Kicking off Pride month in the nation’s capital, Friday marked the U.S. Department of State’s annual “Pride at State” event. Representatives from GLIFFA, the group for LGBT and staff in Foreign Affairs Agencies, and Freedom House attended and moderated a discussion on international human rights anchored by noted activists Boysan Yakar of Turkey and Pepe-Julian Onziema of Uganda.
Selim Ariturk, president of GLIFAA, introduced Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Heather Higginbottom, who provided a keynote address. Secretary of State John F. Kerry was originally scheduled to present the address, but he remains in hospital following an injury sustained in France last week.
“At the State Department, we’re committed to helping our families — all of our families,” Higginbottom affirmed. “We don’t have gay spouses, we have spouses. We don’t have lesbian families, we have families. And we refuse to accept that equal treatment by our foreign counterparts is too much to ask.”
That fundamental perspective is a key reason why President Obama appointed Randy W. Berry as the nation’s first-ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons in February, Higginbottom said.
But the event’s true focus was on the activists in attendance. “Pepe and Boysan, you are making a difference,” said Higginbottom. “We owe it to you and ourselves to stand with [others] like you around the world who are on the frontlines of this struggle every day, often at enormous personal risk.”
Following the keynote address, Mindy Michels of Freedom House opened a dialogue with Yakar and Onziema with a simple question, asking each how they became an LGBT activist.
“I was in love with a man,” Yakar acknowledged and smiled. “That’s how my journey [as an activist] began. We were trying to be ourselves… It’s not really easy to be [gay] in Turkey.”
Eventually Yakar met other Turkish LGBT individuals and became involved with LGBT and civil society organizations in Istanbul. In 2013, he helped direct the documentary My Child, and is currently an advisor to the Şişli Municpality Mayor in Turkey. Yasar is in Washington as a fellow in the State Department’s Professional Fellows Program.
Onziema came out to his supportive family at age 12, and realized he had a duty (and the capacity) to stand up for others his age. When a Ugandan newspaper released the names of secondary students suspected to be LGBT, resulting in the students’ expulsion from school, Onziema understood that these individuals would be deprived of a right guaranteed to them by the Ugandan constitution — an education. “I wrote an article, and I demanded that it be published,” he recalled.
Today, Onziema is the program director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, an advocacy network that supports LGBTI organizations throughout Uganda. He is a current fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington.
Onziema expressed his gratitude for ongoing support by global partners, which he says has been largely effective in Uganda. However, he cautioned such support can be a “double-edged sword,” particularly if LGBTI rights are seen as separate from human rights. To ensure advancement in his country and elsewhere, he advises “constant consultation” between Western officials and activists on the ground.
“The engagement has to continue at every occasion,” Onziema said. “And it should be held as a human rights issue.”
Watch video of the full Pride at State event, filmed by Tim McCarthy, below.
DENVER DAVID ROBINSON's work has appeared in The Advocate, Portland Magazine, The New York Times, and other publications. He lives in Portland, Oregon.