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Harvey Milk told me I was gay

Wed 21 Nov 2012 In: Hall of Fame View at Wayback View at NDHA

Boris Dittrich One of the world’s leading GLBT rights campaigners has recalled to an Auckland audience being told he was gay by Harvey Milk in San Francisco in the 70s … something which later came full circle and sparked him to be a trailblazer in the GLBT rights arena. Boris Dittrich shared his rather unique and slow-burning coming out story at a Public Lecture at the University of Auckland’s Law School. The former Dutch MP is now the Advocacy Director for GLBT issues at Human Rights Watch, which is a lobby group based in New York, from where it investigates global human rights atrocities. As a young man Dittrich was studying in Ohio as an exchange student from the Netherlands, and had been questioning his sexuality for some time. He told those gathered to hear his lecture that he received a letter from his parents telling him something “tragic” had happened, which went on to explain his older sister had come out at lesbian. They said they wished they were dead and “fortunately we have one more child”. Dittrich said he then decided he would as straight as he possibly could. He described hitchhiking to San Francisco with his girlfriend and met three gay guys from Scandinavia who told him of a gay activist they had met in the Castro. They convinced the couple to forego a trip to the zoo and go meet the man. As they were sitting and chatting, that man turned to Dittrich and said: “You. You are gay I can tell it.” Dittrich was horrified at being picked out so clearly. He had nightmares about it. Yet when he went back to the Netherlands and went to law school he eventually came to terms with who he was, and came out to his parents. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s when he saw a documentary about GLBT rights that he realised the man who had told him he knew he was gay was in fact the legendary Harvey Milk, the “Mayor of Castro Street”. Dittrich recalled in the lecture: “I was really shocked to see that guy!” And yet the rest of that documentary made him realise he wanted to fight for GLBT people and make their life better. The openly-gay lawyer became an openly-gay judge, and then an openly-gay politician in the Netherlands. When he ran for Parliament in 1993 some members of his apparently liberal party told him he should perhaps play down the fact he was gay. He refused. And in interviews when he was asked what he would like to do as an MP he said he wanted to push for marriage equality. Dittrich in fact successfully pushed through civil unions, and ultimately led the Netherlands the first country to offer gay couples full marriage rights. “It was actually a wonderful moment,” he said, recalling seeing people in wheelchairs, holding hands: “There were a lot of people affected by AIDS and they wanted to stay alive and marry their partner before they died.” He believes the tipping point has, now, been passed on the issue of marriage equality, as nations and US states continue to push change through. “I really, really hope that Parliament here as soon as possible will pass the second reading,” he said of New Zealand’s marriage equality legislation. “The world is watching now, what happens in Wellington.” While it’s still a passionate subject, Dittrich’s focus is now well beyond one nation and just marriage equality, in his role with Human Rights Watch. “There is a lot of work to be done in the world, unfortunately,” he said summing up the state of play across the globe, and explaining that of the 193 United Nations’ member states, 76 criminalise homosexual conduct. Dittrich says he has been given the attitude by some “well we don’t enforce those laws any more so why bother changing them,” something he describes as a very negative and cynical view. He believes such laws reflect how people in a nation or state think about their GLBT citizens. In the US, he told the audience 18 states still have laws criminalising homosexual conduct, and although the Supreme Court has ruled this is unconstitutional, he says corrupt police may still use such laws to arrest and harass gay people. In Cameroon people can be imprisoned for homosexual conduct, he stated, and neighbours who have an issue with you can report you to the police – and if you can’t bribe them you end up in jail. Dittrich shared the story of a young man in the African nation who was sent to jail for three years based on evidence in a text message. When he was thrown into a cell with 45 others it was announced that he was “a homosexual” and he was raped and beaten “That’s what can happen to you when the law says homosexual conduct is criminalised,” Dittrich explained. Some more recent odious developments Dittrich touched on are the anti-gay propaganda bill in some Russian states, which is also a pending federal law change after Russia’s Supreme Court upheld it. He said Russia’s Ambassador the UN has also successfully had passed a resolution on “traditional values” being accounted for when human rights are up for debate. “What makes this such a negative, awful and dangerous thing is the language of Russian supreme court is now reading into legislation of other countries,” he said, pointing out the Ukraine and Moldova are now following suit to some extent. In Uganda, Dittrich says there will be a vote next week on what was once known as the “kill the gays” bill. While the death penalty has been removed, he says the bill to penalise GLBT and their supporters is still “horrendous”. Movements in Liberia and Nigeria are also of concern, as is a UN resolution being voted on against executions by gangs of citizens taking the law into their own hands, where an amendment has been put forward to remove the words “gender identity and sexual orientation” as motives for such killings. Yet Dittrich finishes on the positive, discussing the group of GLBT friendly countries which have been working together since 2007 when the Yogjakarta Principles, applying sexual orientation and gender identity principles to human rights, were introduced. New Zealand is part of this group which will meet again next month, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will once again show his support by giving a speech. In the past he has said human rights must come before tradition, religion and so on. “To have the ‘boss of the world’ say that is very important,” Dittrich stated. Boris Dittrich will be at an OUTLine function at Auckland’s Amora Hotel tonight, from 6PM. Entry is $25 with all proceeds going to OUTLine. Tomorrow night he and Louisa Wall will speak about marriage equality at St-Matthew-in-the-City from 6PM.     Jacqui Stanford - 21st November 2012

Credit: Jacqui Stanford

First published: Wednesday, 21st November 2012 - 4:39pm

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