In January, Italy’s right-wing government ordered state agencies to cease registration of children born to same-sex couples. Now they’ve taken it a step further: a state prosecutor in northern Italy has ordered the cancellation and re-issuance of 33 birth certificates of lesbian couples’ children, endangering access to medical care and education.
Non-gestational mothers are receiving letters informing them that they are being retroactively removed from their children’s birth certificates. New birth certificates are being issued listing the name of only one of the child’s mothers.
In February, Human Rights Watch released the first global report on violence and discrimination against lesbian, bisexual, and queer (LBQ+) women, which found access to fertility treatment and the rights of non-gestational lesbian mothers were two of the top concerns for LBQ+ activists across 26 countries. In January 2022, a United States court removed lesbian mother Kris Williams from her child’s birth certificate, replacing it with the name of the sperm donor, who petitioned for custody. In December 2022, a Japanese draft law proposed prohibiting doctors from providing fertility treatment to any woman not married to a man.
In Italy, lesbian couples cannot access fertility treatment, same-sex couples cannot marry, and the law does not explicitly regulate whether same-sex parents can both be registered. Many lesbian couples go abroad for fertility treatment and even to give birth, then bring home their child’s birth certificate for registration with the local municipality. Italy’s recent moves attack this already expensive, precarious, and difficult path to legal parenthood.
In interviews I conducted for the 2023 investigation, queer women’s concerns about parental rights often superseded hallmark LGBT rights issues, like marriage equality or the decriminalization of same-sex conduct. Lesbians want to create and protect their families, regardless of if, when, and how the government decriminalizes their lives and recognizes their relationships.
The right to create a family is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the European Convention on Human Rights – all of which Italy has ratified.
Italy should immediately reinstate the women removed from their children’s birth certificates and drop its ban on the registration of children born to same-sex couples. Authorities should pass inclusive parental recognition bills that explicitly recognize the legal parenthood of non-gestational lesbian parents.
A community center that has become a lifeline for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Ukrainians – and hub of humanitarian activity since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine – was broken into and vandalized on Tuesday. Photos show that the door of the Insight office in the northwestern city of Lutsk was shattered, with broken glass and paper covering the entryway. Activists say no electronics or documents appear to be missing.
Insight is a feminist organization that provides medical care, legal aid, and psychosocial services to queer community members. Since February 2022, the group has housed hundreds of people in three emergency shelters run by LGBT human rights defenders, and, together with the Women’s March volunteer team, distributed more than 25,000 emergency aid parcels.
Ukrainian authorities should conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into the attack in consultation with Insight’s human rights defenders, who have long been targeted for their work. In April 2022, two unidentified assailants teargassed Insight chair Olena Shevchenko on the streets of Lviv while she was delivering humanitarian aid. This followed a 2016 far-right attack on the Equality Festival in Lviv, LGBT defenders being teargassed at Kyiv Pride in 2018, and two attackers physically beating Shevchenko in 2019 while shouting slurs at her.
Despite the clear pattern of harassment, police did not properly investigate last year’s attack. Lviv Regional Police Department #1 formally launched a criminal investigation and Shevchenko underwent a forensic medical examination, but the police neither informed her of the results of the exam nor did they collect her victim statement. In March 2023, Shevchenko’s lawyer sent a motion to police requesting that they collect her overdue statement from the 2022 attack, and in April her lawyer filed a claim to a Lviv court regarding police inaction.
The authorities need to properly investigate the break-in and damage to Insight’s office, as well as other abuses against Ukrainian LGBT human rights defenders. Such incidents might be reduced if the government were to enact comprehensive legislation that protects people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.
A coalition of queer feminist organizations and individuals in India have issued a groundbreaking report that ties state and religious opposition to marriage equality to the subjugation of women, queer, and trans people via parental control.
The report lands as India’s Supreme Court is hearing the final arguments in a case over the legalization of same-sex marriage.
While India’s marriage equality debate has been framed almost exclusively as a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issue in the national and international media, the report’s authors see it as a family issue, because the court is ruling on whether adults have a say in forming chosen families through marriage.
The report asserts that government opposition to same-sex marriage is “not against queer and trans [people] alone,” but is instead part of a broader attempt to stop women and trans men from accessing their right to free and full consent to marriage, including inter-religious and inter-caste marriages, which is foundational to their obtaining greater power, land, and autonomy.
In February, a Human Rights Watch report on violence and discrimination against lesbian, bisexual, and queer (LBQ+) women globally found that forced and coercive marriage practices were the most pressing human rights violations affecting queer women. The investigation included interviews with 66 LBQ+ activists across 26 countries, and it found that the practice of forcing queer women into heterosexual marriages is deeply tied to laws and policies that violate their rights to land, inheritance, and property.
In consultation with queer and feminist human rights defenders, governments should reform or abolish patriarchal systems of control, including all laws that violate queer women and trans men’s right to free and full consent to marriage, as well as discriminatory property and inheritance laws.
A draft law that may be introduced in the Japanese parliament this month would prohibit doctors from providing fertility treatment to any woman who is not married to a man. The tentatively titled Bill on Specified Assisted Reproductive Technology, seen by Human Rights Watch, would outlaw artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization (IVF) for single women and lesbian couples. If passed, the law would legalize discrimination against single and lesbian women who wish to have a child.
Same-sex couples are not allowed to marry in Japan. In November, a Tokyo court upheld the country’s ban on same-sex marriage, citing the constitution’s definition of marriage as one between “both sexes.” In June, an Osaka court found the ban constitutional for the same reason. These rulings contrast with a March 2021 judgment in which a Sapporo court found the ban unconstitutional, describing it as “discriminatory treatment without a rational basis.” Despite the divergent decisions, the latest Tokyo ruling stated that Japan’s lack of legal protections for same-sex families violated their human rights and the Japanese constitution.
Until now, access to fertility services has not been explicitly banned for queer or single women.
Human rights activists Mamiko Moda and Satoko Nagamura had their son using donated sperm. In an interview with Human Rights Watch, Nagamura said:
“If this law had existed two years ago, we would not have our little boy. We want all women to be able to access their right to health care. Banning some of us won’t stop people from wanting a baby, it will just push it farther underground and make the process of acquiring sperm far more dangerous. This is not just an LGBT issue. It is a women’s health and safety issue.”
Japanese lawmakers should amend the bill to ensure equal access to fertility treatment for all women, regardless of their marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. They should introduce anti-discrimination legislation prohibiting future health policies that prevent single women and lesbian, bisexual, and queer (LBQ+) couples from accessing reproductive treatments, and provide public information on paths to parenthood for queer and single women, including information on adoption and reproductive services. Finally, they should pass an LGBT-inclusive parental recognition bill that explicitly recognizes the legal parenthood of non-gestational lesbian parents.
The British government has committed to a 10-year strategy to end discrimination against “female same-sex couples” seeking fertility services.
The first ever Women’s Health Strategy For England, published by the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care, includes language supporting reproductive rights for lesbian, bisexual and queer (LBQ+) women. It commits the government’s health department to improving transparency and removing discriminatory policies to ensure “female same-sex couples are able to access [National Health Service] NHS-funded fertility services in a more equitable way.”
In October, 2021, campaigners Megan and Whitney Bacon-Evanslaunched a legal case against their local NHS board, stating that its fertility policy discriminated against lesbians. In their postcode, same-sex female couples seeking one cycle of NHS-funded in vitro fertilization (IVF) are required to prove infertility by self-funding 12 rounds of artificial insemination, including 6 in a clinical setting, costing approximately £26,000. For heterosexual couples, the requirement to prove infertility is attestation of two years of unprotected sex.
The new strategy removes the requirement for self-funding, and states that female same-sex couples can expect NHS coverage to start with 6 cycles of artificial insemination.
Still, there is little clarity as to when the strategy will take effect. “Some queer couples told us this week they have already been put on fertility waiting lists for 2023, others were told they still don’t qualify,” Bacon-Evans told Human Rights Watch.
Also, the strategy is silent on “single women who want to start a family,” an issue highlighted by experts who submitted to the strategy process, which could potentially discriminate against both heterosexual and queer single women. As the strategy commits the department to administer care for women regardless of non-clinical factors, such as relationship status, single women should be covered.
The strategy also does not define “same-sex” or “couple.” It remains unclear if partners must be married or in a civil partnership, and if treatment will be available to LBQ+ couples in which one or both partners are transgender, non-binary, or gender non-conforming.
Authorities should extend non-discriminatory access to fertility treatment to single women and all LBQ+ couples, regardless of gender identity or expression. They should also be protected from non-clinical barriers to fertility services. One immediate opportunity comes as the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence updates its fertility assessment and treatment guidelines.
Abdelbraki Mezin asked me over coffee last week if homophobia was dead in the United States.
“I mean, you’ve had marriage equality for almost a year, surely that’s enough time,” the Tunisian human rights defender said. His partner, Bouhdid Belhedi, laughed, adding, “Yes, much like winning the Nobel Peace Prize solved all of Tunisia’s human rights issues.”
Mezin and Belhedi are LGBT rights defenders in Tunisia. As members of Tunisia’s first organization working openly for LGBT rights, they have suffered attacks, death threats, and lost family relationships.
Homosexuality is illegal in Tunisia, punishable by up to three years in prison under Article 230 of the penal code. Introduced by the French during colonial rule, Article 230 criminalizes “sodomy” in the original French text, and “homosexual acts” in Arabic. It’s a wider net that applies to men and women.
In 2010, protests in Tunisia marked the start of revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa, and the country’s new democracy has been dubbed the “Arab Spring’s sole success story.” Its civil society is so revered that the country’s National Dialogue Quartet won the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for their contribution to building a “pluralistic” democracy post-revolution.
Tunisia also made headlines in 2015 when authorities legally registered Shams, the country’s first organization openly working for LGBT rights. Yet, despite the seemingly positive step, the government did nothing to amend the criminalization of homosexuality in the penal code. This means that human rights defenders (HRDs) promoting sexual rights and protecting LGBT survivors of attack, discrimination, and rape are working for the rights of people who — according to the law — have committed a crime.
Mariam Manai, a Tunisian LGBT rights defender, met with me during a break in the packed program of Chouftouhonna, a feminist art festival put on by Chouf Minorities in Tunis. Manai said that repealing Article 230 is “not just the most important step for protecting the community, but a critical step for HRDs.”
“If homosexuality is a crime, there’s no legal framework for the rights we defend,” she said. “If someone is attacked, we can’t report it. If someone needs medical care, they’re too scared to go to the hospital because they might be arrested. We are defending people who, according to the government, deserve no defense.”
HRDs in Tunisia say that Article 230 makes seeking justice for survivors of assault nearly impossible, and that police are often complicit in crimes against LGBT people. Mezin said that because homosexuality is a crime, survivors are treated as criminals and subjected to violent physical examinations to prove their “guilt.”
“The police are performing anal exams on male victims of homophobic attacks,” he said. “In front of other police officers, someone claiming to be a doctor puts on a glove and ‘proves’ the victim is guilty of sodomy. The police then ask for a confession and usually put the man in jail. Some victims have confidentially reported to us that in order to ensure he ‘failed’ the anal exam, police raped him in the van after his arrest and before the exam. This is torture, and a violation of international human rights and our own constitution. But because Article 230 exists, the police act with impunity against LGBT victims.”
HRDs are quick to point out that the penal code — and the police violence it seems to allow — is only one element of the problem. Belhedi said that local religious leaders are also contributing to a climate in which “normal Tunisians think homophobic violence is acceptable, and even deserved.”
Two weeks ago, three men attacked Belhedi on a busy street at nine in the morning.
“When the men insulted me and grabbed me, people just watched. When they started to beat me, people just watched. When the beating got brutal enough someone stepped in and the men ran away. Violence against LGBT people has been normalized, even called for, in our laws and in our mosques.”
He told ThinkProgress that in his home region of Hammamet, imams leading local prayers have called on followers to attack Tunisians “who act gay.” At least two mentioned Belhedi by name. He said that last year “Islamic extremists” came to his house and threatened his mother, telling her that her son’s LGBT advocacy was “against Islam.”
Yet, despite the strong social prejudices that put Bouhdid and other LGBT defenders at risk, he remains adamant that a legal change — repealing Article 230 — is the critical first step towards protection.
“We have proof in Tunisia that if you change a law, society changes with it — even if it contradicts Islamic tradition,” he said. “When polygamy, which is permissible in Islam, was criminalized, people said it was haram [forbidden] to contradict the Prophet. When [former President Habib] Bourguiba made adoption legal, which is haram in Islam, of course people fought it. But the law affects how people think about social issues. Today, adoption is socially acceptable, and polygamy is barely talked about.”
Woman spray paints a column during the Chouftohounna Feminist Art Festival in Tunis, 15 May 2016.
CREDIT: Erin Kilbride
Raising Tunisian Consciousness
“Individual protection — keeping our community alive — is the most effective thing we can do today,” said Manai, whose organization Without Restrictions helps survivors access legal assistance, medical care, and housing following a violent attack or family dispute. “But in the long run we need education. That’s the only way the attacks will end. We have such a problem with — a fear of — sexuality in Tunisian society. If you use words like gender, binary, or queer, people stare blankly. Even in LGBT spaces, people confuse trans, cross-dressing, and queer identities. Outside of those spaces, sexuality as a concept, as an identity, is missing from most Tunisians’ consciousness.”
Senda ben Jebara, an HRD working with the human rights group Mawjoudin (“We Exist”), believes sexual and gender education — “slowly, and using our own language” — is the only way to end homophobia. “How can we expect people to understand homosexuality if they don’t understand heterosexuality as a sexuality? If the very word terrifies them?”
Artists and HRDs at Fanni Raghman Anni (“Artist Without Choice”) are similarly working to raise consciousness. FRA is a human rights organisation born out of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution that uses performance art to push discussions about individual, cultural, and sexual rights into public spaces.
Asma Kaouch and Seif Eddine Jlassi, two of the group’s leaders, told ThinkProgress that their performances are a strategy to defend human rights. They introduce gender, sexuality, and personal freedoms as concepts, without explicitly using words that will turn away some parts of Tunisian society.
“We stage events where normal people will see them — not tucked away in an elite theatre,” said Kaouch. “We want to draw people from the street and the grocery store. Our performances are about the relationship between an individual, a body, and society — concepts that most Tunisians don’t have the opportunity to think about critically. We don’t want to entertain, we want to shock.”
Fanni Rahman Anni is linking up youth in remote, conservative areas who want to perform. They have also built art centres in poor villages, said Kaouch, “where we know Islamic extremists are very active. We provide an alternative, and we introduce concepts that lay the groundwork for human rights.”
Their strategies are as varied as their own identities, but Tunisian LGBT rights defenders are in near universal agreement about at least two things: that “solving” the country’s violent homophobia requires abolishing Article 230 and that providing public education in gender, sexuality, and human rights.
Many are also clear on the international community’s role in this struggle. They say Tunisia’s allies need to take a stronger line on the penal code article that criminalizes LGBT rights defenders and the communities they protect.
“Visiting diplomats and representatives need to be called on to bring up Article 230 at every opportunity. The decriminalization of homosexuality should be linked to trade and foreign investment,” said Belhedi. Others add that international employers must ensure Tunisian workers have the same rights as their international colleagues and can’t be prosecuted for their sexuality.
In the meantime, the work of deconstructing oppressive notions about gender and sexual rights — the work that will end and not just outlaw homophobic attacks – will be done by the Tunisian defenders themselves.
“Before the revolution, none of this was possible, there was no room for expression,” said Kaouch. “Now, Tunisian civil society is one of the most powerful in the world. The influence we have is real. And we have to take advantage of the space we fought to create.”