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State Department ‘trying to confirm’ arrest of Nigeria gays

Following signing of anti-LGBT law, AP reports ‘dozens’ arrested

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Department of State, gay news, Washington Blade
Department of State, gay news, Washington Blade

The State Department says it’s looking into the veracity of reports that gay activists are being arrested in Nigeria. (Photo public domain)

The State Department is looking into media reports that authorities in Nigeria are arresting dozens of LGBT activists in the aftermath of passage of an anti-gay law in the country.

Under questioning from the Washington Blade, State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf said reports of arrests in Nigeria are “very troubling” if true.

“We’re trying to confirm those reports,” Harf said. “I’ve seen them. We don’t know if they’re true or not. If they are true, that would obviously be very troubling. Again, our team is continuing to check on the ground to get new facts to see what’s actually going on.”

According to a report on Tuesday from the Associated Press, human rights activists in Nigeria  claim police are working off a list of 168 suspects — purportedly obtained through torture — to arrest dozens of gay men in the country. A police official reportedly denied any use of torture, and accounts of the number of arrests vary from as low as 11 to as high as 38.

Shawn Gaylord, advocacy counsel to Human Rights First, said the reports of arrests demonstrate the impact of the new anti-gay law in Nigeria, which was signed last week by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.

“This is truly the worst case scenario,” Gaylord said. “When discriminatory bills like this are passed, we are always concerned that they set the stage for violence and ill treatment in society even when they are not enforced. But the fact that this law is being enforced so quickly and forcefully demonstrates the full extent of Nigeria’s human rights crisis.”

Under the new anti-gay law in Nigeria, same-sex marriage and same-sex “amorous relationships” are banned as well as membership in LGBT groups. The statute contains a provision allowing punishment of up to 14 years in prison for attempting to enter into a same-sex marriage.

After being unable to answer some questions from the podium on Monday for the Blade regarding the anti-gay law, Harf on Tuesday offered some answers.

For starters, after saying that passage of the law is inconsistent with Nigeria’s international legal obligations, Harf was able to identify which obligation the law violates: the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights. Nigeria joined the 167-party agreement that aims to protect the civil and political rights of individuals in 1993.

“The Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act not only prohibits same-sex marriage in Nigeria; it also includes broadly worded provisions implicating the rights to the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association that are set forth in the ICCPR,” Harf said. “So, when we were talking about international law, that’s what we were referring to.”

Harf also clarified which U.S. officials spoke with officials in Nigeria prior to passage of the anti-gay law, saying they consisted of individuals at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, the U.S. consulate general in Lagos and Washington officials. These officials, Harf said, helped Nigerians who support LGBT rights chart a course to “support the LGBT community there and to help Nigerians who are opposed to discrimination against the LGBT community.”

Still, Harf said she didn’t have an answer to a previous inquiry about whether U.S. officials had any knowledge that Jonathan would sign the legislation before he took that action.

Will Stevens, a State Department spokesperson, later said the U.S. government has been monitoring the legislation for some time.

“We have been closely monitoring the progress of this law as it moved through the legislative process and have engaged regularly with the [government of Nigeria] and civil society on our concerns about the proposed legislation,” Stevens said.

Additionally, Harf said she didn’t have any announcements about conversations the U.S. would have in the future about the Nigerian government on the anti-gay law, but said the administration would continue to voice concerns given the opportunity.

“One thing I learned to do is not make predictions from the podium about anything,” Harf said. “Like I said, I don’t have anything to announce about any conversations. We regularly raise it. I’ve been very clear from here about our position. If we have any updates, then I’m happy to let you know.”

Also on Tuesday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay spoke out against the anti-gay law, marking the first statement against the statute by the intergovernmental organization.

“International human rights law and jurisprudence clearly indicate that states have a legal duty to protect all individuals from violations of their human rights, including on the basis of their sexual orientation,” Pillay said. “Disapproval of homosexuality by the majority on moral or religious grounds does not justify criminalizing or discriminating against LGBT persons.”

Pillay urged the high court in Nigeria to examine the constitutionality of the new law at the next opportunity.

For its part, Harf acknowledged the State Department is concerned that passage of the anti-gay law in Nigeria represents a growing trend of anti-gay activity in Africa.

“We are deeply concerned by some of the recent developments we have seen in Africa with respect to human rights of LGBT individuals, including passage of the ‘Anti-Homosexuality Bill’ by Uganda’s parliament and also increasing arrest of LGBT individuals in countries, such as Cameroon and Zambia,” Harf said. “Human rights are a cornerstone of our foreign policy; we say this all the time, and we will continue to support the efforts of our human defenders in Africa and across the globe who are working to end discrimination against LGBT persons.”

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Politics

U.S. Senate vote clears path for passage of the Respect for Marriage Act

Anti-LGBTQ groups have launched conservative effort to block bill

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U.S. Capitol
Capitol Building dome. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Passage of the Respect for Marriage Act became all but certain with the U.S. Senate’s procedural 61-35 vote on Monday night to forego additional debate in the chamber over the landmark legislation.

From here, the bill will return to the U.S. House of Representatives, which will consider — and is expected to approve — an amendment that was added by a bipartisan group of Senators led by Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.). Then, it will reach President Joe Biden’s desk.

The president has repeatedly urged lawmakers to pass the bill so he can sign it into law. His administration, along with Congressional Democratic leadership, has made the Respect for Marriage Act a top legislative priority in the weeks before the new Congress is seated in January.

Today’s move by the Senate came on the heels of a coordinated campaign by conservative and anti-LGBTQ advocacy groups that wield considerable influence on Capitol Hill and marshaled their efforts to peel off support from Republican senators in the days leading up to Monday’s vote.

Republican Sens. Todd Young (Ind.) and Cynthia Lummis (Wyo.), who were among the 12 Senate Republicans who supported advancing the legislation in a procedural vote taken before Thanksgiving, cast the final two votes on Monday allowing the measure to clear the 60-vote majority threshold to pass. Axios reports the two lawmakers faced particular pressure from conservative activists who sought to erode their support for the legislation.

The Respect for Marriage Act will repeal the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act, adding legal protections for same-sex couples, many of whom would otherwise face devastating consequences if the U.S. Supreme Court reverses or substantially weakens the constitutional right to marriage equality.

Notwithstanding criticism from some progressives who feel the bill is too conservative in scope, the Respect for Marriage Act — along with the bipartisan amendment that was introduced in the Senate to enshrine protections for religious liberty — is supported by major LGBTQ organizations including the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Transgender Equality, GLSEN and PFLAG National, among others.

The bill’s aim, narrowly tailored, was to gird against the possibility that the high court would revisit its precedential decisions in United States v. Windsor (2013) and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015).

Justice Clarence Thomas signaled his intention to do so with his concurring opinion earlier this year in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — a case that revoked Americans’ constitutional right to abortion, overturning the Court’s historic rulings in Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992).

Over the summer, the House passed the Respect for Marriage Act with an overwhelming majority, including votes from 47 Republican members. Dozens of religious denominations and groups that represent a broad spectrum of beliefs have endorsed the legislation, including the Mormon church, which took pains to reaffirm its position that same-sex relationships are sinful. Scholars representing a similarly diverse range of opinions on germane legal questions have also publicly backed the bill.

Still, the opposition remained steadfast.

“Religious Americans will be subject to potentially ruinous litigation, while the tax-exempt status of certain charitable organizations, educational institutions, and non-profits will be threatened,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) in a statement opposing the legislation as written and proposing an additional amendment to the bill.

Organizations like the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, echoed Lee’s concerns about the Respect for Marriage Act vis-à-vis protections for religious liberty. Others, like the Liberty Counsel, designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-LGBTQ hate group, peddled outrageous arguments including the lie that the Respect for Marriage Act would normalize or facilitate child sexual exploitation and abuse.

Even in the aftermath of the deadly shooting on Nov. 19 at a Colorado Springs, Colo., LGBTQ nightclub, these attacks from conservative groups continued apace and even increased as the Senate’s vote on Monday drew nearer.

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State Department

U.S. diplomat says negotiations to release Brittney Griner have stalled

WNBA star remains in Russian penal colony

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

In remarks published Monday, Elizabeth Rood, the U.S. chargée d’affaires in Moscow, told Russia’s state-owned RIA news agency that talks to free jailed Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan were continuing through the “designated channel.”

During the long ranging interview covering a variety of subjects, Rood was asked if she intended to visit the imprisoned WNBA star who is serving time in a Mordovian prison.

“Of course, we are going to do this as soon as the Russian authorities give us permission to visit Brittney Griner in the new colony where she was recently transferred,” the American diplomat responded and in answer to a follow-up question regarding Griner’s status. “As far as we understood from talking to her, she is healthy and doing as well as can be expected in her difficult circumstances.”

RIA then focused on the negotiations asking for some of the details including the possibility of convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout being included in the “exchange list” in the potential prisoner swap deal between the Russian and American authorities.

“I can say that the United States continues to discuss with the Russian authorities through special channels the issue of the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.  As we have already said, the United States has submitted a serious proposal for consideration. We finalized this proposal and offered alternatives. Unfortunately, the Russian Federation has so far received no serious response to these proposals, ” the U.S. chargée d’affaires answered.

“However, I would like to emphasize that the main concern and the first priority of the U.S. Embassy is to ensure the well-being of the American citizens who are here. And the situation is not limited to the names of those who are mentioned in the media headlines — a number of American citizens are kept in Russian prisons. We are extremely concerned about the condition of each of them, and we continue to follow their affairs very closely and support them in every possible way,” she added.

RIA then asked: “What did you mean by ‘serious response’ from Russia? Moscow has repeatedly stressed that the negotiations are being conducted through professional channels … What does the American side mean by “serious response”?

Rood answered telling RIA; “I mean, we have made a serious proposal that reflects our intention to take action to free American prisoners. We did not see a serious response from the Russian side to our proposal.”

“By ‘serious answer’ do you mean consent?” RIA asked in a follow-up question.

“I mean an answer that would help us come to an agreement,” she answered.

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Africa

Kenyan LGBTQ rights groups honor transgender refugees, asylum seekers

Event coincided with the Transgender Day of Remembrance

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The Refugee Trans Initiative and the Entrepreneur Empowerment and Advocacy Health used the Transgender Day of Remembrance to honor transgender refugees and asylum seekers in Kenya. (Photo courtesy of Entrepreneur Empowerment and Advocacy Health)

Two LGBTQ rights groups in Kenya this month used the Transgender Awareness Week and the Transgender Day of Remembrance to honor transgender refugees and asylum seekers in the country. 

The Refugee Trans Initiative and Entrepreneur Empowerment and Advocacy Health on Nov. 20 hosted an event in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. It did not take place in the Kakuma refugee camp; but former residents who now live in Nairobi, Kisumu and Mombasa attended. 

“The event was to celebrate Trans Awareness Week for trans refugees and asylum seekers and we invited other individuals who are part of the 2SLGBTQIA+ refugee community,” Entrepreneur Empowerment and Advocacy Health Director Vanilla Hussein. “We had time to reflect on the memory of our friends we have lost and most recently Francis, who was murdered in Uganda.”

Hussein said the conditions in Kakuma made it unsafe for the group to hold an event in the refugee camp.

Two gay men in March 2021 suffered second-degree burns during an attack on Block 13 in Kakuma, which the U.N. Refugee Agency created specifically for LGBTQ and intersex refugees. One of them died a few weeks later at a Nairobi hospital. 

A report the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration and Rainbow Railroad released in May 2021 indicates nearly all of the LGBTQ and intersex people who live in Kakuma have experienced discrimination and violence because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. UNHCR in a statement after the March 15, 2021, attack noted Kenya “remains the only country in the region to provide asylum to those fleeing persecution based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression,” even though consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized.

“Trans refugees continue to live in appalling conditions due to poor welfare, lack of access to jobs, affordable healthcare and opportunities in Kenya,” said Hussein. “Currently, some trans refugees and gender non-conforming refugees lack proper documentation.”

Hussein further noted NGOs “are not funded by the donors adequately because of bureaucratic hurdles and requirements to access funding such as bank statements, which have made it hard to get access to funds that can provide food, shelter, and relief emergency assistance.”

“To sum up, Kenya remains a threat to the 2SLGBTQIA+ community due to transphobia and homophobia,” said Hussein.

Alvin Mwangi, a reproductive rights activist, stressed trans people simply want basic human rights.

“Basic human rights are not special rights, the right to get and keep a job based on merit is not a special right, the right to be served food in a restaurant is not a special right, the right to have a roof over one’s head is not a special right, the right to walk down a street and not be attacked because of who you are and whom you love is not a special right,” said Mwangi. 

“The government of Kenya should ensure its laws and systems protect transgender persons just like any other citizen of Kenya against all forms of violence and discrimination,” added Mwangi. “The government of Kenya should commit to end all forms of violence and discrimination against transgender persons, by publicly condemning any major instances of homophobic and transphobic violence that occur in the counties and in the country in general.”

Mwangi also stressed trans people are “beautiful” and “deserve love.”

“We all have the right to live with dignity and respect,” said Mwangi. “As we just marked and celebrated the Transgender Day of Remembrance, which memorializes victims of transphobic violence, and as we continue to celebrate Transgender Awareness month until the end of November, we remember those in the transgender community who have lost their lives due to violence brought by hate and ignorance and we honor, celebrate, and advocate for the respect of the rights of transgender and gender diverse communities.”

“All transgender persons have a right to equality and freedom from discrimination of all forms. All transgender persons require equal protection against any form of violence,” added Mwangi. “The right to equality includes the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Daniel Itai is the Washington Blade’s Africa Correspondent.

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