Our movement for full equality for LGBT people continues to gain momentum. We’ve seen tremendous strides in terms of marriage equality (a total of 17 states now grant the freedom to marry) and most recently with the increased visibility of black LGBT public figures. But Uganda’s current crisis and the close call in Arizona remind us that we must remain vigilant—that despite the many trails being blazed, we are still very much in the heat of the battle and all is not won yet.
Basketball star Jason Collins recently made history as the first openly gay male player in a major sports league when he joined the Brooklyn Nets. Earlier this year, Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts spoke about her longtime girlfriend for the first time on national television. Trans legends-in-the-making Laverne Cox, breakout actress of the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black, hate crime survivor CeCe McDonald, and New York Times bestselling author Janet Mock are leading the national conversation around transgender equality.
On the policy front, a U.S. district judge ruled that Texas’ ban on marriage equality is unconstitutional. The Maryland State Senate recently passed the Fairness for All Marylanders Act, a bill that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity, which now heads to the House. And Washington, D.C. now requires insurance companies to provide health coverage to trans residents, including gender reassignment surgery.
Paints a pretty picture of progress, doesn’t it? Well, look a little closer.
Just last month alone, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed into law a bill that imposes harsh sentences on LGBT Ugandans; Arizona passed then vetoed a piece of legislation that would have made it legal for business owners to discriminate against LGBT customers; and the 2014 Olympics brought to light the persecution of our Russian brothers and sisters. This all happened in February, the shortest month of the year. Even worse, it happened on our watch.
Under Uganda’s anti-gay law, anyone found guilty of repeated same-sex sexual acts will be sentenced to life in prison. President Museveni has cited “science” and other unfounded claims to justify this atrocious injustice against our black LGBT family overseas. Not only is it imperative that the U.S. Department of State expedite the asylum process for all Ugandans affected by this oppressive and inhumane law, it is critical that the U.S. take responsibility for and address its ties to homophobia in African countries. The truth is that when the radical right started losing ground on American soil, they invested their anti-LGBT tactics elsewhere and capitalized on a painful legacy of colonialism and white supremacy.
Addressing what is happening in Uganda goes deeper than threatening to pull U.S. foreign aid. Furthermore, our national response to what is happening in the East African nation and in countries like Nigeria speaks to our complacency and lack of urgency around matters that are literally life and death for black and brown LGBT bodies.
After Arizona’s legislature passed the controversial SB 1062, some Ugandans pointed out our hypocrisy. Everyone from local advocates to President Obama condemned the Ugandan bill, but we could barely get our own affairs together stateside. The biggest irony was the hundreds of activists that rallied and urged Gov. Jan Brewer to veto the Arizona legislation. Where were the crowds for our Ugandan brothers and sisters who will be trying to seek asylum?
It’s time we truly treat a threat to injustice anywhere with the gravity it deserves. It’s time we recognize that progress takes full partnership. Despite of our recent advancements, we still need all hands on deck, especially when it’s the lives of black LGBT people at stake—because chances are the level of outrage and action will be utterly delayed, if present.
National campaigns launched around the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, speaking against the country’s ban on so-called “LGBT propaganda.” And rightfully so. There are laws that limit adoption by same-sex couples and Russian President Vladimir Putin has equated LGBT people to pedophiles. But where was the mass mobilization when a Ugandan tabloid printed a list of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Ugandans with their photographs—a “witch hunt” reminiscent of the 2010 paper that ran both photos and addresses with the heinous headline “Hang Them?” Where was the global outcry?
That is why here at the National Black Justice Coalition, we are revising our institutional policy to take a stand internationally. We have begun turning directly to advocates abroad and asking what is the international support that they need. Going forward, increasing acceptance and respect for black LGBT people in every corner of the globe will guide the organization’s agenda as we continue to build a safer and more inclusive nation and world.
Our movement has certainly come a long way but we have so much further to go. Uganda is our reality check. And it doesn’t get realer than that.
Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks serves as executive director and CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition, a national civil rights organization dedicated to empowering black LGBT people. For more information, visit nbjc.org.