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Transgender activist from Zimbabwe receives asylum in US

Ricky “Rikki” Nathanson now works at Casa Ruby



Ricky “Rikki” Nathanson is a transgender activist from Zimbabwe who received asylum in the U.S. in February. She spoke with the Washington Blade at her office at Casa Ruby in Northwest D.C. on May 3, 2019. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

A prominent transgender activist from Zimbabwe has received asylum in the U.S.

Ricky “Rikki” Nathanson, founder of Trans Research, Education, Advocacy and Training (TREAT), a trans advocacy group in Zimbabwe, applied for asylum on Dec. 27, 2018, after she traveled to D.C. from New York where she had attended OutRight Action International’s annual summit. The U.S. granted Nathanson asylum on Feb. 15.

“I actually am feeling really much at home,” Nathanson told the Washington Blade on May 3 during an interview at her office at Casa Ruby where she is the director of HIV/AIDS prevention and outreach. “I’ve been welcomed by a lot of people.”

Treatment after 2014 arrest was ‘terrible’

Police in the Zimbabwean city of Bulawayo in January 2014 arrested Nathanson after she used a women’s restroom in a hotel. Nathanson told the Blade she was stripped naked in front of five police officers and was kept in jail for three days.

“It was terrible,” she said.

Nathanson in August 2014 filed a lawsuit against Zimbabwe’s Home Affairs minister, the commissioner of the Zimbabwe Republic Police, the assistant commissioner of the Bulawayo Central Police Station and the leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party’s Youth League who instigated her arrest.

A hearing on Nathanson’s lawsuit took place in a Bulawayo court for three days in the summer of 2017. The judge who heard the case said he would issue a ruling within a month of the trial, but Nathanson told the Blade “up until today we’ve heard nothing.”

Nathanson told the Blade a car began to follow her in August 2018 and she realized her phone had also been tapped.

She said someone broke into her home last October while she was out with a group of friends. Nathanson told the Blade the police who responded several hours after she discovered the burglary told her to file a report, but “there was no follow-up.”

She said three men who she described as “thugs” broke into her home a week later at around 2 a.m. and attacked her.

“I woke up and I got out of bed,” Nathanson told the Blade, noting a noise in the hallway woke her up. “As I walked into the passage I saw these three men walking towards me. They were in the house. They said, ‘Turn around, don’t look at us. Turn around and hop into bed.'”

Nathanson said the men then beat her with a baton while she was under the sheets.

“It was all frightening,” she told the Blade. “All this time they were saying to me, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t know who you’re messing with. You’re messing with the wrong people. Stop what you’re doing. How can you try to force yourself to be a thing that you’re not, a person that you’re not when you are in fact actually a man.'”

Nathanson said her lawsuit likely instigated the attack.

She told the Blade the two ZANU-PF officials who arrested her in 2014 saw her on the street a few days later before she traveled to New York for an OutRight Action International meeting and shouted, “Why are you still walking around? Why haven’t you disappeared?” Nathanson said she walked to her car and drove away.

Nathanson entered the U.S. on Nov. 28, 2018, with a visa that would have allowed her to remain in the country through July.

She said TREAT’s finance officer called her a few days later and told her that a neighbor said “thugs” had once again broken into her home. Nathanson also said they went to TREAT’s offices and said they needed her “urgently” at the Bulawayo offices of Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organization.

Nathanson was scheduled to return to Zimbabwe on Dec. 13, but she told the Blade state security officials would arrest her once she arrived in the country.

“That is why I decided it wasn’t safe for me to go home,” said Nathanson.

New Zimbabwe president is ‘ruthless man’

The government of former President Robert Mugabe, who resigned in November 2017, frequently targeted LGBTI activists and other groups.

Nathanson noted to the Blade that ZANU-PF invited her and other leading LGBTI activists to a press conference in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, before last July’s presidential elections because “they wanted our vote.”

“We voiced our skepticism at how genuine we thought the government and ZANU-PF was by reaching out to us,” said Nathanson. “As we anticipated, nothing has really changed in Zimbabwe. If anything, it has gotten worse. I don’t think it will get any better.”

“They’re not saying anything outrightly adverse against the LGBT community of Zimbabwe, but they are not making any concession,” she added. “It’s like a simmering pot. There’s something brewing at the bottom. One day they will announce something and it will just happen.”

Nathanson also noted to the Blade that current President Emmerson Mnangagwa oversaw the killing of thousands of Ndebele civilians during the Gukarahundi massacres in the 1980s.

“Mnangagwa is a ruthless, ruthless man,” said Nathanson.

Nathanson finds refuge in US

Nathanson has been living in Rockville, Md. since Dec. 9, 2018.

Nathanson has continued her advocacy from here in the U.S., including speaking at an OutRight Action International fundraiser at the Line Hotel in Adams Morgan. on April 11. OutRight Action International on Tuesday will honor Nathanson at its annual gala in New York.

She acknowledged the growing concerns over the Trump administration’s policies towards LGBTI Americans and asylum seekers. Nathanson also noted to the Blade that Trump “won’t be in power forever.”

“Elections are in 2020,” said Nathanson. “There are checks and balances. He has a very strong opposition in Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats.”

Nathanson said she attended an International Rescue Commission meeting the day before she spoke with the Blade and met a young gay man from El Salvador who had been in a detention center for more than seven months before he was granted asylum. Nathanson said listening “to his story and what he went through at the detention center was horrific.”

“It’s horrific,” she told the Blade.

“My experience pales by experience,” added Nathanson.

Nathanson acknowledged violence based on gender identity remains a problem in D.C., but she said she has “no fear of my personal safety or integrity for being the person I am.”

“I feel so much more peace and so much more at ease because I now can live my life as it is meant to be lived without fear of being persecuted by the government or whatever,” said Nathanson.

“Even though Trump is uttering all that he is uttering, I am still much more comfortable in the United States,” she added.

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Bill to ban conversion therapy dies in Puerto Rico Senate committee

Advocacy group describes lawmakers as cowards



Puerto Rico Pulse nightclub victims, gay news, Washington Blade


A Puerto Rico Senate committee on Thursday killed a bill that would have banned so-called conversion therapy on the island.

Members of the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against Senate Bill 184 by an 8-7 vote margin. Three senators abstained.

Amárilis Pagán Jiménez, a spokesperson for Comité Amplio para la Búsqueda de la Equidad, a coalition of Puerto Rican human rights groups, in a statement sharply criticized the senators who opposed the measure.

“If they publicly recognize that conversion therapies are abuse, if they even voted for a similar bill in the past, if the hearings clearly established that the bill was well-written and was supported by more than 78 professional and civil entities and that it did not interfere with freedom of religion or with the right of fathers and mothers to raise their children, voting against it is therefore one of two things: You are either a hopeless coward or you have the same homophobic and abusive mentality of the hate groups that oppose the bill,” said Pagán in a statement.

Thursday’s vote comes against the backdrop of continued anti-LGBTQ discrimination and violence in Puerto Rico.

Six of the 44 transgender and gender non-conforming people who were reported murdered in the U.S. in 2020 were from Puerto Rico.

A state of emergency over gender-based violence that Gov. Pedro Pierluisi declared earlier this year is LGBTQ-inclusive. Then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in 2019 signed an executive order that banned conversion therapy for minors in Puerto Rico.

“These therapies lack scientific basis,” he said. “They cause pain and unnecessary suffering.”

Rosselló issued the order less than two weeks after members of the New Progressive Party, a pro-statehood party  he chaired at the time, blocked a vote in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives on a bill that would have banned conversion therapy for minors in the U.S. commonwealth. Seven out of the 11 New Progressive Party members who are on the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against SB 184.

“It’s appalling. It’s shameful that the senators didn’t have the strength and the courage that our LGBTQ youth have, and it’s to be brave and to defend our dignity and our humanity as people who live on this island,” said Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para [email protected], a Puerto Rican LGBTQ rights group, in a video. “It’s disgraceful that the senators decided to vote down this measure that would prevent child abuse.”

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Undocumented LGBTQ immigrants turn to Fla. group for support

Survivors Pathway is based in Miami



Survivors Pathway works with undocumented LGBTQ immigrants and other vulnerable groups in South Florida. (Photo courtesy of Francesco Duberli)


MIAMI – The CEO of an organization that provides support to undocumented LGBTQ immigrants says the Biden administration has given many of his clients a renewed sense of hope.

“People definitely feel much more relaxed,” Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli told the Washington Blade on March 5 during an interview at his Miami office. “There’s much hope. You can tell … the conversation’s shifted.”

Duberli — a gay man from Colombia who received asylum in the U.S. because of anti-gay persecution he suffered in his homeland — founded Survivors Pathway in 2011. The Miami-based organization currently has 23 employees.

Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli at his office in Miami on March 5, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

Duberli said upwards of 50 percent of Survivors Pathway’s clients are undocumented. Duberli told the Blade that many of them are survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking and victims of hate crimes based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Part of the work that we have done for years is for us to become the bridge between the communities and law enforcement or the justice system in the United States,” said Duberli. “We have focused on creating a language that helps us to create this communication between the undocumented immigrant community and law enforcement, the state attorney’s office and the court.”

“The fear is not only about immigration,” he added. “There are many other factors that immigrants bring with them that became barriers in terms of wanting to or trying to access the justice system in the United States.”

Duberli spoke with the Blade roughly a week after the Biden administration began to allow into the U.S. asylum seekers who had been forced to pursue their cases in Mexico under the previous White House’s “Remain in Mexico” policy.

The administration this week began to reunite migrant children who the Trump administration separated from their parents. Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the coronavirus pandemic, remains in place.

Duberli told the Blade that Survivors Pathway advised some of their clients not to apply for asylum or seek visa renewals until after the election. Duberli conceded “the truth of the matter is that the laws haven’t changed that much” since Biden became president.

Survivors Pathway has worked with LGBTQ people in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in South Florida. American Civil Liberties Union National Political Director Ronald Newman in an April 28 letter it sent to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called for the closure of the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami, the Glades County Detention Center near Lake Okeechobee and 37 other ICE detention centers across the country.

The road leading to the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami on June 7, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Survivors Pathway responded to trans woman’s murder in 2020

Survivors Pathway has created a project specifically for trans Latina women who Duberli told the Blade don’t know they can access the judicial system.

Duberli said Survivors Pathway works with local judges and police departments to ensure crime victims don’t feel “discriminated, or outed or mistreated or revictimized” because of their gender identity. Survivors Pathway also works with Marytrini, a drag queen from Cuba who is the artistic producer at Azúcar, a gay nightclub near Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.

Marytrini and Duberli are among those who responded to the case of Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera, a trans woman and well-known activist and performer from Cuba who was murdered inside her downtown Miami apartment last November. Carey’s boyfriend, who had previously been charged with domestic violence, has been charged with murder.

“That was an ongoing situation,” noted Duberli. “It’s not the only case. There are lots of cases like that.”

Duberli noted a gay man in Miami Beach was killed by his partner the same week.

“There are lots of crimes that happen to our community that never gets to the news,” he said. “We got those cases here because of what we do.”

Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera was murdered in her downtown Miami apartment in November 2020. (Photo courtesy of social media)

















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Patrick O’Connell, acclaimed AIDS activist, dies at 67

Played key role in creating red ribbon for awareness



Activist Patrick O’Connell was instrumental in creating the red ribbon to promote AIDS awareness. (Photo courtesy of Allen Frame; courtesy Visual AIDS)

Patrick O’Connell, a founding director of the New York City-based AIDS advocacy group Visual AIDS who played a lead role in developing the internationally recognized display of an inverted, V-shaped red ribbon as a symbol of AIDS advocacy, died on March 23 at a Manhattan hospital from AIDS-related causes, according to the New York Times. He was 67.

Visual AIDS said in a statement that O’Connell held the title of founding director of the organization from 1980 to 1995.

During those years, according to the statement and others who knew him, O’Connell was involved in the group’s widely recognized and supported efforts to use art and artist’s works to advocate in support of people with HIV/AIDS and efforts to curtail the epidemic that had a devastating impact on the art world.

Thanks to a grant from the Art Matters foundation, Visual AIDS was able to retain O’Connell as its first paid staff member in 1990, the group said in its statement.

“Armed with a fax machine and an early Macintosh computer, Patrick helped Visual AIDS grow from a volunteer group to a sustainable non-profit organization,” the statement says. “A passionate spokesperson for the organization, he helped projects like Day Without Art, Night Without Light, and the Red Ribbon reach thousands of people and organizations across the world,” the group says in its statement.

“We were living in a war zone,” the statement quoted O’Connell as saying in a 2011 interview with the Long Island newspaper Newsday. “But it was like a war that was some kind of deep secret only we knew about,” O’Connell said in the interview. “Thousands were dying of AIDS. We felt we had to respond with a visible expression,” he told the newspaper.

With O’Connell’s help, Visual AIDS in 1989 organized the first annual Day Without Art in which dozens of galleries and museums in New York and other cities covered art works with black cloths to symbolize the mourning of those who died of AIDS. Among those participating were the Brooklyn Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which replaced a Picasso painting with a “somber informational placard,” according to the New York Times.

In 1990 O’Connell helped Visual AIDS organize the first Night Without Light, which was held at the time of World AIDS Day. New York City’s skyscraper buildings, bridges, monuments, and Broadway theaters turned off their lights for 15 minutes to commemorate people who lost their lives to AIDS, the New York Times reported.

In the kickoff of its Red Ribbon Project in 1991, McConnell helped organize volunteers to join “ribbon bees” in which thousands of the ribbons were cut and folded for distribution around the city, the Times reports. Those who knew McConnell said he also arranged for his team of volunteers to call Broadway theaters and producers of the upcoming Tony Awards television broadcast to have participants and theater goers display the red ribbons on their clothes.

Among those displaying a red ribbon on his label at the Tony Awards broadcast was actor Jeremy Irons, who was one of the hosts. In later years, large numbers of celebrities followed the practice of wearing the red ribbon, and in 1993 the U.S. Postal Service issued a red ribbon stamp.

The Times reports that O’Connell was born and raised in Manhattan, where he attended Fordham Preparatory School and later graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in history. According to Visual AIDS, O’Connell served as director of the Hallwalls arts center in Buffalo, N.Y. from 1977 to 1978 before returning to New York City to work for a gallery called Artists Space.

The Times reports that O’Connell learned in the middle 1980s that he had contracted AIDS and began a regimen of early AIDS treatment with a cocktail of over 30 pills a day. His involvement with Visual AIDS, which began in 1989, ended on an active basis in 1995 when his health worsened, the Times reports.

As one of the last remaining survivors of his New York contemporaries who had HIV beginning in the 1980s, O’Connell continued in his strong support for AIDS-related causes through 2000s and beyond, people who knew him said.
Visual AIDS says it is gathering remembrances and photos for a tribute post for O’Connell on its website. It has invited people to share their memories of him by sending written contributions and images via email to: [email protected].

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