International Activists Fight Anti-LGBTQ Crackdowns

August 22, 2017

While levels of homophobic and transphobic violence and discrimination rose to new heights during 2016 and the first half of 2017—with anti-gay atrocities committed in Chechnya sending shockwaves around the world—a handful of countries also made unprecedented moves to recognize same-sex relations or enact stronger LGBT protections.

“The international community’s demand for investigations and prosecution for perpetrators of violations in Chechnya is important,” says Kim Vance, executive director of ARC International, referring to the detention and torture of 100 men perceived to be gay by authorities in the Russian autonomous region.

“Now we need a concerted effort to more fully expose the situation there and elsewhere around the world for all LGBT people,” says Vance, whose organization promotes LGBT human rights globally.

Click to open an interactive visualization of data from Transgender Europe’s Trans Murder Monitoring project. (Design: ©Emerson, Wajdowicz Studios).

The vicious Chechnya assaults came four years after Russia passed an anti-propaganda law barring all positive presentations of same-sex lifestyles—legislation that may be replicated in neighboring countries, including Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Belarus, Bulgaria, and Latvia.1

The European Court of Human Rights, in a June 2017 decision, condemned the law for increasing homophobia and discrimination against LGBT people, and awarded damages to three activists who had been arrested carrying banners saying that homosexuality was natural.

Government-imposed or sanctioned harassment and violence toward LGBT citizens also rose during 2016 in Turkey; Bangladesh; and Aceh, Indonesia, along with worsening of security for the Philippines’ LGBT communities.

In December, Chad became the world’s seventy-second country, and Africa’s thirty-fourth, to criminalize homosexuality. In Nigeria, the 2014 Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) law has been used by authorities and the public in recent years to justify serious human rights violations.2

Although anti-LGBT laws are not always implemented, The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) noted in June 2016 that there had been formal arrests or prosecutions in 45 nations over the previous three years, divided almost exclusively between African and Asian countries.3

“Violence and discrimination in relation to [sexual orientation and gender identity, SOGI] rear their ugly heads with rampancy, in a variety of forms and situations,” said Vitit Muntarbhorn, the United Nations SOGI expert, during a speech at ILGA’s world summit in November.

 “We seek simply to be what we are, in our love, friendship, privacy and intimacy under the protection of international law,” Vitit Muntarbhorn, U.N. independent expert on LGBT rights, speaking at ILGA World 2016.

“We seek simply to be what we are, in our love, friendship, privacy and intimacy under the protection of international law,” Vitit Muntarbhorn, U.N. independent expert on LGBT rights, speaking at ILGA World 2016.

“Instances of murder, killings, rape, mutilation and other cruel treatment are well documented in various parts of the world and by many sources,” he continued, noting that, in part, his three-year term will involve combating these acts of violence.

Muntarbhorn’s position itself was the subject of several 2016 challenges, including by a group of African UN member states who narrowly lost their bid to stall his work after 850 organizations from 156 countries called on a General Assembly committee to affirm his role.

“We seek simply to be what we are, in our love, friendship, privacy and intimacy, under the protection of international law,” said Muntarbhorn, a human rights lawyer and professor, speaking at the ILGA conference in his hometown of Bangkok, Thailand.

The UN’s official process through which countries report on one another’s human rights progress, has moved nations toward both highly visible and less visible progress, including the 2016 decriminalization of same-sex relationships in the Seychelles and in Nauru.

The Universal Periodic Review received 1,100 SOGI–related recommendations in its first eight years (2008 to 2016), shedding light on a wide array of violations, from transphobic murders to discrimination in health care and employment.4

“The tracking we do on the progress of individual states shows a slow but steady improvement,” Vance says, “Overall the arc is bending in our favor.”

Among those advances was the announcement in May 2017 that Taiwan would become the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage, one year after the same step was taken in Colombia.

Elsewhere in Asia, trans people in Malaysia won court battles to align identification documents with their gender identities, and in Pakistan, the Lahore High Court ruled that trans people must be included in the national census. In the Philippines, politician Geraldine Roman, became the country’s first elected transgender congresswoman, in a landslide vote.

Also in 2016, the Caribbean country of Belize decriminalized acts “against the order of nature” that were used to target gay men, after a lawsuit brought on behalf of Caleb Orozco. Orozco is head of the United Belize Advocacy Movement, which focuses on LGBT health and human rights.

“In striking down this law, Belize rejected a poisonous remnant of colonial rule…We have reaffirmed ourselves as a society built on dignity and respect for all our people,” Orozco says, adding that a new sense of hope has risen among his country’s LGBT community.

Meanwhile, several other Latin American countries took a step backwards on LGBT rights in 2016. Mexico and Brazil reported the most murders of trans and gender-diverse people in the world, pushing the year’s total recorded by the Trans Murder Monitoring Project to 317—the highest in the project’s eight years.

Hostility toward trans individuals was also widespread across the globe, including at Uganda’s 2016 Transgender Day of Remembrance event, which was raided by police, even after the organizers received permission from the authorities to hold it.

“With trans people being the face of homosexuality, every time anti-homosexuality laws come up, the trans are the prime target of the state and even non-state actors,” says Kim Mukasa, a Uganda-based activist and lawyer with the International Trans Fund, established in 2016 to mobilize resources for trans groups.

Uganda is one of 67 countries where the law explicitly prohibits a change in gender marker, creating situations in which outward appearance may be at odds with legal identification, heightening the risks of hostility and violence.

Of approximately 50 countries that are known to allow their citizens to change their gender marker, only 7 of these make it possible to do so without extremely restrictive and pathologizing prerequisites, ranging from sterilization to mental health diagnosis.5

Malta is the only country that does not have any restrictive requirements for legal gender recognition, according to ILGA.

“It’s through our resilience that we survive,” says Mukasa. “It’s a very binary society that male and female are the only aspects of gender that are known. We as trans persons are usually taken to be aliens. We are constantly judged by the way we appear.

“But we now have visibility. We are here. I’m very proud to say that. We are, potentially, the forefathers of trans organizing in Africa.”

1International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Association, State-Sponsored Homophobia, 2016

2Human Rights Watch, “Tell Me Where I Can Be Safe,” October 2016.

3International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Association, State-Sponsored Homophobia, 2016.

4ARC International, International Bar Association, ILGA Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Sex Characteristics at the Universal Periodic Review, November 2016.

5Argentina, Malta, Colombia, Norway, France, Denmark, and Ireland

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