Perspectives June 21, 2022
“It Started as a Protest”: How Pride Month Sparks Hope Amid Global Attacks on LGBTQI+ Rights
In recognition of Pride Month, Freedom House interviewed Urooj Arshad, Senior Program Manager of our Dignity for All program, about the current state of human rights for LGBTQI+ people around the world—and its implications for freedom and democracy more broadly.
Q: What role does Pride Month play in different places around the world? Does it have a different tone or purpose in more repressive settings?
The concept of Pride has evolved globally over the last 50+ years, but to understand its importance and significance, and continued relevance, we need to honor its roots in the uprising led by Black and Brown transgender women in 1969 after a police raid on a West Village gay bar, the Stonewall Inn. This watershed moment in history gave way to the modern LGBTQI+ movement, and has stood as a symbol of hope for LGBTQI+ communities worldwide.
However, in many repressive settings—including my home country, Pakistan, where LGBTQI+ communities must organize under the radar, and where recently won gains for transgender rights are under attack—June is yet another month where the LGBTQI+ community is trying to survive, and Pride is not something that always feels like a celebration. But remembering that Pride started as a protest makes it possible for hope to remain in our hearts.
Q: At Freedom House, we’ve been documenting a global decline in democracy for the past 16 years. What impact, if any, has this had on the struggle for LGBTQI+ people’s rights?
We know that often, attacks on LGBTQI+ communities are an early sign of democratic decline, the rise of authoritarianism, and pushback against civil society. For example, in Russia, regressive laws have politicized LGBTQI+ identities as an “ideology” associated with Western decadence, and which stands in opposition to Russian values. Since 2013, versions of Russia’s anti-LGBTQI+ law have been introduced in legislatures across the region, including Kazakhstan, Armenia, Lithuania, and Belarus.
Russian authorities also used anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric to justify the invasion of Ukraine. In his speech announcing the invasion, Putin cited a supposed attack on “traditional values” by Western powers to partially explain the decision to attack the country. Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, moreover claimed in a March sermon that gay pride parades are sponsored by the West and represent a threat to his and the Kremlin’s notion of Russian identity, and that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was meant to defend against them.
Q: The world has been shaken by a series of international crises over the past two years, including the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the war in Ukraine, and the COVID-19 pandemic. How have these events affected your work?
Like other marginalized communities, the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on LGBTQI+ people. In some places, LGBTQI+ identities were effectively criminalized under the guise of protecting public health. In another example, in Panama, the initial versions of gender-based movement restrictions placed transgender people at risk of police abuse. And in countries around the world, many LGBTQI+ people were forced quarantine in unsafe homes where they were at risk.
In Afghanistan, under the harsh political ideology of the Taliban, members of LGBTQI+ and other marginalized communities live in constant fear of being arrested, detained, tortured, raped, or killed. LGBTQI+ people also fear being outed by family members, neighbors, friends, or even romantic partners seeking to gain favor with Taliban authorities. And in Russia and other places in that region, members of the LGBTQI+ community already under attack are experiencing additional trauma connected to the war, including being blamed by Russian leaders for causing it.
As they face incredible pressure, these same individuals have had to step into a humanitarian response space to fill in gaps left by the public sector and other institutions that are now greatly reduced or defunct. Many are experiencing exhaustion and burnout, and there are serious concerns in some places about the sustainability of LGBTQI+ civil society.
Q: What can the United States and other democracies do to improve conditions?
Global Philanthropy Project’s most recent Global Resources Report found that even while funding for LGBTQI+ rights and civil society groups is increasing, overall the amount of money dedicated to defending LGBTQI+ rights globally is small. Additionally, they found that global funding to anti-LGBTQI+ groups vastly exceeds funding directed to LGBTQI+ rights groups. Another recent study found an increasingly well-resourced transnational “anti-gender” movement fueled by religious fundamentalism.
Like-minded governments need to not only mobilize diplomatic and financial resources to meet the humanitarian needs of LGBTQI+ communities during the current unprecedented crisis, but also to push back against the global anti-LGBTQI+ rights agenda.
Q: What are some ways that LGBTQI+ people are advancing human rights even as many governments roll back protections?
Through my work with Dignity for All, I regularly witness the incredibly mind-blowing work that LGBTQI+ defenders are doing to protect their communities against the current onslaught of attacks, and, when possible, to advance their rights. As a South Asian queer woman, I especially see two recent developments from my part of the world as powerful examples where leaders in the global south demanded that the rights of LGBTQI+ people be respected, and won.
First, the long struggle that led to the Indian Supreme Court’s decision in 2018 to strike down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code—a relic of British colonial rule that criminalized same-sex sexual relations—has given hope to people in other British postcolonial states that similar laws in their countries could be overturned too.
And in my home country, Pakistan, transgender communities’ fight to have their rights enshrined into law led to the historic passage in 2018 of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, which allowed people to affirm their gender on official documents like drivers’ licenses.
These examples are compelling at a time when LGBTQI+ rights in the United States are increasingly under attack. Transgender communities here, and especially Black and Brown transgender women, have always been under attack, and the number of anti-transgender bills has skyrocketed over the past few years. Also, just this month 31 anti-LGBTQI+ extremists were arrested near an Idaho Pride event and charged with conspiracy to riot.
It’s important to remember amid these attacks and setbacks that Pride is a spark of hope and that despite everything, LGBTQI+ communities in the United States and globally are resisting attacks on their freedom and continuing the fight for liberation.
The Dignity for All program provides emergency funds, support, and security assistance to human rights defenders and organizations under threat or attack due to their work for LGBTQI+ human rights.