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We Need an LGBTQ Advocate at the U.N. — Now More Than Ever


If America will only half-heartedly fight for LGBTQ rights overseas, will the United Nations step up?

Some of us have been forced to leave our homes because of death threats -- leaving our lives and families behind and our own communities still facing a horrific epidemic of violence. And all too many of us know that in the countries we now call home, transgender lives and LGBTQ rights remain under threat by societies where discrimination and bigotry are commonplace. In our home countries of El Salvador and South Africa, and around the world, LGBTQ people and our families are under attack.

This global threat to the rights and lives of LGBTQ people is why the two of us are going to join dozens of international advocates in Geneva on July 11 and 12, where the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRCouncil) will vote on whether to renew the mandate of the Independent Expert on Violence and Discrimination on the basis of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI).

Established by a narrow vote at the U.N. in 2016, the role of the Independent Expert on SOGI is critical to bringing together nations to protect LGBTQ people. It is a voice that is desperately needed at this time, but once more the vote will be dangerously close. Of the 47 member states of the HRCouncil, just over 20 are a reliable yes, mostly from Latin America and Europe. That means that advocates will be working hard to counter the no votes of countries like Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, and Iraq, among others.

This is a crucial moment for us, for our families, and for LGBTQ people worldwide. Though the number of countries that criminalize consensual same-sex activity has dropped, it remains dangerously high at 68. While the number of countries with marriage equality has increased, they still make up only a little more than 10 percent of the U.N.'s member countries. In places like Chechnya and Tanzania, LGBTQ people are under state-sanctioned brutal assault. And in spite of a number of countries passing protections for transgender people, in most places, transgender people continue to struggle for legal recognition and face daily threats of harassment and violence.

Not only do anti-LGBTQ beliefs and policies persist across vast regions in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and the Middle East, there has also been a resurgence of opposition to greater inclusion. In many places, including in the United States, Brazil, the Philippines, and Hungary, anti-LGBTQ political leaders are attempting -- and sometimes succeeding -- to roll back protections. And our very progress is under attack even inside the U.N., where anti-LGBTQ "gender ideology" activists try to silence or erase our community.

The first two Independent Experts on SOGI -- Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn of Thailand and Victor Madrigal-Borloz of Costa Rica -- have helped focus world attention on this backlash and on the cost of violence and discrimination against LGBTQ people. They have visited countries to listen to advocates and survivors. They have reported on the state of LGBTQ rights, the epidemic of violence against transgender people and the human and financial cost of exclusion.

Presenting his most recent report in Geneva, Madrigal-Borloz said, "I am here in front of a community of nations that created this mandate in recognition of the abuse that the LGBT community around the world continues to suffer. I will convey to you the voices of the people who remain voiceless in many countries and describe the faces of those who suffer in darkness. Hopefully together we can recognise the humanity of those for whom we have so long had nothing but indifference."

For those who need light, for those who need a voice, for those who need hope, we need to stand by this mandate and by our community. Join us and urge those who represent us on the world's stage to support this vote. And together, we will keep fighting for a world where every single person is fully equal and able to live a life full of love, support, and opportunity.

Andrea Ayala is an international human rights advocate from El Salvador, and former executive director of ESMULES. Jean Freedberg is the director of global partnerships at the Human Rights Campaign and is from South Africa.

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Andrea Ayala and Jean Freedberg