The Texas Social Worker’s Code

social work student listening to lecture
Social Work Students’ Accreditation Visit 3.26.13. Source: Southern Arkansas University, Creative Commons

Social work is a field in which professionals are intended to do their best to help connect members of vulnerable populations with the resources necessary to allow them to live with their rights and general well-being safe.  However, on October 12 of this year, during a meeting between the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council and the Texas Board of Social Work Examiners, a section of the social workers’ code of conduct was altered.  A section which previously stated, “A social worker shall not refuse to perform any act or service for which the person is licensed solely on the basis of a client’s age; gender; race; color; religion; national origin; disability; sexual orientation; gender identity and expression; or political affiliation.”  During the meeting, the words “disability; sexual orientation; gender identity and expression” were taken out.  They instead replaced that phrase with the word sex, making the social workers’ code match the Texas Occupations Code. 

This is concerning for a few reasons, the most glaring one being that it leaves members of the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities in Texas, two populations that are already seriously vulnerable, even more vulnerable than before, as social workers can now turn away potential clients from those communities.   

This led to an uproar among advocates for the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities, as at puts their ability to access important resources that are related to their basic human rights directly at risk.  There is an increasingly serious concern that members of these populations will face even more obstacles in accessing the things they need than they already do. 

The Human Rights Connection 

It’s important to recognize that is an issue of human rights, even outside of the clear issue of discrimination against these groups that is involved.  Consider some of the jobs of social workers.  They include therapists, case workers, workers for Child Protective Services, and much more.  In addition to working with people with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ+ community in general, many social workers specialize in work with children and older adults, two groups which overlap with the former.  Then these vulnerable populations are unable to get the support they need in order to access the tools, programs, and resources that exist specifically to help them live life and access their basic needs, they are by extension often kept from being able to access their basic human rights.   

Sign that reads "Social Workers change the world"
Source: Yahoo Images

One clear example of this is when people with disabilities require financial aid to support themselves do to an inability to be a part of the general workforce.  Social workers are an important part of the process of connect the people affected by this issue with the resources and government programs they need.  Without the aid of social workers, they might have significant difficulty accessing their right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control,” as recognized in Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

The fact that this allows social workers to discriminate certain groups in accepting clients is human rights issue in itself, as according to Article 7 of the UDHR, all are entitled to equal protection under the law and, All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.” 

 The Purpose of Social Work: Helping Vulnerable Populations 

Another reason this change in the Texas social workers’ code of conduct is problematic is that the field of social work is inherently meant to involve professionals helping vulnerable populations (such as the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities).   According to the National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW) Code of Ethics, The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human wellbeing and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.”  vulnerable population is a group or community “at a higher risk for poor health as a result of the barriers they experience to social, economic, political and environmental resources, as well as limitations due to illness or disability.” 

Social work is also built a set of core values: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, competence.  It is the job of a social worker to do what they can to uphold those values by helping vulnerable populations access the resources they need.  Therefore, social workers’ turning away members of the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities, particularly vulnerable groups, goes against the social work code of ethics.   

The ethical principles of social work also bar social workers from participating in acts of discrimination on the “basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, or mental or physical ability.” 

There is a meeting set for October 27, 2020 so that the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council can discuss the issue of discrimination as it applies to the changes that were made to the Texas social workers’ code of conduct.  It is vital that we do not underestimate the significance of this situation and the serious harm that it can cause. 

Reproductive Justice: Voices Not Just Choices

What Is Reproductive Justice?

Indigenous women, women of color, and trans people have long fought for the right to make decisions about their bodies. Coined in 1994, the term reproductive justice is defined as the “human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”

One way to differentiate reproductive justice from reproductive rights is that the latter is the “legal right to access health care services such as abortion and birth control”. Initially, spokespeople of this women’s rights movement often included educated wealthy, middle class White women. This left marginalized communities and minority women who did not have easy access to their rights with minimized opportunities to voice their problems and experiences. This begs the question of what good are these rights, if they aren’t accessible. Built upon the United Nations human rights framework, reproductive justice is an intersectionality issue where reproductive rights and social justice are combined so the voices of LGBTQ+ people, marginalized women, and minority communities are uplifted.

Abortion as a Voice, Not a Choice

Choice comes from a place of privilege. The chance of deciding reproductive options is more easily accessible to middle class White women, while these same options are typically unavailable or restricted for poor, low-income women of color. These are the same marginalized women who historically bore the burden of unethical research in reproductive medicine from issues regarding the study of gynecology, to sterilization, and everything in between. For example, James Marion Sims, the father of modern gynecology, conducted medical procedures on enslaved Black women, which is unethical in more ways than one. No consent was given. A patient that has no knowledge of what is going on or what is being done to them cannot give consent. As an enslaved person, the patient was not seen as a human being, but rather as property, and therefore no consent was necessary. The medical procedure was purely experimental, and Sims’ likely had poor knowledge of what he was doing which made his actions torturous. Women like the patients Sims practiced on, women of color, women who were and are oppressed and marginalized, women with disabilities, and people of the LGBTQ+ community continue to be exploited, and it is important that their voices are heard now more than ever.

Source: Robert Thom, circa 1952. From the collection of Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan. Sims’ not only purchased Black women to conduct his inhumane experiments on, but he did so on the belief that Black women could not feel pain.

Often there are misguided notions that reproductive justice is just about abortion, and while access to abortions is a major component of the movement, the movement does not end there. Reproductive justice also goes on to include access to proper sex education, inclusive to all genders and sexualities, affordable contraception, and access to safe and healthy abortions. It’s not enough for abortion to be legalized. “Access is key,” meaning that the cost of the medical procedure is bearable. Medical expenses include travel to a medical provider, paid time off from work, prescription costs, dietary expenses, relocation, etc. all of which can cause difficulty in accessing care. As something that women of color, women with low incomes, and the LGBTQ+ community have brought to attention, reproductive justice is an umbrella that goes beyond the pro-choice versus pro-life debates. It calls into light that factors such as race and class in society affect each woman and LGBTQ+ persons differently. This means not every person has the choice to choose or not choose a pregnancy due to lack of access to services, stigma, or historic oppression, which is where the pro-voice movement intercedes.

The pro-voice movement is meant to “replace judgement with conversation” from both pro-choice and pro-life advocates. Abortion is an incredible emotionally and morally draining topic to converse on, and it’s a decision that should be void of politics and instead filled with empathy and compassion so an individual can make the healthiest choice and live their healthiest life. It is important to validate a person’s lived experiences and to acknowledge that they made the best decision they felt like they could with the resources available to them at the time.

Stigma Around Reproductive Health

There is lack of access to the topic of reproductive health due to incomprehensive sexual education in school systems. Access to this information, access to proper medical care, access to contraception and abortion “is a political, human rights and reproductive justice issue.” Some educational systems fail to mention how to obtain contraceptive methods, how to use them, and which methods are more suited for an individual. This lack of information and stigma around sexual education does not reduce the incidence of unsafe and “unprotected sex or rates of abortion.” In fact, lack of education around contraception and restrictive abortion practices leads to more unsafe abortions globally due to financial burdens as well as social and cultural stigma.

Source: Maria Nunes. An LGBTQ+ Pride event takes place in the Caribbean.

Another issue is heteronormativity which is the trend in sex education focusing “on straight, cisgender young people, but ignores LGBTQ+ youth.” These conservative views that do not cater to a whole population of young adults exacerbates this stigma around sexual and reproductive health. This leads to people feeling like they cannot ask questions due to fear of social repercussions or that their sexuality is abnormal. Not being provided with “information to address their health needs, leaves the LGBTQ+ youth at risk for sexual violence and unprotected sex,” making them more vulnerable to various sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy, and mental health disorders. As important as it is it to address reproductive justice and reproductive health as a women’s issue, it’s even more important to know that LGBTQ+ people “can get pregnant, use birth control, have abortions, carry pregnancies, and become parents.” Part of fighting for and providing reproductive justice involves activism against controlling reproductive voices, and often controlling sexualities and gender expressions are synonymous with gatekeeping those voices.

Providing access to sexual and reproductive healthcare to LGBTQ+ people is one way to ensure that all communities are able to have information, resources, and the power to make their own decisions about their bodies, genders, sexualities, families, and lives. Access to reproductive healthcare can come in the form of gender affirming care and treatment for transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming individuals. Having free access to reproductive education is a foundational piece within the reproductive justice movement. Talking about the framework around sex and reproductive justice is so much more than sex. It involves intersectionality and considerations of reproductive health regarding pregnancy, abortions, racial and class division and discriminations, maternal mortality rates, and environmental conditions. It’s about the dichotomies between oppression and liberation, individuality and collectivity, and most importantly choices and voices.

Source: Terry Moon for News and Letters. An individual in Chicago attends a protest in support for Planned Parenthood.

What Are Three Things I Can Do?

  1. Understand that it’s not about being pro-choice or pro-life. Understanding abortion is about validating people’s stories and experiences. If you haven’t experienced abortion or don’t know of someone who has, the first step is to come from a place of compassion and empathy.
  2. Know that reproductive justice goes beyond being a women’s issue. The same resources and information given to women need to be disseminated throughout the LGBTQ+ community.
  3. Research organizations such as SisterSong, Planned Parenthood, and URGE to start your activism and make your impact.

Poland’s Rise in Populism

In 2015, the Law and Justice Party (PiS) became the majority in the Polish Parliament alongside the presidency for the first time since 2007. The Law and Justice Party is a right-winged populist party that has faced ongoing controversy and scandals since its formation in 2001. The Law and Justice Party began as a center-right party with an emphasis on Christianity.  The party began forming coalitions with far-right parties in 2007, which positioned its ideology closer towards nationalism and populism. During the last few years support dwindled for the PiS; however, their messages calling for family unity and Christian values have appealed to deeply religious sectors of the country. A country that is trending towards nationalism and populism risks violating the rights of those that the nation deems as “other”. By establishing a national identity, particularly around religion, they are also establishing those that do not belong to the national identity. This carries the risk of isolating and ostracizing individuals.

Protestors march for LGBTQ rights in Warsaw (Source: Creative Commons)

The Close Relationship Between Religion and Government

The Polish identity is tied very closely to Catholic beliefs and practices. Around 87% of Polish people  identify as Roman Catholic. In Poland Catholic values are taught in public schools, over ⅓ of Polish citizens attend church regularly, and the Polish government has an intense working relationship with the Catholic Church. Public ceremonies are often held with the blessings of priests, and church officials often act as a lobby group having access to large amounts of public funding. Priests in the countryside of Poland often campaign for members of the more conservative party who support legislation that aligns with the ideals of the Catholic Church. This close relationship is criticized because of the archaic and often divisive legislation that the Church tends to support. The Catholic Church’s alignment with the government will inevitably ostracize those who are not Catholic as well as those who live their life in a way that the Catholic Church condemns. The issue is at a governmental level, this allows for discriminatory policy to be passed.

 President Duda and the 2020 Elections

The support of the Catholic Church was paramount in the Law and Justice Party candidate winning the 2020 Presidential election. President Duda, the PiS candidate, narrowly won re-election after a very divisive campaign against the progressive Mayor of Warsaw.  President Duda exploited negative rhetoric citing LGBT ideology as being more destructive than Communism. Poland’s history of Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) occupation accompanied with this rhetoric led to the success of President Duda in the 2020 Presidential election. PiS members and Catholic Clergymen asserted LGBT values as being in opposition to family values and sought to associate the LGBT community with pedophilia. President Duda’s narrow win ignited mass unrest spreading throughout Polish cities as progressives viewed his win as a step back for LGBT rights in Eastern Europe.

President Duda of Poland meets with President Trump of the United States (Source: Creative Commons)

LGBTQ Free Zones

Anti-LGBTQ rhetoric did not begin in the 2020 Polish elections. Over 100 towns and regions around Poland have declared themselves LGBTQ Free Zones since 2018. These declarations are largely symbolic; however, they have further divided the country and suppressed the LGBT community. LGBTQ free resolutions have been pushed by the Catholic Church and politicians across Poland. Protests against these zones have resulted in mass countermarches of right-wing Poles that have ended in violence. The LGBTQ community has continued to face oppression from their government and these zones just serve as a way to further disenfranchise them.

“Stop Financing LGBT+” Sign hanging outside a building in Warsaw (Source: Creative Commons)

Access to Abortion

Along with the anti-LGBT legislation, Poland’s Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of strict regulation of abortion. Poland previously had regulations only allowing abortion access to victims of rape, incest, preservation of the mother’s life, and if the baby has fetal defects. Legal battles erupted in 2019 by the Law and Justice Party to ban abortions in the event of fetal defect. Judges nominated by PiS members ruled in favor of a ban of all abortions due to fetal defects, which account for approximately 98% of all Polish abortions. The decision led to outcry across Poland inspiring protests in almost every major city.

 What is the future of Poland?

The future of Poland is unknown, and it is clear the Polish government has become increasingly populist and nationalistic. Public figures are using rhetoric that divides the general population from “western elites” and activists within their country that seek to strive towards more encompassing human rights. Polish activists are fearful of future legislation that will further violate human rights. International human rights activists, the United Nations (UN) and European Union (EU) have all attempted to pressure Parliament to pass legislation showing outward support of the LGBTQ community. Polish officials responded claiming LGBTQ people have equal rights in the country and organizations should instead focus energy on Christian discrimination taking place internationally. As part of the international community, we can demonstrate our support for the people of Poland by staying up to date on what is happening there. It is also important to create dialogue around the issues in Poland which can include everything from social media posts to organizing events that bring awareness to the situation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Denial” – A Conversation About Justice

An image of power lines, with smoke and smog from factories rising behind the electrical towers.
Electric Towers During Golden Hour. Source: Pixabay, Creative Commons

On Saturday, September 21st, 2019, the Institute of Human Rights co-sponsored an event with Alabama Young Democrats that featured former Vermont gubernatorial candidate Christine Hallquist. Hallquist’s visit to UAB focused on a screening of her released documentary “Denial” which covers her time as the CEO of Vermont Electric Cooperative while she advocated for sustainable energy and processed her gender identity.

Upon announcing her 2018 gubernatorial campaign in Morrisville, Hallquist officially became the first openly transgender major party nominee for governor. Her campaign focused on increased broadband access, universal healthcare, and an aggressive stance on climate change. After winning the Democratic nomination, she ran against incumbent Phil Scott and gained over 40% of the popular vote. Though losing the gubernatorial campaign, Hallquist continues to be an activist addressing climate change and being a fighter for all those experiencing discrimination or fear based on gender identity.

“Denial” details the life of Christine Hallquist, discussing two major issues, her gender dysphoria (as David in the film) and the increasing threat of climate change in people’s lives. As the CEO of Vermont Electric Cooperative, Hallquist pushed to promote cleaner methods to produce energy, such as wind turbine farms, solar energy, and smart meters. The movie also explores Hallquist’s transition into womanhood through the lens of her son, Derek, who struggles to accept that his father has transitioned into a woman. Asked by her son as to why she didn’t speak out earlier in life, Hallquist responds by explaining how if she were truthful at 15, she would be placed in a mental institution. If she were truthful in her 20s, then she wouldn’t be married nor have any children. She then spoke about her dream, which was to “spend every waking moment as a woman. But if I went to work in a dress,” she says, “I would be unemployed.” These sentiments speak to the barriers trans people face as they navigate their daily lives.

 

Christine Hallquist, in front of a screen showing her film "Denial" talking to the audience.
Hallquist addressing the audience about her film. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

During the film’s Q&A session, an audience member asked Hallquist what she has done since leaving Vermont Electric Cooperative. She said she became aware that action would be needed at the executive level in order to induce change and propel Vermont to employ cleaner energy practices; by realizing the severity of the crisis, she transitioned from being perceived as a centrist to that of a staunch progressive. As a result, she wrote the North American Solution to Climate Change, which detailed ways in which the climate crisis could be hindered in favor of saving the Earth. She claimed we are “fighting for the future of this country” and that we have to “collaborate across the world to solve the problem. We need to learn how to work with each other!”

 

An audience member, surrounded by other members looking at him, talking to Christine Hallquist about her work for Climate Justice.
An audience member questioning Hallquist about her work for Climate Justice. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Does it take effort and a willingness to accept change in order to make a difference? That is a question that each one of us must answer. Looking at the future, should we all push towards climate action like Hallquist? Or should we take a step back and plan our movements to avoid being too rash? Hallquist raised an interesting point when she claimed that we as humans are not very well used to change. We decide much of the time to stick with tradition and avoid getting out of our comfort zone. Rather, we should embrace change and grow with our own experiences. We can start by teaching ourselves to challenge what we know about gender as well as to learn more about the impacts of climate change. These issues are imperative to upholding our basic human rights because all people deserve to live in a healthy, safe, and welcoming environment.

Not Just A Phase: Bisexuality, Invisibility and Invalidation

Of the identities that together form the full rainbow of the LGBTQ+ community, the “B” is one of the least visible despite its sizable population. Per the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, “self-identified bisexuals make up the largest single population within the LGBT community in the United States.” LGBTQ+ refers to all of the people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (a reclaimed term used to refer to all other identities not represented by the ones listed). However, not all people feel represented by the word “queer,” and the plus sign is meant to be inclusive of those communities.

A pink, purple, and blue flag flies to represent bi pride.
“The bisexual pride flag.” Source: Peter Salanki, Creative Commons.

To understand the experience of bisexual people, one must first understand the basics of gender and sexuality. Gender is a term that describes the social representation of biological reproductive processes, while one’s gender identity is based on personal identities, or the “internal perception of one’s gender” (SafeZone Project).  Gender is what most people attach words like “man” and “woman” to, but can encompass a variety of identities such as agender (one who does not experience gender identity), polygender (one who experiences multiple gender identities), and genderfluid (can experience a combination of gender identities depending on the day).  Sexual orientation is the “sexual, romantic, emotional/spiritual attraction” that one experiences, often depending on which gender/genders that they are attracted to. Straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, and asexual are all examples of different sexual orientations, though a wide variety exists in addition to those listed.

Bisexuality (bi) does not have one all-inclusive definition, but the term “bisexual” generally refers to a person who experiences attraction to people of their own gender as well as people outside of their gender. The experience of bisexuality can be shared by pansexual people. The two terms overlap, as pansexual people experience attraction regardless of gender. Typically, one differentiates between the two identities with respect to how an individual identifies themselves; some bisexual people could technically be called pansexual (and vice versa), but the most inclusive practice is to respect each individual/community as they define their own experience.

A couple embraces in the street during a gay pride demonstration.
“Thousands march in Madrid to claim an anti-capitalist and combative Gay Pride.” Source: Adolfo Lujan, Creative Commons.

Semantics aside, bi people have faced a long history of adversity with very little notoriety. Bisexuality as an identity has been chronically invalidated, demonized, and even blatantly ignored. Discrimination towards bisexual people has long been enforced by a heterosexual society, but many bi people have experienced discrimination from within the LGBT community as well.

According to the oldest bisexual advocacy organization in the United States, bisexual people are more likely to live in poverty, have higher rates of sexual and intimate partner violence, and report higher rates of poor physical/mental health than lesbian, gay or straight people. Research from the same source reveals that “bisexuals are six times more likely than gay men and lesbians to hide their sexual orientation,” and nearly one-quarter of bi people have never shared their orientation with anyone.

One might expect a stronger community backlash to this level of inequality, but biphobia is so pervasive that few dare to speak out. Biphobia, or the aversion to bisexuality, is experienced frequently by bisexual people while in the company of others who assume that they are either heterosexual or homosexual (depending on the bi person’s partner). Bisexuality is a unique identity in that a bi person is not defined by the gender of their partner, and this heteronormative invisibility is what makes the bi existence so difficult. UC San Diego’s LGBT Resource Center puts it this way:

“Lesbian, gay, and heterosexual people are invested, and find a sense of security in being the ‘other’ to each other, and unite in the fact that they are only attracted to either the ‘same’ or the ‘opposite’ gender/sex. This sets up another ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ dynamic which effectively marginalizes bisexual people as ‘other.’ Integral to this dynamic is the automatic assumption people can be defined by the gender/sex of their current or potential romantic interest.”

An openly bisexual person often experiences the condescending attitudes of those who think that it’s just a phase. Straight people assume that bisexuals will eventually revert back to heterosexual “normalcy,” while LGBTQ+ people may assume that the bi identity is merely a “half-gay, half-straight” phase that will culminate in a homosexual identity later on. However, research provides data to the contrary – a longitudinal study found that 92% of bisexual women still identified as bisexual over ten years later. To be clear, sexual orientation is not validated or invalidated based on its fluidity. This data only provides evidence that bisexuality can be a stable orientation.  These attitudes are reinforced by the assumption that society is separated into a heterosexual norm and a homosexual other, leaving little room for the huge spectrum of sexuality that falls between gay and straight.

“C.D. Kirven with the Trans Pride Flag while Get Equal flies the Bisexual & Rainbow Pride Flags.” Source: Melissa Kleckner, Creative Commons.

The statement “I’m bisexual” can also lead down a different but equally terrible path – the inevitable, half-joking “That’s hot!” or “Oh, so you want to have a threesome?” The stereotype that bisexual people are hypersexual is both degrading and exhausting. “Hypersexual” stereotypes assume that certain people are more likely to frequently engage in sexual activity with a lesser degree of moral restraint; this stereotype is applied to many identities other than bisexuals, and is particularly common for black and Latina women. Far too often, the experience of coming out as bi in addition to the perception of hypersexuality ends in an unwanted sexual invitation that can be traumatic, particularly considering the high rate of sexual violence among the bi community. The can permeate and negatively affect bisexual relationships, as their partner may struggle with trust issues resulting from this widespread misrepresentation. Some people may even avoid relationships with bisexuals altogether for fear of infidelity.

Each of these experiences results in the invalidation of bisexuality. Being bisexual is valid in itself, not as a stepping stone to a different sexual orientation or as a prop to spice up your heterosexual love life. Additionally, bisexuality is not the easy way out. An assumption exists that, even if the bisexual orientation is valid, bi people will eventually settle down into an opposite-gender relationship in order to bypass social discrimination that accompanies an LGBTQ+ identity. However, bisexual people in heterosexual-passing relationships are still equally affected by discrimination, biphobia, and invalidation; “passing” as straight does not negate the hardships that are tied to the bisexual experience.

Biphobia, invisibility, and discrimination are some of the most subversive yet malicious tools that are used to maintain the societal fabric of heteronormativity. Limiting or invalidating the bisexual orientation only strengthens the gay/straight dichotomy that holds us all back from freely experiencing the full spectrum of sexuality and gender. It’s easy to proclaim that the system should change, but realistically, what can we do to reduce injustice for bi people? First, you should examine your own thoughts and attitudes towards bisexuality. It’s easy to be complicit in biphobia and erasure if you aren’t aware of your unconscious bias. If you find and acknowledge any prejudicial tendencies, challenge those thoughts. Don’t assume a person’s sexual orientation based on their partners – ask them! If you witness a casual biphobic joke, call it out instead of being silent. Make room for bisexual people within the LGBT community. Above all, respect everyone’s identity enough to support and validate the terms that they choose for themselves.

India’s Relationship with the Third Gender

Simran, 30, walks through Bandra in Mumbai to ask tourists for money so she can pay her Guru. Photo by Sara Hilton for The New York Times

What is the Third Gender?

In April of 2014, the Supreme Court of India formally recognized the existence of a third gender. There is no formal definition of the third gender in India. People who identify as neither man nor woman are commonly referred to as Hijra or transgender. The Hijra have been subject to discrimination, harassment, and persecution for their genderqueer self-identification. Along with the queer community, Hijras have been targeted by law enforcement and government officials under Section 377. This law was used to criminalize any queer sexual acts and has been used to justify discrimination and mistreatment of the LGBTQ+ community since its enactment in British colonial era India.

What Is the History of the Third Gender In India?

Although the Hijra have been subject to much hate and discrimination in recent times, this has not always been the case. Hijras were well-respected and revered in ancient India. In fact, Hijras play important roles in many Hindu religious texts. One such text talks about the life of Lord Rama, one of the most virtuous Hindu heroes. At some point, Lord Rama was banished from his kingdom. After being banished, he told his followers that the men and women should wipe their tears and leave him. All of the men and women left. However, a group of people known as the Hijra remained standing before him. They were neither men nor women and refused to leave until Lord Rama returned fourteen years later. This community was praised for showing such loyalty.

Hijras also held religious authority and important court positions and administrative roles in Mughal era India. Believed to have the ability to bless, many would seek out Hijras for blessings during important religious ceremonies.  In ancient India, the Hijras were a community that was respected for being extremely loyal and were well trusted enough to be given important religious and governmental roles. This begs the question. If Hijras played an important role in ancient Indian society, then why are Hijras ostracized and persecuted in modern India?

Why Is the Third Gender Ostracized Today?

The answer is due in large part to the British colonization of India. When the British took over direct rule of India and absolved the British East India Company, government officials sought to enforce their western ideas and beliefs on Indians. Lawmakers accomplished this goal by enacting moral laws that banned anything that western society viewed as unclean and dirty. This included the creation of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which made illegal any “unnatural offenses” that were deemed “against the order of nature.” From when Section 377 was implemented in 1858 to when it was recently deemed unconstitutional on 6 September 2018, Section 377 was used as justification to mistreat and punish Hijras, queers, and the LGBTQ+ community.

The western concept of hating and marginalizing anybody who was not straight and cisgender took hold in Indian society. The Hijra community was forced from a well-respected role as pillars of religious and governmental society to being social outcasts. This social exile is responsible for the socioeconomic and medical difficulties that Hijras face. Hijras are prone to being economically challenged because of the stigmas that they face. They are denied educational opportunities, jobs, and discriminated against in every area of their lives.

What are the Social, Economic, and Medical Problems Caused By Lasting Social Stigmas?

Despite gaining their independence from Britain in 1947, India has only recently begun to make progress on removing legislation that has been used to attack the Hijra and LGBTQ+ population. The many decades of subjugation stretching back generations have left a mark. Many of the hateful western views towards LGBTQ+ people have become deeply ingrained in India’s culture. Even with many public relations campaigns along with a growing group of supporters, the vast majority of Indians still are against Hijras. Many Indians don’t respect Hijras worth. Hijras are often called to come to auspicious events such as marriages and child-births for blessings. Many Indians view the Hijras as bringing good luck and warding off evil spirits. Yet because of widespread discrimination, the majority of Hijras are forced to beg for money since they are barred from most employment opportunities. Due to this, some of the common means of living for Hijras are begging, dancing, and prostitution.

Open employment discrimination has run rampant because of the lack of workplace protections and discrimination laws that are not comprehensive or well-enforced. Continued police harassment has also burdened the Hijra community. Many police officers have jailed and imprisoned the Hijra community over offenses such as begging, prostitution, and having queer sex. This community has had to resort to such practices because of the refusal to integrate Hijras into the economy. Yet despite not being able to find work, Hijras are attacked even more for trying desperately to survive in a society that has practiced institutionalized, pursued, and encouraged harmful policies towards this community since colonial times.

In addition to facing issues with getting employed, Hijras also have difficulties receiving access to basic medical care. There have been many unfortunate instances of medical malpractice against Hijra people. The Civilian Welfare Foundation is an NGO that conducted studies on the medical problems faced by the transgender community. The study found that the majority of doctors are not educated on gender identity issues and that a transphobic stigma is ingrained amongst medical professionals which is responsible for the lack of proper medical care for Hijras.

The study highlighted the stories of Saikat and Anushri. Saikat was a transgender patient who died from lack of treatment following a train accident. The reason is that doctors could not decide whether to admit her to the male or the female ward. Anushi was gang-raped by several men and sought medical treatment. However, doctors refused to treat her because she was transgender and even denied her access to anti-HIV medication. These two stories highlight the dangerous impact that social stigmas have on our society. In addition to facing persecution and discrimination daily, Hijra people are at risk for bodily harm and even death from bigoted doctors and nurses who are not trained to deal with gender identity issues.

Fear of the social stigmas for being associated with the transgender community is a major reason why many doctors try to avoid seeing Hijra patients and why some outright refuse treatment altogether. Adding on to social fears, healthcare professionals have been hesitant to treat Hijra people because of the risk of criminal prosecution under Section 377. Up until the recent 2018 Supreme Court decision, it was illegal to commit queer sexual acts as well as to aid and abet these acts. There have been cases of individuals being arrested simply for selling condoms to Hijra and queer people. The lack of proper medical care and access to safe sex talks and practices has led to an HIV rate amongst Hijras that is 100 times the national average. Doctors fear Hijra patients because they are misinformed and believe in multigenerational social stigmas. Hijra patients fear doctors because of the risks of being mistreated and harmed by substandard or complete refusal of medical care. This toxic mutual distrust can only continue to harm the Hijra community.

Rithika, 23 and Ammu, 21, live with their Guru in the Koliwada area of Mumbai. Photo by Sara Hylton for the New York Times.

What Are the Recent Successes For the Hijra Community?

There are some recent successes that have helped the Hijra people. The Right for Transgender Persons Bill drafted in 2014 and passed in 2016 has been a major milestone in protecting the Hijra community. The law declared many forms of discrimination against Hijras to be illegal and banned the forcing of Hijras to beg or to leave their homes. Other benefits include the creation of a committee that focuses on helping Hijra pursue education by giving access to scholarships and textbooks among other needs. The bill has also allowed for Hijras to be recognized as socially and economically disadvantaged which qualifies Hijras for benefits from India’s Affirmative Action program. However, there are downsides to the bill as well. Hijra people have to go through a district screening process to receive their third gender certification and ID cards. This approach can lead to refusal of benefits to Hijras based upon the decision of a committee without oversight and comprised of people not trained in gender identity issues.

Also occurring in 2014 was the landmark Supreme Court decision that officially recognized the existence of the third gender. This has allowed for Hijras to opt for third gender classification on official legal documents such as driver’s licenses and passports. The decision has also signified acceptance of the Hijra community’s existence by a government that has continuously sought to marginalize those who aren’t cisgender. However, this decision has also come up short in addressing the many problems Hijras face. Third gender IDs, while motivated by good intentions, do not address many basic rights. When getting married, transferring property, or adopting children there are only cisgender ordinances in place. This means that Hijras cannot get married, cannot leave behind property for their kids, and cannot adopt kids that desperately need good homes while being recognized and identifying legally as the third gender.

Another recent Supreme Court decision that has increased the rights of Hijras happened in 2017. The court declared that the Right to Privacy was a fundamental right to all individuals and enacted protections for the privacy of Hijras’ sexual orientations. This will go a long way toward helping prevent socioeconomic and medical discrimination.

In addition to legal successes, there have also been gains in societal acceptance and integration of the Hijra community. In 2017 India accomplished many firsts. Joyita Mondal became India’s first third gender judge, Tamil Nadu became India’s first Hijra police officer, Natasha Biswas became India’s first third gender beauty pageant winner, and Kochi Metro Rail Ltd. became India’s first government-owned company to provide bulk employment to Hijras. There are plenty more Hijra success stories out there which are a sign of widespread societal change. There is hope that the social stigmas that have plagued the Hijra community will soon be fully erased.

It is clear that Hijras face many challenges in modern times. Widespread social stigmas and discrimination against this community were promoted for generations. It is also clear that such large problems take a long time to fix. However, if legal efforts and public relations campaigns are continued then India can one day become a society that fully embraces and supports all people regardless of sexual or gender orientation.

 

 

 

Section 377 is overturned, but now what?

Rainbow heart with "love" spelled out in the middle
LGBT Rainbow Heart with Love Inscription. Source: b_earth_photos, Creative Commons

For the past 150 years in India, homosexual acts were not only banned but were criminally punishable by up to ten years in prison. Introduced in 1861, while India was still under British colonial rule, Section 377 of the Indian Penal code made illegal any “unnatural offenses” that were deemed as sexual activities “against the order of nature.” For many years this gave policemen, government officials, and local village leaders free reign to harass and discriminate against the LGBTQ+ population of India. Recently on 6 September 2018, the Supreme Court of India, after years of court decisions and decades of public protest, ruled that the application of Section 377 to queer and trans sex was unconstitutional. The justices denounced this law’s infringement upon the freedoms of LGBTQ+ people as it “criminalized consensual sexual acts of adults in private”. This determination has ceased much of the governmental abuse of the Indian LGBTQ+ population. It is worthwhile to note that despite the public opinion that Section 377 was repealed, the law is still active and applicable to other offenses such as rape, bestiality, and sexual acts with minors. The supreme court decision simply made it illegal to apply Section 377 to queer sexual acts.

Now that Section 377 can no longer target sexual minorities, India’s vast LGBTQ+ population is beginning to emerge from the shadows and realize their true selves in public without fear of prosecution and imprisonment. This is not to say that there is not a reason to still be afraid. Many people and institutions are still very hostile towards the queer and trans community because of the social stigmas, stereotypes, ignorance, and intolerance that are still very much ingrained in Indian culture. There is still much work to be done to educate the general population for LGBTQ+ issues to be destigmatized. There is hope that a culture friendly and accepting of all people, regardless of sexual or gender orientation, will soon become a reality in India.

It has long been held that “Section 377 in itself does not mean that you can be arrested for simply being or saying [that] you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, Hijra or Kothi. Your freedom of expression is not under threat”. This fact, however, has not prevented the widespread discrimination inflicted by police officers, hospital staff, and highly hostile work environments. India’s lack of a complete anti-discrimination law that protects all groups who may face prejudice has allowed such toxicity and hatred to fester and grow. Although a few anti-discrimination laws exist, they are not well enforced and only apply to public institutions. This means that all private Indian companies are free to discriminate against LGBTQ+ employees with no legal repercussions and allows government institutions to violate existing law without any harsh penalties. The criminalization of queer sex and the lack of adequate discrimination protections has ignited many lasting problems for the LGBTQ+ community. These people lack quality public healthcare, face cultural and religious persecution, and fear a prejudice entertainment industry that is encouraging the current generation of adolescents to be homophobic.

It seems odd that Section 377’s past criminalization of queer sex could damage the healthcare available to the LGBTQ+ population. However, it is important to realize that not only was having queer sex a criminal act, but anyone that was found to have helped hide or abet LGBTQ+ sexual acts would have also been prosecuted as an accessory to the crime. This was the case with Arif Jafar, an Indian health counselor. Arif made it his mission to attempt to help the queer population have safe sex and avoid being infected with HIV by handing out condoms each week. After nearly three decades of aiding the LGBTQ+ community, Arif was arrested for abetting and promoting the criminal offense of queer sexual acts. He was beaten, spent 47 days in jail, and has had to appear in court each month for over a decade. This is but one of the many atrocities committed against the LGBTQ+ people because of Section 377. Simply selling condoms and other objects used for safe sex to queer/trans men and women was unlawful. This created dangers for both the LGBTQ+ community and any doctors willing to serve them. For these reasons, many LGBTQ+ in India have avoided healthy sex conversations out of fear that their doctors, nurses, or other healthcare professionals involved with their care would report their “criminal” sexual acts to the authorities.

Section 377 instilled so much fear in the LGBTQ+ community that many refused to see a doctor for treatment for AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. In fact, the UN collected data detailed in the 2017 UNAIDS Data report that showed that the national HIV infection rate for queer men is 4.3% while the national average is .31%. This means that queer men are nearly fourteen times more likely to be infected with HIV than straight men. It is impossible to determine exactly how large of an impact the lack of access to condoms and other safe sex essentials has had on the LGBTQ+ HIV epidemic. However, it is clear that these policies could only have increased the health risks for this community.

In addition to preventing many from seeking or receiving proper medical care, doctors were not well educated on the common spectrum of LGBTQ+ health issues, and as such were not adequately equipped to serve these patients. Even after the recent Supreme Court decision absolved these risks, the vast majority of the LGBTQ+ population are still hesitant to going to the doctor for sexual related issues. Doctors play a key role in providing sex education to their patients. It is well established that these safe sex talks help to decrease patients risk for sexually transmitted diseases. However, when patients fear talking to their physicians for fear of getting reported to the authorities then these safe sex talks do not occur. One can only hope that the sacred bond and trust between patient and physician can heal over time for this community.

Many Indians cite cultural and religious reasons as grounds for their anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes. However, this stance doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Hindu culture has a long history of acceptance for LGBTQ+ people and religious figures. H. H. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar makes this point clear by saying that “Homosexuality has never been considered a crime in Hindu culture. … It is not a crime in any Smriti. Everyone has male & female elements … [and] Nobody should face discrimination because of their sexual preferences. To be branded a criminal for this is absurd”. Institutions such as the Hindu American Foundation and the Gay & Lesbian Vaishnava Association corroborate this pro-LGBTQ+ attitude. This begs one to question why public opinion differs from historical evidence and major religious organizations.

The answer lies 150 years ago when Britain took direct control of India from the British East India Company. After Britain began governing India in 1858, they implemented Section 377 and other social policies that attacked the prevalent LGBTQ+ population India had at the time. This was an enforcement of British values on Indian society. When India decriminalized queer sexual acts this past year it wasn’t, “India becoming ‘westernized.’ It’s India decolonizing.” says Twitter user @shamiruk. Being colonized and subjugated for many generations has caused a multitude of prejudice western practices to become entrenched in Indian society. The goal moving forward is for India to evolve past the harmful effects of colonization and be fully reunited with the LGBTQ+ accepting culture of pre-colonial India.

 

LGBT activist during the 16th Kolkata Rainbow pride walk 2017 in South Kolkata on Sunday, December 10, 2017. Express photo by Partha Paul.

Although great strides are being made to help the LGBTQ+ community gain legal protections and societal acceptance in India, the current entertainment industry’s portrayal of the queer community in a negative light, often at the butt of insults and jokes, is endangering an entire current generation of young people to be homophobic. The progress for widespread social change has been incredibly slow. There are many stereotypes in mainstream Indian cinema that only fuel derogatory comments and demeaning behavior towards the LGBTQ+ population. In fact, after the news spread about the Supreme Court decision on Section 377 many young people were tagging each other on Instagram and Twitter saying things like “you’re free now!” in teasing and mocking tones. The term “gay” itself has become a common insult for kids to tease and mock their peers. This highly toxic culture is the direct result of a society that makes light of making fun of the LGBTQ+ community as ‘just joking’ by media outlets, and even the parents and role models of these young children. Scared of the prejudice and abuse that being openly queer will bring, many LGBTQ+ people still aren’t comfortable with coming out and being comfortable in their own skin.

The 6 September 2018 Supreme Court decision to decriminalize queer sexual activities by Section 377 was a major step forward in LGBTQ+ rights and protections. This is a milestone that will forever be remembered as a landmark case in the LGBTQ+ social movement for acceptance in Indian society. Going forward there are many issues left to tackle. The most crucial factor in combatting these issues is educating the public on the LGBTQ+ community. This is vital to removing the deeply ingrained homophobic stigmas. A more educated and open-minded public will also be more likely to elect governmental officials who will enact laws to protect LGBTQ+ people. If the public can learn how to be accepting and respectful of LGBTQ+ individuals, then both institutional and societal change can happen.

The government needs to take a key role in helping to enact these changes by, “disseminating new guidelines to public institutions, especially to law enforcement,” says Dr. Sambuddha Chaudhuri. Chaudhuri is a public health expert based in Mumbai, who has done research on HIV and sexual minorities. Steps need to be taken to educate the public through media outlets and by instituting LGBTQ+ education in primary and secondary school curriculums. Meanwhile, the government should focus on passing laws to protect the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.  This top-bottom two-pronged strategy will help to quickly facilitate the necessary legislative changes and increased pace of social acceptance required to make a pro-LGBTQ+ India that people deserve.

 

Sexual Assault on College Campuses

A woman who is talking to someone.
Beautiful woman. Source: Henry Söderlund, Creative Commons

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three women and one in six men have experienced sexual violence .  The term sexual assault refers to “any type of sexual activity or contact that happens without your consent.”  Though, the most obvious examples of sexual assault are physical, such as rape and unwanted touching, it can also be found in verbal and visual forms, such as sexual harassment or exposing oneself.

Sexual assault is a particularly significant concern on colleges campuses.  It is experienced by one in five college women, and the majority of survivors are women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four.  For men between 18 and 24 years old, being a student increases the likelihood that they will be assaulted by 78%  in comparison to those of the same age who are not students.  Due to the breadth of its impact, sexual assault on college campuses is an issue that urgently needs to be addressed.

Intersectionality and Sexual Assault

When discussing this problem, it is important that we recognize that not all groups experience sexual assault at the same rates.  The people who are most at risk are those from minority communities that typically have less social and political power than majority communities.

This is an intersectional issue.  Women of color, for example, experience sexual assault at higher rates than white women.  According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, Native American women are twice as likely to experience sexual assault when compared to people of all other races.  People with disabilities are twice as likely to experience sexual assault  in comparison with people who do not have a disability.  Members of the LGBTQ+ community are also at a greater risk.  According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 47% of transgender individuals are sexually assaulted at some point in their lives .

Title IX

Title IX is part of the Education Amendments of 1972 and prohibits discrimination based on sex in federally funded schools.  Colleges must have systems in place to deal with sexual assault, since it can have a serious impact on an individual’s educational experience.  They should investigate every reported incident and make any necessary accommodations to make sure that the education of assault survivors is negatively impacted as little as is possible.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has proposed some changes for exactly how colleges are to handle reports of sexual assault, but, at the moment, students still have the rights set forth by Title IX and the Clery Act, which include the Campus Sexual Assault Victim’s Bill of Rights.  Under the Clery Act , survivors have “the right to receive written explanation of their rights and options,” and colleges must have “a policy on campus disciplinary proceedings” for sexual assault.  In these proceedings, both the survivor and the accused have the rights to equal opportunity to have each other present as witnesses, the accompaniment of an advisor of their choosing, and “simultaneous written notification” of any updates.

If you have experienced sexual assault on a college campus, you can report it to your school, get to know your Title IX coordinator  and school’s policies, and file a police report.

College students walking across campus.
College student. Source: Yuya Tamai, Creative Commons

Rape Culture

Exacerbating the problem of sexual assault on college campuses is the prevalence of rape culture.  Rape culture consists of the behaviors, language, and beliefs through which sexual violence is “normalized and excused.”  This can range from victim blaming, to the use of phrases like “boys will be boys,” to sexual assault itself.  This is especially impactful on the relationship between women/girls and sexual assault.  Rape culture leads to people asking female sexual assault survivors questions about what they were wearing and whether or not they were drinking, as if those factors are the reasons why people are attacked.  As girls grow up, they are taught what steps to take to help them stay safe.  The responsibility to prevent rape and assault is primarily placed on the people at risk of experiencing these things rather than being focused on teaching people not to be perpetrators.  Rape culture is a huge part of why many survivors do not report their assault .  Among survivors on college campuses, more than 90% do not report.

Rape culture is also perpetuated by phenomena such as toxic masculinity, which emphasizes the gender expectation for men to be aggressive and dominant.  Many people use this traditional view of what it means to be a man to minimize the significance of sexual assault to simply “men being men.”  This idea, as well as rape culture as a whole, frames sexual assault as something that is inevitable or a normal part of life rather than a serious problem that needs to be stopped.  This also leads to the assumption that men are always the perpetrators and survivors are always women, which is completely untrue.  Men and non-binary individuals can be assault survivors. Women and non-binary individuals can be assaulters.  People can be assaulted by someone of the same or a different gender.  Sexual assault does not always fit the stereotypes we have been taught.

Safety Precautions

If you are one of the many people who worries about their safety and about assault on a regular basis, here are some things you can do that will hopefully help you feel a bit more comfortable.  If you are not someone who feels the need to think about these kinds of things, this may be an opportunity to broaden your perspective and learn more about the things many of us have do to in order to feel even slightly safe.

  • Try to avoid walking out alone at night.
  • If you have to walk alone at night, consider calling someone and staying on the phone until you reach your destination.
  • Do your best to walk in and park your car in well-lit areas.
  • Carry pepper spray with you.
  • If you are out at night, try to make sure that someone knows where you are going to be and at what times.
  • Check the back seat of your car before getting in.
  • Make sure you have a reliable form of transportation if you are out at night.
  • Avoid jogging alone at night.
  • Always be aware of your surroundings, especially if you are alone.
  • Consider taking some classes in self-defense.
  • If you get a drink at a party or bar, watch them make the drink and do not leave it alone.
  • Consider downloading an app like Noonlight, which can make it easier to contact emergency services if you feel unsafe or if you are unsure if you should call 911.

Sexual Assault Is A Human Rights Issue

It is vital that throughout the conversation about sexual assault we recognize it is a human rights issue.  It is an issue of equality for people of all genders, sexualities, races, and abilities.  Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states, “higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit,” but many college classes do not end until it is already dark outside.  Safety concerns prevent some people from taking these classes, while other people are able to take any of the available classes they want. According to Article 27 of the UDHR, “…everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community,” but many cultural events, such as concerts and educational events, happen at night.  If someone fears going out that late and/or has no safe mode of transportation, how can they enjoy this right?  How can they use their right to freedom of expression if they are afraid (Article 19)?  How can someone live in an environment that supports their mental health and wellbeing if they are afraid (Article 25)?  How can they enjoy the equality that all people share if they are afraid?

Resources for Sexual Assault Survivors

The History of Pride

Pride Flag flying
Rainbow Pride Flag. Source: Benson Kua, Creative Commons.

The month of June is known as Pride Month for the LGBTQ community. Pride means more than its dictionary definition to the LGBTQ community and has a long history.

The fight for marriage equality began in 2010 with United States v. Windsor. This case challenged the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). This Act stated that only marriages between a man and a woman were recognized by the federal government, but allowed for state governments to recognize them. Edith Windsor was widowed after her spouse, Thea Clara Spyer, who passed away in 2009. She was the sole survivor of their estate. Windsor and Spyer were legally married in Canada in 2007, and their marriage was recognized by their home state of New York. Spyer left in her will that the estate would be left to Windsor, but because their marriage was not recognized by federal law, over $350,000 in estate taxes was issued to Windsor. If their marriage would have been recognized by the federal government, no taxes would have been issued.

Windsor filed a lawsuit against DOMA and its constitutionality in 2010. At that time, DOMA was upheld by the government; however, in 2011 President Obama and Attorney General Holder announced that they would no longer defend DOMA. The House of Representatives then created a provisionary group to defend DOMA but the district court found the group to be unconstitutional. Windsor was given a refund for the estate taxes she was forced to pay and DOMA was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). States were then allowed to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples if their governments chose to allow such.

Efforts for marriage equality continued with James Obergefell and John Arthur James, who were residents of Ohio. They decided to go to Maryland to get legally married after years of being together when James was diagnosed as terminally ill. The couple wanted to designate Obergefell as the surviving spouse on the death certificate, but Ohio’s laws allowed for refusal of same-sex marriages and their recognition even if the couple was legally married in another state. Obergefell v. Hodges was brought to the South District Court of Ohio to challenge the state’s discrimination against same-sex couples. The Ohio Registrar agreed that the law was unconstitutional but the Ohio Attorney General decided to uphold the state’s same-sex marriage and recognition ban. The case continued through the fourth, sixth, seventh, ninth, and tenth circuit courts of Ohio. All but the sixth circuit court agreed that the state-level ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. Because all of the courts did not rule the same, a Supreme Court intervention was inevitable. While the case was going through the circuit courts, James passed away.

During two years of appeals, Obergefell v. Hodges became larger. Plaintiffs of Bourke v. Beshear from Kentucky, DeBoer v. Snyder from Michigan, and Tanco v. Haslam from Tennessee were added. The plaintiffs in each of these cases had been denied marriage rights from their home state, even if their marriages happened in another, just as Obergefell had. It was in April of 2015 when Obergefell v. Hodges, which now consolidated the cases from all four states, presented oral arguments to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) to challenge the states’ same-sex marriage bans constitutionality. Two months later on June 25th,  SCOTUS ruled that marriage is a constitutional right and ruled in favor of marriage equality. This allowed for same-sex marriages to be legalized by the government.

While the historic ruling by SCOTUS happened in 2015, June has been Pride Month for decades before marriage equality. We know Pride Month today as a month-long celebration full of parades, events, and parties. It did not begin that way. The first Pride Parade was a riot at the Stonewall Inn, which is known as “the place that Pride began.”

The Stonewall Inn. Photo by Tyler Goodwin

Stonewall Inn, New York City, 1969

It was illegal to engage in homosexual behavior, giving the police the “right” to attack anyone thought to be gay and arrest them. A majority of the gay bars and clubs had been raided and shut down by the New York City Police Department (NYPD). On the evening of June 28th, a group of people gathered at one of the few gay bars that remained open, The Stonewall Inn. The police barged in shouting, “We’re taking the place!” The patrons then began to resist. As those who were at the Stonewall Inn were arrested, a large crowd formed outside of Stonewall. Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender woman of color and LGBTQ activist was outside. She threw the first brick in protest and ignited the Stonewall Riots. The riots were eventually doused that evening by police reinforcements but protesters returned the next night with over 1,000 people filling the streets. The people of Stonewall emerged victorious by fighting back. As a result of the riots, the police ceased to interfere with LGBTQ safe spaces and no longer attacked them on the streets; and by making headlines across the country, LGBTQ issues were brought to the forefront, organizations were started, and the community began to fight for their rights. The Stonewall Riots began the LGBTQ movement.

Marches, today known as Pride marches, sparked across the US when news spread of the riots. The Stonewall Riots were violent; however, they ignited a nonviolent movement across the nation and world. June has been deemed Pride Month in honor of the riots.

A Symbol of Unity, Hope, and Safety

The first Pride Flag was designed by Gilbert Baker in 1978, in San Francisco. It was in honor of Harvey Milk, who was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Milk tasked Baker with drafting up a design for his campaign. His platform was hope for the young gay people, saying, “The only thing they have to look forward to is hope, and you have to give them hope.” Thus, the Pride Flag was born. Milk was the first openly gay person to hold public office in a major US city and was later assassinated for that same reason. After his death, the Pride Flag production increased. Businesses all over San Francisco were flying them proudly in remembrance of Milk. “The flag is an action – it is more than just a cloth and the stripes. When a person puts the Rainbow Flag on his car or his house, they’re not just flying a flag. They’re taking action,” Baker said, “I am astounded that people just got it…that this was their flag. It belonged to all of us.”

The original Pride Flag had seven colors, with fuchsia, which represented sexuality, at the top. However, due to a shortage of fuchsia in the factory where it was reproduced, it was condensed to the six-color flag that flies today. The remaining six colors also represent something powerful and meaningful to the LGBTQ+ community. Red stands for life. To some people, coming out as LGBTQ can mean life or death. In a lot of scenarios, when one comes out their family shuns them, kicks them out, and/or verbally abuses them. This pushes a lot of youths to suicide. Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among young people, and LGBT youth are four times likelier to attempt than straight youths, according to the Trevor Project. Red represents the importance of life, and how giving up on it is never the answer. Orange represents healing powers of love in the community. Yellow is for sunlight. It is a metaphor for being yourself rather than hiding in the shadows. Green stands for nature and everyone’s ties to it. Blue represents serenity, which is defined as a state of being calm, peaceful, and untroubled. Finally, violet stands for spirit, which is the most important of all the colors, as the spirit unique and inalienable.

Other symbols of Pride and safe-spaces have also emerged in the past few years. Organizations like the Human Rights Campaign have trademarked the yellow equal sign with a blue background. This symbol is known in the United States but the Pride Flag remains the prominent international symbol.

Human Rights Campaign. Source: Ron Cogswell, Creative Commons

Progress has been made for the LGBTQ community, but there have been large setbacks as well. During Pride Month last year, 49 lives were taken at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub in the deadliest mass shooting in modern-US history that took place during Orlando’s Pride celebrations. Sean Kennedy was another hate-crime victim. In 2007, he was leaving a bar in South Carolina when he was attacked for his sexuality and died as a result of it. In 1998, Matthew Shepard made headlines across the nation when he was found beaten, tortured, and left to die while tied to a fence in Wyoming.

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) sets fundamental human rights to be universally protected. During Stonewall, the Pulse Shooting, and the individual murders, many rights declared by the UHDR were violated:

  • Article 3: Right to life, liberty, and security of person. The Stonewall Riots happened because queer folk had been attacked by the police without cause, violating their security of person. The Pulse Shooting and the Kennedy and Shepard murders were violations of the right to life.
  • Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman punishment. Shepard was tortured and brutally beaten before he died.
  • Article 7: All are entitled without any discrimination and equal protection to of the law. In the case of Stonewall, NYPD had not only been attacking the LGBTQ community, they were being denied justice by not having their attackers persecuted.
  • Article 9: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest. The LGBTQ folk were being arrested for being LGBTQ in New York.
  • Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Throughout history and in modern times, the LGBTQ community is targeted simply for existing.

There were many countries that gave same-sex couples the right to marry before the US. The Netherlands, in 2001, became the first country in the world to allow same-sex marriages. Many countries joined the Netherlands, including Canada, Belgium, France, and Ireland to name a few (You can see the timeline of when countries allowed same-sex marriage here). Today, June 30, German Parliament voted to legalize same-sex marriage. That makes 22 countries in the last 16 years allowing same-sex marriages, which is important as it shows that the world is growing to be more accepting of the LGBTQ community. Countries that allow same-sex marriage gives validity to its citizens that identify as LGBTQ and promotes a more accepting environment. According to Forbes, when same-sex marriage is legal, LGBTQ youths are less likely to commit suicide and hate-crimes decrease.

In contrast to the 22 countries that allow and support same-sex marriage, there are 76 countries that have anti-LGBTQ laws in effect today. Last week, Turkish police shot rubber bullets at Pride Parade attendees and proceeded to detain who they could. In Chechnya, reports of a concentration camp for those who identify as homosexual made headlines as more than 100 men were abducted, tortured, and few were killed in a systematic purge of the LGBTQ community. 

The world can be a scary place for someone who identifies as LGBTQ. It is imperative that those of us who can remain resilient and visible by not being afraid to show who you are. Showing up at Pride celebrations are easy ways to let the world know that the LGBTQ community exists, and gives comfort to those who cannot “come out”.  That is exactly what Pride Month stands for. It is a time for us to unite and show our pride. Pride means strength, unity, and acceptance.

The Caged Voices of Azerbaijan

“Every gay and lesbian person who has been lucky enough to survive the turmoil of growing up is a survivor. Survivors always have an obligation to those who will face the same challenges.”

-Writer/actor Bob Paris

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), beginning in September, the Azerbaijani police force began a violent campaign against civilians presumed to be gay, bisexual, and transgender women.

The campaign began in mid-September when police in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, arrested members of the LGBTQ+ community when other citizens of Azerbaijan filed a complaint that “non-heterosexual people were engaging in prostitution.” However, according to human rights activists, detainees were not prostitutes, and the “accusations were used as a pretext for persecution.” In an interview with Samed Rahimli, a lawyer assisting detainees, “the police targeted homosexuals in general, not the prostitutes as they have claimed.”

Interviews conducted by HRW reveal those arrested were subject to beatings and electric shocks in an attempt to arrest other members of the LGBTQ+ community. Lawyers representing the detainees report 83 men and transgender women were confirmed to be arrested. However, the lawyers also said, “the overwhelming volume of arrests means there are many other cases they are unable to address or document,” and the media has reported up to 100 accounts of unconfirmed arrests.

protestors holding anti-hate signs
LGBT love is stronger than anti-gay hate. Source: Allsdare Hickson, Creative Commons

Most of the victims were publicly arrested at work, on the streets, or even at home, thereby exposing their sexuality to their co-workers, family members, and other community members. A majority were falsely charged with prostitution resulting in 30 days of detainment.

Azerbaijan decriminalized same-sex relations in 2000, but discrimination and violence against the community continue to be dire. Azerbaijan was also labeled as the worst European country to be gay in, according to a survey conducted by the Guardian. There are currently no active LGBTQ+-friendly organizations in all of Azerbaijan, and the government is known to manifest false charges to detain openly gay men. The Minority, an anonymous magazine in Azerbaijan that reports on gay and transgender issues, cited those who were arrested were forced to ‘out’ other gay men. Another method utilized by the police to track down members of the community is the tracking of gay-dating apps. The police would create profiles and lure gay men to meet with them, at which point the app-user would be arrested.

Members of the Azerbaijan government shifted their stance from attempting to control prostitution to cracking down on public health issues; this indicates the government knowingly switched tactics to target an already marginalized group. Ekhsan Zakhidov, of the Azer Interior Ministry, announced the arrests were justified. He claims 16 of the 80+ arrested were infected with AIDS, but only six have been found to be infected. He also claims the mass detainment was to protect children, as “anyone infected with AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases were a threat to children or people who come into contact with them.”

By making these claims, the government perpetuated two derogatory narratives surrounding the LGBTQ+ community. The first is: “all gay men have AIDS”. While proven to be statistically untrue, this is a stigma that has stood the test of time and facts. Gay men are still not allowed to give blood in America on the grounds of being “more susceptible” to HIV and AIDS. The second stigma is: homosexuality is rooted in pedophilia. Because AIDS is a sexually transmitted disease, by saying “it is for the safety of our children,” the Azerbaijan government is spreading the false rumor that gay men are child-rapists.

Protestors holding anti-hate signs
LGBTs and Muslims unite – oppose all hate. Source: Allsdare Hickson, Creative Commons

Unfortunately, the Azerbaijan government is not alone in the tracking of LGBTQ+ folk. Reports of the Egyptian police force also creating fake profiles on gay-dating apps and websites surfaced in 2016. At a concert earlier this month, a rainbow flag, which represents pride for the LGBTQ+ community, was flown. When photos of the flag spread across social media, the Egyptian government began tracking down those who were responsible to arrest them on charges of “promoting prostitution” and “immorality.” The Egyptian government designated waving the flag as an “incident,” and used gay-dating apps to track down those involved in said “incident.” Once arrested, anal examinations were reported to have followed, which is protocol in Egypt for such claims. Those arrested for waving the flag at the concert face trial on October 29th.

Like Azerbaijan, homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt, but acts of marginalization and repression continue to happen. Both of these instances bear similarity to the mass incarceration of LGBTQ+ folk in Chechnya that took place earlier this year, which was compared to the concentration camps in the Holocaust. Violence against the LGBTQ+ community is a trend that is repeated throughout history, even to the present day. While it is not easy to pinpoint when it officially surfaced, homophobia is seen even in B.C. times. The West still has its share of homophobia, but we see the most concentrated and severe acts of homophobia in the Middle East. This is likely due to the fact religion has a more prominent role in Middle Eastern society and government.

Azerbaijan was once a part of the Soviet Union, just as Chechnya was. That colonial legacy of oppressing the LGBTQ+ community, the religion, and the government all play into the modern-day culture and how their respective societies view the LGBTQ+ folk. The topic of homosexuality is taboo in Azerbaijan’s society, and the unacceptance of the gay community is shown by the aggravated reports made by citizens that prompted the arrests by the police.

What makes oppression in Azerbaijan, Chechnya, and Egypt different from LGBTQ+ oppression in the world? Dignity. While oppressed in other regions, the LGBTQ+ community in Western cultures has freedom of expression. In the aforementioned countries, freedom of expression is a myth for LGBTQ+ folk. Based on available data, these three countries are the most dangerous places in the world to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender. Based on anecdotal accounts, other countries, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, also present obstacles for LGBTQ+ persons. The voices we hear are not the only voices who matter.

“Life would be much easier if we were all just less horrible to each other.”

– Ellen Page, actor and activist

Rainbow heart with "love" spelled out in the middle
LGBT Rainbow Heart with Love Inscription. Source: b_earth_photos, Creative Commons

Article 3 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) declares that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person. When people are arrested for being the person that they are, this article is violated. Without the security of being able to express the person one is, flourishing is nearly impossible. How can one expect another to live their life to the fullest without being able to live comfortably? We all have a right to live our life as loud as we want; how we need and want to express is not up for dictation.

Article 5 of the UDHR sets forth that “no one shall be subjected to torture…” This has obviously been violated by the Azerbaijan government. When trying to get the names of other gay men, the police resulted to using electric shocks to coerce the victims to give them information. This is inhumane and is an unfounded violation of human rights.

Article 7 reads: “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.” When the government allows discrimination against an individual or a community, this article is violated, as it has been in all cases mentioned in this post. The police have been allowed to arrest citizens based on their sexual orientation. No laws were violated, but human rights definitely were.

Without these laws being enforced by a governing legal entity, Azerbaijan, Egypt, and Chechnya show no sign of following the UDHR for the safety and security of their LGBTQ+ citizens. Organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign and Human Rights Watch have given a megaphone to the tortured voices of Azerbaijan. Now the job falls upon us as informed citizens to continue to spread awareness. It is also our job to make our companions feel comfortable in the world that we live in. We all want to be accepted, to prosper, and to love. Each of us is human; each of us deserves the same rights.