April 14, 2015 at 9:00 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
LGBT rights raised during Summit of the Americas

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LGBT rights advocates attend the civil society forum that took place in Panama City, Panama, before the Summit of the Americas. (Photo courtesy of Marcelo Ernesto Ferreyra)

President Obama was among those who raised LGBT rights during the 2015 Summit of the Americas that took place in Panama this past weekend.

Obama on April 10 during his speech at a civil society forum cited “rights for gays and lesbians.” He also referred to his participation in last month’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march for voting rights for American Americans in Selma, Alabama.

“We know that our societies are more likely to succeed when all our people — regardless of color, of class, or creed, sexual orientation, or gender — are free to live and pray and love as they choose,” said Obama. “That’s what we believe.”

Obama on April 11 did not specifically mention LGBT issues during his speech at the summit itself that took place in the Panamanian capital of Panama City. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff largely echoed his previous remarks when she spoke to the gathering.

“We must seek cooperation that seeks a comprehensive and attentive approach towards addressing the various causes and consequences of violence, with special attention to the most vulnerable groups — women, young people, especially blacks, indigenous people and people discriminated against because of their sexual orientation and gender identity,” she said.

Secretary of State John Kerry during an April 9 business forum highlighted the Obama administration’s support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pan-Pacific trade agreement that labor unions and some LGBT advocates oppose.

“We can push for the world’s highest standards in the environmental chapters of the trade agreements that some of us are pursuing, and that includes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the TPP, which will build prosperity throughout our hemisphere, and it will do so based on shared principles and shared values,” said Kerry. “It’s not just a technical trade agreement. It’s a strategic opportunity for all of us, and we need to seize it.”

Summit ‘platform’ for Panamanian LGBT advocates

More than 100 LGBT rights advocates from across the Americas participated in the civil society forum that took place in Panama City from April 8-10. A separate gathering that focused on young people took place in the days leading up to the summit.

Andrés Ortíz, project manager of Grupo Génesis Panamá, a Panamanian LGBT advocacy group, told the Washington Blade on April 9 during a Skype interview from his office in Panama City that the civil society forum did not include an LGBT-specific panel or roundtable. He said the advocates who attended it took part in what he described as a “working group” that focused on health-related issues.

“It interests us that the LGBT experience factors into each of the issues highlighted during the summit,” Marcelo Ernesto Ferreyra of the Global Initiative for Sexuality and Human Rights, which is a program of the Chicago-based Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights, told the Blade last week during an interview from Buenos Aires. “To us this makes the work that we do much more visible.”

LGBT issues were not specifically discussed during the last two Summits of the Americas that took place in Cartagena, Colombia, in 2012 and Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, in 2009 respectively.

The final communiqué from the working group on education and culture specifically calls for an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and other factors. It also calls upon the governments of the 35 countries that took part in the summit to announce within three years how they plan to implement the recommendation.

Communiqués from working groups on migration and political participation also contained LGBT-specific references. Religious groups successfully blocked efforts to include specific references to sexual orientation and gender identity in the final communiqué from the health working group.

Natasha Jiménez, director of Mulabi, a Costa Rican LGBT advocacy group, told the Blade in an email on Monday that religious fundamentalists and groups opposed to abortion had a “strong presence” at the summit. She added they had a “firm goal of blocking topics related to sexual, reproductive and BGLTI rights.”

Ortíz told the Blade the summit provided a “platform” for his group and other Panamanian LGBT advocacy groups in spite of opposition.

Panama continues to lag behind in terms of LGBT rights compared to neighboring Colombia and Costa Rica.

Homosexuality is legal in the Central American country, but Ortíz noted to the Blade that it is “not common to see gay or lesbian couples holding hands or kissing each other in the streets” as he highlighted ongoing concerns over anti-LGBT discrimination.

Efforts to allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions have stalled in Panama’s National Assembly for more than a decade. The country’s lawmakers last year debated a proposed sexual education curriculum in public schools that would have been gay-inclusive.

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Mixair Nolasco of the Network of Transgender People of Panama attends the civil society forum that took place in Panama City, Panama, before the Summit of the Americas. (Photo courtesy of Marcelo Ernesto Ferreyra)

“[The summit] is an amplified platform where we have our voices heard as activists from different areas, not only in health but in human rights, education, in all the areas on which the summit is focusing,” Ortíz told the Blade. “It is very important as activists to have this platform.”

Normalization of relations between U.S. and Cuba dominate summit

Thirty-five countries are members of the Organization of American States, the D.C.-based organization that organizes the triennial summit. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Development Bank are within the OAS.

This year marks the first time that Cuba has taken part in the summit. And the normalization of relations between the Communist country and the U.S. dominated the agenda.

Obama on April 11 became the first U.S. president to meet with his Cuban counterpart in nearly six decades when he sat down with Raúl Castro. Two Cuban human rights advocates were among the members of Latin American civil society with whom Obama met the day before.

Supporters and opponents of the Castro government on April 8 clashed at the opening of the civil society forum. A fight that broke out between some of them took place in a park adjacent to the Cuban Embassy in Panama City that is a few blocks from Ortíz’s office.

“The inclusion of Cuba for the first time sends an important message of inclusion, respect and good intentions to the region and to the rest of the world, or at the very least that is how it is perceived on the outside” Jiménez told the Blade. “Among the Cuban people (who attended the summit) there were violent demonstrations that tarnished such a historic meeting.”

The Coalition of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transvestite, Transgender, Transsexual and Intersex Groups of Latin America and the Caribbean, a group of more than two dozen LGBT advocacy groups that attended the summit, in a Monday press release criticized Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela and the organizers of the civil society forum for not providing “necessary support” to local advocates. The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) in an April 10 statement also criticized organizers of the summit and the civil society forum for blocking efforts to “acknowledge” LGBT and intersex people and “non-traditional families” in the various forums.

“We will continue confronting our opponents with arguments, with life stories and with conviction,” said the LGBTTTI Coalition. “For us, the days of fighting are always days of joy.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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