Published on Saturday, June 23, 2001 in the Toronto Star
Global Action Urged on Gay Persecution
Governments `Turn a Blind Eye' to Violence
by Federico Barahona
She sat quietly inside Holy Trinity Church, wrapping her face in a green scarf to conceal her identity.
Minutes later, she identified herself to reporters as ``Christine'' and said she is an activist from Uganda who was forced to flee her country two years ago because she is a lesbian.
Christine, 27, said she couldn't reveal her face because she still has a son and mother in Uganda and fears for their safety.
Christine, now a refugee claimant living in Vancouver, said she was arrested and taken to a secret detention center in Uganda.
During interrogations, she was stripped naked and tortured by soldiers demanding to know why she wasn't married.
``One told me he was going to show me what I was missing,'' Christine recalled yesterday, adding she was then raped by two soldiers before she passed out.
Sadly, Christine's story is not unique, said Richard Elliott, co-chair of a local Amnesty International group focusing on the persecution gays and lesbians face around the globe.
In the midst of Gay Pride celebrations in Toronto, the human rights watchdog released a report yesterday documenting instances of torture and ill-treatment because of sexual identity in 30 countries, including Christine's.
``In many parts of the world, being gay or lesbian is not seen as a right, but as a wrong,'' the report reads, before pointing out that in more than 70 countries same-sex relations are still considered a crime, sometimes incurring the death penalty.
``What we've often talked about as violence or private concerns or criminality isn't that - it is a human rights issue,'' said Alex Neve, secretary general of the English branch of Amnesty International Canada.
``In almost all corners of this planet, governments are either responsible for the violence themselves or are consciously turning a blind eye to it.''
The report calls on governments to repeal laws criminalizing homosexuality; condemn torture; protect refugees fleeing torture based on sexual identity; and prohibit the forced medical ``treatment'' of homosexuals.
Neve also called on the Canadian government to raise the issue at the international level.
``We can start to ensure that there is some global progress in other countries where people have not enjoyed some of the advancements that we've seen in Canada,'' Neve said.
Canada is one of the few countries that recognizes homophobia and violence against homosexuals as grounds for seeking refugee status. But Neve called on the federal government to provide sensitivity training for immigration officials.
``There needs to be some solid work done to make sure that those kinds of claims are properly assessed, that the kind of sensitivity that is necessary to really understand a claim that is based on sexual identity is there, and the decision-makers know how to question people about something that is obviously so intimate,'' Neve said.
Although Canada is not singled out in the report, Elliott said that does not mean violence against homosexuals is not an issue here. Better training and education of police officers who investigate hate crimes is needed, he said.
Karen Baldwin of 519 Victim Assistance Program, which tracks down instances of gay bashing and helps victims file reports, said her office reported 209 incidents of hate-motivated violence against gays and lesbians from 1997 to 1999. However, Toronto saw a 30 per cent decrease in incidents last year.
But Baldwin said these numbers reveal only part of the story.
She said her group only gets reports on ``one or two per cent of what actually happens'' and, over-all, no more than 10 per cent of incidents are reported.
Federico Barahona is a staff reporter of the Toronto Star.
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