Hungry for change

Wednesday, 04 June 2008
Source: SX, an online magazine

Hungry For Change

Ben CooperThe plight of GLBT people worldwide led Lismore activist Ben Cooper to make some sacrifices of his own, writes Kate Gordon.

There aren’t many causes a young man would consider worth giving up food for four days. Some might do it for a bet; others might forgo sustenance in the first throes of young love.

But for Ben Cooper, a 20-year-old Lismore man, the decision to live on a diet of barley sugar and water for four days had nothing to do with a bet, or a crush. It had nothing, in actual fact, to do with his own life, but more to do with saving the lives of others.

“I embarked on the hunger strike to raise awareness of the plight of gays and lesbians in countries where homosexuality is illegal and to gather support for their rights, and to pressure governments to reform laws,” Cooper says.

In a time when much of the news regarding gay and lesbian rights in Australia has focused on the right to legally recognise partnerships between gay couples, Ben Cooper believes that other, more pressing, human rights for gay people are being overlooked. It is this belief that provoked him to embark on a four-day hunger strike last month, from Friday, May 16 to Monday, May 19.

Ben’s strike was a protest against the treatment of gay and lesbian asylum seekers in this country and overseas. It is a cause that he believes is far more pressing than the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry.

“While I’m an advocate and supporter of marriage and civil unions for homosexual and heterosexual couples,” Cooper says, “I don’t believe this should be our number one priority.

“Our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters are being imprisoned and executed – this is a lot more disturbing than any legislative inequality that we face in Australia.”

Cooper felt compelled to undertake this extreme action after feeling other, more conventional, avenues had been exhausted, such as writing letters and delivering speeches.

Recent international events played a part in provoking Cooper’s actions, such as the declaration by Gambian President, Yahya Jammeh, that all homosexual people in his country should leave, or face “serious consequences”.

“I think that it’s disgusting. It only highlights the need for laws to be reformed to protect and automatically accept gay and lesbian asylum seekers. It also demonstrates why the Australian government needs to take a leadership role in the international community and at the UN.”

Cooper believes there are still many countries – in particular “countries with strict adherence to traditional Islam, such as Iran, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia” – that still have a long way to go in improving their attitudes and practices with regard to gay and lesbian human rights. Because of this, he is urging everyone to take a stand in bringing attention to this urgent cause.

He says people can do this by standing up and giving these people a voice in the gay and mainstream communities and media: “Some of the worst forms of discrimination these people face is invisibility and silence.”

After completing his four-day strike, Cooper says he felt “tired and emotionally drained” and that his thought process was “a bit out of order”. But he hopes his stand will inspire others to make positive changes, both overseas and closer to home.

“A part of getting our own country sorted is about lobbying for the rights of gays and lesbians in other countries. Gays and lesbians are visitors and holiday-makers and these people are put at the same risk of discrimination and imprisonment as the gay and lesbian citizens of these nations are. Equality is a universal right.”

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