Israel’s government has collapsed — and the county is headed to new elections for the fifth time in three years. In this renewed period of uncertainty, Israel’s LGBTQ community has cause for particular concern. Any new coalition would likely welcome parties that oppose LGBTQ inclusion back into government, posing a clear and imminent threat to their human rights.
But amidst this trepidation, there is still much to celebrate: 30 LGBTQ leaders from the U.S. met with their counterparts in Israel this month. The backdrop was Tel Aviv Pride, one of the largest in the world. The leaders were there for more than celebrations. They came to learn. As with past A Wider Bridge trips, North Americans travelling to Israel and Israelis travelling to North America shared strategies for building LGBTQ inclusion, fighting conversion therapy, protecting young people needing shelter, and building vibrant pride centers. Pride celebrations got their start in the U.S. and will take place in more than 60 Israeli cities this month. Over the years, both of our countries have imported many successful approaches from one another. But one American import to Israel is less than welcome: Political transphobia. Let’s not let it become something that unites our nations.
As leaders of groups in Israel and the U.S., we’ve watched with sadness as trans kids in America have been put in harm’s way through legislation making their medical care less available and prohibiting their teachers and school counselors from providing the lifesaving support they need. And it turns out that the same retrograde forces fighting trans inclusion in the U.S. are backing similar efforts in Israel. There have always been opposition to LGBTQ rights, including trans inclusion in both countries and around the globe. What’s new is a vastly well-funded campaign — with plenty of American backing — directed at attacking the Israeli trans community. While the fight for LGBTQ equality in Israel hasn’t been easy, historically the community hasn’t been used as a political cudgel. That’s changing, and we’re ringing the alarm bell.
Groups like the Kohelet Forum, which is largely American-funded, are trying to take their American brand of anti-trans hate to Israel. While think tanks and policy shops aren’t a new phenomenon in Israel, Kohelet has adopted the broader American model of political change-making. They’ve launched a constellation of organizations working informally together to usher in transformational policy change. With the support of Kohelet and others, the anti-trans movement has exploded in Israel.
Their orchestrated effort comes at a very unfortunate moment. Ma’avarim, Israel’s most prominent trans organization, and the entire Israeli trans community have worked tirelessly for years, building careful relationships, educating important allies — and is making tremendous advances due to an Israeli government that was willing to embrace many key goals. There are historic opportunities to implement new life-saving policies including access to healthcare, legal recognition of gender identity, and diversity in the education system. All of this is now in jeopardy. Just as these successes are coming to fruition, the anti-trans movement is using social media and other tactics to spread disinformation and false accusations such as “men in dresses raping women in bathrooms.” These fabrications are felt by many in the trans community to be like anti-Semitic blood libels — made-up stories that lead to fear, hatred, and even violence. They help fuel anti-trans advocacy and lobbying to advance exclusionary policies and legislation to deny Israeli transgender persons their dignity and rights.
The new anti-trans movement has several distinctive features that require new responses. Firstly, unlike the traditional opposition for LGBTQ rights that springs from religious and social conservatives, anti-trans advocacy is now often fronted by self-styled “progressive” women. They bring with them established connections within liberal circles. Secondly, the central arena of the “progressive” anti-trans campaign is both traditional and social media — drawing on existing networks with hundreds of thousands of followers, while trans community organizations have minimal presence in social media beyond the trans community. Thirdly, the funding being poured into anti-trans campaigns eclipses the budgets of LGBTQ organizations. In Israel alone, the groups waging battle against the trans community have budgets in the tens of millions with hundreds of paid staff, many of whom work on anti-trans campaigns.
None of us should sit idly by while these attacks on the trans community take place. As in other countries, this anti-trans hate movement poses an immediate threat to the safety and wellbeing of transgender and gender non-conforming persons. We cannot allow them to have their very existence denied.
But it doesn’t stop there. While transgender persons are the immediate targets of hate and violence, anti-trans campaigns have far-reaching political aims: dividing the liberal bloc of women’s, LGBTQ and minority rights, instilling hate, and turning liberal democratic societies against a newly created enemy from within. Anti-trans propaganda has proved instrumental in spreading disinformation and conspiracy theories that further undermine democratic values in society.
The eyes of the world often look to Israel on LGBTQ rights. Dana International, a trans woman from Tel Aviv, won the Eurovision music contest, became an international hero, and played a role in ushering greater acceptance of the trans community.
The world will be watching after Israel’s new elections: Will they continue to make progress in affording rights and protections to LGBTQ people? Or will they turn back the clock? Now more than ever, fighting the anti-trans movement must be a top priority not only for the transgender community but for LGBTQ people, feminists, and the wider progressive community in Israel- and in the United States.
Ethan Felson is the executive director of A Wider Bridge, an organization that fights for LGBTQ inclusion, counters anti-Semitism, and strengthens relationships between the LGBTQ community in Israel and North America. Elisha Alexander is the founding director of Ma’avarim, Israel’s leading NGO advocating for the transgender community.
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O’Shae Sibley’s murder is an attack on LGBTQ people and their expression, as both rise
More than 350 anti-LGBTQ attacks reported between June 2022 and July 2023
BY HENRY HICKS IV | What do the banning of a children’s picture book about two male penguins, white supremacist stand-offs outside of weekend brunches and a killing during impromptu dancing at a gas station have in common? Plenty. Each impinges on the escalating trend of attacks on LGBTQ+ people and their right to free expression.
On the evening of July 29, O’Shae Sibley pulled into a Brooklyn gas station parking lot with his friends to fill up their gas tank. As they waited for the tank to fill, the group spilled from the car and used the moment to move joyfully in the hot summer night, cranking the car radio’s volume and dancing together. Sibley, a gay man, was also a skilled professional dancer and choreographer. He displayed his talents this night, voguing to the sounds of Beyoncé, an artist that Sibley and his friends were fans of. By coincidence, the artist was performing just a few miles away that night, with professional voguers joining her on stage.
Vogueing, a dance style born out of the traditionally queer ballroom scene, is known for its electrifying dips, drops and duckwalks. The style has been prominently featured in the Golden Globe-winning television show “Pose” — and, more recently, on stage in Beyoncé’s all-consuming Renaissance World Tour. The energy of the ballroom scene has spirited communities across the country, as Beyoncé’s tour has touched down city-by-city, and Sibley and his friends were not exempt to this reach. He was, in fact, eager to participate in his artistry as someone known for his role as a dancer, choreographer, and active member of New York’s ballroom community.
As he and his friends vogued to Beyoncé in the parking lot, moves that Sibley was adept in as an artist himself, they grabbed the attention of hostile onlookers. As captured on surveillance footage, Sibley was first berated with homophobic slurs — Sibley’s vogue performance seeming to signal his sexuality to his attacker. Shortly following the verbal assault, things turned violent. Sibley was stabbed and murdered in a tragic hate crime, fueled by homophobia and triggered by Sibley’s open expression as a dancer and artist.
In mourning, and in defiant protest in the days following, the New York City queer community hosted a memorial at the site of his murder where they honored his memory through performance, with a vibrant and resistant ball.
“You won’t break my soul. / You won’t break my soul, no, no. / I’m telling everybody,” Beyoncé sings defiantly in her single, “Break My Soul.”
The murder of O’Shae Sibley was devastating — and a signal of a disturbing trend. Increasing violence toward LGBTQ+ people, and attempts to quash their personal and artistic expression, are on the rise in the United States. Advocacy organizations such as GLAAD and the Anti-Defamation League have reported surges in harassment, vandalism and physical violence against LGBTQ+ people — with 356 instances being reported between June 2022 and April 2023. Transgender people, as well as drag performers, have been targeted at notably high rates. The Human Rights Campaign reported 34 murders of trans people — mostly trans women of color — in 2022 (HRC emphasizes that the actual number is likely higher, as most attacks go unreported, or are reported inaccurately.)
Drag shows across the country have faced threats and intimidation from armed protesters, including the far-right extremist group, the Proud Boys. Gay bars have been targeted by armed assailants, such as the tragic massacre thatoccurred at Club Q in Colorado Springs, Colo., last November. Hospitals providing gender-affirming care to transgender youth have been targeted with bomb threats. On Aug. 18, a California store owner was shot and killed for displaying a Pride flag. Harassment, threats of violence, and hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community have steadily risen in recent years. It is clear that this bigotry has been emboldened and its first goal is to silence the free expression of LGBTQ+ people, through violence if necessary.
The exponential increase in physical violence against LGBTQ+ people over the last few years cannot be divorced from the recent legislative environment that has grown ever-more hostile to LGBTQ+ expression. Bills categorizing drag shows as obscenity, book bans targeting LGBTQ+ authors and stories about queer identities in schools and public libraries, as well as other legislative attacks are part of this trend against the LGBTQ+ community. The attacks, both physical and through laws and bans, risk enabling a culture that normalizes repression of queer voices and increases the risk of violence aimed, in part, at suppressing expression of LGBTQ+ people, even when individuals are simply voguing to Beyoncé in public.
Starting in 2021, we’ve seen a historic surge in book bans around the country, targeting LGBTQ+ voices and stories at a disproportionately high rate. PEN America has reported that among the top eleven books targeted by bans in the first half of the 2022-2023 school year, four focused on LGBTQ+ narratives. These challenges, paired with the historic number of bills targeting LGBTQ+ people in state legislatures across the United States — with at least 566 bills ensnaring the broader LGBTQ+ community, according to the Trans Legislation Tracker — contribute to the normalization of repressing personal and artistic expression of queer people. As these policy attacks continue to advance, violence against the LGBTQ+ community has surged.
And while O’Shae Sibley’s murder occurred in New York, a state that has passed no anti-LGBTQ+ bills in the most recent legislative session, his brutal killing shows just how pervasive the impact of anti-LGBTQ+ legislative attacks on free expression in other states are, shaping a culture that spills across borders and impacting LGBTQ+ people throughout the country. Even states perceived to be supportive to the LGBTQ+ community, such as New York, are not immune to the cultural reach of anti-LGBTQ+ repression and intimidation: the home and office of Erik Bottcher, a gay city councilmember in New York City, was vandalized last December after he voiced support for Drag Story Hour, and more recently, a rainbow Pride flag at a Manhattan restaurant was intentionally lit on fire.
Political threats to LGBTQ+ expression, whether it be through restricting and chilling on-stage performance or making it virtually impossible to even acknowledge the existence of LGBTQ+ people in Florida and other states’ schools, have and will continue to put LGBTQ+ people at risk everywhere, chilling their ability to express themselves and potentially even sending them back into the closet, which, at its core, is a form of self-censorship.
A culture of free expression, where people can speak, write — or dance — free from fear of violence, is essential to a thriving democracy. LGBTQ+ people deserve to equally enjoy this right — through creative performance, gender expression, or displays of joy. The ongoing trend of legislative attacks on drag, attempts to label LGBTQ+ stories as “obscene,” and the accompanying trend of violent assaults on LGBTQ+ people are attacks on free expression and must be condemned as such.
Henry Hicks IV is the coordinator for PEN America’s U.S. Free Expression program. PEN America is committed to defending against attacks on LGBTQ+ free expression.
Fly the Rainbow Flag in honor of Laura Ann Carleton, an LGBTQ ally
Murder in Cedar Glen, Calif., has sparked outrage around the country
The Gilbert Baker Foundation mourns the Aug. 18 murder of Laura Ann Carleton, a gift shop owner in Cedar Glen, Calif. A longtime LGBTQ+ ally, Lauri was shot dead by a man who complained about the Pride flag displayed at her store. Carleton leaves behind a husband and nine children.
The world has reacted with anger to this shocking hate crime. But people should not be surprised. This is the inevitable conclusion of mounting Republican Party and conservative attacks on the LGBTQ+ community. They label us as groomers, they lie that we are recruiting children. They ban our books, halt trans care, censor our school curricula. And all this hatred creates more hatred. Now it has led to the brutal and senseless murder of a straight woman whose only crime was to support her LGBTQ+ friends by flying a Pride flag.
The blood of Lauri Carleton is on the hands of every conservative politician who makes verbal and legislative attacks on the LGBTQ+ community. Make no mistake; this horrendous crime is no isolated incident. Across the country the Rainbow Flag has been banned in 40 cities. Right-wing legislators have also tried to ban the flag nationally — over 30 members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted for such a proposal earlier this year. This wave of censorship and anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment has created a climate ripe for hate crimes, and now a brutal murder in Cedar Glen.
The Gilbert Baker Foundation unequivocally condemns the rhetoric of hatred promoted by conservative and homophobic politicians. Words have consequences. Words of hate have even greater consequences. In memory of Lauri Carleton, the foundation asks every American to display a Rainbow Flag — at their homes, at their businesses — to let the haters across America.
Charles Beal is the president of the Gilbert Baker Foundation.
Legal registration of NGOs is vital for advancing human rights of LGBTQ, intersex rights in Africa
Kenya and Eswatini groups have won legal victories this year
By MULESA LUMINA, KAAJAL RAMJATHAN-KEOGH AND TANYA LALLMON | Upholding the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, nonbinary, other gender diverse and intersex (LGBTQI+) people remains a pivotal human rights concern across Africa. In recent years, despite significant but sporadic victories in several African courts affirming the human rights of individual members of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working to uphold LGBTQI+ rights, including their members’ right to freedom of association, many obstacles hinder such organizations’ ability to register with appropriate authorities in order to operate legally.
As unpacked in a webinar organized by the International Commission of Jurists, such obstacles include bureaucratic red tape, a dearth of domestic laws explicitly prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or sex characteristics (SOGIESC) and the existence of criminal laws targeting and perpetuating discrimination against LGBTQI+ individuals. The severe anti-LGBTQI+ backlash from community and religious groups exacerbates the situation and compounds these obstacles, further undermining advocacy efforts.
The Kenyan Supreme Court in February 2023 ordered that the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission be allowed to register because the authorities’ initial decision to refuse registration was discriminatory and unconstitutional, violating the right to freedom of association solely because of the sexual orientation of the organization’s members. In June this year, the Supreme Court of Eswatini became the latest African apex court to rule in favor of registering a LGBTQI+ human rights NGO, directing the minister responsible for registering companies to reconsider his initial refusal because, procedurally, it violated the Constitution. While the Swazi Supreme Court’s ruling in the case did not necessarily rely on a clear statement upholding the human rights of LGBTQI+ people in Eswatini, this remains a welcome decision. Seven years prior, the Botswana Court of Appeal ordered the Registrar of Societies to register Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (LEGABIBO) on the grounds that the refusal to register LEGABIBO as an organization was unlawful and a violation of the right to freely associate.
Still, across Africa, civil society organizations continue to oppose the denial of registration and seek redress for violations of the right to freedom of association of their members. Nyasa Rainbow Alliance (NRA), for instance, is one such organization with a pending decision in their legal quest for registration. NRA’s case is still awaiting hearing and determination by three judges of the Malawian Constitutional Court.
The right to freedom of association is a fundamental foundation of any democratic society. Exercising this right by forming and legally registering NGOs is essential for enhanced advocacy since it allows organizations to apply for funding, operate bank accounts that hold these funds, employ staff, work with international partners, and access global and regional human rights mechanisms and fora.
As noted by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (African Commission) in its Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly in Africa, the rights to freedom of association and assembly under the African Charter “are inextricably intertwined with other rights”. Further, in the matter mentioned above the Supreme Court of Kenya also emphatically stated, “[g]iven that the right to freedom of association is a human right, vital to the functioning of any democratic society as well as an essential prerequisite [for the] enjoyment of other fundamental rights and freedoms, we hold that this is inherent in everyone irrespective of whether the views they are seeking to promote are popular or not.”
It goes without saying that human rights NGOs play a critical role in upholding democratic principles and safeguarding human rights by mobilizing collective action, holding governments accountable, offering direct assistance to victims of human rights violations, challenging discriminatory laws and policies and more. The Triangle Project, for example, is a South African NGO that has been instrumental in amplifying awareness of anti-LGTBQI+ hate crimes, influencing policy change and supporting victims.
NGOs advocating for the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons, in particular, empower and protect these oft-marginalized individuals by offering awareness-raising platforms, connecting them with key stakeholders, and providing access to resources and services that might otherwise be denied to them. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, many LGBTQI+ Africans were abruptly cut off from the NGOs that were their safe havens and sources of social and economic support. Additionally, amid increasing hostility towards LGBTQI+ persons in many African countries, including Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda, NGOs like the Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERs) and LGBT+ Rights Ghana provide crucial protective spaces.
Having legal status is also a prerequisite for holding observer status and participation in the sessions of bodies like the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. However, the withdrawal of the Coalition of African Lesbians’ observer status by the African Commission and recent denials of such status to Alternative Côte d’Ivoire, Human Rights First Rwanda, and Synergía – Initiatives for Human Rights undermine the right to freedom of association and represent missed opportunities to ensure that the human rights of marginalized groups, including LGBTQI+ persons, are placed on the African human rights agenda.
Registration of LGBTQI+ human rights organizations in Africa is more than a matter of legal formality. It can be a significant step towards bolstering advocacy and promoting human rights for all. It is truly unconscionable that, in 2023, LGBTQI+ people continue to endure violence, persecution, discrimination and bigotry amid the reignited backlash against their human rights in multiple African countries. It is essential for governments to protect the right to freedom of association by dismantling barriers to registration and working closely with these groups to realize the human rights of all people. Only through collective efforts can we build an inclusive society that is able to guarantee the right to dignity of all persons and offer protection and non-discrimination to all.
Mulesa Lumina is the Legal and Communications Associate Officer for the International Commission of Jurists’ (ICJ’s) Africa Regional Program, Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh is ICJ Africa’s Director and Tanya Lallmon is a former ICJ Africa intern.