LGBT Activists Worldwide Risk Lives and Livelihoods To Claim Rights

September 29, 2014

Anastasia Smirnova stepped into the media spotlight to bring attention to Russia’s brutal crackdown against its LGBT population in 2013. Risking her safety and security in the run-up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Smirnova stayed put.

The 27-year-old was one of about 70 people arrested for public-assembly offenses from February 7 to 9, 2014, even before her group had the chance to unfurl over a St. Petersburg bridge its 21-foot banner featuring the Olympic charter’s anti-discrimination pledge.

“The picture now is very grim, but there is extreme energy for equality. People want to stay in the country, fight, and change minds,” says Smirnova, who coordinated the work of several LGBT organizations leading up to Sochi.

The crackdown stems from a law passed by the Russian Duma in June 2013, banning the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” to minors—a vaguely worded provision that, under the guise of child protection, levies steep fines for sharing LGBT-related information.

This legislation, both before and after its enactment, unleashed a wave of anti-LGBT violence by vigilante groups, including entrapment and torture, bomb threats, defacement of homes and public buildings, and at least three murders. It also inspired similar legislative initiatives in other countries in the former Soviet Union, such as Kyrgyzstan.

To increase funding for LGBT-rights groups in Russia, the Arcus Foundation—together with the Open Society Foundations, Council for Global Equality, ILGA Europe, and Russian partners —established the Russia Freedom Fund in November 2013.

“Russia is one of the top countries of origin of asylum seekers in the European Union,” according to the Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration (ORAM), in its new guide to migration for LGBTI Russians, and LGBT applicants “feature prominently in these numbers.”

With LGBT refugees also crossing into Jordan, Senegal, and Turkey—from severely repressive neighboring countries— ORAM held trainings in these countries in 2013 for about 300 U.N. and other refugee workers on implementing the U.N.’s own guidelines on sexual-orientation and gender-identity–based asylum applications.

While the world in 2013 commemorated the life of Nelson Mandela—under whose presidency South Africa became the first country to constitutionally prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation—other extreme setbacks and some significant advances affected LGBT rights globally.

Nigeria and Uganda passed laws strengthening criminalization of same-sex relations, and India reverted to a previous criminalization code; yet same-sex marriage laws were passed in France, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand.

In every region of the world, those perceived as gender nonconforming faced serious human rights violations, documented in a report based on 2013 research, The State of Trans* and Intersex Organizing by Global Action for Trans* Equality and the American Jewish World Service.

Three years of research by women activists in Asia, coordinated by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) and funded by Arcus Foundation and the Global Fund for Women, brought the fight against sexual-orientation and gender-identity– related violence to the U.N. in 2013.

Interviewing 50 lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women, the Malaysia-based organization KRYSS** retrieved the first statistics on such violence in a country where same-sex activities between women are punishable by imprisonment and fines, and, under Shariah, by whipping. “There are lesbians and gender-nonconforming individuals driving change in Asia and all around the world,” says IGLHRC’s Grace Poore. “They put themselves at great risk but continue to stand bravely in the face of threats and attacks.”

*The use of an asterisk with the word trans indicates inclusion of multiple identities, for example, gender-queer or gender nonconforming.
**Knowledge and Rights with Young people through Safer Spaces