In 2013 a small group of LGBT activists took the incredibly brave step of standing together and holding up pro-equality signs in a public park in Tehran. Homosexuality can be punishable by death in Iran, and although they wore masks to hide their identity, they faced the very real danger of losing their freedom — or even their lives — for this tremendous act of courage.
On that very same day, similar scenes took place in nearly 120 nations around the world, including in nations that are equally dangerous for LGBT people. But why?
The reason is May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, and its goal is to draw attention to the ongoing problem of violence and discrimination experienced by LGBT people globally. First recognized in 2004 — and often abbreviated as IDAHO, IDAHOT, or even IDAHOBIT — the date falls on the anniversary of the World Health Organization’s declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder, which took place in 1990.
Although IDAHOT is incredibly important to millions of LGBT activists around the world, it’s relatively unknown to most of the American public, including many LGBT people. What’s also elusive to some is a broader awareness about many of the successes and setbacks that LGBT activists, advocates, and allies have experienced in the global equality movement.
That’s why this year the Human Rights Campaign Foundation is recognizing the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia by releasing a report, Equality Rising, which aims to provide Americans with a better understanding of the highs and lows of the global equality movement in 2013. This includes the extraordinary news that more nations opened the door to marriage equality last year than any other in history. In addition, at least eight nations on four continents took concrete steps toward equality for their transgender and intersex citizens.
But Equality Rising doesn’t only highlight the victories. The global equality movement saw painful setbacks in several nations — including Russia, Nigeria, and Uganda — and faces deeply entrenched homophobia, transphobia, and cultures of violence and demonization against LGBT people in many others.
Despite these challenges, LGBT people continue to stand up, fight back, and march onward. This year, advocates in St. Petersburg are lighting up the city with a "rainbow flash mob" despite Russia’s new law that bans public support of LGBT equality. In addition, activists in Cameroon are meeting with religious and political leaders to discuss LGBT rights, even though people are actively imprisoned for same-sex conduct.
We have a long way to go before every LGBT American wakes up in a country where he or she is fully equal. But as hope continues to drive us forward, and as we pass some important mile markers in the American journey to full equality, we must create a domestic movement that also supports the work of our counterparts fighting for LGBT equality abroad.
Our hope is that you commemorate this IDAHOT by making a commitment to learn more about the global equality movement. As you know well, confronting homophobia and transphobia in any nation requires tremendous bravery. We need to use every tool at our disposal to overcome them, and knowledge, as Sir Francis Bacon famously said four centuries ago, is a powerful one.
TY COBB is the Human Rights Campaign's director of global engagement. He received his bachelor's degrees at the University of Texas at Austin and his law degree from the University of Texas School of Law. He is a member of the Victory Fund's Campaign Board and serves as a mentor with the Point Foundation.