A man who works with an AJWS-supported LGBT rights organization in Uganda shields his face with a local tabloid article that listed suspected LGBT people and targeted them for harassment, violence, and eviction. Photo credit: Evan Abramson for American Jewish World Service
How to Support LGBT People Around the World

By Dennis Hinzmann

Originally published on Advocate.com June 18 2014 7:50 PM ET

While the United States continues to make long-awaited strides toward equality for LGBT citizens, countries in the developing world seem to moving backward — some still pressuring members of these marginalized communities to stay closeted and live under a heterosexual facade, and some imposing jail time on LGBT individuals and those that help them in any way. 

Ruth Messinger, the president of the American Jewish World Service, mediated a conversation on June 17 in which Nikki Mawanda, a transgender man from Uganda, and Sattara “P’Tao” Hattirat, a lesbian human rights defender from Thailand, illuminated the diminishing rights of LGBT individuals in their respective countries. 

Messinger, whose organization has long supported LGBT advocacy in the developing world, called the recent anti-LGBT legislation passed in Uganda “fierce” and “draconian,” and said that it’s “critical to help these people so all can live in love and dignity.” But that shining utopia isn’t even a glimmer when being in a same-sex relationship can come with a life-sentence in prison, or doing anything to supposedly “promote homosexuality” — including renting a home or office to an LGBT individual — can come with a seven-year stint in jail, as it does in Uganda.

Mawanda explained that members of the LGBT community who were living in small houses before the law was passed have since been evicted and are now homeless, and are unable to obtain medicine because people are afraid they’ll be jailed if they help them.

“Even the police in Uganda think this is a joke, and just a chance to extort and blackmail people,” Mawanda said, explaining that people have even been kidnapped by groups pretending to be security personnel and then coerced into paying a ransom. 

He said that he was lucky to be able to get a visa to the U.S. and leave when he could. Others who are disowned by their families can’t claim ties to the country, and they can’t prove economic standing since they aren’t allowed to have bank accounts. Mawanda also explained that the government is using LGBT people as scapegoats to distract from the real issues troubling the nation. 

In Thailand, however, the practice switches from one of persecution to indignity. “It’s thought of as a gay-haven for travelers all over the world,” Hattirat said of the popular tourist destination. “But society is not always accepting of the LGBT people who grew up there.” 

In fact, many may not be aware that, according to popular religious beliefs in Thailand, homosexuality is thought to signify misdeeds in a past life, and textbooks teach that it is a mental illness and should be avoided. 

But Hattirat says most of the societal pressure LGBT individuals face is from within, because individuals experience tremendous pressure from their families and are either disowned upon coming out or forced into heterosexual marriages. Cases of suicide continue to surface, and there are high rates of depression in LGBT individuals, she said, recalling a heartbreaking case in which a family chained their lesbian relative to the house and she ended up killing herself. “Students are also physically and emotionally bullied by classmates and teachers and many have to leave school,” she said, “meaning they have a poorer chance of getting a job.” 

Messinger said that she is working with Senator Edward J. Markey on legislation he introduced that would make LGBT human rights a foreign policy priority for the US government. If passed, the legislation would require the U.S. to develop a global strategy to respond and deal with foreign anti-LGBT discrimination. “We are trying to ensure that our government does all it can to help the rest of the world advance these rights,” she said. 

For more information on the American Jewish World Service and how to help LGBT people around the world, visit the website.