At the 2020 Oslo Freedom Forum, the Human Rights Foundation turned a focus on protecting and advancing LGBTQI rights globally in a panel discussion sponsored by The Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.
In this discussion, three LGBTQI activists shared their experiences in three different countries – from legal challenges and government crackdowns to extrajudicial killings. anti-FGM activist and psychotherapist Leyla Hussein moderated the session featuring Julia Maciocha, Polish LGBTQI activist and Director of Warsaw Pride; Amir Ashour, Iraqi LGBTQI activist and executive director of IraQueer, and Asif Iqbal, Bangladeshi LGBTQI activist and writer.
Julia Maciocha spoke about her experience in Poland, which she described as the most homophobic country in the European Union where there is no legal recognition of the rights of LGBTQI individuals (except in labor law required by the EU). In particular, she spoke to the struggles of the trans community in attempting to change their legal gender – these individuals must sue their own parents, even where there is parental support, with court cases taking up to seven years to complete. Many wait for their parents to pass away in order to change their legal status because it is too painful and too expensive.
In Poland, 70 percent of LGTBI youth have suicidal thoughts compared to 12 percent of heteronormative children – Julia herself suffered from depression for eight years. Julia personally faces online threats and tries to avoid social media when she can but she is more concerned about the safety of her loved ones. She believes that the existence of a law prohibiting hate speech regarding LGBTQI individuals would prevent the media and others from spreading lies about LGBTQI individuals in Poland – she described in particular people using cars with loudspeakers to broadcast misinformation, including that LGBTQI individuals are pedophiles, have HIV, and wish to kidnap children.
While verbal support from the international community is appreciated, what is really needed is fines and sanctions where the Polish government misbehaves and more pressure on the Polish government to prioritise LGBTQI rights. Julia is hopeful about the future – the number of equality marches in Poland is rising and the movement is being seen not only in cities but also in small local communities. Government backlash shows that the government fears the movement, but the movement is stronger and will eventually win.
Amir Ashour spoke about his experience as an Iraqi with eleven years’ experience working in the LGBTQI community. While there are no Iraqi laws that directly criminalize LGBTQI individuals, in practice, there has been at least one annual killing campaign led by militia and religious leaders since 2006.
In 2020 in particular, there has been an increasing number of politicians inciting violence and relying on misconceptions – for example, some politicians have described COVID-19 as ‘God’s reaction’ to the existence of LGBTQI people. On May 17, 2020, the EU raised a rainbow flag across its Baghdad embassies and this was considered by the Iraqi government to be an attack on the Iraqi identity. While authorities told the public that the Vienna Convention forbade this act, this is an inaccurate characterization of the Convention. In June 2020, a report was released which observed that queerphobic words are used every 30 seconds in shows that spoke about LGBTQI individuals in Iraq.
During the COVID pandemic, many LGBTQI individuals have been finding it difficult to quarantine at home because of abusive families or landlords who are threatening to ‘out’ them to police. Amir personally, has been portrayed as a ‘sinner’ in videos and compared to ISIS. Politicians have said that people like him should be held accountable and killed.
Amir lives in Sweden as a refugee and despite the protection that this offers, the personal toll is extremely heavy. Indeed, the need to ‘prove’ his identity as an LGBTQI individual to claim asylum is also offensive and insensitive. The international community needs to put pressure on the Iraqi government as the government does not pay attention to activists and funding presents a barrier.
Asif Iqbal spoke about his experience in Bangladesh as a writer and human rights advocate. In Bangladesh, homosexual activity is criminalized under the Penal Code, a remanent of British colonialism. Under the Digital Security Act, any posts on social media that insult religious or nationalist sentiment will be punished. Hate speech is rampant in Bangladesh, as is physical violence. Asif himself has found himself in the midst of this sort of violence. On the day that a fellow activist was murdered, Asif had planned to meet him – if he had been at the activist’s house, he too would have been murdered.
The mental trauma for LGBTQI individuals in seeing news and social media regarding these kinds of attacks stays with them for a long time and many find themselves suffering from depression. Even before they find themselves punished under state law, there may be a lone wolf attack on an LGBTQI individual by someone who believes it is their religious responsibility to kill LGBTQI individuals.
The National Human Rights Commission has been drafting a law on non-discrimination but many are hesitant to provoke religious leaders. With the rise of social media, many religious leaders are posting anti-feminist videos and other videos that incite violence against minorities. Human rights work in this area needs to involve reaching out to volunteers and organizations on the ground. Asif has hope for the future as he sees the immense potential and talents amongst his LGBTQI friends and colleagues. Queer literature gives him hope about society by showcasing good stories. Asif holds not only hope, but a determination, that Bangladesh will recognize that they must decriminalize LGBTQI activities and recognize that they are human beings who deserve to live with dignity like everyone else.
Adding an additional perspective, moderator Leyla Hussein emphasized that while people tend to glamorize the work of activists, it is essential to recognize that being an activist in this area can take an immense personal toll on a person. Funding and psychological support for this area are absolutely key.
Watch the full panel discussion here: