Amnesty Reports Abuse of Lesbians, Gays Worldwide

Persecution based on sexual orientation is grounds for U.S. political asylum, but most gay people don't know it. And a new human rights report documents abuse and torture of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people worldwide.

Prof. Suzanne Goldberg of Rutgers University

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)-As many Americans celebrate Gay Pride month, a new report documents abuse, torture and sexual assault against lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people worldwide-because of their sexual behavior or perceived sexual identity.

The abuse is often perpetrated by or with the acquiescence of government and police officials, according to the report, “Crimes of Hate, Conspiracy of Silence: Torture and Ill-Treatment Based on Sexual Identity,” recently released here by Amnesty International, the international human rights organization.

It is Amnesty's first report specifically addressing the torture and inhuman treatment of lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgender people, and it documents examples of cruel treatment against lesbians and gays in 30 countries to illustrate what Amnesty says is a pattern of violence and torture around the globe.

Torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment is prohibited under numerous international human rights laws and treaties, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which prohibits torture carried out “by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”

The Amnesty report notes that in more than 70 countries and some U.S. states same-sex relations are a serious crime, and in some countries homosexual acts are punishable by death. Lesbians, the report notes, are especially vulnerable to abuse, including rape, forced marriages and forced pregnancy.

“In most parts of the world, being gay or lesbian means being stigmatized, marginalized and vilified,” Susana T. Fried, steering committee member of Amnesty's OUTfront Program for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender human rights, said at the Amnesty press conference when the report was released.

Governments Claim to Respect Human Rights, Persecute Lesbians, Gays

“While most governments either deny practicing human rights violations or portray them as rare occurrences, the stigma, discrimination and repression that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people face is often openly and passionately defended in the name of culture, religion, morality or public health,” Fried said.

The Amnesty report covers the period from the beginning of 1997 to mid-2000. Karen A. Robinson, acting director of Amnesty's Campaign Department, said the organization received reports of torture or ill-treatment by state officials in more than 150 countries, and that in 70 countries the cruelty was “widespread and persistent.” Robinson called the statistics “shocking.”

The cases cited included:

  • In Uganda in 1999, five lesbian and gay activists were imprisoned and tortured, and some of them were raped by the Ugandan military for the “crime” of forming a lesbian and gay human rights organization. In Uganda, “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature” is an offense that can carry a life sentence. Soldiers took one of the activists, Christine, to a secret detention center, stripped her naked, beat her and raped her. Another woman, Norah, said that she was “kept in a small filthy room with bats in the ceiling ... for about five hours, then three men came in and started interrogating me. ... I was also beaten, abused both sexually and physically. My clothes were ripped off. Nasty remarks were made that I should just be punished for denying men what is rightfully theirs.”
  • In Argentina last year, a transgender woman was arrested during a scuffle at a bar and held in a police station. Five days later, she was dead, reportedly from cardiac arrest. However, an autopsy showed evidence of torture, including severe bruising, during the time she was in police custody.
  • Last year in Chicago, Jeffrey Lyons, 39, was allegedly assaulted by off-duty Chicago police officers who had witnessed him hugging a male friend outside of a bar. Lyons suffered a broken nose, fractured cheekbone and brain damage. One officer reportedly taunted him by saying, “Get this through your head, you faggots never win.” Lyons is heterosexual. According to reports, officers who fled the scene in two cars tried to run over Lyons' friend as he noted their license plate numbers. The alleged beating and attempted hit and run are under investigation.

The report cites additional cases from Eastern and Western Europe, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, Russia, North and South America and Asia.

Lesbian Granted U.S. Asylum Based on Persecution in Guatemala

At the Amnesty press conference, a lesbian using the pseudonym “Alejandra Rodriguez” for fear of reprisals against her and her family described herself as a survivor of torture by police and the army in her native Guatemala several years ago. She said she was forced to bare her breasts to prove she was a woman.

Caught in a raid on a local gay bar, she refused to put her hospital job in jeopardy by being videotaped by police. As a result, she said, she was beaten and threatened with rape until her friends managed to scrape up enough cash, $20, to bribe the officers for her freedom. Authorities beat one of her best friends and left him to die at the public trash dump, she said.

When she was afraid to go to his funeral, she said, “at that point I knew I had to leave.” Three years ago, “Alejandra” was granted asylum in the United States.

Since 1994, the U.S. has accepted persecution based on sexual orientation as grounds for granting political asylum. With the persecution of gay people worldwide a growing problem, the U.S. asylum system is grappling with more claims based on sexual orientation than ever before, according to Suzanne Goldberg, an assistant professor of law at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., and a leader of the Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force.

The exact number of people who have been granted asylum as victims of gay persecution is not known. Overall, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service approved about 21,000 of the 48,000 asylum claims it received last year, but an immigration service spokesperson said that the agency does not disclose statistics about the basis for each claim.

Goldberg added, however, that the road to asylum for gay people is particularly “fraught with tremendous obstacles.”

Immigration Officials, Lawyers Often Ignorant or Hostile

Chief among them, she says, is that most gay people have no idea that sexual orientation-based persecution is grounds for asylum in the United States. Problems include the ignorance or outright hostility of immigration lawyers who are uninformed about how to support a gay person's application and government officials who are hostile or uninformed about how to evaluate asylum applications.

Goldberg represented a Russian lesbian who sought asylum because she had been threatened with forced psychiatric institutionalization to change her sexual orientation. U.S. immigration authorities denied the woman's asylum application on the grounds that the Russian government intended to “cure” her sexual orientation, not to persecute her. The case was reversed on appeal.

“Crimes of Hate, Conspiracy of Silence” urges governments to repeal laws that criminalize homosexuality, to prohibit all forms of discrimination based on sexual identity and to stop forced medical treatment designed to “cure” homosexuality. Amnesty also praised the United Nations Human Rights Commission's call for submission of information on human rights abuses related to sexual identity.

“A clear message must be sent by the U.N. that the torture and ill treatment of people on the basis of their sexual identity will not be tolerated,” Michael Heflin, director of Amnesty's OUTfront program said.

Alejandra, the Guatemalan torture survivor, dreams of the day she can be reunited with her mother.

“Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I hear my mother's footsteps in the house, and I hear her voice,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “And it kills me, knowing that she's alone because I'm lesbian. But I know that she's happy that I am safe. I didn't die. I made it.”

Barbara Raab, a writer and television producer in New York, writes frequently on lesbian and gay issues.

For further information, visit:

Amnesty International:

Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force:

International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission: