LGBT rights activist: It is very important to realize that you are not alone

Prague Pride, photo: Petr Vilgus. CC BY-SA 4.0

The seventh annual Prague Pride Festival of LGBT culture has not only attracted members of the LGBT community from around the world but highlighted the conditions in which they live in different countries. Boris Dittrich is Advocacy Director of the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. This week he came to Radio Prague’s studio to talk about the roots of homophobia, the problems the LGBT community faces in different countries and what can be done to improve their lives. I began by asking him where LGBT communities face the biggest problems.

Boris Dittrich,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“In many parts of the world, unfortunately, we have 193 countries in total, member states of the UN, and in about 73 of them homosexual conduct is still criminalized and in some of those countries you can end up in prison simply for loving somebody of the same gender. I would say that in Russia and in Chechnya, a federal subject of Russia, the situation is horrible, it is really, really dreadful, but of course there are also some countries in Africa where it is very, very difficult, people are hunted down –the northern part of Nigeria is an example –and so sometimes homophobia is so detrimental that people get killed.”

To what do you ascribe the fact that in some countries there is a tolerant attitude and in others there is strong homophobia – is it linked to religion, forty years of communist rule in Eastern Europe – what influences public opinion in this respect?

“When I travel around the world for Human Rights Watch I find that religion is a driving force of discrimination, but also people who cling to culture or tradition and they say that homosexuals don’t exist in their country simply because they are ignorant. So ignorance is also a factor. And what I see in many countries is that once people get to know a lesbian woman or homosexual man, be it their neighbour, colleague, son or daughter, once they get to know someone on a personal level they open up and say OK, I understand that these are people just like us. So there is a lot of ignorance that needs to be covered and that is what I try to do by giving interviews or meeting with politicians. This morning I had a meeting with a member of Parliament here in the Czech Republic to talk about marriage equality in the Czech Republic.”

“In Chechnya President Kadyrov is giving interviews saying we do not have homosexuals and if we them we call on their family members to take them away to a place from where there is no return.”

In this country and elsewhere one sometimes feels that politicians are more conservative than the public in this respect. How do you explain that?

“I myself led a political party in the Dutch government, the Dutch Parliament and I introduced marriage equality in the late 1990’s and I would say that most of those politicians who are very hesitant and very cautious think that they have to listen to their constituents. And they think their constituency is not ready yet, but then all of a sudden they are taken over by reality because people move on and develop and evolve in their opinions.”

“We have seen that recently in Germany. I live in Berlin and work from there and I had many meetings with members of Parliament from the CDU and they thought Germany was not ready for marriage equality and then all of a sudden when there was a vote in the German Parliament a large majority voted in favour and when we look at opinion polls more than 75 percent of the German population is in favour of equal treatment and non-discrimination. So I think many politicians do not really know how far ahead the general population is.”

When you say they think they have to listen to their constituency – is it possible that they think that people voice certain liberal views in opinion polls, but actually want something different?

Photo: Filip Jandourek
“My assessment is that politicians voice certain opinions because they think this is something their constituency would like to hear but the reality might be different and therefore it is very important for politicians to meet with a lesbian couple or gay couple raising children for instance here in the Czech Republic and for them to see that it is a normal, rainbow family.”

Do you see a difference in countries where there is acceptance and those where there is mere tolerance?

“There is definitely a distinction because tolerance is, more or less, don’t bother me, I will look the other way and you go ahead and lead your own life, while acceptance really calls for an activity of the person to really open up and acknowledge the existence and equal rights of the other person. So there is a difference and even in my country, The Netherlands, where all the laws are in place there is still discrimination going on. So it is not the case that once you change the law there is no discriminatory problem anymore, you have to work against discrimination on a daily basis.”

As regards Europe – where do you see acceptance and where do you just see tolerance?

“Well, of course the transition is gradual, but my assessment is that the countries that opened up for same-sex marriage, which is such a symbolic equal right, I would say those countries are ready for acceptance although even in those countries there are groups of people – it could be new immigrants, it could be elderly people, or just very conservative people –who are not ready for acceptance. Society is a mixture of groups and opinions.”

“It is very important to realize that you are not alone and that what you have to go through is something that thousands and thousands of other people have also gone through.”

Why is the issue of child adoption so sensitive?

“This is something very interesting because when I was a member of Parliament in The Netherlands and introduced marriage equality I also introduced the adoption bill for same-sex couples and funnily enough in The Netherlands –and I have noticed it in several other countries – this issue was not so controversial. Marriage equality was more controversial because the Dutch population and politicians understood that when we talk about adoption we talk about what is in the best interest of the child. We are not talking about politics, we are asking is it good for this child to be raised by a same-sex couple or not. So, on an individual basis, we consider what is in the best interest of the child. We have a judge who has to read the reports by social workers and then it is up to the judge to decide, well in this case this child is well-off with two gay men or two lesbian women. And so in several other countries as well the best interest of the child is paramount and not the idea that – oh, these are two women, or two men.”

Conservative people in this country talk a lot about the child needing both role models…what do you say to that?

“I say that I agree that a child needs role models, but the sexual orientation or gender of the parents are not decisive. And there are about 75 surveys done by universities, independent research, where they followed rainbow families for twenty, twenty-five years and those children who have been raised by a lesbian or gay couple are now adults …they have interviewed them, seen their development through all those years and they have come to the conclusion that it does not matter what the gender of the parents is, what matters is whether a child receives love, attention and direction from its parents.”

Photo: Filip Jandourek
Do you see an improvement with the young generation or do children tend to soak up the prejudices of their parents? Are you optimistic that things will change with the new generation?

“Yes, I do have hope there. Younger generations grew up with the Internet, they have access to much more information than the older generation which had to rely on the information that was given to them by national media outlets for instance. I see in many countries that younger generations are more open to the idea that it is all about love and it does not matter what the gender of the person is that you love.”

When you talk to gays and lesbians who have problems what is the worst part for them I is it having to live a lie? Is it the violence?

“The worst part of it is that you are part of a minority, you are isolated, you are afraid that your family will maybe not accept you, that your colleagues will not accept you. So it is very difficult when you haven’t come out. You are living a lie that isolates you from the others and you are very lonely. What we see – and this is also in countries with marriage equality – that the suicide rate of LGBT children is much higher that of other children. So I would say loneliness, the fact that you are isolated from the majority and the feeling that you need to fight for your place in the world, that is something that is very, very difficult.”

We spoke about the fact that in some countries gays and lesbians are persecuted, they face violence and even a threat to their lives…there are people here who say the Czech Republic should be giving more such people asylum, people at risk in Russia, Chechnya and so on. Do you agree with that?

“That’s what Prague Pride is all about, it is not only the march itself, but it is all those debates, panel discussions, film screenings, parties where people can meet, talk and feel safe.”

“Well, when we talk about the situation in Chechnya it is really horrifying because it is not only the state authorities who are after gay men, but also their own family members, there are honour killings going on in Chechnya. The political leadership – President Kadyrov –is giving interviews saying we do not have homosexuals and if we do have them we call on their family members to take them away to a place from where there is no return. There are awful, awful examples. So in Chechnya homosexual men are usually married to a woman and have kids because they live in secrecy. Several of them have been arrested and tortured and some of those men want to leave Chechnya and seek a place in the world where they can live without fear of getting killed. So it is very important that other countries will open up their borders for those men and there are a few countries that have said OK, we will take in some gay men from Chechnya. We are not talking about hundreds of people, we are talking about tens of people and, in Europe, Germany, France and Lithuania have accepted Chechen gay men as refugees, so I would really say that this is also something the Czech Republic could do as well.”

Do you feel that the media does enough to address –or spread awareness of – the problem?

Prague Pride,  photo: CTK
“Well, it all depends on what kind of media we are talking about. What I always find a little bit annoying is that when there are issues relating to homosexuals and a TV station needs to show some images they always show either drag queens or very effeminate men or very masculine women to project the issue of homosexuality and I think that is so wrong, because there is such a wide variety of homosexual people, as there is in the general population, and this approach stigmatizes and creates prejudice among the general population. I sometimes find it even shocking that when you are talking about a serious problem –about the suicide of a young person for instance – and then on television you see an image of a man dancing in a dress or something like that. That’s really not called for. And usually it is heterosexual journalists who portray homosexuality like that.“

You yourself lecture on the subject. Do you feel that you manage to reach people with prejudices or do you find yourself preaching to the converted. Are you able to change people’s views or at least plant a seed of doubt?

“Well, the words “to plant a seed” that’s really very important. This morning I was in the Czech parliament discussing this issue with a member of the Civic Democratic Party who was against marriage equality but who was open enough to discuss it. That is the same thing as I did in Germany with conservative members of Parliament from the CDU or what I am doing in Africa when I meet with ministers or members of Parliament and sometimes I notice that people start thinking about it, especially when they meet gays and lesbians in real life and that really helps. I think it is important for people to know there are role models. When you are a young gay man you don’t necessarily have to become a hairdresser – you can enter politics, become a soccer player or have a very masculine job –there are all kinds of role models out there and I think they are doing an amazing job. Nowadays when you are young and when you are looking for information about homosexuality you will find those role models. In my time, when I was young, there was hardly anybody out there and you had to figure it all out by yourself.”

How do events like Prague Pride help?

Prague Pride,  photo: Petr Vilgus,  CC BY-SA 4.0
“They do help. First of all, because especially if you live in a smaller village outside of Prague, in the countryside, where there are not so many role models in your neighbourhood and you do not talk about it with your parents the fact that you can go on the Internet, watch TV and even come to Prague and participate or just simply watch from the side-lines makes a big difference. Because all of a sudden you realize, hey, I’m not alone. There are thousands and thousands of people like me out there, they might be older and in a different phase of their lives, but it is very important to realize that you are not alone, and that what you have to go through is something that thousands and thousands of other people have also gone through. And you can learn from it. And that’s what Prague Pride is all about – it is not only the march itself, but it is all those debates, panel discussions, film screenings, parties where people can meet, talk and feel safe.”

You have been doing a lot of good work in this field for years and years – how long do you think it may take to root out homophobia-let us say in Europe?

“I doubt it will ever be rooted out because homophobia is a part of discrimination and you have discrimination of all kinds and we will never root that out completely. It is something we always have to work at, defending the rights of minorities because they are part of society. We have to be there and show that we have a right to be there and that we are there to stay.”

Have you seen a shift forward and what do you think drove that shift – was it celebrities coming out and saying “I am gay” or was it the kind of work you do?

“I think that what is underestimated is the work of NGOs, organizations, civil society, working on a daily basis, trying to provide information and convince others to view this not as a problem but as part of life and that equal rights and non-discrimination are the norm. Of course, when a celebrity comes out that grabs more attention, but their coming out can only be based on the work that these organizations have done throughout the years. So I would really say that civil society is very, very important, just people getting together, it could be the parents and friends of gays and lesbians who get together and who want to signal to their friends –listen there’s nothing wrong with our kid. Those kind of meetings are essential in a country. I hope they will continue and I really hope that the Czech Republic will join all the other nations of Western Europe in introducing full marriage equality and adoption by gay couples.”

Over 2,600 same-sex couples have entered into registered partnerships in the Czech Republic since the law came into effect on July 1, 2006. Registered partnerships have a much lower divorce rate than regular marriages; only 14.5 percent of same-sex registered partnerships have been divorced, while in the case of regular marriages, the rate is about 50 percent. The law on registered partnerships provides for the right to information on the health condition of the registered partners and the right to inherit property just as in regular marriage.

Is there international cooperation in this field?

“Yes, there is a great deal. At the United Nations, when I started working for Human Rights Watch ten years ago one hadn’t discussed discrimination of homosexuals – not at all – and nowadays it is really a hotly debated topic, there are resolutions that have been adopted by the United Nations, the Secretary General is talking about the importance of equality and non-discrimination, there is a free and equal campaign launched by the UN and so the issue is getting a lot of attention on the international platform. The Czech Republic became a member state of the Equal Rights Coalition of which 33 countries are members and those countries try to share their know-how, learn from each other to achieve full equality and non-discrimination. So it is interesting to see that the Czech Republic is part of this international group.”