Written by Kellyn Botha
Edited by Daniele Paletta
A new decade has begun, and our communities are still at the forefront of the demand for social justice, side by side with more movements. The struggle can sometimes seem far from over: in California, United States, a bill to ban cosmetic surgeries on intersex children failed to advance; gender-based violence kept taking its heavy toll on our communities in South Africa, and a drag queen story time was met with protests in Australia. However, these past weeks were not all about sad news: Belize upheld its 2016 ruling on the decriminalisation of same-sex sexual activity, Pakistan expanded its health insurance scheme to include trans people, and the European Court of Human Rights issued a landmark decision on online hate speech.
Bill SB 201, which would have seen a ban on unnecessary cosmetic surgeries on intersex infants in the State of California, was defeated four to two with three abstentions in a committee vote on 13 January.
Such surgeries, also known as Intersex Genital Mutilation (IGM), are performed regularly by medical practitioners around the globe in order to conform newborn infants’ genitalia to the expected gender binary. The United Nations and numerous advocacy groups globally have condemned the practice as an abuse of human rights, though legislative reform has been rare in most regions. In the United States, California was slated to be the first State to pass a law to protect intersex infants in this way.
Kimberly Zieselman of US-based advocacy group interACT has stated that the vote meant continuing to allow “pediatric surgeons to cause documented, irreversible harms against children born with diverse sex traits.”
"Today's vote was a setback, but this is only the beginning,” said the author of the Bill, state Senator Scott Wiener. “We aren't giving up on protecting intersex people from non-consensual, invasive, dangerous surgery. As with many civil rights struggles, it sometimes takes multiple tries to prevail. We will be back."
In the United States, the Tennessee legislature passed Bill HB 836, a provision that allows adoption agencies and child welfare organisations to turn away same-sex couples - as well as other groups including divorcees, seeking to adopt or care for children in need - due to “religious” objections.
More from the United States: in Kentucky, a Christian high school has expelled a student for wearing a sweater with a rainbow on it to her birthday party – despite the family claiming that the sweater was in no way a statement about the LGBTI community. Meanwhile, New Jersey has become the second US State after California to adopt a school curriculum that would include a greater focus on LGBTI identities and history.
In Canada, a British Columbia court has ruled that a trans teenager should be allowed to undergo Hormone Replacement Therapy despite objections from their father.
Transgender activist Nare Mphela was found dead with multiple stab wounds in a rented room in the first week of January 2020. It is unknown exactly when Mphela was murdered.
The case is the third known murder of a queer woman in the country since the end of November 2019, in what local human rights defenders are calling a continuation of the country’s gender-based violence epidemic.
Mphela’s murder was preceded by that of Mmabatho “Madonna” James, who was found on 30 November, “stoned to death and possibly raped” according to a statement by Johannesburg-based advocacy organisation, Iranti, and Portia Simphiwe Mtsweni, whose body was found two days later.
Last year, women’s rights activists attempted to shut down the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, calling on a tax of the nation’s businesses to help combat gender-based violence. In previous years, protesters marched to the government’s offices in Pretoria, and disrupted traffic and business across the country on a number of occasions, in a series of calls for government intervention. The recent deaths of three young queer women, however, have women’s rights and LGBTI activists disheartened as violence continues into 2020.
“Besides the constant threat of danger that LGBTQIA+ persons routinely face they are also not guaranteed justice. Constitutional rights are not protected, valued and often denied assistance from the police, as is the case in the murders of Mmabatho, Portia and Nare. Police response is often slow and inadequate, leaving distraught families with few answers and many questions as to the circumstances regarding the death of their loved ones,” said Iranti in its statement.
Iranti had previously worked with Nare Mphela, who faced harassment and discrimination from her school Principal due to her identity as a transgender woman. Mphela won her case against the Principal and the local Department of Education, which Iranti documented in a short film in 2017.
The UN Refugee Agency reiterated its commitment to ensuring that LGBTI+ refugees and asylum seekers residing in Kenya are provided with necessary protection and support, after incidents were reported in the Kakuma camp.
In Nigeria’s northern state of Kano, where Sharia law is administered, 15 university graduates were arrested by a religions police on the grounds of their alleged sexual orientation.
Between 15 and 20 protestors from the University of Queensland’s Liberal National Club (LNC) disrupted an event at a Brisbane library where two drag queens where reading children’s stories to young people and their families.
“Drag queen story time”-style events have been gaining popularity in many countries, though the events often attract crowds of protestors from conservative or religious groups.
Members of the LNC stood outside, allegedly scaring some children, calling for the event to be scrapped and shouting that “drag queens are not for kids”.
In response to the protest and a Facebook statement detailing their reasons, the group received widespread backlash, as well as condemnation from other university students and federal MPs. It was later reported that the day after leading the protest, Wilson Gavin - head of the Liberal National Club - took his own life. Though no reason for the apparent suicide has been officially put forward, some politicians have blamed the “ad hominem attacks and pile-ons” against Gavin and other LNC members because of the group’s prior Facebook post.
“Mutual respect and diversity are core values of the university, and we hope that everyone shows consideration for those affected during the difficult days ahead,” a University of Queensland spokesperson said.
Between 10 and 11 January The Equality Project Australia hosted the Better Together Conference in Melbourne, which saw 764 attendees come together to discuss LGBTI rights in Australia. ILGA Oceania held its first board meeting of the year alongside the conference, in preparation for the ILGA Oceania conference in Noumea, New Caledonia in August 2020.
After a community event in Melbourne, intersex activists from Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia announced they will soon launch a consultative review process of the Darlington statement “to further consider the diverse lived experiences of intersex people”. During the event, the issue of climate emergency and disasters response were also addressed.
In a landmark ruling, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found Lithuania’s failure to investigate hundreds of online hateful comments against a gay couple to violate their rights to private and family life as well as being discriminatory on the ground of sexual orientation.
The two men had faced online hate speech and threats of violence after a photograph of them kissing went viral on Facebook in 2014.
After they had brought up the case, the prosecutor refused to initiate a pre-trial investigation, claiming that those who had been commenting on the image were simply “expressing their opinion” and that the case therefore did not warrant prosecution. Lithuanian courts agreed, with some officials claiming that the two men had behaved in a provocative manner. The couple then took the case to the European Court, as “the Lithuanian authorities’ refusal to launch a pre-trial investigation had left them without the possibility of legal redress” within their own country.
Ruling in their favour with a unanimous judgement, the ECHR found a clear “violation of Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights, taken in conjunction with Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life), and a violation of Article 13 (right to an effective remedy).”
The ruling has been lauded by human rights defenders across Europe, setting a precedent for increased protections for members of the LGBTI community facing discrimination online.
“Today’s judgment is ever more important in establishing State’s positive obligations in tackling hate speech against LGBTI people in Lithuania and across Council of Europe member States amidst the rise in hate in a number of countries,” said Arpi Avetisyan, Senior Litigation Officer of ILGA-Europe.
The European Union’s Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli, has announced that the European Commission will present an EU LGBTI strategy this year to combat anti-LGBTI backlash.
Marriage equality has now become legal in Northern Ireland, and couples can now officially give notice of their intent to form the first same-sex civil weddings.
The Belize Court of Appeal has ruled against the government’s appeal of a 2016 decision declaring Section 53 of the Belize Criminal Code – which criminalised “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” – unconstitutional.
Justice Samuel Lungole-Awich stated in the judgment that the Constitutional prohibition on sex discrimination must be interpreted to include sexual orientation discrimination, and therefore protects people of diverse sexualities. According to Human Dignity Trust, “the court further found that sexual expression is part of the Constitutional right to freedom of expression”.
“I have proven as a citizen that our fundamental rights have value and can be upheld by our courts”, said Caleb Orozco of the United Belize Advocacy Movement, who was the Respondent in the case. “This ruling shows the strength of strategic approaches to communication and community mobilisation used across the Caribbean. We are proud that Belize is raising the bar of what is possible in advancing LGBT rights across the region,” he added.
Activists are hopeful that the ruling sets a precedent for legal reform in the rest of the region, where nine countries continue to criminalise same-sex sexual activity.
The Gender Identity law has gone into effect in Chile, allowing trans citizens over the age of 14 to amend their names and gender markers on legal documents. Meanwhile, the Senate of Chile approved plans for a marriage equality bill. The Bill will be debated later this year by the Constitution, Legislation and Justice Committee, before being voted on by the Senate and going from there to the Chamber of Deputies, where “a wide support is expected”.
In Brazil, new medical regulations have lowered the age at which trans persons can access Hormone Replacement Therapy and gender affirmation surgery, with additional access to counselling for trans youth. And the Brazilian Supreme Court has ruled in favour of a film depicting Jesus as gay, allowing it to be screened on Netflix. On Christmas Eve, the film’s production company was attacked with Molotov cocktails: nobody was injured, and Interpol is currently searching for the suspects.
152/ Govt’s flagship program, #SehatInsafCard, is now benefiting 6.8 million poor families in 84 districts through 300+ pvt sector hospitals. The card has also been issued to all families in erstwhile FATA & Tharparkar & all people living with disabilities & now to transgenders. pic.twitter.com/BDCU8JU5gS
— Zafar Mirza (@zfrmrza) December 30, 2019
The government of Pakistan has announced that it will include trans people as a specific new category eligible to benefit from an existing health-insurance system currently offering medical assistance to those living below the poverty line.
Prime Minister Imran Khan said that his government is “taking responsibility” for trans persons, as many within the community are still facing discrimination and cannot access sufficient medical care due to poverty and economic exclusion.
“It is part of a grand programme to provide health insurance not just to the poor but the vulnerable sections of society,” said Zafar Mirza, a special assistant to Prime Minister Imran Khan. “Any person who identifies as transgender is eligible for this health insurance programme”.
While welcoming the development, some Pakistani human rights defenders have raised concerns that it will not do enough to combat the challenges faced by trans persons: only those who registered their gender marker as ‘third gender’ on national identity cards will be eligible for medical coverage. As ILGA World's latest Trans Legal Mapping Report points out, however, it is difficult for many trans persons to obtain a national identity card (CNIC), particularly as parental involvement is required.
Zehrish Khan, project manager Gender Interactive Alliance, stated that many trans persons have not amended their legal gender-marker out of fear for their safety.
The Airports Authority of India has announced it will hire more trans persons to some of its airports in the Northeast, in a move to combat stigma and discrimination.
In Bhutan, a bill to decriminalise same-sex sexual activity has moved to the upper house of Parliament after the lower house voted in favour of decriminalisation last year.
Pan Africa ILGA and ILGA ASIA have hosted human rights defenders from Africa and Asia in Bangkok, Thailand
for a joint advocacy workshop and to discuss collective self-care practices (photo: Instagram / Pan Africa ILGA)
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