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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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Latest Uganda anti-homosexuality bill incites new wave of anti-LGBTQ hate

Mbarara Rise Foundation appeals to international community for help

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(Image by rarrarorro/Bigstock)

To the international community, 

I write to you today on behalf of the organization I lead, Mbarara Rise Foundation.

Since the year began, our rural grassroots LGBTQI+ communities have faced life threatening problems including an increased number of mob attacks, individual threats, police arrests and non-stop fears and insecurities arising from the homophobic campaigns happening in Uganda. Sadly, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2023 was introduced on March 9, inciting a new wave of anti-LGBTQI+ hatred.

This anti-homosexuality bill is worse than previous bills because, under this new law, simply identifying as LGBTQI+ means you have committed a crime. Even before the bill has passed, this homophobic action in Parliament has encouraged more of the general population, bloggers, celebrities and politicians to increase their hate campaigns all over the country. More than ever, Uganda is not a safe environment for us now. 

Currently, attacks are happening all over Uganda. Our communities have faced mob “justice” scenarios, threats and arrests and we have no legal recourse. Many of our constituents have received death threats, and in fact some have gone into hiding. This all increased dramatically when the bill was read in the Parliament and homophobic people are using it as a new excuse to inflict harm upon us. In just one of many examples, a transgender woman associated with our organization was beaten, publicly, by a group of cis men and she now sustains serious wounds. The police do not care.

Your voices are needed to speak out against these human rights abuses in Uganda. Your kind support is crucial and timely for us because we need protection, visibility and defense of our basic human rights. Mbarara Rise Foundation is working tirelessly to help LGBTIQ persons through building the capacity of the LGBTQI+ community, by documenting and advocating against violence, and through providing safety and security where we are able. We are fighting to increase access to legal counsel and justice and working to repeal homophobic laws and transform the attitudes of duty bearers towards LGBTQI+ persons. We cannot do this work alone.

These matters are urgent because Uganda needs interventions to protect the rights of LGBTQI+ persons amidst escalating violence and homophobia given the limited capacity of LGBTQI-led organizations, a shrinking civic space. In short, we need your outrage, your voices, and your support and we need it now.

Yours sincerely,

Real Raymond

Executive Director

Mbarara Rise Foundation

www.mbarararisefoundation.org

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Brazil insurrection proves Trump remains global threat

Jair Bolsonsaro took page out of former U.S. president’s playbook

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Former U.S. President Donald Trump and former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. (Washington Blade Trump photo by Michael Key; Bolsonaro photo by Celso Pupo/Bigstock)

I was at home in Dupont Circle on Sunday afternoon when I learned that thousands of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro supporters had stormed their country’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential palace. I grabbed my iPhone, used Google Translate to translate my initial thoughts into Brazilian Portuguese and sent them to many of the sources with whom I have worked while on assignment for the Washington Blade in the country.

“Muito perturbador a que está aconterendo em Brasília,” I said. “What is happening in Brasília is very disturbing.”

One source described the insurrection as “terrible.” Another told me that “everything is chaos.”

Toni Reis, president of Aliança Nacional LGBTI+, a Brazilian LGBTQ and intersex advocacy group, said what happened in Brasília was “horrible.” Associaçao Nacional de Travestis e Transexuais (the National Association of Travestis and Transsexuals) in a statement said the insurrectionists “attacked democracy.” Congresswoman Erika Hilton, who is transgender, described them as “terrorists.”

The insurrection, which has been described as a “coup” and a “terrorist” act, took place two days after the U.S. marked the second anniversary of Jan. 6. I felt a real sense of déjà vu because what happened in Brasília was nearly identical to what I witnessed here in D.C. two years and two days earlier with Blade Photo Editor Michael Key and then-Blade intern Kaela Roeder.

Then-U.S. President Donald Trump refused to accept the 2020 presidential election results, and thousands of his supporters on Jan. 6, 2021, laid siege to the Capitol after he spoke at the “Stop the Steal” rally on the Ellipse. The insurrection began after lawmakers began to certify the Electoral College results.

supporters of former u.s. president donald trump storm the u.s. capitol on jan. 6, 2021. (washington blade video by michael k. lavers)

Bolsonaro, who has yet to publicly acknowledge he lost to current Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, flew to Florida on Dec. 30.

Da Silva’s inauguration took place in Brasília on Jan. 1. Bolsonaristas laid siege to their country’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential palace a week later. 

“The Brazilian presidential election has fueled a misinformation emergency that has tipped the LGBT+ community into a boiling pot of fake news,” wrote Egerton Neto, a Brazilian LGBTQ and intersex activist who is also an Aspen New Voices Fellow and manager of Oxford University’s XX, in an op-ed the Blade published last Oct. 28, two days before Da Silva defeated Bolsonaro in the second round of Brazil’s presidential election. “This is part of a broader global problem and we need a global plan to stop it.”

supporters of then-brazilian president jair bolsonaro rally near the brazilian congress in brasÍlia, Brazil, on oct. 1, 2022. (washington blade video by michael k. lavers)

I was on assignment in Mexico City on July 16, 2018, when Trump defended Russian President Vladimir Putin after their summit in Helsinki. I wrote in a Blade oped the “ridiculous spectacle … proved one and for all the U.S. under (the Trump) administration cannot claim with any credibility that it stands for human rights around the world.”

“American exceptionalism, however flawed, teaches us the U.S. is a beacon of hope to those around the world who suffer persecution. American exceptionalism, however flawed, teaches us the U.S. is the land of opportunity where people can build a better life for themselves and for their families,” I wrote. “Trump has turned his back on these ideals. He has also proven himself to be a danger not only to his country, but to the world as a whole.”

Bolsonaro during a press conference with Trump at the White House on March 19, 2019, said he has “always admired the United States of America.”

“This admiration has only increased since you took office,” said Bolsonaro.

The so-called “Trump of the Tropics” clearly took a page out of his American ideological counterpart’s anti-democratic playbook, and Sunday’s insurrection in Brasília is the implementation of it. The bolsonaristas who stormed the Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidential palace perpetrated an assault on democracy in the name of their country’s former president who cannot bring himself to publicly acknowledge that he lost re-election. Sunday’s insurrection also proves that Trump, his enablers and those who continue to blindly defend and worship him remain as dangerous as ever.

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New York Times’ decision to hire anti-LGBTQ attorney as columnist is appalling

David French has worked for Alliance Defending Freedom

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David French (Screen capture via Wheaton College/YouTube)

GLAAD, the world’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) media advocacy organization, is responding to the New York Times’ recent announcement of their hiring of anti-LGBTQ attorney and writer David French as a columnist.

“It is appalling that the New York Times hired and is now boasting about bringing on David French, a writer and attorney with a deep history of anti-LGBTQ activism. After more than a year of inaccurate, misleading LGBTQ coverage in the Times opinion and news pages, the Times started 2023 by announcing a second anti-transgender opinion columnist, without a single known trans voice represented on staff,” responded GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis. “A cursory search for French turns up numerous anti-LGBTQ articles and his record as an attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom, an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center designated an anti-LGBTQ hate group that actively spreads misinformation about LGBTQ people and pushes baseless legislation and lawsuits to legalize discrimination, including just last month at the Supreme Court. The Times left out these facts in its glowing announcement of French’s hiring, and also forgot to mention his work as a co-signer on the 2017 Nashville Statement, which erased LGBTQ voices of faith and falsely stated ‘that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism.’ The Times had the gall to claim French as a ‘faith’ expert despite this known history.

The Times’ opinion section continues to platform non-LGBTQ voices speaking up inaccurately and harmfully about LGBTQ people and issues. This is damaging to the paper’s credibility. The Times opinion section editors’ love letter to French yesterday shows a willful disregard of LGBTQ community voices and the concerns so many have shared about their inaccurate, exclusionary, often ridiculous pieces. Last year, the Times ended popular trans writer Jenny Boylan’s column, leaving the opinion section with no trans columnists and a known lack of transgender representation on its overall staff. Who was brought on after Boylan? Pamela Paul, who has devoted columns to anti-transgender and anti-LGBTQ disinformation, and David French. This reflects a growing trend on the news and opinion pages of misguided, inaccurate, and disingenuous ‘both sides’ fearmongering and bad faith ‘just asking questions’ coverage. The Times started 2023 by bragging about hiring another anti-trans writer, so LGBTQ leaders, organizations, and allies should make a 2023 resolution not to stay silent as the Times platforms lies, bias, fringe theories and dangerous inaccuracies.”

Examples of French’s anti-LGBTQ activism:

Examples of NYT columnist Pamela Paul’s anti-LGBTQ work:

Recent examples of inaccurate news coverage of LGBTQ people and youth, and their consequences:

  • In court documents, the state of Texas quoted Emily Bazelon’s June 15 report in the New York Times Magazine to further target families of trans youth over their private, evidence-based healthcare decisions. Every major medical association supports gender affirming care as best practices care that is safe and lifesaving and has widespread consensus of the medical and scientific communities.
  • The World Professional Association of Transgender Healthcare (WPATH), the world’s leading medical and research authority on transgender healthcare, criticized the Times’ November 2022 article “They Paused Puberty, But Is There a Cost?” as “furthering the atmosphere of misinformation” about healthcare for trans youth, noting its inaccurate narratives, interpretations and non-expert voices. WPATH noted the Times elevated false and inflammatory notions about medications that have been used safely in non-LGBTQ populations for decades without an explicit statement about how the benefits of the treatment far outweigh potential risks.
  • Writer Michael Powell elevated anti-transgender voices to falsely assert, in a piece about one successful transgender athlete, that transgender athletes are a threat to women’s sports. Powell’s other pieces have been used to support Pamela Paul’s inaccurate opinion essays falsely claiming “women” are being erased by the inclusion of trans people in discussions about abortion access. 
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