February is LGBT History Month — giving us the opportunity to explore our past, share our stories and remind ourselves of the common threads that tie us together.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic is one of those threads. It was our Holocaust. It crippled our community as it killed hundreds of thousands of gay men with one foul swoop.
Looking back, we can now say: “We survived and we overcame.“
But did we really? In a time when HIV drugs are more effective, making the disease no longer a death sentence, the devastating impact it had during those early days is far too easily forgotten by a more liberated and younger LGBT generation… often careless in their ignorance.
So, if we are painfully honest about the challenges we still face as an LGBT community (no matter where we find ourselves in the world), then HIV/AIDS have not left our beds. It still lingers between the sheets.
However, given Switzerland’s policy of political neutrality and tolerance it’s no surprise that homosexuality was decriminalised in 1942. This meant that, even during WW2, Switzerland had a thriving Gay community. In fact, many people are not aware that during the 30s, 40s and 50s Switzerland was by far a pioneer in terms of gay rights and allowing homosexual relationships.
Having said that, as LGBT people we know all too well that legal ‘privilege’ and social tolerance is a far cry from complete acceptance… even today, many of us still find ourselves often pulling on the shorter end of the social hypocrisy stick. A case in point is the docudrama The Circle (Der Kreis), which is due for release later this year.
Der Kreis – Due for release on 23 October
The Circle (German with English subtitles) tells the true story of a Zurich gay club and magazine, called Der Kreis, which was founded in 1942. Der Kreis — a membership-only group — published a bimonthly illustrated magazine with pictures, stories, articles and gay art. There was official state censorship back then, which allowed full-frontal nudity in drawings but not photographs. The magazine by-passed censorship laws by printing illustrations and drawings, and racier texts were written in Shakespearean language, which the censors and even Karl Meier, the founder and editor-in-chief of Der Kreis, couldn’t read. The magazine was delivered in neutral envelopes, with Meier closely guarding the subscription list.
Along with the magazine, Der Kreis also organised get-togethers and special costume balls where their members could meet and mingle. To further protect the identities of their members, membership cards featured just numbers and no names, and most of their social events were held underground. Suffice to say, despite the fact that the law offered relative security to the Gay community in Switzerland, it was largely based on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach and social intolerance remained a hold-over. It’s safe to say that personal attitudes took longer to change than the laws of the land.
The film’s director, Stefan Haupt, beautifully reconstructs this era in careful detail as he follows the real-life story of schoolteacher Ernst Ostertag — a naïve young French-literature teacher — and drag singer Robi Räpp — a hairdresser by day. The couple met and fell in love at one of Der Kreis‘s costume balls, in 1956. Shortly afterwards, both Ostertag and Räpp are targeted when police implicate the underground activities of Der Kreis and its gay subculture in a spate of murders among gay rent boy.
The police threats to the Gay community and raids on Der Kreis increase (similar to the witch hunts seen in some countries today) when the murders start to make headlines, resulting in acerbic and homophobic articles appearing in the mainstream press. This puts Ostertag at risks of being exposed as a gay man, putting his unconfirmed job as an educator in jeopardy — a potential embarrassing scenario for Ostertag’s bourgeois and stiff upper lip family.
The young Robi Rapp as portrayed by Sven Schelker
Young Räpp, on the other hand, finds comfort and support from his widowed German mother, who worked as a cleaner and a theatre wardrobe lady. She embraces and accepts her son’s homosexuality and even helps to make the dresses for his drag performances.
The film eloquently illustrates the many hurdles a same-sex couple who simply wanted to be together had to jump through in the 1950s. The documentary element comes into play when Ostertag and Räpp are featured, in their old age in the present time, throughout the film in talking-head segments as they reminisce about leading conflicted public and private lives. They reflect on the impact of living in a society that, while nowhere near as officially punitive as Nazi Germany, still persecuted those whose lives were deemed inappropriate.
During one of the interview segments the couple argues about how long it took Ostertag to finally introduce Rapp to his parents. Ostertag did not come out to his family until his 70th birthday, even though he lived with Räpp since the 1950s and it’s rather poetic that in 2003 Ostertag and Räpp become the first Swiss couple to register as same-sex partners. Their struggles and having lived through decades of changing attitudes is at the very least a testimony that they are in some ways the guardian angels of the collective memory of the Gay movement of German-speaking Switzerland.
The Circle boasts a stellar cast, with Matthias Hungerbuehler as Ernst Ostertag, Sven as Robi Räpp and Marianne Saegebrecht, who is excellent in her bit part as Räpp’s mother. The film won the Teddy Award for best documentary with LGBT themes as well as the Panorama Audience Award at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. It is due for release 23 October 2014.
Okay, for some that may be a lot of information to consume in one go… Gay Penguins? Parents? But stay with me.
It all happened when staff at the wildlife sanctuary had to step in after penguin mother, Isobel, was forced to leave her egg because the father, Hurricane, refused to help her incubate it. The two male Humboldt penguins, Jumbs and Kermit, were given the egg, which hatched a month ago.
Park owner Tony Binskin said: “These two have so far proven to be two of the best penguin parents we have had yet.“
Jumbs and Kermit became a pair in 2012. Mr Binskin said that while it was lovely to see two of their birds pair up, it also meant that they were left with not two but four birds unable to reproduce.
The Humboldt penguin specie is declining in numbers, and the park brought in two new males for breeding. But each time Isobel lays an egg, her partner Hurricane refuses to sit on it.
Mr Binskin’s wife Jackie said Hurricane was a “very inconsiderate partner who is happy to get Isobel pregnant“, then “seems to think that his job is done.“
An egg from the pair was given to Jumbs and Kermit last year, but failed to hatch. When Isobel laid another egg in March, and again was forced to leave because Hurricane was not stepping up to fulfil his responsibilities, the second abandoned egg was given to Jumbs and Kermit. It hatched on 12 April.
There have been previous reports of exclusive male-to-male pairings among penguins, and some have reared chicks. Mr Binskin said: “Whilst pair bonding often results in no result other than eliminating those two animals from the breeding population of that species, in captivity it can have greatly positive effects.
We are still very much starting our breeding efforts with this species, and this is only our second year of breeding, but having such good surrogate parents available should we need them is a huge bonus for us.”
So much for homosexuality being ‘unnatural’… or posing a threat to so-called traditional ‘family values’. If anything, Hurricane should take a page from the parenting book of Jumbs and Kermit: It’s all about love and commitment… That’s the clue that sticks a family together, right?
The truth is, research shows that LGBT parents might just be better at raising children than their heterosexual counterparts. Abbie Goldberg, a psychologist who researches Gay and Lesbian parenting, recently said that because Gays and Lesbians rarely become parents by accident (compared with an almost 50 per cent accidental pregnancy rate among heterosexuals), they tend to tend to be more motivated and more committed than heterosexual parents on average, because they chose to be parents. Golberg added: “That translates to greater commitment on average and more involvement.“
Research also indicates that children of gay parents show few differences in achievement, mental health, social functioning and other measures. However, children of gay parents have one advantage over those children who are raised by heterosexual parents: they show a greater degree of open-mindedness, tolerance and role modelling unbiased relationships. Not only are that, studies have shown that Gay and Lesbian parents are more open to providing homes for difficult-to-place children in the foster system.
In a study, published in 2007 in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 46 adults who had at least one gay parent. Twenty-eight of them spontaneously offered that they felt more open-minded and empathetic than people not raised in their situation.
The researchers wrote: “These individuals feel like their perspectives on family, on gender, on sexuality have largely been enhanced by growing up with gay parents.“
One 33-year-old man with a lesbian mother said: “I feel I’m a more open, well-rounded person for having been raised in a non-traditional family, and I think those that know me would agree. My mum opened me up to the positive impact of differences in people.”
Brian Powell, a sociologist at Indiana University and author of Counted Out: Same-Sex Relations and Americans’ Definitions of Family says that if same-sex marriage has any disadvantage for children in any way, it has nothing to do with their parent’s gender and everything to do with society’s reaction toward the families. He added: “Imagine being a child living in a state with two parents in which, legally, only one parent is allowed to be their parent. In that situation, the family is not seen as authentic or real by others. That would be the disadvantage.“
In her research, Abbie Goldberg has found that many children of Gay and Lesbian parents say that more acceptance of gay and lesbian families, not less, would help solve this problem.
In another study, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, Goldberg interviewed a group of 49 teenagers and young adults with gay parents and found that not one of them rejected the right of Gays and Lesbians to marry. Most cited legal benefits as well as social acceptance.
One of the study’s subjects, a 23-year-old man raised by a lesbian couple, said: “I was just talking about this with a couple of friends and just was in tears thinking about how different my childhood might have been had same-sex marriage been legalized 25 years ago. The cultural, legal status of same-sex couples impacts the family narratives of same-sex families — how we see ourselves in relation to the larger culture, whether we see ourselves as accepted or outsiders.“
“Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.”
— Albert Einstein —
The past couple of months the global Jewish community witnessed in horror how the rest of the world hopscotched in its love-hate relationship with Israel. Sadly and alarmingly, biased criticism of Israel’s defence against Hamas’ underhand, persistent and relentless attacks on the people of Israel has led to the rise of widespread anti-Semitism across the globe.
Not surprisingly, as a result I’ve asked myself this question: “What would life be like if I found myself in a situation where both homophobia and anti-Semitism were used to discriminate against me?” The potential brutality of such a scenario is too upsetting to even think about… images of Hitler’s concentration and death camps, where homosexuals were worked to death, quickly flash through my mind.
Given how quickly people (Joe Public and politicians alike) are swayed to engage in flag-waving politics and to display uncomfortable levels hatred and extremism, the possibility for the Israeli and Jewish LGBT community to be trapped in such a double-whammy is perhaps not so farfetched.
Geographically, Israel shares its borders with Lebanon in the north, Syria in the northeast, Jordan and the West Bank in the east, the Gaza Strip and Egypt on the southwest.
LGBT rights in most of its neighbouring countries pales in comparison to Israel. A 2007 poll by Pew Research Centre suggested that 79 per cent of Lebanese believe “homosexuality should be rejected”, as opposed to 18 per cent who believe “homosexuality should be accepted.” In April 2013, Lebanon’s interior minister of the interim government, Marwan Charbel, said: “Lebanon is opposed to homosexuality, and according to Lebanese law it is a criminal offense.”
In Syria, same-sex relationships are illegal and those found guilty of having homosexual relationships can serve up to three years in jail. A report by the Austrian Centre for Country of Origin and Asylum Research and Documentation, in 2009, noted that homosexuality in Syria carries a social stigma that may result in torture and even death.
An Egyptian sexologist, Heba Kotb estimates that 10 to 12 per cent of the Egyptian population is homosexual and yet according to Pew Research Centre 95 per cent of Egyptians believe that homosexuality is unacceptable. While homosexuality (and same-sex relationships) is not specifically outlawed, under Egyptian morality laws punishment can be up to 17 years in prison with or without hard labour.
According to a 2010 compendium of laws against homosexuality produced by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual and Intersex Association (ILGA), the decriminalization of homosexuality in the Palestinian territories is patchwork.
In the Palestinian Hamas-controlled Gaza Territories, same-sex relationships between men are punishable with up to 10 years in prison. In fact, Hamas’ exact position on homosexuality is ambiguous. In September 2011, Hamas cofounder Mahmoud Zahar, declared homosexuality punishable by death when has said: “You in the West do not live like human beings. You do not even live like animals. You accept homosexuality. And now you criticize us?”
In the Jordanian-controlled Palestinian West Bank, same-sex acts were decriminalized in 1951 and remain so to this day. In 1951, the Jordanian Criminal Code was revised in order to legalize private, adult, non-commercial, and consensual sodomy, with the age of consent set at 16. Same-sex marriages, or more limited civil unions, are not legally recognized and there is no public effort in Jordan to modify these laws. Nonetheless, there is a growing level of tolerance and visibility in certain artistic or chic-cosmopolitan parts of Jordan, especially in Amman. Recent reports suggest that a new wave of younger LGBT people are coming out of the closet and are becoming more visible in the country, working to establish a vibrant LGBT community of filmmakers, journalists, writers, artists and other young professionals.
Israel on the other hand was the first Middle Eastern country to recognize unregistered cohabitation between same-sex couples. Although same-sex marriages are not performed in the country, Israel recognizes same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, also making it the first and only country in the Middle East to do so. Same-sex couples are allowed to jointly adopt after a court decision in 2008. Israel’s Supreme Court also grants gays family rights including inheritance and survivors’ benefits.
Earlier this week, the Israeli government announced that it will now allow Jews to immigrate to Israel with their non-Jewish same-sex spouses. In a directive publicised on Tuesday 12 August, Israeli Interior Minister Gideon Saar told immigration authorities not to differentiate between married gay and straight couples.
An Israeli gay couple walk with their daughter in the annual Gay Pride Parade in Tel Aviv. Photo: UPI
Gays and lesbians also serve openly in the military and an increasing number of gay recruits do full military service, often in combat units. Unit 8200, one of the largest units in the Israeli army, is well-known for the large number of openly LGBT soldiers serving in it.
Treatment for Gender Dysphoria in Israel can be paid for using the country’s public health insurance system if a patient receives approval by the Committee for Sex Reassignment. In 2013, the IDF announced they would, for the first time, allow a transgender woman to serve in the army as a female soldier.
The city of Tel Aviv recognizes unmarried couples, including gays and lesbians, as family units and grants them discounts for municipal services. Under the bylaw, unmarried couples qualify for the same discounts on day care and the use of swimming pools, sports facilities, and other city-sponsored activities that married couples enjoy.
Tel Aviv has frequently been referred to as one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world, famous for its annual Pride Parade and gay beach, earning it the nicknames “the gay capital of the Middle East” or the “Manhattan of the Middle East.” The city also boasts one of only a handful of monuments dedicated to the LGBT victims who were persecuted by Nazis during World War II.
It’s not difficult to recognise that Israel is a LGBT rights frontier in the Middle East. In fact, Israel’s critics seem to quickly forget that it is the only country in the Middle East that has stood up for human rights, particularly those of women and gays, time and time again.
Those same critics will tell me that writing an article about Israel’s noble LGBT rights record at a time when Gazans are in the midst of one of the most violent defence attacks engulfing their narrow and over-populated strip of land, is ‘pinkwashing’ the Palestinian conflict.
I agree to some extent… what I’ve said so far can easily be misconstrued as a public relations campaign marketing Israel as a LGBT haven in the Middle East, while conveniently glossing over Israel’s human rights record in Palestine.
If that is how my words come across then it is unintentional… and let’s not use this argumentative rhetoric to deviate from the facts.
As a country who does not have a centuries-old history of wars, imperialism and world domination like many European countries do, Israel, in its short existence, is learning quickly to live up to the higher standards the rest of the world is holding it to… Unfortunately it’s a learning curve that hasn’t come without conflict, war and the loss of lives. Still, Israel is an eager scholar and its treatment of the LGBT community proves my point. It is not only setting an example in the Middle East, but also for the rest of the world. Yes, some of Israel’s policies and conduct may not be perfect (in some cases it may even be questionable), but I am yet to see a country with a perfect track record in treating all of its citizens and neighbouring countries with respect and equality. Such a place (and such a government) does not exist.
Thankfully, what does exist is a place where Israeli and Jewish LGBT people can feel safe (a lot more than what can be said about some cities in ‘civilised’ Europe), while being surrounded by neighbouring countries who do not share the same values of freedom, tolerance and equality. Without a doubt, these are values that must be respected and protected, because the alternative — a world where men and women are tortured, brutalised and murdered because of their sexuality, religion and nationality — is unthinkable.
As a humanist and an activist, like countless Israelis and Jews around the world, I want to see lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. I have always believed that LGBT people are active agents of change and that if one of us is in chains then none of us are free… whether heterosexual, LGBT, Jewish, Christian, Muslim or of any other religion.
I know this much is true: The Middle East would’ve been far more unkind to LGBT people if it had not been for Israel’s influence… albeit in some instances simply because of Israel’s liberal presence. It is with this conviction — that Israel wants to do better than what it already is and it wants to affect change — that I support any conversation that will help bring peace, safety and equality to all the people of the Middle East.
When Sir Ian McKellen — co-founder of the UK charity, Stonewall — took to the stage on Trafalgar Square, introducing the headline act, Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst, as part of the Pride in London 2014 celebrations, he spoke about a 91 year old man in wheelchair who insisted on being at the parade… despite the rain. Sir Ian also mentioned a 78 year old man who specially came from Iceland to celebrate Pride with the rest of the 300,000+ supporters that showed up in London.
These are the pioneers of LGBT rights and there are plenty of them who are often forgotten — believers who never gave up in their fight for equality. These men and women have fantastic stories that serve as an inspiration and a source of wisdom for the younger LGBT generation enjoying so much more freedom, safety and acceptance than ever before in the history of the global LGBT community.
As part of the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots — the pivotal moment when the Gay Rights Movement was born , in 1969, when gay protesters clashed with police in New York — StoryCorps has launched an initiative, called OutLoud, to preserve the stories of LGBT people.
In the spirit of Pride and in the spirit of remembering the stories of the men and women who came before us, I want to share one of the stories StoryCorps recently archived:
During the 1950s Patrick Haggerty, now 70, lived as a teenager in rural Washington. Patrick decided to perform in a school play. On the day of the performance, Patrick’s brother took him to school. On their way there, he started covering his face with glitter — to his brother’s horror. Patrick’s brother dropped him off at school and then immediately called their father.
“Dad, I think you better get up there,” his brother said. “This is not going to look good.“
Charles Edward Haggerty, their father, who was a dairy farmer, showed up at the school in dirty farming jeans and boots. When Patrick saw his dad in the halls, he ran away to hide from him.
“It wasn’t because of what I was wearing,” Patrick says. “It was because of what he was wearing.“
After the play, in the car on their way home, Patrick’s father called him out on his attempt to hide: “I was walking down the hall this morning, and I saw a kid that looked a lot like you ducking around the hall to avoid his dad. But I know it wasn’t you, ’cause you would never do that to your dad.“
Patrick wanted to melt way into the car seat out of embarrassment, but finally exclaimed: “Well, Dad, did you have to wear your cow-crap jeans to my assembly?“
His father replied: “Look, everybody knows I’m a dairy farmer. This is who I am. Now, how ’bout you? When you’re an adult, who are you gonna go out with at night?“
“Now, I’m gonna tell you something today,” his father continued “and you might not know what to think of it now, but you’re gonna remember when you’re a full-grown man: Don’t sneak. Because if you sneak, like you did today, it means you think you’re doing the wrong thing. And if you run around spending your whole life thinking that you’re doing the wrong thing, then you’ll ruin your immortal soul.”
Recalling his father’s words, Patrick says that out of all the things a father in 1959 could have told his gay son, his father told him to be proud of who he was and not to sneak.
Patrick added: “He knew where I was headed. And he knew that making me feel bad about it in any way was the wrong thing to do. I had the patron saint of dads for sissies, and no, I didn’t know at the time, but I know it now.“
** The original story was published online by NPR. To listen to a recording or Patrick’s story, follow this link: **