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Lesbian couple alleges discrimination at Colombia airport

Ana Elisa Liederman, Verónica Botero, gay news, Washington Blade

Ana Elisa Leiderman and Verónica Botero. (Photo by Bea Leiderman)

A lesbian couple alleges security personnel at a Colombian airport wrongfully separated them last month before they boarded a flight to the U.S.

Ana Elisa Leiderman told the Washington Blade during a telephone interview from Raleigh, N.C., on Jan. 7 that an American Airlines ticket agent at the airport in the Colombian city of Medellín separated her from her wife, Verónica Botero, and their two small children as they tried to check-in to their Miami-bound flight on Dec. 13.

Leiderman said she insisted she wanted to go through the security screening with her wife and their children.

“She said, ‘oh no, for security purposes you stand over there,’” Leiderman told the Blade.

Leiderman said the ticket agent told her that she would have allowed her and Botero to go through security together if they had been a man and a woman.

“I said, ‘but you’re discriminating,’” recalled Leiderman. “’We are both their parents and we are a family and we should do this together.”

Leiderman told the Blade she requested to speak with the ticket agent’s supervisor.

She said the supervisor told her she and Botero would have been allowed to go through security together if they had been a man and a woman.

“He was just not looking very happy and not saying much,” Leiderman told the Blade. “That was it and there was no discussion and we had no recourse.”

Leiderman copied Colombia Diversa, an LGBT rights group, on a letter she sent to American Airlines on Dec. 17 about the alleged incident. She told the Blade the company has yet to respond to it.

“When asked if man/woman couples are separated, the agent said no, but that we were being separated for security reasons,” Leiderman wrote. “This is clearly discrimination of same-sex couples on your part. And I sincerely hope this is not your company policy.”

An American Airlines spokesperson told the Blade on Jan. 10 the company regrets “the circumstances Ms. Leiderman faced with her spouse and family while traveling from Colombia to the U.S. and understand her concerns.” The spokesperson said airport personnel in Medellín “followed existing security screening rules mandated by the” Transportation Security Administration.

“Prior to this incident, American has flagged for TSA the fact that same-sex and opposite sex married couples faced different screening procedures, and recommended that TSA officials revisit and update the process so that all married couples can be treated equally in the future,” the spokesperson told the Blade. “We hope that improvement can be made very soon.”

Colombian law bans discrimination based on sexual orientation, although homophobia and anti-LGBT violence remain pervasive in the South American country.

Leiderman has petitioned the Colombian government to legally recognize Botero as the legal parent of the children to whom she gave birth through artificial insemination. The women in 2008 entered into a civil union in Germany.

El Espectador, a Colombian newspaper, in November reported that Constitutional Court Justice Luís Guillermo Guerrero would conclude he could not deny adoption rights to same-sex partners simply because of their sexual orientation. Guerrero has yet to issue its ruling.

The country’s highest court in 2011 ruled lawmakers had two years to extend the same benefits to same-sex couples that heterosexuals receive through marriage — the June 20 deadline passed amid lingering confusion as to whether gays and lesbians could actually tie the knot in the South American country because the ruling did not contain the word “marriage.”

Colombian Attorney General Alejandro Ordóñez Maldonado and social conservatives have sought to challenge the handful of same-sex marriages that have been performed in the country since July.

12
Jan
2014

Understanding Israel in all its complexity

Tel Aviv, Israel, gay news, Washington Blade, gay pride

Tel Aviv gay pride. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

By STUART KURLANDER & ALAN RONKIN

History matters. Facts matter. Both were tossed to the wind by Pauline Park in a recent op-ed in the Washington Blade, who assailed the American Jewish Committee and its signature Project Interchange program. Without any explanation, she asserted that AJC “is aggressive in its defense of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.”

Nonsense! AJC, of course, is a strong advocate for an Israel that thrives in peace and security, and continues to support a negotiated two-state solution to achieve sustainable Israeli-Palestinian peace. As a global advocacy organization, AJC has brought that message to the top leaders of many countries, including Arab nations.

But Park’s baseless accusation is the foundation for her criticizing American LGBT community leaders who participated in an educational visit to Israel and the West Bank with AJC’s Project Interchange. For over 30 years, more than 6,000 leaders from across the United States and 84 other countries have participated in Project Interchange’s unique, weeklong educational seminars in Israel.

Project Interchange’s success is rooted in its non-ideological approach. By introducing first-time visitors to a broad range of Israelis, who offer diverse narratives across the political, social and religious spectrum, seminar participants gain an appreciation for Israel as a dynamic diverse society. What’s more, AJC’s Project Interchange participants travel to the West Bank, where they meet with a range of Palestinian leaders, including at the highest levels of the Palestinian Authority.

Yes, Israel has challenges like other democratic nations, though Israel’s challenges have special significance given the history of the conflict and its neighborhood. Project Interchange is not afraid to show Israel in all its complexity, “warts and all.” What visitors find is a robust democratic nation, where, among other things, there are freedoms of speech, religion and sexual orientation. Indeed, Tel Aviv was named the No. 1 gay city in the world in a broad survey by GayCities.com and American Airlines.

The LGBT delegation that visited Israel in October fulfilled AJC’s desire to introduce this important segment of American society to Israel. When it comes to understanding Israel, there is simply no substitute for first-hand, on-the-ground experience. The group seized the opportunities to engage directly with Israelis and Palestinians in open conversations. As part of their program, the LGBT delegation visited Ramallah, as do other Project Interchange groups, to engage with Palestinian leaders. Regrettably, Palestinian LGBT groups rejected the opportunity to meet with their U.S. counterparts.

Park, however, as a member of the New York City Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, offers a preconceived, politically myopic view of Israel. One has to wonder whether she or any members of her delegation met with, or even expressed a desire to meet with, any mainstream Israelis on her 2012 visit to the region. Moreover, one cannot help but wonder whether her use of the term “occupation” refers to the period since June 1967, following Israel’s war of survival, or to 1948, when Israel was established as an independent country following a UN recommendation.

Let’s remember that a Palestinian state could have been established at the same time. The UN Partition Plan of 1947 divided the British Mandate into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. That was the original two-state solution. But the Arabs rejected that concept. Sixty-six years later the two-state solution is still on the table.

And, let’s recall Israel did not set out to govern the Palestinians. Israel came to rule over Gaza and the West Bank not by choice, but in a defensive war in June 1967, when neighboring Arab states — particularly Egypt and Syria — threatened time and again to overrun and destroy the young country.

Israel has tried relentlessly to find negotiating partners to exchange land for peace. Egypt and Jordan signed peace treaties in 1979 and 1994. But the Palestinian leadership rebuffed Israel’s substantial peace offers in 2000, in 2001 and again in 2008. These historical facts are ignored by Park, her organization and other supporters of the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanction) anti-Israel movement, which at its core dismisses Israel’s right to exist.

Our utmost hope is that the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, with the key assistance of the U.S., will yield an enduring agreement. Both peoples deserve to live in peace and security. Tellingly, Park and her organization don’t seem to share the same goals for one of those peoples.

Stuart Kurlander is a board member of AJC Washington; Alan Ronkin is executive director of AJC’s Washington regional office.

22
Jan
2014

Ban Ki-moon highlights LGBT rights during Sochi speech

Athlete Ally, All Out, IOC, International Olympic Committee, Russia, Sochi, gay news, Washington Blade

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday noted Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter “enshrines” the International Olympic Committee’s “opposition to any form of discrimination.” (Photo courtesy of All Out)

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday called for an end to anti-LGBT discrimination and violence during a speech in Sochi, Russia, that coincided the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

“We must all raise our voices against attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people,” said Ban during remarks he gave during an International Olympic Committee meeting. “We must oppose the arrests, imprisonments and discriminatory restrictions they face.”

Ban did not specifically reference Russia’s controversial law banning gay propaganda to minors during his speech. He noted “many professional athletes, gay and straight, are speaking out against prejudice.”

“I know that Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter enshrines the IOC’s opposition to any form of discrimination,” said Ban.

Ban’s comments come nearly two months after the U.N. used the 65th anniversary of the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to highlight efforts to combat homophobia and transphobia in sports.

Gay MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts moderated a Dec. 10 panel at the U.N. on which retired tennis champion Martina Navratilova, former Washington Wizards center Jason Collins, South African activist Thandeka “Tumi” Mkhuma, intersex advocate Huda Viloria, Anastasia Smirnova of the Russian LGBT Network and U.N. Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic sat. Singer Melissa Etheridge is among those who also attended the event.

The U.N. last July announced its “Free and Equal” campaign designed to increase support for LGBT rights around the world. Singers Ricky Martin and Daniela Mercury and Bollywood actress Celina Jaitly are among those who back the effort.

“The United Nations stands strongly behind our own ‘Free and Equal’ campaign,” said Ban in Sochi. “I look forward to working with the IOC, Governments and other partners around the world to build societies of equality and tolerance.”

06
Feb
2014

Will it matter if gays zero-out in D.C. elections?

David Catania, Jim Graham, District of Columbia, D.C. Council, D.C. election, gay news, Washington Blade

Openly gay D.C. Council members David Catania (I-At-Large) and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) both face tough races. (Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

Two potential political developments in the current D.C. election cycle could result in both local gay elected officials not retaining their positions. If that occurs, it would be the first time in 17 years without a gay politician holding major elected office in the District.

Would it matter?

When David Catania became D.C.’s first gay elected official in 1997 it was a significant development that startled political observers. Catania, then a Republican, won a citywide D.C. Council At-Large seat in a special election to fill a vacancy on the 13-member legislature. He defeated a high-profile Democratic prior officeholder who had been selected by the party to fill the vacant seat as interim incumbent. Catania was re-elected in 1998 and 2002 as a Republican, and won in 2006 and 2010 as an Independent after changing his registration.

Catania, whose current four-year term is expiring, has formed a mayoral campaign exploratory committee and has indicated he is almost certain to run in the general election. Campaigning for mayor would preclude Catania from seeking re-election to his Council seat. While polling competitively against likely Democratic primary winner Mayor Vincent Gray in a recent Washington Post survey, odds are long that he could win.

D.C. Council member Jim Graham, a gay Democrat and former director of then-named Whitman-Walker Clinic, was elected to represent one of eight Council districts in 1998. Graham won the determinative party primary in Ward 1 with a plurality, defeating the incumbent in a five-person race that included another gay candidate. Now seeking a fifth term, he previously won re-election in 2002, 2006 and 2010.

Graham, 68, had delayed until December a decision on whether to seek re-election. His last primary race was his most competitive, winning 57 percent with two candidates splitting the opposition vote. Graham’s challenge in this year’s primary is facing only one opponent while tarnished by multiple instances of alleged questionable ethical behavior, resulting in censure by his Council colleagues and loss of alcohol-licensing oversight. Should Graham survive the primary, he will face a well-known Democrat running as an Independent in the general election. Many political observers consider Graham’s decision to seek re-election as the fight of his political life.

If Graham loses either the primary or general election and Catania surrenders his seat to run unsuccessfully for mayor, it is almost certain that D.C. will not have any openly gay politicians serving in cardinal positions. Two announced gay candidacies, Council At-Large Republican candidate Marc Morgan and Libertarian mayoral candidate Bruce Majors, are unlikely to be competitive.

When Catania first won election, he enthused at his victory celebration that “I think we’ve made two important milestones. One is the first time a Republican has beaten a Democrat in a head-on race in the city. And as the first openly gay member of the [Council], that is a breakthrough, and it shows how marvelous … open-minded, accepting and truly magnificent the people of this city are.”

Catania’s characterization of the local electorate is truer today than then.

In a city distinguished by its community consensus and public policies providing comprehensive LGBT civil equality, legal protections and administrative equity, the sexual orientation of elected officials is inconsequential. No anti-gay politician is a credible candidate for public office anywhere in the city, and it has been that way for a long time.

Likewise, public acceptance and political accommodation are neither generated nor guaranteed by gay politicians. The non-controversial adoption of Council legislation or city rulemaking related to LGBT-specific concerns is more a matter of delegated domain than cause championing.

LGBT residents are fully integrated into the fabric of local life. Most of us vote for or against candidates, including gay ones, based on a multiplicity of considerations. Similar to those everyone else examines.

Other than mere symbolism, it doesn’t matter whether any or all of the city’s elected officials are gay or not.

This is what equality looks like.

Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

20
Feb
2014

Lesbian elected to Colombian Congress

Bogotá, Angélica Lozano, Colombia, Washington Blade, gay news

Former Bogotá City Councilwoman Angélica Lozano (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

A lesbian former councilwoman in the Colombian capital on Sunday became the first out person elected to the South American country’s Congress.

Angélica Lozano received more than 30,000 votes as a candidate for the Green Alliance Party to represent Bogotá in the Colombian House of Representatives in legislative elections.

“It is very important that our fight in the name of equality and respect, justice and the recognition of our rights has been achieved,” Lozano told the Washington Blade on Monday. “For the LGBT community this means that we are completely out of the closet, that we have a voice from our own community in the Congress, that we are going to have an openly lesbian congresswoman in an institution that has been historically misogynistic and homophobic.”

Lozano, a lawyer who is the former mayor of Bogotá’s Chapinero district that has a large gay population, has advised Colombian lawmakers Antonio Navarro Wolff and Íngrid Betancourt Pulecio, whom members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) kidnapped in 2002 while she was campaigning for president. Lozano also took part in a USAID-backed training in May that nearly three dozen Colombian LGBT rights advocates attended in Bogotá.

The country’s Constitutional Court in 2011 ruled same-sex couples could legally register their relationships in two years if Colombian lawmakers did not pass a bill that would extend to them the same benefits heterosexuals receive through marriage.

The Colombian Senate last April overwhelmingly rejected a bill that would have allowed gays and lesbians to tie the knot. A handful of same-sex couples have exchanged vows in the country since the Constitutional Court’s deadline passed last June, but Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez Maldonado has spearheaded efforts to challenge them.

Lozano told the Blade during an interview in her Bogotá office last May that LGBT Colombians continue to face social inequalities in spite of efforts to extend more legal rights to them. She said on Monday she and Colombian LGBT rights advocates continue to fight to secure recognition of gay and lesbian families and other measures to “guarantee our dignified life” and ensure “we will be on the right side of history.”

“Today Bogotanos have endorsed this mandate,” Lozano told the Blade.

11
Mar
2014

Zimbabwe president describes homosexuality as ‘inhuman’

Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, Gay News, Washington Blade

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe. (Photo public domain)


Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe on Thursday described homosexuality as “inhuman.”

“The West says we must accept there is change in the world, that gays have human rights,” he said during an event at a hotel in Harare, the country’s capital, that commemorated International Women’s Day as the Herald, a Zimbabwean newspaper, reported. “Gays have no human rights. They have human rights – human rights for doing an inhuman thing.”

Mugabe has repeatedly faced criticism from Zimbabwean LGBT rights advocates and others over his homophobic rhetoric.

He told supporters during a rally last July ahead of the African country’s presidential election that authorities should arrest gays and lesbians who don’t conceive children. Mugabe during the same event criticized the Anglican Church for blessing same-sex marriage and President Obama over his support of nuptials for gays and lesbians.

The Zimbabwean president described gays and lesbians who took part in a Harare book fair in 1995 as “dogs and pigs.” Mugabe reportedly said in a speech at a teacher’s college in the city of Masvingo last June that gay men and lesbians “should rot in jail.”

“President Mugabe’s hateful and wholly irresponsible comments about LGBT people in Zimbabwe are highly unfortunate, though not altogether surprising,” Jeffrey Smith of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights told the Washington Blade on Friday, referring to the Zimbabwean president’s latest comments against gays and lesbians. “These comments are consistent with Mugabe’s past statements, describing gays as worse than ‘pigs and dogs.’ For Mugabe to declare gays and lesbians as somehow inhuman, on a day meant to celebrate equality, is horribly ironic and reprehensible.”

The Zimbabwean government has also frequently targeted members of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), a local LGBT advocacy group.

Police in August 2012 arrested more than 40 members of the organization inside their Harare office. GALZ members said authorities confiscated computers and pamphlets from the same office a few days before the arrests.

“We are deeply concerned when security forces become an instrument of political violence used against citizens exercising their democratic rights,” said then-State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland after the incidents. “We call upon the government of Zimbabwe to end this pattern of abuse and to eradicate the culture of impunity that allows members of the security sector to continue to violate the rights of the Zimbabwean people.”

Smith told the Blade that officials stopped a GALZ workshop two weeks ago.

A Zimbabwean LGBT rights advocate with whom the Blade spoke in D.C. in February 2013 said Mugabe and his political party, Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front or ZANU-PF, use homosexuality as “one of their campaign tools.”

Mugabe last July defeated former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai in his country’s disputed presidential election.

“They will use this issue to threaten the LGBT people in Zimbabwe,” said the activist who asked the Blade not to publish his name because of potential reprisals against him. “They will do everything in their power to make sure that LGBT people are punished.”

Smith further categorized Mugabe’s crackdown on LGBT rights and homophobic rhetoric as “unacceptable.”

“Mugabe’s brazen disregard for human rights and the principles enshrined in his country’s own constitution is indicative of the wider crisis in Zimbabwe,” Smith told the Blade.”[It] has been exacerbated by his re-election last July, of which many observers – including the U.S. and other world leaders – declared fraudulent and by no means representing the will of the Zimbabwean people.”

Zimbabwe, gay news, Washington Blade

The Zimbabwean Embassy near Dupont Circle in Northwest D.C. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

28
Mar
2014

Erykah Badu faces criticism over Africa performances

Erykah Badu, gay news, Washington Blade

Erykah Badu (Photo by lifepict.com; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

R&B singer Erykah Badu’s decision to perform for two African heads of state who have faced criticism over their human rights records has sparked a backlash among advocates.

The Grammy Award winner is scheduled to perform during a Gambian music festival that begins in the West African country on Friday.

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, who described gay men as “vermin” during a February speech that commemorated the country’s independence from the U.K., is scheduled to formally open the event on Saturday. The long-time African president during the aforementioned speech also said the acronym LGBT “can only stand for leprosy, gonorrhea, bacteria and tuberculosis; all of which are detrimental to human existence.”

Badu’s trip to Gambia is scheduled to take place less than a month after she sang at a lavish birthday party for Swazi King Msawti, III.

The Swazi Observer reported Badu gave Mswati a $100 bill with a “special stone that she said would uplift His Majesty’s spirits when he was feeling down” during the April 24 event that took place at one of the monarch’s numerous palaces.

“I am so happy to be in the country,” she told Mswati, according to the newspaper. “This is my second time in Swaziland and the last time I was here there were a lot of women dancing in a forest. I love being in Swaziland.”

Pedro Pizano, a former Human Rights Foundation staffer, and Jeffrey Smith of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights noted in a Slate.com op-ed that Swaziland has faced repeated criticism over a host of issues including violent crackdowns against pro-Democracy demonstrators and human rights advocates and the imprisonment of journalists.

A U.N. report notes that up to an estimated 28 percent of people between 15-49 in the landlocked African country between South Africa and Mozambique lived with the virus in 2012. Mswati’s brother in 2010 sparked outrage among Swazi HIV/AIDS advocates when he said pharmaceutical companies and condom manufacturers had “exaggerated” the epidemic’s threat.

“By literally lending their voices to these absurd spectacles, performers like Badu endorse these brutal regimes, providing a veil of legitimacy to otherwise tarnished and compromised leaders,” wrote Pizano and Smith in their op-ed. “These headline events are most often used for domestic propaganda purposes, propping up unabashed human rights abusers like Mswati.”

Badu on Twitter questioned whether Pizano was “gay” as he pressed her to respond to questions about Swaziland’s human rights record — she proceeded to refer to him as “Satan.”

“Devils are easy to spot in any color,” Badu later tweeted to Smith.

She proceeded to describe Smith as “racist” and a “monkey.”

Badu also rebuked others who have urged her not to perform in Gambia.

 

Badu responded to the Washington Blade’s request for comment on Sunday via her Twitter account.

 

“Erykah Badu has the basic human right to speak and to sing wherever she wants, unfortunately that is not a right that ordinary Swazis or Gambians have,” Smith told the Blade on Monday. “Freedom of expression, assembly, association, and freedom of the press are severely restricted in both of these countries.”

Badu is the latest U.S. musician who has faced criticism for performing for world leaders with questionable human rights records.

Mariah Carey reportedly received $1 million to perform at a 2009 New Year’s Day party on the French Caribbean island of St. Barthélemy that one of the sons of then-Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi hosted. She later apologized, but she reportedly received another $1 million last December for a private concert for Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos last December.

Jennifer Lopez last June apologized for singing at Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow’s birthday party. Human Rights Watch has described the former Soviet republic’s government as “among the most repressive in the world.”

Beyoncé — who donated the $1 million she received for performing at a Gaddafi family party in Italy in 2007 to charity — and Jay-Z last year faced criticism from Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and other U.S. lawmakers after they traveled to Cuba.

“It is incredibly irresponsible for public figures like Erykah Badu to in effect pay respect to notorious and horrendous human rights abusers like King Mswati and Yahya Jammeh,” Smith told the Blade. “It’s a slap to the face to their many victims — those starving, those in prison, and the thousands in exile — and it sets a horrible example. Her actions and her defense of those actions are unacceptable.”

05
May
2014

Iran a ‘paradox’ for LGBTs

Arsham Parsi, Iran, gay news, Washington Blade

Arsham Parsi (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Arsham Parsi had just been accepted into an Iranian university to study to become a veterinarian when three of his friends who were either gay or transgender committed suicide.

He had previously worked with a doctor in his hometown of Shiraz in southern Iran who had been conducting research for a study on rates of HIV among gay and bisexual men, but he “decided to do something” after his friends took their own lives.

Parsi launched an online support group in 2001 that later became known as the Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization. He formed another website for LGBT Iranians two years later, posting information under two pseudonyms.

“I just thought I have to do something,” Parsi told the Washington Blade during a June 12 interview at the Northwest D.C. offices of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank that focuses on national security and foreign policy, as he discussed his life as a gay man and Iran and his advocacy efforts. “At that time I didn’t know what I had to do.”

Parsi said local authorities in early 2005 began to follow him after they arrested two of his friends. He told the Blade that he decided to flee the country after learning about this surveillance.

Parsi took an overnight train from Shiraz and arrived in Tehran, the Iranian capital, the next afternoon. He said he had just missed the train to Turkey, so he took an overnight bus to Tabriz near the Turkish border.

“It was the most stressful trip that I had because I didn’t know what would happen,” he told Blade.

Parsi boarded a Turkey-bound train in Tabriz at 7 a.m. on March 5, 2005, knowing that he “couldn’t come back anymore.” He crossed the Turkish border less than six hours later.

“I just felt that I’m stepping into exile and I can’t go back,” said Parsi, noting he was crying when the train left Iran and entered Turkey. “It’s such a difficult feeling that you have to go and you have no rights to come back. If you go back, they may kill you.”

Parsi, 33, received refugee status from the U.N. Refugee Agency and received asylum from the Canadian government. He has lived in Toronto since April 2006.

He told the Blade the university that his two sisters attended expelled them because of his advocacy. Parsi said anti-gay graffiti appeared on the door of his parents’ home after he spoke with CNN, the BBC and other international media outlets — and local authorities soon opened a file on them titled “the promotion of homosexuality and corruption.”

His parents subsequently fled to Turkey before resettling in Toronto.

“It was very difficult for my parents to leave all their belongings in their 50s,” said Parsi. “They built their home, their situation. They left all their belongings just because of my work and my activism, and they never, ever blamed me for that.”

His organization, the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees, has received nearly received 900 cases of LGBT people from his homeland who sought refuge in Canada, the U.S., Australia and Europe. Parsi told the Blade that 65 percent of them have been closed successfully.

“I have a really difficult job,” he said, noting his organization’s name reflects Canada’s role as a refuge for slaves who escaped the U.S. on the Underground Railroad during the 19th Century. “It’s not my job. It’s kind of my life and my passion.”

Parsi spoke with the Blade after he participated in a panel on Iran’s human rights record that took place at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill. U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.); Florida Congressman Ted Deutch and Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, vice chair of U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and daughter of the late-former California Congressman Tom Lantos are among those who also took part.

Iran is a ‘paradox’

Iran is among the handful of countries in which homosexuality remains punishable by death.

Parsi told the Blade the Iranian government has executed more than 4,000 people under the auspices of their reported homosexuality between 1979 and 2000.

Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni were hanged in a square in Mashhad in northeastern Iran in 2005 after a court convicted them of raping a 13-year-old boy, although Parsi and other LGBT rights advocates claimed the authorities executed them because of their homosexuality.

Reports that emerged in March indicate that two gay men were executed in Rasht for “perversion.”

Parsi said the Iranian government does not highlight the sexual orientation of the people he said it continues to persecute because of the international outcry that followed Asgari and Maroni’s executions.

“I believe it’s going on right now, but we don’t know because the Islamic Republic of Iran is very smart right now,” said Parsi, referring to the executions of gay men. “Whenever I see a young man was executed, I said maybe he was an LGBT. I don’t know.”

Parsi noted to the Blade that gay men who can prove their homosexuality are exempt from serving in the military.

“It’s a paradox,” he said. “In one way they don’t want to have gay people in the military or in the camps — oh maybe they do something bad. They have sex and mess around. And in another way homosexuality is punishable by death and they have to prove that the doctors say this person is homosexual.”

Parsi also noted to the Blade and during the briefing that the Iranian government encourages transgender people to undergo sex-reassignment surgery — offering them financial assistance and other incentives to do so. He said nearly half of those who underwent the procedure were not trans, but gay.

Iran’s nuclear program is not ‘only issue’

Then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said during a 2007 speech at Columbia University that homosexuality does not exist in his country.

The United States and other countries greeted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s election last year with cautious optimism, but Parsi told the Blade that he feels the new government in Tehran has changed very little.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and the Iranian Queer Organization last December urged Iran in a letter to Rouhani to repeal the death penalty and other punishments used against LGBT Iranians. Parsi said the current Iranian president does not have “any authority” to stop this persecution because it comes directly from those within the Ministry of Justice whom Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei directly appoints.

“I don’t support the Iranian government,” said Parsi. “We didn’t have a choice between a good person or a bad person or a good candidate or a bad candidate. It was just bad and worse.”

Talks between the U.S. and Iran over the country’s reported nuclear program are scheduled to resume this week in Vienna. Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday signaled that Washington is open to potential military cooperation with Tehran to slow the advance of a group of Sunni extremists who have taken control of wide swaths of northern Iraq in recent days.

Parsi and others who took part in the Capitol Hill panel said the response to Iran’s nuclear program has come at the expense of efforts to highlight the country’s human rights record.

“Iran’s only issue is not its nuclear program,” Parsi told the Blade. “We have to focus on human rights.”

Parsi further noted the U.S. has one of the highest rates of executions in the world — only Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran and China execute more prisoner than this country as a 2011 Amnesty International report notes. He said that Washington “cannot blame” Tehran for executions because of its own policies towards capital punishment.

Advocacy is ‘investment for the future’

Parsi acknowledged to the Blade that remains unlikely he will be able to return to Iran.

He noted his organization continues to struggle to gain additional financial support and more volunteers. Parsi said he nevertheless remains optimistic that life for LGBT Iranians will someday improve.

“All of my work is an investment for the future and the brighter tomorrow,” he said.

19
Jun
2014

BYT Rumspringa

The Brightest Young Things held a New Year’s Eve party, “Rumspringa,” at the SW Arts Club on Dec. 31. (Washington Blade photos by Damien Salas) buyphoto 

04
Jan
2014

Olympic athletes urged to speak out against Russia LGBT record

Queer Nation, NYSE, Russia, Russia Day, New York Stock Exchange, gay news, Washington Blade

Members of Queer Nation NY protest outside of the New York Stock Exchange. (Image via Queer Nation’s YouTube Page)

With less than a month until the 2014 Winter Olympics begin in Sochi, Russia, LGBT activists hope athletes who take part in the games will speak out against the Kremlin’s gay rights record.

“It’s important for the athletes to speak out, in Russia, about their belief that the way the Russian government is treating its gay and lesbian citizens is unacceptable,” said Andrew Miller of Queer Nation NY, which has held a number of protests in New York over the last few months to highlight Russia’s LGBT crackdown.

Speaking out against Russia’s gay propaganda to minors law and other anti-LGBT measures while in Sochi could prove easier said than done.

The Olympic Charter that the International Olympic Committee adopted in 2001 states “no form of publicity or propaganda, commercial or otherwise, may appear on persons, on sportswear, accessories or, more generally, on any article of clothing or equipment whatsoever worn or used by the athletes or other participants in the Olympic games” outside of a manufacturer’s logo. Any athlete who violates this rule could face disqualification or a loss of their accreditation at the Sochi games.

“I am very reluctant to call on athletes to do anything that would explicitly jeopardize their ability to compete in the games or jeopardize their ability to win a medal,” Hudson Taylor, a former University of Maryland wrestler who founded Athlete Ally in 2010 to combat homophobia and transphobia in sports, told the Washington Blade on Tuesday.

Taylor, who is currently an assistant wrestling coach at Columbia University, described the Sochi games as “an enormous moment where international attention is going to focus on sport.” He also told the Blade the athletes who compete in the Olympics will have a platform they could potentially use to highlight LGBT rights abuses in Russia.

“I would like athletes if they are asked about their opinions on these laws, to give their opinion on the laws or give their opinion around support for the LGBT community,” said Taylor.

Ty Cobb, director of global engagement for the Human Rights Campaign, made a similar point.

“A lot’s on the line for athletes who may speak out in ways that the IOC does not like, such as losing their medal,” said Cobb. “I would never want to advocate for someone to put themselves in a situation to lose their medal or be chastised by the IOC, but at the same time we would support any athlete in their effort to really highlight what’s going on with LGBT Russians and to show solidarity with their fight.”

Retired tennis champion Billie Jean King, whom President Obama last month tapped alongside gay figure skater Brian Boitano and others to join the U.S. delegation to the Sochi games, discussed the issue on Tuesday during an appearance on “The Colbert Report.”

“I probably won’t protest,” King told Stephen Colbert. “But if the media asks me a question, I’m going to answer it.”

Doubts about enforcement of law remain

Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters during an October press conference in Sochi with IOC President Thomas Bach that gays and lesbians will not suffer discrimination during the games. The IOC maintains it has received repeated assurances from the Kremlin the gay propaganda ban will not affect athletes and others who plan to travel to Sochi, even though Russian officials have previously said the statute will apply to those who attend the Olympics.

Taylor acknowledged it is highly unlikely Russia will repeal the gay propaganda law and other anti-LGBT statutes before the Sochi games begin.

“At this stage of things I think the most that we can hope for is to make sure these laws are not being enforced for the duration of the games,” he said, noting Russian officials have created specific areas where they say people can gather and protest. “I’m not convinced those same people protesting will be safe once they leave the protest zones.”

Miller told the Blade he would like to see the U.S. Olympic Committee, along with Coke and other Olympic sponsors pressure the Russian government to overturn the country’s anti-LGBT laws. He said members of Queer Nation NY will continue to hold protests and other actions during and after the Sochi games to highlight Putin’s LGBT rights record.

“He may be counting on the world’s attention focusing elsewhere after the Olympics,” said Miller. “It’s important to pressure them.”

He also said NBC, which will broadcast the Sochi games, can “cover what’s going on in Russia beyond the Olympics.”

Gay MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts criticized Russia’s gay propaganda law in a series of interviews he gave before he co-hosted the Miss Universe 2013 pageant in Moscow last November with singer Mel B. Neither he, nor pageant participants discussed the Kremlin’s LGBT rights record during the broadcast of the event that NBC Universal co-owns with Donald Trump.

“They’ve done little to nothing about speaking out against the anti-gay laws and have done little to nothing about covering them or their effect,” said Miller.

Bob Costas, who will anchor the network’s prime time coverage of the Sochi games, told the Associated Press in November he welcomes the opportunity to directly ask Putin about the gay propaganda ban as opposed to offering his own commentary about it. He sought to clarify his comments during a Jan. 7 press conference in New York with NBC executives.

“If Putin doesn’t drag his butt into the studio, then we’ll talk about it without him,” said Costas as the Huffington Post reported. “But if he shows up, we’d rather talk to him. Wouldn’t you rather hear it from the horse’s mouth? I would. That’s what I was trying to say.”

State Department issues Sochi travel alert

The U.S. State Department on Jan. 10 issued a travel alert to Americans planning to travel to Sochi following two suicide bombings in the city of Volgograd late last month that killed 34 people. The advisory also highlighted the vagueness of Russia’s gay propaganda law.

“The U.S. government understands that this law applies to both Russian citizens and foreigners in Russia,” reads the State Department alert. “Russian authorities have indicated a broad interpretation of what constitutes ‘LGBT propaganda’ and provided vague guidance as to which actions will be interpreted by authorities as ‘LGBT propaganda.’”

Cobb acknowledged security remains a serious concern ahead of the Sochi games. He stressed, however, those who plan to travel to the Olympics need to know about the Kremlin’s ongoing crackdown of LGBT rights and other issues that include freedom of speech.

“It’s important for the State Department to be very clear with people traveling to Sochi about what the laws are in Russia,” Cobb told the Blade.

Hudson also said those who plan to attend the games should be “mindful of” the ongoing security concerns.

“We have to be careful and measured in how we are speaking out or how someone is protesting,” he said. “I don’t want somebody to expose themselves to potential physical harm. However, I think that there will be opportunities to speak your mind, to show support for the LGBT community without exposing yourself to those risks.”

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Jan
2014