Global Pride Warriors

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com May 07 2008 12:00 AM ET

Sunil Pant president of the Blue Diamond Society
When Nepal’s supreme court ruled last
year that the government had no right to legally
discriminate against gays and lesbians, Sunil Pant,
president of the Blue Diamond Society, was there. In fact,
Blue Diamond, a Nepalese LGBT rights organization, was
one of the groups that filed the lawsuit that led to
the court’s landmark decision. Pant said at the time
that the ruling “liberated” his
country’s sexual minorities and hoped it would
set a precedent for conservative nations around the world.

While Americans
are knee-deep in the battle for full marriage rights, we
sometimes forget that in many countries, simply living as an
out gay person can lead to imprisonment, physical
punishment, and even death. Progress in those places
requires people like Pant—not just lobbyists and
activists, but courageous warriors fighting on the front
lines on behalf of their communities.

The International
Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission recognized the
work of Pant and his compatriots by awarding the BDS its
2007 Felipa de Souza Award, named after the
16th-century Brazilian lesbian who was accused of
sodomy and persecuted during the Inquisition.

To foster
profound change, even in the face of peril, is precisely why
IGLHRC supports the work of activists and visionaries around
the globe. “We change the world one city, one
country, one region at a time,” says Paula
Ettelbrick, IGLHRC’s executive director, adding that
each time homophobia is fought in places like Chile,
Nepal, or Nigeria, it benefits the global community of
LGBT people. “It is imperative that all of us in
the United States connect with and support our partners and
colleagues around the world,” she says.
“That’s how we participate in changing the
world.”

During his
acceptance speech, Pant pointed to the many successes his
organization has achieved. “BDS has mobilized sexual
minorities over the past six years by creating service
centers in seven cities and network associations in 15
others,” he said. “We have had direct contact
with more than 60,000 individuals from the communities
we serve.”

Yet obstacles
still remain. “Metis -- those traditionally
recognized as third genders -- and other LGBTIs are
excluded and believed to have no capacity to
contribute to society,” says Pant, speaking recently
from his office in Nepal. Which is why it’s
critical to keep pushing to end discrimination and
stigma. “Small injustices must not be
overlooked,” he adds. “Small,
incremental progress adds up over time.” -- Fred Kuhr

Nikolai Alekseev Founder of Moscow Pride and
Project Gay Russia
Nikolai Alekseev never intended to become
Russia’s leading LGBT rights activist. But
suffering antigay discrimination as a university
student -- including being prohibited from writing his
thesis on the rights of gays around the world -- set
him on this unintended path. (His case against
Lomonosov Moscow State University is still before the
European Court of Human Rights.)

Alekseev, now 30,
is a lawyer and public administrator by trade, though
he works full-time as an activist. He first gained global
attention two years ago when he became the principal
organizer behind the inaugural Moscow Pride. But what
was intended to be a celebration like any other Pride
became a battle when Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov banned the
event. Alekseev and his colleagues went forward with
their plans and were confronted by violent opposition
and police arrests that made headlines around the
world. The same fate befell the second Moscow Pride last
year.

Alekseev was
arrested both years. In 2006 he was acquitted; in 2007 he
spent 24 hours in police custody and was fined.

“I was
going to the Tomb of the Unknown Solider to lay flowers when
I was arrested by the police and confronted by
extremists,” recalls Alekseev. “My
grandfather died in the Second World War, and I could not
understand why I was being denied the right to pay my
respects to people who fought fascism. After so many
years, fascism is gaining strength in the country that
defeated it.”

Moscow Pride has
filed a complaint against the mayor and Moscow police in
the European Court of Human Rights. And while Alekseev and
his compatriots wait for a final decision, they have
moved ahead with plans for this year’s May 31
celebration, timed to coincide with the 15-year
anniversary of Russia’s decision to decriminalize
homosexuality. If the European Court doesn’t
help convince the Moscow mayor to lift his ban on
Pride, perhaps international political pressure will do the
trick. Alekseev has sent formal invitations to the
mayors of Berlin, London, and Paris to speak at the
Pride press conference.

“We really
thought having these European mayors here could change
things this year,” said Alekseev. “Since
Mayor Luzhkov knows the other mayors well and meets
with them regularly, they are probably the main channel we
have to put pressure on Mr. Luzhkov.”

Unfortunately for
Alekseev, all three have declined to attend. He’s
particularly critical of Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë
and Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit, both of whom are gay,
for not wanting to put their support into action. But
the disappointment doesn’t end there. Alekseev
has learned that Mayor Luzhkov put pressure on the hotel
that was to host Moscow Pride’s associated
human rights conference. “We’ve had our
conference at Swissôtel the past two years,” he
explains. “This year, Swissôtel denied the
place to us even though everything was already
arranged a year ago. We are now considering further legal
actions against the hotel.”

Alekseev is a
fighter, but he says he’s not alone. “We have
a saying in Russia meaning, ‘There is more than
one warrior in the field.’ There are many other
people around me who are not very visible, but who are
making a significant difference in the fight for gay
rights in Russia,” he says. “I
don’t think I would be able to change things here
alone.” -- Fred Kuhr

Sewedo Joseph Akoro Director of The
Independent Project, Nigeria

Sewedo Joseph Akoro was in the courtroom last
year for the arraignment of 18 men who had been
arrested in Nigeria’s Bauchi state for allegedly
taking part in a same-sex wedding ceremony and wearing
women’s clothing. Almost everyone expected that
the men would be charged with sodomy, which would
bring a punishment of death by stoning. Instead, when the
charges were read, they included only loitering,
vagrancy, indecency, conspiracy, and membership in an
unlawful organization -- all less serious than sodomy.

“It was a
shocker for the conservative Muslims who were in the
courtroom as well as the 500 or so who were waiting
outside,” Akoro recalls. “I suppose the
disappointment got to them, so they decided they would
execute the men themselves. They started throwing stones at
everyone coming out of the courtroom. In response, the
police shot into the air and sprayed tear gas.
Luckily, I, along with other activists and lawyers,
escaped in a car, which we later saw had been hit by a
bullet.”

That experience
would be harrowing for a seasoned activist. But at the
tender age of 20, Akoro has earned his warrior stripes
quickly and under fire.

In 2005, Akoro
and other young human rights activists in Lagos,
Nigeria’s largest city, decided that they
needed to work to fight human rights violations across
the country, with a particular emphasis on sexual
minorities. So they founded The Independent
Project—known locally as TIP.

“An openly
gay man in Nigeria is doomed, as all of his fundamental
human rights are stripped away,” says Akoro.
“Many LGBT individuals who had their sexual
orientation disclosed through blackmail or other means have
lost their jobs and have been ejected from their homes by
landlords or parents.”

In response, TIP
provides safe social space for young LGBTs. Last year
TIP launched its “Dare to be Different”
campaign, which offers meetings, workshops, parties,
and other social events to introduce the organization
to others as well as provide HIV education and awareness.
The reality of HIV and AIDS, says Akoro, is affecting
the fight for LGBT equality in Nigeria. He cited a
recent study that showed at least 13% of gay and
bisexual Nigerian men are HIV-positive. “This has led
for the need for an inclusive HIV program, which will
hopefully help bring about equality to the gay
community and other minority groups in Nigeria,” he
says.

Akoro, who has a
penchant for statistics about the LGBT community, is a
prospective student of history and international studies at
a Nigerian university. Despite his impressive
accomplishments, Akoro is at first unsure if he would
consider himself a warrior in the fight for LGBT
equality. “I guess I could be considered a warrior
because of my courageous move to address every human
rights violation on the grounds of sexual orientation
in a conservative country like Nigeria,” he says.
Then, as if he’s just convinced himself of the
identity, he adds, “Yes, I am a warrior because
I am doing what many young people would not have the
guts to do in Nigeria.”

Andrés
Ignacio Rivera Duarte president and founder of the
Organization of Transsexuals for Dignity and Diversity
Five years ago Maria Georgina Rivera Duarte had a
double mastectomy. Two years later she underwent a
hysterectomy and began taking hormones. But it wasn’t
until last year that Maria officially won the legal
right from the Chilean courts to become Andrés
Ignacio Rivera Duarte.

“Masculine
transsexuality was absolutely invisible,” Duarte says
of the environment in Chile when he began
transitioning. “Society wasn’t prepared
-- well, it never is for something different, but without a
doubt it was not prepared for a 38-year-old woman to
announce that she was in reality a man. I was an
extraterrestrial—too strange for the rational
understanding of society.”

Duarte, one of
two 2008 recipients of the International Gay and Lesbian
Human Rights Campaign’s Felipa de Souza Award, has
confronted intolerance repeatedly in his quest to be
recognized as a man. He suffered humiliation
“at the hands of those who claimed they were my
friends.” Coworkers and family members turned
against him. In 2006 he was fired from teaching
childhood education at the University of Rancagua, a
decision he sued the university over and ultimately won.
“We succeeded in showing that they had
discriminated against me exclusively for being a
transgender person,” he explains.

In the early days
of his transition, frustration and anger over the
discrimination he faced took its toll. “I went to the
bottom,” says Duarte. “I had problems
with alcohol abuse and attempted suicide.” But
Duarte isn’t one to give up -- “It’s in
my blood to fight against injustice and
discrimination”—so in 2005 he transformed his
despair into strength, founding the Organization of
Transsexuals for Dignity and Diversity. Located in
Rancagua about 50 miles outside Santiago, the
organization is made up of trans men and allies, lawyers,
social workers, psychologists, and one anthropologist.
They work with government officials to try to
establish transgender policy, and with local health
care providers to aid in the evaluation, treatment, and
surgery of trans people. On a grassroots level, they
provide outreach to young trans sex workers to prevent
drug use, HIV/AIDS, and other sexually transmitted
diseases, and also aim to foster self-esteem and personal
growth within the entire Chilean LGBT community.

While
Duarte’s battle to legally change his name and sex is
a personal triumph, he’s proudest of the
visibility his organization has given to transsexuals
in Chile. “Now that we ‘exist,’ we are
invited to universities to participate in seminars,
which helps make future professionals aware. People
find us in the street and ask us about transsexuality
but with a lot of respect,” says Duarte.
“There’s a lot left to do, but we have
made advances.”

As for the
future, Duarte hopes, among other things, to establish a
department of nondiscrimination and diversity in the Chilean
government, integrate training about trans people in
the armed forces and police force, and create a
national health network covering transsexuals in
public hospitals. He knows the goals are ambitious and the
road ahead will be difficult, but he says, “We
also have the profound conviction that we are fighting
for our rights, for a more dignified life with
equilibrium for body and soul, which permits us to develop
as people and dignified human beings, integrating
ourselves into society and reaching that gift
intrinsic to birth -- respect.” -- Rachel Dowd;
translation by Carolyn McCarthy