VOLUME 3, ISSUE 320 | May 13 - 19, 2004



Pentagon Uses Gay Sex as Tool of Humiliation

Military Culture of Homophobia at Heart of Scandal

By DUNCAN OSBORNE

Gay and human rights activists are responding with condemnation to the images and reports of torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. military personnel that, in some instances, used forced simulated gay sex, threats of male rape, and anti-gay slurs as the means to humiliate those prisoners.

“I think the first thing that has to be said is that the images are deplorable from a human rights perspective,” said Steve Ralls, spokesperson for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. “It’s very disturbing that American troops thought that same-sex sexual acts could be used as a tool of humiliation. That is clearly a strong statement on how the U.S. military views lesbian and gay people.”

The pictures are from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq where members of a military police brigade were photographed smiling or giving a “thumbs up” gesture as they forced naked Iraqi men who were held there to simulate oral or anal sex, masturbate, urinate on one another, or stay handcuffed to a bed with women’s underwear over their heads.

A March report by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba documented beatings of the prisoners, the rape of one man with a flashlight, and an assault on one prisoner with guard dogs. The Taguba report quoted a civilian contractor, Adel L. Nakhla, who worked in the prison and observed some of the abuse.

“They made them do strange exercises by sliding on their stomach, jump up and down, throw water on them and made them some wet, called them all kinds of names such as “gays” do they like to make love to guys, then they handcuffed their hands together and their legs with shackles and started to stack them on top of each other by insuring that the bottom guys penis will touch the guy on tops butt,” Nakhla said, as transcribed in the Taguba report.

The Taguba inquiry began in January after the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command launched an investigation into allegations of detainee abuse committed by soldiers in two units in the 800th Military Police Brigade that oversees Abu Ghraib.

Other members of that brigade were charged with detainee abuse in May of 2003 for acts committed at a different Iraqi prison named Camp Bucca, according to the Taguba report.

While the Pentagon and the Bush administration have portrayed the abuse as limited to Abu Ghraib, a report from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) documented similar abuses at many other facilities.

“We were dealing here with a broad pattern, not individual acts,” Pierre Kraehenbuehl, director of operations at the ICRC, told the Associated Press on May 8. “There was a pattern and a system.”

The ICRC has warned the Bush administration repeatedly over the past year about the abuses. The agency does not typically make its reports public, but the Wall Street Journal published excerpts from the 24-page document on its web site on May 7, and ICRC subsequently released it in full.

While activists had a range of responses, they agreed that the culture of the U.S. military, which has a policy of discriminating against gay men and lesbians under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, made the abuses possible.

“It’s a military that is operating under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, so it’s no mistake that soldiers around the world would be living with this view that this sort of humiliation is not only acceptable, but expected,” said Paula L. Ettelbrick, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

There is that anti-queer culture. And these are soldiers at war and war often means demonizing your enemy or, in the case of some of the Iraqi prisoners, people who just look like your enemy. The corollary is that a nation at war celebrates its military might and its men.

“It shows again that war and the effort to tear down the opponents masculinity and power are very tied together,” said Scott Long, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Project at Human Rights Watch. “Anytime you declare that you are in a war, you are opening up a reification, a deification of masculinity and military culture. The fact that there are women doing the abusing here does not change that fact.”

Long said the abuse in Iraq was similar to attacks on gay men in other countries, such as Egypt, where the authorities are cracking down on homosexuality.

“I would draw the parallel between what’s going on in Iraq to what is being done to men in other places,” he said. “It’s the notion that those people have already become sub-human... What they are doing in Iraq is trying to use homosexuality to dehumanize people and they are doing it very successfully.”

For some activists, the fact that gay sex, which is celebrated in the queer community, would be used as a weapon was horrifying.

Patrick Moore, author of “Beyond Shame: Reclaiming the Abandoned History of Radical Gay Sexuality,” said he found the pictures from the prison disturbing for that reason.

“I realized after a few days of looking at the images that they were upsetting in a way that was not just about the general level of brutality,” he said. “They evoked in me a deep sense of shame as a gay man. I felt the government had found a way to use sexuality as a tool of humiliation both for Arab men and for gay men here... That fits into a tradition of using gay sexuality as a way of vilifying and humiliating people.”

Moore published an editorial titled “Gay Sexuality Shouldn’t Become a Torture Device” in Newsday on May 7. He wondered if any closeted queers in the military saw the torture.

“Because it not acceptable to be openly gay or lesbian in the military, were there closeted gay men or lesbians who were forced to witness this and remain silent?” Moore said. “The thought of that is so sickening to me.”

Other activists rejected the government’s claims that the abuse of detainees was isolated in Abu Ghraib, done without the approval of senior officers, or not the policy in American-run Iraqi prisons.

Michael Heflin, director of the OutFront Program at Amnesty International, the group’s gay rights unit, said that senior officers were likely aware of the negative Islamic views on homosexuality. Prison guards played on those attitudes and shamed the detainees by forcing them to simulate gay sex in an effort to soften them up for later interrogations.

“It does suggest that there was some kind of organized effort and some kind of decision was made that humiliating Iraqi prisoners in this way would be particularly effective,” Heflin said. “There seems to be a pattern in that [senior officers] knew about it and were instructing military personnel to subject prisoners to this kind of abuse.”

The Taguba report had a long list of officers, from corporals to a brigadier general, that it recommended be reprimanded, disciplined, or charged with a crime for the abuse.

Faisal Alam, founder and director of Al-Fatiha Foundation, a gay Muslims group, said it was possible the abuse was a standard practice run amok.

“I think this was just a routine thing that they were made to do,” he said. “I think that it got out of hand...There were some things that they were doing that are methods of interrogation. This started off being something that was supposed to break them down.”

Alam said the queer community had a responsibility to speak against the abuse of prisoners in Iraq.

“We need to be standing up against this sort of symbolic homophobia as well as human degradation,” he said. “If we believe that human rights are universal, that gay rights stem from human rights, then we as a community need to be standing up against this.”

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