“Today, in France, we still cannot live and love freely just as we are,” said Joël Deumier, president of the association SOS Homophobie. In its annual report published May 10, 2017, the organization stated it received 1,575 testimonies of anti-LGBT acts in 2016, an increase of nearly 20% compared with the previous year. It’s possible that the increase in reported incidents reflects a greater willingness of victims to speak out. Still, SOS Homophobie believes that many victims of anti-LGBT acts do not dare come forward.

Demonstration in support of same-sex marriage in Paris, 16 December 2012.

© 2012 Olivier Hoffschir

In 2016, SOS Homophobie received 26 reports from people who said they had a homophobic, biphobic, or transphobic encounter with justice or law enforcement officials. By this is meant that an officer refused to characterize an assault as homophobic in a complaint or to even file a complaint, or that a law enforcement officer himself discriminated against LGBT people.

While these incidents remain thankfully limited, they are no less unacceptable. France should take measures to determine how widespread these attitudes are among public officials, and to prevent subversion of their duties because of this attitude.

SOS Homophobie’s report also shows a correlation between debates over equal rights and the increase of anti-LGBT acts. The organization recorded a spike in reported incidents in 2013, the year France legalized same-sex marriage. In 2016, France adopted a law waiving the requirement for transgender people to provide proof of medical treatment to amend their legal gender. That same year saw a 76% spike in reported transphobic incidents.

While a majority of the French population is in favor of allowing same-sex couples to get married and adopt children, opponents of LGBT rights are a “vocal minority,” and are especially active on social media, where prosecution for homophobic statements remains difficult to carry out.

Several candidates for the 2017 presidential election expressed their intention to “rewrite the Taubira law” on same-sex marriage and adoption. One candidate even received the support of Sens commun, an organization openly opposed to the rights of LGBT people. When political figures take stands that are hostile to equal rights, they may “rekindle hate.”

It is high time to end discrimination against LGBT people and the French authorities have a key responsibility and role to turn this into reality.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

This week Poland’s parliament has the chance to improve the lives of transgender people by passing a law that simplifies the legal gender recognition procedure.

Recognition before the law in your preferred gender is a vital aspect of ensuring respect for the human rights of transgender people. For example, it allows transgender people to access services on an equal footing with their peers.

Transgender activists march in the 2015 Warsaw Pride holding a banner that reads "YES to Gender Accordance Act.”

© 2015 Trans-Fuzja

Momentum on this matter is building. Earlier this year, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe issued a resolution noting “the emergence of a right to gender identity”, while raising concerns that “transgender people face widespread discrimination in Europe.”

Members of Poland’s parliament will consider the country’s Act on Gender Recognition this Friday. Parliament already passed the draft legislation over the summer, although the president vetoed it last week.

The act proposes some important advances.

First, it defines gender identity as a “settled and intense experience of one’s own gender,” which may or may not correspond with one's sex assigned at birth.

Second, it eliminates the requirement for physical interventions before gender can be legally recognized, and instead makes the process a court procedure.

Third, it spells out the various documents on which applicants are legally entitled to change their gender – including education certificates, work qualifications, and health records – and allows the possibility for young transgender people, once they reach age 16, to change their name.

Access to documents in your preferred gender and name is a key element in ensuring respect for an individual’s right to personal and private life, and also allows transgender people better access to healthcare, education, and employment.

In a recent survey, 78 percent of Polish transgender people said quicker and easier legal gender recognition procedures would allow them to live more comfortably.

There’s no doubt President Andrzej Duda’s recent veto of the act was a setback. But if parliament does vote in majority support of the legislation, Poland will take a huge step forward and transform the lives of many.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Graeme Reid, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program, is an expert on LGBT rights. He has conducted research, taught and published extensively on gender, sexuality, LGBT issues, and HIV/AIDS.

Before joining Human Rights Watch in 2011, Reid was the founding director of the Gay and Lesbian Archives of South Africa, a researcher at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research and a lecturer in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies at Yale University. An anthropologist by training, Reid received an master’s from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and a PhD from the University of Amsterdam.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Same-sex couple get married at a registry office, becoming Germany's first married gay couple after German parliament approved marriage quality in a historic vote in Berlin, Germany on October 1, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters/Axel Schmidt

At first glance, 2017 seems to have been a good year for marriage equality the world over. But the year ends on a negative note.

Let’s start in Europe. In Germany and Malta, two European Union member states, legislation came into force and the first same-sex weddings took place in those countries. In Austria the Constitutional Court explicitly stated that a ban on same-sex marriage conveys the message that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are not equal to heterosexuals, and concluded that this amounts to discrimination. The Austrian Constitutional Court’s ruling gave the government and Parliament until January 1, 2019, to agree on legislation allowing same-sex couples to marry. If the government does not act by then, the law on civil marriage law will be automatically amended so that from that date same-sex marriages can take place.

In Asia, in a May ruling, Taiwan’s Constitutional Court paved the way for marriage equality, striking down the legal definition of marriage as “between a man and a woman.” The court gave Parliament two years to amend existing laws or pass new legislation to include same-sex marriage. If Parliament fails to act, same-sex couples will automatically be able to marry. Thus, in 2019 or sooner if a law has been passed, Taiwan will become the first Asian country with marriage equality.

In Chile, President Michelle Bachelet introduced a marriage equality bill in August. Chile’s Congress began debating it on November 27. The debates will continue in 2018. If the bill is adopted, Chile will become the sixth country in Latin America with marriage equality, after Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Uruguay.

The Australian government introduced marriage equality legislation in Parliament in November following the results of a national postal survey in which 61.6 percent of respondents voted in favor of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. The Senate and the House of Representatives approved the bill. The first marriages will take place in January. Australia will be the 25th country with marriage equality.

However, 2017 ends with a negative example. In Bermuda, a British overseas territory with about 65,000 inhabitants, the Supreme Court had declared that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry under the Marriage Act to prevent discrimination. In response, the Bermuda government introduced the Domestic Partnership Act 2017, which allows both same-sex and different-sex couples to register their relationship as a domestic partnership but preserves marriage as a union between a woman and a man. The bill was approved by the House of Assembly, and on December 13, Bermuda’s Senate voted in favor of it.

When the governor signs it, Bermuda will become the first country in the world to strip same-sex couples of their right to marry by introducing lesser legislation.

A total of 25 countries have marriage equality now. Let´s hope Bermuda is a one-off incident and marriage equality will spread the world over in the years to come.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Audience members watch films screened during the sold-out opening night of the 2017 Queer Kampala International Film Festival. Police raided and forcibly closed the festival on December 9, 2017. 

© 2017, Queer Kampala International Film Festival

(Nairobi, December 15, 2017) – Ugandan police raided and forcibly closed the Queer Kampala International Film Festival on December 9, 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. The festival featured films and documentaries portraying the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ) people. Police offered no formal legal basis for forcibly shutting down the festival.

The festival, held for the second year in Kampala, began on December 8. The festival organizer, Kamoga Hassan, told Human Rights Watch that the opening night was successful. A large audience responded positively to the films, he said, which included stories of LGBTIQ people coming to terms with their identities, fighting discrimination, engaging in activism, and falling in love. Organizers had hoped the stories shown during the festival would help to educate Ugandans about communities that face discrimination and marginalization in their country.

“The raid on the Queer Kampala International Film Festival is just the latest in a series of attacks on freedoms of expression, association and assembly for all Ugandans, including sexual and gender minorities.” said Neela Ghoshal, senior researcher on LGBT rights at Human Rights Watch. “Ugandans should be able to watch educational films about LGBT people without having to fear the police.”

On December 9, shortly before the films began, organizers received a tip-off that police intended to raid the festival and arrest participants if they did not disband. The organizers asked participants to leave. Shortly thereafter, three police officers entered the venue and told organizers that they were shutting down the festival because the films – many of which have received international acclaim – were “pornographic,” Hassan said.

“I was very surprised that they had to use a narrative that we were screening pornographic films – these were basically documentaries about people’s lived realities,” Hassan said, “Our constitution is clear. We’re not breaking laws.”

Uganda’s criminal code includes a colonial-era law prohibiting “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” with possible sentences of up to life in prison. The law very rarely leads to prosecutions, but police have used it as a pretext to shut numerous events targeting LGBT audiences and their allies over the past several years, such as the entire 2017 annual Pride Week scheduled events, parades and a fashion show in previous Pride Weeks, and a human rights education workshop in 2012.

In January 2014, President Yoweri Museveni signed into law the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which criminalized the undefined “promotion” of homosexuality and led to arrests, evictions, firings, and hate crimes against LGBT people. In August 2014, Uganda’s Constitutional Court declared the law null and void.

Ugandan officials have repeatedly banned events that they falsely claim “promote” homosexuality, Human Rights Watch said. A July 2014 High Court ruling, in violation of free assembly rights, endorsed Ethics and Integrity Minister Simon Lokodo’s closure in 2012 of a human rights workshop organized by LGBT activists, claiming that workshop participants were “promoting” or “inciting” same-sex acts. Activists have appealed the ruling, but their appeal is yet to be heard.

In 2016, police raided a fashion show organized as part of the annual Pride celebrations – beating and humiliating participants, taking pictures of them without consent, and causing one participant to suffer severe injuries from jumping out of a window to escape police violence.

In August 2017, Lokodo ordered police to shut down all Pride events, stating that “No gay gathering and promotion can be allowed in Uganda,” media reports said.

“Human rights organizations have for the past few months been conducting human rights training amongst police officers,” said Clare Byarugaba, coordinator of the Equality and Non-discrimination Program at Chapter Four Uganda. “I question the value of these engagements, considering the police service’s continued deliberate suppression and violation of the rights of LGBT Ugandans.”

Ugandan police routinely violate free expression and assembly rights, particularly of people who criticize the government or who voice divergent views. Human Rights Watch has documented numerous instances in which police used excessive force in recent years, including around recent protests against removing a maximum age limit for presidential candidates from Uganda’s laws.

Hassan said he would try to reschedule the film festival after dialogue with the police.

“Police leadership should ensure the festival can be rescheduled and go forward free of harassment,” Ghoshal said. “Being LGBT is not a crime, and neither is seeking to better understand discrimination against LGBT people through film.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A man sells rainbow flags near The Stonewall Inn, on the eve of the LGBT Pride March, in the Greenwich Village section of New York City, , U.S. June 24, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

During its first year in office, the Trump Administration has steadily chipped away at federal laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination. The administration has withdrawn guidance protecting transgender youth in schools, banned transgender people from serving in the military, undermined LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination protections in federal court, and sided with people and organizations who want to discriminate against LGBT people for religious reasons.

In 2018, another crucial protection is at risk of being erased. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), designed to support survivors of intimate partner violence, sexual assault, and stalking, contains important provisions prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people in the services it funds and supports. The protections were added when the law was reauthorized in 2013, making it the first federal law to explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. With these provisions, VAWA has helped ensure that all survivors are able to better access care.

Support for LGBT people who have survived abuse is critical. A 2015 survey of research by the Williams Institute noted that most studies “found a lifetime prevalence of [intimate partner violence] among lesbian and bisexual women, gay and bisexual men, and transgender people that is as high as or higher than the U.S. general population.” LGBT survivors face unique barriers to accessing services, ranging from a lack of awareness to heteronormative assumptions that they don’t need protection from abuse to overt discrimination and exclusion by service providers.

VAWA helps address these barriers. LGBT-inclusive provisions have encouraged providers to undergo training and ensure services are accessible and effective for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. They have named LGBT people an underserved population, allowing providers to use earmarked funds to address their unique vulnerabilities. And they have ensured that transgender people are able to access shelters consistent with their gender identity.

These 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence are the last before Congress is scheduled to reauthorize VAWA. In 2013, Republican leadership in the House of Representatives fought hard to strip LGBT protections from the bill, delaying VAWA reauthorization for months. Advocates have expressed concern that inclusive provisions of the law will come under renewed threat in the upcoming reauthorization. In 2018, Congress should refuse to make the elimination of intimate partner violence for LGBT people a partisan issue. Instead, it should reauthorize an inclusive VAWA that commits to addressing gender-based violence in all its forms. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers an apology to members of the LGBT Community in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada on November 28, 2017.

©2017 Reuters/Chris Wattie

With “shame, sorrow, and deep regret,” a tearful Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized for the “systematic oppression, criminalization and violence” that the Canadian government meted out to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and two-spirit citizens. Thunderous applause and a sustained standing ovation greeted his frank acknowledgement: “We were wrong. We apologize. I am sorry. We are sorry.”

A fund of over 100 million Canadian dollars will be available to compensate government employees whose careers were curtailed or ended in a sustained purge of sexual and gender minorities. Legislation is pending that will allow for expunging criminal convictions for consensual same-sex activity.   

Testimony from individuals in Canada who were interrogated, sidelined, or fired from public service is a reminder that damage cannot be undone. Trudeau’s apology cited careers curtailed, potential thwarted, lives ruined or lost, and dignity sullied.

The Canadian government is not the first to apologize, but it went further than most in recognizing and compensating for past mistakes and “vowing to never repeat them.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron said in 2009 he was sorry for Section 28, legislation in force between 1988 and 2003, that banned authorities from portraying homosexuality in a positive light. That same year he issued a posthumous apology to a computer pioneer and codebreaker Alan Turing, who helped defeat the Nazis but took his own life after being subjected to chemical castration as a result of a conviction for “gross indecency.” Turing also received an official posthumous pardon from the queen in 2013, while the “Turing Law” of 2017 provides an automatic pardon to men convicted for homosexual acts.

This year has been a watershed for apologies. In January, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a formal apology on behalf of the State Department for the systematic purge, similar to Canada’s, against gay and lesbian employees. It started in the 1940s and continued for decades, peaking in the Lavender Scare of the McCarthy era.

Earlier this year the German Bundestag quashed all convictions under Paragraph 175, a provision of the German Criminal Code under which over 140,000 men were convicted. The law also provided for financial compensation for victims still alive.

Also in 2017, New Zealand’s justice minister, Amy Adams, issued an apology before Parliament during the reading of a bill that allows victims of discriminatory legislation to have their convictions expunged. And Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, issued an apology coinciding with the passage of legislation that gives an automatic pardon to those convicted under discriminatory laws before 2001.

Pope Francis said last year that Christians owed apologies to gays and others who have been offended or exploited by the church, although he did not actually apologize himself.

The indignities and worse endured by Canadians under discriminatory laws and policies of the past beg belief from today’s perspective. But the litany of abuse is sadly commonplace in many parts of the world. Trudeau said that Canada “will stand tall on the international stage” and support equal rights for LGBTQ communities around the world.  His apology was addressed to Canadians, but his words will resonate globally.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Austria's Constitutional Court (Verfassungsgerichtshof) in Vienna, Austria. On December 4, 2017 the court ruled that a ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. 

©2016 Reuters

(Amsterdam, December 6, 2017) – The Austrian Constitutional Court’s ruling on December 4, 2017, that a ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional is a powerful victory for equal marriage rights, Human Rights Watch said today. It is the first time a Constitutional Court in Europe has held that the exclusion of gay people from civil marriage is unconstitutional. The Austrian government and parliament should quickly adopt marriage equality legislation.

The court ruled that the law on civil marriage, which limits civil marriage to a union between a woman and a man, violates the prohibition against discrimination in the Austrian constitution. The court explicitly stated that a ban on same-sex marriage conveys the message that lesbian, gay, or bisexual people are not equal to heterosexuals and concluded that this amounts to discrimination.

“The judges ruled that banning same-sex couples from civil marriage is a violation of the fundamental principle that people are entitled to be treated equally, and that the state is not allowed to discriminate against people based on their personal characteristics,” said Boris Dittrich, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Gay, lesbian, and bisexual Austrians have been waiting for a long time for marriage equality, and now is the time for parliament to deliver with marriage equality legislation.”

The court gave the government and parliament until January 1, 2019, to agree on legislation allowing same-sex couples to enter civil marriage. If the government does not act by then, the civil marriage law will become unconstitutional.

The case was brought by two women who have a registered partnership but wanted to get married. A magistrate in Vienna denied them their marriage license, as did the Vienna administrative court.

In 2010, Austria adopted a law on registered partnership, applicable only to same-sex couples. The idea behind the law was to minimize discrimination against same-sex couples, while continuing to restrict civil marriage to different-sex couples.

In the December 4 ruling, the Constitutional Court argued that over the course of time, the differences between civil marriage and registered partnership have diminished. For example, since 2016 same-sex couples have been allowed to adopt children, and all couples have equal access to medically assisted reproduction.

The court also concluded that the law on registered partnership, which allows only same-sex couples to register their relationship, discriminates against different-sex couples. Therefore, in the absence of any action by the government and parliament, as of January 1, 2019, registered partnerships will also be opened to different-sex couples.

Twenty-four countries already have marriage equality. It is expected that Australia will follow very soon, after its Senate voted in favour of such legislation in November. The Australian House of Representatives is discussing the legislation this week. In other countries, including Chile and Taiwan, such legislation is being drafted.

Many western European countries have introduced marriage equality. The Netherlands was the first in the world, with an equal marriage law that came into force in 2001. This year, Germany and Malta joined the group of European countries in which all couples wishing to legally marry are treated equally.

Constitutional courts in South Africa, Colombia, and Taiwan have also ruled that a ban on same-sex marriage in unconstitutional.

“Austria’s constitutional court has sent a powerful message that when it comes to the legal status of relationships, separate is not equal,” Dittrich said. “This could provide incentives for same-sex couples in other countries to turn to their courts to claim equal marriage rights.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
In November 2015, I sat in a small circle of plastic chairs outside a rustic hotel in Sri Lanka’s coastal town of Ambalangoda. Against a backdrop of fruit trees and waves lapping the shore I listened to horrific stories from six gay, bisexual, and transgender people whom a Sri Lankan gay activist had convened to meet with Human Rights Watch.

“Abeeth” (all names are changed for privacy and security), a young gay man, told us that when he was 17, Ambalangoda police ordered him into a jeep and took him to the beach, where one of them raped him. “I was so scared,” Abeeth said. “I let him do anything.”

Sashini, a transgender woman in Colombo, has formally petitioned the National Human Rights Commission to urge the government to recognize her as female by issuing her official documents that reflect her livedgender. 

© 2016 Samantha

Jeewani, a 20-year-old transgender woman, said a police officer in Colombo had raped her when she was 17. The rape was “so, so painful, I screamed,” she said. Neither Jeewani nor Abeeth reported the crimes, afraid the police would abuse them further.

In Colombo, my colleague interviewed Nithura, a 31-year-old lesbian, who said her girlfriend’s father had threatened her with death, but she did not go to the police. “If not for the laws, I would’ve said something,” she said. “I’m a criminal in this country. What’s the point wasting time saying something when the laws are unequal and unjust? I just don’t want to be illegal.”

Sections 365 and 365A of the Sri Lankan Penal Code prohibit “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” and acts of “gross indecency,” commonly understood in Sri Lanka to criminalize same-sex relations between consenting adults, both female and male, including in private spaces. The police use these and vague, outdated “vagrancy” laws to justify arbitrary arrests of people simply because they appear gay or transgender. Their legal vulnerability makes them easy targets for horrendous police abuse.

Other Sri Lankans told us during our research in Sri Lanka in 2015 and 2016, that they had faced discrimination accessing health care, employment, and housing because of their real or perceived gender identity or sexual orientation.

At Sri Lanka’s recent Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in November – a review every four years of the human rights records of United Nations member states at the UN Human Rights Council – the government accepted recommendations to end discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. In fact, it made a “voluntary pledge” to “Ensure and strengthen respect for fundamental rights of all persons, including those from the LGBTIQ community, and address concerns raised in that regard,” no doubt a result of years of advocacy by Sri Lankan activists.

The pledge is encouraging, but officials have been sending mixed messages. An interim report from the fundamental rights committee of the Constitutional Assembly in early 2017 included draft language prohibiting discrimination on gender, sex, sexual orientation and gender identity among other grounds. The committee also proposed doing away with article 16 of the existing constitution, a bizarre “savings clause” that prohibits constitutional challenges to laws that predate the constitution, some dating to British colonial days. That would allow human rights activists to go to court, challenging sections 365 and 365A as unconstitutional.

But there’s no guarantee that these proposed reforms will survive the constitutional reform process. The Constitutional Assembly has since wavered on including sexual orientation and gender identity in the proposed non-discrimination clause, and it’s uncertain whether removing article 16 will get past an anti-reform lobby.

In its National Human Rights Action Plan, released in early November, the government removed draft language calling for protection on the grounds of sexual orientation, although it did include gender identity. As the Sri Lankan organization EQUAL GROUND has said, “Contradiction of this sort only proves that the Government of Sri Lanka is yet to acknowledge persons with minority sexual orientations as people of the country.” A group of activists delivered a petition to the government protesting the exclusion.

The government has long resisted removing discriminatory penal code provisions that prohibit same-sex relations, and it rejected recommendations at November’s UPR session to repeal articles 365 and 365A, claiming it doesn’t allow discriminatory application of laws. But in practice, the Penal Code and other criminal law provisions are regularly used to discriminate against transgender people and have a pernicious impact on others due to their actual or perceived sexual orientation.

So when, and how, will officials’ lofty promises to protect LGBT Sri Lankans from discrimination bear fruit? The government has made no promises as to when a new constitution will be delivered. The need for change is not abstract, nor is the urgency around decriminalization of same-sex conduct: the lives of people like Abeeth, Jeevani and Manisha, are literally on the line. As long as the Sri Lankan government tolerates discrimination and violence against LGBT people, we can predict further arbitrary arrests, rapes, assaults, death threats, and obstacles to redress.

Deputy Solicitor General Nerin Pulle told the Human Rights Council that the government “remains committed to law reform and guaranteeing non-discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Such commitments need to be transformed into reality. The government should ensure that the new constitution protects LGBT people from discrimination, and allows legal challenges to preexisting discriminatory laws. In the meantime, it should seek other pathways to protecting LGBT people, including by exercising leadership in mobilizing parliament to pass a bill to repeal sections 365 and 365A. Otherwise, the government bears responsibility for intolerable abuses against its citizens.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

LGBT Rainbow Flag

© 2008 Ludovic Berton (Wikimedia Commons)

The Fletcher Forum interviewed Graeme Reid, the director of Human Rights Watch's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program, in November 2017, following Mr. Reid's participation on a panel discussing 'Queering International Relationsas part of the 2017 Conference on Gender & International Affairs.

Fletcher Forum: What is the role of the LGBT Rights program within Human Rights Watch?

Graeme Reid: The LGBT rights program at Human Rights Watch is a relatively small program of 7 staff members, but we are fortunate that we work in an organization of 450 people working in 90 countries. Human Rights Watch researchers work around the world, keep an eye on LGBT issues, and bring country expertise so we can tackle LGBT issues in a broader country and regional context.

As an example, when there was a purge against gay men in Chechnya, we were very well placed to document the atrocities there, in the face of denial by Chechen authorities. The Russia program director, based in Moscow has been working in Chechnya for 16 years. She has the contacts, the trust of different groups, and was well placed to speak to individuals who were highly traumatized by their experience, to document that, and then use that research to press the international community to put pressure on the Kremlin to take action in Chechnya. That international attention was effective, and the mass incarcerations came to an end. We were also able to highlight the plight of refugees who had fled to Russian cities, and advocate for their resettlement.

Being part of a broad-based human rights organization is also politically appropriate because it means LGBT issues are not addressed in isolation. Given that the main challenge to LGBT rights at the international level, as we see in the disputes at the UN, is whether LGBT rights are human rights at all, this is key. It is important, symbolically and beyond, that a mainstream human rights organization like Human Rights Watch is emphatic and unapologetic about dealing with LGBT rights within a broader human rights agenda.

FF: Can you give us a snapshot of LGBT issues in the world, what is the trend in where things are heading?

GR: I hesitate to talk about trends because I think that we need to usually look at country-specific or sometimes regional-specific issues. But nevertheless, I think it’s a useful question. I think if we look at what’s happening at the UN, we’ve seen rapid progress in terms of the appointment of an independent expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity - that has been a significant milestone.

If we look at the process that led to that appointment, we also see a shift in attitudes around the world. In all regions, there has been an increase of support for the various resolutions that led to this appointment. And even though the appointment was subject to extreme opposition, it nevertheless went ahead. So if we look at the meta-level, we see a trend towards greater inclusion and acceptance as well as a growing recognition of the level of discrimination and violence that’s experienced by people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and the need to redress that in some way.

There have been worrying developments internationally which I see in part as a pushback against some of the advances that have been made. My particular concerns are around the proliferation of laws that seek to restrict the so-called ‘promotion’ or ‘propaganda’ of same-sex relations. These laws seek to outlaw the expression of identity. They really go a long way to violate rights of association and expression.

Nigeria is one example. The Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act passed in 2014, implies that the law is very narrow in focus when actually it is extremely broad. It forbids any public expression of identity or any support of LGBT groups and it comes with a heavy penalty. While the law has not been implemented in any systematic way, it nevertheless sends a very negative message which has an inhibiting effect on LGBT populations, and it also creates a climate in which violence occurs, as our research has documented.

FF: Building on that example of Nigeria and propaganda laws, could you talk about addressing the substance and broader effects of these propaganda laws over its stated anti-LGBT focus.

GR:  I could use a number of different examples but given that we were talking about Nigeria, I’ll stick with that. The origin of the law had a lot to do with geopolitics within Sub-Saharan Africa and Nigeria presenting itself as ‘authentically African’ and using the law to distance itself from South Africa, which is portrayed as uncomfortably aligned with the West. Remember that the draft law was introduced soon after the South African Constitutional Court paved the way for same-sex marriage there.   

 The bill stayed dormant for a long period of time and it only gained momentum when Goodluck Jonathan, who at that time was aspiring to become president of Nigeria again, used this as a way of garnering political support and distracting attention from corruption scandals and the security threat from Boko Haram. A useful ruse at that point was to create a moral panic around a perceived threat to Nigerian sovereignty. Your question is: “well how do we address that?”

In practical terms, what we did was an initial visit to Nigeria shortly after the passage of the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act. We met with a number of NGOs including groups that worked on LGBT issues, on health issues, on women’s rights, broader human rights organizations, a number of different players and discussed what would be an effective way of talking about the impact of the law.

In the end, we focused on the impact of the law on freedoms of expression and association, and also on the issue of violence because we learned that not only had there been an increase in the level of violence, but that LGBT community members felt utterly disempowered from reporting any form of crime or violence to the police. Our report exposed the extremely negative consequence of the law — which has got nothing whatsoever to do with same-sex marriage.

FF: You have written about countries like Russia using “the defense of traditional values” as a wedge issue, at the UN and elsewhere, against human rights. Can you talk about how that plays out in practice?

GR:  The propaganda law does political work in Russia for Putin by helping to consolidate his conservative support base. By clamping down on LGBT rights, Putin presents himself as the defender of ‘traditional values’ against his more urban and cosmopolitan opposition. 

But that was only part of the story. Internationally, Russia increasingly took on the mantle of traditional values. This was used as a wedge issue for those former territories of the Soviet Union that had aspirations to join the European Union and those who were being pressured or persuaded to join the Eurasian Customs Union. The LGBT issue was very explicitly deployed as a wedge issue that caricatured the West as being hedonistic and overly permissive, and to cast the human rights conditions of EU membership in a negative light.

Russia uses ‘traditional values’ to forge and consolidate alliances with other states at the UN. The Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Africa Group consistently speak in the language of traditional values. Propaganda laws, and their equivalents have been discussed extensively in Eastern Europe and much further afield, including Nigeria, Uganda, and Egypt.

FF: The Trump administration is taking a different line than the Obama administration on these issues. How does the US taking a step backwards affect your work, and how do you see it impacting the organizations and communities you’re working with?

GR: Since Hillary Clinton’s ‘gay rights are human rights, human rights are gay rights’ speech at the UN Human Rights Council, and Barack Obama’s memorandum, LGBT rights became an explicit part of US foreign policy.

This combination of political cover and material support meant that internationally, a number of groups have been emboldened to be more visible and vocal. The withdrawal of political support and the rise of populist and autocratic leaders internationally, leaves LGBT groups exposed, and because they are more visible they are also more vulnerable.

That is not to say that it is an entirely black and white picture. Nikki Haley has spoken out against the atrocities in Chechnya. The US has supported the wording of the Olympic Truce inclusive of sexual orientation. Recently, there was a controversy about the US not signing the death penalty resolution that for the first time explicitly mentions sexual orientation, although the back story is that the US doesn't support the resolution and it never has because of the death penalty, not because of the LGBT issue. In fact, the U.S. delegation strongly pushed for the inclusion of sexual orientation in that resolution. But overall, the Trump administration has had a very negative impact because it has put the wind in the sails of social conservatives and autocrats internationally who feel like they can get away with human rights abuses in general and abuses against LGBT people specifically.

FF: If the US is taking a step backwards, what countries are filling in the gap?

GR: Canada has been exemplary, not only in the advances they have made domestically but stepping up internationally. I also want to emphasize the strong role of Latin American states that have not only made advances domestically, but have also played an increasingly prominent international role. We’ve seen that both in the core group of LGBT-friendly states at the UN and also the strong representation of Latin American states in the Equal Rights Coalition, a broad network of states that seek to support the rights of LGBT people internationally.

FF: One observation of the panel at the Gender Conference was that as LGBT groups grow, and become more visible there is a backlash that rises to meet it; and outside organizations offering support, can be seen as an unwanted outside or even colonial influence. What do you think about this concern, and how has your organization experienced it?

GR: I am cautious about the word “backlash” because it implies an automatic response, and that can disguise the real organization of opposition. Opposition groups are also social movements, that are well resourced, increasingly sophisticated, and operating in a lot of different spheres.

As an organization operating globally, we are meticulous about working with credible in-country organizations, and seeking guidance from local LGBT leaders or, in the absence of an LGBT organization, a human rights organization, about what would be useful and what would be harmful.

FF: In the spirit of the Gender Conference, what is something you would want foreign policy thinkers and practitioners to change about how they think about LGBT issues?

GR: I think the one thing is not to treat LGBT rights issues as a side issue, because it is often symptomatic of the broader human rights situation in a particular country. If there is a clampdown on LGBT people, it is almost inevitable that there is going to be a clampdown on civil society writ large. If you let that go, ignore it, don’t pay enough attention to it, you can be sure down the line there are going to be other human rights abuses that take place. It needs to be confronted very directly, and not seen as a secondary issue.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Gay-rights activists take part in the 15th gay pride week parade on the street of Istiklal in Istanbul July 1, 2007.

© 2007 Reuters

In a televised speech on November 9, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized a municipality that included slots for LGBT people on a neighborhood committee, suggesting that the move was at odds with national values. The speech was seen as an attack on the main opposition party, which runs the town.

Nine days later, the Ankara governor banned all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) events in the province for an indefinite period. A string of bans on LGBT-related events followed in other parts of the country, shutting down plans for film screenings, exhibitions, forums, panel discussions, and public meetings. Local authorities cited “social sensitivities,” “protecting public health and morality,” “protecting other people’s rights and freedoms,” and “public security” as reasons for the bans.

Two Turkish LGBTI groups, Pembe Hayat (Pink Life) and Kaos GL, have gone to court over the bans.

These restrictions on freedoms of expression, assembly, and association for LGBT people violate their fundamental human rights as enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and other international treaties.

In 2010, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe – which includes the Turkish  foreign affairs minister – adopted unanimously LGBT recommendations to member states that stipulate that “member states should take appropriate measures at national, regional and local levels to ensure that the right to freedom of peaceful assembly can be effectively enjoyed, without discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

The recommendations also say that member states should prevent restrictions on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly “resulting from the abuse of legal or administrative provisions, for example on grounds of public health, public morality and public order.”

The Turkish government urgently needs to stop this apparent campaign to ban LGBT-related events and gatherings, and make sure that provincial and local authorities adhere to the human rights obligations Turkey agreed upon when ratifying international treaties such as the ECHR. They should actively protect LGBTI people when they hold public events instead of trying to keep them from exercising their rights.  

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The Japanese government has taken some positive steps to improve the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. But the country’s legal gender recognition procedure – the law that allows transgender people to be recognized according to their gender identity – remains a stain on Japan’s record.

Participants March during the Tokyo Rainbow Parade. On October 22, hundreds of activist groups throughout the world will gather to mark the 8th annual International Day for Trans Depathologization. Despite progress, governments around the world, including the Japanese government, propagate medical and policy paradigms that deem trans people "mentally ill."

©2015 Reuters/Thomas Peter

In Japan, transgender people who seek legal gender change must appeal to a family court under Law 111 of 2003 that, when passed, represented a watershed moment in Japan, opening up public discussion on sexual and gender minority issues.

However, the procedure is discriminatory, requiring applicants to be single and without children under 20, undergo a psychiatric evaluation to receive a diagnosis of “Gender Identity Disorder” (GID), and be sterilized.

The law requires applicants to “permanently lack functioning gonads” before they can be legally recognized, which amounts to forced sterilization, a practise condemned by health and rights bodies across the globe, including the United Nations World Health Organization. In 2013, the UN special rapporteur on torture noted that transgender people being “required to undergo often unwanted sterilization surgeries as a prerequisite to enjoy legal recognition of their preferred gender” was a human rights violation, and called on governments to prohibit the practise.

In 2016, a bipartisan group of members of the Diet, Japan’s parliament, planned to consider revisions to Law 111 to relax the requirements for legal gender recognition – but the discussion never took place. That same year, in response to a letter from the UN special rapporteurs on health and on torture about Law 111, Japan’s Ministry of Health wrote that it was proud of the country’s progress on LGBT rights. But the government defended the medical model and hid behind its stated need for “objectivity and certainty” in determining whether people were actually transgender – and therefore deserving of legal recognition or not.

Forcing people to undergo unwanted surgeries to obtain documentation is contrary both to Japan’s human rights obligations and its reputation as a champion of LGBT rights. The government should urgently revise Law 111 to end forced sterilization.


Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

LGBT Rainbow Flag

© 2008 Ludovic Berton (Wikimedia Commons)

The landmark document introduced at the United Nations 10 years ago and designed to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, as well as other sexual minorities, was updated and strengthened yesterday.

The changes reflect the significant developments in international human rights law and practice since their publication, and include a growing understanding that human rights violations affect people based on how they express their gender or how their sex characteristics are manifested.

The “Yogyakarta Principles,” written by a group of international human rights experts who had met in 2006 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, are a codification of binding international human rights standards related to sexual orientation and gender identity. The document, introduced to the UN in Geneva and New York in 2007 was a response to well-documented patterns of abuse against LGBT people.

The principles have been widely used by human rights defenders to demonstrate that LGBT rights are basic human rights, and to show the gap between entitlement to rights and the harsh reality of discrimination and hate crimes.

Yesterday, 33 international human rights experts released an updated set of principles on international human rights law relating to sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics. The “Yogyakarta Principles plus 10,” add nine new principles to the original 29, covering a range of rights pertaining to gender recognition, information and communication technologies, poverty, and cultural diversity.

The new document also contains 111 “additional state obligations,” related to areas such as torture, asylum, privacy, health, and the protection of human rights defenders. For example, it calls on countries to compile statistics on violence based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression and sex characteristics. It also protects intersex children from involuntary modification of their sex characteristics and calls on countries to end the unnecessary registration of people’s sex or gender in their identity documents.

The updated principles call for action to protect the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI). Enforcing laws and policies designed to protect LGBTI people worldwide is an essential step to achieving full equality and ending discrimination.

The full text of the Yogyakarta Principles plus 10 and supporting documents can be found at www.yogyakartaprinciples.org.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Zoya Matisova

© 2017 Emil Baran

On the evening of November 11, four burly young men wearing hoods brutally attacked two lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights activists – Zoya Matisova, 42, and Nadezhda Aronchik, 23. Both were taking part in an inclusive family conference in Moscow. 

Matisova, a psychologist and board member of the Russian LGBT Network, told me that the assailants approached them not far from the conference venue as she and Aronchik were on their way to the metro. The men first asked if they had anything to do with the conference and without waiting for an answer, sprayed something in Matisova’s eyes and punched Aronchik in the face, shouting homophobic slurs. Then they fled. “My eyes were burning and the pain was just hellish,” Matisova said.

Matisova started rinsing her eyes with bottled water, but Aronchik saw the attackers come back. The women ran in the direction of the conference venue. One of the men jumped Matisova from behind. She fell down, and Aronchik stumbled right over her. The men left again. Aronchik and Matisova got up and continued to the conference venue. As soon as they arrived, they called an ambulance and the police.

Police officials arrived promptly but made no move to search for the attackers. Aronchik filed a complaint with the police straight away. Matisova, who had to go to a hospital to receive treatment for temporary blindness caused by a mild chemical burn from an acetone-based substance, filed a complaint with the police the next day. She also suffered minor injuries to her shoulder and knee as a result of the fall and shared her medical records with police officials. After the attack, the organizers had to cancel the rest of the conference when the venue administrators, fearful of possible security incidents, suspended the lease agreement.   

Matisova told me there were security cameras at the site of the attacks. She and Aronchik also kept the clothes they wore that night unwashed so that the police could gather forensic evidence, including traces of the spray the attackers had used. While there appears to be little doubt the two were victims of a violent hate crime, two weeks after the attack there is no sign that the police have opened a criminal case. Authorities should act immediately and ensure that this brutal crime does not go unpunished. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Police watch marchers holding signs and banners as they participate in a marriage equality march in central Sydney, Australia, October 21, 2017.

©2017 Reuters/David Gray

Earlier this month, Australia released the long-awaited results of its national postal survey on marriage equality, with almost 62 percent of the public – and a majority in every one of Australia’s states and territories – voting Yes on the question. Lawmakers have pledged to swiftly codify that result into law, with Senator Dean Smith introducing a bill to legalize marriage equality almost immediately after the results were announced. 

Yet as proponents prepare legislation to enshrine marriage equality into law, opponents are already pushing exemptions that would allow those who disagree with marriage equality to refuse to recognize same-sex couples. The "No" camp has already floated proposals to allow government officials to opt out of performing same-sex marriages and exempt business owners and service providers from nondiscrimination laws if they do not want to serve same-sex couples.

This strategy is being used around the globe as people embrace marriage equality. Earlier this month, former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott spoke to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a US-based group that has supported the criminalization of same-sex activity, defended discredited “conversion therapies” for minors, and fought to exclude transgender youth from sharing gendered spaces. At the gathering, Abbott warned the crowd that the drive toward marriage equality threatened religious freedom and would be used “oppressively” against people who opposed it.

Abbott is not the only official traveling abroad to promote this argument. Many Americans remember Kim Davis, the clerk in a rural Kentucky county who, after the US Supreme Court gave same-sex couples the right to marry, refused to issue them marriage licenses, citing her religious objections. In October, the evangelical non-profit Liberty Counsel arranged for Davis to travel to Romania, where she called marriage equality an attack on religious freedom and used her own story to urge voters in an upcoming national referendum to support a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union of a man and a woman.

Despite the fact that more than two dozen countries have embraced marriage equality, the argument that religious objections should trump LGBT equality is gaining steam globally, with worrying consequences for human rights.

First, the kinds of religious exemptions that Abbott and Davis and the "No" faction in Australia are advocating go far beyond what is necessary to protect the freedom of religion and belief. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has repeatedly clarified that freedom of religion does not justify discrimination against women, adherents to other religions, non-believers, and other groups – a point that the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, underscored at an event on faith and sexuality at the United Nations last month.

Rather than protecting human rights, sweeping religious exemptions function in practice as a license to discriminate. They elevate personal prejudice above laws that aim to protect everyone from discrimination. In the process, they not only jeopardize the rights of LGBT people, but the principle that underlies non-discrimination law more generally – that people should not be turned away or treated unfairly because of who they are.

But there is another reason these campaigns are so worrying. Abbott and Davis haven’t only used faith-based arguments to justify limited exemptions to marriage equality. Instead, they’ve cited them in campaigns to deny same-sex couples access to marriage across the board.

Neither Australia nor Romania is considering laws that would compel churches to marry same-sex couples. To the contrary, the marriage equality bill in Australia specifies that religious ministers cannot be compelled to marry same-sex couples. Of course, even without such provisions, churches in Australia, the United States, and elsewhere can’t be forced to marry same-sex couples under existing law. In these circumstances, using freedom of religion as a weapon to deprive LGBT people of any partnership recognition at all is misguided at best and disingenuous at worst.

If the United States is any indication, proponents of religious exemptions are unlikely to stop at marriage. Since same-sex couples won the right to marry, many states have enacted laws that permit adoption and foster care providers, counselors, landlords, and others to turn LGBT people away, citing religious beliefs. When the law excuses discrimination in one aspect of daily life, that “exception” can end up swallowing the rule.  

As figures like Abbott and Davis globalize these campaigns, it is important to remember that there is never a human rights argument in favor of discrimination. The diversity of faiths and beliefs should be celebrated, and lawmakers around the globe have experimented with inventive strategies to accommodate religion under the law. But when religion becomes a blunt tool to deny rights to LGBT people, women, racial and religious minorities, and other marginalized groups, those who care about human rights have good reason to become concerned.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am