Your Move, Obama: Hollywood is Taking on Brunei’s Anti-Gay Stoning Law
Brunei’s Stone the Gays law is now in effect, and Hollywood isn’t taking this lying down — at least, not in any of the hotels in California that the Sultan of Brunei has financed.
In fact, the Beverly Hills City Council has demanded in a unanimous vote that the Sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah, should divest ownership of the famous Beverly Hills Hotel and cease funding other hotel interests in the area because, the council says, it doesn’t want to be party to Brunei’s new death penalty law.
The change in the law comes in the form of penal code amendments that now make homosexual encounters a crime punishable by stoning. This tightens the previous laws which had punished homosexuality with 10 years in prison. Gay couples are not the only ones to be punished by this change, with women being hit especially hard (under adultery provisions), as well as people who decide they longer wish to identify as Muslim.
Notable names like Stephen Fry, Ellen DeGeneres and Virgin boss Richard Branson have all publicly signed on to the campaign, with Jay Leno even attending a protest about the law. The Guardian reports that The Beverly Hills Hotel has lost business in the form of the pre-Oscars event, The Night Before fundraiser, and has also seen cancelled an event honoring Sony producer Amy Pascal.
Christopher Cowdray, overseer of the Dorchester Collection, which Sultan Bolkiah’s business group owns and in which it has invested money, has said the move is wrongheaded though because he believes it is punishing his staff and not the law itself.
“The economic impact of this not only affects our loyal team members but extends to the local community, our valued partners and suppliers,” he is quoted as saying. “Our reputation, which has been built on service and integrity, speaks for itself. We do not tolerate any form of discrimination, we never have and we never will. Our policies are far removed from the politics of ownership.”
Cowdary and other critics have also taken a swipe at the Beverley Hill City Council, saying that they haven’t chosen to boycott other businesses that are owned by people of influence who support anti-gay laws, and thus there is a certain amount of hypocrisy going on. So who is right here?
That charge is clearly meant to undercut the Council’s stand, but it’s a false dilemma. It assumes that you can’t be right in your stand against the Brunei law if you aren’t also challenging other businesses with connections to anti-gay laws. That of course isn’t true. It would be helpful, and demonstrate an improved sense of integrity, if local lawmakers did challenge all those laws, but there’s an argument to be made why this Brunei law is particularly egregious: it’s a death penalty. There’s no gray area here. It deserves a strident response.
Also, let’s not forget that Cowdary could have come out with a sharp response and rebuke of Brunei, but has simply waved the hotel chain’s “commitments” as though the matter is already settled. For many LGBT rights advocates, that’s not nearly enough.
The City Council, which was actually under pressure to create a stricter policy, has now said it will take its policy to Washington and pressure lawmakers and the Obama administration to go beyond “expressing concerns” which is, at the moment, the level of engagement with which the United States has officially applied to the Brunei situation. However, there’s something looming on the horizon that actually puts the Obama administration in a political sticky spot.
Obama has, of course, pursued the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement since 2009, and with gusto. The partnership would serve to give members trading with the United States special economic privileges, but in exchange would in some respects give over power to other nations to set trade terms. The TPP has been widely condemned, as much for accusations that it simply advances the agendas of the entertainment and pharmaceutical industry without benefit for regular people, as much for its giving over power. There’s also the fact that talks surrounding the TPP have all been conducted behind closed doors.
That to one side, Brunei is part of that partnership, and now critics say that the Obama administration must boot Brunei from these talks if the TTP is to have any legitimacy moving forward. Securing TPP has been difficult for the Obama administration, and it is unlikely to want to rock the trade boat now, but it can’t very well leave this issue unanswered.
How the Obama administration will meet this problem, which is the first direct and substantial threat to trade relations under the agreement, remains to be seen. What is interesting though is how the Brunei protest has garnered such strong support among non-LGBT celebrities and how, in the near-term at least, it shows no sign of letting up.