Actress Goldie Hawn had no idea what she was wading into last week when she tweeted from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, "Met the wonderful President of Nigeria," and posted a photo of herself with Goodluck Jonathan. She quickly learned that Jonathan recently signed a harsh anti-gay law that set off a wave of arrests. She deleted her tweet, expressed horror, and apologized.
Hawn's gaffe was useful in drawing attention to a problem with ramifications far beyond the salons of Davos. In the city of Bauchi in northern Nigeria on Jan. 22, thousands disrupted a Shariah court by throwing stones and demanding the quick conviction and execution of 11 men on trial for their membership in gay organizations.
Meanwhile, anti-gay American fanatic Christopher Doyle blamed the victims: "These countries are enacting laws as a response to gay activists' intolerance towards traditional views on marriage and sexuality."
This raises an issue closer to home: combating anti-gay persecution overseas requires that we confront the right-wingers in our own country who do so much to fuel it. In August 2013, a federal judge in Massachusetts ruled that Scott Lively, who helped inspire Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Bill, could be tried for crimes against humanity.
As I was writing this, I received an email on my activist account from a Nigerian man: "I am a proud gay my house has been burnt down and my family has since denied me access to my welfare so as to save them from further harassment, my school has suspended me from classes and sporting activities. My life is in danger please I need help to get out of this country before it's too late." A Ugandan sent a similar appeal.
My local advocacy group lacks the resources to rescue people, and I lack the expertise to sort real cases from scams. But the fear and suffering described are all too real for many people. The least one can do upon receiving these desperate appeals is offer encouragement and links to groups that may be of help. See iglhrc.org for a list of asylum resources, or visit amsher.org to contact African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHeR), a regional coalition.
Networks near and far are ramping up fitfully. The LGBT Faith and Asylum Network has been organized to help LGBT asylum seekers who reach the United States. Members of Sexual Minorities Uganda observed the third anniversary of the murder of their colleague David Kato Kisule as they monitored the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. New African voices were raised: Former Mozambique President Joaquim Chissano wrote an open letter to African leaders pleading for tolerance, and prominent Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina revealed his own homosexuality.
The intrusion of a distant land's persecution into the elite gathering at Davos brings to mind Edgar Allan Poe's story The Masque of the Red Death, in which the figure of Death stalks the revelers at a masked ball who have walled themselves off from a plague sweeping the land outside. Their host, mistaking Death for a partier, is outraged at the tasteless costume and pursues the man through the sumptuous rooms of the castle until he realizes too late his error.
My African correspondents thank me for my help, meager though it is. I tell them about local efforts in D.C. on behalf of asylum seekers who find their way here. But the global need far outstrips the capacity. Most of our African brothers and sisters -- and their counterparts elsewhere -- will have to face the plague of intolerance in their own land.
We should give what we can to refugee assistance efforts, and increase international pressure to end the persecution. But we must also turn our gaze homeward to the deadly hatred that walks among us.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at email@example.com.