Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday announced the U.S. will “reengage” with the U.N. Human Rights Council.
The U.S. in 2018 withdrew from the council, which in recent years has emerged as a vocal champion of LGBTQ rights around the world.
Then-U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley during a press conference that announced the withdrawal noted countries “with unambiguous and abhorrent human rights records” are members of the council. Haley also accused it having a “chronic bias against” Israel.
Russia, Cuba and Venezuela are among the 47 countries that are currently members of the council.
“The Biden administration has recommitted the United States to a foreign policy centered on democracy, human rights and equality,” said Blinken in a statement the State Department released. “Effective use of multilateral tools is an important element of that vision, and in that regard the president has instructed the Department of State to reengage immediately and robustly with the U.N. Human Rights Council.”
“We recognize that the Human Rights Council is a flawed body, in need of reform to its agenda, membership, and focus, including its disproportionate focus on Israel,” he added. “However, our withdrawal in June 2018 did nothing to encourage meaningful change, but instead created a vacuum of U.S. leadership, which countries with authoritarian agendas have used to their advantage.”
The decision to “reengage” with the council comes days after President Biden issued a memorandum that commits the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ rights abroad. Blinken in his statement notes the council’s efforts to expand LGBTQ rights around the world.
“When it works well, the Human Rights Council shines a spotlight on countries with the worst human rights records and can serve as an important forum for those fighting injustice and tyranny,” said Blinken. “The council can help to promote fundamental freedoms around the globe, including freedoms of expression, association and assembly, and religion or belief as well as the fundamental rights of women, girls, LGBTQI+ persons, and other marginalized communities. To address the council’s deficiencies and ensure it lives up to its mandate, the United States must be at the table using the full weight of our diplomatic leadership.”
“In the immediate term, the United States will engage with the council as an observer, and in that capacity will have the opportunity to speak in the council, participate in negotiations, and partner with others to introduce resolutions,” he added. “It is our view that the best way to improve the council is to engage with it and its members in a principled fashion. We strongly believe that when the United States engages constructively with the council, in concert with our allies and friends, positive change is within reach.”
The U.S. has joined the growing calls for the Venezuelan government to release five HIV/AIDS service providers who were arrested on Jan. 12.
A press release from Programa Venezolano de Educación Acción en Derechos Humanos (PROVEA), a Venezuelan human rights organization, notes members of the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence on Jan. 12 raided the offices of Azul Positivo in Maracaibo, a city in the country’s Zulia state.
“After questioning directors of the organization present at the headquarters for a period of six hours, without a legal order or allowing outside contact with them, the officials proceeded to arrest six members, including its president Johan León Reyes,” says PROVEA in its press release that it released on Jan. 13. “None of these people have been released and their current situation is unknown.”
A source in Venezuela on Saturday told the Washington Blade that authorities released a driver who is heterosexual the following day. The source notes León and his four other colleagues — who they said are gay men with HIV — remain in custody and are in a Maracaibo hospital because they have the coronavirus.
“They are still in jail, but they have been temporarily moved,” said the source. “They are handcuffed.”
James “Jimmy” Story, the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, on Jan. 21 called for the men’s release.
“We call for the release of the five Azul Positivo employees and we condemn the attack against this NGO that provides assistance to seropositive people in the state of Zulia and that leaves the poorest communities more vulnerable,” he tweeted, while adding the raid “leaves the poorest communities more vulnerable.”
“Enough criminalization of humanitarian aide,” said Story.
Story in a Jan. 29 directly criticized President Nicolás Maduro and his government’s continued crackdown against NGOs in the country.
“On this Day of the Social Worker, the world asks why employees of the NGO Azul Positivo, which has been working for the health of seropositive people in Zulia for more than 16 years, have been detained,” he tweeted. “What does Maduro want by attacking NGOs? What kind of peace for the people is this?”
UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet are among those who have also called for the men’s release.
“I call on the Venezuelan authorities to release from police custody the five humanitarians working for the nongovernmental organization Azul Positivo, and to return essential equipment seized at the time of their arrest,” said Byanyima in a Jan. 29 UNAIDS press release. “A strong and empowered civil society plays a central role in providing much-needed services to the most vulnerable people and is critical to making progress against the HIV pandemic and other health threats in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.”
More than 100 Venezuelan NGOs and human rights organizations have also called for the Azul Positivo staffers’ release.
“Azul Positivo is an allied organization of United Nations agencies, contributing to UNAIDS by carrying out tests for the detection of HIV in a fast, safe and free way to communities of popular sectors,” they said in a statement contained in PROVEA’s Jan. 13 press release. “Azul Positivo is an important partner of the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) for contributing to the implementation of projects in the border area with Colombia on sexual and reproductive orientation for teenagers, young women and pregnant women.”
The source in Venezuela with whom the Blade spoke noted Azul Positivo receives UNHCR funds. The source also said Azul Positivo provided food and medications to “homeless and starving people” on the country’s border with Colombia.
“It’s not convenient,” the source told the Blade, referring to the Venezuelan government when asked why it decided to arrest the Azul Positivo staffers.
The arrests took place against the backdrop of Venezuela’s worsening economic and political crises.
Millions of Venezuelans in recent years have migrated to Colombia and other South American countries.
Two lawmakers on Wednesday announced they will reintroduce a bill that would require U.S. to promote LGBTQ rights abroad through its foreign policy.
California Congressman Alan Lowenthal and U.S. Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) made the announcement about the International Human Rights Defense Act eight days after Secretary of State Antony Blinken was sworn in at the State Department.
The bill, among other things, would make the position of special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ rights abroad in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor permanent and raise it to an ambassador level position. A press release that Markey and Lowenthal’s offices released on Wednesday also notes the bill would direct the State Department to “devise a global strategy to address discrimination against the LGBTQI community” and to “coordinate with local advocacy groups, governments, multilateral organizations and the private sector, to promote international LGBTQI human rights.”
“The United States must reaffirm its support for the promotion and protection of LGBTQI rights around the world and reengage as a leader on these issues after four years of harmful and discriminatory policies,” said Markey. “This legislation will make it clear that the United States is committed to protecting the human rights of all people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The COVID-19 crisis has put LGBQTI communities all around the world at greater risk and this moment requires a concerted and global effort to recommit to the protection of human rights everywhere.”
State Department criticizes Indonesia caning, Turkey arrests
Former Secretary of State John Kerry in 2015 announced the creation of the envoy position. It has remained unfilled since 2017.
Blinken during his confirmation hearing pledged to raise the envoy to an ambassador level position. Blinken also said he would “repudiate” the Commission for Unalienable Rights — which sought to stress “natural laws and natural rights” — that former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced in 2019.
A State Department spokesperson on Tuesday noted Blinken during his confirmation hearing said he “will appoint an LGBTQI+ envoy,” but stressed there are currently no “details to share regarding the staffing of the special envoy.”
The State Department late last week criticized the public caning of two men in Indonesia’s Aceh province after their neighbors caught them having sex.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Wednesday during his daily press briefing expressed concern over the detention of more than 150 people in Istanbul who were protesting the arrest of four students at the city’s Boğaziçi University after they used pictures of a Pride flag to represent the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site that is located at the center of Mecca’s Grand Mosque. Media reports indicate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Monday in a televised speech accused the country’s LGBTQ rights movement of engaging in “vandalism.”
The protests began in January after Erdoğan appointed Melih Bulu, a member of his ruling Justice and Development Party, as the university’s new rector.
“We are concerned by detentions of students and other demonstrators and strongly condemn the anti-LGBTQI rhetoric surrounding the demonstrations,” said Price. “Freedom of expression, even speech that some may find uncomfortable, is a critical component of a vibrant, functioning democracy that must be protected. Peaceful, prosperous and inclusive societies depend on the free flow of information and ideas.”
“The United States prioritizes the protection of human rights and stands shoulder to shoulder with all those fighting for their fundamental democratic freedoms,” he added.
The Trump administration in 2019 tapped then-U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, who is openly gay, to lead an initiative that encouraged countries to decriminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations. ILGA World Executive Director André du Plessis and other LGBTQ activists with whom the Washington Blade has previously spoken questioned the campaign’s effectiveness.
“Over the last four years, LGBTQI people have been at the forefront of vicious attacks, our basic rights questioned in countries around the world and by the highest office in the US. This is precisely why we need the International Human Rights Defense Act,” said OutRight Action International Executive Director Jessica Stern in the press release that Markey and Lowenthal released. “LGBTQI people cannot be left to suffer because of changes in the White House. We need the IHRDA to ensure that the U.S. protects and upholds LGBTQI rights as a consistent, integrated and essential foreign policy priority.”
A gay Navajo man who was a member of the Arizona House of Representatives has joined the Biden administration.
Former state Rep. Arlando Teller will serve as the Transportation Department’s deputy assistant secretary for tribal affairs.
Teller was the deputy director of the Navajo Department of Transportation before his election to the Arizona House in 2018. He previously worked at two airports and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).
Teller on Monday officially resigned his seat.
“Elevating indigenous nations’ by the Biden administration only invigorates and encourages me to do more,” Teller told the Washington Blade on Wednesday in a text message. “Representation matters.”
Teller served in the Arizona Legislature with five other openly gay men. He spoke with the Blade on the same day Vice President Harris swore in Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who is the first out person the U.S. Senate has confirmed to a Cabinet-level position.
“Excited for the newest deputy assistant secretary at (U.S. Department of Transportation), the one and only Mr. Arlando Teller,” tweeted Arizona state Rep. Daniel Hernández, Jr., on Tuesday.
Activists around the world say the U.S. Capitol siege demonstrated white supremacy remains a pervasive problem in the U.S.
Naomi Fontanos, executive director of Gender and Development Advocates (GANDA), an LGBTQ advocacy group in the Philippines, on Saturday told the Washington Blade “the attack on the U.S. Capitol was not a revelation, but a confirmation of what America is really is: A hotbed of structural, institutional and systemic racism.”
“After the massive protests brought about by the death of George Floyd, it was saddening to see that not much has changed in terms of white supremacist, toxic masculine aggression and violence and how easily these can be mobilized under a macho-fascist leader like Trump,” said Fontanos.
Tarek Zeidan, executive director of Helem, the oldest LGBTQ rights group in Lebanon, on Friday during a WhatsApp interview from Beirut cited the “scandalous double standard at how the same police dealt with the Black Lives Matter protesters over the summer.”
“This was a huge eye opener,” said Zeidan.
OutRight Action International Executive Director Jessica Stern echoed Zeidan in a statement to the Blade.
“Can you imagine how Black Lives Matter activists would have been treated if they attacked the Capitol,” she said. “Without a doubt, Wednesday’s events confirmed America’s double standard when it comes to race, again and again giving white people special rights.”
“The incoming Congress, president-elect and all of us must do better,” added Stern. “If the U.S. doesn’t respect human rights and democracy at home, we don’t have a leg to stand on internationally.”
Ahmed el-Hady, a queer Egyptian activist who lives in New York, during an interview with the Blade on Friday said the “biggest white militia in the United States is the police.” El-Hady added law enforcement’s response to the siege was not a surprise.
“It wasn’t really surprising who has privilege in this country,” he said.
Sally Goldner — a veteran transgender, bisexual and pansexual activist in the Australian city of Melbourne, in an email to the Blade said she watched the siege “with feelings of shock, sadness, disbelief and also feeling overwhelmed in a sense of feeling deluged.” Goldner, like el-Hady and others, also raised the issue of privilege in the U.S.
“I suppose people with all the privilege — in the case of the terrorists who stormed the Capitol, being cisgender, white, predominantly male and presumably heterosexual feel so threatened at the idea of losing power and privilege as they attempt an insurrection,” said Goldner.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are among the world leaders who condemned the siege that began as members of Congress were certifying the Electoral College results that confirmed the election of President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris. Trump supporters marched to the Capitol after the outgoing president spoke at the “Save America Rally” on the Ellipse.
Brian Sicknick, a member of the U.S. Capitol Police Department, died on Thursday after rioters attacked him with a fire extinguisher during the siege.
Another Capitol Police officer shot and killed a Trump supporter outside the U.S. House of Representatives chamber. Three other people died of “medical emergencies” during the siege.
The Metropolitan Police Department on Thursday announced on Twitter that it has so far arrested 68 people, recovered six firearms and two pipe bombs in connection with the siege. CNN reported the Justice Department has charged 13 people, including an Arkansas man who was photographed sitting at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)’s desk.
Social media users continue to identify rioters once pictures of them inside the Capitol go online.
“The mob assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6 shocked the world,” ILGA World Executive Director André du Plessis told the Blade on Friday.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Thursday in a statementsaid the siege “demonstrated clearly the destructive impact of sustained, deliberate distortion of acts, and incitement to violence and hatred by political leaders.”
“Allegations of electoral fraud have been invoked to try to undermine the right to political participation. We are encouraged to see that the process has continued in spite of serious attempts to disrupt it,” added the former Chilean president. “We call on leaders from across the political spectrum, including the President of the United States, to disavow false and dangerous narratives, and encourage their supporters to do so as well. We note with dismay the serious threats and destruction of property faced by media professionals yesterday. We support calls from many quarters for a thorough investigation into Wednesday’s events.
Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the independent U.N. expert on LGBTQ issues, echoed Bachelet.
“The attack on the Capitol will hopefully be the last on (sic) a series of acts systematically destined to undermine the respect for human rights, the rule of law and the separation of powers,” said Madrigal-Borloz on Thursday in a tweet.
Siege ‘will forever be a stain’ on US
Former U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic James “Wally” Brewster in a statement to the Blade noted the U.S. “has been the beacon of democracy that other nations admire.”
“The images of the assault on our democracy and our Capitol, led by a tyrannical president, with our government leaders inside, will forever be a stain on that beacon of democracy by the outside world,” he said.
Brewster added the world on Wednesday “did see our leaders stand strong against the president and the other insurgents.”
“Our democracy was not deterred and our Constitutional work by our leaders moved forward to certify the electoral votes and to confirm Joe Biden as the next president and Kamala Harris as vice president,” he told the Blade. “In challenging times is when a democracy shows its strength. We showed that strength!”
Tamara Adrián, the first openly transgender woman elected to the Venezuela’s National Assembly, on Friday largely agreed with Brewster.
“The existence of anti-democratic elements in any level of public life can exist in any country,” Adrián told the Blade. “A democracy’s maturity and solidity, however, is measured by its institutions’ capacity to resist these claims of democracy’s destruction. The U.S. has given a lesson of institutional maturity and solidity in the face of the pretenses of democratic destabilization.”
A prominent transgender activist in Colombia died on Saturday.
Laura Weinstein, director of Fundación Grupo de Acción y Apoyo a Personas Trans (GAAT), a trans rights group based in the Colombian capital of Bogotá, passed away four days after she was hospitalized with difficulty breathing.
“I have been hospitalized since yesterday because of breathing difficulties,” tweeted Weinstein on Dec. 31. “They gave me a COVID test and we are waiting for the results, but not being able to breath is something that I never wish upon anyone.”https://platform.twitter.com/embed/index.html?creatorScreenName=mklavers81&dnt=false&embedId=twitter-widget-0&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1344582721356656641&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.washingtonblade.com%2F2021%2F01%2F02%2Fprominent-transgender-activist-in-colombia-dies%2F&siteScreenName=WashBlade&theme=light&widgetsVersion=ed20a2b%3A1601588405575&width=550px
Wilson Castañeda Castro, director of Caribe Afirmativo, an LGBTQ advocacy group that works in areas along Colombia’s Caribbean coast, on Saturday told the Washington Blade that Weinstein’s coronavirus test came back negative.
Weinstein had previously fought cancer. Castañeda told the Blade her health had deteriorated in recent months.
“We mourn the death of GAAT Director Laura Weinstein,” tweeted Caribe Afirmativo on Saturday. “The joint work and collaborative effort for all these years forged a great friendship between us and her! We are devastated.”
Castañeda told the Blade that GAAT and Caribe Afirmativo in November requested Colombia’s National Electoral Council develop protocols to ensure trans Colombians can vote, regardless of their gender identity.
Weinstein over the last year worked with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria to reduce HIV rates among Venezuelans who have migrated to Colombia. Castañeda said she worked with trans women and in particular sex workers.
Castañeda noted Weinstein a few months ago launched a campaign in Bogotá to support trans women and Venezuelan migrants. Weinstein was also among the Colombian LGBTQ activists who backed the 2016 peace deal between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia that ended the country’s decades-long civil war.
“We will always remember her as a great ally, friend and tireless worker for human rights,” tweeted Colombia Diversa, another Colombian LGBTQ advocacy group.
Tatiana Piñeros, a trans woman who ran for the Colombian Senate in 2018, described Weinstein’s death to the Blade as a “big loss.” Mauricio Toro, who is the first openly gay man elected to the Colombian House of Representatives, is among those who also mourned Weinstein’s passing.
“Her fight and her inspiration will endure forever,” he tweeted.
The coronavirus pandemic was the dominant international story in 2020, but other news impacted the LGBTQ community around the world over the past year. Here are our picks for top 10 international stories of 2020.
No. 10: Anti-democracy crackdown looms over Hong Kong Gay Games
Organizers of the 2022 Gay Games that are slated to take place in Hong Kong insist the event will take place as scheduled, despite ongoing human rights abuses in the former British colony.
Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing government continues to target pro-democracy protesters. The U.S. and other countries have criticized the crackdown.
Shiv Paul, a spokesperson for the Federation of Gay Games, which will oversee the games, in November told the Blade the Gay Games Hong Kong 2022 committee has a contingency plan that will address “potential scenarios/risks such as an ongoing pandemic, social unrest or unseasonal weather events.” The games’ opening ceremony is scheduled to take place on Nov. 12, 2022.
No. 9: Sudan repeals death penalty for homosexuality
Sudan in July repealed a provision of its Penal Code that imposed the death penalty upon anyone found guilty of engaging in consensual same-sex sexual relations.
Article 148 of the Sudanese Penal Code from 1991 said anyone who is convicted of sodomy three times “shall be punished with death, or with life imprisonment.” Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, chair of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council, which was created in 2019 to govern the country on an interim basis after then-President Omar al-Bashir’s ouster, approved the removal of the death penalty provision from Article 148.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are among the handful of countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain punishable by death.
Lawmakers in Bhutan on Dec. 10 voted to amend portions of their country’s Penal Code that have been used to criminalize homosexuality. The amendment will become law once King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck signs it.
No. 8: Costa Rica becomes first Central American country with marriage equality
Costa Rica on May 26 became the first country in Central America to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples.
Two women became the first same-sex couple to legally marry in Costa Rica when they exchanged vows in the municipality of Heredia shortly after midnight. President Carlos Alvarado Quesada is among those who celebrated the historic milestone.
“Today we celebrate liberty, equality and democratic institutions,” tweeted Alvarado. “May empathy and love be the moral compass that allows us to move forward and build a country where everyone belongs.”
No. 7: Anti-LGBTQ crackdown in Poland draws international condemnation
The Polish government’s continued anti-LGBTQ crackdown sparked global outrage in 2020.
Police over the summer arrested Margot Szutowicz, a non-binary person, three times. One of the arrests stems from charges she allegedly damaged a truck promoting anti-LGBTQ messages and assaulted a pro-life demonstrator on June 2.
President Andrzej Duda in the lead up to the Polish presidential election said LGBTQ “ideology” is more harmful than communism.
Duda on June 24 met with President Trump at the White House. Duda on July 12 won re-election.
No. 6: ICE releases Blade contributor from Cuba
A Blade contributor who was in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody for nearly a year was released on March 4.
An immigration judge in September 2019 granted Yariel Valdés González asylum based on the persecution he suffered in Cuba because he was an independent journalist. The Board of Immigration Appeals on Feb. 28 dismissed an appeal of the judge’s ruling.
“I really feel that I am alive now,” Valdés told the Blade after he reunited with his aunt and uncle in Miami. “It is a wonderful feeling to feel free and to be able to take control of your life and above all knowing that you will not be persecuted again because of your ideas or your work.”
Valdés now lives with his boyfriend in Wilton Manors, Fla., and continues to contribute to the Blade.
No. 5: U.N. calls for global conversion therapy ban
The U.N. in July formally called for a ban on so-called conversion therapy.
Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the independent U.N. expert on LGBTQ issues, submitted a report with 130 submissions on practices and testimonies of victims who have experienced conversion therapy from civil society organizations, faith-based organizations, medical practitioners and individuals.
Germany, Brazil, Ecuador, Malta and Taiwan have all banned the widely discredited practice. Maryland, D.C. and Virginia are among the U.S. jurisdictions that ban conversion therapy for minors.
A federal appeals court in November ruled bans on conversion therapy for minors in the Florida cities of Boca Raton and Palm Beach are unconstitutional under the First Amendment.
No. 4: Trump policies further endanger LGBTQ migrants, asylum seekers
The Trump administration’s hardline immigration policy continued to put LGBTQ migrants and asylum seekers at even more risk in 2020.
Three police officers in El Salvador who were convicted of murdering Camila Díaz Córdova, a transgender woman who the U.S. deported in 2017 after she fled anti-LGBTQ violence, were sentenced to 20 years in prison on July 28.
Activists say LGBTQ asylum seekers who are forced to await the outcome of their cases in Mexico under the Trump administration’s “return to Mexico” (MPP) policy puts them at increased risk of violence and human trafficking. A Human Rights Watch report notes the closure of the U.S.-Mexico border in March left asylum seekers “to suffer persecution in their home countries or in Mexico.
People with HIV, among other vulnerable groups, who were in ICE custody in 2020 were also at increased risk for the coronavirus as the pandemic spread throughout the U.S.
No. 3: Pope Francis publicly supports civil unions
LGBTQ Catholics and activists around the world in October welcomed Pope Francis’ public support of civil unions for same-sex couples.
Francis made the comments in “Francesco,” a documentary about his life that debuted at the Rome Film Festival on Oct. 21.
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of the Maryland-based New Ways Ministry, described Francis’ comments as a “historic moment” that “signals that the church is continuing to develop more positively its approach to LGBTQ issues.” Esteban Paulón, an activist in Argentina, noted Francis “in private expressed his support” for civil unions for same-sex couples during the marriage equality debate in his homeland before he became pope.
The Vatican’s tone toward LGBTQ Catholics has become more moderate under Francis’ papacy. Church teachings on homosexuality and gender identity remain unchanged.
No. 2: Biden election celebrated around the world
President-elect Biden’s election in November renewed hopes the U.S. will once again champion LGBTQ rights abroad in an impactful way.
The incoming administration has said Biden will “immediately appoint” a special LGBTQ rights envoy at the State Department and a special coordinator at the U.S. Agency for International Development to handle the aforementioned issues. Biden has, among other things, also pledged to use the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Act to sanction those responsible for anti-LGBTQ rights abuses.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell led the Trump administration’s initiative that encouraged countries to decriminalize homosexuality, but many LGBTQ activists around the world remained highly skeptical of it.
“The planet is crying out for more compassionate, mature, visionary, unifying and empathetic leaders, and we now look to President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris to be an example,” ILGA World Executive Director André du Plessis told the Blade after the election.
No. 1: Coronavirus sweeps the world
The coronavirus pandemic had a devastating impact on LGBTQ people around the world in 2020.
The vast majority of Pride celebrations took place virtually, with Global Pride drawing an audience of more than 57 million people on June 27. Ecuador is among the countries in which advocacy groups launched relief efforts to help LGBTQ people pay their rent and buy food and other basic supplies during coronavirus lockdowns.
The pandemic further exacerbated existing economic, social and racial inequalities. Efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus — such as “pico y género” rules in Panamá, Colombia and Perú that allowed people to leave their homes on certain days based on their gender — sparked criticism among transgender activists who felt they caused further discrimination based on gender identity.
Arizona state Rep. Arlando Teller says he was ecstatic when the Biden campaign asked him to introduce Cher at an Oct. 25 campaign fundraiser in Phoenix.
“I was actually trying to be calm,” Teller told the Washington Blade a few weeks later during a Zoom interview. “Inside I was a screaming queen, just giddy as all get about.”
Teller said the campaign did not tell him the fundraiser’s location until an hour before it took place. Teller nevertheless described his experience with Cher as “amazing.”
“I opened for Cher,” Teller joked.
Teller is one of six openly gay members of the Arizona Legislature.
He was born and raised in Chinle, a town in northeastern Arizona that is in the Navajo Nation. Teller began the interview by formally introducing himself in Navajo.
“I am 100 percent Navajo and I have four clans,” said Teller. “What that clan system does is establishes who I am, where I come from and the family lineage that I come from as well.”
He also noted in his introduction the places from which his parents come.
“That also further allows other Navajos who have never met me to know where I come from and then establishes a kinship,” said Teller. “I could then be someone’s son, or grandson or father or grandfather, so that establishes the way we communicate with each other in Navajo.”
Teller’s mother and grandparents raised him after his father died from a heart attack when he was 5-years-old. Teller’s paternal grandfather was a Code Talker who used their language to help the Allies secretly communicate during World War II.
“His legacy is definitely part of my continued effort to ensure that family vote, they express their rights,” said Teller. “So, it is very important for my family to share with other members of the community the importance of what my grandfather had to do using our language.”
Teller attended public schools in the Navajo Nation before he enrolled at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz. Teller worked at two airports before he accepted a job at the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).
He lived in San Francisco for a decade before he returned to the Navajo Nation 11 years ago. Teller said he was “in a sincere, committed relationship and that happened to dissolve.”
“My grandmother, who was my foundation, my everything, had passed on,” he told the Blade.
“So, a lot of stuff just seemed to crescendo into a situation at that time and I loved living there. I loved my friends. We’re still friends to this day and I had a yearning to come home, but I never really expressed that.”
Teller said he only came out to his mother when he was breaking up with his partner.
“Mom’s a social worker, very clinical, and so the conversation was for the first eight minutes, literally eight minutes, it was all about her, how dare you do this to me! How could you hide this from me? And rightfully so,” he told the Blade. “So, I let her vent and then I said, ‘Hi Mom, this situation is about me, your son. Not about you, and I need your help.’”
Teller said he heard his mother gasp and after a few seconds she said, “I’m sorry you’re going through this. I’m really sorry you’re dealing with this way up there. This is what you need to do and she went into clinical mode right away: Boom, boom, boom, boom … you need to write this down right now.”
He told the Blade his mother one day called him at his Caltrans office and told him she was at Oakland International Airport. Teller picked her up and she told him to bring her to his boss who he described as a “second mother.” He said his mother and his boss held hands and looked at each other before she said, “I accept your resignation.”
“I said thank you for taking care of my son and then she said you can have your son back,” his mother told him.
Teller said his mother then told him as they drove on Interstate 5 that it is “time for you to come home” and “use all that you have experienced, all that you know and you have been for years putting it all in a basket, all that knowledge.”
“She says I need you to come home, pour it on the ground and help us get out of the mud,” recalled Teller.
Teller said a medicine man performed a traditional cleansing ceremony before he entered his family’s home. Teller told the Blade that his uncles and family elders were in attendance, and his mother said in front of them that she wanted to know what his future plans were.
“I want to know what my son is going to bring back home,” she said.
Teller said he would be working with the Navajo Division of Transportation within a year and within two years he would become a manager and make himself “available for the leadership of tribal, state and federal leaders.” One of Teller’s uncles challenged his assertion.
“I said, with all due respect uncle … those are the people that make decisions that affect us at the home level,” recalled Teller. “When they meet me and when I meet them I will remind them that they cannot forget about us. They cannot forget that some of us in this room don’t have running water or electricity, that some of us have to drive through muddy roads to get to school, hospital or church or to see other family members.”
“Some of us have to fight for education,” he added. “That’s why I want to meet them because I want them to remember the difficulty of everyday living that we go through.”
Teller did get a job with the Navajo DOT and became the manager of its Department of Airports Management. Teller later became Navajo DOT’s deputy director.
Former Arizona state Sen. Jack Jackson, Jr., a gay Navajo man, became one of Teller’s mentors. Teller also said he befriended U.S. Reps. Ruben Gallego and Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.) and U.S. Sen.-elect Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and other tribal leaders.
“And so, I decided to run,” said Teller, who was also a member of the Arizona State Transportation Board. “I decided to utilize my professional expertise in transportation, in addressing the needs of Arizona, of rural Arizona.”
Teller has represented the 7th District in the Arizona House of Representatives since his 2018 election. He won re-election last month.
“The main variable in my personal professional equation is not forgetting where I come from, not forgetting that I have four clans, not forgetting that my grandfather went to war and used his language, my language, to help beat the enemy and not forgetting the fact that my mother was a single parent and how she was able to manage funds,” Teller told the Blade.
Coronavirus continues to ravage Navajo Nation
The Blade spoke with Teller eight days after the Associated Press declared President-elect Biden won Arizona. The interview also took place as the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage the Navajo Nation.
Navajo Department of Health notes as of Monday there were 19,608 confirmed coronavirus cases in the Navajo Nation. Statistics also indicate the pandemic has killed 720 people.
The Navajo Nation’s population in the 2010 Census was 173,667.
Teller noted the Navajo Nation’s current unemployment rate is around 70 percent because the pandemic has “just absolutely gutted the economy and people working.” Teller said many people in the Navajo Nation are struggling with mental health issues.
He said his mother one day brought donated food to a “poverty-stricken family” who lived in a rundown home. Teller told the Blade that one of her clients was living in a car sitting on cinder blocks because her mother and grandmother who lived with her had coronavirus.
“I can’t go to their houses, so I’m out here,” the client told Teller’s mother. “I don’t want to get sick.”
“My mom saw the desperation in that client’s eyes,” said Teller.
The client died by suicide four days after Teller’s mother visited her.
“The desperation is that bad,” said Teller. “My mom last week when she was talking with me and my sister said I wish I could have done more. I knew something was wrong and she hung herself. I’m like, ‘oh my God.’ That bothers her. It bothers me.”
Teller described the Navajo Nation — which encompasses northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico and southern Utah — as “pulsating in a red COVID map.” Teller said the lack of infrastructure, access to running water and electricity and broadband internet have only exacerbated the pandemic’s impact.
“Some folks have been defeated, spiritually defeated and that’s what this COVID has done to some families,” he told the Blade. “Other families are holding strong. That’s great. We still need resources. We still need PPE (personal protective equipment.) Winter’s upon us. What does that mean? It means that folks that didn’t get any firewood or coal or even prepare for the winter are going to have a dark winter. It gets really cold up north, in northern Arizona.”
The pandemic also prompted Teller to end public events for his re-election campaign.
“My family were ready to go walk parades, go to country fairs, and so forth, but I’m like, ‘No we can’t do that. I love you guys too much and I’m not going to allow the exposure to happen in my own family,’” he said.
Less than 50 people attended the Biden fundraiser at which Teller introduced Cher. The event took place outside, and the campaign required attendees to wear masks and did not allow them to leave their seats once they arrived.
The Navajo Times newspaper reported Teller on Nov. 25 tested positive for coronavirus after he checked himself into a hospital in Chinle. Teller said he suspects he contracted the virus while he was in Phoenix.
Teller remains in the hospital. He tweeted on Dec. 7 that his mother had died.
“ShíMa (the Navajo word for mother), you were called home to be with the angels,” said Teller in a tweet that included pictures of his mother. “Your light and love is cherished and remembered. Journey on, ShíMa, you have equipped us with your teachings and prayers.”
Teller’s mother contracted the coronavirus and died in the same hospital where he continues to recover. Her funeral took place on Dec. 9.
Lawmakers in Bhutan on Thursday voted to amend portions of the country’s Penal Code that have been used to criminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations.
An OutRight Action International press release says Articles 213 and 214 of the Bhutanese Penal Code “were widely interpreted as prohibiting same-sex relations.” The global LGBTQ advocacy group notes 63 out of 69 members of the Bhutanese Parliament voted for an amendment that states “homosexuality between adults shall not be considered unnatural sex.”
“The adopted amendment not only decriminalizes same-sex relations, but by specifically mentioning homosexuality also acknowledges the existence of LGBTIQ people in Bhutan,” said Aatish Gurung, a Bhutanese staffer with Women Deliver, an organization that advocates for women and girls around the world, in the OutRight Action International press release. “After years of work, this is great news for LGBTIQ people in Bhutan.”
Bhutan is a small kingdom in the Himalayas that borders India and China.
OutRight Action International in its press release notes homosexuality will remain criminalized in 66 countries once the amended Bhutanese Penal Code becomes law. Jessica Stern, the group’s executive director, also notes Bhutanese lawmakers approved the amendments on International Human Rights Day, which commemorates the U.N. General Assembly’s ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Dec. 10, 1948.
“For too long, the human rights of LGBTIQ people have not been recognized,” said Stern. “Today, Bhutan chose to tell a different story and create a different future for itself. The decriminalization of homosexuality in Bhutan is a huge achievement. It is both a testament to the perseverance of the LGBTIQ movement in Bhutan, and a source of inspiration for LGBTIQ movements across the continent and the world where such laws are still in effect.”
Advocacy groups are calling for the incoming Biden-Harris administration to make LGBTQ rights a cornerstone of its foreign policy.
The Council for Global Equality in a policy paper it released after the election calls for the new administration to issue an executive order within its first week in the White House that would lay “the institutional groundwork for supporting global LGBTI rights, transgender equality and reproductive rights.”
The advocacy group is also urging the new administration to “direct that gender issues feature prominently in a Biden foreign policy” and to “rethink religious exemptions to policies, with due consideration given to the public funding and purposes employed.” The Council for Global Equality, among other things, recommends the Biden-Harris administration nominate openly lesbian and transgender people for ambassadorships and “reinstate promptly” the State Department’s special envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ rights at the level of an ambassador.
The Council for Global Equality recommends the U.S. should rejoin both the U.N. Human Rights Council and the World Health Organization. The Council for Global Equality also calls for the Biden-Harris administration to formally renounce the State Department’s controversial Commission on Unalienable Rights that current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo created last year.
“We are excited to work with the Biden-Harris administration to center the rights of LGBTI individuals in U.S. foreign policy after four devastating years under the Trump administration,” Center for Global Equality Chair Mark Bromley told the Washington Blade on Monday.
The Center for American Progress this week made similar recommendations in its own policy paper that it released. The D.C.-based progressive think tank, like the Council for Global Equality, also calls for Congress to pass the Greater Leadership Overseas for the Benefit of Equality (GLOBE) Act, a bill that would require the U.S. to continue to promote LGBTQ rights abroad through its foreign policy.
The Human Rights Campaign and OutRight Action International have also echoed the Center for American Progress and the Council for Global Equality’s recommendations.
President Obama in 2011 issued a memorandum that made the promotion of LGBTQ rights abroad a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy.
The Trump administration did not formalize this directive, but U.S. diplomats have continued to support gay rights abroad.
The White House in 2019 tapped then-U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell to lead an initiative that encourages countries to decriminalize homosexuality. Grenell is one of the five openly gay ambassadors who Trump named during his administration.
The Trump administration has nevertheless faced sharp criticism over its domestic LGBTQ rights policy that included the reinstatement of the ban on openly transgender servicemembers. Activists in the U.S. and around the world also condemned the White House over its hardline immigration policy they say has made LGBTQ asylum seekers even more vulnerable.
A Biden-Harris transition spokesperson on Tuesday directed the Blade to the incoming administration’s LGBTQ rights platform.
The incoming administration has pledged to “significantly bolster the offices” at the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development that are “dedicated to promoting global LGBTQ+ rights and development.” Biden has also said he will “immediately appoint” a special LGBTQ rights envoy at the State Department and a special coordinator at USAID to handle the aforementioned issues.
The incoming administration, among other things, supports the GLOBE Act and the use of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to sanction those who commit anti-LGBTQ rights abuses. Biden says his administration will also “stand with local civil society” that champions LGBTQ rights.”
“As president, Biden will restore the United States’ standing as a global leader defending LGBTQ+ rights and developments and work closely with our partners and like-minded governments to ensure that violence and discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals do not go unchecked,” reads Biden’s LGBTQ platform.