THE BLOG

Beaten for Being Gay

17/12/2013 17:07 GMT | Updated 16/02/2014 10:59 GMT

When Olympic bronze-medal winning diver Tom Daley made "that" announcement to his 2.4 million Twitter followers, it made headlines in the national press for days. Sadly, he received a fair number of homophobic comments , but the vast majority were supportive, congratulating him on his bravery and wishing him well.

Edward Lord, chairman of the Amateur Swimming Association, spoke for many when he said: "To be one of the first British Olympic athletes to come out is very brave and will be a signal ... to all young people that you can be open about your sexuality, even in a very public environment. I am very proud of Tom."

But what if you are a young person in one of the many countries around the world where discrimination against and persecution of people because of their sexuality is so widespread and accepted that police can beat you up and threaten to kill you with total impunity?

Take Belarus. Not content with being the only country in Europe that still uses the death penalty, it is one of the worst places on this continent for gay rights. There, you wouldn't get your colleagues, friends and strangers congratulating you on a brave decision to come out. You'd be more likely to get beaten up, verbally abused and shunned by your community. You might even end up dead.

Ihar Tsikhanyuk is a gay man who works as a drag artist in Belarus' capital, Minsk. His sexuality and line of work mean that he has to be prepared for abuse from all sides - other young people, the authorities, even his relatives. Standing up for his rights, and those of other Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) people in his country, puts him in even greater danger.

Ihar, who features in Amnesty International's annual Write for Rights campaign that runs until the end of this month, said that when he tried to set up a gay rights organisation called Lambda last year, the police beat him up. When he complained, they threatened to kill him.

"The government started to fight us after we applied to the Ministry of Justice with enough signatures to register it [as required by law]," he explained. "The police called the founding members in for questioning, asking why we had signed the application and pressurised us to write letters denouncing it. I was having hospital treatment for a stomach ulcer at the time. The police came to the hospital and dragged me to their car. I refused to talk to them, so they started to punch my head and chest."

After the attack, Ihar's family were scared they could be next.

"I told them I'd protect them," he said. "Some of my friends expressed support and understanding, but others said I shouldn't complain or I'd have more problems and could be killed. I wrote a complaint, and when I told the police officers they said: 'Boy, aren't you worried that you'll end up with nine grams [a bullet] in your forehead?'. I couldn't believe that they'd openly say that to me."

Ihar, whose mother once stopped talking to him for a month after finding him "hugging and kissing a boy in his room" but with whom he now has a good relationship, tries to challenge those who discriminate against him. But he's up against the powerful joint forces of an anti-gay media and government.

"The media here portrays gays and lesbians as sick and crazy people, fools and savages. The President says our country isn't ready to accept people like us, and that he isn't ashamed of that. People see the President's attitude and think the same."

As a result, gay people in Belarus tend to hide their sexuality.

"If they've been beaten up or fired, they don't know how to complain to the authorities," Ihar says. "Many of my friends turn to me and ask for help.

"The LGBTI community here used to be very united. But government policy has become very homophobic recently - gay clubs have been shut down, it's impossible to organise events, meetings, parties - so people have started to lose touch with each other."

In the future, Ihar says he'd like to become a lawyer so he can protect others, but since being refused permission to set up Lambda, he has felt humiliated and empty.

You can do something to help. As part of Amnesty's Write for Rights campaign, Write to Ihar congratulating him on his bravery and wishing him well just like so many did for Tom Daley.

Ihar says it means a lot for LGBTI activists in Belarus to receive messages of support from the UK. "People will feel braver and more hopeful," he said. "It will show them that something can be changed."