Human Rights

Why These Are Times of Crisis for Global LGBT Equality -- And How Activists Are Fighting the Hate

Dispatches from an international conference of activists fighting for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex equality.

Welcome to the 25th annual conference of the International Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), which drew up to 300 activists from dozens of countries to a hotel in Sao Paolo this week. This is no a conference of academics—the theme this year is “Building the way forward in times of crisis.” And times of crisis these are indeed for LGBT people around the world.

Last month a committee of the United Nations General Assembly voted to remove a reference to sexual orientation from a resolution on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions—essentially giving a green light for governments to kill LGBT people at their whim.

In South Africa, where gay marriage is enshrined in the Constitution, recent years have seen a spike in reported “corrective rapes” against lesbians.

In my country—the United States—twenty-nine states still permit discrimination in private employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, not to speak of recent violent attacks and the much publicized rash of youth suicides.

And host country Brazil, home to the largest pride festival in the world (Sao Paolo Pride), is by the numbers one of the most dangerous in the world for LGBT people. Murders of gay men and women and trans people in Brazil have jumped 62% between 2007 and 2009.

“This is one of the greatest frustrations for us,” Igo Martini, a high-ranking federal government official who attended the conference and addressed a crowd during an opening plenary. “Over the last few years we have created so many new policies, at the Federal level, at the State level, to promote LGBT Equality. It’s a long fight still.”

Steve tells us about the time he went to the national tourism agency in Peru to ask if they could help coordinate placement of the Gay Guide to Lima at the airport—so that LGBT tourists could feel welcomed when they arrive in country.

“They just laughed at us like we were crazy,” Steve, a tall bearded man who helps run an LGBT Center in Lima Peru, tells us. “They said, we don’t have any gay tourists in Peru.”

“Looks like it’s time for a kiss-in at the Lima airport!” says Belen, a young Argentine woman with a group called Juventud LGBT. Everybody laughs, nods, or claps in agreement.

If right wing and conservative ideologues are still looking for a global gay conspiracy—they would have had a field day here in Sao Paolo. But if they stopped to talk to people here, they would hear another point of view—that the global, transnational conspiracy most often works the other way—to demonize, criminalize or otherwise dehumanize LGBT people around the world. Especially in times of economic turmoil, it seems that LGBT people are still the low hanging fruit.

“I remember when the U.S. televangelists started getting popular in the 1980s,” Maurice Tomlinson, a Jamaican activist with J-Flag, tells us. “That’s when the backlash started, when the ‘Kill the Gays’ music started.”

Katherine, an activist from Kenya, talked about the music and art events that she helps organize for other lesbians in the country, and the care they have to take to organize discreetly. It was only last week  that the prime minister of Kenya, Raila Odinga, said that all gays and lesbians in the country should be arrested.

Despite all this, these meetings were not a giant pity party—far from it. Organizing and funding strategies were discussed, campaign ideas were hashed out within and between panels, and friendships (and dare I say romances) were kindled.

I came to the conference with a team of people who have been working behind the scenes over the last year to build a new online campaigning organization that went live this week called All Out, dedicated to building a movement to accelerate equality for LGBT people around the world. The first salvo in a long, and uncharted, journey of using the powerful tools of online organizing to push change forward, faster, is a video shot with activists in over ten cities on five continents—from Buenos Aires to Tokyo, Kathmandu to Beirut and beyond. The piece attempts to express both the challenges, and common aspirations, shared by a broad and diverse LGBT community around the world.

Watching the video with my colleague Andre Banks, co-founder of All Out, in a crowded room full of intelligent, dedicated, passionate LGBT equality activists from around world, and watching it receive a big round of passionate applause—after a sometimes heated discussion beforehand—was one of the best coming out parties a new organization could ask for.

Joseph Huff-Hannon is an award-winning writer and producer with a background in documentary film, book publishing and political campaigns.
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