While models from around the world are here in the Big Apple strutting their stuff for New York fashion week, a group of models halfway around the world narrowly escaped brutal punishment for doing the exact same thing.
In June of last year, seven male models and a makeup artist in the Sudan were charged with indecency and nearly sentenced to a public flogging because the men wore makeup in a fashion show for Sudanese Next Top Model. After a public outcry they ended up paying fines, but the story is a strong reminder that in many parts of the world anything perceived as a threat to traditional gender roles is not only still frowned upon but can actually be dangerous.
The sentencing in the Sudan comes on the heels of the murder of David Kato, one of only a handful of gay rights activists in the African country of Uganda. (Click here to see other LGBT Political Trailblazers.) Kato was killed just a month after successfully suing a Ugandan newspaper for publishing the names and addresses of Kato and other gays and lesbians in the country under the headline "Hang Them." Brenda Namigadde, a lesbian currently facing deportation from Britain, said she fears being tortured or killed if forced to return to the country, claiming that a number of her gay friends there have simply disappeared.
According to the International Lesbian and Gay Association sex between adults of the same gender remains a criminal act in 85 countries. A significant number of those countries are located in Africa and the Middle East.
As I noted on The Dylan Ratigan Show, while Egypt does not have an anti-sodomy law on the books like many of the countries on the list do, other laws have been used to target and arrest gays and lesbians there. For instance, the country has a laws against so-called debauchery, and violating religious teachings which Human Rights Watch points out was used to arrest 52 gay men at a club in 2001. Dubbed "The Cairo 52," despite the pleas of international humanitarian organizations 23 of the men were sentenced to hard labor. In 2004 an Egyptian college student was sentenced to seventeen years of hard labor as well, for posting a profile on a gay dating site. Targeting gays and lesbians who attempt to connect online has become increasingly popular among Egyptian authorities in recent years.
While I hate to be a "Debbie Downer," it must be said that amid the worldwide jubilation that greeted the news of Hosni Mubarak's retirement from his chosen profession of dictator, not all are celebrating. A big question mark remains regarding what this new era in Egypt will mean for gays and lesbians. There have been fears expressed among some in the LGBT community that the influence of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrated during the country's recent protests, could signal a new era of oppression. (Although if you can get sentenced to prison for posting a personals ad online, I guess it's worth asking how much worse can things get?) The organization's emphasis on combining religious ideology with policy should give all supporters of LGBT and women's rights pause, and apparently already is. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has cautioned world leaders about the group, in part for this very reason.
So as we celebrate Egypt's newfound freedom, let's not forget to remember those there and elsewhere in the Middle East, and here, struggling to live their lives freely. After all, true democracy can only exist when there is equality for all.
This piece originally appeared on TheLoop21.com for which Goff is a Contributing Editor.