By Junior Mayema,
The American LGBT community has increasingly begun to contribute to the success of LGBT rights worldwide. However, the contributions go both ways. Countries in some other parts of the world have adopted gay equality laws much earlier than the United States, and some of that progress has contributed to the success of the LGBT movement in the United States. Here are 11 ways that advances in LGBT rights elsewhere have helped the American gay movement.
1. Canada helped bring marriage to the U.S. Supreme Court.
After a long fight for marriage by Canadian activists, Canada recognized same-sex marriage and began giving marriage licenses to American couples. New York residents Edith Windsor married her wife, Thea Spyer, in Ontario in 2007. When Thea died in 2009, the U.S. government would not recognize Edith and Thea’s Canadian marriage. Edith sued, and in the landmark case of US v. Windsor, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the clause of the Defense of Marriage Act which prevented federal recognition of the Canadian marriage and other valid same-sex marriages.
2. Ugandans are bringing a leading American anti-gay activist to justice.
Ugandan activists have brought a lawsuit against Scott Lively in a Federal Court in Massachusetts where Lively currently lives. Lively was an architect of some of the earliest anti-gay ballot initiatives in Oregon and other parts of the country. The Ugandans allege that he conspired with the Ugandan government to violate the human rights of LGBT people.
3. Leaders from other countries helped the U.S. Supreme Court overturn the U.S. ban on sodomy.
In Lawrence v. Texas the court struck down the Texas sodomy law. Justice Kennedy, writing for the court, reviewed the history of laws criminalizing sexual practices. He noted that anti-gay arguments have been “been rejected elsewhere” and that the right to same-sex sexual behavior “has been accepted as an integral part of human freedom in many other countries.” He cited the brief of former Irish President Mary Robinson who, as young attorney in the beginning of her career 30 years earlier, had successfully brought a case which overturned Ireland’s ban on sodomy.
4. Ugandans won recognition by an American Court that persecution of LGBT people is a human rights violation.
In the same case brought by the Ugandan activists against anti-gay Scott Lively, Lively argued that the should be dropped because international human rights did not apply to LGBT people. The Court disagreed. In August, 2013 the Judge in Massachusetts issued a ruling that systemic persecution of LGBT people is a crime against humanity and Lively would have to stand trial.
5. Married Dutch couples showed American judges that marriage would not destroy civilization.
Expert witnesses in several marriage cases pointed to the fact that other countries have recognized same-sex marriage without problem. Even conservative Supreme Court Justice Alito, in the oral arguments of the Proposition 8 case, noted that Dutch same-sex marriages might be a new feature of our times, like “cell phones or the Internet.”
6. The United Nations got the U.S. to promise pro-LGBT reforms.
Every few years the United Nations reviews the human rights records of member countries. During the last review of the United States, several countries that had already adopted pro-LGBT reforms of their own spoke up and urged the U.S. to adopt similar reforms. Employment discrimination, hate crimes legislation and protection of transgender individuals were some of the central issues. In response, the U.S. pledged to seek these reforms in the U.S. Congress. Last week, the U.S. filed a report with the UN noting adoption of employment discrimination provisions in executive service as well as a number of other advancements.
7. The world responded to the plea “give us your tireless, your crooners, your huddled messes yearning to be free.”
Tireless: Harry Hay, born in England and raised in Chile, moved to San Francisco and founded the Mattachine Society, one of the first LGBT groups in the U.S. During those same years Barbara Gittings, born and raised in Austria, moved to Philadelphia and founded the first lesbian organization, the Daughters of Bilitus. Crooners: Canadian KD Lang came out when no one else would. Huddled mess: Brit Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou (aka George Michael) preferred his parties in New York clubs, his sex in LA bushes, and his music on the American top 10.
8. Doctors outside the U.S. have helped Americans transition.
Many Americans have sought gender reassignment surgery outside of the United States. One of the most famous transexuals, Christine Jorgenson, received her surgeryin Europe. Harry Benjamin, one of her treating physicians in San Francisco and author of the Benjamin Standards of Care for Transexuals, began his career in Germany.
9. Foreign LGBT soldiers showed the U.S. military how open military service works.
When the U.S. eliminated the Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell policy in the military, one of the things the Department of Defense looked at was the experience of openly gay and lesbian soldiers in the armed forces of other countries. In some instances, openly gay soldiers from other countries served along side U.S. soldiers in joint military exercises.
10. Third gender travelers are challenging American gender laws.
Several countries recognize a third gender for certain purposes, including Australia, Nepal, India, Malta, Pakistan and Denmark. Campaigns for recognition are gaining momentum in other parts of the world. Rather than “male” or “female,” third genders may have “Third,” “X” or “Other” listed on their passports and identity documents. Inevitably, as the U.S. receives visitors from these countries, federal and state governments and private companies will have to rethink their own systems, many of which assume that “M” or “F” are the only choices.
11. Foreign governments (Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands) and foreign corporations (Royal Bank of Canada, and UK firm Deliotte Touche Tohmatsu Limited) support the Global Equality Fund, an effort led by the US State Department to support LBGT rights globally.
For the past two decades, the Nordic countries of Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands have consistently been the world’s largest funders of LGBT issues. The U.S. has dramatically jumped into the cause during the most recent Administration, with the support of foreign governments and companies.
Opinion: Human rights include gay rights
By Raymond Lesniak
During a committee hearing on Nigeria, Rep. Chris Smith (D-4th Dist.) announced that homosexual rights are not human rights. Rep. Smith said, “I am a strong believer in traditional marriage and I do not construe homosexual rights as human rights.”
This is what I have to say to Rep. Smith on this issue:
Human rights are rights that are inherent to all humans, regardless of their sex, nationality, religion or sexual orientation. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals are just people — people who work their jobs, pay taxes, serve in civic organizations and attend church on Sundays. They are people who are equally entitled to their human rights, without prejudice. To claim that homosexual rights are not human rights is dehumanizing to our fellow Americans who help this nation grow.
Separating LGBT individuals from human rights places them into a negative category that separates them from their heterosexual family members and neighbors. They are not “others.” They are people. They are humans. When we reduce the worth of the LGBT community, we raise the status and power of those individuals who denigrate and condemn — we create an unbalanced and unequal society that conflicts with our country’s original affirmation that all Americans are created equal. The voice of equality must be heard over the effort of those who wish to silence it.
I’d like Rep. Smith to know there are major consequences for denying the human rights of the LGBT community. Because of the intolerance of individuals and elected officials such as himself, LGBT individuals experience high incidences of depression, anxiety, substance use and suicide. There are still more than 10 countries in the world that punish LGBT people with capital punishment. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Somalia and Nigeria enforce their strict laws against gay and human rights by methods such as public hanging, decapitation, stoning and imprisonment.
Less than four months ago, following a court decision, New Jersey recognized and performed same-sex marriages. Today, 37 states in the union have been granted marriage equality. Clearly, our nation is headed in the direction of social justice for all its residents and there is no stopping the driving force behind this engine of change.
As a Congress member dedicated to fighting for human rights across the globe, Rep. Smith’s recent denial of human rights for gay humans is a black mark on his record and his legacy. The acting chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on global health and global rights should know better. The United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights and the state of New Jersey recognize that LGBT rights fall under the title of human rights. So should Rep. Smith.
Asserting that homosexual rights are not human rights is asserting that LGBT individuals are inhuman. This is not the message to send to those countries that condemn and kill them.
Let us recognize the bridges we have built in the struggle for equality for the LGBT community.
Let us remember how far we have come in creating this social change.
Let us proclaim the reality that LGBT rights are human rights.
Raymond Lesniak received an international human rights award from Le Mémorial de Caen, the D-Day museum in Normandy, France, and co-authored with Sen. Loretta Weinberg “What’s Love Got To Do With It: The Case for Same Sex Marriage.” He represents New Jersey’s 20th District in the New Jersey Senate.
Last year, I wrote an optimistic article for Outward about homophobia in West Africa. Drawing on my own experiences traveling in Senegal as a gay boy and undercover drag queen, I wanted to test American perceptions of the region against the reality. I described how my sexuality was acknowledged and accepted, at least on a personal level, and how diplomatic pressure from President Barack Obama was sparking a new conversation about gay rights in the area. I saw potential for change. There was reason for hope.
Now my optimism has faded. A few weeks ago I went back to Senegal, and the landscape seemed markedly different. Where I once saw a gay community more or less surviving on the margins, I now saw a community that was being pressed completely underground. Its advocates have been silenced, and official scrutiny has become unbearable. And worse, all of this is happening largely out of sight, as other West African crises capture the world’s attention. Gay visibility is at an all-time high in much of the West, but in West Africa, any tenuous gains that may have been achieved are quickly fading.
Ernst Coppejans, a Dutch photographer, knows this; he has risked his safety and the safety of his subjects to make queer Africa visible. His award-winning photo-essayDans Le Milieu features LGBT people in African countries that prohibit homosexual acts. Technicolor-bright, candid, sometimes sensual, Dans le Milieu offers intimate portraits of gay people daring enough to pose for the camera despite the dangers of being outed in their communities. Many of the subjects of his portraits look back at the viewer with a gaze so direct that it reads almost as a challenge. Declaring their existence, they look proud. It was paging through Coppejans’ moving images back in November that called me to return and attempt to document the world I had only glimpsed on that previous trip to Senegal. I had no idea how difficult the project would be, or how soon I would be out of my depth.
* * *
Obstacles emerged before I even left New York. While doing preparatory research, I discovered that coverage of West African gay rights had dwindled in the media during 2014. Googling my heart out in English, French, and Wolof (the language of Senegal), I found only one substantial story about gay people: During the Dak’ArtBiennale of Contemporary African Art in June 2014, a nonprofit art center in Senegal’s capital Dakar named Raw Material Company ignored criticism and mounted an exhibition on homosexuality in Africa called “Precarious Imaging: Visibility and Media Surrounding African Queerness.” The center was attacked, its windows and lights broken, and the exhibition was shuttered by the Senegalese government. This did not bode well.
Of course, not everything can be found on the Internet; but unfortunately, being on the ground in Senegal didn’t make my search any easier. I couldn’t find a single LGBT person outside my closeted circle of friends. At a cyber café, I scoured gay travel sites, but their advice was shady—go to such-and-such hotel and ask the bell-hop to find a guy who knows a guy, etc. I also found a sort of gay Google Maps with pins marking gay cruising sites worldwide, but the map was essentially bald in Senegal. West African friends back home wrote to offer advice, but nothing helped. And when I researched Groupe Andligeey, a gay rights group that I’d emailed with a few weeks before, I found evidence they’d disbanded. I was left to wander the streets day after day, looking for clues.
On this trip, I found a Senegal—just 10 months after my last trip—in which gay people were hearsay and gay rights were off the table in the media and as well as in private conversations. Obama’s voice blared on local radio stations, but the soundbite—“I am my brother’s keeper”—referred to the Ebola crisis rather than gay rights. And when I tried to talk to my local friends about gay topics, I noticed a profound new coldness.
“The first time you came, it was different,” my friend Moussa said, “Now there are government cameras, and if you do man-to-man, they come to your door and kill you.” I looked out over the crumbling highway near Moussa’s apartment, doubting that the government could have installed such cameras. “There was a boy like that up the road, maybe 25 years old,” Moussa said, seeing my skepticism. “They took him and killed him, and I was happy, because he was not good.” This story made my heart lurch. A gay boy had been killed and Moussa—who once claimed to be gay—was happy about it? “No, not me,” he backpedalled, “But everybody else.” Suddenly feeling threatened, I made some vague pronouncement about the continued existence of gays in Senegal. “Where?” Moussa asked. “Do they hide their faces?”
A good question. Later that day, at a distance, I saw the tell-tale swish of a power-bottom, but in a cinematic turn, he rounded a corner and vanished. And when I departed from Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport some days later, I still hadn’t found what I was looking for. Watching Dakar’s beaches recede from the airplane window, I wondered where I’d gone wrong.
* * *
“After seven months of research, I had a total of two phone numbers,” Coppejans told me.
Discouraged by my lack of contact with anything resembling a gay world, however fragile, during my time away, I had called him as soon as I landed in New York, wanting to hear about his experience as a photographer in West Africa. “I couldn’t find anything, but finally a researcher for Human Rights Watch said ‘Look, you seem really sincere, here are some contacts to get started.’ And the rest of my contacts grew slowly from there.”
As Coppejans talked, I realized my problem was simple: I hadn’t been able to find a “gay community” because it simply didn’t exist in any way I could understand it. “There are usually no gay bars, no clubs,” he said. “Gay people stay in contact by SMS and only gather in one another’s homes, if at all.” He described how difficult it had been to find subjects for his portrait series, following leads cautiously and struggling to select locations for shoots—he was afraid to draw attention to his hotel rooms or the homes of his subjects. (The stressful secrecy he described was echoed in interviews I later conducted with gay Senegalese expats here in New York.) Ultimately, the sense of danger was so wearing that he cut his project short and flew home. What would happen, he wondered, if his camera’s memory card fell into the wrong hands?
The images that Coppejans bravely brought back are invaluable not simply because they are beautiful, but because they document and make visible a world that would—must—otherwise remain hidden. They give living, human faces to a community that we usually hear about only in the context of death, violence, and suppression. But for Coppejans, the pictures seem to be a source of strain rather than triumph. Even as he receives accolades for the series, he is plagued by worry for its subjects, and a certainty that their situation is permanent. “There’s no light at the end of the tunnel for them,” he says. “The laws and the mentality of the people around them are not changing.”
Having attempted to follow in his footsteps, I understand how Coppejans feels. I saw a number of things in Senegal that won’t fade from memory: a boy crushed by a truck in front of me; United Nations tanks strolling toward a failed coup in The Gambia; the look that flashed across a friend’s face when a drag queen’s business card fell out of my wallet. But it’s what I didn’t see that truly disturbed me: no gay gatherings, no gay kisses, no gay smiles. And I think constantly about the boy Moussa mentioned. He was only a little younger than me—would we have been friends if we met? Would he have helped me to write this article? Was he even really gay, or just falsely accused? I don’t know. But I often wake from dreams where I see him. Or nightmares where I am him.
Editor’s note: Some names in this essay have been changed in the interest of safety.