Activists working for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in many countries are still under-resourced, unnecessarily isolated, and vulnerable to violent backlash even after four decades of struggle, reveals a new report by the New York based Human Rights Watch.
The 44-page report, Together, Apart: Organizing around Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Worldwide, demonstrates that many groups defending LGBT rights – especially throughout the global South – still have limited access to funding, and courageously face sometimes-murderous attacks without adequate support from a broader human rights community.
“Dozens of countries have repealed sodomy laws or enshrined equality measures, and that’s the good news as activists celebrate their successes during Gay Pride month,” said Scott Long, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch and the principal author of the report. “But visibility breeds violence, and there is a pressing need for new support and protection.”
The report is based on written surveys and in-depth interviews with more than 100 activists working for LGBT rights in five regions: sub-Saharan Africa; the Middle East and North Africa; Eastern Europe and Central Asia; the Asia and Pacific region; and Latin America and the Caribbean.
It shows widely disparate rights situations in different regions. In Latin America, for instance, decades of coalition work between LGBT activists and other social movements – including women’s and mainstream human rights groups – have led to sweeping legal changes, with most sodomy laws in the region repealed and new anti-discrimination protections being debated. Yet repressive laws and pervasive violence based on gender identity and expression often remain unremedied.
In much of sub-Saharan Africa, the report found, waves of backlash regularly greet the efforts of LGBT activists to make their voices heard, often silencing them with brutal violence. Extremist religious groups – some with support from kindred denominations in North America – actively promote prejudice and hatred.
Key findings of the report include:
- Organisations working on sexual orientation and gender identity still lack resources, as well as adequate support from other human rights movements. Increasing funding for these rights defenders, and building their political alliances, is crucial.
- Defenders of LGBT people’s rights, and of sexual rights in general, routinely face extraordinary levels of violence. In Jamaica, an angry crowd surrounded a church where a gay man’s funeral was being held and beat the mourners. In Kenya, one group told Human Rights Watch matter-of-factly that its members were “attacked by an angry mob who wanted to lynch them and they had to be evacuated under tight security.”
- Sexuality has become a dangerous cultural and religious battleground. Increasingly, both politicians and conservative religious leaders manipulate issues of gender and sexuality to win influence or preserve power. They characterise LGBT people as alien to their communities, outsiders whose rights and lives do not matter.
- The need to change laws is still a central issue – but in many different contexts. More than 80 countries still have “sodomy laws” that criminalise consensual, adult same-sex sexual relations. Yet even in countries that have scrapped these provisions, laws on “public scandals,” “indecency,” “wearing the clothing of the opposite sex,” and sex work are still in place, allowing widespread police harassment of transgender people and others.
- South Africa remains a special case. Uniquely progressive laws and policies are not implemented in the communities where they are most needed. The lack of political will to enforce the laws also has ripple effects across the continent. South Africa refuses to integrate human rights into its foreign policy. In the last decade, it has been unwilling to take the lead on sexual-rights issues in international fora.
- Enshrining equality for lesbian and gay people in South Africa’s constitution produced an example of global importance. Yet South Africa’s government is still not fully committed to equality at all levels, or capable of curtailing sexual violence.
The report also details creative strategies that activists have used to combat prejudice and promote equality. In India, activists have combined a legal challenge to the sodomy law with a wide-ranging public campaign to change public attitudes.
In Brazil, transgender groups have fostered visibility and countered discrimination through simple monthly excursions to public spaces such as shopping malls or beaches. Activists told Human Rights Watch this helps trans people “feel strong in a group and face those spaces they believe are ‘off limits’ for them. And it is also meant to educate the public to see transgender people as citizens …with whom they can share a movie or a game and the beach.”
This year is the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City, the historic and galvanising clashes between LGBT people and the police that many see as marking the beginning of the modern US gay rights movement. Yet the US still has fewer protections for LGBT people’s equality than countries such as Brazil or South Africa.
“As the United States prepares to commemorate the 40th anniversary of its own gay rights movement, this report points to lessons of struggles and successes in other countries that everyone can learn from,” said Long.
The report asserts that, “…this work is united, broadly speaking, by rights rather than by identities: by a belief in protections for… dignity, privacy, expression, and autonomy; a belief that all people should be both free and empowered to make decisions about their own bodies and their own sexualities.”
The author notes that, “Defending those beliefs can cost people their lives.”