Creating Global Change: Why We Must End Global LGBT Oppression at Home and Abroad

By Daniel Pino, Task Force Conference and Meetings Manager

This past month the U.S. LGBT community has been justifiably outraged by the anti-LGBT propaganda law passed in Russia this year.  Approved by the Russian House of Parliament almost unanimously with 137 out of 138 voting in favor (the 138th vote was an abstention), the law explicitly forbids any public discussion and recognition of homosexuality or any non-heterosexual sexual expression within the Russian state.

This legislation has caused a call-to-action from LGBT activists from the United States and around the world to show collective solidarity with the Russian LGBT community. This global alliance has gained important media and political attention in part due to the atrocities happening in Russia as a result of the legislation but also because the world is preparing itself for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games being held in Sochi, Russia.

As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated in 2011 “human rights are LGBT rights” and the plight of the Russian LGBT community is of deep concern to millions—as has been the most effective strategy to pressure Putin to change his policies. Organizing product boycotts of Russian goods, calling on the U.S. Olympic Committee to withdraw from the upcoming games and urging diplomatic and economic sanctions are just three of the actions proposed by a community that wants to do something that will create rapid positive change in Putin’s Russia.

These actions have spurred intense debate and conversation primarily focused on Russia. Yet the horrors facing LGBT people outside the United States are not isolated solely to one government or one region of the world.  It is as prevalent in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe where people risk beheadings for coming out as gay, bisexual, lesbian or transgender. It is rampant in Iran where two gay men were publicly hanged for their sexual orientations. And, let us not forget the fact that anti-LGBT violence is still found here in the United States, where despite a federally passed and inclusive hate crime protection law, even in places such as New York City and Washington, D.C., LGBT people still face fatal assaults at the hands of homophobic and transphobic assailants.

We must decry the blatantly homophobic and transphobic legislation enacted by 76 countries around the world, and we must stand in solidarity with the brave activists who face prison, beatings, torture, and death for striving to make their homelands a better, safer place for their LGBT brothers and sisters. We must take pride that our country and our movement is a beacon on the hill for many LGBT activists from around the world who seek equal protection under the law—despite the fact that we have so much further to go in our nation until we as a movement achieve full equality.

For people in countries like Russia, Uganda, Iran and many more where even simply saying the two words, “I’m gay” are not met with arms of acceptance and understanding but some of the worst human rights atrocities on earth, the prospect of a country’s highest Court stating same sex couples cannot be legally discriminated against by the federal government is a powerful symbol of hope.

Certainly, we may and we must take pride knowing that our country and our movement can serve as an example of hope to those being prosecuted in countries where simply being queer is punished rather than celebrated. But in doing so we must also realize that so long as the most vulnerable amongst us face inequality, stigma and hatred, we have not truly completed our work to create a truly free and transformed society and our exemplification of equality is unfulfilled.

As a movement, we know that creating change in an unsympathetic political system is an intense, arduous and daunting prospect. What’s more, we know firsthand that the preservation of those changes, once won, is not always guaranteed. Progress must not just be achieved, it must be sustained, preserved and strengthened for generations to come. Bigotry, homophobia and stigma are insidious social viruses that can lay undetected for years until finally awakening once more only to perniciously corrode our hard won victories.

For example, the same Supreme Court that ruled on the unconstitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act also decimated the Voting Rights Act. With one Justice’s vote nearly 50 years of voting protections were erased like that.  We’ve also watched year after year as state after state stripped away and restricted the rights of women by consistently chipping away at the 40 years’ worth of protections granted by Roe v. Wade. We at the Task Force know that change is not easily won and secured, and we know that we can only achieve meaningful change in this world if the most vulnerable amongst us are treated with equal dignity, security and equality under the law.

So as we reflect on how far we have come here in the “land of the free,” just consider the story of Russian news anchor Anton Kraskovsky. Following the passage of the anti-propaganda law—which forbids public discussion or recognition of homosexuality in the Russian state— Kraskovsky bravely came out as gay to the Russian news audience stating, “I’m gay, and I’m just the same person as you, my dear audience, as President Putin, as Prime Minister Medvedev and the deputies of our Duma.” Ultimately, Kraskovsky was fired within hours of his statements and fled the country.

Some may believe that with the progress made towards full LGBT equality, what happened to Kraskovsky can never occur in the United States. Sadly, however, in the majority of the United States – 29 to be precise – there are no explicit state level protections for LGBT employees and people can be legally fired for simply coming out as gay, lesbian or bisexual at work. Also troubling is that in an incredibly 33 states the same holds true for transgender employees. What’s more, no federal law explicitly banning employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity/ expression presently exists.  While it is easy to highlight our accomplishments as a nation, it is vital we recognize that inequality, stigma, and hatred are still alive and well within our own borders. Therefore, we need to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act now.

As the world gets smaller, the need for global human rights could not be greater—and the cause for global LGBT equality could not be more important. It is this shared humanity that unites us and drives us to stand together both here in the United States and abroad in order to create the change we wish to see in the world.