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The Politics of Division And LGBT Equality
Salzburg Global Fellow Victor Ciobotaru and his life partner Florin at the Bucharest Pride in July 2019 holding a poster with the message: “Sunt gay, Sunt Crestin, Iubesc.” – “I am gay. I am a Christian. I Love.” – Photo Credit: Ioana MoldovanSalzburg Global Fellow Victor Ciobotaru and his life partner Florin at the Bucharest Pride in July 2019 holding a poster with the message: “Sunt gay, Sunt Crestin, Iubesc.” – “I am gay. I am a Christian. I Love.” – Photo Credit: Ioana Moldovan
The Politics of Division And LGBT Equality
By: Klaus Mueller 

Founder and Chair of the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum, Klaus Mueller, writes for Forum's Forum Original series

This article first appeared on Forum. The article is also available in French, German, Greek, Polish, and Spanish.

We are experiencing a growing global polarisation on human rights, sexuality, and gender. In this politics of division, homophobia and transphobia are increasingly used to discredit the prevention of gender-based violence, weaken the rule of law, and question the universality of human rights.

Turkey’s defence for its decision to leave the Istanbul Convention (which aims to protect women against violence and, in its core, all victims of discrimination) followed a well-established script: it denounced the Convention’s modest acknowledgment of LGBT equality. President Erdoğan’s spokesperson, Fahrettin Altun, said the Convention’s original intention had been “hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalise homosexuality”, and it wasn’t compatible with Turkey’s social and family values.

Already the basic protection of LGBT people was deplored as a liberal western agenda. European governments and extremist parties utilise the same repetitive buzzwords for their own political agenda of “illiberal democracy”, like Poland and Hungary, and their threat to leave the Istanbul Convention as well.

This politics of division has grown globally over the past few years, denouncing LGBT equality as a symbol for a world gone wrong. Because, more often than not, it seems to work for their anti-democratic campaigns. A globally connected movement towards more intolerance, claiming to “protect family and religion” and a strong anti-gender agenda, makes itself felt in North America, Europe, Russia, Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

Hate, bullying, legal discrimination, rape, or murder due to sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or intersex status occur worldwide. In 72 states, governments legitimise and sponsor violence. Even where LGBT people benefit from legal protection and growing acceptance within society, history still looms large.

The Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum, formed in 2013 as a global space to reflect upon and advance LGBT equality, explores these politics of division. As a transnational network of leaders from 76 countries, we have witnessed that while there is rapid progress on LGBT equality in some nations, there is severe backlash in others. Often states and non-state actors use so-called “traditional” family values, their claim of an “attacked” national and cultural sovereignty, or a reference to religious traditions as a call to “defend” their notions of purity. Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum, explores how these campaigns affect the notions of family, faith, and equality globally.

Family values?

Being part of a family is a fundamental human condition as well as a human right. All of us long to feel at home with our birth families, our families of choice, and the families we raise. Equally, we all have the right to live safely within the cultures and countries in which we are raised. This sense of belonging, connection, and wellbeing are what we call feeling “at home”.

Yet, while much progress has been made in recent years, being truly “at home” remains out of reach for many LGBT individuals. So-called “traditional family values” are claimed to justify exclusion: of lesbian, gay, trans- and intersexual citizens from legal protection; of daughters and sons from their families, their neighbourhoods, their culture, and even their country.

As our Fellows discussed, laws and cultural practices often defended as “traditional” are relics of western colonialism and its moral and legal codes that stigmatised homosexuality and transgenderism. Neo-colonial missionaries make best friends with authoritarian rulers who use homo- and transphobia as an easy way to divide and rule.

The consequences are dire: a significantly higher rate of LGBT teenage suicides, a disproportionate percentage of LGBT youth being homeless, and an alarming increase in murders of trans and gender-diverse people between 2008 and 2020.

Our Fellows shared their personal experiences of acceptance, silence, or exclusion in their families and ways to heal and protect families in all their shapes and forms in the interview-based film, Family Is...? It is remarkable to see these struggles happen in families all around the globe. Why does this violence against LGBT children seem to find widespread open, or silent, acceptance?

Exclusion is not a family value. It is an attack on the social fabric of our lives and the core idea of family: safety, inclusion, and love. Exclusion impacts not only those driven from their homes but tears apart the incomplete families and communities they are forced to leave behind.

Faith communities and their LGBT people

Last year, the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum, started the Global Online Forum on LGBT and Faith, bringing together members and leaders of faith communities from within Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, plus agnostics, atheists, anthropologists, and cultural believers.

Worldwide, LGBT people are increasingly insisting on their inclusion in faith communities and cultural traditions. Many religious congregations have begun to interpret their own beliefs in more inclusive ways in response to these calls and actions.

When we started, many of us still mentally held onto an imagined separation of LGBT and faith communities as two communities opposite each other. Listening to our Fellows, however, it became obvious that this juxtaposition is part of the problem. It does not do justice to the lived reality of many LGBT individuals around the world. LGBT people have been, are, and will be part of faith communities, and people of faith have been, are, and will be part of LGBT communities. We are not strangers to each other.

Faith communities unresponsive to the needs of their LGBT members counteract their core values of community, empathy, and respect. The politics of division often define communities by who belongs (we) and who does not belong (them). But LGBT people grow up within their families and often are raised within faith communities. They are not coming “from the outside”. Our Fellows urge the eradication of such long-held polarisations and not to invoke deities for a message of dehumanisation or hate.

Politics of division versus equality

Polarisation obscures a look at the reality on either side: countries claiming LGBT freedom often fall short of legal measures to ensure and protect LGBT equality. Look at the FRA survey on the discrimination of LGBT people in the European Union for further insight. Countries or regions branding themselves as "LGBT free zones" have active LGBT communities and inclusive cultural and diverse histories that they are now striving to censor.

Leaving the Istanbul Convention is divide-and-rule politics. It displays indifference towards the lasting effects of violence: violence against women; violence against LGBT children and their families; violence as endangering social cohesion. Yes, that undermines families. Yes, that relativises the safety of women and LGBT people. Yes, that helps to normalise violence.

But positive change is happening on a global scale: the monumental decision by the Indian Supreme Court to decriminalise homosexuality (which was also decriminalised over the past years in Botswana, Angola, Gabon, Mozambique, Belize, Trinidad, Bhutan, among others); Argentina’s landmark legislation in recognition of gender identity; the protection of LGBT rights in South Africa’s constitution; the EU Commission’s rebuttal of the obliviousness to history in claims of "LGBT free zones".

The politics of division will not win. But how do we reduce the affective polarisation that threatens to destabilise our families, our faith communities, and our ethics of equality?


* LGBT: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. We are using this term as it is currently widely used in human rights conversations on sexual orientation and gender identity in many parts of the world, and we would wish it to be read as inclusive of other cultural concepts, contemporary or historical, to express sexuality and gender, intersex and gender non-conforming identities.

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Global Online Forum on LGBT* and Faith
Picture of Global Online Forum on LGBT* and Faith report front cover, plus partial group picture of participants taken on Zoom
Global Online Forum on LGBT* and Faith
By: Salzburg Global Seminar 

Report from the latest program of the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum now available to read, download, and share

In 2020, the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum launched a new initiative to address religion, cultural history, and LGBT inclusion (and exclusion). The Forum convened LGBT human rights defenders and cultural and religious leaders across faiths, geographies, and generations.

The Global Online Forum on LGBT* and Faith resulted in a blog series, public discussions, and online gatherings that have strengthened inclusive cooperation between religious and LGBT leaders and their communities.

Previously, the Forum held in-person events in countries such as Austria, Germany, Thailand, and Nepal. Last year's initiative was the first event that took place exclusively online.

New Fellows from 17 countries were able to engage with all Fellows of the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum through a shared webspace, plus others outside of the network through weekly Facebook debates. Fellows created an environment rich with debate, collaboration, and mutual learning.

This new report aims to capture some of those discussions and share learnings with a broader audience.

These conversations are a roadmap for the continuing work on the "Faith is…?" initiative. This initiative builds on the experience gained in the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum's"Family is…?" project, which explored the definition of family and the position of LGBT family members, including in their families of birth, families of choice, and families they raise.

"Faith is…?" adheres to freedom of religion as a principle that supports an individual or community's freedom to worship and practice their religion, the freedom to change one's religion, and the freedom not to practice a religion.

The report is now available to download, read and share:

Download the report as a PDF


The Salzburg Global Seminar program, Global Online Forum on LGBT* and Faith, is part of the annual Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum. The program was held in partnership with ILGA ASIA. The blog series was sponsored by the Archangel Michael Foundation and Germany's Federal Foreign Office. The Foreign Office also sponsored the online fellow gatherings. GIZ sponsored the public webinar.

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Happiness and Harmonization as Bhutan Decriminalizes Homosexuality
Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum Fellows from Bhutan (clockwise from top left): Pema Dorji, Ugyen Tshering, Passang Dorji, Namgay Zam, Madan Kumar Chhetri and Ugyen Wangdi
Happiness and Harmonization as Bhutan Decriminalizes Homosexuality
By: Salzburg Global Seminar 

Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum Fellows help end colonial-era laws against “unnatural sex” in Bhutan

The Himalayan nation of Bhutan has become the latest country in the world to finally decriminalize homosexuality – a move met with much joy by the LGBT community in a country renowned for its “Gross National Happiness” index.

Bhutanese Salzburg Global Fellows had been prominently active in the decriminalization efforts in their country.

In recent years, while advances in trans rights had been made – trans men and women are able to obtain official identification aligned with their gender identity, as one LGBT Forum Fellow from Bhutan was able to gain in 2017 – Bhutan, like much of the region, had previously maintained colonial-era anti-sodomy laws, effectively criminalizing homosexuality and marginalizing the LGBT community in the country.

The move on December 10, 2020 to finally decriminalize homosexuality comes following a long period of legal “harmonization” launched in 2008 to align all of Bhutan’s existing laws with the new constitution (the country’s first written constitution), which guaranteed many fundamental human rights.

“The Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum is thrilled about the decision of the Bhutan parliament to decriminalize homosexuality with an absolute majority and warmly congratulates our six Bhutan Forum Fellows who worked so hard to make this happen: activists Pema DorjiPassang DorjiNamgay Zam and Ugyen Tshering, and Bhutan Parliamentarians Ugyen Wangdi and Madan Chhetri,” says Klaus Mueller, founder and chair of the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum.

In 2016, Wangdi and Chhetri requested to join the program The Many Faces of LGBT Inclusion in Thailand as part of the harmonization process, specifically looking at Sections 213 and 214 of the Bhutanese penal code which criminalized “unnatural sex”, widely interpreted as homosexuality. 

The two parliamentarians were accompanied by Bhutanese LGBT activists Pema Dorji and Passang Dorji (no relation) who shared with great honesty the repercussions legal, cultural and family exclusions had on their lives. 

When asked in 2016, immediately following their participation in the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum program, what were the most important insights they had gained through their participation in the Forum, Wangdi noted three things: the importance of terminology, the challenges faced by LGBT people with regards to families and marriage and state-sponsored LGBT extremism.

“That struck me most because anything can happen if law is not correct and right and it can affect the community, society and country as a whole,” he reflected.

Passang Dorji was also positive about the chance to forge connections with the parliamentarians, remarking in 2016: “I felt the highest level of happiness in talking face-to-face, and discussing one-on-one about our issues, policies and laws that our country is reviewing.”

These new relations meant that upon returning to Bhutan, Wangdi and Chhetri worked not only with their colleagues in parliament but also with their newfound colleagues from the Forum. 

Speaking to Reuters news agency after the passage of the new legislation, Wangdi said that the bill had passed unopposed with 63 of the total 69 members of both houses of parliament voting in favor; six members were absent. “Homosexuality will not be considered as unnatural sex now,” he added.

“It is wonderful to see that parliamentarian Ugyen Wangdi then became the vice chairperson of the parliamentary joint panel leading the process to explicitly exclude homosexuality from the definition of ‘unnatural sex’ through an exception clause,” said Mueller.

Bhutan activists found allies outside of parliament also, in particular Namgay Zam, executive director of the Journalists; Association of Bhutan, who joined the LGBT* Forum in 2019 at the program Advancing Legal and Social Equality in South Asia held in Nepal. Zam worked closely with Pema Dorji and other LGBT activists to keep decriminalization at the forefront of the harmonization agenda, supported by other activists within the LGBT* Forum network with experience of overturning such legislation in their own countries.

Reflecting on the historic ruling in December, Mueller said: “Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum is excited to have being part of this transformation process that accelerates recent legal changes in South Asia that advance LGBT equality.” 

* LGBT: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. We are using this term as it is currently widely used in human rights conversations on sexual orientation and gender identity in many parts of the world, and we would wish it to be read as inclusive of other cultural concepts, contemporary or historical, to express sexuality and gender, intersex and gender non-conforming identities.

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This is a quilt called "Molehills”, created by my wife, Catherine C. Sherman, a San Francisco-based quilt artist. Her quilts join vintage fabrics and modern materials together, “treasures old and new, colliding and creating new meaning.” They are meditations on hope and healing, and an artistic embodiment of the beauty of the process of “ressourcement” and “aggiornamento.” (You can find more on her website piecemovement.com).
Scot Sherman: “I Could No Longer Unsee What I Was Seeing, or Unhear What I Was Hearing”
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A candidate for the priesthood in the Episcopal Church explains how disruptive empathy and storytelling are required for faith communities to move forward with inclusion and change 
 

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Ecuadorian photographer documents illegal anti-LGBT, conversion clinics through her “visual activism” project Until You Change

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By: Saira Mujtaba 

A niece remembers her gay uncle’s suicide and calls upon her Muslim community to include and protect their LGBT family members in the latest blog of the Salzburg Global Online Forum on LGBT* and Faith

 
 

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Victor Ciobotaru: “The More I Prayed, the More I Became Aware That I Am Gay and I Will Never Change”
Victor Ciobotaru: “The More I Prayed, the More I Became Aware That I Am Gay and I Will Never Change”
By: Victor Ciobotaru 

A young Romanian pastor-to-be describes how LGBT Christians reach out to him even while their churches deny their existence 
 

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