In China, most LGBT people ‘choose to stay in the closet.’ In Uganda, an anti-gay law ‘makes your entire being illegal.’ Close to two million people from around the world are expected to take part in North America’s first World Pride, a ten-day celebration with dozens of events around the city. At its core is the fight for equality. Activists coming to the city for the WorldPride Human Rights Conference, taking place at the University of Toronto this week, talk about what it’s like to be a member of the LGBT community in their countries.
Indonesia: King Oey
Mr. Oey is one of the founders of Arus Pelangi (Rainbow Flow), the first organization to advocate for LGBT rights in Indonesia.
Being gay often means that you can be quite alone in life until you can meet up with other gays. That makes it so meaningful to have this type of conference [the WorldPride Human Rights Conference]. It’s not just to socialize, but to be part of a global movement. We’re all working at the same time together for a better life in each country.
It’s particularly difficult in Indonesia because it is a Muslim country, and there is a very strong bias against homosexuality. A lot of people have to carry this burden of guilt of being abnormal. And for us, one of the main [goals] is to bring understanding to LGBT people that they are not messed up, that they are not wrong, that they’re just healthy, normal people who just happen to have a different sexual orientation. We are also working toward better, more LGBT friendly policies from the government.
Indonesia doesn’t have laws that criminalize us directly … but we do have this societal bias, this stigma, against LGBT people, which is mainly a thing of the religious people. It’s particularly difficult because you have to face condemnation from your parents and your family in the first place, the people that you would expect to really understand you and give you support. Unlike other minorities, we don’t get that support from our family, which is the number one adversity that you have to face. That makes it so difficult.
[In Canada], we can have at least a taste of what real freedom is in a country that really respects LGBT people, so we can also learn from all the different types of expressions that you can have without fearing the repercussions. But it’s also partly academic. [In Toronto], I hope to get new learning on how to do things better.
Uganda: Richard Lusimbo
Ugandan activist and the research manager for Sexual Minorities in Uganda, an LGBT rights organization based in Uganda. In February, Uganda’s president signed a controversial anti-gay bill that imposes harsh penalties for homosexuality, including life in prison.
Having a law that criminalizes the work you are doing makes it difficult. Living in a very autocratic society that is filled with a lot of biased information, and a media that is not objective, makes everything very difficult. Once your life is at stake, when you get to work you don’t know whether your offices will be open the following day, or if you’re going to be raided the next minute or not, because of all these threats from the government. [And] then losing your privacy to the media [you] wake up one morning and find your face on the front page [of a tabloid] with very misleading headlines like ‘How I became homo’ and headlines like ‘Exposed gays.’ There’s a lot of insecurity at times when you leave your community, because every time you appear in the media, you lose your entire life. You can’t go shopping for groceries or even use public transport because you’re trying to protect yourself and your face from being abused or beaten up.
[The law] makes your entire being illegal … so life really becomes difficult. The government provides no security for us. The government is not supportive of the community because the government is full of people who are biased, who believe that LGBT people are recruiting young children. They’re claiming … that they’re protecting African values and children who are being recruited into homosexuality.
We’ve seen [recently] that Canada, and Toronto in particular, is a society that has been very accommodating of their LGBT community. [In Toronto] we can celebrate who we are, but we can also have a proper dialogue without fear of being scared that the government or the police are going to raid everything.
Japan: Azusa Yamashita
Co-secretary of the International Lesbian & Gay Association (ILGA). Ms. Yamashita is also co-director of Gay Japan News, Japan’s online LGBTI news source and advocacy group.
[In Japan] different LGBTI people have different experiences. Some LGBTI [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual and Inclusive] people are happy about who they are and have what they want – a partner, family, house, job, money, education (except legal protection and recognition.)
Other LGBTI people have difficulty accepting themselves and don’t have what they want.
Being LGBTI in Japan is to fight against stigmatization, invisibility, discrimination, violence, and isolation. In Japan, there is a law that allows some transgender people to change their genders on a legal identity card. Equal Employment Opportunity Law bans sexual harassment at work, including harassment against LGBTI workers. Other than these laws, Japanese LGBTI people aren’t legally protected from violence and discrimination or guaranteed basic rights. We have no anti-discrimination law inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity. Gender-change law requires sterilization. Anti-domestic violence law is exclusive of same-sex partner violence.
In Japanese culture, “harmony” is respected. “Harmony” means not to stand out or not to “bother others.” If you are different from the majority, it’s likely that people would think you’re “not normal” or “bothering other people” and can be isolated in a group (group can be your family, classmates, colleagues or neighbours). In schools, we’re taught to respect this harmony instead of being taught about diversities of sexualities. In the media, while queer figures are popular in many TV programs, you see them mocked or laughed at. So, generally speaking, it is still hard in Japan for LGBTI people to get positive messages that it’s okay or safe to be LGBTI.
In 2004-05, I lived in Edmonton as an exchange student for a year. I could have picked China, Germany, or Britain but I chose Canada because I knew Canada was moving toward legalization of same-sex marriage at that time. I wanted to feel the atmosphere around the discussion. I was fascinated by how tolerant, open and equal Canada has become towards people of differences.
Iceland: Johanna Sigurdardottir
Elected in 2009, the former prime minister of Iceland was the world’s first openly gay female head of government.
In the late 1970s, Icelandic society was radically different from the way it is today. Only a handful of Icelanders had come out of the closet and many of them had subsequently moved abroad, as it was very difficult to be “different” in our small society. Thus, most people did not know anyone who was openly homosexual and, therefore, honestly thought that there were hardly any queer people in our country. There were no laws to protect the human rights of LGBT people – indeed, nobody had even heard the term transgender in those days.
Through relentless work and great self-sacrifice [LGBT leaders] along with some progressively thinking heterosexuals, managed to inform people about LGBT issues and change the attitude of a whole society. And gradually more and more homosexual, bisexual and transgender Icelanders started to come out.
Today it would be hard to find an Icelander who doesn’t have an LGBT person in their family, in their circle of friends or as a colleague at work. And as prejudice thrives on the unknown, it tends to evaporate when you get to know someone from a group you had preconceptions and perhaps some misgivings about.
That is how Icelandic society had evolved when I became prime minister in 2009, and the fact that I have a same-sex partner was absolutely no issue here.
I think it is the duty of progressive countries such as Canada and Iceland, along with other Western societies, to try to inform people around the globe about LGBT issues. It is difficult to stand by and do nothing while queer people in many countries are punished or even executed, simply for having been born with feelings that ignorant, brutal leaders deem “wrong.” Information is the key to opening people’s eyes and changing attitudes, as we have seen so clearly in Iceland.
China: Dana Zhang
The executive director of Chinese Lala Alliance, a lesbian leadership group in China. Ms. Zhang is also on the International Lesbian and Gay Association board, a worldwide network of LGBT groups.
In China, things are different between LGBTI [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual and Inclusive] people in big cities and those in small cities. In big cities, it’s easier for LGBTI people to be accepted by friends and colleagues, so more and more LGBTI young people leave their hometown and live in big cities to [live] their lifestyle.
But it’s still hard for most LGBTI people to come out to their families no matter where they are, since we have a close connection with our parents and have to deal with huge marriage pressure. That’s why more and more fake marriages between lesbians and gays appear.
In Hong Kong, the whole society has been deeply influenced by conservative Christian [values] and all public LGBTI issues were attacked by religious groups. Although several famous LGBTI people came out in the past two years and spoke for LGBTI communities, the anti-LGBTI groups grew very quickly. This May, the religious groups held a parade, hoping to fight for the traditional value of marriage.
Most LGBTI people choose to stay in the closet since they are not sure if they can be accepted.
Our government never supports LGBTI issues in public or in any regulations or laws. LGBTI communities are not mentioned in most existing laws or regulations. There are only two regulations that mention LGBTI issues: One is that LGBTI issues are forbidden [to appear] in mainstream media, and the other says that gays are not allowed to donate blood.
Canada always gives people, especially those in Chinese-speaking society, an impression about its open attitudes towards LGBTI issues. So I think Canada is suitable to host a WorldPride.
St. Lucia: Kenita Placide
The co-executive director of St. Lucia’s United and Strong Inc. and the Eastern Caribbean co-ordinator at CariFLAGS, the Caribbean Forum for Liberation and Acceptance of Genders and Sexualities.
Although [The Caribbean] tends to be one of the more homophobic regions, I think a lot of advancements have been made. We have been very instrumental in changing societal attitudes and norms, and I think there is an increasing tolerance. Coming into WorldPride in Toronto, it gives us an opportunity to share some of our work.
As we know, stigma and discrimination is still everywhere, and there is still a lot of work to be done, but I think apart from looking at the negative situations that have taken place in the Caribbean, we can do a contrast with the positive and see how we can get more [positivity].
The government has not played any role. The government has been pretty much silent. We have a very active media advocacy program that has also launched so we are constantly in the media, writing in the media, talking with the media about the situation LBGT people are facing in [St. Lucia] and around the Caribbean.
You have to know that there is the religious backlash, but still I found that there is an increasing amount of people who understand what we are doing and who are supporting us.
Canada has been, for a lot of countries, a place for refuge, a place of rest.
Brazil: Lucas Paoli Itaborahy
Mr. Paoli Itaborahy is a Brazilian activist on poverty and LGBT issues.
Brazil is known as being a very open country full of sexual diversity and liberation … we’ve organized one of the biggest gay parades in the world, but it’s a big country and it still has lots of problems. Religious opposition is increasing over time, and so is our workload because we just have to deal with a lot of discrimination in certain spaces, especially if you go to smaller towns. But in the big cities like Rio and Sao Paulo, things are of course very different and easier as well.
Nowadays, there are government agencies that deal exclusively with LGBTI issues. That’s something that we now have to increase [awareness] about and to use these places. We have really been able to increase the number of government agencies tackling sexual orientation [issues].
It’s impressive that Canada is one of the first countries to legalize same-sex marriage and I think over the years, you always hear good things about how LGBT people are treated and all the kinds of support they receive from the community. Everything I’ve heard about [the city] is positive.
Fiji: Shivana Singh
Ms. Singh is a grassroots trans activist in Fiji.
While there is no real sense of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Two Spirit (LGBTQIAT2) community in Fiji, there are isolated groups who have been working actively on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. The response from these groups is somewhat fragmented based on sexual preference, identity, geography, and infrastructure. There is significant networking through social media and some advocacy, yet little has so far been done in the areas of service provision such as health and well-being.
In Fiji, the community is constantly fighting stereotypes as well as the monolithic understanding of sexualities and identities. There is no distinction between sexuality and gender identity and expression. Everyone is labelled homosexual.
The experience of violence, discrimination and neglect of LGBTQIAT2 people in Fiji is deep and pervasive, often starting very early in life with socialization into gender roles, using coercive and often violent discipline over most aspects of family, cultural, faith, educational and workplace life.
The government has demonstrated an inconsistent stance, often applying double standards in their support for the LGBTQIAT2 communities in Fiji. On one hand the government has said that Fiji is a secular state that protects the religious liberty of all Fijians, and provides that religion and the state are separate. On the other hand, the government has publicly stated in the media that “same-sex marriage will not be allowed because it is against religious beliefs.”
Furthermore, those rights contained within the Bill of Rights in the 2013 Fiji Constitution are filled with limitations, which in essence negate any new freedoms, liberties or rights.
Toronto is one of, if not the most, diverse cities in the world where human beings of all sexual orientations and gender identities are entitled to the full enjoyment of human rights. Canada, and most particularly Toronto, appears to demonstrate a very progressive approach to upholding and promoting human rights and embracing the LGBTQIAT2 community and celebrating diversity.
India: Vivek Anand
Mr. Anand is the CEO of the Humsafar Trust, a community-based grassroots organization addressing health and social concerns of LGBT communities in Mumbai.
For someone like me, who was born and brought up in India, in many ways I was lucky because I was born in Mumbai … which has some inherent advantages. It is a lot more progressive, a lot more liberal. I'm 53 years old, and in the 1970s and 80s when I was growing up and coming to terms with my sexuality, homosexuality was spoken about in very harsh tones and people didn’t really talk about it.
The problem begins when you start talking about not getting married [to a woman]. That is when the real issue pops up … but if you don’t talk about it and you just go ahead and get married, which many many gay men do in this country, we call it the contract of silence. Nobody talks about it. The problem is when people start talking about it and when someone like me says that I need my space and I’m not getting married to a woman. I say no to marriage and I decided to lead my life my way. That’s when people come and start [criticizing].
India is a country of contradiction. [It does not criminalize homosexuals], it criminalizes the act of homosexuality. When two men are having sex with each other, that’s illegal.
These interviews have been condensed and edited.