A Quorum For Change: The Fight For Global LGBT Equality

On Wednesday, activists from around the world met in New York for The Daily Beast’s Quorum: Global LGBT Voices event. They shared their struggles and triumphs, and illuminated the frontlines of the fight for equality.

The Daily Beast

Western culture has taught us that it is getting better for members of the LGBT community.

But, throughout the rest of the world, many still face the same draconian laws and societal pressures that most of us regard as history.

Statistically, some four billion people will wake up in countries where there are no formal laws protecting those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, according to Mike Dyer, Co-Managing Director and Chief Product and Strategy Officer of the Daily Beast, and the founder of Wednesday’s Quorum: Global LGBT Voices event in New York City. “Another three million people live in countries where there is no hint of legal or social equality, where being gay is a crime,” he added.

Quorum took place in the same week as ISIS boasted of throwing a gay man off a roof, then stoning him to death, and news spread of the arrest—and public shaming of 33 Egyptian men arrested in a raid on a bath-house.

“Quorum is meant to be a place to explore, debate, and in some instances disagree about the various struggles facing the LGBT communities around the world,” Dyer expressed in opening remarks. “This is the great civil rights struggle of our time.”

From Russia to the Caribbean and Uganda to Malaysia, more than twenty-five activists from around the world shared their personal struggles and triumphs, and enlightened listeners on what is happening on the front lines of the global fight for equality. It’s not just a Western issue.

In America, thirty-five states currently recognize same-sex marriage and nearly 8 in 10 young adults support the right. State bans continue to be overturned.

But, in Jamaica, Maurice Tomlinson was forced to flee his country after his marriage to his Canadian husband made front-page news. “I was no longer a rich queen. I was like the people I was writing about—a scary queen,” Tomlinson, a law professor and HIV activist, said during his powerful speech on the conditions of LGBT people in Jamaica. “Jamaicans couldn’t deal with me and I had to leave.”

Currently, Jamaican law criminalizes any same-sex intimacy. Even holding hands in the privacy of your bedroom could render you a registered sex offender and up to $1 million in fines, according to Tomlinson. The charge stems from anti-sodomy laws imposed by the British in 1874.

It is a “culture marinated in homophobia,” where there is a “record number of anti-gay songs [expressing] the murder of gays, rape of lesbians, and mutilation of trans people.” They are played on buses, in dance halls, and on the streets.

Tomlinson told a story of Dwayne, a 16-year-old trans youth, who was kicked out of her home at 14 and forced to live on the street—a scenario too often seen in the Caribbean country (and throughout the world, including the United States). While attending a public street festival dressed as she identified (as a female) onlookers took notice and “stabbed, shot, ran over Dwayne with a car, and threw her body into the bushes and went back to dance.” Her last words: “I’m a girl. I’m a girl.” Her father buried her as a boy.

Roger Ross Williams, director of God Loves Uganda announced a landmark feat for the global LGBT-rights movement: a gay-rights group in Uganda has successfully sued an American pastor for violating international law. Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) claims that evangelical pastor Scott Lively helped set the stage for recent persecution in their home country. Evangelical groups have been pushing their anti-homosexual agenda in the African country since Lively’s speeches in 2009.

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Homosexuality is illegal in 38 countries in Africa.

Others using film as a medium to spread the experience of global LGBT communities include Parvez Sharma (A Jihad for Love), who documents homosexuality within the Islamic faith and how those who practice the religion grapple with societal pressures and personal opinions.

Leo Chiang (Out Run) followed a trio of transgender women in their quest to propel the only LGBT political party in the world to Congressional seats in the Philippines.

From Malaysia, Nisha Ayub, a transgender activist who was born male but identifies as female, announced a win in a landmark court case—led by Ayub and two other transgender women—that overturned an Islamic anti-cross-dressing law that had previously put Ayub in jail.

While in a male prison, she was publically ridiculed because she didn’t fit the standard of what a man or woman should be. She was sexually and verbally abused, leading her to the brink of suicide. She began her quest for equal rights shortly after her three-month sentence.

“You can cut my hair, you can bald me, you can strip me naked and take away my dignity,” she said. “You can even kill me. But you cannot take away my identity as a transgendered person. I will breathe and I will die as a transgendered person no matter what.”

Stateside, we’ve seen more evolved attitudes and pop-cultural portrayals of transgender people. Laverne Cox, who plays a trans woman in prison on Orange is the New Black, recently became the first transgender person to cover Time magazine (and be nominated for an Emmy) for an article titled “The Transgender Tipping Point.” She’s become a public leader of the trans movement for equal rights, both at home and abroad.

But trans people still face rejection of all kinds. Meena Seshu, co-founder of SANDGRAM—an LGBT activist organization--was planning a women’s rights rally in India when participants voiced they did not want trans or lesbian women to be allowed to participate. They were not “good” women, Seshu was told. It was then she knew something had to be done.

“If trans women are saying that they are women, then the women’s rights movement will have to accept them and say that they are women,” she said. “They have rights as women and those rights will be honored.”

Seshu also spoke of the police brutality transgender sex workers have faced “for a long time.”

In Kenya, “Essy,” who spoke from behind a screen to conceal her identity, has also experienced brutality as she challenges public attacks spearheaded by spiritual leaders. She’s currently working with religious officials to change their views on homosexuality and has not revealed she is gay to them so they can get to know her as a person over BEING a homosexual.

“We have rights as arrested people, but not as gay arrested people,” she said. “We’re not looking for gay rights. We’re looking for human rights for gay people.”

Other speakers included Bisi Alimi, the first person to Kenyan to come out as gay on television, Kentia Placide (St Lucia), Alice Nkom (Cameroon), Anastasia Smirnova (Russia), Suzan (Syria), Xiaogang Wei (China), and Jabu Pereira (South Africa).

Videos of Quorum: Global LGBT Voices talks and panel discussions will be broadcasted on The Daily Beast in coming months.