How The Global Queer Rights Community Is Finding Hope Amid The Hate

Credit: Outright International
In a time of uncertainty and fear for LGBTQIA humans around the world, OutRight has planted itself in the center of it all.

A s the bright tune of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” bled through the walls, I felt as though I was at a queer dance party during Pride. The reality was somewhat different; I was certainly surrounded by LGBTQIA people, but we were seated in a conference room at the United Nations building in Manhattan, about to kick off OutRight Action International’s annual “Celebration of Courage.” For a celebration, though, the mood in our briefing room seemed awfully muted.

While OutRight has been holding its yearly award ceremony since 1994 (when the organization was known as the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission), this year’s gala was only the second to take place at the UN—an auspicious location, as queer rights around the globe are increasingly challenged in the face of creeping religious and political authoritarianism. This year’s event took place on May 15th, just a month and a half after news of the Chechen gay pogrom reached Western news sources and two months after the Texas State Senate approved sweeping anti-transgender legislation.

It’s a time of uncertainty and fear for LGBTQIA humans around the world, and OutRight has now planted itself in the center of it all.

But instead of concentrating on the challenges still to come, OutRight’s focus was firmly on whatever silver linings they could extract from 2016. Celebrating queer rights advances over the past year, this year’s program honored Tracey Norman, America’s first black transgender model; gay-oriented TV network Logo; activist and author Blanche Wiesen Cook; and Caleb Orozco, who in August won his case against the Belizian government and forced the Caribbean nation to overturn its sodomy laws.

The evening was upbeat, for the most part. Acting as MC, trans artist Justin Vivian Bond kept things positive throughout the night with dry ad-libbed wit. “I’m delighted to be here. I rescheduled some surgeries,” V. deadpanned to the diverse crowd. OutRight board member Micheal Ighodaro cracked some jokes of his own, grinning that attendees were here to “make the UN gay again!” Performances by Marty Thomas Presents DIVA bookended the program, and a live DJ was on hand, his beats washed down by stiff drinks at the open bar.

An hour before the first speaker took the stage, though, OutRight’s media briefing was more somber. Along with openly gay Congressman Mark Takano, honorees were all posed the same question: “What is the ‘Trump Effect’ on your life and your work?” Their answers were unsurprisingly grim.

Reflecting on a recent visit to a high school assembly in his district, Representative Takano recalled that he didn’t ask DREAMers in the audience to raise their hands because “that’s not a safe question” now. “Liberal democratic institutions are under assault,” he said, noting Trump’s “emboldening effect” on both racism and homophobia around the world.

OutRight’s Caribbean Advisor, Kenita Placide, agreed: “[W]here the Caribbean is concerned, the impact of U.S. policy has been great… A lot of funding has been pulled. A lot of lives [have] been damaged as a result of [Trump’s] policies.” Orozco’s experience with the American fundamentalist group Alliance Defending Freedom in Belize confirmed those assertions. Evoking the visceral terror the administration causes among many marginalized people, Placide wondered how to survive the next four years. “Is there a possibility?” she asked, bleakly.

Still, as dour as circumstances seemed, there were sparks of ferocity as well. Cook refused to say Trump’s name the entire night, instead opting for “the creature,” while Bond exhorted artists to change America’s status as a cultural “mouthpiece.” Orozco’s remarks were the bluntest, yet quietest, in the room: “I remain defiant. The odds won’t stop me.”

That outlook was more in alignment with OutRight Executive Director Jessica Stern’s intent for her event. “We need positive examples right now,” she explained, appearing optimistic that with UN support for her organization, progressive countries would step up “when one government fails us.” Stern was speaking broadly, but those comments came directly after she referenced the specter of Chechnya that hung around the room. Calling the torture camps a “black-and-white human rights violation,” Stern criticized the Trump administration’s silence; “We have no comment on the record from the US Secretary of State or the US President,” she said. “So if American leadership can’t speak out when the stakes are so grave, when can we expect them to speak out about any LGBTI issue or any human rights issue?”

Honorees were all posed the same question: “What is the ‘Trump Effect’ on your life and your work?” Their answers were unsurprisingly grim.

It wouldn’t be the first time Stern brought up Chechnya that night. Addressing the assembly near the tail-end of the program, Stern again encouraged those present to remain hopeful.

“I actually have a nuanced view of things. I see some good news in what’s happening in Chechnya, and the good news is that almost every person in this room here tonight has heard about Chechnya. The good news is that international outcry has stopped the arrests. The good news is that international outcry stopped the killings. [applause]
I don’t say this so you go home and forget about Chechnya, but I say it so that you can go home and remember that actually, your compassion, your commitment, your attentiveness is making a difference. We just need to go the distance. We need to keep going.”

As the Russian LGBT Network reported the next day, “according to some reports, the detentions of people in Chechnya have currently stopped.” Speaking to The Establishment via email, OutRight Communications Officer Rashima Kwatra confirmed that “[w]e have also not heard of any additional state murders recently” from the Network. But though some prisoners have been released, their families may kill them anyway. And as Kwatra readily admits, “many of those who have been detained remain incarcerated”—their lives still in jeopardy.

This is the quandary in which the international LGBTQIA community finds itself: beset on all sides by revitalized hatred, yet eager to celebrate new victories which once seemed impossible. It’s a precarious balance. Community leaders can’t allow themselves to be so carried away by success stories that they lose sight of what still needs to be done — but at the same time, single-mindedly obsessing over each new injustice would prevent them from making the most of victories to come.

Thankfully, that’s not a challenge OutRight seems to take lightly. Concluding her remarks at the UN, Stern had this to say:

“I know that many of us in the post-election moment are afraid. And we’re afraid because of the very real bigotry that has been incited and revealed to us. But I want to offer you...a perspective of hope. Because everywhere I look, we’re fighting and we’re awake. More awake than we’ve been in years… This is the moment things are happening. And when you think about queer history in the US and internationally, you realize that only a stubborn and deluded optimist would have ever thought we’d be here right now.”

Hearing those words in a plus conference room at the UN, my knee-jerk response was “easy for you to say.” Hope seemed gauche in the face of genocide. But something Mx. Bond said earlier in that briefing room stuck with me: “We have to use our privilege as our sword.” Stern and her colleagues at OutRight have taken the fight for queer rights to one of the world’s most privileged spaces; their job now is to use their swords wisely, consolidating support and attacking enemies wherever possible. It will be a grueling battle, but one OutRight appears certain they’ll win.

The rest of us, meanwhile, will simply have to hang on—to hope, and to life itself—for as long as we can.

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