Gay Rights Crusade Against Stoning in Brunei Began with a Los Angeles Labor Dispute

“Stories need a hook,” said a spokesperson for UNITE HERE Local 11. The union had been fighting the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air for over a year, but it wasn’t until LGBT activists got on board that their efforts found traction.

Jonathan Alcorn / Reuters

For more than a year before the Beverly Hills Hotel became the target of a boycott, a Los Angeles labor union had been trying to draw attention to the fact that it is owned by the sultan of Brunei, a tiny Southeast Asian nation with laws criminalizing homosexuality. Almost no one cared.

How this went from a failed ploy in a labor dispute to an advocacy campaign involving celebrities including Ellen DeGeneres to Jay Leno is one that could only take place in the age of internet outrage, when relationships between American activists and social media go a long way in determining which human rights causes blow up and which ones go virtually unnoticed in the United States.

UNITE HERE Local 11 spokeswoman Leigh Shelton told BuzzFeed that the union began trying to shine the spotlight on Brunei’s LGBT rights record in February 2013, as part of an effort to drive business away from the Hotel Bel-Air and the Beverly Hills Hotel, both owned by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah’s Dorchester Collection hotel company. The effort stemmed from a feud stretching back to the 1990s, when the union was shut out from representing the Beverly Hills Hotel after it went through renovations. The union was shut out in similar fashion from the Hotel Bel-Air in 2009. In researching the hotel’s ownership, UNITE HERE discovered that Brunei has actually long had a law criminalizing sodomy well before the new Sharia code, dating back to its days under British colonial rule.

The union produced a video urging people to “take a stand against homophobia” and “dump” the Beverly Hills Hotel. “The Beverly Hills Hotel is owned by the nation of Brunei, where it is illegal to be gay,” the video proclaimed.

That campaign went nowhere.

“Stories need a hook,” Shelton said. “I just don’t think it had a hook at the time.”

Last month, that changed: National organizations called for boycotts, and personalities including Sharon Osbourne and Richard Branson took to Twitter to urge their followers to join them in staying away from the hotel. On Monday, former Tonight Show host Jay Leno added fuel to the fire when he joined a rally outside the Beverly Hills Hotel, calling for the sultan to either change the law or sell the hotel. Organizations ranging from the Motion Picture & Television Fund to the International Women’s Media Foundation to The Hollywood Reporter have canceled events at the hotel as well. DeGeneres tweeted:

The “hook” was that the sultan was going to impose a new penal code based on Sharia law, which would punish homosexuality — as well as adultery — with death by stoning. The sultan had actually announced the new proposal in October, but few in the United States noticed nor made the connection to the hotel. Nor did it get much notice when a United Nations spokesperson made a statement on April 11 condemning the proposal, which was originally set to go into effect on April 22. But then, longtime LGBT and labor activist Cleve Jones — who had consulted for UNITE HERE in its fight with the Dorchester hotels — saw a mention of the U.N. statement on his Facebook feed.

“That caught my attention,” Jones said. “I knew who this guy was and I remember thinking to myself that maybe this will get people to pay attention. I started waiting two days, maybe three days, and see who would pick up on it. And nothing.”

So he posted about it on Facebook and tagged several major players in LGBT rights and Hollywood, including Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin, screenwriter and LGBT activist Dustin Lance Black, and film producer Bruce Cohen. His post was shared over 400 times.

The next day, the Gill Action — an organization set up by tech mogul Tim Gill to advance LGBT rights — issued a statement announcing it would move an upcoming conference connecting donors with state-level LGBT organizations to another venue. This was a rare public statement from the organization, which generally likes to keep its name out of the press. (A spokesperson declined to comment on when the organization learned about the Sharia proposal.)

“In light of the horrific anti-gay policy approved by the government of Brunei, Gill Action made the decision earlier today to relocate its conference from the Beverly Hills Hotel to another property,” Gill Action Executive Director Kirk Fordham said in a statement to the LGBT publications that first reported the move, including the The Washington Blade, which ran the story under the headline “Secret gay donor conference moved from Brunei-owned hotel.”

A week later, according to Feminist Majority spokeswoman Stephanie Hallett, it pulled an event scheduled for May 5 and instead organized a rally in front of the hotel joined by UNITE HERE, the California Women’s Law Center, and several LGBT organizations — including Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

The campaign against the hotel has largely focused on the Sharia code’s potential impact on LGBT people, but the policing of women’s sexual relationships has often been the major focus in other places where versions of Sharia law have been implemented. Indonesia’s Banda Aceh province — the only other place in Southeast Asia with a version of Sharia — originally stipulated a punishment of death by stoning for adultery but only 100 lashes for homosexuality. And because women are often expected to defend sexual honor, harsh punishments tend to be meted out disproportionately for sexual misconduct in other countries with Sharia-based systems, according to a report from the organization Women Living Under Muslim Laws.

The U.S.’s largest LGBT rights organization, the Human Rights Campaign, gave its imprimatur to the boycott on Friday, publicly calling on other organizations with events scheduled for the Dorchester hotels to stay away. On Tuesday, HRC took aim again, introducing a campaign under the hashtag #callitout highlighting the apparent hypocrisy of the Dorchester Collection’s same-sex wedding business.

All this organizing has taken place with virtually no consultation with activists in Brunei, in large part because U.S. organizations can’t find anyone to consult. Hallett said that they did not talk to anyone in Brunei before organizing Monday’s rally, and several LGBT organizations working internationally said they’ve been unable to find partners in the country of fewer than 500,000.

“Good luck getting a hold of someone over there,” said a staffer of an LGBT organization doing international work.

Focusing on international issues is relatively new for HRC, which made a high-profile announcement in late 2013 that it would launch a global program with a $3 million initial investment. This caused concern among some LGBT activists who have been working overseas, who feared HRC might not adequately consult with activists on the ground before getting involved abroad. During the fights over marriage equality in the U.S., many state-level activists complained that the group stepped on local activists when it launched state-based campaigns.

Although HRC is “incredibly concerned about [coordination with local activists] because we always want to show great sensitivity to the real-world impact on the ground,” said Vice President for Communications Fred Sainz, the group jumped in because the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights office had made public statements criticizing Brunei’s proposal earlier this month. “Our involvement has been driven by the U.N. action,” said Sainz.

Sainz also added, “Unlike a lot of LGBT international issues, the Brunei government has an indisputable presence here in the United States through their hotel holdings. It’s our mission and responsibility to ensure that LGBT Americans know what the owners of these hotels stand for.”

As the push against the hotel gathered steam in Los Angeles, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission held its fire. IGLHRC, one of the oldest U.S.-based groups working on LGBT rights abroad, had been working with a coalition of activists in Southeast Asia to try to develop a way to pressure Brunei to reverse the law. Brunei is part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a trade bloc including countries like the Philippines and Thailand, whose governments have at times been supportive of LGBT rights.

And the situation in Brunei was unclear — there were some hints that the sultan might already be looking for a way to back out, and forcing a confrontation over the issue might cause him to take a more hard-line position. The law was initially slated to go into effect on April 22, but the boycott began after the government announced it would delay implementation. And when the sultan set a new implementation date of May 1, the government also announced it would be implemented in three phases, with the capital punishment provisions not taking effect until next year.

“I felt that it would be counterproductive to attack Brunei, when there was a decision to put things on hold,” said Grace Poore, IGHRC’s Regional Program Coordinator for Asia and Pacific Islands. She also stressed that framing this issue primarily through the lens of LGBT rights could backfire.

“It’s important not to just focus on the LGBT issue,” said Poore. “That is counterproductive. It’s divisive, it gives the impression [to] other people who suffer under these penalties that we’re only focusing on our issues instead of focusing on how they’re all interrelated.”

But it’s also an issue that grabs Americans’ attention in the way that other human rights issues often do not. “It’s a measure of our success in the United States that gay is the bright, shiny object that catches the attention of some people,” said a source with an LGBT organization doing international work.

It’s unclear whether this boycott is having any impact on the sultan, who is one of the world’s richest men and presides over a nation whose wealth is built on its oil exports. But it could have a lasting impact on the hotels, whose CEO says its employees are being “totally unfairly picked on” and that protesters are only “hurting a local business.”

This doesn’t seem to bother Cleve Jones, if that’s what it takes to get the message across.

“The way this boycott has taken off, it looks like you’ll be able to soon play polo inside the [Beverly Hills Hotel’s] Polo Lounge, because there won’t be any people in it,” Jones said.

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