OutRight Action International has been at the forefront of advancing and defending LGBT rights around the world. We were fortunate to talk with Jessica Stern, the Executive Director of this leading human rights organization, to learn more about the organization’s incredible efforts to improve the lives of LGBT people across the globe.
As part of our ongoing #DecriminalizeLGBT campaign, we want to highlight organizations like OutRight Action International because the work they do is so critical at this time. LGBT people are criminalized in over 70 countries around the globe. Governments have become increasingly hostile toward the LGBT community, and people have been arrested, tortured and murdered. The fight for LGBT rights is difficult, but organizations like Outright can help us succeed.
HORNET: Governments have becoming increasingly hostile to LGBT people, what can be done to counter this rise of conservatism and anti-LGBT sentiment?
JESSICA STERN: We have to hold governments accountable to the egregious abuses they are committing against LGBT people. This means documentation and reporting, listening to activists on the ground and elevating their priorities and investing in education and sensitization campaigns with the media to counter the narrative on LGBT people and issues. Importantly, we need to invest in the international system, so that when someone faces discrimination, persecution or torture at the hands of the state, that they have a means to seek justice and redress.
Many anti-LGBT laws are rooted in sodomy or gay sex. How can we make it a global priority among the LGBT community when the much more palatable cause of marriage equality has consumed so much of the focus?
Marriage equality has taken up much of the airspace in the United States and a few other countries. In many others there have either been a focus on multiple issues or same-sex marriage passed such a long time ago that movements have found other issues to focus on.
Challenging sodomy laws and the other punitive laws that criminalize LGBT people is in fact the legislative priority for people in most other countries. Seventy-plus countries in the world still criminalize same-sex relations, as opposed to the 26 that have enacted marriage equality. Beyond legislation, however, the priority is to secure basic safety and freedom from violence.
What do you see as the best options for LGBT people who live in countries where they are criminalized?
The degree to which countries enforce the typically colonial-era sodomy laws vary quite a bit. In some countries people are regularly arrested and blackmailed, and LGBT organizations are not allowed to exist. In others, people are not arrested and LGBT organizations can work in the open. So the strategies really depend on the local context.
We have been hearing more and more about crackdowns against LGBT people around the world — both in countries that criminalize same-sex relations but also in others. In many places, LGBTIQ people must exercise caution and organizing to change laws is challenging. In all circumstances, LGBT people should try to find support and advocacy groups, to build a community of acceptance and understanding.
What do you think is the best strategy for abolishing these laws?
We have seen sodomy laws be overturned by court cases, like in Belize and India (where the Section 377 sodomy law was first removed by a court decision, then reinstated and is now being reviewed) or by political decisions.
The best strategy is the one that is rooted in the local context. No matter what the strategy, it typically needs elements of influencing decision makers, having strong legal defenses and truthful and factual media coverage. Building a strong case is extremely important when it comes to the courts that decide whether these laws are maintained or abolished. In those cases, international jurisprudence can be influential.
Also, educate the public. Social attitudes tend to have impact on both on the courts and legislative decision making, if society becomes more tolerant, the likelihood of repealing these laws is higher.
What role do businesses and corporations play in calling for change around anti-LGBT policies around the globe?
Money talks, so businesses can play a role when they are willing to speak out publicly or through their government contacts. The UN has recently released the Standards of Conduct for businesses and one of the principles is that business should promote the rights of LGBTI people in the places where they do business.
Businesses speaking out can be particularly helpful in countries where organizations and activists are limited in what they can do or how visible they can be. When businesses and corporations support anti-LGBT policies, they are extending that same invitation to society. Their efforts to show inclusivity and protections for LGBT employees are an example for the rest of society and that can have a powerful influence.
Are there particular activists that inspire you as you do this work?
I am inspired everyday doing this work and am amazed at just how much LGBT people around the world have overcome even in the most hostile of situations. The resilience of our communities is incredible. I am most energized by the wave of young activists around the world who are vocal and brave in their activism, they stand up for equality in a way that is fearless and they know how to amplify their voices in such creative ways, including through the Internet. I am hopeful that this movement, with its current leadership and with the next generation, is in good hands.
What are some specific actions people can take to support the efforts of LGBT activists around the issue of decriminalization?
Get involved! Volunteer with LGBT nonprofits and organizations, show up at rallies and parades, make signs or call your representatives. Anything to show lawmakers that there is support. And listen. Listen to those whose stories need to be told and do what you can to help them be heard.