On a recent trip to Uganda with American Jewish World Service — the organization I am privileged to lead — I was honored to meet Paul, an openly gay man who is working to stop bigotry, violence, and discrimination against Uganda’s LGBT community. I've changed his name here to protect his identity.
The evening after we met, Paul was brutally attacked. Five strangers followed him home from work, forced their way into his home and violently assaulted him. They demanded the names and locations of his colleagues who work to advance LGBT rights.
Thankfully, Paul has recovered from this horrific attack. Today he is continuing the brave work of fighting for equality for LGBT people in his country.
As I marched last month in the New York City Pride March with AJWS, I thought of Paul and the countless LGBT rights activists in the developing world who risk their lives for the dignity and safety of others — each and every day.
I came out in the 1980s in the midst of a visible and vocal gay community in New York City. I feel blessed that I can be open about who I am without fearing for my safety or rejection by my family.
The U.S. is my adopted country, one that I love deeply. I grew up in South Africa during apartheid, when civil rights were horrifically restricted by race. It is this experience that drives my commitment to fighting for equal rights for all.
Our LGBT brothers and sisters around the world are increasingly vulnerable to violence and discrimination. While their day-to-day lives may look very different from our own, the struggle for liberation is one and the same. In the words of poet Emma Lazarus, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”
AJWS supports the work of LGBT rights activists in 14 countries in the developing world. Through grants to frontline organizations, we support LGBT people who are coming out, speaking out and pursuing safety and equality for a better future. I'd like to introduce you to some of these inspiring groups.
In Nicaragua, Grupo Lesbico Feminista Artemisa is one of the few organizations promoting public conversation and community organizing to resist violence and discrimination against and promote equal rights for lesbians and other sexual minorities. Artemisa's critical work has helped lesbians navigate challenging circumstances and, in many cases, gain acceptance from their families. This year, for the first time since Nicaragua’s inaugural Pride March in 1991, LGBT people in Nicaragua marched alongside their families.
Members of Artemisa with their families. Photo courtesy of Artemisa
In Haiti, an organization called Kouraj (the Creole word for “courage”) is led by courageous activists who are fighting for LGBT rights in a hostile environment. Kouraj is saving lives by supporting young people who are shunned by their parents, families, communities and employers simply because of who they are.
I was recently in Haiti and was heartbroken as I listened to a young man, Lionel (not his real name), talk about trying to take his own life because he'd been kicked out of his home, church, and job when he came out. Fortunately, he survived and found Kouraj, where he met other LGBT people who provided him with support. Today Lionel is thriving and has a community that helps him navigate life as a proud gay man in Haiti.
In Thailand, Thai Transgender Alliance works to end discrimination against transgender people. It took three years for the group to be officially recognized by the government, but today the team is working to pass major pieces of legislation to protect trans rights.
And in Uganda, where Paul is facing violence as he fights for the dignity of LGBT people, the group Chapter Four Uganda successfully fought against the infamous Anti-Homosexuality Act, which legalized the persecution of LGBT people. When the law passed in 2013, many feared the worst, but Ugandan human rights attorneys, Adrian Jjuuko and Nicholas Opiyo, didn’t lose hope.
With support from AJWS, they led a team of activists and lawyers who challenged the law in Uganda’s highest court. Thanks to their efforts, the Anti-Homosexuality Act was annulled — to the great relief of LGBT people and their allies. LGBT rights activists have since remained vigilant and are continuing to fight against the bill’s return.
I am deeply grateful that the broader AJWS community has never wavered in its belief that all people deserve to live safe, healthy and dignified lives — regardless of who they are or whom they love. Together, we honor the courage of LGBT rights activists in the developing world, whose efforts seldom make headlines in the U.S., and work to provide critical assistance to sustain their efforts.
Will you join us?
ROBERT BANK is president and CEO of American Jewish World Service.