This week, anyway, it seems that the world is lurching closer to acknowledging that we LGBT people deserve basic human rights and maybe even, the full rights of adult citizens.
On April 7, the high court of Colombia ruled that same-sex couples could marry.
About the same time, the United Nations released the report “Ending Violence and Other Human Rights Violations based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.” The 91-page effort was result of a dialogue among the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the UN. It describes the horrible problems that we face worldwide, acknowledges them as human rights abuses, and calls for governments to work to end them.
Both achievements seem almost inevitable now, but I remember when queer activists in Colombia were still afraid for their lives and even the goal of half-assed civil unions seemed ridiculous because everybody’s energy was consumed by the ongoing civil war. Queers, and women for that matter, never do well in a militarized environment. And Colombia had guerrillas, paramilitaries, the military, and government all at each others’ throats.
I also remember when we were pariahs on the international scene. In the bad old pre-Internet days, queers were isolated and alone in their countries, and the US State Department would pair up with Tehran and the Vatican to thwart any language in any international agreement that even acknowledged we existed, much less deserved human rights.
It was explosive when we began to gather at events like World Pride 2000, where activists from El Salvador, Romania, Zimbabwe, Colombia, Brazil could suddenly all bear witness on the same stage about how queers in their home countries were murdered, imprisoned, threatened. This was about the time that global organizations like Amnesty International finally acknowledged that LGBT rights were human rights, a hugely important boost.
If queers in Colombia can now get married and if the UN is now advocating for our rights, it is because a lot of people worked really hard, year after year, coming at problems every way they could think of. Militant queers took to the streets demanding change and demanding it now and other LGBT activists and their allies pressured elected officials and policy-makers more politely, all of them sharing information and skills.
More and more, this exchange is happening on regional and international levels. Guatemalans are talking to Nicaraguans talking to Nigerians talking to Chinese. The rainbow of US activists is also playing a role. Not just the usual alumni of ACT UP involved in the global fight against AIDS, but, for example, Latinos in the US supporting the rights of queers to organize in Cuba.
Americans have a lot of power, and money. Sometimes we even use it for good. After Colombian queers won marriage equality last week, I noticed activist Elizabeth Castillo tweeted “Big hug @evanwolfson thanks by your support and passion!” After our own successes at home, it’s only right that an architect of the victorious Freedom to Marry campaign should help other queers fighting for the same rights. He even traveled there to speak out.
When Wally Brewster was appointed ambassador to the Dominican Republic in 2013, all he had to do to support queer visibility in the DR was to go to official functions with his husband Bob Satawake. Besides that, the two have hosted a small group of local LGBT activists at their official residence, and offered both funding and encouragement to local queer groups, ignoring the gay-baiting and insults from the likes of the repulsive Nicolás de JesÃºs Cardinal López, the archbishop of Santo Domingo.
It’s not that hard for Americans to support LGBT groups abroad. We’ve been there, we’ve done that, and in most places in the US, we still are. All of us, everywhere in the world, need organizations to track human rights abuses, lawyers to get us out of jail, advice on lobbying tactics, plane fares to conferences. Money for computers and offices. We also need funding for cultural programs like film festivals so we can create images of ourselves, shape our own identities.
In fact, successful US organizations should make more of an effort to share skills and resources here at home, where one state can feel like 1952 and the next 2010. But while many LGBT Americans are at least familiar with LGBT struggles in Nigeria and China, we often manage to ignore vast swaths of our own country until a ridiculous figure like Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis emerges. Or until we get a “bathroom bill.”
Race and class are clearly part of why we ignore them. A white person from California may have less baggage working with a black person from Ghana than with a person of color from Louisiana. But we Americans have all that wealth at our fingertips, and we owe it to each other to try harder.
Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” from the University of Minnesota Press.