Despite major gains in both the US and abroad, it is still a difficult time to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) in many parts of the world. There are still 77 countries where it is possible to go to jail for having sex with someone of the same sex.
The signing of stricter anti-gay legislation by Uganda’s president brought attention to the problems faced by the LGBT community in the country and elsewhere. It forced Ugandan Transgender activist Nikki Mawanda to seek asylum in the United States. A fear for his own safety motivated the decision.
The situation remains tenuous in Uganda. Mawanda is connected to the Transgender community back home, but is unable to disclose the name of the organization he works with over fears that it and its members will be targeted. The number of recorded attacks, arrests and other such incidents have increased by tenfold, said the group Sexual Minorities Uganda in a May report.
At the same time, Uganda’s foreign minister was elected to the ceremonial position of president for the United Nations General Assembly. Sam Kutesa, the choice put forward by the African Union, was met with opposition due to his support for Uganda’s anti-gay legislation, signed into law in February.
A petition by Ugandan journalist Milton Allimadi calls on global leaders to reject the appointment. He points towards the abuses carried out by the Ugandan government in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo as well as the legalized persecution of the Ugandan LGBT community.
“As Global citizens who still cherish and believe in the ideals of the United Nations, we urge you to do the right thing and revoke Mr. Kutesa’s visa,” writes Allimadi.
Mawanda described the ways in which LGBT Ugandans ensure continued harassment and abuse, in a call with the press hosted by the American Jewish World Service. Landlords are evicting people from their homes and some people cannot access health services, including malaria drugs and lifesaving HIV treatment. He said that there is a fear that going to healthcare facilities will lead to legal punishment or attacks. What is happening to these people cannot go unnoticed.
“Why are we sitting in meetings talking about the law in Uganda, but leaving out the Ugandans who are going through these horrible acts?” said Mawanda.
He said he knows many people who are trying to apply for asylum in other countries, but the process is difficult. There are requirements for familial contacts and a steady income, in the case of the US.
“Some of us do not have the privilege of having family ties, some of us have been disowned,” explained Mawanda.
The experience is not unique to Uganda. Sattara Hattirat of Thailand joined Mawanda in the briefing. She too described the stigma that is carried with being a lesbian in Thailand. While the country is outwardly seen as progressive for having three genders, the fact is that LGBT persons in Thailand are shunned. Even school textbooks include lessons on how homosexuality is a mental illness and that such people should be avoided.
“When you see a Thai ladyboy on the street or lesbian gas attendant, you might think, “This is a good place for LGBT persons,” said Hattirat. “Come to see these stories yourself and ask why you don’t see a Transgender lawyer, a gay doctor or an out Lesbian teacher.”
She urged international leaders to take a more active role in shunning human rights violations. She hopes that countries like Thailand and Uganda can be held to account for their discriminatory practices. Such action might start with the appointment of Kutesa as the next president of the UN General Assembly.