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USAID seeks to bolster LGBTQ rights efforts in Colombia

LGBTQ-inclusive peace agreement took effect in 2016

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U.S. Agency for International Development Colombia Mission Director Larry Sacks. (Photo courtesy of USAID)

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — The director of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Colombia mission says he and his colleagues remain committed to the implementation of the country’s LGBTQ-inclusive peace agreement.

“The entire portfolio that we have and all of our work here in Colombia is really to support a durable and an inclusive piece,” Larry Sacks told the Washington Blade on Sept. 21 during an interview in Bogotá, the Colombian capital. “The core principles of what we do are based on equality, inclusion, rights and justice.”

The agreement then-President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia Commander Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño signed in Cartagena on Sept. 26, 2016, specifically acknowledged LGBTQ Colombians as victims of the decades-long conflict that killed more than 200,000 people. The accord also called for their participation in the country’s political process.

Wilson Castañeda, director of Caribe Afirmativo, an LGBTQ group in northern Colombia with which USAID works, is one of three activists who participated in the peace talks that took place in Havana.

Caribe Afirmativo Director Wilson Castañeda speaks to a group of Venezuelan LGBTQ migrants in Barranquilla, Colombia, on Sept. 14, 2021. Caribe Afirmativo is one of the Colombian LGBTQ groups that receives support from the U.S. Agency for International Development. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Colombian voters on Oct. 2, 2016, narrowly rejected the agreement in a referendum that took place against the backdrop of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric from religious and conservative groups. Santos and Londoño less than two months later signed a second peace agreement — which also contains LGBTQ-specific references — in Bogotá.

“That was a very progressive move,” said Sacks in describing the inclusion of LGBTQ Colombians in the agreement.

President Iván Duque, who campaigned against the agreement ahead of his 2018 election, spoke to the U.N. General Assembly hours before the Blade interviewed Sacks. Duque described it as “fragile.”

“Peace accords worldwide tend to be made or broken within the first five years of implementation, and Colombia is right at that point,” Sacks told the Blade when asked about Duque’s comments. “There are certain people deep in the territories and others and high governments who are really helping and making sure that it’s successful, and that there’s continuity, and that the gains that have been made are irreversible. And there’s others who may question, but at the end of the day, I think that from our analysis, it’s on pace with what we’ve seen of the implementation of other peace accords worldwide.”

“At least from USAID’s perspective, we’re doing everything that we can to help support the implementation on multiple chapters of the peace accord,” he added.

USAID specifically supports the implementation of rural development programs through the agreement, efforts to reintegrate former child soldiers into Colombian society and expand the government’s presence into “violence-affected areas.” USAID also works with the Truth Commission, the Unit for the Search of Disappeared Persons, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, the government’s Victims’ Unit and NGOs that support the conflict’s victims.

USAID’s fiscal year 2021 budget for Colombia is $212.9 million. Upwards of $50 million of this money is earmarked for human rights work that specifically focuses on indigenous Colombians and Colombians of African descent, security, access to the country’s justice system and victims of the conflict.

More than 200 LGBTQ Colombians reported murdered in 2020

Sacks said USAID’s LGBTQ-specific work in Colombia focuses on four specific areas.

“The first is really to kind of shine a light on, raise the visibility, raise the profile on issues of discrimination and violence and stigma and all the issues that this population is facing,” he said.

Colombia Diversa, a Colombian LGBTQ rights group, on Sept. 15 issued a report that notes 226 LGBTQ people were reported murdered in the country in 2020. This figure is more than twice the number of LGBTQ Colombians — 107 — who Colombia Diversa said were known to have been killed in 2019.

Sacks acknowledged anti-LGBTQ violence is increasing in Colombia.

He said the mission works with Ombudsman’s Office of Colombia, an independent agency within the Colombian government that oversees human rights protections in the country, to provide additional support to LGBTQ rights groups. Sacks noted USAID also works with the Interior Ministry to “support the development of their LGBTQI-plus policies” and the country’s attorney general “to hold those accountable.”

Sacks told the Blade that USAID also works to provide “technical and legal support to help” LGBTQ Colombians and other vulnerable groups “access public goods, services and justice.”

USAID-supported groups assist Venezuelan migrants

The Colombian government earlier this year said there were more than 1.7 million Venezuelan migrants in the country, although activists and HIV/AIDS service providers with whom the Blade has spoken say this figure is likely much higher. Duque in February announced it would legally recognize Venezuelan migrants who are registered with the country’s government. 

The Coordination Platform for Migrants and Refugees from Venezuela notes upwards of 5.4 million Venezuelans have left the country as of November 2020 as its economic and political crisis grows worse. The majority of them have sought refuge in Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Chile.

Venezuelan migrants are among the upwards of 570,000 people who have benefitted from a USAID program that provides direct cash assistance — between $49-$95 per family — for six months in order to purchase food and other basic needs. USAID also supports Americares, a Connecticut-based NGO that operates several clinics along the Colombia-Venezuelan border and in northern Colombia that specifically serve Venezuelan migrants with the support of the Colombian Health Ministry.

The U.S. Agency for International Development and other groups support a hand washing campaign on the Simón Bolívar International Airport that spans the Táchira River, which marks the Colombia-Venezuela border. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The U.S. Agency for International Development and other groups have placed hand washing stations on the Simón Bolívar International Airport that spans the Táchira River, which marks the Colombia-Venezuela border. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Sacks noted USAID has an “agreement with” Aid for AIDS International, a New York-based group that serves Venezuelans with HIV/AIDS. Aid for AIDS International has used this support to conduct a survey of 300 sex workers in Maicao, Medellín and Cali.

USAID is also working with the Health Ministry to provide health care to Venezuelan migrants with HIV/AIDS, among others, who are now legally recognized in Colombia.

Caribe Afirmativo has opened three “Casas Afirmativos” in Maicao, Barranquilla and Medellín that provide access to health care and other services to Venezuelan migrants who are LGBTQ and/or living with HIV/AIDS. Medellín officials have also invited Caribe Afirmativo staffers to speak with LGBTQ migrants in the city’s public schools.

“Colombia has shown a generosity that you don’t see in many other countries with regard to migrant populations,” Sacks told the Blade. “They really open their borders, their homes, their hearts, to migrants, including the LGBTI community.”

Biden global LGBTQ rights memo is ‘tremendous benefit’

The White House earlier this year released a memorandum that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ rights abroad. State Department spokesperson Ned Price in May told the Blade the protection of LGBTQ migrants and asylum seekers is one of the Biden administration’s priorities on this front.

Sacks said the memo “gives us the political framework with which to operate and obviously sends a message from the highest levels of the U.S. government about LGBTQI-plus rights and equality and inclusion.”

“So for us, it’s a tremendous benefit,” he told the Blade.

USAID Administrator Samantha Power — a vocal champion of LGBTQ rights — has yet to visit Colombia, but Sacks said she has spoken with Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez.

“We hope to get her down,” said Sacks.

Editor’s note: Michael K. Lavers was on assignment in Colombia from Sept. 11-22.

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Russia

Lower house of Russian Parliament passes anti-LGBTQ propaganda law

Human Rights Watch has sharply criticized proposal

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(Public domain photo)

A new law which expands Russia’s “gay propaganda” law signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in June 2013 passed the lower House of the State Duma on Nov. 24.

The legislation, which still needs the approval of the upper house of the Duma and Putin, introduces an expanded “all ages” ban on “propaganda of non-traditional relations,” pedophilia, as well as a ban on the dissemination of information about LGBTQ people in the media, the Internet, advertising, literature and cinema. 

The language of the bill, according to the official Russian state news agency TASS, also introduces a ban on issuing a rental certificate to a film if it contains materials that promote non-traditional sexual relations and preferences is established. The document also provides for the introduction of a mechanism that restricts children’s access to listening to or viewing LGBTQ information on paid services. 

The newly expanded law provides for the Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, abbreviated as Roskomnadzor, to be vested with the right to determine the procedure for conducting monitoring on the Internet to identify information, access to which should be restricted in accordance with the federal law on information.

A requirement is also set on paid services to enter codes or perform other actions to confirm the age of the user. At the same time, access to LGBTQ information is prohibited for citizens under 18 years of age.

In addition, it provides for a ban on the sale of goods, including imported goods, containing information, the dissemination of which provides for administrative or criminal liability. 

Also, the law “on the protection of children from information harmful to their health and development” is supplemented by an article on the promotion of non-traditional sexual relations, pedophilia and information that can make children want to change their sex.

The latter language pointedly inserted as transgender people have been a frequent target of attacks by the Russian president in speeches recently blaming the West for a global decay in moral values that run counter to what Putin describes as “Russia’s strong morals.”

In an October speech announcing the illegal annexation of four Ukrainian territories, Putin attacked Western nations on the issue of gay and transgender rights.

“Do we want children from elementary school to be imposed with things that lead to degradation and extinction?” he asked. “Do we want them to be taught that instead of men and women, there are supposedly some other genders and to be offered sex-change surgeries?”

It’s not just the Russian leader.

Patriarch Kirill, head of the powerful and influential Russian Orthodox Church, portrayed the war with Ukraine as a struggle seeking to reject Western values and LGBTQ Pride parades.

Vyacheslav Viktorovich Volodin, the chairman of the State Duma and a former aide to Putin, is one of the bill’s sponsors. Volodin told TASS that the bill is “adopted exclusively in the interests of all Russians.”

“We have a different path, our grandfathers, great-grandfathers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers chose it. We have traditions, we have a conscience, we have an understanding that we need to think about children, families, the country, to preserve what we handed over by the parents,” Volodin said.

A spokesperson for Human Rights Watch told the Washington Blade this expansion of the 2013 “gay propaganda” law “is a classic example of political homophobia. It targets vulnerable sexual and gender minorities for political gain.”

A young Russian LGBTQ activist, who asked to not be identified for fear of Russian government reprisals, spoke to the Blade from Helsinki regarding this latest effort by the so-called conservative “family values” politicians in the Duma.

“This is a distraction to avoid the real news of dead young Russian males killed in his illegal war in Ukraine,” they said. “These [Russian obscenity] politicians want to so-called ‘non-traditional’ LGBTQ+ lifestyles practiced by lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people out of public life, make us erased. They and their so called colluders in church are ignorant of truth that LGBTQ+ people will exist no matter what. It is scientific fact not their religious fairytales and fictions.”

The activist also told the Blade they had fled to avoiding the Russian military draft enacted by Russia to replenish the levels of combat troops fighting in Putin’s illegal war, in the face of mounting casualties and wounded soldiers.

Human Rights Watch noted that given the already deeply hostile climate for LGBTQ people in Russia, the organization warned there will be uptick in often-gruesome vigilante violence against LGBTQ people in Russia — frequently carried out in the name of protecting Russian values and Russia’s children.

Legal scholars say the vagueness of the bill’s language gives room for government enforcers to interpret the language as broadly as they desire, leaving members of the Russian LGBTQ community and their allies in a state of even greater fear and stress filled uncertainty.

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Africa

Uganda lawmaker: International agreement has ‘hidden clauses’ to promote homosexuality

Deputy Parliament Speaker Thomas Tayebwa made comment at Mozambique conference

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Deputy Uganda Parliament Speaker Thomas Tayebwa (Screen capture via Next Media Uganda YouTube)

Several LGBTQ and intersex rights groups in Uganda have sharply criticized Deputy Parliament Speaker Thomas Tayebwa’s assertion that an agreement between the European Union and the Organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific States has “hidden clauses” designed to promote homosexuality.

Tayebwa made the remarks during the 42nd session of the Organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS) — EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly that took place in Maputo, Mozambique, from Oct. 29-Nov. 2.

“We have discovered that with the Cotonou Agreement — an agreement between the EU and OACPS based on three complementary pillars: Development cooperation, economic and trade cooperation and the political dimension — there are hidden clauses concerning human rights,” said Tayebwa. “Clauses to do with sexuality, promotion of LGBT or homosexuality and clauses to do with abortion. We are a society that is not ready for homosexuality and we are a society that is not ready for abortion. It can never be accepted in Uganda.”

“It’s not a surprise to me and most of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community at large in Uganda that the deputy speaker of Parliament made such homophobic comments because the government he represents is homophobic too,” said Happy Family Uganda Executive Director Iga Isma. “According to me, he has no right to think about our own lifestyle. Everyone lives a life that they naturally want. If someone doesn’t eat meat, it does not mean that everyone doesn’t. I am in full support of donor countries to stop funding African countries that fail to legalize same sex relationships however, we might be affected too.” 

Pastor Ram Gava Kaggwa from Adonai Inclusive Christian Ministries, who is the executive director of Wave of Legacy Alliance Initiative Uganda, said sexual orientation does not have anything to do with whether one is African or not.

“Sexual orientation totally differs based on personal desires and wishes, it’s time to change the biased perspective on our sexual differences, just because you are practicing a different sexual narrative does not necessarily mean the other is wrong otherwise we are bound to see the spread of gender-based violence due to differences in sexual identity which may and can arise from hate speech spread through the heteronormative narrative which is taught in a manner that does not create room for respect of sexual differences,” said Kaggwa. “It is important to acknowledge the differences, variations and diversities of the community and modern-day society and respect each other regardless of such differences for we are all human and this is what exactly bonds us regardless of the different beliefs and values embodied in us.”

Kaggwa further encouraged lawmakers in Uganda and across Africa “to let and affirmatively acknowledge the rights and existence of 2SLGBTQIA+ persons and their rights at a common law level.” 

Buwande Anthony, executive director of the Uganda Youth Society for Human Rights, said Tayebwa does not speak for Africa since African countries are sovereign states with different legal systems.

“The remarks by the deputy speaker of the Parliament of Uganda can only be attributed to hypocrisy that is normally exhibited by government officials during overseas tours, if not, it was an act of ignorance of the provisions of the Constitution of Uganda,” noted Anthony. “Article 24 of the Ugandan Constitution and the Article of the African Charter on Human and Peoples rights provides against inhuman and degrading treatment. The above provisions have laid a foundation against any enactment by the state or individual initiatives against violation of individual human rights of citizens and non-citizens in Uganda.”

“Furthermore, Hon. Thomas Tayebwa cannot purport to speak for Africa since African countries are sovereign States which are governed by different legal dispensations, and whereas some African countries have moved a notch higher to respect their citizens’ human rights, others are still slow and struggling,” he added. “Therefore, it can only be fair that he speaks for Uganda where he is deputy speaker of Parliament.”

Uganda is among the African countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized.

President Yoweri Museveni in February 2014 signed into law a bill that sought to impose a life sentence upon anyone found guilty of repeated same-sex sexual acts. The Obama administration subsequently cut or redirected aid to Uganda and announced a travel ban against Ugandan officials responsible for human rights abuses. The World Bank also postponed a $90 million loan to the Ugandan government after Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act.

The Ugandan Constitutional Court subsequently struck down the law. 

Daniel Itai is the Washington Blade’s Africa Correspondent.

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Russia

Report: Brittney Griner transferred to Russian penal colony

Reuters noted WNBA star is in country’s Mordovia region

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Reuters on Thursday reported WNBA star Brittney Griner is now in a penal colony in Russia’s Mordovia region.

Officials at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February detained Griner — a Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife, Cherelle Griner — after customs inspectors allegedly found hashish oil in her luggage. The State Department has determined that Russia “wrongfully detained” her.

A Russian court on Aug. 4 convicted Brittney Griner of smuggling drugs into the country and sentenced her to nine years in a penal colony. An appellate court on Oct. 25 denied Brittney Griner’s appeal.

American officials have publicly acknowledged their willingness to release Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S., as part of a deal to secure the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, another American citizen who is serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia after his conviction for spying.

Brittney Griner’s lawyers earlier this month said authorities were transferring her to a penal colony. 

Her whereabouts had not been known for nearly two weeks. 

Reuters reported Brittney Griner is now at a female penal colony in Yavas, a city in Russia’s Mordovia region that is roughly 300 miles southeast of Moscow. Reuters noted Whelan is at a penal colony in the same area.

“We are aware of reports of her location, and in frequent contact with Ms. Griner’s legal team,” a State Department spokesperson told the Washington Blade on Thursday. “However, the Russian Federation has still failed to provide any official notification for such a move of a U.S. citizen, which we strongly protest. The embassy has continued to press for more information about her transfer and current location.”

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