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Fighting for LGBTQ rights in the Global South

Activists in Thailand and Lebanon forge ahead

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Asian Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health (APCOM) staffers in Bangkok. (Photo courtesy of APCOM)

The Global South presents unique challenges for LGBTQ activists and advocacy groups.

The Human Rights Campaign notes 29 countries have extended marriage rights to same-sex couples, and the majority of them are located in the Global North that comprises more developed countries in the Americas and Europe. Less than a handful of these countries — such as South Africa and Brazil — are in the Global South. Countries in the Global North, as a result, are more likely to harbor LGBTQ-friendly public sentiments compared to the Global South, which is rife with restrictive anti-LGBTQ laws.

This reality not only makes life tumultuous for both openly and closeted queer individuals in the Global South, the chances of encountering LGBTQ-friendly sentiments in these regions are also close to non-existent. Ensuring the fundamental human rights of the queer people who live in these regions are guaranteed is imperative for activists.

The Washington Blade recently spoke with activists from Thailand and Lebanon about their advocacy work and also how they celebrated Pride in countries where LGBTQ identity is not widely acknowledged. 

Thailand

Midnight Poonkasetwattana is the executive director of the Asian Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health (APCOM), a non-profit organization located in Bangkok. The organization’s work centers on addressing sexual health-related issues by collecting data on gay men and men who have sex with men in 35 countries across Asia and the Pacific. 

“What we do in general is empowering communities on the ground to be able to speak their truth, and also participate meaningfully in country, regional, and global fora so they can have their voices and actually articulate what is it the needs of communities on the ground are,” says Poonkasetwattana. 

APCOM, by giving these communities the ability to articulate their concerns, creates and facilitates an environment where LGBTQ people’s sexual and mental health needs are met, even though discrimination remains a barrier to accessing these services.

APCOM’s work does not come without its challenges because of the prevalence of anti-LGBTQ laws in many Asian countries. Their work, however, usually continues undeterred because of their ability to work with local community organizations in the public health sector. 

“There are some opportunities to work under public health, and we’ve been able to do that in certain places [like Afghanistan] where it’s still difficult to talk about equality,” says Poonkasetwattana. “When we talk about ensuring that those who are marginalized and most at risk to [contract] HIV are able to get prevention and treatment, [we focus on working] with community-based organizations.” 

APCOM, as a result, has been able to facilitate important conversations around HIV/AIDS, with the specific information about the use of necessary and appropriate language in web programming that recognizes people’s different sexual identities and encourages direct conversations around drug use and sex work. 

Asian Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health (APCOM) staffers in Bangkok. (Photo courtesy of APCOM)

APCOM, in order to commemorate Asia’s LGBTQ community’s tenacity, began Pride month with a virtual discussion that the Australian Embassy in Thailand sponsored. The event, titled “Celebrating Pride Month 2021: LGBTQI Inclusion and the Effect of COVID-19,” had two sessions. 

The first session, “Voices from Thai LGBTQI: Launch of Khormoon Report,” discussed COVID-19’s impact in Thailand. The second, “COVID-19 Recovery and LGBTQI Inclusion: A Perspective from the Business Sector,” focused on how Thailand’s business sector practiced inclusion and how it will further propel LGBTQ advocacy.

As APCOM prepares to ease back into normalcy as the pandemic wanes, Poonkasetwattana will begin to prepare for the organization’s HERO Awards (HIV, Equality and Rights), a fundraising gala that honors outstanding LGBTQ activists, HIV/AIDS service providers and allies from across Asia and the Pacific and also raises money for the HIV prevention and human rights work of APCOM. 

Lebanon

Helem, whose executive director is Tarek Zeidan, is an LGBTQ advocacy organization in Beirut, Lebanon. Founded in 2001, this non-governmental entity works to improve the legal and social status of LGTBQ people in the Middle East and North Africa.

Lebanon is what Zeidan describes as a slightly safer place for queer people. Lebanon, compared to Egypt and Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East, has emerged as a more inclusive and liberal place despite it being anything but a safe haven for queer people.

“When it comes to LGBTQ rights, Lebanon packs a punch way above its weight,” says Zeidan. “Because, in a region which is notorious for LGBTQ rights violations, Lebanon has enjoyed, and here I use the word enjoy very loosely,  a relatively safer and more inclusive sort of experience.”

Helem Executive Director Tarek Zeidan (Photo courtesy of Tarek Zeidan)

Helem in its many incarnations throughout its 21-year history has always had one main goal: React to whatever priorities and needs that queer people in the Middle East have. 

Helem is structurally divided into three parts.

The first is the services department which does a lot of work to protect and assist LGBTQ people in crisis.

“We [offer] emergency intervention, case management, emergency cash, free mental health support, free medical aid, everything,” says Zeidan. “Food security [also] acts primarily as the hub in which we gather a lot of data, particularly data on the locale, density, and type of human rights violations, as well as demographic information.”

The second part of the organization is its community department. 

Helem runs the largest non-commercial queer space in the Arab world that serves as a community center. This space is where the Zeidan guides localization work, community building, power building work, capacity building and vocational training.

“That’s where we do our family support, youth outreach, and all of that sort of community building and integration time work,” says Zeidan.

The final leg is the advocacy part or “bureau” that anchors on policy work, procedure, cultural change, public awareness, and legislation. Helem’s advocacy work also focuses on criminalization that Zeidan describes as “getting more attention,” even though it is not a central focus.

“In addition, criminalization, which is something we always do gets a lot of attention, but it’s really not the central thing that we engage with,” says Zeidan. “There are multiple ways in which you can guarantee LGBTQ rights and inclusion that don’t necessarily pass through Parliament, or the Supreme Court, especially when those two are blocked. So in a nutshell, the central question that we ask is, what can we do in order to improve institutions to become LGBTQ inclusive? How do we improve the lives of LGBTQ people?”

Zeidan further mentions that this strategy makes way for avenues that are not necessarily within the traditional human rights view by extracting opportunities from both development and human rights frameworks.

When tackling the lack of employment within Arab LGBTQ communities, for example, Helem doesn’t approach corporations that are more likely to be LGBTQ-inclusive. It instead identifies the industries that target LGBTQ people.

“We are more interested in targeting small and medium enterprises as locales for employment rather than big banks, because that’s where most of the working class and low income queer people are, and that’s where they get most of their livelihoods,” says Zeidan.

Zeidan says he anticipates even more engagement with LGBTQ activism in the Middle East in the future.

“We’re really excited about deciphering the question: What does regional activism really look like in the Middle East,” says Zeidan. “This is a very complicated question.”

The massive explosion that destroyed large swaths of Beirut, Lebanon, on Aug. 4, 2020, seriously damaged Helem’s offices. (Photo courtesy of Tarek Zeidan/Helem)

He further mentions this goal is complicated because the Middle East does not have a regional organization to which they can turn for advocacy. Africa, for example, has the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, but the Middle East does not have such a body.

Helem’s modus operandi will therefore be engorged in trying to make sense of how to best liberate queer Arabs. 

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World

Gay Guatemala congressman ‘scared’ for his life

Aldo Dávila a vocal critic of country’s president, corruption

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Guatemalan Congressman Aldo Dávila participates in a protest in Guatemala City in 2019. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

GUATEMALA CITY — A gay Guatemalan congressman who is a vocal critic of his country’s president and corruption says he is afraid for his life.

“I am scared of what may happen with so much persecution against me,” Aldo Dávila told the Washington Blade on Sept. 10 during an interview at a Guatemala City hotel. “I am scared for my life, for my partner, for my family and for my team.”

Dávila — a member of the Winaq movement, a leftist party founded by Rigoberta Menchú, an indigenous human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner — in 2019 became the first openly gay man elected to Guatemala’s congress. Dávila, who also lives with HIV, had previously been the executive director of Asociación Gente Positiva, a Guatemala City-based HIV/AIDS service organization.

Three men on April 19 approached his vehicle while it was stopped at a traffic light near Guatemala’s National Library and tried to rob him.

One of Dávila’s bodyguards who was driving shot one of the men. The other two men fled the scene before passersby and police officers arrived.

Dávila was not injured, but he later said in a Facebook post that he is “thankful for life.” Dávila told the Blade that Guatemalan authorities have not thoroughly investigated the attack.

“I requested an armored car after the attack, but I have not received it yet,” said Dávila, who arrived at the hotel with two female police officers who sat in the lobby while he spoke with the Blade. “This has not been resolved, even though it was in April. It is very complicated.”

Dávila said Culture Minister Felipe Aguilar, Congress President Allan Rodríguez and other supporters of President Alejandro Giammattei have lodged nine formal complaints against him after he publicly criticized the government over a variety of issues that include its response to the pandemic.

“It has been a systematic attack against me,” said Dávila.

Dávila told the Blade that he and his partner installed cameras in their apartment after someone killed their dog. Dávila also said he continues to receive death threats online and at his home.

“We are going to kill you, we are going to shut you up,” said Dávila, referring to the type of threats he says he receives.

“They send me little messages, I am clearly making those who are corrupt very uncomfortable,” added Dávila.

Prominent transgender activist murdered in June

Discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity remains commonplace in Guatemala.

Dávila told the Blade that 21 LGBTQ people have been reported killed in Guatemala so far in 2021, including one person who was stoned to death.

Andrea González, executive director of Organización Trans Reinas de la Noche, a trans advocacy group, was shot to death in Guatemala City on June 11, days after Vice President Kamala Harris visited the country. The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power both condemned González’s murder, but Dávila told the Blade there has been “no investigation.”

“It’s one more case about which to forget, unfortunately,” said Dávila.

Dávila also noted he has met with officials who include representatives of the National Civil Police, the Public Ministry and the National Institute for Forensic Sciences “to ask what they are doing” to combat anti-LGBTQ violence in the country.

“This is serious,” he said.

Organización Trans Reinas de la Noche Executive Director Andrea González in D.C. when she participated in the State Department’s International Visitors Leadership Program. She was killed in Guatemala City on June 11, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

‘People don’t migrate because they want to’

Menchú, Visibles Executive Director Daniel Villatoro and Ingrid Gamboa of the Association of Garifuna Women Living with HIV/AIDS are among the 18 members of Guatemalan civil society who participated in the roundtable with Harris while she was in the country. The U.S. vice president met with Giammattei before the event.

Harris has previously acknowledged that violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity is among the “root causes” of migration from Guatemala and other Central American countries. Harris and other Biden administration officials have also told migrants not to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border.

“People migrate because states don’t have the capacity to respond to the most basic needs,” said Dávila. “People don’t migrate because they want to. People don’t migrate because (they say) today I am going to go to the United States because I have nothing to do. They don’t go on vacation. They go in search of health, work, security and economic resources to be able to sustain themselves.”

“Guatemala has not had the capacity to retain Guatemalans because it doesn’t offer them the minimum to be able to live,” he added.

Dávila described Harris’ visit to Guatemala as “important.”

He said Guatemalans are “eternally grateful for the” COVID-19 vaccines the U.S. has donated to the country. Dávila added he would like Washington to “take a look at the human rights violations that are happening in” the country and further sanction those who are responsible for them.

Giammattei earlier this year named his chief of staff to Guatemala’s Constitutional Court.

The U.S. has granted asylum to former Attorney General Thelma Aldana, who the Constitutional Court refused to allow to run for president in 2019 after prosecutors alleged she embezzled money from a building purchase. The Biden administration in July stopped working with current Attorney General Consuelo Porras’ office after it fired Juan Francisco Sandoval, a leading anti-corruption prosecutor who subsequently fled the country.

The U.S. has imposed travel bans on a number of Guatemalan officials, but Dávila said these sanctions are not effective.

“We want clearer, more drastic sanctions,” he said. “The U.S. has been a historical ally for Guatemala, not just since yesterday, not from five years ago … it has been economically and financially supporting this country for a long time. The United States can impose more drastic sanctions against the government so the government stops being corrupt, so the government does not fight against migration.”

A monument to migrants in Salcajá, Guatemala, on March 9, 2019. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Dávila told the Blade he has not decided whether he will run for a second term in 2023.

Dávila said he has had “some problems” with the Winaq movement over funding for hospitals during the pandemic, but he remains a member. Dávila told the Blade he has received invitations to join other political parties.

“I am thinking about it and evaluating all the scenarios,” he said.

Dávila added he remains “very proud to be part of the opposition in the history of this country.”

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Draft of new Cuba family code contains marriage equality provision

National Assembly expected to vote on proposal in December

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Cuba’s Justice Ministry on Wednesday released a draft of a proposed new family code that would extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in the country.

Tremenda Nota, the Washington Blade’s media partner in Cuba, reported the proposed Article 61 of the new family code defines “marriage as a union of two people with legal aptitude who voluntarily agreed to enter into it in order to build a life together based on affection and love.”

The Justice Ministry, according to Tremenda Nota, released the draft a week after a commission that has been charged with writing the new family code met with President Miguel Díaz-Canel and other officials.

Tremenda Nota reported the National Assembly is expected to vote on the new family code in December. The Associated Press noted a referendum on it would then take place.

“It protects all expressions of family diversity and the right of each person to establish a family in coherence with the constitutional principles of plurality, inclusion and human dignity,” National Union of Jurists of Cuba Vice President Yamila González Ferrer told the Associated Press.

The draft’s release comes nearly three years after the government removed an amendment from a draft of Cuba’s new constitution that would have extended marriage rights for same-sex couples after evangelical groups on the Communist island publicly criticized it. Cuban voters in February 2019 overwhelmingly approved the new constitution without marriage equality.

A poster inside El Mejunje, an LGBTI-friendly cultural center in Santa Clara, Cuba, in 2019 indicates support for marriage rights for same-sex couples in the country’s new constitution. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Cuba would join Costa Rica, Colombia and a handful of other Latin American countries with marriage equality if the new family code draft becomes law.

Former President Fidel Castro in the years after the 1959 revolution that brought him to power sent gay men and others to work camps known by the Spanish acronym UMAP. His niece, Mariela Castro, the daughter of former President Raúl Castro who spearheads LGBTQ-specific issues as director of Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX), and Díaz-Canel both publicly support marriage equality.

Tremenda Nota Director Maykel González Vivero is among the hundreds of people who Cuban police arrested on July 11 during anti-government protests that took place in Havana and across the country. Luis Ángel Adán Roble, a gay man who was once a member of the National Assembly, is among those who have been banned from leaving the country.

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Hong Kong Gay Games postponed for one year

Organizers cite potential COVID-related travel restrictions

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The Gay Games in Hong Kong are delayed until 2023. (Photo by Alkhairul via Bigstock)

Officials with Gay Games Hong Kong 2022, the committee organizing the quadrennial international LGBTQ sports event scheduled to take place in Hong Kong in November 2022, announced on Sept. 15 that the Gay Games will be postponed for one year due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.

“After much internal deliberation and in consultation with the Federation of Gay Games (FGG) leadership and board, it has been decided that Gay Games 11, originally scheduled for November 2022, will be postponed to November 2023 in Hong Kong,” a statement released by the organizing committee says.

“This decision has been made primarily due to the unpredictable progression of COVID variants and the corresponding travel restrictions that continue to make it challenging for participants from around the world to make plans to travel to Hong Kong,” the statement says.

“With many parts of the world, including many across Asia, still struggling to contain the virus and facing uneven access to vaccines, we felt that delaying the Games until November 2023 will enhance the likelihood of delivering on our promise to have the Hong Kong Games serve as a beacon of hope for the wider community across the region,” it says.

In 2017, when the U.S.-based Federation of Gay Games selected Hong Kong to host the Games it predicted at least 12,000 athletes would participate in 36 sports at the Hong Kong Games. It also predicted that at least 75,000 spectators from throughout the world would turn out in Hong Kong to watch the games and participate in at least 20 accompanying arts and cultural events.

In its statement this week announcing the one-year postponement, the Gay Games Hong Kong committee also referred to opposition to the event expressed by some officials with the local Hong Kong government who are said to be aligned with China.

The Washington Post reported last month that one pro-Beijing lawmaker called the Gay Games “disgraceful” and a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” that could violate a strict security law imposed on Hong Kong by China that has led to the arrest and imprisonment of many pro-democracy protesters over the past year. Some have expressed concern that Gay Games spectators from Europe, North America or elsewhere could be subjected to arrest if they make statements critical of China during the Gay Games cultural events.

“Anti-inclusion objections to Gay Games Hong Kong from a small but vocal minority have galvanized the resolve of our 300 volunteers, and brought overwhelming support from the general public, business community and establishment legislators,” the Gay Games Hong Kong statement says. “Mrs. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong Chief Executive, has also expressed her support for the spirit of inclusion and diversity of the games,” according to the statement. 

“We would like to thank everyone for their early support and will ride this wave of positivity to the most successful hosting of Gay Games 11 Hong Kong in 2023,” the statement concludes.

D.C. and Guadalajara, Mexico were the two finalist cities competing with Hong Kong to host the 2022 Gay Games. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser traveled to Paris in 2017 to join officials with Team DC, the local LGBTQ sports organization that helped prepare D.C.’s bid to host the Games, to deliver D.C.’s final but unsuccessful presentation before the FGG in support of its bid to host the Games.

Under FGG rules and past practice, the finalist city or cities that competed to host the Gay Games are given an opportunity to reinstate their bid in the unlikely event that the city selected to host the Games can no longer serve as the host city.

Brent Minor, executive director of Team D.C., who served as chair of D.C.’s Gay Games Bid Committee in 2017, did not respond to a request from the Blade for comment on whether Team D.C. would consider renewing its effort to push for D.C. to host the Gay Games if Hong Kong were unable to remain as the host city.

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