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State Department meets with LGBT travel representatives

Agency last week added gay-specific information to web site

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Janice Jacobs, State Department, gay news, Washington Blade

Janice Jacobs, State Department, gay news, Washington Blade

Janice Jacobs, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, speaks at the Smart Traveler Day roundtable at the State Department on Feb. 20. (Photo courtesy of Esperanza Tilghman/State Department)

The State Department on Wednesday hosted a roundtable to discuss its efforts to provide LGBT-specific information to Americans who plan to travel overseas.

“We want all of our citizens to be informed about their destinations abroad and any particular challenges that they may face,” Janice Jacobs, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Consular Affairs, said. “We want them to know about the services that are available to them at our embassies and consulates if problems should happen, despite their precautions.”

Jacobs’ comments come five days after the Bureau of Consular Affairs added LGBT-specific information to its website that includes travel warnings, alerts and other country-specific advisories. These include references to “widespread” anti-gay discrimination in Ukraine, efforts to curb “the promotion of homosexuality” in Russian cities and an advisory that urges LGBT travelers to “consider exercising caution when visiting Estonia” because of harassment and violence those who have publicly shown affection have experienced.

The country-specific profiles also include information about HIV/AIDS travel restrictions.

“It’s important that our LGBT audiences know about the resources that we provide to help U.S. citizens travel safe and travel smart,” Jacobs said.

Michelle Bernier-Toth, managing director of Overseas Citizens Services at the Bureau of Consular Affairs, further stressed the protection of Americans “is really the department’s top priority.” She and other officials sought recommendations and other feedback on the Smart Traveler Day initiative from the roughly 50 people who attended the meeting.

“It’s a start,” Bernier-Toth said. “It’s a recognition that this is a community that is on the move, is traveling. It’s an important community, an important stakeholder for us. And we are going to make it as robust and as useful as we can possibly make it.”

White House LGBT liaison Gautam Raghavan also spoke at the gathering.

He pointed out the initiative typifies the Obama administration’s commitment to equality for LGBT people. Raghavan specifically pointed out the extension of benefits to same-sex partners of foreign service officers, new regulations that make it easier to change gender markers on passports and the Global Equality Fund.

“It really shows that this is how this administration does business,” he said. “We are all about advancing equality in every place that we can find.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed in 2011 a during a speech she delivered in Geneva that “gay rights are human rights.” President Obama on the same day directed government agencies to consider a country’s LGBT rights record in the allocation of foreign aid.

The State Department in recent years has spoken out against anti-LGBT violence in Honduras, Jamaica, Uganda, Zimbabwe and other countries.

Clinton and Obama urged the Ugandan government to protect the rights of its LGBT residents following the Jan. 2011 murder of gay activist David Kato amid the debate over the so-called Anti-Homosexuality Bill that would impose the death penalty against anyone found guilty of repeated same-sex sexual acts. The former first lady last August honored Ugandan LGBT rights advocate Frank Mugisha and other human rights advocates at the U.S. embassy in Kampala, the country’s capital.

“Don’t ever lose context of what has been accomplished by this White House, by this secretary of State that will continue for four more years,” Charlie Rounds of the Forward Motion Group, who also chairs the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association Foundation, said. “It’s huge.”

Uganda is among the countries that continue to criminalize homosexuality. Saudi Arabia and Iran are among the seven nations that impose the death penalty upon those found guilty of same-sex sexual acts.

UNAIDS notes Australia, Israel and Singapore are among the 45 countries with travel restrictions against people with HIV/AIDS. Obama in 2009 completed the process former President George W. Bush began that lifted the ban on those with the virus from entering the country.

Bernier-Toth told the Washington Blade during the meeting the State Department rarely urges an LGBT traveler not to travel to a specific country that criminalizes homosexuality.

“The decision whether to travel is always up to the individual,” she said. “Our purpose in life is to put out that information as accurately and in a timely fashion so that people can make those smart decisions.”

IGLTA President John Tanzella added his organization tries to work with a particular destination through affiliated hotels and other travel-related businesses as opposed to boycotting them.

“There’s also gay and lesbian citizens everywhere that we eventually hurt,” he said.

Lisa Peterson of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and Ken Kero-Mentz, president of Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, also attended the roundtable.

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Africa

Pan Africa ILGA urges authorities to investigate anti-LGBTQ, anti-intersex murders

Sheila Lumumba’s death in Kenya in April among cases cited

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Pan Africa ILGA once again urged authorities across the continent to investigate the murders of LGBTQ and intersex people and to work to reduce violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The organization — which comprises 268 groups that work for LGBTQ and intersex rights across Africa — in a report it issued in July noted a number of high profile murders that have taken place this year. They include Sheila Lumumba, a 25-year-old Kenyan woman who was murdered in April, Pinky Shongwe, a 32-year-old South African who was stabbed to death in March, and Obisike Donald Ibe, a 31-year-old doctor in Nigeria who was slain in January.

Lumumba, a lesbian who was reportedly targeted because of her sexual orientation, was raped before her murder. A South African court in April sentenced two men to life in prison for raping a 19-year-old lesbian woman in 2020

“LGBTIQ+ persons deserve to thrive without fear of being persecuted,” said Pan Africa ILGA Executive Director Nate Brown. “The recent murder of Sheila in Kenya reflects the realities of the LGBTIQ+ community in Africa. It bears mentioning that unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents. They are part of a pattern of attacks, violence and murders against LGBTIQ+ persons across the continent.” 

Pan Africa ILGA board co-chairs Star Rugori and Barbra Wangere at the same time said the organization is in the process of developing a crisis reporting center that will document human rights violations against LGBTQ and intersex people in Africa and advocate for increased protections and respect for them.

“The inhumane violations and slaughter of LGBTIQ+ persons should prompt thorough investigations, aimed at prosecuting those responsible,” said Rugori and Wangere in a joint statement. “Government needs to protect activists and the greater LGBTIQ+ community and to call a halt to the impunity that links this chain of vicious murders. LGBTIQ+ lives matter and should be protected at all costs just like the rest of our African citizens.”

Bishop Sithembele Sipuka of the Catholic Diocese of Mthatha in South Africa during an interview with the Catholic Information Service for Africa said people who identify as LGBTQ or intersex should be treated with dignity.

“The most we can do, for now, is to grapple with it, to try and understand, and to see how to continue treating these people with the dignity that they have because, despite their sexual orientation, they are still children of God, they have the same dignity,” said Sipuka. “I have known people, credible people, authentic people who are gay or lesbian, very intelligent, very integral people, very committed people, very loving people, and so it is difficult to say that there’s something wrong with this one, you know because some of them really are in terms of integrity full of admiration, the way they are as a person that is difficult for me to condemn them, and say that there is something wrong with them.”

Sipuka also touched the issue of marriage equality, which is usually a catalyst for homophobic statements.

“The process and teaching of the church so far is still that marriage is between a man and a woman, but on the other hand, it does not mean at all that we should despise or think of people who are gay and lesbian as any less than heterosexual people,” said Sipuka. 

I cannot say you can go ahead and get married because I don’t have the mandate to do that. I do things on the mandate of the church. I am open to hearing more on how pastorally to deal with this matter. I am also open for it to be discussed theologically. In the end, the teachings about the church are always about love even exactly everything that they touch is about love,” added Sipuka.

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South America

Colombia’s first leftist president takes office

Gustavo Petro has pledged to support LGBTQ, intersex rights

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Gustavo Petro took office as Colombia's first leftist president on Aug. 7, 2022. (Photo courtesy of the Colombian government)

Former Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro on Sunday took office as Colombia’s first leftist president.

The former Colombian senator who was once a member of the M-19 guerrilla movement that disbanded in the 1990s, in June defeated former Bucaramanga Mayor Rodolfo Hernández in the second round of the country’s presidential election. Petro’s running mate, Francia Márquez, on Sunday took office as Colombia’s first female vice president of African descent.

Colombian Vice President Francia Márquez. (Photo courtesy of Márquez’s Twitter page)

Petro before his inauguration named Néstor Osuna, an openly gay man, as the country’s new justice minister.

“I am honored and thankful to President Gustavo Petro for the appointment as Colombia’s justice minister,” tweeted Osuna on Sunday. “I commit myself to working with your team to achieve the change for which so many of our compatriots yearn.”

Petro in his inaugural speech did not specifically reference LGBTQ and intersex Colombians, but OrgulloLGBT.co, the Washington Blade’s media partner in the country, published pictures that show LGBTQ and intersex people were among those who attended the inauguration.

Petro during the campaign pledged to fight violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and to implement policies “for the reaffirmation of gender and sexual orientation identities without barriers for all nonbinary and transgender people in Colombia.” Márquez noted LGBTQ and intersex Colombians after she and Petro won the election.

Wilson Castañeda, director of Caribe Afirmativo, an LGBTQ and intersex rights group in northern Colombia, told the Blade after Petro and Márquez won the election that the campaign held “various meetings” with advocacy groups. Castañeda also noted that Petro, among other things, named Tatiana Piñeros, a transgender woman, to run Bogotá’s social welfare and tourism office when he was mayor.

Castañeda and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power are among those who attended Sunday’s inauguration that took place in Bogotá’s Bolívar Square.

“Full squares; happy faces; the flags of Colombia, Bogotá; rural, indigenous and LGBTI communities received the president and the vice president in an emotive and historic act that inaugurated the first popular and leftist Colombian government,” tweeted Bogotá Mayor Claudia López on Sunday.

López is married to Angélica Lózano, a bisexual woman who in 2018 became the first LGBTQ and intersex person elected to the Colombian Senate.

Lozano in March won re-election in the country’s national elections. Colombians also elected five openly LGBTQ and intersex people to the country’s House of Representatives.

Tamara Argote in March became the first non-binary person elected to the Colombian Congress.

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Africa

Landmark intersex rights law takes effect in Kenya

Activists praise Children Act 2022

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(Photo courtesy of Rarrarorro via Bigstock)

A new law that took effect late last month in Kenya has granted equal rights and recognition to intersex people 

Intersex people are now recognized as Kenya’s third gender with an ‘I’ gender marker in response to the Children Act 2022. Kenya is the first African country that has granted the intersex community this universal right.

The new law requires intersex children to be treated with dignity and have equal access to basic services like medical treatment and education, in addition to social protection services as a special need. It also requires the accomodation of intersex children in child protection centers and other facilities.

Courts are also required to consider the needs of intersex children who are on trial — including the calling of an expert witness — before they issue any ruling. The law further stipulates that anyone can be a foster parent without restrictions of gender, age or marital status.

It also protects intersex children from so-called sex normalization surgeries, and such procedures will only be done with a doctor’s recommendation. Those who violate the law will face at least three years in jail and a fine of at least $5,000.

“This is a great and major milestone globally for Kenya. We are now way ahead and can teach our neighbors and the whole globe good practices,” said Jedidah Wakonyo, a human rights lawyer and former chair of the Intersex Persons Society of Kenya

The long journey for recognition started dramatically in 2006 when some human rights organizations petitioned courts about a detainee who had been accused of a violent robbery.

Authorities perceived the suspect was a man after police strip-searched him before he entered prison.

This followed numerous court battles by intersex people who demanded the right to recognition as another gender in their birth certificates.

Being denied birth certificates from the discriminatiory law that only recognized male and female genders further limited their access to national identity cards, passports and other crucial documents and government services.      

The Births and Deaths Registration Act under the new law’s Section 7 (3) “shall take measures to ensure correct documentation and registration of intersex children at birth.” 

Intersex people commonly have a combination of male and female gonads (ovaries or testicles) or ambiguous genitalia. 

Wakonyo, who also chaired the Intersex Persons Implementation Coordination Committee and was named the International Court of Justice’s 2020 jurist of the year, describes the law’s enactment as a historic moment because of its comprehensive definition of an intersex person.

It defines an intersex child as “a child with a congenital condition in which the biological sex characteristics cannot be exclusively categorized in the common binary of female or male due to inherent and mixed anatomical, hormonal, gonadal or chromosomal patterns which could be apparent before, at birth, in childhood, puberty or adulthood.”

Kenyan law considers anyone under 17 to be a child.

“Defining an intersex from a child’s perspective while taking care of many aspects and not just the physical notion of being intersex is the best practice because in future they don’t find themselves in the state of gender confusion between males and females like the current situation,” stated Wakonyo. 

This provision essentially protects intersex persons from being deprived of their constitutional rights of gender recognition under the country’s Bill of Rights.

Veronica Mwangi, the deputy director at Kenya’s National Commission on Human Rights, that helped secure the law’s implementation, said it addresses issues for which the intersex community has been fighting for years.    

“It is very progressive and we are glad about the gains because it provides for the existence of the intersex which all state actors have to accept. Full implementation is what we now need to focus on,” she said.

The law took effect roughly five years after Kenya became the first African nation and the second country in the world after Australia to count intersex people in a Census. The 2019 survey showed 1,524 Kenyans were intersex.

Intersex rights groups had initially petitioned the courts for a total ban of surgeries on intersex children unless they were a medical emergency.

Wakonyo backs the provision for a doctor’s approval on grounds that the surgeries will only be done “in the best interest of the intersex child, informed consent of the parents and the participation of the child depending on the age.” Wakonyo and other activists say the relaxation of the requirements for adopting intersex children not only seeks to end the problem of neglect and abandonment but also the stigma that has left some to die by suicide.

The law safeguards adoptive parents’ rights and parental responsibility and intersex children from child labor, online expuse and other forms of exploitation.

“Intersex children who are just like other children will no longer be killed at birth because of their gender ambiguity,” said Wakonyo.   

Despite the law’s huge benefits for the intersex community, Wakonyo notes it is a “very significant foundation” for the group because gender-specific accommodations in social gatherings and facilities remain needed.

Another historic win for intersex Kenyans this year was the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights’ decision to hire an intersex commissioner.

“Dr. Dennis Wamalwa applied as an intersex (person), interviewed as an intersex (person), and the shortlist comprised male, female, and ‘I’ gender for intersex. He emerged (at the) top and his intersex friends and associates came to witness his swearing,” stated Wakonyo, who also served as a Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights commissioner.

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