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The Taliban ‘will kill us one by one’

LGBTQ Afghans weigh options after country’s government fell

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Kabul, Afghanistan, in July 2021. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Ahmad Qais Munhazim)

Payam, a 25-year-old queer Afghan who lives in Kabul, posted this dilemma on his Facebook page on Aug. 20.

“If I escape, where to? If I stay, where can I go,” he wrote five days after Taliban’s shocking capture of Kabul.

Dozens of LGBTQ Afghans commented under Payam’s post, expressing their fear and anxiety. Some wrote that there is no place for them anymore in the country while others wrote that neither escaping nor staying are easy options for them.

“Taliban will kill us one by one, so I have no choice but to escape,” one wrote.

The new and the old Taliban

The fear of death is imminent in the lives of LGBTQ Afghans since the Taliban seizure. The new generation of queer and trans Afghans, although young, still carry memories of the old days of the Taliban when they hung men in soccer fields for having same-sex relationships and stoned some to death in order to set examples.

The new Taliban are not any different when it comes to their views on homosexuality.

One Taliban judge last month said, “For homosexuals, there can only be two punishments: Either stoning, or he must stand behind a wall that will fall down on him. The wall must be 2.5 to 3 meters high.”

This comes at a time when the international community is perceiving the new Taliban as changed and evolved.

“They will never change and neither their punishments for same-sex relationships … we have to go back to hiding,” says Yousuf, a 21-year old bisexual man from Mazar-i-Sharif in a text message to me on WhatsApp.

Kabul, Afghanistan, in July 2021. (Photos courtesy of Dr. Ahmad Qais Munhazim)

Going into hiding

“We need to go back to hiding” is a shared sentiment among many LGBTQ Afghans who are assessing the situation closely and sharing their frustrations on Facebook and WhatsApp groups. Some have deleted their Facebook profiles, while others are not even stepping outside their homes in fear of being recognized as a member of the LGBTQ community. The stories on Facebook profiles that used to carry images of shirtless men kissing, romantic Dari and Pashto poetry, friends sitting in a hookah café blowing chimineas of smoke and some with their own photos posing and flirting with the camera with stickers on their faces to disguise their identities are now being replaced with texts that read, “my dearest to the heart queers, please be cautious in virtual spaces. Taliban have infiltrated Facebook now and they are going to lure us, haunt us down and kill us. If you can, stay away from Facebook.”

Azad, a 20-year-old transgender woman, tells me that she has changed her neighborhood and now lives with a relative after a neighbor told her that the Taliban will be coming for her soon. Azad is telling me this during a group talk on WhatsApp where a few of us are talking everyday planning escapes, gathering documents, distracting one another from the violence outside their homes and talking about our get-togethers in July where we would go on Kabul street walks, flirting with men in fancy cars and the hot kabob seller in Shar-e-Naw.

Azad, Sham and Rafiq call me late at night when it is morning in Kabul. I fill out form after form for them and in every call, they ask me if they are going to make it out of Afghanistan. I say yes, but with every hour the reality on the ground changes and I feel less and less hopeful. I can hear the fear in their voices behind a shaky internet connection.

Some escape, some stay

Not all LGBTQ Afghans are going to escape. Some will not be able to while most will remain in the country. With the images of crowds at Kabul International Airport, let’s remind ourselves that only a handful of people are getting out. A majority of Afghans are staying behind under the Taliban rule that is going to be accompanied by violence, harsh laws and secret lives for LGBTQ Afghans.

Payam, over a phone conversation, tells me that he is going to stay in Kabul to take care of his elderly mother and finish medical school.

“I have to stay but I also don’t know what is to come,” he says.

Payam remains silent for a few seconds and then continues “I am going to make a Talib fall in love with me so that I survive. I have a feeling their regime will collapse again and you all will return.”

Kabul, Afghanistan, in July 2021. (Photos courtesy of Dr. Ahmad Qais Munhazim)
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Recalling the struggle to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

10 years later, gov’t still cleaning up the mess of failed law

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Franklin Burch of Los Angeles, 70, at the 1993 March on Washington (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Franklin Burch was ecstatic marching down the street waving a small American flag and an “Uncle Sam: I Want You” poster during the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. “Gays and lesbians have a right to serve,” the 70-year old gay vet from Los Angeles told the Washington Post on April 25, 1993. “This is America, and we have these rights.”

An estimated 700,000 LGBTQ and allies agreed, marching past the White House and pouring onto the Mall, many grasping for hope during the horrific Second Wave of AIDS. An idealistic optimism was palpable. Gays had voted en masse to elect Bill Clinton as president of the United States, ejecting the Reagan-Bush administration that ignored the deaths of a generation of gay men. Clinton had promised money for AIDS research and pledged nondiscrimination policies, including lifting the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military.

ANGLE’s David Mixner, a Clinton friend from the anti-Vietnam War days, strenuously pointed out that the U.S. military was America’s largest employer, enabling gay people stuck in hateful environments to get out, get an education, see the world and serve their country. Not giving gays that opportunity was unfair, and therefore, un-American.

The March on Washington program opened with a stunning Robin Tyler-produced encapsulation of the moment – a sense of pride in our patriotism. To a recording of military theme songs, flag-bearing gays and lesbians who had been drummed out of the military marched onstage, accompanied by some active-duty military coming out publicly based on Clinton’s promise. Navy Officer Keith Meinhold and Army Col. Margarethe “Grethe” Cammermeyer ended the procession, with Cammermeyer calling everyone to attention. The crowd – including me – stood at attention, too, tears streaming down our faces at the courage of our people to serve a country that still treated us as deviants. 

Then Dorothy Hajdys took the stage carrying a framed photo of her son, Petty Officer Third Class Allen Schindler, murdered six months earlier in a public toilet in Sasebo, Nagasaki, Japan by two shipmates. The coroner said Schindler’s injuries were worse “than the damage to a person who’d been stomped by a horse.” Schindler could only be identified by the tattoos on his arm. The March on Washington crowd gave Hajdys a 10-minute standing ovation. We knew the cost of freedom.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi read a letter from Clinton, who didn’t attend or send a video, as expected. “I stand with you in the struggle for equality for all Americans, including gay men and lesbians,” Clinton wrote. “In this great country, founded on the principle that all people are created equal, we must learn to put aside what divides us and focus on what we share.”

Liberal Democratic icon Sen. Edward M. Kennedy spoke via an audio tape, comparing our March to the famous civil rights march of 1963. “We stand again at the crossroads of national conscience,” Kennedy said.

But there were hints of a coming storm. Robin Tyler tore a Clinton telegram of apology on stage as unacceptable. “A Simple Matter of Justice” banner flapped in the background as beloved ally actress Judith Light said: “I am grateful to you, the gay and lesbian community, for the impact you are having on all of society. I am grateful for your teaching Colin Powell about equal opportunity. I am grateful for your teaching Sam Nunn about moving into the 20th century. I am grateful for your teaching George Bush about the consequences of irresponsible neglect and misuse of power. And you are in the process of teaching President Clinton the importance of being a leader and the dangers of compromising with what is right and just.”   

But teaching doesn’t equal lessons learned. Clinton betrayed us, agreeing to a Nunn-devised “compromise” on lifting the gay ban called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue.” Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn and Republican John Warner evoked horrific “gay sexual predator” images as they went aboard a submarine to ask sailors how they’d feel lying in such proximity to a gay shipmate. The subtext was clearly an invitation to harass those suspected of being gay and lesbian. Witch hunts were sport.

The cruelty of DADT went beyond the physical. If a buddy on the frontlines in Iraq or Afghanistan was killed by an improvised explosive device (IED), the gay service member could not share the fear, the pain, the trauma because letters back home were checked and psychiatrists and chaplains had to report gay-related confessions. The lives of 14,000 gay, lesbian and bisexual service members were ruined by the time DADT officially ended a decade later, on Sept. 20, 2011. Today, marking the 10th anniversary of the official repeal, the Veterans Administration concedes it is still catching up with all the damage governmental politics created. It’s estimated that more than 114,000 LGBTQ service members or those perceived to be LGBTQ were discharged between Franklin Burch’s service in World War II and the repeal of DADT.

“Although VA recognizes that the trauma caused by the military’s decades-long policy of discrimination against LGBTQ+ people cannot be undone in a few short months, the Biden administration and Secretary McDonough are taking the steps necessary to begin addressing the pain that such policies have created. LGBTQ+ Veterans are not any less worthy of the care and services that all Veterans earn through their service, and VA is committed to making sure that they have equal access to those services,” writes Kayla Williams, a bisexual veteran and assistant secretary for public affairs in VA’s Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs on the VA blog.

Clinton’s betrayal broke our hearts and ruined lives. But amazingly, it did not stop us — which attorney C. Dixon Osburn, a civilian graduate of Georgetown University Law, recounts in his just released must-read book “Mission Possible: The Story of the Repealing of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’” This is the stunning story of how Osburn and attorney Michelle Benecke, a Harvard Law graduate and former Army captain, founded Servicemembers Legal Defense Network to immediately help desperate service members and work with nonprofit allies and law firms to challenge DADT in the courtroom and in the court of public opinion.

“Mission Possible” completes an important trilogy about LGBTQ people serving in the U.S. military, next to “Coming Out Under Fire,” by Alan Bérubé and Randy Shilts’ “Conduct Unbecoming: Lesbians and Gays in the U.S. Military.” These books are not only LGBTQ history, but about our patriotism and what drives our private lives — and how government has intervened to block us at every step based on bias. 

“Mission Possible” is also a book about endurance, ingenuity, and triumph. If a united gay voting bloc and 700,000 people on the Mall and thousands more back home didn’t give Clinton enough clout or backbone to keep his promise to lift the gay military ban – SLDN needed a smart, comprehensive strategy and a willingness and stamina to keep their eyes on the distant prize of repealing DADT. After educating an anti-military community and fighting a “graveyard mentality” that believed that lifting the gay ban was impossible, they had to figure out how to secure bipartisan support.

And there was bipartisan support, privately. “Party sticks with party, unless there’s a breakthrough, Osburn says, noting that GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski told him: “You have to create the moment so I can be with you.” 

With the discharge of the Arab linguists, DADT became less an issue of civil rights and more publicly an obstacle to national security. There are scores of nail-biting behind-the-scenes stories about how SLDN shifted the public and military consciousness from July 1993 to September 20, 2011, “when President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, certified to Congress that implementing repeal of the policy would have no effect on military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion, or recruiting and retention.”  

Dec. 18, 2010 – on Osburn’s birthday – the Senate finally voted to deliver more than 60 votes to overcome Republican Sen. John McCain’s repeated and stubborn use of the filibuster to block repeal. There are echoes of political machinations of today.

There are crafty stories, as well, illustrating the absurdity of DADT. For instance, Army Sergeant Darren Manzella, Osburn writes, “was the epitome of the competent, well-regarded openly gay soldier who put a lie to the belief that his mere presence would weaken military readiness. He was out to his Army buddies and had even introduced them to his boyfriend.” In 2006 at Fort Hood, he started getting anonymous emails and “calls warning him that he was being watched and to ‘turn the flame down.’” He sought advice from his commanding officer which triggered an investigation, with which Manzella fully cooperated. The Army concluded he wasn’t gay and told him to go back to work. He was subsequently deployed to Iraq, then Kuwait, unsure whether a new commander would discharge him. 

SLDN reached out to Manzella to see if he’d be willing to do a 60 Minutes interview, explaining the pros and cons if he went forward. He said yes, but how to do it knowing the Army wouldn’t grant permission? SLDN communications director Steve Ralls came up with a plan. “Manzella signed up to run in the Army marathon in Kuwait. At a predetermined point, he veered off-course to a waiting car that whisked him to a hotel, where he changed into civilian clothes and met with correspondent Lesley Stahl. After the interview, he changed back into his running clothes, the crew doused him with sweaty water, and the car whisked him back so he could cross the finish line,” Osburn writes. “Once the segment was broadcast, the Army could no longer pretend that Manzella wasn’t gay, or that ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was a law with an on-off switch. He was discharged six months later and became one of the many vocal advocates for repeal.”

Darren Manzella, gay news, Washington Blade
Darren Manzella in 2008. (Washington Blade file photo by Henry Linser)

On Dec. 22, 2010, President Barack Obama kept the campaign promise he made and signed the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. “For we are not a nation that says, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ We are a nation that says, ‘Out of many, we are one.’ We are a nation that welcomes the service of every patriot. We are a nation that believes that all men and women are created equal. Those are the ideals that generations have fought for.  Those are the ideals that we uphold today,” Obama said. “And now, it is my honor to sign this bill into law.”

President Barack Obama signs the repeal of the U.S. military’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy on Dec. 22, 2010. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

“There’s been a lot of progress in the last 10 years – despite the last four,” Osburn says. “It’s all been teed up by SLDN.” 

But we still are not fully first-class citizens, though we now have the right to serve and die for our country. The Equality Act is next.

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Democrats must run against ‘Trumpism’

GOP Taliban pose threat to women and all minorities

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(Blade file photo by Yariel Valdés González)

The California recall election and the upcoming Virginia gubernatorial race will make clear to every Democratic candidate in the next two years they are still running against Trump or as Gov. Gavin Newsom called it, ‘Trumpism.’ Recently in California for Newsom and in Virginia for McAuliffe, President Biden said while he ran against the real Trump, Newsom, McAuliffe  and others are running against his clones. 

Trumpism is a vile view of what American democracy is all about. It is a view of society in which we coddle white supremacists and Neo Nazis and hold our knee on the neck of not only George Floyd but on all African Americans, minorities, women and the LGBTQ community. 

Some like Neil Buchanan, the author of the recent article in “VERDICT, Dead Democracy Walking,” suggest Trump’s election and administration were the end of American democracy. I don’t share his vision for doom and gloom and still have confidence in the majority of the American people.  

However the recent Emerson poll in Virginia is frightening as it shows McAuliffe with a slight lead but independents breaking for the Republican Youngkin  54% to 35% and 9% undecided. This poll was conducted before their first debate. 

It will be interesting if the new book “Peril”  by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa,  which clearly shows how unstable Trump was, will have any impact on voters and how they will deal with Trump-backed candidates. It is my belief, maybe hope, the majority of the American people will finally understand how dangerous he was. It is evident any Republican still supporting him, any candidate associated with him or who accepts an endorsement from him, must be considered like Trump a real threat to our democracy. 

Recently Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio), one of the 10 House members to vote to impeach Trump, announced he is leaving Congress rather than face a Trump-backed primary opponent. He called Trump ‘a cancer.’ Former President George W. Bush said, “Violent extremists in the U.S. and abroad are children of the same foul spirit,” in his speech commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. If they are to make what they said meaningful they will need to campaign against any candidate who supports or is supported by Trump.

People must be shown what will happen if they return Congress to the Republican Party or as it currently exists, the ‘Trump Party.’ They would be turning our government over to the American Taliban. The Republicans in Congress, like the Taliban in Afghanistan, are committed to curbing the rights of women, minorities and the LGBTQ community.  

How do we stop this from happening and keep our democracy moving toward a more just society? We do it by uniting those who believe as our Constitution preamble says, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”  Unite those who understand our democracy is about the constant effort to ‘form a more perfect union.’

Supporters of Trump, and the Republican Taliban, are making it clear what they will do if they win. Texas ending Roe v. Wade with their most recent anti-abortion law. Legislators in Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and other states continuing to call the 2020 election fraudulent. Republican governors putting children at risk of death by refusing to take COVID seriously and refusing mask mandates. Bills introduced in Republican-controlled legislatures across the nation to impede voting. 

Congressional Democrats must pass legislation to help with childcare, make community college free, lower middle-class taxes and move forward civil and human rights. Then use sophisticated marketing and common-sense dialogue ensuring every person impacted by the legislation knows about it and understands it. Then state clearly and simply how the state legislation passed by the Republican Taliban impacts them. We must make voters understand each vote counts to protect themselves and their families. 

I think we can do that but clearly it won’t be easy. Democrats in Congress will have to unite, which invariably means compromise. Everything won’t get done at once and not in the way each individual lawmaker wants it. They need to understand our Founding Fathers thought of these difficult times and set up a system of government calling for compromise to make progress. Constant progress toward a ‘more perfect union.’

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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Opinions

Global community needs to help save Brazil’s democracy

Jair Bolsonaro trying to undermine judicial independence, LGBTQ rights

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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro addresses the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 21, 2021.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro used the country’s independence holiday, Sept. 7, to rally his supporters in protests against Brazil’s democratic institutions, particularly the judiciary; basically the only institution at present that checks the president’s authoritarian aspirations. Over the past two decades, the Supreme Court has provided a safe space for human rights protections, specifically LGBTQI+ rights. If the court falls, it would be the downfall of Brazil’s democracy, posing a threat to its diversity.

Over the past decade, the Brazilian LGBTQI+ community has accomplished historical victories through numerous Supreme Court rulings, including a ruling in 2013 to legalize gay marriage. While these victories were celebrated, they were also bittersweet. As the LGBTQI+ community gained ground in equality; Bolsonaro’s far-right party gained political space, and unfortunately, the hearts of some of my dearest family members.

Bolsonaro’s accession to power in 2018 came with a wave of conservative, reactionary and LGBTQI+phobic discourse that shook every aspect of Brazil’s public and private life. As the minds of minorities in the country darkened and as I fought against depression, I saw my friends suddenly rushing to register their partnerships or change their civil names fearing that the rulings allowing for their rights could be overturned. Three years later, with judicial independence under attack, our nightmares are becoming a reality.

Bolsonaro’s government has significantly impacted the LGBTQI+ movement by abolishing the LGBTQI+ National Council and significant budget cuts to Brazil’s once globally recognized HIV/AIDS prevention program. Moreover, policies aiming to fight racism or promoting gender equality are also being abandoned or defunded.

Inflation, hunger, unemployment and extreme poverty are on the rise. In the case of further democratic erosion, we are getting the conditions set for a humanitarian crisis in Brazil.

Brazil’s stability is of interest to the entire region and the world. Considering the country’s influence in Latin America, a coup could generate a domino effect across the continent. Hence, political, social, and economic international stakeholders should raise awareness and pressuring Bolsonaro’s administration

Historically, social minorities are the first ones to be sacrificed in political turmoil. As I wrote this text, news came along that indigenous land rights are being bargained and that Bolsonaro will take this attack on the environment to his speech at the United Nations. As has happened in Poland and Hungary, soon Bolsonaro will turn his gun to the LGBTQI+ community. It is clear by now that Bolsonaro envisions Brazil as a leader of far-right conservatism in the world.

That is why we need the global community to stand with us. As we take to the streets calling for impeachment, Bolsonaro still counts with the support of important stakeholders. Businesspeople are among the president’s most supportive groups, despite the economic disaster we have been through. If they can’t see the obvious internal consequences of eroding democracy, then international pressure should make them see it.

We need clear statements by political parties, foreign media, think tanks, financial groups, etc., that the attacks on Brazil’s institutions and minorities will cost the economic sector money. With this, we can unlock the impeachment process and rebuild Brazil’s legacy as a country that celebrates diversity.

Egerton Neto is the international coordinator for Aliança Nacional LGBTI+ in Brazil and Master of Public Policy candidate at the London School of Economics.

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