Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Karen Atala, a Chilean judge who won a landmark ruling this year at the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, were recognized at A Celebration of Courage, an event hosted by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission this week in New York City.
IGLHRC presented Baldwin, the first openly gay non-incumbent elected to Congress, with the Special Recognition award for work including the establishment of the LGBT Equality Caucus, which she launched with co-chair Barney Frank of Massachusetts in 2008. Since then, the caucus has grown to include more than 100 members while serving as a resource for Congress and the public on LGBT human rights issues around the world. The group helped galvanize advocacy against the Anti-Homosexuality Act in Uganda in 2010 by sending letters to President Barack Obama and President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni about the “most extreme and hateful” legislation that proposed the death penalty for homosexuality.
Baldwin said the caucus has “added fuel to the fire” sparked by “courageous” individuals such as Val Kalende, a lesbian activist from Uganda who attended the awards event Monday. She said the number of LGBT rights groups in her country has gone from none just a short while ago to 44 organizations today.
“Congress may have low approval ratings right now, but I can tell you that when Members of Congress or our President or Secretary of State call attention to human rights abuses abroad, leaders and their people listen and respond,” said Baldwin. “It just so happens that foreign governments don't particularly like it when we call them out and bring the eyes of the world to human rights abuses in their countries.”
Baldwin kept the focus off domestic politics during her remarks, but New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn enthusiastically endorsed her bid to make history this November, calling Baldwin a “soon-to-be United States senator” in her introduction. A Public Policy Polling survey last week described the general election as “very close,” with Baldwin leading two prospective Republican challengers and tied with two others in advance of the August GOP primary.
”Find somebody who knows somebody and make sure they know to vote for Tammy Baldwin,” said Quinn to the crowd in Midtown Manhattan.
“It is so exciting to have an out Congress member who’s from Wisconsin,” she said. “Name the states that are going to send the first out members of Congress, no disrespect to Wisconsin, most people would not say Wisconsin, and that our first out senator is going to come from there is incredibly powerful in this country and around the world.”
Baldwin also saluted the “power to create positive change” demonstrated by Karen Atala, the first and only openly lesbian judge from Chile, who won a historic ruling this past March at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The decision, which stemmed from an eight-year court battle for custody of Atala’s children, affirmed for the first time that sexual orientation and gender identity are protected categories under law.
Suzanne Goldberg, director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School presented Atala with the Felipa de Souza Award, named for a woman convicted and tortured for sexual relations with another woman in Brazil during the Portuguese Inquisition in 1591. She said Judge Atala had given human rights advocates “a gift at the global level” that will reverberate, noting that just months after the ruling, Chile passed an anti-discrimination law.
Atala, speaking through a translator, recounted the vindictive lawsuit filed by her former husband in 2003 seeking custody of their three young daughters. The Supreme Court in Chile sided with him, finding that Atala and her same-sex partner represented a “unique family environment” that would put the girls in a “situation of risk.”
“If I had to choose one word to express that painful blow that came into my life, I would say that I was left astonished,” said the judge. “It was shocking to see that that the law, which tells you that we are all equal and that family is the foundation of society, was interpreted according to the ideology preferred by the state and completely different from social reality.”
She took her battle to the Inter-American Court, the judicial body of the Organization of American States. IGLHRC and other groups co-authored an amicus brief on her behalf arguing that sexual orientation and gender identity should be a protected class under the American Convention on Human Rights. The court agreed, and ordered Chile to pay damages to Atala.
“The recent Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling against the state of Chile is without a doubt a cure for my family and for thousands of lesbian mothers and gay fathers not only in Chile but also in Latin America and the Caribbean,” she said. “A great precedent has been set that without a doubt will inspire internal jurisprudence. It is history happening, since it is the first case that made it to the Inter-American system that refers to one’s right to sexual diversity, with a goal of getting a progressive interpretation of human rights.”
Work remains. The judge called the new anti-discrimination “a shy law, lacking affirmative action against discrimination” and mentioned the “profound homophobic violence” that had preceded its passage. Recent hate crimes in the country include a brutal attack that left Sandy Iturra, a transsexual woman, in a coma for weeks, and the murder of Daniel Zamudio, a gay man beaten with swastikas carved into his body.
Jessica Stern, acting executive director of IGLHRC, said the organization would continue to partner with groups around the world “in this context of rapid change and momentum” by “not only teaching LGBT communities how to document their tragedy but how to celebrate their resilience.” She said some current initiatives include work in Malawi, where President Joyce Banda recently made a verbal commitment to decriminalize sodomy; progress toward a non-discrimination law in Guyana; documenting violence against LGBT violence in Iran; and prompting a government investigation into the epidemic of murders against transgender women in Guatemala.
30 Rock star Maulik Pancholy, who MC'd the event, announced that IGLHRC had that very day received a $1 million anonymous donation in recognition of its work. The contribution will be used to support general operating costs, among the most difficult types of funding for nonprofits to secure.
“It’s an incredibly important gift for IGLHRC,” said Stern. “It does so much good that it’s hard to put into words.”