Panel on the Decriminalization of LGBTI Status

July 26, 2019 - Berlin Pride, CSD | U.S. Embassy in Berlin


This page is available in Arabic | هذه الصفحة متاحة باللغة العربية


Background

The US Administration announced in February 2019 its intention to contribute to the global decriminalization of homosexuality, an effort led by US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, the highest-profile openly gay man in the Trump administration. This announcement was partly met with criticism, as the Administration of Mr. Trump has constantly attacked LGBTIQ+ rights in the US. (Politico, Metro Weekly, PinkNews, NBC News, The New York Times) However, there was no argument about the substance of this initiative: the importance of decriminalizing homosexuality in the 70+ countries where it is still criminalized, such as in Lebanon.

According to State Department Deputy Spokesperson Robert Palladino "This really is not a big policy departure. This is long-standing and it's bipartisan. I would say that this is a good opportunity to listen and to discuss ideas about how the United States can advance decriminalization of homosexuality around the world, and that's been our policy." (U.S. Department of State) This wouldn’t be the first time a government advocates for the end of worldwide criminalization of homosexuality. No government has catalyzed the effort yet.

The American policies in the Middle East are not popular, and Lebanese political formations are critical of them. Therefore, perceiving the LGBTIQ+ file as a by-product of these policies would jeopardize its progress in Lebanon. In order to respond to the American efforts that resonate with our first objective (which is the decriminalization of homosexuality in Lebanon), and in attempt to avoid alienation by local politicians and institutions, Beirut Pride contributes to the American reflection about the global decriminalization of homosexuality. Through its awareness about the Lebanese realities and sensitivities, Beirut Pride advocates for a 360º approach, where all stakeholders are included in the conversation for the good of the order.

In this logic, in honor of Berlin Pride, and on the occasion of Christopher Street Day, the US Mission to Germany organized a roundtable on Friday, July 26, 2019 to discuss the decriminalization of LGBTI status with Mr. Hadi Damien (Initiator of Beirut Pride, Lebanon), Ms. Mariam Kvaratskhelia (Deputy Director of Tbilisi Pride, Georgia), Mr. Stuart Milk (Co-Founder and President of the Harvey Milk Foundation), Mrs. Hourvash Pourkian (Founder of International Women in Power, Germany) and Mr. Caine Youngman (Advocacy Officer of LEGABIBO, Botswana). The roundtable was moderated by Ambassador Grenell.

 
 
Introductions

Stuart Milk is the nephew of Harvey Milk, one of the first openly LGBT elected officials in the US. Before him, two elected officials were LGBT, but they didn’t wish to talk about being lesbian women. Running for public office, Harvey decided to talk about being gay, and, at a time the US still criminalized being LGBT, not only did Harvey run as an openly gay man, but he also encouraged people to come out and to join him in being visible.
The Harvey Milk Foundation does global and domestic work. Building around the legacy of Harvey, it has contributed to naming a US navy ship after Harvey Milk - a significant symbolism as Harvey was dishonorably discharged (forced out of the navy) for being gay. The global work of the Harvey Milk Foundation focuses on emerging and struggling communities.
In an increasingly polarized country, SM called for the need to find ways to work together as we come from different political sides. He said: “I cannot see how anyone in the international community could take fault at working to decriminalize homosexuality. There is nothing that attacks Harvey’s core message of visibility more than criminalization. Even though some criminalizing countries say they don’t enforce the laws on the books, the fact that your very existence is a criminal existence is stigmatizing - and we think about the young people who take their lives because they know their existence is illegal. I applaud the effort led by Ambassador Grenell in regard to the decriminalization. We have made a great progress with openly gay ambassadors, openly gay celebrities, openly gay elected officials - but 72 countries still make it illegal to be LGBT, and these countries make up the majority of the world’s population.”

Caine Youngman represents the advocacy organization LEGABIBO in Botswana, which principal mandate is to ensure the safety and the wellbeing of the LGBTI community in the country (health, legal, social approaches).

Hourvash Pourkian works with the Iranian Human Rights Activists in Hamburg and with the International Women in Power. Highlighting the executions of gays and lesbians in Iran, she insisted that while the official State figures mention over 6,000 executions of L and G people since 1979, the numbers are much higher than this.

Hadi Damien is the initiator of Beirut Pride in Lebanon, a collaborative platform that has been existing since 2017. While the first edition went well, the second edition was cracked down by the police following the distribution of a fake programme that homophobes fabricated and attributed to Beirut Pride. Criminal proceedings for organizing events “that incite to debauchery” were initiated against him after his arrest.
In Lebanon, homosexuality per se is not criminalized. The Lebanese criminal code does not mention homosexuality; however, its Section 534 stipulates that “sexual act that is against nature is punishable with up to one year in jail”.
The path to decriminalization in Lebanon has already started. Several court rulings did not prosecute people for being gay, and continuous work is done with prosecutors and law enforcement officiers to move forward in this direction.

Is Public Support From Other Countries Useful?

RG: The US State Department regularly discusses public support of Western Ambassadors for LGBTIQ+ groups in places where homosexuality is criminalized. While the opponents of decriminalization often say that homosexuality is a western idea, and that it comes from the US and from a western culture, how do you feel about the US and about the western public support (clear messages, visible help - not only private assistance). Are these tactics helpful or unhelpful on the grounds? What do you need from the global civil society and from western governments, specifically from the United States?

HD: We stand on the shoulders of giants and excuses to justify why we do so little are not an option. Every collaboration is needed and must be done in concert with the domestic efforts.
How can we, in a globalized world, reduce universal realities (such as being gay) to a geographic location, and cut the world in two parts: one that punishes you for being yourself, and a second that does not. As we benefit from the evolution of transport and from the evolution of communication, we, world citizens, have the global responsibility of making sure we navigate the world with a sound basis, a common denominator, and that is, in our case, a world where you are not criminalized because you are gay.
It is extremely important not to hijack efforts, to constantly open channels of communication with people who work locally and with people who hold power in our countries. Some people can afford speaking about “homonationalism”, “heterosexism” and other concepts that are legitimate and thoughtful in their own right, but the moment LGBTIQ+ people face absurd and terrible criminalization for being LGBTIQ+, we must promptly, actively and efficiently work to stop it, regardless of our ideologies.
Decriminalization of homosexuality is a basic matter that we must complete, and we welcome every assistance from all the protagonists of the society - from the civil society, but also from the legislative, from the executive, from the judiciary, from the corporations, from every single person who feels concerned by the LGBTIQ+ file. The latter is not the sole responsibility of the lesbians, the gays, the bisexuals, the trans*, the intersex, the queer, the questioning individuals. It is also the responsibility of our families, the responsibility of our employers, the responsibility of our employees, it’s the responsibility of the academic institutions we study at or teach in.
At the end of the end, we are solely talking about decriminalizing consensual same-sex intercourse between adults.

HP: I agree with Hadi. We need every support from governments and from other countries. This is a matter of human rights and you cannot execute people because they are different from you.

CY: As a former British colony, Botswana inherited the sodomy law that was initially only enforced on men, before it also started to criminalize women. Botswana is not the most combative country, which is also the case of its LGBTIQ+ people.
Botswanans believe homosexuality to be a western import, and therefore we are very protective of our LGBTIQ+ advocacy. We don’t allow foreigners to lobby on our behalf, as we are the ones left to face the repercussions. We also believe that our LGBTIQ+ realities worsen when development partners withhold aid because of the gays.
To assist us, make sure that your engagement is meaningful and take our feedback into consideration as we understand the politics of power in our own countries. Botswana does not have a Human Rights committee, so human right violations go unpunished, and the government doesn’t benefit from a human rights advisory institution. Setting up a human rights institution with the support of a properly functioning United Nation would be a good project for Botswana.

SM: The activists’ statements reinforce a lot of what we’ve experienced in the Milk Foundation, and I’d like to speak of global assistance that comes from the private sector.
Corporations, for example, aware that they will be financially rewarded, have been a huge firewall, a loud voice that stands up against political roll-back of rights in the West and in the US. We witnessed it when corporations threatened some US states to relocate if the State passed laws that allowed businesses to discriminate against LGBTIQ+ communities. Global companies can help in this sense, and we push them to publicly speak up in places where LGBTIQ+ rights are challenged, such as in Africa, Lebanon, etc.
The Harvey Milk Foundation doesn’t name and shame, even though we acknowledge that this tactic sometimes works, such as in the case of Brunei when global voices boycotted and raised their voice. But boycotting is a sensitive matter, and it can backfire if it is not properly coordinated with local groups. When activists called for the boycott of Stolichnaya in retaliation to Russia’s LGBTIQ+ laws, little did they know that Stolichnaya was a Latvian company, not a Russian one. The boycott, before it was halted, could have hurt and damaged the emerging and struggling LGBTIQ+ group in Latvia. This is why efficient coordination is paramount.
I remember a South African lady addressing an international plenary session saying: “If you’ve come here to help us, to help women, to help people of color, to help indigenous people, pack up your bags and go home, we have nothing to do.” The room became deadly silent. The lady repeated herself: “If you’re here to help us because that’s what you desire, go home. But if you’ve come here because you understand that your liberation is bound with mine, then let’s work together. Don’t do it for altruistic reasons. Do it because it is in your self-interest”. — In this sense, the Milk Foundation goes nowhere to help nobody. We go there to help ourselves, and we must realize this is a global struggle and we must not be helpers. We must be working together. We also have a say “We don’t do anything without them”, which means we don’t anything without local communities and their cultural solutions.

Beyond Funding, What Are The Tools For Decriminalization?

RG: Beyond funding that comes from corporations, governments, the UN and particulars, what are the other things you need to move towards decriminalization? And who provides them?

HD: *laughs* The most sensational question of the whole panel. *laughters*. Any idea from the audience? *laughters*

Audience: Human rights everywhere.

HD: Yes, but what does the label “Human Rights” mean? Are Human Rights universal? And can they be applied and expressed in Berlin 2019 the same way they are applied and expressed in Texas 2019? Absolutely not, because the evolution of countries is never linear. I give you this example: when gay people in NYC of the seventies were becoming more visible, Beirut was under the bombs. The country dynamics are different and they command how things move forward.
Yes, money is important: pamphlets, flyers, programs, other communication tools need funds to exist. But to which extend can we take money? How can money be handled to people who don’t know how to manage it? What happens when the money is over? It’s important to make sure that the aid and the grants are invested in a way to create more funds, more sustainability for our work.
People must also realize and understand that silence is deadly. Through its silence, the silent mass, the silent majority, gives more space to hate and to homophobia, which gives the illusion to outsiders that the room is occupied by homophobes, that all odds are against the LGBT, and that the country is not ready for change - which hinders and halts the evolution we are working for. Public figures, diplomats and politicians are called to do more than praise and give compliments. The decriminalization of homosexuality must be a top-priority in their domestic and international conversations with ministers, prime ministers and presidents they meet. The dynamics in Lebanon between domestic powers and foreign powers permits this exchange. Some local politicians need a push, a word of encouragement, to speak about the decriminalization of homosexuality.
Generally, for people to be sensitive about the LGBTIQ+ file, they need to know LGBTIQ+ people. Change happens in the heart, in the spirit, in ourselves. Visibility catalyzes change. When you live your life without fear as a visible, proud gay man, people get to see what it means to be gay, and therefore their myths, lies and prejudice are challenged.
Opening channels of communication is mandatory, because the perpetuators of abuse are principally law enforcement officers who justify their behavior stating that “we are enforcing a law, and you should go to Parliament to change it”. Let’s steer away from easy provocation - no need to take and publish a selfie when meeting people because this could affect the person we are meeting, especially if they come from traditional or conservative constituencies. They might freak out and shut down communication.

SM: Backchannel work is important. We work in a dozen of countries where nobody knows we are working there. We try to build trust with people. It is important we look culturally at each country, and identify the best solution with the local activists who are better informed on how to work with them.
The notion of criminalization is a western notion. Criminalization is a disgraceful legacy of colonialism. The third gender has been celebrated in India, and in Central America two-spirited people have been celebrated for 10 or 12 thousand years. The UN has produced a pamphlet about it. The western world is currently catching up with the ancient world where everybody was celebrated.
Intersectionality is cross-culturally important when we bring together marginalized communities and have them collaborate together. In his last TV interview before his assassination, Harvey was asked who the number one enemy of the LGBTIQ+ was. He said: “the LGBTIQ+ themselves, because we didn’t work together”. The best thing to do is to bring the whole groups together by finding common ground, and it is not always easy. *laughs* I met six years ago a US ambassador who said: “Stuart we’ve got one Pride parade on the same street, two different organizations that walk in different directions and don’t love each other, what do I do?” — I say we try to find a common ground and try to bring them together. Sometimes personalities clash. It was true in my uncle’s days: to be honest with you, he was not supported by most of the few LGBT activists in San Francisco, but think of the impact of his dream. He didn’t allowed the attacks to deter him.
Beside the money, we can help by bringing people together, by collaborating, and by letting differences lay but finding common grounds.

HD: The LGBTIQ+ file is intersectional in essence. Think with me: what brings together the L, the G, the B, the T, the I, the Q and so on? What is the common ground between two gay men? Two things: first, they both have feelings, attraction and desire for another man; second, both of them face forms of homophobia. Every other point is different: economic orientation, education, languages, culture, and so on. This is quite a heavy file, and bringing people together is quite a challenge. In the same family, it’s difficult to coordinate siblings’ opinions, but it’s important not to work against each other. The civil rights movement in America, for example, teaches us that while some were advocating for non-violent actions, other groups believed that the path to liberation cannot be but through force and violence. We are not here to install an hierarchy of strategies, but it’s important that coordination be efficient, even through backchannels, so our actions complement each other.
Our work is about communication. We are often communicating with a homophobe, and it’s important we speak their language and understand their cultural references in order to tap into them and create common grounds for the conversation. When officials in Lebanon give me a meeting, it’s already a big thing for them to be publicly meeting in their office an openly gay man. So when I meet them, I seek to be visually neutral in their perception, so their focus is on what we are discussing, not on my looks.
The longer we wait for the decriminalization of homosexuality, the harder it is going to be because the homophobes of the world will look at these countries where homosexuality is criminalized and they will turn them into their stronghold, putting all their weight in them.
The road is long and we must be aware and educated about these issues. Again, we stand on the shoulders of giants, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, and resources are manifold: knowledge is not limited to the resources of the LGBTIQ+ file; it also exists in the long fight for women’s rights and in many more societal files. There are a lot of similarities amongst societal challenges. Political communication is accessible - we must learn in order to translate this knowledge into tactics and proper ways to communicate with the persons who must put their weight for things to change.

HP: The law in Iran doesn’t mention homosexuality, but transgenderism. For example, a man who loves a man can change his gender and “become a woman”. A woman who loves a woman is encouraged to change sex and “become a man”. The government would fund these surgeries. But you are considered sick if you love someone from your own gender. My friend got a State card identifying her as a sick person.

CY: We need an understanding of each country. For example, several American pastors - mostly Evangelical Christians - are flying to Africa, lobbying for law change to make the prison sentence longer for LGBTIQ+ people - they also advocate for capital punishment. They even sent lawyers to oppose us in the decriminalization court trial. They also identify Botswanan pastors who share the same mindset, host them in the US for a two-year training, and send them back to Africa with the same radical anti-LGBT agenda. How do we address this issue?

SM: Preachers who go to Africa for anti-gay preaching have been receiving government funding from several US Administrations to export their thinking. They are a very small number, but for a country like Botswana or Lithuania, they can have a huge impact, and we need to address that. We support religious freedom, but we cannot support individuals who lobby to criminalize a group of people.
In Belgium, for example, an imam, whose gay son killed himself because of his rejection by his father, has since been publicly working through his faith “to correct his mistake”.
The faith community is not the enemy of the LGBTIQ+ people. The US showed us a shift in the attitude of the faith community through marriage equality, hence bridging human rights and the faith community. The Mormon Church went from being the opponents of marriage equality in California to supporting the Utah statewide legislation to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment and housing. The Mormon Church also endorsed renaming a major street in Salt Lake City as Harvey Milk Boulevard. Faith communities don’t want to lose congregants. Marriage equality goes to the heart of Harvey’s message of visibility - it humanizes us and invites more support from the faith community.

HD: Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that it’s only the Muslim faith that is homophobic. Believe me, from experience, Christian people don’t lack in homophobia at all. Things often boil down to economy, and poor economy turns the country into a conservative place, under which excuse social change is challenged. Reducing the conversation to the religious discourse is not constructive. All faiths still have much to do. For the past decade, the Vatican, through many senior officers, opposed the criminalization of homosexuality, and we are awaiting the Pope’s public statement on the matter.

RG: I’ve had extensive conversations with religious communities, and, knowing them, I am confident that the majority of the religious communities does stand with us on decriminalizing homosexuality. We might differ on other issues in reaching equality, but we should all come together on decriminalizing homosexuality. This is something we can all get behind. 71 countries means 71 different plans of action. There is a lot of work to do.

Understanding Botswana’s Decriminalization’s Process.

RG: Caine, you’ve been successful, leading Botswana’s decriminalization. How did you do it? What are the steps? Are there any secrets? What can we learn from you? Why were you successful?

CY: It was a process. In 2003, and while we were arguing in court in favor of a man who was caught in bed with another man, the court mentioned that Botswana was not yet ready for the decriminalization of same-sex sexual relationships. Also, LGBTIQ+ people were not able then to constitute a group that needed protection. Henceforth, we wanted to show that Botswana was ready for the decriminalization, and that LGBTIQ+ people needed protection.

We first wanted to register an organization because this action meant we were operating. Our Constitution gives everybody the right to associate as long as we are not breaking any law. It was the sexual part that was illegal, and we were not advocating for people to have sex or for people to have sex in our organization. It was about people who identify as LGBTIQ+, people associating, talking about their lives, insuring they are not oppressed or facing anything else.

We then did a lot of advocacy work, a lot of ground work with the LGBTIQ+ groups.

We worked with the seniors, old citizens, training them to understand human rights and to ask questions to parliamentarians such as “what do you want me to do about my LGBTIQ+ child who just got kicked out of school?” or “what do you want me to do about my LGBTIQ+ child whose employment was just terminated?”. Including parents was a key element.

We worked on “indirect laws” such as those related to HIV. We worked with the unions to make sure that terminating employment on the grounds of seropositivity does not happen. We also worked to include sexual orientation as one of the protections, so Parliament legislates that you cannot terminate employment based on sexual orientation.

We moved on to make sure that every government arm/department has some discussion about LGBTIQ+ people. The idea was to make sure that every unit understands that there are LGBTIQ+ individuals in Botswana, and that they need protection. Government officers advise policy makers, so if LGBTIQ+ people appear in government policies, that will be enough material for the decriminalization case, and with that we went to court.

RG: You took to heart a loss in the court and combatted all the reasons why it lost during 16 years - that’s a special commitment.

Keys to Achieving Decriminalization.

RG: How do we achieve decriminalization? What do you think are the keys to decriminalizing homosexuality?

Ms. Mariam Kvaratskhelia (Deputy Director of Tbilisi Pride, Georgia) Speaking at the Decriminalization of LGBTI Status Panel, Berlin Pride - CSD, U.S. Embassy in Berlin, July 26, 2019, Photography John Self

MK: I’m from Georgia, from the Caucasus in Eastern Europe, and I’m the cofounder and co-organizer of the first ever Tbilisi Pride which we tried to organize this year. In Georgia homosexuality was decriminalized in 2000 as a prerequisite to join the EU. However, both discrimination and hate crimes are still rampant. Our challenging geopolitical situation affects the minorities.

SM: Thomas Jefferson was asked “When does the battle for equality and justice end?” and his answer was “It doesn’t. As long as there are minorities, they will always be subject to the tyranny of the majority, and we must be vigilant it will be a human battle for the existence of humanity”.
Visibility is very important, and 41 years ago, my uncle said that the lies and innuendos about the LGBTIQ+ people, about any group of people that others don’t personally know, are rooted in invisibility. Visibility is one of the most key elements of progress.
I conclude with what I call the real heroes, who, around the world, are mostly young people who have difficult kitchen table conversations with their loved ones, with their parents - sometimes they may be thrown out of their home, sometimes they may end their relationship with their family members, but this is what moves the bar. It’s these everyday heroes, and we all know them. Heroes who have made this difficult, individual, personal, emotional choice to come out - because one of the unique factors of the LGBTIQ+ people is that we have to make that choice, we have to decide: when do we take off our mask?

CY: Every country has to make human rights a center of whatever law or action. Human rights must be embedded in our culture, because we cannot let anyone be ridiculed if you believe in human rights. We also need to continue with the strategic education, and not for the sake of doing it. People and culture must be sensitized as it is not enough to change the law — rapid legal reforms often backfire. Empower LGBTIQ+ people so they do their own advocacy, otherwise it becomes almost impossible. Media defines every State, the Administration and the culture. It plays a huge role in decriminalization. We cannot decriminalize if the media continues to badly report.

HP: In the aftermath of our participation last year in Hamburg Pride, we got many feedback from Iran, and this year, in every city in Germany, Iranians are marching for Iran. It’s important to talk about it in the media and share the video we filmed.

HD: Three points. Criminalization is not only having a law on the books that states that homosexual intercourse or that homosexual intercourse is a crime. Discrimination is a form of criminalization.
We will never agree on everything, and we will not always look in the same direction, see things eye to eye. We will never understand why we call for the decriminalization of homosexuality in parts of the globe, while at the same time we enforce domestic policies that challenge the existence of queer migrants for example. We will not understand why we are looking at that specific country that criminalizes homosexuality, while not looking at other countries that criminalize homosexuality. Differences are manifold, and we must never isolate our local partners, especially our political formations, because they all have a say. Also, when they hold part of the power, they do have an influence that knows how to create misery where misery does not exist.
We are here because we make impact. Therefore, I ask you on my personal capacity and that of my fellow panelist if I may, to reach out to us, to share information with us, to share your comments, your information, your insight with us, because this is what makes it global. There is nothing personal, and thank you for being here and for listening to us.

RG: Thank you very much for the panelists.


From the Audience

1. The case of Toonen against Australia argue that every criminalization of homosexuality is a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This approach invites the Government to legal discussions, and might sometimes be easier than social conversations.

2. Changing the law comes with the press and with the courts using the right terminology.


In the Press

Read the article U.S. Embassy in Germany hosts meeting with LGBTI activists of Michael K. Lavers, the international news editor of the Washington Blade.