“We can always have different opinions. But we cannot in any way maintain the right to insult people or to incite hatred based on their sexual orientation. These are indeed offenses.”
~ Mathias Reynard, of Switzerland's National Council
From the UN: The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, attended the 48th annual World Economic Forum (WEF) in Switzerland. The WEF brings together public figures, government officials, and leaders from business, civil society, culture, and the arts who "have the drive and the influence to make positive change". This year the main stage featured the launch of a new global initiative for businesses to accelerate the inclusion of LGBTI people. Supported by the OHCHR, the “Partnership for Global LGBTI Equality” aims to operationalize the United Nation LGBTI Standards of Conduct in the workplace by 2020.
The UNDP published a new report on sexual and gender minorities in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The authors reviewed over 500 publications, interviewed stakeholders, and participated in events and country level consultations. Their analysis identified many SDG targets where sexual and gender minorities are marginalized and otherwise challenged. Noting that “each of these issues influence the others”, the report includes a set of recommendations that public and private sector donors, multilateral agencies and other policy influencers should prioritize to support inclusion of LGBTI in development.
Several UN groups are seeking information from LGBTI people and organizations about their experiences with discrimination, violence, and other human rights abuses. Submissions will help to increase visibility, identify gaps in current practices, and guide the creation of new policies. The Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent is seeking information from LGBTI persons that overlaps with racism, xenophobia, and related intolerances. The Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries as a Means of Violating Human Rights is seeking information on gender and sexual orientation within private military and security companies. And the Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation wants to know how inadequate access to water, sanitation, and bathrooms in public spaces and at work impacts LGBTI, the homeless, street workers, children and the elderly, women, and persons with disabilities.
HIV, Health, and Wellness: From Singapore came news of a massive data leak of the government’s HIV registry. The confidential data of 14,200 people with HIV (both Singaporeans and foreigners) was disclosed online. The health ministry admitted that it became aware in 2016 that the data had been accessed by a US citizen living in the country. The ministry promised that additional safeguards were added to data since 2016; however, a separate health system data hack also occurred this summer. Founder of local LGBT+ rights group "Sayoni", Jean Chong, warned that the leak could “drive more people underground”.
Kenyan newspapers reported that the government has amended the Registration of Persons Act to require all people to provide biometric data including DNA and the GPS coordinates of their home. The data will be used to issue citizens a unique identity number and to track access to government services. The Kenya Key Population Consortium had previously been successful in blocking the collection of this data for HIV research. Their report, “Everybody Says No” detailed the risks data breaches have on the community. Activist Denis Nzioka explained why the Ministry of Health wants to use biometrics in HIV surveillance and what that could mean for those at high risk for HIV.
Meanwhile, Jeffrey Walimbwa of Kenya's ISHTAR MSM spoke about how to provide HIV services to gay men and other men who have sex with men and trans people. Walimbwa emphasized the importance of simplifying and adapting those services to overcome the many different barriers this community faces.
In Myanmar, researchers examined what prevents men and trans women who hide their sexual orientation or gender identity from accessing HIV testing and counseling. Published in BMC Health, the authors identified many overlapping barriers to care. Among their suggestions they recommend building capacity for peer-educators to better support “hidden” men and trans women, and sensitivity training among mainstream health providers so that individuals can get HIV and sexual health care from general clinics.
In Vietnam, the public Binh Dan Hospital has established a private space to offer LGBT patients health care including sexual health, transition care, and mental health support free from discrimination.
From Malaysia, a new study surveyed a broad group of physicians at the University Malaya (UM) and Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) medical centers about their willingness to care for HIV-positive patients. Published in AIDS and Behavior, the study found that 53.5% of doctors indicated some intention to discriminate. However, their research also suggested that greater contact with people with HIV is associated with more favorable attitudes towards them.
The Australian Centre for Sex, Health and Society released a new report studying how LGBTI+ people access mental health care and support services. Their research found that 71% of people do not access any kind of support services when suffering mental health crisis because they are afraid of being discriminated against. As one person explained, even well-meaning service providers can negatively impact mental health:
"The chance that I could be matched with someone who is well-meaning—but ignorant—is high, and even a small misstep, or misunderstanding on their part...could be the straw that breaks my resolve to not harm myself."
In the US, Perry Cohen, founder of Venture Out Project, has donated $1.5 million to Harvard to establish the Sexual and Gender Minorities Health Equity Initiative. Cohen, who is transgender, was moved to donate after he was unable to find a local doctor trained to care for trans and non-binary people. NPR spoke to medical students across the country who feel unprepared to treat LGBTQ patients and are lobbying their schools to improve their curriculums.
The Williams Institute and the US CDC published a new report in LGBT Health which found that all young people who live in states where sexual orientation is specifically included in anti-bullying laws were more likely to feel safe at school and were less likely to have attempted suicide than those living in other states. The data showed that even at those schools sexual minority youth experience suicide ideation and attempts more than their heterosexual peers. Researchers conclude that inclusive anti-bullying laws improve the situation for all children, but that more is needed to support LGBTQ youth.
Australia’s Department of Health recently closed its public consultation on the proposal to outlaw alkyl nitrites—chemicals that make “poppers”, an inhalant commonly used to make sex less painful. Several HIV organizations have opposed the ban and the Nitrite Action Group developed a guide to help gay and bisexual men submit their objections.
While some health experts say there is minimal health risk with using poppers, the same cannot be said of the “chemsex” substances GHB, methamphetamine, and mephedrone. Two UK sexual health professionals published Chemsex First Aid, a booklet of practices for chemsex-related emergencies including how to recognize dangerous levels of intoxication, sexual consent, and general first aid that can be helpful in sexual situations. From Thailand, APCOM shared a booklet called Safer Hi-Fun Guidance to reduce risks with chemsex. The UK’s Channel 4, Buzzfeed, and Terence Higgins Trust launched an anonymous survey to evaluate gay and bisexual men’s use of GHB which will inform the creation of a new documentary. Meanwhile, some gay sex workers say they are aiming to help people rediscover and enjoy “sober sex”.
From the World of Politics: Angola’s National Assembly approved a new Penal Code with a near unanimous vote which will go into effect in 90 days. Among the changes, Human Rights Watch reported that the code has dropped the provision on “vices against nature” which criminalized same-sex sexual activity and that it includes protections from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. A final draft of the code is expected to be released soon with the approved text which is currently not available.
In Switzerland, the Federal Democratic Union (UDF) launched a referendum against recent changes to the penal code which outlawed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The party claims the new law is an attack on freedom of expression as it penalizes "legitimate opinions". UDF must collect 50,000 signatures for the referendum to move forward. MP Mathias Reynard, who first introduced the amendment five years ago, called the argument baseless, stating:
“We can always have different opinions. But we cannot in any way maintain the right to insult people or to incite hatred based on their sexual orientation. These are indeed offenses.”
The UK Government Equalities Office launched an information gathering process on the experiences faced by intersex and other people with variations in sex characteristics. It is calling on individuals, families, and professionals to share their experiences including in healthcare, education, support services, and discrimination. Minister for Equalities Baroness Williams added:
“It is concerning to think that people in the UK may be afraid to visit the doctor or feel unable to take part at school because they are not receiving the support they need or deserve. Everyone in this country has a right to an education, healthcare and to go about their daily life without intrusion or fear of humiliation.”
In the US, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced it is close to finalizing the “Protecting Statutory Conscience Rights in Health Care” rule, reported Rewire News. The draft, which was published a year ago, allows health care providers to refuse to provide treatment, referrals, or assistance with procedures if these activities violate their stated religious or moral convictions. When the draft was published, NBC investigated the impact it could have on LGBTQ people’s access to healthcare. The Human Rights Watch published an open letter to the HHS Secretary explaining how it could undermine people’s right to health and the objections many women and LGBTQ people have with the rule. NBC quoted the director of HHS Office for Civil Rights Roger Severino who explained why the administration has created it:
“Laws protecting religious freedom and conscience rights are just empty words on paper if they aren’t enforced.”
The Armenian National Assembly elected the chairs of its 11 standing committees including the selection of Naira Zohrabyan as the head of the Human Rights and Public Affairs Committee. Ahead of the vote, Zohrabyan promised the Assembly that she would pay attention to the rights of sexual minorities and that if they seek assistance their concerns will be discussed just as any other person’s would be.
The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, published a report of her visit to Armenia. In her report she recommends the country adopt a comprehensive anti-discrimination law with specific reference to sexual orientation and gender identity.
In Poland, Robert Biedron, the openly gay former mayor of Slupsk, has launched a new political party that wants to enforce strong separation of church and state, bring equal pay to women, recognize gay partnerships, reduce air pollution, and other progressive ideals. Announcing the party, "Wiosna" (Spring), to a crowd of thousands he said:
“Our most important value is community. We no longer want Poles to be at war with each other. We want mutual respect and dialogue.”
Brazil’s only openly gay congressman Jean Wyllys told newspaper Folha de S. Paulo that he has gone to an undisclosed location outside of the country after escalating death threats and a climate of heated rhetoric and violence against the LGBT community. Councilman David Miranda, who is also openly gay, will take over Wyllys’s seat.
The Politics of Union: In the Czech Republic, Parliament has begun to consider an amendment to the Civil Code to allow same-sex couples to marry. Currently couples can only apply for civil partnerships which do not offer the same rights and protections as marriage. An opposing bill which would define marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman is also being discussed. Activist Radek Konečný noted:
“The Czech Republic has a unique opportunity to become the first post-communist country to legalise gay marriage and place itself among the modern part of the world.”
In Chile, a gay couple have filed a case with the Court of Appeal against the Civil Registry for denying them the right to marry. Lawyer Mónica Arias pointed to the recent Supreme Court ruling that every inhabitant of the country has a right to marry and, as such, they will argue that marriage should be allowed to all people regardless of their sexual orientation.
Let the Courts Decide: An Egyptian court found TV presenter Mohamed al-Ghaity guilty of contempt of religion and incitement to debauchery for his interview with a gay man last year. Although al-Gheiti has spoken against homosexuality, he was sentenced to one year in prison for “encouraging the practice” of being gay. The verdict can be suspended if he pays bail of 1,000 Egyptian pounds.
In the US, the New York Times reported that in a 5-4 decision the Supreme Court has overturned two of three injunctions that prevented the transgender military ban from going into effect while courts consider whether the ban is legal. Several lawsuits against the ban are working their way through district courts and previous judges have been split on whether the ban should be allowed. The injunction has not yet been ruled on in the third district court.
A Macedonian trans man took his country to the European Court of Human Rightsbecause, despite trying for many years, he has been unable to legally change his gender marker without undergoing genital surgery—aka sterilization. The court found in his favor. It stated that because Macedonia does not have a process for full legal recognition of a person’s gender that is "quick, transparent, and accessible", it violated Article 8 of the European Convention for Human Rights which guarantees the right to respect his private and family life.
Japan’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled against a trans man who argued that the country’s gender recognition law is unconstitutional because it requires sterilization to officially change gender and violates his right to self-determination. Although they upheld the law, two justices noted that “doubts are undeniably emerging” and recommended regular reviews of the law.
Hong Kong's High Court upheld the government's policy of requiring full sex reassignment surgery before a person can legally change gender. The case was brought forward by three trans men who have been living as men, have had their breasts removed, and take hormonal treatment, but they are unable to update their gender identity cards due to the current law.
In Singapore, activist Bryan Choong has filed a case with the Supreme Court arguing that the law criminalizing sex between men is “inconsistent” with the constitution and “is therefore void”. Last September musician Johnson Ong Ming also filed suit against Section 377A of the Penal Code arguing that it is “absurd and arbitrary”. Both cases are pending.
Regarding Religion: In India, the Juna Akhara—one of the 13 official Akharas (or organizations of Hindu holy persons and spiritual disciplines)—has decided to share spiritual teachings with and officially induct the "Kinnar Akhara"—a sect of transgender, hijra, and third gender people. By joining the Juna Akhara the Kinnar will be able to participate in all future mass Hindu pilgrimages (called the Kumbh Mela). For the first time, the Kinnar were allowed to participate in the “holy dip” at Sangam (the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna rivers). Reuters profiled the Kinnar Akhara leader, rights activist, and celebrity Laxmi Narayan Tripathi. Speaking with local reporters, Laxmi said:
“This establishment of the Kinnar Akhara proved to be a stepping stone to regain the past glory of Hijras in India.”
In the UK, 100 Anglican priests published an open letter condemning the bishops of the Oxford diocese for encouraging clergy to support and accept LGBT parishioners. Last October the bishops of Oxford, Dorchester, Reading, and Buckingham released a letter entitled “Clothe Yourself with Love” (from Colossians 3.14) that presented five principles which lead to affirming LGBTI+ Christians place in faith and the church. However, some clergy reject the ideas they presented and feel it does not represent their reading of the New Testament especially in regards to gender identity, same-sex couples, and non-celibate gay people. As they state:
“Advocacy of same-sex sexual intimacy is either an expression of the love of God or it creates an obstacle to people entering the kingdom of God. It cannot be both.”
In 2017 the Anglican Church began a working group to evaluate the Church’s position on sexuality, chaired by the Bishop of Newcastle. The working group’s goal is to develop a guidance titled “Living in Love and Faith” which will be submitted to the General Synod in 2020.
During the Pope’s visit to Panama, protesters staged a kiss-in outside the church Del Carmen with signs saying “We exist” and “Homophobia is a sin”. One supporter told the AFP:
"Our call to [Pope Francis] is that something very different is happening here to what he preaches.”
The Pope joined the First Lady of Panama, Lorena Castillo de Varela, and UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé in a visit with Casa Hogar El Buen Samaritano (the Good Samaritan Foundation and Home) for people living with HIV. The Pope spoke against discrimination and Sidibé applauded the foundation’s work, saying:
“Faith organizations like Buen Samaritano have an amazing ability to touch the lives of the people who are most difficult to reach and to remove the barriers of stigma and discrimination. Faith communities speaking out about HIV can move us closer to ending the AIDS epidemic.”
Fear and Loathing: The Russian LGBT Network released a statement on their ongoing efforts to evacuate LGBT people who have been targeted in a new wave of police violence. The group has formally requested that Russia’s Federal Investigative Committee review the renewed arrests and killings. Meanwhile, a video was spread online that shows Chechen public figure Ali Baskhanov threatening to harm the Network's executive director Igor Kochetkov if he “does not stop and does not leave the Chechen Republic in peace”. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a partnership of FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture, condemned the death threats, called for an investigation, and appealed for support.
In Indonesia, the Mayor of Padang (the capital of West Sumatra) told local media that he was using the Indonesian Army to round up and arrest LGBT people. News site Tirto also quoted the mayor saying they use exorcisms to get rid of spirits that make people gay.
Also in Indonesia, members of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), local residents, and police raided the offices of the Indonesian Social Change Organization (OPSI)where the group provides HIV awareness and prevention. Newsgroup Republikareported that residents were concerned with “unusual activity” and suspected the office of “LGBT activities”. Following an investigation by the National and Political Unity Agency (Kesbangpol), OPSI was cleared of wrongdoing and officials acknowledged they have the backing of the Ministry of Law and Human Rights.
In both Spain and Italy, LGBTQ support centers were attacked. The headquarters of the Gay Center in Rome suffered around €10,000 in damages. The Centre LGBTI Barcelona was vandalized only a week after opening. Thousands rallied at the site to show their support and protest fascism.
Writing for Reuters, Nita Bhalla reported that 40 of the 200 LGBT refugees moved by the UN to a crowded safe house had to be taken to the hospital after falling ill.
In the US, Jussie Smollet, an openly gay black celebrity best known for playing a gay man on the hit show Empire, was attacked by two masked men shouting racial and homophobic slurs. Smollet is an HIV, LGBT, racism, and education activist who most recently came forward to help raise funds for the historically black women’s college, Bennett College. Some fans are donating to the cause in Smollet’s name.
The Anti-Violence Project explained that many LGBTQ people live at “multiple intersections of oppression”, noting that in 2017 70% of LGBTQ homicide victims in the US were people of color. While many celebrities, politicians, and fans have lent support, Smollet’s family released a statement urging people to recognize violence against non-celebrities:
“We want people to understand these targeted hate crimes are happening to our sisters, brothers and our gender non-conforming siblings, many who reside within the intersection of multiple identities, on a monthly, weekly, and sometimes even daily basis all across our country. Oftentimes ending fatally, these are inhumane acts of domestic terrorism and they should be treated as such.”
Winds of Change: China’s Beijing LGBT Center celebrated its 10 year anniversary. The non-profit organization hosts cultural events, provides HIV testing, mental health counseling, legal support, and sex education.
Jamaica’s Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexual and Gays (J-FLAG) estimated the fire at their headquarters in December caused between US$50,000-$60,000 in damages. J-FLAG, which had just celebrated its 20th anniversary, has launched a campaign to raise money for the rebuild.
From the UK county of Lancashire, the fire service issued a call for women, LGBT persons, and those from minority ethnic backgrounds to apply to become firefighters. A spokesman noted: "Fires don't discriminate and neither do we.”
Canadian activist, author, and sociologist, Professor Gary Kinsman described the historical connection between Indigenous people and the LGBT community. Kinsman drew parallels between the policing and oppression of both groups. He warned against a growing lack of concern for marginalized people:
“It’s really important for white and settler LGBT people to come out and support Indigenous people against this type of racism.”
From the US, Laurel Morales explored why LGBTQ young people in the Navajo Nation are finding more acceptance from their grandparents and other elders than from their own parents. Navajo LGBT rights activist Alray Nelson explained how colonialism shifted community values away from acceptance, noting that in the past:
“If you were LGBTQ and growing up in Navajo traditional families, families celebrated that fact. They said that we were sacred."
Writing for the Guardian, Steven Grattan examined how organizations go about assessing and measuring cities’ attitudes towards the LGBT community. Some look at nondiscrimination legislation, marriage rights, and gender recognition; others include law enforcement and access to public services; while some focus on LGBT population, nightlife, and safety. Still, he reflects, “the lived experience of members of the LGBT community can tell a dramatically different story”.
Jamaica hosted the 37th annual Caribbean Travel Marketplace, the region's largest marketing event. During a press conference Jamaica's Director of Tourism, Donovan White, was pressed by journalists to explain how the government was curbing "the perception and reputation" that the country is homophobic. Although Jamaica continues to outlaw same-sex sexual activity, White insisted every visitor is welcome.
The group Equality Australia released data from a new poll that found 72% of Australian voters believe that LGBTQ students and teachers at faith-based schools should be legally protected from expulsion or firing.
The US CDC released a new report on transgender teens and their experiences based on data from the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Study conducted in 19 locations across the country. Evaluating responses from 131,901 students, the report found that an average of 1 in 50 identify as transgender. Trans students were much more likely to report experiences of violence and bullying than their cisgender peers. Additionally, they were more likely to have considered or attempted suicide. Caitlin Clark, of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) noted that surveillance data such as this is essential to make policy changes.
School Days: The University of Washington’s TransYouth Project is a large-scale 20+ year study of gender and gender expression in US and Canadian children aged 3-12 years old. Project leader, Dr Kristina Olson, released robust analysis of the first two years of data from a subgroup of gender nonconforming kids. Olson and her team found that kids who go on to transition their gender have a strong sense of their identity before they transition. Olson explains the importance of this finding—it contradicts the concern some people have that treating a child as a particular gender will make a child become trans. Russell Toomey of University of Arizona noted:
“This study provides further credence to guidance that practitioners and other professionals should affirm—rather than question—a child’s assertion of their gender, particularly for those who more strongly identify with their gender.”
In the US state of Montana, some public high school students discovered that pro-LGBTQ websites, including Human Rights Watch and GLAAD, have been censored from their school’s internet. The school’s Director of Technology told staff that the “stricter web/internet filtering” would “improve network security and help protect students and staff”. First reported by CounterPunch, the filtering impacts a range of issues.
Sports and Culture: Journalist Trish Bendix offered an in-depth investigation into the past and present of “LGBT media” following the closure of many high-profile English language LGBT-specific news groups. She asks tough questions about the continued need for these publications and their ability to survive.
Zambia's Broadcasting Authority has suspended a locally produced reality TV show called "Lusaka Hustle". The show had been accused by the Religious Affairs Minister of featuring a character with "gay tendencies". Officials said that they received "several comments from the public" that the show promoted a lifestyle contrary to Zambia's values.
YouTube star Hbomberguy raised money for the UK trans youth organization Mermaids by playing the video game "Donkey Kong 64" for 57 hours which he live-streamed on Twitch—a platform where watchers can interact with the video creators. Bolstered by support from a slew of celebrities including video game creator John Romero, author Neil Gaiman, Cher, activist Chelsea Manning, and US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, he raised over US$340,000. He was moved to raise money after reading attacks on Mermaids in UK media saying:
“As a person living in Britain, I find the media discussion surrounding this issue in my country, especially in the tabloids, to be woefully misinformed.”
In China, visual artist Wu Qiong was inspired by his friend Lin He, a gay policeman, to protest conversion therapy. Wu has created “rolling billboards” on the sides of three trucks with the message:
“Treating a ‘disease’ that doesn’t exist... Chinese classification of mental disorders still includes ‘sexual orientation disorder’... For 19 years, why?”
The trucks will visit hospitals and clinics that LGBT organizations say the practice is known to occur. Check out a video of the work.
Taiwanese activist Jay Lin was selected by Newsweek as one of 15 innovators who have “developed creative solutions to the problems that face our world”. Jay Lin is director of the Taiwan International Queer Film Festival and his Netflix-like LGBT streaming platform, GagaOOLala, recently announced it will launch content for Hong Kong, Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
On the Holocaust Remembrance Day (27 January), many paid tribute to all those lost including the LGBT people persecuted by the Nazis. Check out this graphic story by Dorian Alexander and Levi Hastings celebrating the real life of Gad Beck, a gay Jewish man who heroically worked to save people in Berlin.
Banner image by Sam Roach