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Criminalization of sex work not only violates human rights; it adds to HIV and LGBTQ+ stigma

Human Rights Day is Dec. 10

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Beauty Dhliwayo, a nurse at the Center for Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS Research Zimbabwe clinic in Mutare, Zimbabwe, explains how PrEP works to a client. The current Global Fund HIV grant managed by UNDP supports initiation of PrEP for key populations, including sex workers, through a combination of fixed sites providing prevention services, and outreach conducted by NGO partners such as the (CeSHHAR). (Photo courtesy of UNDP Zimbabwe/Cynthia R. Matonhodze)

I have accomplished many goals in my life that fill me with pride. I am an international advocate for Aidsfonds in the Netherlands — promoting the work of the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. I am active in politics, with a focus on advocating for the LGBTQ+ community and the destigmatization for people with HIV. 

However, one of my biggest accomplishments that I am most proud of is being a male sex worker and an advocate for sex workers. I have been a sex worker for over a decade. 

I remember I was not comfortable with the idea initially, as I had political aspirations. I was also afraid that if I did sex work it would have negative consequences — especially in terms of safety and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). So, I rejected the notion. Later, I started doubting that initial decision, as I wanted to travel and was making very little money at the time. I also became more open about sexual freedom and not being monogamous. 

I was extremely nervous when I met my first client — especially because of societal notions around safety and sex work. However, I soon realized my client was more nervous than me — especially because he was married to a woman and was not out about his sexuality. That made me realize that clients also have vulnerabilities. This reminded me of myself and so I became much more comfortable from then on with sex work. It was interesting to see how people share their sexual secrets that they cannot share with anybody except with the sex worker. As a sex worker, you see unique insight into the sexual lives and secrets of people, and I always found that captivating. 

Yet, sex work can also be dangerous for those operating in countries where it is deemed illegal. It’s harder to have protections in place or turn to authorities if you’re assaulted. As many sex workers are women and from the LGBTQ+ community, the criminalization of sex work causes further inequality of women and LGBTQ+ people in society, while increasing stigma around HIV.

Organizations like the Global Fund tailor services to the specific needs of these populations. At each stage, key populations are involved in the design, implementation and monitoring of health services, as well as in policy decisions that affect them. The Global Fund also provides intensive support to countries to vastly scale up evidence-based programming to reduce human rights-related barriers to HIV, TB and malaria services through an initiative called the Breaking Down Barriers initiative.

When I finally started to settle in as a sex worker, I felt that I could not be open, as I was afraid of implications for my future career and rejection. This element of stigma plays a very big role. When you are a sex worker and HIV positive on top of that — these are things you can cope with but it’s very hard to if no one around you knows. If something happens or you’re feeling down, you have no one to turn to.

At that point I said to myself if I want to break open that stigma; I have a responsibility to speak out because when we speak out and share our stories then we can break the stigma. 

The Netherlands is one of the few countries in the world where sex workers are not a risk for HIV anymore. The reason for that is sex work in the Netherlands is legalized. And in every major city there are health centers specialized in ensuring they do outreach to sex workers, offering free tests and treatments and stigma free information.

Inequality is holding the fight against AIDS back. According to a UNAIDS report, sex workers who live in countries where sex work is considered a criminal act have a seven times greater chance of living with HIV than in countries where sex work is legalized.  

In 2003, New Zealand decriminalized the profession of sex work and began to regulate the industry. Within five years, the number of people within the industry had not increased but instead improved the safety of sex workers who had the ability to refuse certain clients and it also led to greater trust in the police. Belgium decided to replicate the New Zealand model this year. Other countries such as South Africa have proposed a bill to decriminalize sex work and earlier this year, India issues directives for protecting the well-being and fundamental rights of sex workers under the country’s constitution.

Even in The Netherlands — where sex work is legal — some of my colleagues’ still experience stigma when visiting general health care professionals; so, they aren’t comfortable disclosing their sex work, which is very important for medical assessments. 

When implementing decriminalization measures providing specialized centers with staff that are trained with handling sex workers is extremely important, but these types of centers are only possible if sex workers are not considered criminals — otherwise seeking out medical treatment is seen as risky.

There are also specialized social workers and doctors that have a good sense of how to communicate with sex workers. I do feel there’s a lot of support, testing and information available in the Netherlands and it is proof of that a country can accomplish a reduction in HIV amongst sex workers — once you decriminalize sex work and provide good, inclusive health services. 

I believe that being a sex worker is an absolute human right. And having access to healthcare clinics and access to HIV services as a sex worker is vital. These benefits can only be realized through protecting the safety and human rights of marginalized people 

The pandemic over the past few years has highlighted the gaping inequality in healthcare for marginalized people. Tackling these global health inequalities can help put the fight against epidemics, such as AIDS, back on track. My hope for Human Rights Day this year is that governments focus on equalizing health services for vulnerable key populations, as well as creating an environment where they feel comfortable to seek help around HIV testing, support and awareness. No person should feel nervous or lack the ability to access medical help because of unjust stigma and shame associated with the work they do.

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Commentary

Fly the Rainbow Flag in honor of Laura Ann Carleton, an LGBTQ ally

Murder in Cedar Glen, Calif., has sparked outrage around the country

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Laura Ann Carleton (Family photo shared on social media)

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.

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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

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(Photo by NASA)

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. 

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Commentary

Queer parenthood explored: A transparent dive into surrogacy and hope

Matthew Schueller hosts ‘Who’s Your Daddy?’ podcast with husband

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Husbands Michael Lindsay and Matthew Schueller have embarked on a surrogacy journey. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Schueller)

This is a guest commentary by Matthew Schueller for News is Out. 

I feel extraordinarily lucky. As a kid, I never imagined my life could look like this. Growing up in the closet in the mid-Willamette Valley of Oregon, an area many consider to be the conservative Bible Belt of the Pacific Northwest, I didn’t think it was possible for me to find love, let alone get married. It’s humbling to see now that I’ve proved myself wrong. It is truly contrary to what I thought my life would be like 10 years ago, so to be here now in the process of starting a family is absolutely ridiculous to me. It already feels like a miracle, so the fact that we can even attempt to bring life into this world as a gay couple blows my mind.

I’ve always wanted to have kids, but I didn’t start seriously considering the possibility of surrogacy until I met Michael and our relationship became more serious. As I learned more about it and started looking into it more, I realized that it was the best path for us at the time. We started looking for an egg donor and surrogate mother at the beginning of 2021 when we officially made the decision to start the process.

That being said, we know it’s still not that easy. While it’s been around for a while, surrogacy is still riddled with mystery, inaccessibility, and unpredictability. What we quickly realized when we started to look at our options was that we didn’t know the first thing about starting a family as a queer couple, and neither did most of our friends and family! When we started researching online, we found a ton of different information (often conflicting) from a variety of sources. We didn’t even know where to start, so we began calling up IVF clinics and surrogacy agencies.

We spent months researching the process and figuring out what exactly this might look like for us, how much it would cost, and how we should mentally prepare. I think that’s what inspired us to start sharing. We saw a lot of couples online sharing their stories after the fact — after the babies had arrived and everything looked fantastic — but we didn’t see many couples sharing their stories as it was happening. To us, the process of surrogacy looked like a mysterious black curtain where most of the details were not quite clear.

Our goal is to share the process of having kids as a gay couple as it’s happening, the good and the difficult. We believe alternative paths to parenthood should be accessible to all queer couples, and we think that starts with shedding light on how these processes actually work. With knowledge, there’s power. And since many of us in the LGBTQ+ community don’t know the options available for family planning, we don’t know where to start to enact change.

Many paths to parenthood are largely considered to only be attainable by the extremely privileged and wealthy — but we know that gender, sexuality, and income level should not determine whether or not someone can have a family, so why is that not considered true for queer couples? There are a lot of big questions that have come up, so my husband, Michael, actually encouraged me to start a podcast with him to interview individuals who’ve experienced alternative paths to parenthood and experts who can provide insight and education. Thus, the birth of the “Who’s Your Daddy?” podcast.

The “Who’s Your Daddy?” podcast is available wherever you get your podcasts. (Photo courtesy of Maria Orlatov)

Over the last 19 months, we’ve found our egg donor, created embryos and actively sought our gestational carrier. While there have been many ups and downs, we are really excited for the next steps in hopefully finding our surrogate soon. The first difficult decision was trying to figure out where we would undergo the process. We interviewed quite a few surrogacy agencies and IVF clinics, and we connected well with a doctor in Texas. We just had a good feeling about it, so we went with our gut. At the time, we didn’t think much of where our egg donor or surrogate could be located: We thought it didn’t really matter if they were far away from us. We were under the impression that pursuing surrogacy in Texas might be significantly cheaper than on the West Coast, and perhaps lead to a quicker matching time since there are just way more people in the Dallas area than in the entire state of Oregon.

Our minds changed. As the clinic progressed through egg donation and embryo creation, we started to feel the distance weighing on us. Not only did the importance of being physically close to where our surrogate would be located but also we began reflecting on how the state laws could impact us. Just over the last year, Texas has taken sweeping action against access to abortion. So what does that mean for all those in the state considering being a surrogate? If pregnancy complications were to occur, how difficult would it be for a surrogate to access the needed medical care? It’s unclear. It’s understandable that the change in state law could cause concern for many considering becoming a gestational carrier and therefore limit the pool of people willing to carry in the state. 

Legal implications aside, we want to be there for the ultrasounds, doctor’s appointments and of course the childbirth. Being far away from where our surrogate lives makes that difficult. Now, we recommend those considering surrogacy to look into your local laws, determine how those might impact you and then consider the closest reputable IVF clinics in your area before searching far away.

Our embryos were created last December. While 30 eggs were harvested, only five embryos made it to viability. I’m the genetic half of four of the embryos, while Michael is the genetic half to one. It was a difficult experience. On one hand, we were incredibly happy that we were able to produce five viable embryos. On the other hand, we’re extremely nervous. Our goal starting out was to have twins, each of us the genetic father of one. With only having one embryo on Michael’s side, that means there’s just one chance at a transfer. If it were to fail, we’re just not sure it’s financially feasible to repeat the IVF process and try for more embryos. So, we’re hopeful. Optimism can be powerful here, so we look at this as having five embryos–five wonderful chances to have a baby. We might not end up with twins like we first sought to do, but if we’ve learned one thing from this entire journey, it’s that we cannot control what we cannot control. Surrogacy and IVF are seriously unpredictable processes, and we’re just hopeful to see what miracle biology will bring.

Michael, a dentist, and Matthew, a nurse, have become popular on social media for their relatable content, travel adventures and candid conversations about wanting to become parents. (Photo courtesy of Maria Orlatov)

Matthew Schueller is a content creator and registered nurse. He hosts the “Who’s Your Daddy” podcast along with his husband, Dr. Michael Lindsay. You can follow @MichaelandMatt on InstagramTikTok and YouTube

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