Last edited: February 14, 2005

Sordid Trial Shows Hypocrisy of Making Sexuality a Crime

Des Moines Register, August 16, 2000
Box 957, Des Moines, IA 50304
Fax 515-286-2511

By Rekha Basu

A court case in the Asian nation of Malaysia ended last week with a stunning nine-year-sentence for a man who, until two years ago, was being groomed to lead his country. And it comes with a cautionary note about what can happen when draconian laws are allowed to remain on the books.

Anwar Ibrahim, 52, Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister, wasn’t accused of taking bribes, torturing opponents or rigging elections. His alleged offense? Sodomy. In Malaysia, you can actually go to prison for having a same-sex relationship (even a consensual one), though Anwar maintained the charges against him were false.

And guess where else you could be convicted of the same thing? Eighteen American states still have anti-sodomy laws on their books. Five of them criminalize same-sex activity only. The other 13 apply equally to consensual acts between a man and a woman.

For the moment, Iowa isn’t among them, but don’t take anything for granted. This year’s Iowa Republican Party platform calls for reinstating anti-sodomy laws.

Some of those laws carry civil fines. Some have jail time. Though very few such cases are actually being prosecuted, the laws still pose a significant threat because sodomy charges can be used for political ends, according to David Elliot, a spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

One example he offers: Arizona’s anti-sodomy law was recently invoked when an openly gay Republican Arizona congressman named Jim Kolbe was invited to address the Republican convention in Philadelphia. An anti-gay group, the American Family Association, called for Kolbe to be arrested on his return to Arizona.

Politics are what critics say were at the root of the charges against Anwar in Malaysia, a nation of 22 million and a parliamentary democracy. Anwar’s supporters, including international human-rights organizations, have insisted from the start that the accusations were bogus €" an effort by a vengeful government and politically manipulated judiciary to silence a popular opponent.

Anwar, the married father of six and a scholar of Islam, was being groomed to take over from Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad when he broke with him over the Asian economic crisis. Anwar was dismissed in 1998, and has since been carrying the torch for the opposition. He’s capable of turning out rallies of 30,000 people.

The case against him began with three or four men claiming to have had sex with Anwar. Most of them eventually retracted, saying they were coerced, according to Zama Coursen-Neff of Human Rights Watch in New York. It finally came down to the testimony of his wife’s former driver, who had a little trouble keeping his dates straight.

Last year, Anwar was tried and sentenced to six years for allegedly trying to interfere with the police investigation into the sodomy case. The latest conviction brings to 15 years his total prison time.

This is part of what’s wrong with criminalizing sexuality, a practice that violates international United Nations human-rights conventions, but is on the books in too many countries to count. Just how do you defend yourself against such charges? What witnesses would there even be to help prove them false?

And what’s the point?

In this country, every news report about some anti-gay politician’s gay family member reflects a greater disconnect between reality and some of our laws and public policies. First it was Phyllis Schlafly spewing the anti-gay rhetoric, who turned out to have a gay son. Then we learned House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who took the hard line on civil rights for gay people, has a gay sister. Next up was the late Republican Congressman Sonny Bono, who opposed a bill banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation when he was on the House Judiciary Committee. His daughter, Chastity, is gay.

And now we find out that vice-presidential candidate Dick Cheney has a gay daughter. Cheney reportedly cast a number of anti-gay votes while in Congress.

The fact is, whether or not we know it, just about every one of us has a gay friend or relative. And none of us wants our children, our friends’ children, our friends or our siblings to be turned away from housing or restaurants or jobs, denied the right to raise children or to serve in the military or be subject to criminal prosecution because of their personal lives.

Isn’t it time to end the hypocrisy and set our laws right? Or will it take a sordid trial like Malaysia’s before people see the foolishness in them?

Register Columnist Rekha Basu can be reached at or (515) 284-8208.

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