“They were going to rape me to take the lesbian out of me.”
I think most of us realize that even though it’s tough for homosexuals and lesbians and transgendered people in Canada and the United States, and that the fight for equal rights is ongoing and difficult, it is much worse in other parts of the world. Being gay in Iran is not like being gay in Vermont. The scary attitudes in developing countries twoard homosexuality do not compare with the intolerance faced by those groups in North America.
Dangerous Living explores those attitudes in the developing world, interviewing people from Uganda, Honduras, Samoa, India, Namibia, Vietnam, Pakistan, Brazil, Egypt, Malaysia, the Philippines, Fiji, Thailand, Kenya and many other countries. We meet a woman who had military police storm into her house in Honduras when she was away, looking to rape her. Instead, they tortured her babysitter and six-year-old son. And there are dozens upon dozens of stories similar to that one.
Rape, murder, public beatings and torture are de rigeur for the gay communities in many of these developing nations, and it is certainly an international tragedy. But I think most of us are aware that this stuff goes on. And just hearing one oppressed person after another talking about those hardships doesn’t tell me any more about the tragic attitudes of, say, Uganda than I already knew (or assumed existed).
And because there are so many interview subjects, I didn’t get to know any one of them well enough to feel for them when they recounted the horrors they have seen. It was just a long list of terrible stuff that goes on in the world. A few times, the movie returns to one event – the arrest of 52 men on a gay party boat in Cairo in 2001. This was a major event in the way the world looked at the persecution of gay minorities in developing countries.
Through the internet, and organizations dedicated to publicizing human rights violations like the ones inflicted upon the “Cairo 52″, the case became an international rallying cry for the LGBT movement. Dangerous Living uses that incident as a touchstone, occasionally returning to Egypt to delve a little deeper into the case and the media attention surrounding it. But overall it’s just another story in a sea of stories, all of which are crammed into a very economical 60 minutes.
The one thing I found interesting in the movie was the notion that homophobia is not innate to these countries, and that for the most part it is a western value that was introduced at certain points in history. In India, for example, gay men and lesbian women were not seen as a big deal throughout most of the history of the nation, until the British Empire ruled the country and began to make people feel bad about their sexuality. When the British finally left, the homophobia stayed.
In Cairo specifically, the city was seen as a (reasonably) safe place for gay men and women to congregate and party and love one another, until the shocking raid of the Cairo 52 put an end to that. In many of the countries of the developing world, escalating homophobia coincided with the rise in religious fundamentalism (not all of it Muslim) in the early years of this decade.
There are a few hopeful stories, like that of the Thai kickboxer who rose to be the champion of the country, adored by the people, even though he/she is transgendered. Some developing countries are still very tolerant of alternative lifestyles, and do not feature the oppressive policies that one might find in Iran or Kenya. But again, the bright spots are touched on so briefly in the film that I tended to forget them almost as soon as I had seen them.
The thing is, I would like to know so much more about every single interview subject in the film. I would like to see a 90-minute documentary on the Cairo 52. Or a 60-minute piece on the Thai kickboxer. Or the woman in Honduras who was the only one to march in a human-rights gay pride parade with her face uncovered, leading to the military police assault on her house. Each story is compelling and interesting.
But not in 30-second sound bites. There is a special feature on the disc that documents a bit more of the reaction outside the trial of the Cairo 52 which indicates to me that there is more than enough footage to create a documentary about that event itself. And that is something I would much rather see. A good example of this, focusing on just one subject instead of all of them at once, is the vastly superior A Jihad For Love, which focuses on the trials of just a few Islamic homosexuals.
That being said, the global fight for equality is an important one, and any documentary made on the subject is therefore afforded a certain amount of importance. I just think this one could have been done better. Dangerous Living is featured on the Human Rights Watch DVD Box Set, out July 21st from First Run Features.