Inside the fight for LGBTQ+ rights around the world
Sasha Kazantseva (above). Image credit: Dasha Tchainki
This June marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, widely considered to be the birth of the Pride movement. The uprisings broke out on the streets of Manhattan in 1969, when police clampdowns on LGBTQ+ spaces – in particular the popular gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, in Greenwich Village on June 28 – were met with an “enough is enough” response from queer communities, who retaliated by throwing rocks and marching through the streets.
Stonewall is considered to be a watershed moment for LGBTQ+ rights, but a half century on there are still battles to be won. Here, we discover the stories of eight activists from around the world who are still throwing proverbial stones at the homophobic and transphobic powers that be.
Mazharul Islam, Bangladesh
Every year on April 25, gay activist Mazharul Islam stages a protest outside the Bangladesh Embassy in London. In 2018, human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell stood alongside him. This year, some of his friends from the international LGBTQ+ Bangladeshi community came. Next year, he hopes more people will join. The protest calls for justice for his friends Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, who were killed in a machete attack by Islamic extremists in 2016. Two days after their murders, Islam was evacuated from Bangladesh, his life at risk.
Islam grew up in a small village near Dhaka, taught by his mosque and his community that homosexuality was a sin. He knew he was somehow “different”, but only discovered the existence of a “gay world” when he started going online at the age of 18. While at university, in 2002, he joined Boys of Bangladesh, then a very small “friends-only” Yahoo group for gay men, which grew in size over the next decade, attracting hundreds of members and organising get-togethers for the LGBTQ+ community. It was here that he met Mannan.
Image credit: Supplied
“Xulhaz was the founder of , Bangladesh’s only LGBTQ+ magazine. I met him in 2006 or 2007,” Islam remembers. “He was very famous among his circle of friends. One time he gave his office space up for us to celebrate Bengali New Year because we had been struggling to find a safe place to party together. Xulhaz and I used to hang out in our twenties by the Dhanmondi Lakenear Dhaka. The first time I saw an ocean was with him and we visited the world’s longest mangrove forest together. We were like a family.”
In 2015, Islam (above) started receiving threatening anonymous text messages about his sexuality, but he was unable to tell the police since homosexuality was – and still is – criminalised in Bangladesh. Luckily his company, a global chartered accountancy body, offered him a security detail to and from work. When he got the call to inform him Mannan and Tonoy had been killed, he was in the grocery store. “I immediately went back to my house and my friend and I locked ourselves in. We switched on the TV and saw the murders on the news and wondered if they were coming for us. It was a sleepless night.” The next day, he stayed with a friend; the day after, he was taken to a safe house by US Embassy officials; and the day after that, a bulletproof car escorted him to the airport, where he flew to Sri Lanka and later to the UK. Mazharul now runs a queer migrant tour in London, focusing on Bangladesh’s LGBTQ+ history. He also continues to campaign for justice for his friends, and is working with a charity in Bangladesh to provide a safe house for people living in fear of violence or rejected by their families.
Coletivo AfroBapho (above). Image credit: Gabriel Oliveira
LaLa Zannell, USA
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“The bad part is when I come to work and a trans woman has been killed. When it’s someone you personally know, it’s harder, but then it’s also the ones you don’t know, the ones who don’t have the community. At work I hear about domestic violence, sexual violence, police violence, hate violence… I have to try to balance when to feel and not to feel, to numb what’s going on for me personally as a trans person or a black woman. The emotional labour is high in the workplace.”
LaLa Zannell is a trans activist living in America and working on the front line battling transphobia. A trans justice campaign manager at the American Civil Liberties Union, she works with the trans community helping to create new leaders who “have the tools, confidence and courage to effectively advocate for their own rights”. Until recently, she was also an organiser at the Anti-Violence Project, a New York-based charity that, among other work, partners with a national coalition to track the murders of LGBTQ+ people in the US (which no central law enforcement agency records). In 2017, there were 52 hate murders of LGBTQ+ people in America, up on 28 (non-Pulse nightclub-related) murders in 2016. Of the 2017 deaths, 71 per cent were people of colour, 67 per cent were 35 years old and under, and 42 per cent were trans women and women of colour.
The spike was concurrent with Donald Trump taking office; since 2017 the President has reignited conversations around bathroom laws, reinstated a transgender military ban, and proposed a draft bill to define gender as fixed and unchangeable. “People say Trump did this, Trump did that, blame Trump – but the hate already existed, he just opened the door and gave permission to be even more hateful,” Zannell says. “This country has always been patriarchal and racist, he’s just enforcing it on a policy level. We are coming up to 50 years since Stonewall and not much has changed here since it happened.”
Image credit: Zanele Muholi
Zanele Muholi, South Africa
“Let’s start by saying, I art but I am a visual activist,” says Zanele Muholi (above). “I use visuals to push a political agenda, to picture those who are often overlooked or excluded from the African sexualities canon. There is a tendency to exclude LGBTQ+ identities from histories in the African continent, so when I enter art spaces or take photographs, it is to make a statement, to undo what other people tend to distort. I want my photos to say: “We ‘sexual minorities’ are not deviant, delinquent members of society, we are creative thinkers and economic contributors, we are beyond what is seen by haters.”
The South African artist, who is exhibiting at this year’s Venice Biennale and is slated for a solo exhibition at London’s Tate Modern in April 2020, has been taking arresting self-portraits and portraits of the LGBTQ+ community for almost 20 years. They began shooting in the late 1990s, while also working at a non-profit called Behind the Mask that covered LGBTQ+ issues in Africa. From 2007 to 2009, they completed a masters thesis on black lesbian histories in Africa, highlighting issues like the lack of access and representation in art and sports, and the pervasive problem of “corrective rape” and other hate crimes leading lesbian women to contract HIV. “Most of the studies before this paper were theoretical, but I wrote as an insider, not from the outside. I spoke as a black person… all that I do and am about has to do with my personhood. All that I’m doing is making the invisible visible.”
Image credit: Zanele Muholi
Since then, Muholi has worked hard to cement their position as an internationally acclaimed fine art photographer in a still predominantly white, male landscape, and is helping others to do the same. They run a mentorship and scholarship programme for young, mostly LGBTQ+ people through their organisation, inkanyiso.org. “I open up my home in Durban to be a safe space for young artists, writers, poets and journalists; and we have an artist residency in Johannesburg. It doesn’t only end with me – we want to make sure the next generation is equipped, skilled, open-minded and knows how to deal with the struggles and traumas of the world.”
When asked what they would like to see change in South Africa when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights, they demand more visibility and understanding. “I think I have made a difference by making sure LGBTQ+ voices are part of the history and form part of the syllabus in different universities, but if I could make further change I would have a photo festival that gives a chance for LGBTQ+ people to self-represent and share their life stories, film festivals, too. Let us exist every day, every week, every month until those who don’t understand our existence get the picture that we are human beings like every other person. It starts there, to say: who are we? If we can’t write our own stories, who will? No one will do it better than us.”
Image credit: Getty Images
Geraldine Roman, Philippines
Geraldine Roman (above) is the first trans Filipina congresswoman, voted into office in 2016. Each day, she fights to change the law on a local and national level, focusing on LGBTQ+ rights. Her current priorities are an anti-discrimination bill and pushing through legislation to allow civil partnerships. She believes that same-sex marriage in the predominantly Catholic Philippines is unlikely to be seen within this generation.
But, she says, “An anti-discrimination bill would protect LGBTQ+ people by law. I know so many factory workers who are made to cut their hair – what does your hair length have to do with the capacity to do your job? I know so many same-sex couples whose kids are rejected from private schools on the basis of their parents’ sexuality, and I know so many LGBTQ+ people who are not given healthcare, when healthcare is a fundamental right for everyone,” she states.
On a personal level, an anti-discrimination law would have meant that when Roman was running for office, she would have been protected from the insults she received about her gender identity. But overall, she says, she is “one of the privileged few” because her family accepted her. Coming from a background of progressive politicians, they were what she calls a thinking family: “They had travelled, they questioned things. If you do not leave your country, you cannot see beyond your culture. You are made to think like a robot, you cannot see outside of the black and white into the grey area.” As someone who worked for two decades as a journalist in Spain, she also had the privilege of being exposed to more progressive cultures. Her goal now is to bring these values to the Philippines in the hope that other LGBTQ+ people might be able to some day enjoy a more friction-free existence and occupy positions of power as she has.
Image credit: Artem Emelianov
Dimitry Kozachenko and Sasha Kazantseva, Russia
Dimitry Kozachenko (above) is a 21-year-old gay male journalist born and raised in Donetsk, the Ukrainian war zone, and now living in Russia. Sasha Kazantseva is 32, identifies as a lesbian, works as a sex education blogger and queer writer, and lives in Saint Petersburg. “I met Sasha in summer of 2018. I was reading her blog Washed Hands for a long time and her content about lesbian culture inspired me a lot,” explains Kozachenko. “Sasha is one of a small group of women in Russia not afraid of publicly demystifying the life of lesbians and educating around lesbian sex.”
In July 2018, Kozachenko reached out to her about his project, O-zine, a platform for highlighting queer artists and publishing inspiring stories of queer people all around Russia. Kazantseva leapt at the opportunity. “When we started, there was very little information about LGBTQ+ culture in Russian mass media, and nearly everything that you could find concerned violations of human rights and hate crimes,” she explains. “These topics are incredibly important, but when you are queer and you can’t find anything but news on crimes, it’s hard. So we wanted to make a lifestyle media outlet that would cover cool projects that queer folks in Russia do – our art, our daily life, sex and relationships – which would introduce us to each other.”
Kozachenko says O-zine is part of a wave of projects in Russia fighting for a new, more openly LGBTQ+ generation: “They make queer parties, art actions and promote the idea of tolerance in social networks.” Kazantseva adds that most of these spaces are for gay men, but agrees things seem to be improving. “As a person living in a big city, I’d say that it has become friendlier in the last two years. More media outlets have started to write about LGBTQ+ issues, more friendly projects have launched. I dream that one day it will be easier to live in small towns as well.” Violence, discrimination and laws criminalising gay propaganda still exist, of course, but for queer, young people on the ground, Kazantseva says, “It seems that we’re tired of being afraid.”
Image credit: Eivind Hansen
Zeleca Julien, Trinidad and Tobago
One year after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Trinidad and Tobago, LGBTQ+ activists hope to hold their biggest and most visible Pride festival yet. Last year, they were galvanised by the change in law – which happened in April 2018 after LGBTQ+ rights campaigner Jason Jones challenged the government – to hold a parade for the first time, on top of their existing month-long programme of events with performances and talks.
Zeleca Julien (above) was one of the people celebrating. The executive director of I Am One, an LGBTQ+ organisation based in Trinidad, she is an activist focusing on research, community building and advocacy, as well as being a lead organiser of King Conference, a symposium and performance event for trans men and masculine-presenting women. “Many trans men migrate to Western countries to get surgery or identify freely, so King Conference came about as a space for us to materialise and discuss our realities,” she says.
As a masculine-presenting lesbian herself, Julien says that she experiences homophobia more immediately than most because she is “more visibly gay”, but says that being from a lower socioeconomic background also affects her experiences. “I have faced aggressive homophobia over the years but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum – class, race, geographic location, education and ability, these all impact how are you treated, as well as sexual orientation and gender.” Nonetheless, she lives a comfortable life out of the closet and has had happy relationships.
As for the legalisation, Julien says it gives a sense of citizenship to LGBTQ+ people. “As long as there are discriminatory laws, people will feel justified to act in discriminatory ways so it feels good these laws have been deemed unconstitutional. There’s more of a sense of pride and belonging now.” However, she continues, “These laws were just in books, they weren’t really active, and while decriminalisation is a tremendous victory, it hasn’t shifted the culture yet, especially since the law wasn’t really enacted – the culture was, and that will take time to change. We need strong cultural and social programmes, not just for LGBTQ+ people but for the general public, to bring everyone onto the same page.”
Image credit: Sharon Kilgannon
Fox and Owl, UK
Fox Fisher and Ugla Stefanía Kristjönudóttir Jónsdóttir (above) both identify as non-binary trans people. They live in the UK, but London-born Fisher (Fox) was raised in Saudi Arabia and Kristjönudóttir Jónsdóttir, or Owl, was born and raised in Iceland. They met at the European Transgender Council in Bologna, Italy, in May 2016, where Fox – a filmmaker – was supposed to interview Owl – an educator. They ended up hooking up, and Owl missed their flight back to Iceland.
Today, the pair work together to put positive and informative narratives about trans people out into the world. They run the My Genderation film project, for instance, a documentary series about trans individuals that aims to take back the perspective from cisgender filmmakers, who tend to focus on things like surgery or simplify trans experiences. They are also the co-authors of and both sit on the advisory board for All About Trans, a watchdog organisation educating the media about transgender issues. Separately, Owl writes a column for , and Fox does some acting.
“Our advocacy has changed a lot, as the past two years have been particularly challenging for trans people in the UK,” explains Owl. “This means that we’ve had a lot more hate and abuse thrown at us for standing up for trans rights. Coming from Iceland, it was such a shock for me to come to the UK where the media gives a platform to such inaccurate stories and often downright lies about trans people and their lives. Trans people are constantly being painted as dangerous perverts, rapists or abusers, in particular trans women. The way in which the media uses us to generate outrage and to get clicks is frankly appalling.”
“It’s a mess!” agrees Fox. “There is such a lack of representation of trans men, trans-masculine people and non-binary people. We rarely get a look-in – the focus is mostly on white, trans women, and any other groups under the trans umbrella are almost invisible.” Fox argues that there needs to be much more diversity – the voices of non-binary people and gender, non-conforming trans people need to be heard and represented in fiction. “This is why we launched #TransAND,” adds Owl, a six-part series that focuses on aspects of trans people’s lives apart from gender identity, such as their careers, aspirations and interests. “Trans people are so much more than just trans.”
Image credit: Helen Salomão
Alan Costa, Brazil
Afrobapho is a queer collective started by Alan Costa (above), a 28-year-old performance artist living in Salvador, Brazil. Black, queer and effeminate, Costa started Afrobapho because he felt he needed a space to connect with likeminded people, and an outlet for the emotions he was experiencing in the face of both fetishisation and oppression. “The collective is made up of young black peripheral LGBTQ+ people I mostly met on the internet,” he says. “Through the arts, we have the possibility of reconstructing narratives of bodies that are generally oppressed and violated by society and still placed as an aberration. We use reading groups and performance as a tool for awareness-raising with the public about the things we are up against: racism, machismo, classism, LGBTQ+-phobia and other oppressions.”
Statistically, Brazil has one of the highest murder rates for LGBTQ+ people in the world, according to research by Grupo Gay de Bahia. Under the recently elected right-wing leader President Jair Bolsonaro, the anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric has only worsened, Costa explains. “The violence against our bodies is alarming, both in physical form and in a symbolic way (through swearing, restriction of rights, etc.). This has become institutionally authorised.” Alongside this, says Costa, there’s an increasingly racist climate: “We are black bodies, victims of structured racism in every part of the country, including institutions, which exclude us, rape, kill, imprison.”
Recently, Afrobapho went to the military police headquarters in their city, to hold up the names of young black Brazilians who have been murdered. This action was part of a wider movement: in February, the murder of a 19-year-old black boy by a security guard led to a wave of Black Lives Matter protests in Brazil. “Many of us have been in depression, trying to survive in this chaos,” says Costa. “But I believe that our role is precisely to show how our dissident bodies are powerful, they are incredible. The most important thing we need right now is the basic right to live as who you are, without being disrespected or violated for it. That’s what we keep fighting for.”