International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia: the struggle for equality and non-discrimination continues during COVID-19

Washington, D.C.; May 17, 2021.– During the last year, the violence and discrimination people with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities faced was compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. On International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, the International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights (Race and Equality) is proud to join the global campaign “Resisting, Supporting, and Healing Together” and to recognize the LGBTI+ activists and organizations fighting for their rights in Latin America and the Caribbean.

International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia was first celebrated in 2004, with the goal of calling attention to the violence and discrimination suffered by LGBTI+ people around the world. The celebration is held on May 17 to mark the World Health Organization’s decision to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder on May 17, 1990. Since that decision, LGBTI+ people around the world have made great progress in the recognition of their human rights, but continue to face serious challenges and suffer exclusion, stigmatization, and violence.

Adapting to the realities of the Pandemic

LGBTI+ people around the world are fighting at both the individual and collective levels to eliminate discrimination and violence. Bruno Montenegro, a trans activist and member of the Trans-Masculine Fraternity (FTM) in Peru, has continued the organization’s activities to support trans men despite the restrictions imposed by COVID-19. The organization previously carried out in-person workshops to support trans men’s self-identification, self-esteem, and health knowledge. With the onset of the pandemic, these workshops were suspended while many of the participants lost their jobs and had to return to their families’ homes. In many cases, they faced discrimination and violence from their families.

“We didn’t want to lose that space, so we opened a virtual space called ‘chill Fridays,’ where we would get together and talk about how we were doing or what we were going through,” says Montenegro. Montenegro explained that one of the most serious impacts of the pandemic for trans men has been the interruption of hormone replacement therapy, which can cause trans men to experience menstruation and undergo the accompanying physical and emotional distress. He emphasized that trans people show great resilience in their lives, a trait that serves as a powerful tool for combatting LGBTIphobia.

“Life is a carnival”

Celia Cruz, a Nicaraguan trans activist and former political prisoner, has certainly demonstrated resilience. Just twenty-two days after being released from prison, Cruz demonstrates an unshakeable bearing and tells Race and Equality “We should all life live as a carnival, full of colors, joys, ups and downs, and different rhythms. We have to learn to go with the rhythm.”

Cruz was held in a men’s prison, in violation of her gender identity, from April 21, 2020 until April 25, 2021. She began her activism by putting on shows with the songs of famous Cuban singer Celia Cruz. During the social crisis that began in April 2018, she became well-known for signing at protests in Isla de Ometepe (Rivas department) and Managua, where she also took part in roadblocks and delivered supplies for protestors. As a result, she was arrested and sentenced to 13 years and 2 months in prison.

Despite being released, Cruz continues to suffer constant police harassment, preventing her from organizing events. She has turned to social media to continue fighting transphobia. She tells Race and Equality that the struggle for a more open and inclusive Nicaragua continues, as “there is still discrimination because of gender, religion, and sexual orientation” in various social sectors.

Building knowledge, empathy, and inclusion

The majority of countries in Latin America and the Caribbean still lack laws that protect and promote the rights of LGBTI+ people while taking a wide view of sexual orientation and gender identity as factors shaping the enjoyment of rights. 11 countries in the region include crimes against LGBTI+ people in their hate crime legislation; 14 include LGBTI+ people in legislation preventing workplace discrimination.

Along with a lack of legal protections, societies in the region are also marked by machismo and heteronormativity. Activists in the region stress the role of personal decisions and attitudes in undoing LGBTIphobia. The Cuban psychologist and human rights defender Kirenia Núñez explains that the campaign Esprésate (Express Yourself), launched in 2021 to promote freedom of expression in Cuba, strove to include a diverse group of participants as a way to fight LGBTIphobia. Núñez also makes a point to share her personal experiences with others and to form relationships with people in her community.

“In the last year, I have expanded my network of support among diverse people, people who come into my life to support me not just conceptually, but concretely. This has helped me grow as a woman, as a person, as a woman who loves women,” Núñez explains.

Brigitte Baptiste, a biologist and rector at EAN University in Colombia, believes that humor, along with awareness-raising about LGBTI experiences, can be a tool for resisting LGBTIphobia. Baptiste, a trans woman who has suffered attacks on social media, says that “It’s about the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”

Liken Lee, a member of the organization Trans Siempre Amigas (Trans Friends Forever) in the Dominican Republic, states that participating in processes to learn about human rights and integrate into supportive organizations has been crucial for well-being and mental health. Becoming certified as an accountant was also a path to empowerment for Liken, but Liken has been unable to begin a career due to discrimination against trans people in the labor market and the Dominican Republic’s lack of a law protecting the right to gender identity.

On International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, Race and Equality joins the joint statement by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) calling on states and other stakeholders to consider the negative impacts of exclusive and stigmatizing narratives on the lives of LGBTI+ people. We also emphasize the need to ensure that religion and ‘tradition’ are not used to promote discrimination for reasons of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Race and Equality believes that states must take a leading role in the fight against LGBTIphobia, including through laws that protect and promote LGBTI+ people’s rights, trainings for key public officials such as members of justice and health systems, awareness-raising campaigns, and ratification of the Inter-American Convention against all forms of Discrimination and Intolerance. We also call on states in the region to improve understanding of LGBTI+ people’s realities through official collection and publication of disaggregated data. These steps are vital to fulfilling the LGBTI+ community’s demands for full enjoyment of their fundamental human rights.

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