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U.S. provides support to LGBTQ groups in Ukraine, surrounding countries

Special envoy in regular contact with activists, groups

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Jessica Stern, the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ rights abroad, spoke with the Washington Blade on March 18 about Russia's invasion in Ukraine and its impact on the country's LGBTQ community. (Photo courtesy of OutRight Action International)

The special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ rights abroad on Friday said she and her office continue to provide support to advocacy groups in Ukraine and in countries that border it.

Jessica Stern told the Washington Blade during a telephone interview that she has held “multiple roundtables” with Ukrainian activists and organizations “to make sure that my office and I both have the relationships and then getting information directly from people on the frontlines.” Stern also noted she has also spoken with LGBTQ rights organizations in Poland, Hungary and other countries that “would be receiving LGBTQI Ukrainian refugees” and regional and international groups “that are closely monitoring and supporting LGBTQI Ukrainians in this incredibly difficult time.”

“The first and most important thing that the U.S. has been doing has been establishing contact with people who are advocating for and servicing LGBTQI Ukrainians, and then in all instances, trying to find ways to support them,” said Stern. “One of the things that’s been really important has been to identify the sort of patterns of human rights abuses, violations and vulnerability that they’re tracking that we need to be aware of.”

Stern said the State Department has “activated” its grant mechanisms to provide financial support to LGBTQ organizations in Ukraine and in surrounding countries.

“One of the things we’ve been focused on has been ensuring that LGBTQI Ukrainian organizations and LGBTQI organizations in the surrounding countries have the financial resources to provide emergency support to this population that finds itself facing double and triple discrimination,” she said.

Stern told the Blade a “top priority” is to ensure that humanitarian assistance to Ukraine “is distributed without discrimination.”

“One of the message that my office has been conveying and with working with others at the State Department to convey is that LGBTQI Ukrainian refugees are at heightened risk and that they should be supported and that anyone providing humanitarian assistance should actually be on the watch for instances of discrimination or violence they may be subjected to.”

Stern said her office has not received “too many stories of (discrimination) incidents, but we have to been able to sound the alarm.”

“The institutions and partners, we work with have been taking that seriously,” she said.

Russian airstrike kills Kharkiv activist

Stern spoke with the Blade less than a month after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.

A Russian airstrike in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city that is less than 30 miles from the Russian border in the eastern part of the country, on March 1 killed Elvira Schemur, a 21-year-old law student who was a volunteer for Kharkiv Pride and Kyiv Pride. A group of “bandits” on the same day broke into the Kyiv offices of Nash Mir, an LGBTQ rights group, and attacked four activists who were inside.

“The case of Nash Mir was really horrific and really demonstrated the kind of opportunistic violence that LGBTQI persons, human rights defenders and organizations can be subject to right now by both state and non-state actors,” said Stern.

Stern told the Blade that activists have also said many transgender and gender non-conforming Ukrainians have decided to remain in the country because they cannot exempt themselves from military conscription.

“What I’ve been told is that many trans and gender non-conforming Ukrainians are sheltering in place, and even in some cases staying in places where they are at risk of being attacked by missiles and bombs and definitely in harm’s way simply because they’re concerned that they don’t have a way of being exempted from military conscription,” she said.

Stern cited the case of a trans man who tried to leave Ukraine and “in an effort to prove who he was, who he said he was, he was actually forced to remove his shirt and show his chest” at the border.   

“Unfortunately, that’s not the only humiliating and potentially violent incident that I’m hearing us,” she said.

Stern expressed concern about safety of gay men who are conscripted into the Ukrainian armed forces. Stern also noted “all women are at risk in times of war and conflict.”

“There’s absolutely a concern about the safety and well-being of lesbian and bisexual and trans and intersex women,” she said.

Challenges for LGBTQ Ukrainians ‘will be enormous’

Stern told the Blade the State Department is “working to provide as much support as possible for all Ukrainians that want to leave the country.”

She noted many LGBTQ activists in Ukraine with whom she spoke immediately after the invasion began said they did not want to leave. Stern acknowledged some of them have now fled the country.

“The invasion has just been so violent that even the most committed activists that people we both know have had to change their strategy,” said Stern. “So, in every instance where I’m hearing of an individual or a group that is at risk and wants to leave, we’re doing everything we can to help give them the support they need.”

“Most people do not become refugees,” she added. “You know, most people cannot leave … the global community should do everything we possibly can to affirm the human rights and provide support for Ukrainian refugees.”

President Biden shortly after he took office issued a memorandum that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ rights around the world.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last November pledged his country would continue to fight discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity after he met with Biden at the White House.

Letters that Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality and Ukraine Caucuses sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the eve of the invasion noted Ukraine in recent years “has made great strides towards securing equality for LGBTQ people within its borders and is a regional leader in LGBTQ rights.” These advances include a ban on workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and efforts to protect Pride parades.

Stern reiterated the challenges for LGBTQ people inside Ukraine “will be enormous” as the conflict drags on.

“In all war and conflict, anyone who is vulnerable and vulnerable before the conflict remains at heightened risk and even becomes at greater risk,” she said. “Where people have access to weapons and LGBTQI people are unsafe. In a context where the rule of law is weak, LGBTQI people are at risk as the Nash Mir case showed us immediately.”

“I’m very worried that discrimination and violence will rise for LGBTQI people in Ukraine,” added Stern. “I’m extremely concerned that the track record from the Russian government on these issues is a harbinger of danger for LGBTQI Ukrainians in Russian occupied parts of the country.”

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South America

Colombia’s first leftist president takes office

Gustavo Petro has pledged to support LGBTQ, intersex rights

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Gustavo Petro took office as Colombia's first leftist president on Aug. 7, 2022. (Photo courtesy of the Colombian government)

Former Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro on Sunday took office as Colombia’s first leftist president.

The former Colombian senator who was once a member of the M-19 guerrilla movement that disbanded in the 1990s, in June defeated former Bucaramanga Mayor Rodolfo Hernández in the second round of the country’s presidential election. Petro’s running mate, Francia Márquez, on Sunday took office as Colombia’s first female vice president of African descent.

Colombian Vice President Francia Márquez. (Photo courtesy of Márquez’s Twitter page)

Petro before his inauguration named Néstor Osuna, an openly gay man, as the country’s new justice minister.

“I am honored and thankful to President Gustavo Petro for the appointment as Colombia’s justice minister,” tweeted Osuna on Sunday. “I commit myself to working with your team to achieve the change for which so many of our compatriots yearn.”

Petro in his inaugural speech did not specifically reference LGBTQ and intersex Colombians, but OrgulloLGBT.co, the Washington Blade’s media partner in the country, published pictures that show LGBTQ and intersex people were among those who attended the inauguration.

Petro during the campaign pledged to fight violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and to implement policies “for the reaffirmation of gender and sexual orientation identities without barriers for all nonbinary and transgender people in Colombia.” Márquez noted LGBTQ and intersex Colombians after she and Petro won the election.

Wilson Castañeda, director of Caribe Afirmativo, an LGBTQ and intersex rights group in northern Colombia, told the Blade after Petro and Márquez won the election that the campaign held “various meetings” with advocacy groups. Castañeda also noted that Petro, among other things, named Tatiana Piñeros, a transgender woman, to run Bogotá’s social welfare and tourism office when he was mayor.

Castañeda and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power are among those who attended Sunday’s inauguration that took place in Bogotá’s Bolívar Square.

“Full squares; happy faces; the flags of Colombia, Bogotá; rural, indigenous and LGBTI communities received the president and the vice president in an emotive and historic act that inaugurated the first popular and leftist Colombian government,” tweeted Bogotá Mayor Claudia López on Sunday.

López is married to Angélica Lózano, a bisexual woman who in 2018 became the first LGBTQ and intersex person elected to the Colombian Senate.

Lozano in March won re-election in the country’s national elections. Colombians also elected five openly LGBTQ and intersex people to the country’s House of Representatives.

Tamara Argote in March became the first non-binary person elected to the Colombian Congress.

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Africa

Landmark intersex rights law takes effect in Kenya

Activists praise Children Act 2022

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(Photo courtesy of Rarrarorro via Bigstock)

A new law that took effect late last month in Kenya has granted equal rights and recognition to intersex people 

Intersex people are now recognized as Kenya’s third gender with an ‘I’ gender marker in response to the Children Act 2022. Kenya is the first African country that has granted the intersex community this universal right.

The new law requires intersex children to be treated with dignity and have equal access to basic services like medical treatment and education, in addition to social protection services as a special need. It also requires the accomodation of intersex children in child protection centers and other facilities.

Courts are also required to consider the needs of intersex children who are on trial — including the calling of an expert witness — before they issue any ruling. The law further stipulates that anyone can be a foster parent without restrictions of gender, age or marital status.

It also protects intersex children from so-called sex normalization surgeries, and such procedures will only be done with a doctor’s recommendation. Those who violate the law will face at least three years in jail and a fine of at least $5,000.

“This is a great and major milestone globally for Kenya. We are now way ahead and can teach our neighbors and the whole globe good practices,” said Jedidah Wakonyo, a human rights lawyer and former chair of the Intersex Persons Society of Kenya

The long journey for recognition started dramatically in 2006 when some human rights organizations petitioned courts about a detainee who had been accused of a violent robbery.

Authorities perceived the suspect was a man after police strip-searched him before he entered prison.

This followed numerous court battles by intersex people who demanded the right to recognition as another gender in their birth certificates.

Being denied birth certificates from the discriminatiory law that only recognized male and female genders further limited their access to national identity cards, passports and other crucial documents and government services.      

The Births and Deaths Registration Act under the new law’s Section 7 (3) “shall take measures to ensure correct documentation and registration of intersex children at birth.” 

Intersex people commonly have a combination of male and female gonads (ovaries or testicles) or ambiguous genitalia. 

Wakonyo, who also chaired the Intersex Persons Implementation Coordination Committee and was named the International Court of Justice’s 2020 jurist of the year, describes the law’s enactment as a historic moment because of its comprehensive definition of an intersex person.

It defines an intersex child as “a child with a congenital condition in which the biological sex characteristics cannot be exclusively categorized in the common binary of female or male due to inherent and mixed anatomical, hormonal, gonadal or chromosomal patterns which could be apparent before, at birth, in childhood, puberty or adulthood.”

Kenyan law considers anyone under 17 to be a child.

“Defining an intersex from a child’s perspective while taking care of many aspects and not just the physical notion of being intersex is the best practice because in future they don’t find themselves in the state of gender confusion between males and females like the current situation,” stated Wakonyo. 

This provision essentially protects intersex persons from being deprived of their constitutional rights of gender recognition under the country’s Bill of Rights.

Veronica Mwangi, the deputy director at Kenya’s National Commission on Human Rights, that helped secure the law’s implementation, said it addresses issues for which the intersex community has been fighting for years.    

“It is very progressive and we are glad about the gains because it provides for the existence of the intersex which all state actors have to accept. Full implementation is what we now need to focus on,” she said.

The law took effect roughly five years after Kenya became the first African nation and the second country in the world after Australia to count intersex people in a Census. The 2019 survey showed 1,524 Kenyans were intersex.

Intersex rights groups had initially petitioned the courts for a total ban of surgeries on intersex children unless they were a medical emergency.

Wakonyo backs the provision for a doctor’s approval on grounds that the surgeries will only be done “in the best interest of the intersex child, informed consent of the parents and the participation of the child depending on the age.” Wakonyo and other activists say the relaxation of the requirements for adopting intersex children not only seeks to end the problem of neglect and abandonment but also the stigma that has left some to die by suicide.

The law safeguards adoptive parents’ rights and parental responsibility and intersex children from child labor, online expuse and other forms of exploitation.

“Intersex children who are just like other children will no longer be killed at birth because of their gender ambiguity,” said Wakonyo.   

Despite the law’s huge benefits for the intersex community, Wakonyo notes it is a “very significant foundation” for the group because gender-specific accommodations in social gatherings and facilities remain needed.

Another historic win for intersex Kenyans this year was the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights’ decision to hire an intersex commissioner.

“Dr. Dennis Wamalwa applied as an intersex (person), interviewed as an intersex (person), and the shortlist comprised male, female, and ‘I’ gender for intersex. He emerged (at the) top and his intersex friends and associates came to witness his swearing,” stated Wakonyo, who also served as a Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights commissioner.

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Canada

Montreal Pride organizers cancel parade

A lack of security personnel prompted last-minute decision

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(Courtesy of 𝐅𝐢𝐞𝐫𝐭é 𝐌𝐨𝐧𝐭𝐫é𝐚𝐥 𝐏𝐫𝐢𝐝𝐞/Facebook)

Citing a lack of adequate security personnel, the organizers of the Fierté Montréal Pride Parade abruptly cancelled Sunday’s parade. The event organizers told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation the decision was made in collaboration with Montréal police.

CBC reported that other Pride events taking place at the Esplanade du Parc olympique from 2 p.m. local time, including the closing show with Pabllo Vittar, will go on as as planned. Tens of thousands of people were expected to attend the parade.

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