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Daniil Grachev, an LGBTQ activist for rights, is arrested by the riot police during a pride event in St. Petersburg in 2013.
My first job at BuzzFeed News in 2013 was an experiment: We wanted to treat LGBTQ rights worldwide just as seriously as wars or elections.
In the following years I met LGBTQ refugees who had fled ISIS in Syria, queer teenagers who had escaped the violence of the gangs in El Salvador and doctors in Japan who tried to improve acceptance for transgender people. In retrospect, it seems obvious that these were stories that deserve to be told. However, in 2013, few major media companies had specialist reporters dealing with LGBTQ news in the U.S., let alone reporters who tried to write about the problem around the world.
The United States and the world changed rapidly. Former President Barack Obama made the promotion of LGBTQ rights a key priority in US foreign policy during his first term in office, before advocating for gender equality. In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government must recognize same-sex couples. Four days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law known as the "Ban on Gay Propaganda" that sparked a global outcry.
At the beginning of the decade, nearly 80 countries viewed homosexuality as a crime – violence against LGBTQ and violence discrimination was widespread in many countries – and the issue was almost completely ignored in international diplomacy. By the end of the decade, more than 30 countries had introduced marriage equality, transgender people had legal protection in multiple locations for the first time, and a social revolution has brought LGBTQ people out of the closet worldwide.
This was the decade when it became clear that "gay rights are human rights," as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a 2011 UN speech. But it was also the decade when the idea that people have universal rights was questioned. A new generation of anti-democratic leaders – including Clinton's 2016 opponent, Donald Trump – declared war on the basic human rights framework introduced after World War II. In many cases, these leaders used rapid LGBTQ advances as ammunition to turn citizens against the principles of democracy themselves.
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A masked activist takes part in the first Gay Pride March in Kiev in 2015.
On my first trip as a reporter for BuzzFeed News, I realized that the struggle for LGBTQ rights was about something much bigger.
This was a shift through Eastern Europe in October 2013 to see the impact of Russia's new anti-LGBTQ law on its neighbors. The “ban on homosexual propaganda” was technically a ban on teaching children “non-traditional relationships”, but it became a tool to intimidate activist groups and to suppress any demonstration of LGBTQ rights. It also helped make the anti-gay mood an instrument of Russian foreign policy that the world has struggled with to this day.
My trip ended in Ukraine, which was about to sign an agreement to formalize relations with the European Union. The agreement would have required Ukraine to accept a wide range of human rights protection measures, one of which prohibits discrimination against gays and lesbians in the workplace. Putin and his allies wanted to break an alliance between Ukraine and the EU at all costs.
The streets of the capital Kiev were covered with posters that read: "Association with the EU means same-sex marriage."
These billboards were financed by a Ukrainian businessman who was so close to Putin was connected that he made the godfather of the Russian president his daughter. The claim that the EU treaty would force Ukraine to recognize marriage for same-sex couples was a lie, but a useful distortion. The anti-gay mood was the perfect way to raise fear among Ukrainians that the human rights norms of Western democracies would rob the country of its identity.
“The EU will require Ukraine to expand its homosexual culture, and gay parades will take place in Kiev instead of victory parades. “A leading Russian legislator tweeted as the signing of the EU treaty approached.
By the end of the year, the tug of war around Ukraine had torn the country in two. When the country's president bowed to Russian pressure and tried to break away from the EU agreement, he was pushed out of office by a pro-European revolution. In response, Russian-backed soldiers marched into part of the country, annexed it, and started a war that continues to this day. In those days, propaganda sites spread a lot of stories alleging that Russia intervened to protect the Ukrainians from a "totalitarian" West.
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Stuart Gaffney (left) and John Lewis (center), plaintiffs for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) from 2008, celebrate their journey along Market Street during the San Francisco Pride Pride, two days after the landmark's legalization US Supreme Court ruling Marriage for same-sex couples nationwide, June 28, 2015.
At the same time, Russia was struggling to take Ukraine away from the EU and was preparing to host the Sochi Winter Olympics. This provided Putin with the perfect platform to use anti-gay feelings to attack the credibility of countries that advocate human rights. Preparations for the games were dominated in the west by boycotts of activist groups in protest against the Russian law on "homosexual propaganda". Obama supported the campaign by skipping the opening ceremony in February 2014.
Putin treated this conflict as an opportunity. If countries like the United States wanted to define human rights policy by supporting LGBTQ rights, he was only too happy to lead the counterattack in the name of "traditional values".
In a frightening incident, Russian state television secretly broadcast a recorded meeting between Russian activists and international NGOs such as Human Rights Watch as part of a "documentary" warning of a "homosexual invasion". The Russian government also used this as an excuse to intensify attacks on civil society and to force LGBTQ rights organizations to identify themselves as "foreign agents" under a law that also applies to environmentalists and other human rights NGOs.
In the years that followed, I treated one authoritarian regime after another that took advantage of the anti-homosexual mood to discredit people advocates of rights and Western democracies.
In Uganda, I completed a five-hour “Thanksgiving Ceremony” in March 2014. A comprehensive anti-LGBTQ law under which President Yoweri Museveni said anal sex caused the bowel to fail and vowed to US -Reject money to fight HIV if it would accept “strange things”. As in Russia, the Ugandan government has panicked homosexuality to make it difficult for NGOs to operate. The police have restricted the operations of Uganda's largest NGO, a refugee rights organization that was also part of a coalition against the LGBTQ law, because of alleged "promotion of homosexuality and lesbians". The authorities even raided an HIV-powered HIV center.
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A Ugandan participates in a pride event in Entebbe.
Attacks on LGBTQ rights and measures against women's rights and refugees were increasingly at the center of geopolitical conflicts. Later in 2014, ISIS began promoting gruesome execution pictures of men he said were gay to portray Islam's defenders against Western excesses. In 2016, Turkey banned Istanbul Pride ceremonies – the largest pride that is celebrated regularly in the Muslim world. The ban coincided with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's crackdown on public protests and freedom of speech. Pride parades were attacked within the EU in Poland, led by an extreme right-wing government.
Of course there were raids against LGBTQ before this decade – only a few have made headlines outside of their home country in the past 10 years. Never before have rights showdowns against LGBTQ regularly reached the highest levels of the world's most powerful governments and institutions.
What might once have been local conflicts turned into diplomatic incidents. The World Bank responded to Uganda's law against LGBTQ by suspending a $ 90 million loan. The UN Security Council responded to the executions of IS by holding a discussion on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people for the first time. and one of five South American nations led an UN resolution to create a position as an LGBTQ rights officer and defeat an opposition that included Russia and blocs from African and Islamic countries.
Conservative nations, with the help of At the same time, the Vatican diplomatic corps tried to delete the word "gender" from other UN resolutions and believed that the term opened the door to better protection of LGBTQ and women's rights opened under international law. The anti-LGBTQ countries have also attempted to water down resolutions on other human rights issues by inserting a language that affirms "sovereignty," a term that suggests that local values or interests put universal rights at the forefront.
Despite opposition in the 1990s, LGBTQ rights were well on their way to becoming a central part of the international human rights system by the end of the Obama administration in the 2010s. Obama even created the world's first LGBTQ Specialist for LGBTQ rights in the US State Department and adopted rules to prevent US foreign aid recipients from being discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation. It seemed that the world's most powerful democratic governments were still looking for opportunities to respond to threats to LGBTQ rights around the world.
And then Clinton, with the help of the Russian disinformation machine, lost the 2016 election for Trump.
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Ugandans demonstrate against homosexuals in 2014.
If Clinton's 2011 homosexual rights are human rights speech was what the decade initially promised, Trump represents what the decade ended.
When the Trump administration talks about LGBTQ rights today, it acts like a gas light. He occasionally makes noises about protecting LGBTQ people, but has also withdrawn some protective measures for transgender people, and his Department of Justice believed that it should be legal to fire people for being gay. During his 2016 campaign, Trump copied a tactic used by politicians against immigrants in countries like France and the Netherlands, using the problem solely as a justification for attacking another minority's rights. The best protection for "the homosexuals," Trump said at the time, was to ban Muslims from entering the United States.
As for other human rights, Trump has put immigrant children in cages on the southern border, who have been refused asylum-seekers their rights under the Geneva Conventions and turned a blind eye to the murder of a Saudi journalist to preserve lucrative arms contracts , In a recent speech at the UN, he called for sodomy laws to be repealed, but also for NGOs that work "cruelly and wickedly" with immigrants.
While the US has not overtly refused to support LGBTQ rights in international diplomacy, some human rights defenders fear that the day may still come. The White House fell silent when it became known in 2017 that police in the Chechen Republic of Russia had kidnapped and tortured more than 100 LGBTQ people. Trump's current Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has called homosexuality "perversion" and has stated in his confirmation that he is still against marriage equality. Pompeo recently convened a new commission to clean up what he described as a “kidnapped” human rights regime.
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People who oppose the Istanbul Pride ban in 2019.
"Rights claims are often more aimed at rewarding interest groups and dividing humanity into sub-groups," he wrote in a Wall Street Journal announcing the commission.
The language in which the Commission's mission is described is Mark Bromley, head of the LGBTQ Rights Group at the Council for Global Equality, who told me earlier this month that the United States is not the only powerful government who has done so has foregone clear support for LGBTQ rights. Brazil, a long-standing world leader, has withdrawn under its far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, who once said that his son was dead rather than gay and that a recent Supreme Court decision that discriminated against LGBTQ was blown up Has. In almost every country that has slipped into authoritarianism – including Hungary, Poland, China and the United States – the rights of the LGBTQ have been sacrificed.
This move away from many governments has not spoiled profits, thanks to growing grassroots support. The Australians opposed their right-wing government in 2017 to approve an overwhelming majority referendum on marriage equality. The Indian Supreme Court issued a comprehensive decision in 2018 to decriminalize homosexuality at a time when the country's president is a religious fundamentalist. And two other African countries, Angola and Botswana, have decriminalized homosexuality this year.
"Once you get the impression that a better world is possible, you don't want to go back," said Jessica Stern, managing director of OutRight Action International, which works with activists around the world and is committed to LGBTQ -Uses rights at the United Nations.
But demanding rights is becoming even more dangerous in some places, and activists cannot rely on solidarity from the United States as they did a few years ago.
"In this environment, there are less powerful states that we can count on, and there are more powerful states that are hostile to LGBTIQ rights," Stern told me recently. "Russia with its influence in the Middle East, China and its influence everywhere." It's not just that the US is a "shadow of its former self" when it comes to defending human rights, it added – it is now part of the problem.
"I am very concerned about the next decade," said Stern. "Every time I open my email or turn on my phone, someone I know personally is attacked." ●