9 Things You Need To Know About International LGBTI Rights

My list of nine basic things that everyone should know about international LGBTI rights on May 17, the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. Originally published on The Advocates Post.

The Advocates Post

Why we fight

May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT). Created in 2004 to raise awareness about the violence and discrimination experienced by LGBTI people internationally, it has become a worldwide celebration of sexual and gender diversities. The date of May 17 was chosen specifically to commemorate the World Health Organization’s decision in 1990 to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder.

International DayThis year, IDAHOT’s theme focuses on mental health and well-being, with an emphasis on depathologizing LGBT people and bringing an end to “conversion” and other therapies claiming to change sexual orientation and gender identities.

In honor of IDAHOT 2016, we put together a list of nine basic things that everyone needs to know about international LGBTI rights.

1.
Internationally, the acronyms LGBT and LGBTI
(standing for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and
intersex”) are the most commonly used terms.

While many understand the meaning of the terms lesbian, gay and…

View original post 1,851 more words

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Anti-LGBTI Discrimination Harms Efforts to Fight HIV/AIDS

AIDS worlds AIDS Day

Originally published on The Advocates Post

I went to Mwananyamala Hospital (a government facility) for HIV testing. During the pre-counseling, I came out as gay to the health staff (counselor) and immediately he condemned me saying that it was my fault to catch the virus because of my behavior of practicing anal sex. The counselor used abusive words and told me that I have to suffer both punishments being HIV positive and also going to hell because of my sins. That made me leave the Centre without testing. I developed a negative attitude and decided not to go for HIV anymore until my friend from a LGBT advocacy organization helped me go to user friendly Centre [private] and was tested positive. I am now on treatment.”

― 27-year old gay man interviewed in
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Through The Advocates for Human Rights’ work promoting LGBTI rights around the world, we routinely hear stories like this of the struggle to access health care and health information.  On World Aids Day (December 1), it is particularly important that we draw attention to the fact that anti-LGBTI discrimination harms efforts to combat HIV/AIDS worldwide.

Tanzania, where The Advocates has partnered recently with LGBTI human rights organizations, provides a good example of the problem. Due to widespread discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, LGBT individuals in Tanzania fear disclosing their sexual orientation to health care providers.  Further, health care providers often refuse needed services to LGBT individuals. In its Third National Multi-Sectoral Strategic Framework for HIV and AIDS (NMSF III), the Government of Tanzania recognized the barrier that anti-LGBT discrimination can pose to health care access: “Stigma and discrimination against MSM [men who have sex with men] remains high, posing a significant challenge to outreach and delivery of friendly health services.”[1] Indeed, some non-governmental organizations estimate that over 2 million LGBT Tanzanians lack access to quality health services.

Anti-LGBT discrimination in the health sector includes denial of services, verbal harassment and abuse, and violations of confidentiality.[2] In particular, health care providers deny treatment to openly LGBT individuals seeking treatment for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV/AIDS.[3] Hostility from health care providers drives gay men outside of the health care system, depriving them of both services and information.[4]

In response to this discrimination, many LGBT Tanzanians choose to hide their sexual orientation or gender identity from their health care providers.[5] . Such nondisclosure, however, may prevent health care providers from addressing needs specific to LGBT patients. For example, a recent study assessing HIV and STIs among gay men in Tanzania found that they often do not disclose their sexual orientation to health care providers, hindering detection of rectal STIs.[6]

Tanzania’s legal system imposes some of the harshest penalties on homosexual conduct in all of Africa. Homosexual conduct has been illegal on mainland Tanzania since the implementation of the Tanzanian Penal Code in 1945.[7] Homosexual conduct has been illegal under the Zanzibar Penal Code since 1934.[8]

As a result, LGBT individuals decline to seek health care due to fear of revealing criminal conduct to health care providers.[9] Similarly, health care providers cite the criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct as a basis for denying services to LGBT people.[10] Moreover, criminalization perpetuates stigma, and stigmatization prevents lawmakers from addressing LGBT-specific health needs.[11]

In addition to obstructing health care access generally, anti-LGBT discrimination undermines efforts to fight HIV/AIDS. NMSF III recognizes men who have sex with men (MSM) as a population “at high risk for exposure to HIV or for transmitting HIV.”[12]  In fact, multiple sources recognize that the rate of HIV/AIDS among MSM is higher than that of the general population of Tanzania.[13]

Criminalization of same-sex conduct in Tanzania hurts all Tanzanians, because it hinders efforts to fight the harm that HIV/AIDS inflicts on all populations. Criminalization encumbers HIV/AIDS-related public health campaigns and research.[14] The International Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans and Intersex Association recognizes that anti-LGBT discrimination drives LGBT people “underground,” impeding implementation of effective HIV/AIDS-related education program.[15] Criminalization also harms outreach efforts by NGOs that do not wish to violate Tanzanian laws.[16] Around the world, countries that criminalize same-sex conduct demonstrate higher rates of HIV among gay men than those that do not criminalize such conduct.[17]

A gay man from Mwanza stated:

I was very sick and some of my friends advised me to have an HIV test. I went to the nearest Centre where almost everyone knew me. A queue of people were pushing me away because they never wanted me near them. An officer came out and told me to find another place to go, because I was not welcome in that hospital because of my behavior. I had no choice but to leave the Centre ashamed and I planned to commit suicide. My friend learned about my plan before I poisoned myself and called [name withheld] who helped me go through that moment, he also referred me to a user friendly facility.[18]

Even the Tanzanian Government acknowledges that criminalization of same-sex conduct complicates Tanzania’s response to HIV/AIDS: “Given the criminalization of consensual adult homosexual intercourse, the multi-sectoral national response requires significant cooperation from all key stakeholders to ensure that MSM are reached with HIV and AIDS services.”[19]

Unfortunately, the Tanzanian Government has yet to take concrete action to amend the National Multi-Sectoral Strategic Framework for HIV and AIDS to establish that reducing the transmission of HIV among gay men is a central part of the national AIDS strategy and develop an implementation strategy to meet this objective.

On World AIDS Day, The Advocates for Human Rights calls upon all governments to ensure access to health care and health information for all LGBT individuals by:

  • Requiring all public health care workers to receive comprehensive diversity training, including training on sexual orientation, gender identity, and the rights of LGBT people.
  • Establishing and identifying LGBT-friendly health care facilities where LGBT people will feel free and comfortable to access services.
  • Advancing national Standards of Practice for providing health care to LGBT individuals. These standards should:
    • Prohibit discrimination in the delivery of services to LGBT clients and their families.
    • Require visible posting of non-discrimination policies and inclusion of policies in organizational brochures and informational and promotional materials.
    • Establish comprehensive and easily accessible procedures for clients to file and resolve complaints alleging violations of these policies.
    • Designate of one or more persons within each health care provider to ensure compliance with the Standard of Care.
    • Require all reception, intake, and assessment staff to be familiar with providers within the health care organization with expertise in and sensitivity to LGBT issues, and appropriately convey this information to patients.
    • Provide comprehensive ongoing training for direct care staff to identify and address basic health issues within their field of expertise that may particularly affect LGBT clients.
    • Develop a comprehensive resource list for appropriate referrals for special gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender health concerns.
    • Develop written confidentiality policies which explicitly include sexual orientation and gender identity, indicating that such information is to be considered highly sensitive and treated accordingly.[20]
  • Developing a public outreach and education campaign directed toward the LGBT community that educates LGBT Tanzanians on proper HIV/AIDS prevention and identifies LGBT-friendly health care resources.[21]

Jennifer Prestholdt is the Deputy Director and International Justice Program Director at The Advocates for Human Rights.

[1] United Republic of Tanzania, Prime Minister’s Office, Tanzania Third National Multi-Sectoral Strategic Framework for HIV and AIDS (2013/14-2017/18) (November 2013).

[2] Human Rights Watch, “Treat Us Like Human Beings”: Discrimination against Sex Workers, Sexual and Gender Minorities, and People Who Use Drugs In Tanzania (2013).

[3] Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Tanzania: Treatment of sexual minorities by society and government authorities; recourse and protection available to those who have been subject to ill treatment (2007-July 2014), 8 August 2014, TZA104923.E; Human Rights Watch, “Treat Us Like Human Beings”: Discrimination against Sex Workers, Sexual and Gender Minorities, and People Who Use Drugs In Tanzania (2013).

[4] George Ayala et al., Social Discrimination Against Men Who Have Sex With Men (MSM): Implications for HIV Policy and Programs (May 2010).

[5] Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Tanzania: Treatment of sexual minorities by society and government authorities; recourse and protection available to those who have been subject to ill treatment (2007-July 2014), 8 August 2014, TZA104923.E.

[6] Ross MW, Nyoni J, Ahaneku HO, et al., High HIV seroprevalence, rectal STIs and risky sexual behaviour in men who have sex with men in Dar es Salaam and Tanga, Tanzania, BMJ Open 2014;4:e006175.doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2014-006175.

[7] Tanzania Penal Code of 1945 (as amended by the Sexual Offences Special Provisions Act, 1998), Sections 138A, 154-155. The Sexual Offenses Special Provisions Act of 1998 updated certain sections of the penal code, but kept the prohibitions on homosexual conduct.

[8] Tanzania’s heavy reliance upon its British based penal code stands in stark contrast to its neighbors—most of which have penal codes that impose significantly lower penalties on homosexual conduct or no penalties at all. Kenya, Zambia, and Malawi each have penalties of up to 14 years in prison for homosexual conduct, and Uganda’s criminal code mandates life imprisonment. Though homosexual conduct is illegal in Burundi, penalties only range from 3 months to 2 years. Homosexual conduct is legal in Mozambique, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

[9] United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, Born Free and Equal: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in International Human Rights Law, HR/PUB/12/06 (2012).

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] United Republic of Tanzania, Prime Minister’s Office, Tanzania Third National Multi-Sectoral Strategic Framework for HIV and AIDS (2013/14-2017/18) (November 2013).

[13] Human Rights Watch has indicated that HIV prevalence among MSM in Dar es Salaam is as high as 40 percent. Human Rights Watch, “Treat Us Like Human Beings”: Discrimination against Sex Workers, Sexual and Gender Minorities, and People Who Use Drugs In Tanzania (2013). Tanzania’s NMSF III cites a study in which 41 percent of 271 Tanzanian MSM tested seropositive for HIV. United Republic of Tanzania, Prime Minister’s Office, Tanzania Third National Multi-Sectoral Strategic Framework for HIV and AIDS (2013/14-2017/18) (November 2013). Further, a 2014 study found that MSM in Dar es Salaam had an HIV rate 2.5 times that of the general population. Ross MW, Nyoni J, Ahaneku HO, et al. High HIV seroprevalence, rectal STIs and risky sexual behaviour in men who have sex with men in Dar es Salaam and Tanga, Tanzania. BMJ Open 2014;4:e006175.doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2014-006175.

[14] Human Rights Watch, “Treat Us Like Human Beings”: Discrimination against Sex Workers, Sexual and Gender Minorities, and People Who Use Drugs In Tanzania (2013).

[15] Itaborahy, LP & Zhu, J, State-Sponsored Homophobia: A world survey of laws: Criminalisation, protection and recognition of same-sex love (8th ed. 2013); see also UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Born Free and Equal: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in International Human Rights Law, HR/PUB/12/06 (2012).

[16] Human Rights Watch, “Treat Us Like Human Beings”: Discrimination against Sex Workers, Sexual and Gender Minorities, and People Who Use Drugs In Tanzania (2013).

[17] George Ayala et al., Social Discrimination Against Men Who Have Sex With Men (MSM): Implications for HIV Policy and Programs (May 2010).

[18] Personal interview with LGBT advocacy organization. The victim’s identity is being withheld for security reasons.

[19] United Republic of Tanzania, Prime Minister’s Office, Tanzania Third National Multi-Sectoral Strategic Framework for HIV and AIDS (2013/14-2017/18) (November 2013).

[20] These recommendations are based on standards developed by the GLBT Health Access Project. More information on these standards are available at: http://www.glbthealth.org/CommunityStandardsofPractice.htm

[21] See, e.g., Republic of Kenya, Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, Education Sector Policy on HIV and AIDS (2d ed. 2013), https://www.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/documents/1860/Final%20policy%20HIV%20and%20AIDS%202013.pdf

Human Rights News You May Have Missed (1 – 9 January, 2015)

Mahdu Bai Kinner, India's first openly transgender mayor, was elected on January 4
Mahdu Bai Kinner, India’s first openly transgender mayor, was elected on January 4. Photo (c) M. Krishnan retrieved from starobserver.com.au

It probably won’t surprise you one bit that there is a lot of human rights news that is not covered by the US and other Western media.  Or sometimes it IS covered, but given only a few lines or buried so deep that you can’t help but miss it.  Because of my job as a human rights lawyer, I follow multiple international media outlets and subscribe to numerous listserves.  It is frustrating to me that human rights crises can go on for weeks or months before anyone in the mainstream media takes notice.

I have a couple of thoughts about this. Obviously, there have been changes in US media over the past decade that have resulted in decimated coverage of pretty much all news coverage.  But I also I don’t think that as many people care about celebrity gossip as much as the media appears to think that we do.  In addition, I strongly believe that the first step towards change is knowledge.  But without information, how can we know what is happening in other parts of the world?  If people who actually care about human rights do not know about human rights abuses as they occur, how can we have empathy with the people whose lives are impacted?  How can we take action? How can we work together across borders to make real change?

Based on these theories, when I taught International Human Rights Law I gave my students a weekly assignment to watch the news for human rights stories.  I challenged them to look for things they might have missed before.  I asked them to look for one news item on an international issue, one on a national issue, and one on a local issue.  At least one of these news items had to be good news.

So I’m going to try something new in 2015. I’m going to try to do a roundup each week of some of the things that happened that did not get the coverage that I think they deserved.  I realize that some of you may find this exercise somewhat depressing, but I will be looking for GOOD human rights news as well as bad.  Believe me, while it often doesn’t feel like it on a macro level, there is indeed progress happening on human rights all over the world.  You just need to look for it.

The Human Rights News You May Have Missed weekly roundup is definitely not intended to be exhaustive. It is simply a summary of some of the news items that I followed this week that I thought did not get enough attention, along with links so that you can read more.  Please feel free to add a link to a news item that I missed in the comments section.

So here we go!  Here are a few news items that should have received more attention during the first week or so of January 2015:

Policemen hold a photo of one of the victims of a car bomb attack outside the police college in Sanaa January 7, 2015. (c) REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
Policemen hold a photo of one of the victims of a car bomb attack outside the police college in Sanaa January 7, 2015. (c) REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

In an apparent attack by Islamic militants in Yemen, a mini-bus full of explosives was rammed into recruits outside a police academy in the heart of Yemen’s capital of Sanaa on Wednesday, killing at least 37 people and injuring more than 66.  It was the second bombing in Yemen to cause multiple casualties in a week, following a suicide attack that killed 26 people at a cultural centre in Ibb city.  Violence has soared in Yemen since Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, captured Sanaa and other cities last year.  “Tribal leaders and Yemeni officials have said the rising power of the Houthis, their advance into Sunni areas and the backlash over drone strikes has caused al-Qaida to surge in strength and find new recruits.”

There was definitely also good news this week. Here are a few stories about some of the positive developments that you may have missed:

Today – January 11 – is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day in the United States. Human trafficking is a criminal enterprise, a multi-billion dollar industry where perpetrators profit from the control and exploitation of others. The International Labour Organization estimates that there are 21 million victims of human trafficking worldwide. Find out what you can do to raise awareness about the issue and help victims of human trafficking find the support they need to reclaim their lives here.  

Location of potential human trafficking cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (2007-2012)
Location of potential human trafficking cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (2007-2012) Find out more here.

I hope you found something to interest and/or inspire you.   Please do let me know what you think about this new feature on The Human Rights Warrior blog.  See you next week!

Love Is The Law: The DOMA Decision and Binational Same-Sex Marriage

20130626-152500.jpgLike so many, I was excited to hear of the decision by the United States Supreme Court to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act this morning. This decision in United States v. Windsor, along with the end result of the Prop 8 decision, was what I had definitely hoped for, mostly expected but slightly feared would not happen. Historical and far-reaching as these decisions are, however, the first thing I thought of was the tremendous impact it will have on the lives of tens of thousands of LGBT Americans who are married to non-US citizens. Today’s ruling that Section 3 of DOMA, which prohibited the federal government from conferring benefits to married same-sex couples, is unconstitutional sets the stage for a major change in family-based immigration – the cornerstone of US immigration policy. Today, the Supreme Court opened the door for US citizens to be able for the first time to apply for permanent resident visas for their same-sex spouses.

When I heard the decision this morning, what flashed through my head were the faces of all of the LGBT persons in binational same-sex relationships who have consulted with me over the years about their legal options – for staying together and avoiding separation by deportation. When I first started practicing back in 1996, I had to tell them that their options were limited. I remember helping “George” seek and obtain asylum based on his LGBT status. “George” had fled his country in Central Africa. He met blond-haired, blue-eyed “Larry” when they were both doing volunteer work at a community center. Larry encouraged George to seek legal assistance. Asylum was the only  option, but I knew they deserved more.  Larry came to every interview with George, holding his hand as George talked about the persecution that he had experienced in his home country due to his refusal to hide his sexuality. Tears in his own eyes as he listened silently to George’s account of violence and stigmatization, Larry would hand George tissues, make him take calming deep breaths or take a drink of water. Help him go on with saying what had to be told. George was granted asylum, allowing him to stay permanently in the US. By that time, he had a job and he and Larry had moved in together. It has been more than 10 years since I last saw George and Larry, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that they had tied the knot.

But same-sex marriage wasn’t an option in the US back in 1996. Or 2001, for that matter, when “Hans” and his husband “Rick” asked for advice. Hans was Dutch and Rick was from the Caribbean (Jamaica, I think). They met while working in the US and married in Amsterdam after the Dutch government legalized same-sex marriage. But Rick’s US work authorization ended and he could no longer stay legally with Hans in the US, even though they were legally married and Hans still had authorization to be here . In the end, Hans chose to transfer to a job back to The Netherlands so that Rick could legally immigrate and they could be together.

When Massachusetts and other US states started legalizing same-sex marriage, I heard from others frustrated by the lack of equality between the way same-sex and traditional marriages are treated in US immigration policy. “Dan” told me that he and his partner “Ernesto”, a professor and a Mexican national, had been commuting between Mexico City and Minneapolis for years but now hoped that they could marry and live together permanently. Unfortunately, I had to tell them that the federal government would not recognize their marriage for immigration purposes.”We love each other, we are committed to each other, we want to get married. Why won’t my country allow us to be together?” Dan fumed.

In practice, the Obama administration has for the past two years refrained from carrying out deportations of immigrants in same-sex marriages, but without providing a legal status that is comparable to the permanent resident (“green card”) status that US citizens in traditional marriages are eligible to apply for for their spouses.

The Supreme Court’s decision today changes everything for people like Dan and Ernesto, Hans and Rick, George and Larry, and all of the other LGBTQ Americans who love nationals of other countries.  I truly, truly rejoice for them and for our country. While some procedural changes will have to take place before the implementation in practice of today’s decision, June 26 should be a day remembered and celebrated by all of us who believes in the right of EVERY family to be together.

“The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.” ~ Justice Anthony M. Kennedy

For more information about the process for applying for permanent resident status for same-sex spouses, see Immigration Equality’s FAQ and The Doma Project’s FAQ.

UPDATED:  On July 29, 2013 – just two days after the US Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of DOMA –  gay couple in Florida received the first approval of a same-sex marriage-based permanent resident petition.  Wow, that was fast!  Congratulations to Julian Marsh and Traian Popov! And kudos to the US Immigration & Customs Enforcement Service for implementing the  decision so quickly.

Marriage Equality, Through the Eyes of a 10-Year-Old

20130328-160336.jpg

With the Supreme Court hearing arguments in two cases related to same-sex marriage, much has been written – and said and thought – this week about marriage equality in the United States. No matter how these particular nine justices rule (and there is speculation that, unlike the Warren Court which in 1967 issued a sweeping ruling on the unconstitutionality of state bans on interracial marriage, this court might actually punt), I am convinced that it is only a matter of time before same-sex marriage is a recognized as a right in this country.

This week, I re-read Hockey Moms, a post I wrote last summer about my 10-year-old son and his discussions with his hockey team about marriage equality. It was a lesson to me at the time about the importance of engaging people in the conversation about same-sex marriage. In re-reading it, however, I am struck by how much forward movement there has been in just the past six months. Not only was the proposed amendment (which would have defined marriage as between one man and one woman in the Minnesota state constitution) that Simon was lobbying against defeated last November, but it was defeated handily. In fact, it went down in flames. Even my 98 year-old grandmother voted NO! In a huge reversal, this year there is a real chance that our Minnesota state legislature will pass legislation legalizing same-sex marriage. The number of states with same-sex marriage jumped on election day in November when three states – Maryland, Maine and Washington – legalized same-sex marriage through popular vote. Recently, it seems like politicians have been “coming out” in favor of marriage equality on a daily basis.

The momentum in favor of same-sex marriage appears to be increasingly rapidly and there are signs that the trend will not be reversed. I asked my 13-year-old what he thought about the recent ABC/Washington Post poll that found that 81% of Americans aged 18-29 supported legal same-sex marriage, he said, “Well ,that makes sense. Although I am disappointed in the 20%. At my school, there are only two kids who oppose same-sex marriage.” They didn’t poll Americans under the age of 18, but anecdotally at least, support for marriage equality may be even higher among his peer group.

My kids are part of a generation which, although it doesn’t have an official name yet, is already saying, “Of course same-sex marriage should be legal. Why was this even an issue?” They have grown up with favorite teachers, beloved camp counselors, trusted neighbors, friends and classmates who are openly LGBT. They go to school and church with kids from families with parents who are in same-sex relationships, some but not all legally sanctioned by state law. Men kissing men, men kissing women, women kissing women – my kids don’t care. Frankly, it is disgusting to them when ANY adults kiss!

I’m sharing an excerpt from Hockey Moms to illustrate my kids’ perspective on marriage equality, a peek into the future.

***

My 10-year-old son comes out of the ice arena, swaggering despite the heavy hockey bag that he carries like a giant backpack. His hockey stick and water bottle he wields before him like a rod and staff. I’m sitting on a picnic table in the sun and, yes, I am facebooking on my iPhone. His cheeks are flushed, his bright ginger hair is damp-dark with sweat. He has an announcement to make.

“I’ve got everyone but one kid on my team to be in favor of same-sex marriage.

AND two of the coaches.”

He beams at me. I can feel my jaw as it drops.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a terrible hockey mom. I hate almost everything about the sport. I’ve got two sons who play, so I did put a decent amount of effort into learning the basic rules and terminology. My biggest problem is that I grew up in the Deep South, so my natural impulse when winter strikes is to hibernate. The whole concept of driving (in the cold) to sit (in the cold) to watch a sport played (on ice, in the cold) boggles my mind.

Going inside to watch hockey on a cold winter day is one thing. Going inside to watch hockey on a beautiful summer day is completely inconceivable to me. But here in Minnesota, hockey is a year round sport. Serious players play AAA from March to September and, unlike the regular season, players are not required to play where they live. There are kids on my 10-year-old’s team from throughout the Twin Cities Metro and even some kids who travel here for the weekend practices and tournaments from as far away as Florida and Texas.

But my two sons are way, way into hockey. They LOVE this sport! I respect that, so I suck it up and wash their stinky gear and drive them to the rink.

Until last winter, I went into the locker room when I took my boys to hockey – even though I have been banned from years from tying their skates because I (quote, unquote) “don’t do it right.” When my oldest son moved up to PeeWees, however, there was an unfortunate incident. I burst into the locker room, my 6-year-old daughter (wearing a pink jacket and sparkle ballet flats) in tow, only to find a gaggle of 12 year-olds in their underwear listening to loud music and talking trash. “Mom!” my son hissed. “I’m good.”

Given my locker room banishment, I was completely floored to hear that the hockey team was having a discussion about same-sex marriage while putting on their pads and breezers. Here is the story, from the perspective of my 10 year old: “One kid brought it up. He said it was gross, a man with a man or a woman with a woman.” So I said,

“ARE YOU CRAZY? That’s their choice who they love. It doesn’t affect you. Why does it matter to you? No one can tell you who to love.”

That launched the discussion which later led to the purported locker room conversions. It is a timely discussion in Minnesota, where there is a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot: “Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to provide that only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as marriage in Minnesota?” VOTE NO signs have sprouted throughout our neighborhood; they line the roads on the way to the hockey rink.

Simon had been late getting to practice (my fault – more evidence for the Worst Hockey Mom title). A coach came in to hurry along the stragglers and Simon asked, “You’re voting NO on the marriage amendment, right?” “I don’t know yet,” he admitted. Simon laid out his arguments again, to which the coach responded, “You make a good point. I think I probably will vote No. Now get out on the ice.”

My son can be like a dog with a bone, so he brought it up again at the next practice. This time he was on time, so when he brought it up in the locker room, everyone on the team was there. One kid, a player who Simon describes as a “tough guy” got really upset when the other kid described same-sex marriage as “gross”. He stood up, half his gear on, and said,

“That’s my family you are talking about! I have two moms and they are married. It hurts my feelings when you say that my family is gross!”

Well, that sure got the team’s attention. According to Simon, he was too emotional to say much more but Simon was able to pick up where he left off.

See? He’s got two moms. So what? Why should his family be treated any differently than yours?

***

The US Supreme Court justices, who appear to be gnashing their teeth about the appropriate timing of a ruling on marriage equality, could benefit from the point of view of my 10 year-old.

People are just people; we are all equal. People love each other and benefit from loving, committed relationships.

We should all be able to marry who we love. Families should all be treated the same.

Marriage equality, through the eyes of a 10-year-old, is just not complicated.

Love

As the United States Supreme Court considers cases related marriage equality, you can read more – including the Top 100 Marriage Equality Blogs – here.

Forward Movement: LGBT Rights in Cameroon

Motorcycle taxis speed toward Douala, Cameroon's major port and commercial center
Motorcycle taxis speed toward Douala, Cameroon’s major port and commercial center

In response to this week’s Photo Challenge: Forward, I thought I would simply post this photo, taken two weeks ago today, of motorcycle taxis speeding towards Douala, Cameroon.  But there is another kind of movement going on right now in Douala, one that is attempting to move the country forward towards acceptance of the rights of LGBT persons.  These courageous activists, who are risking their lives to end discrimination and persecution based on sexual orientation or gender identity in Cameroon, deserve more than a photo.  They deserve to have their stories told.

In Cameroon, people who are LGBT face pervasive societal stigma, discrimination,and  harassment.  They also face the possibility of imprisonment – Article 347 of the Cameroonian penal code criminalizes “sexual relations with a person of the same sex”.  At least 28 people have been prosecuted under the law since 2010. One of them is Roger Jean-Claude Mbede, who was arrested and convicted of homosexuality in March 2011 after sending another man a text message reading, “I’ve fallen in love with you.”  In December 2012, the Cameroonian court of appeals upheld the conviction and sentenced him to three years in prison.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people have a high risk of HIV/AIDS infection.  They are often rejected by their families, who force them out of the home.  When targeted by law enforcement, they have more difficulty in obtaining legal protection.Due to the social stigma and intense climate of fear, most LGBT people are forced to live out their lives in secrecy.  Yet there are several impressive non-governmental organizations  – Alternatives-Cameroun, the Association for the Defense of Gay and Lesbian Rights (ADEFHO), Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS), and Evolve, to name a fewwhich are working hard to raise awareness about and provide services to the LGBT community.

When I was in Douala, I was able to visit Alternatives-Cameroun.  Security is, understandably, a big concern.  There is no sign that marks their center on boulevard de la Liberté, and when you arrive, you have to sign in and show your ID.  Alternatives-Cameroun has one doctor at the center who provides HIV/AIDS treatment and medical services to approximately 75 patients.  In addition, Alternatives-Cameroun provides a small community pharmacy, as well as safe, confidential and free HIV testing.  In 2012, they provided 720 HIV tests.

Staff at Alternatives-Cameroun centre in Douala
Staff at Alternatives-Cameroun centre in Douala

Equally important are the services provided by a psychologist and two social workers.  Alternatives-Cameroun also provides public education and outreach, both at the center and through peer educators.  On the day I visited, all of the peer educators were at work out “in the field” in Douala.

What touched me most, though, was the real sense of community that is provided by Alternatives-Cameroun.  I saw a small group of young people sitting on plastic chairs around a table in “William’s Hall” (named after one of the organization’s founders, who died in the Kenya Air plane crash).  I could feel that they were providing each other with comfort and support, a feeling so strong that I could see the connection between them almost as clearly as I could see the young man holding the hand of the woman beside him.

As a way to join the community and to connect with the neighbors around them, Alternatives-Cameroun started a small restaurant that serves a very inexpensive daily lunch. This anti-discriminatory gambit has paid off; the neighbors now come to the restaurant to eat and talk together with the staff and patients.  Often the patients are very poor, so the restaurant means they can offer them a meal or two a day.  The restaurant also provides meals for LGBT detainees in prison.  Prison conditions in Cameroon are notoriously bad, with severe overcrowding and inadequate food.  Most detainees rely on family members to bring them meals.  As LGBT detainees have often been rejected by their families, they have no other access to food.

Restaurant

Activists working on LGBT issues in Cameroon told me that one of their main needs is for more lawyers. One of the very few Cameroonian lawyers who is willing to take on these “homosexuality” cases is Alice Nkom.  The first black woman admitted to the Cameroonian bar, Alice has been courageously fighting for the rights of LGBT Cameroonians for many years.  In spite of serious death threats, Alice Nkom continues her work.  “Threats like these show us that the fight must continue,” said Nkom.

with alice in douala

Cameroon has been receiving a lot of criticism recently from the international community, particularly the European Union. The issues of LGBT rights will certainly come up again at the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of Cameroon this spring.  On January 31, Cameroonian President Paul Biya told reporters that attitudes are changing in his country about the criminalisation of homosexuality.  “Now I can say that discussions are under way. People are talking, minds can change one way or another but currently it’s a crime.”  

The government of Cameroon must do more than discuss.  The government must protect the rights of all Cameroonians, regardless of sexual orientation or identity. And when things do change, as they will one day, the credit will go to the brave men and women who have put their heart and souls – not to mention their lives – into moving their country forward on LGBT rights.

To read more about LGBT rights in Cameroon:

Human Rights Watch, Criminalizing Identities (2010)

Joint Stakeholder Submission on LGBT Rights for the Universal Periodic Review of Cameroon (2012)

International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission, Cameroon

Hockey Moms

My 10 year old son comes out of the ice arena, swaggering despite the heavy hockey bag that he carries like a giant backpack. His hockey stick and waterbottle he wields before him like a rod and staff.  I’m sitting on a picnic table in the sun and, yes, I am facebooking on my iPhone. His cheeks are flushed, his bright ginger hair is damp-dark with sweat.  He has an announcement to make.

“I’ve got everyone but one kid on my team to be in favor of same-sex marriage.  AND two of the coaches.”

He beams at me. I can feel my jaw as it drops.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a terrible hockey mom.  I hate almost everything about the sport.  I’ve got two sons who play, so I did put a decent amount of effort into learning the basic rules and terminology.  I know what a “hat trick” is; I understand what it means when the refs call “icing” (and even the circumstances under which you would want to ice the puck).  But hockey is like an onion – and not just because the pungent smell of the hockey gear makes your eyes water. As you peel back the layers of hockey, you find kids shunted into the penalty box for obscure rules and quotes from Herb Brooks’  Miracle on Ice speech.

My biggest problem is that I grew up in the Deep South, so my natural impulse when winter strikes is to hibernate.  The whole concept of driving – in the cold – to sit – in the cold – to watch a sport played – on ice, in the cold – boggles my mind.  People always talk about the crazy ice times, but that has not been our experience so far. Checking is not allowed yet, and fighting is against the rules. Besides the expense, though, my biggest annoyance has been the hockey moms.

Let me be clear – I LIKE the hockey moms on my sons’ teams.  They are all urban Minneapolis moms like me who yell “Good job!” and “Nice try!” and “Better luck next time!”  My only problem with them is that they look more stylish than me in their cold weather attire, as I tend to focus more on function over style when it comes to winter.  It is the other teams’ hockey moms that bug me when, dressed from head to toe in team gear, they are yelling things like “Take him out!” and “Kill him!” or  applauding a player who sneaks in an illegal check. I see them almost always wrapped in team logo polarfleece blankets with one or more little shivering siblings clinging to them, each with their own garishly custom spray-painted cap that says “I don’t have a life! My brother plays hockey.”

Going inside to watch hockey on a cold winter day is one thing.  Going inside to watch hockey on a beautiful summer day is completely inconceivable to me.  But here in Minnesota, hockey is a year round sport.  Serious players play AAA from April to September and, unlike the regular season, players are not required to play where they live.  There are kids on my 10 year old’s team from throughout the Twin Cities Metro and  (more of the onion that is hockey culture) some kids who travel here for the weekend practices and games from Wisconsin (which isn’t so crazy) and Florida and Texas (which is absolutely nuts!)

But my two sons are way, way into hockey.  They LOVE this sport!  I respect that, so I suck it up and wash their stinky gear and drive them to the rink.

From Mini-Mites up until last winter, I went into the locker room when I took my boys to hockey – even though I have been banned from years from tying their skates because I “don’t do it right.”  I stopped when my oldest son moved up to PeeWees  – after the unfortunate incident when I burst into the locker room, my 6 year old daughter (with her pink jacket and sparkle ballet flats) in tow, only to find a gaggle of 12 year-olds in their underwear listening to loud music and talking trash.   “Mom!” my son hissed, “I’m good.”

I accidentally wandered into the locker room once this summer.  I was only there a moment, but I heard at least 6 of the 10 year old Squirts claim credit for the same goal.  Who needs that level of testosterone in their lives?

Given my locker room abdication, I was completely floored to hear that the hockey team was having a discussion about same-sex marriage. Here is the story, from the perspective of my 10 year old:  “One kid brought it up. He said it was gross, a man with a man or a woman with a woman.”  I said,

 “ARE YOU CRAZY?  That’s their choice who they love. It doesn’t affect you. Why does it matter to you? No one can tell you who to love.”

That launched the discussion which later led to the purported locker room conversions.  It is a timely discussion in Minnesota, where there is a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot:  “Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to provide that only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as marriage in Minnesota?”   VOTE NO signs have sprouted throughout our neighborhood; they line the roads on the way to the hockey rink.

To be clear, there is already a Minnesota state law defining marriage as between one man and one woman.  Most of the lesbian and gay couples that we know have to go down to Iowa or another state that recognizes same-sex marriage if they want to get married.  But a law can be changed, hence the purported necessity of the proposed constitutional amendment.

Simon had been late getting to practice (my fault – more evidence for the Worst Hockey Mom title). A coach came in to hurry along the stragglers and Simon asked, “You’re voting no on the marriage amendment, right?”  “I don’t know yet,” he admitted.  Simon laid out his arguments again, to which the coach said, “You make a good point.  I think I probably will vote No.  Now get out on the ice.”

My son can be like a dog with a bone, so he brought it up again at the next practice.  This time he was on time and so when he brought it up in the locker room when everyone was there.  One kid, a player who Simon describes as a “tough guy” got really upset when the other kid described same-sex marriage as “gross”.  He stood up, half his gear on, and said,
“That’s my family you are talking about! I have two moms and they are married.  It hurts my feelings when you say that my family is gross!”
Well, that sure got the team’s attention. According to Simon, he was too emotional to say much more but Simon was able to pick up where he left off.
See?  He’s got two moms.  So what? Why should his family be treated any differently than yours?

Turns out that my 10 year old son is way smarter than I am.  It is all about having the conversation.  According to Minnesotans United for Families, sixty-seven percent of people with gay and lesbian friends VOTE NO if we talk to them about marriage.

This means that the single most important action you can take to defeat this hurtful amendment is to start conversations about the freedom to marry with your friends, family, and the people you see every day.

So maybe it is time that I reassess my thinking on hockey.  Maybe I should admit that I don’t know a thing about those other hockey moms. Maybe I should spend a little less time blogging during hockey practice

or running laps before hockey games while the other moms sit around and talk.

Maybe it is time that I dispense with my arrogance, overcome my disdain.  Maybe I need to step outside of my comfort zone and start engaging other parents in conversation.

I know there are at least a couple of hockey moms in the ice arena who would probably appreciate it if their marriage were legally recognized in the state of Minnesota.