers. We wrote letters and sent Christmas cards to Prisoners of Conscience.
Even as a young child I understood that one might not agree with the views held by the prisoners of conscience that Amnesty represented. The important principle was that people should not be imprisoned because of opinions held peacefully from a place of conscience.
My conscience dictates that I speak up about how sex is material in my life as a woman, and as woman who desires women based on sex not gender. Speaking from conscience is an unalienable human right. I know my grandfather would defend my right to speak up. He would defend my right to the end of days. It saddens me that Amnesty International will not.
Iseult White is an author and a psychotherapist. She will be speaking about Amnesty at “A Woman’s Place is holding NGOs to Account: Women’s Rights are Human Rights” on Friday, 4th June. Details at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/a-womans-place-is-holding-ngos-to-account-womens-rights-are-human-rights-tickets-155532761677 Iseult is on Twitter @iseult