I recently received an email from my son’s friend at college, a young woman who is a passionate campus ally in her activism on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity here in the United States. She made a passing reference to my own work on LGBTI issues international as a “dream career”.
First, “career” is probably not the best noun to describe what many of us who are active in international LGBTI advocacy and development are about. There is almost no money to support such efforts in the Global South (the less developed countries in the world), or in other regions (Russia, Eastern Europe) where LGBTI lives are most at risk. There are also very few actual salaried jobs; very few organizations make such global concerns their priority. Instead, we do this work because we care about the plight of LGBTI people abroad, and we know that just a very modest amount of financial support would move mountains in terms of meeting their development aspirations.
As for “dream”, in reality the dream is more often a nightmare. What many LGBTI persons in the Global South, Russia, and Eastern Europe confront on a daily basis is beyond comprehension by most people in the United States. True, it is now widely reported that homosexuality is illegal in over 70 countries, yet the fact of such illegality is only a top-level indicator of astounding levels of ignorance and pernicious social values that frequently relegate LGBTI people to sub-human status, or otherwise demean, humiliate, persecute, exclude, reject, bully, isolate, scapegoat, assault, torture, or kill such LGBTI persons. In short, throughout much of the world, any discussion of social inclusion and human rights for LGBTI persons is a very tragic narrative indeed.
Behind this narrative are real persons. My “career” fills me with their names and faces, their big hearts and warm smiles, their gentle spirits and youthful exuberance, and their suffering. Some of these “real persons” whom I have come to know and care for are now dead, victimized by the homophobia and transphobia that is so rampant. I carry these “real persons” – the living and the dead – with me every day, but in the absence of much global concern and with so few resources available to help them, “carry them” is often the most that I can offer. It isn’t enough.
In many instances, the toxic attitudes and values that characterize homophobia and transphobia have their origins among faith-based groups and religious leaders – sometimes with the moral and financial support of religious zealots from the United States – although such support isn’t limited to some fringe streams of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. Many Muslim countries, particularly in the Middle East, set grim standards for the abuse, torture, and killing of LGBTI persons, claiming that this is somehow justified by their religions. Around the world, it is relatively easy to distort or misinterpret religious values in all faith traditions to “justify” the hatred and persecution of LGBTI persons.
Aspiring politicians in much of the Global South, Russia, and Eastern Europe (and yes, many in Western Europe and North America too) are also often quick to realize the many advantages of blaming any number of societal ills on vulnerable sexual minorities, which spares them the trouble of actually working to solve genuine public policy issues, fight corruption, or pursue actual principles of justice and caring. Much of the world’s media also sees a lucrative market in exploiting bigotry, prejudice, and hatred directed at LGBTI persons and their organizations – one need look no further that the infamous “kill the gays” headline and list of 200 people alleged to be gay which appeared in Uganda’s Red Pepper tabloid on February 25th of 2014.
We are learning more all the time. LGBTI persons themselves – often with support from wonderful organizations such as Human Rights Watch – are making their voices heard more loudly and clearly each day, in videos, podcasts, blogs, and social media. Take a look at a recent video about the realities faced by transgender persons in Sri Lanka, listen to the podcasts of Nigerian LGBTI activists, see a news report of an LGBTI activist in Myanmar, or read English language news about LGBTI people and issues in Turkey. While we still lack adequate analytical data that is essential to move and to fund major policy initiatives or to support scholarly research, the growth in anecdotal data – narratives – is exponential.
We can no longer plead ignorance.
But will it open our eyes? Do we even care to have our eyes opened to such information – the powerful and often tragic stories of real human beings facing extraordinary obstacles, exclusion, and abuse simply for being who they are, or loving who they love? I’m not sure that we do care. Most Americans fail to relate to the plight of LGBTI persons abroad, and confine their boundaries of concern within a moral, social, and political wall around this nation that makes Trump’s proposed wall on the Mexican border seem modest by comparison.
I serve (as a volunteer) on the board of Alturi, a very low overhead organization that exists mostly online. Alturi has tried and continues to strive to raise awareness among Americans about LGBTI people and issues around the world. Alturi has hoped, and continues to hope, that the many people who have given so generously over the past two decades to support the civil rights of LGBTI Americans would be similarly moved now to come to the aid of LGBTI people often facing far more egregious challenges in other countries – people who have no access to resources at all. To date, Alturi’s campaigns to raise a modest amount of money to support the vital initiatives of reputable organizations active out in the world – organizations on the frontlines in the fight against LGBTI exclusion and human rights abuses – have been met largely with indifference, or at best very small donations. The division of the world into “us” and “them” has dire consequences when so much wealth is situated among us, and so much need is out there, with them. When will we learn that when it comes to human suffering based on prejudice, ignorance, and exclusion, we are all one?
As for those of “us” here in America who need at least some form of livelihood – some employment – that will allow us to continue this work, to take care of ourselves and our families, and to just get on with our lives, relevant employment and consulting opportunities in the United States are very few indeed (especially for transgender folk). Adequate money simply isn’t flowing in this direction, and the jobs just aren’t there.
A dream career? Yes and no. My life has been deeply enriched by the exemplary humanity, perseverance, dignity, and resilient spirit of individual LGBTI persons I’ve come to know and care about in so many countries. They inspire me – I see their faces in my mind and feel their presence in my heart all the time. Their stories – often very hard stories indeed – are now a part of me. The very real presence of these wonderful people in my life compares poignantly with my many frustrated efforts over many years to raise awareness and soften the hearts among those here who control advocacy and development resources, both individually and institutionally. Progress has been so slow, and yet I am all too aware that the suffering continues and in many cases becomes even more intense.
I wish I could do so much more. We all have to.