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Family is...?
Salzburg Global LGBT Forum Fellow, filmmaker Cha Roque shares photos of her and her daughter, Kelsey. Her latest film – What I Would Have Told My Daughter If I Knew What To Say Back Then – received its European première in Salzburg in 2017.
Family is...?
Louise Hallman 

The Salzburg Global LGBT Forum prides itself on providing a safe space in which LGBT activists, artists and allies can engage in open and candid conversations. It was in this environment of trust and understanding that the “Family is…” project was born — encouraging participants of all ages and
nationalities to share their experiences of living in, building and raising a family.

The “Family is…” project was developed with support from the German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth. The Ministry’s support of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum began with its participation in the 2014 session in Berlin, Creating Long-Term Global Networks to Sustain LGBT Human Rights Organizations. Since its launch at the 2015 session, Strengthening Communities: LGBT Rights and Social Cohesion, “Family is…” has seen dozens of Fellows share their family experiences – be that on panels at sessions, in working groups or on film.

Speaking at the 2015 session, State Secretary Ralf Kleindiek explained why his ministry is supporting the project: “Collaboration with the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum is important because family is for most people a crucial part of their lives, of their identities.”

Being part of a family is a fundamental human condition, but the way one defines family can vary widely depending on to whom you speak. How we define “family” or advocate so-called “traditional family values” can be a form of exclusion and discrimination.

“It is important that we have a very wide interpretation of what family is,” explains Kleindiek. “Family is whenever people of different generations look after each other. Married or unmarried, with children or not, old and young, same-sex or heterosexual couples. It is a very serious matter of discrimination if we define family as a closed unit.”

For some, family may be defined by blood relations or marital ties. But as Klaus Mueller remarked at the opening of the 2015 session: “None of us come from families that were prepared for us.”

Through “Family is…” Fellows have shared, candidly and movingly, how families of birth can be hugely supportive or painfully abusive. Stories shared range from those who have received tentative or outright acceptance from their parents, siblings and extended family, to those who had suffered stinging rejections and even physical abuse as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

At the 2016 session, The Many Faces of LGBT Inclusion, held in Chiang Rai, Thailand, Fellows learned  how definitions and practices of family across Asia give or withhold space for LGBT family members and how these practices have changed over time. In many countries across the region, it is typical for multiple generations of families to live together in the same house, leaving few opportunities for independence or privacy. Nepalese and Bhutanese Fellows told the international audience of their compatriots’ ancient beliefs that one cannot die in peace until one has seen the face of their grandchild.

A family’s “honor” is important in countries such India, with certain behaviors or actions considered “dishonorable” and worthy of a variety of often severe punishments, including death. Such attitudes can have serious negative implications for LGBT people, with a number of the participants over the course of the three-year project sharing personal stories or anecdotes of how they or their friends have been cast out of their families for being LGBT. Syrian author Danny Ramadan recalled how his father took the news of his coming out at aged 17: “He has a very heavy hand. After a week I had to leave my family’s home – never to come back. And I have never been back ever since.” Ramadan, now 33, lives in Canada.

As a result of this exclusion, many LGBT people seek to establish “alternative families” or “families of choice” that offer them the love and security they did not find or cannot rely on with their families of birth.

“Alternative family is extremely important,” says Abha Bhaiya, executive director of the Jagori Rural Charitable Trust in India. “I personally find it’s not enough to have a biological family – that is one part of our lives, it’s important, but not sufficient. For me it has always been about creating a collective of like-minded people, where you can have dialogue together and support each other. To be able to give your shoulder to others and put your head on other’s shoulders.”

“I have found an alternative family where we have love and care,” shared one Fellow in Thailand. He had been cut off from his family and had at one point turned to sex work to help fund his university studies. His new family now includes both parental figures and siblings. “To me, family is where there is acceptance and respect. I have found that now,” he says.

Other Fellows have been luckier in their family’s responses, sharing stories of initial rejection but eventual reconciliation, with their families’ understanding growing over time and after many conversations. As Mariano Ruiz, communications officer for IDAHOT (International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia) explains, despite having grown up in a very traditional Argentinian family, his mother has been very supportive: “Without her support, I could never be able to be who I am…. I demonstrated to her that things change, that I will sometime in the future be able to raise kids and have a family as she expected, but not in a traditional way of a man and a woman.”

This desire to raise a family, as well as feel part of one, is one shared by many heterosexual/cisgender people and LGBT people alike – and a desire that is increasingly becoming a legal reality and right for many LGBT people across the world. As of August 2017, 25 countries have fully legalized same-sex marriage or are in the process of adopting it; three more countries recognize marriages performed oversees; and civil unions are recognized in a further 16 countries. Many of these countries also have legalized adoption by same-sex couples.

However, outside of those countries, for LGBT people who choose to raise their own families, legal protections can be sparse, leaving children vulnerable should anything happen to their biological parent – there is little guarantee that their non-biological parent will be able to continue to care for them.

“[In the Philippines] there is no legal tool that supports my family of two mothers and one daughter,” explains filmmaker and mom, Cha Roque. “In an emergency situation, my mom will be there to speak at the hospital because my partner does not have that prerogative.”

But even in countries where full legal recognition and protections are lacking, legally binding workarounds have been found. For example, in Cambodia, same-sex couple recognition does not exist so they increasingly rely on Family Book Records. These documents are used to register extended family members but its flexibility allows same-sex families to register adopted or biological children, giving them legal recognition as a family.

“Family to me is a community of love that we create by choice, as opposed to just one we are born into,” says Danish Sheikh, a lawyer and LGBT rights advocate in India. “It is an institution that can be incredibly disempowering – but also unleash power.”

Sharing his hopes for the “Family is…” project back in 2015, Secretary Kleindiek said: “We learn from the LGBT Forum how discussions in Germany influence them, and how their discussions in other countries influence us in Germany… Indeed, we are trailing behind.” For LGBT equality in Germany, a victory was finally won in 2017 when the German Bundestag voted to legalize gay marriage, which in turn also gave same-sex couples full adoption rights.

As former Australian high court judge, Michael Kirby reflected during his “Family is…” video testimonial in 2015: “We all have that family, most of who are heterosexual, and that is our outreach into the rest of society. It’s hard to hate the people you love.”

By sharing these personal stories, the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum seeks to challenge misrepresentations of families and their LGBT members; document the lived reality of families around the globe today; and hopes to contribute to building stronger, more inclusive societies, communities – and families.


Hyun Kyung Kim on becoming part of the minority

Yinhe Li on how Chinese cultural values force gay men and women into heterosexual marriage


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In Conversation - Klaus Mueller and Ralf Kleindiek
Ralf Kleindiek is the State Secretary, German Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth. He is a Fellow of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum having participated in three sessions in 2014, 2016 and 2017.
In Conversation - Klaus Mueller and Ralf Kleindiek
Ivan Capriles 

The implication of family definitions for exclusion and discrimination has been an issue that has brought together the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum and the German Ministry for Family Affairs since the Forum’s 2014 session in Berlin.

In 2015, Mueller and State Secretary Ralf Kleindiek introduced a three-year collaboration on “Family is…” at the session Strengthening Communities: LGBT Rights and Social Cohesion. The Forum has conducted a series of conversations and more than 40 video interviews over three years to develop a global portrait of families today. Its documentary film Family is…? A Global Conversation was based on these testimonies and premièred in May 2017 at the German Ministry of Family Affairs in Berlin. 


Mueller When our Forum met in 2014 at the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ralf said: “Come to us too to talk about family issues.” Out of this, we developed this new cooperation on “Family is...” as we both believe in the need to embrace families of all kinds and shapes.

Kleindiek: Collaboration with the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum is important because family is for most people a crucial part of their lives, of their identities. It is important that we have a very wide interpretation of what family is. Family is whenever people of different generations look after each other. Married or unmarried, with children or not, old and young, same-sex or heterosexual couples. It is a very serious matter of discrimination if we define family as a closed unit.

Mueller: What is the state of affairs in Germany? Why can’t Germany keep up when compared to Spain or Ireland?

Kleindiek: Indeed, we are trailing behind.* There is a lot of discussion now, especially after the decision in Ireland [Ireland had just voted in favor of same-sex marriage a month before the 2015 session – the first popular vote of its kind]. But our conservative coalition partner blocks equality, and Chancellor Angela Merkel defines marriage as “exclusively between a man and a woman.” Within the Ministry of Family Affairs led by my party, we are making clear changes, but we lack a majority.

Mueller: How are LGBT issues dealt with now in the ministry? I think you told me once that the acronym wasn’t even there until recently?

Kleindiek: When I arrived at the ministry, we had a unit for families on “special situations.” I wondered if it was a special unit for vulnerable families or in poverty, but it was about same-sex couples. Imagine, that was a surprise! Now there is a unit for sexual orientation and gender identities and we coordinate our government politics for that issue across all ministries.

Mueller: Symbolic politics are important. What does the ministry do in contexts such as LGBT Pride?

Kleindiek: We will raise the rainbow flag at our ministry. There was a lot of resistance. We had a discussion because of the regulations for flags on federal buildings. I brought this discussion to state secretaries’ meetings. We found a compromise. Initially, those ministries that wanted to raise the rainbow flag could do so for two days. But now we can do it for a week. For us, this is an important symbol in order to raise awareness and further the discussion.


* In June 2017, the German Bundestag voted to legalize gay marriage, which in turn also gave same-sex couples full adoption rights. Chancellor Angela Merkel voted against the bill. The bill passed by 393 to 226 with four abstentions.


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Our Families
Family photos of LGBT Forum Fellows
Our Families
Nicole Bogart 

In collaboration with the German Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum has collected video testimonies of authentic stories from our Fellows about their experiences with their families. These stories include their families of birth, the alternative families they have chosen for themselves and the families they are now raising.


Families We’re Born Into

The families we’re born into represent our “biological families”  and ancestral heritage. While LGBT people are an integral part of their biological families, they often struggle with their families’ acceptance due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. For some, identifying as LGBT threatens the innate feeling of safety within their families of birth and the communities in which they were raised, while others may gradually find support and understanding from loved ones.

Michael Kirby,  Australia

“I told my siblings first… My mother, I never voiced it until a week before she died. I didn’t feel comfortable about not telling her in her lifetime. So I said: ‘Mum, there is something I feel I ought to tell you,’ and when I did so, she looked at me and she said: ‘Michael, you’ve been bringing Johan (my partner) here for the last 30 years, every Sunday. Do you think I came down in the last shower?’ [An Australian expression for ‘Do you think I’m naïve?’] …That is the great strength of LGBTIQ people: We all have that family, most of who are heterosexual, and that is our outreach into the rest of society. It’s hard to hate people you love.”

Manisha Dhakal, Nepal

“I hid myself within my family… They knew that I was a feminine guy from childhood; my voice is soft, and I used to find it easier to grow up with my sisters and my mother. They know. In childhood that is OK. But when I grew up because of the prejudice issue [they became] very scared for me. They didn’t allow me to go to the office for three days and for those three days I took that opportunity. I told them all the things that I faced as who I am, and that changed me a lot. [It made me realize] how important it is to convince the family, and how to get the support from the family. If we get support from the family then we can progress a lot in our personality, in our activism. If there is no support from the family, it’s very difficult to work in activism.”

Saskia Wieringa,The Netherlands

“My family of birth instilled in me two values; the sense of justice, because they were fighters against the Nazi occupation of Holland, and that is a positive feeling within me. Secondly, a feeling that is very negative in me: the narrow-minded religious fanaticism, with its heteronormative morality, which led to my being silent for weeks on end when I was an adolescent. What I wanted to say I couldn’t say, it wasn’t appreciated. And what they wanted me to say I could not say, I refused to say.”

Bao Chau Nguyen, Vietnam

“After my coming out [my mother] told me I can be anyone that I want, she just wanted me to be happy. I was like, ‘Oh, my mom accepted me.’ But after that she and my father tried to change me a lot. She bought me a lot of girly clothes; this pink sweater that I never wore. But now, the last time she talked in public at my graduation, she said she knows that she is the mom of a transgender [man] and she is proud of me.”


Families We Choose

Family, by its very definition, aims to provide a sense of belonging, unconditional love and support. But when our families of birth fail to provide us with those securities, to whom do we turn? Overwhelmingly, our Fellows agree their families of choice play a vital role in their lives, their self-acceptance and their feeling of safety and security.

Danish Sheikh, India

“I think family for me means something that’s not connected to the biological sphere. So I strongly believe that the families that are really important are the families that we make as we go along, and the families that exist outside the prescribed bounds of kinship, reproduction, biology and the State sponsorship. I believe, as a gay man, I have the possibility of building little communities of love; it doesn’t have to be the one that I was born into.”

Passang Dorji, Bhutan

“To me family is a structure or institute formed with the bedrocks of love. Where there is care and support together, at all times, and when there is care and support of each other, then this can be a family, whether it be biological or family of choice. I am more comfortable with families of choice.”

Nader Turkmani, Syria / Norway

“I have a new family. Kind of. I lost some members of my biological family, or the family I used to have [during the war in Syria]. But right now I have my chosen family, my
husband, my partner. I have my friends, my network. My LGBT community there [in Turkey where he was a refugee for two years]. We are starting a new network in Bergen, in Norway. So I believe this is my family.” 


Saskia Wieringa, The Netherlands

“I started building the family that I really wanted to have; my own family, composed of my friends, my family’s friends, my lesbian friends, my lovers, my ex-lovers, my daughter. That’s my life now as it is: I’m an activist, I’m a mother, I’m a grandmother, I’m a partner and I’m proud of the families I have established.”

Angeline Jackson, Jamaica

“Family is about love and safety. So for me it’s about my birth family, who are able to love me in the best way that they can possibly do as I identify as a lesbian. But also for me it is the family of choice: the friends that I make, the secondary mothers and secondary fathers and my partner. That for me is what a family is right now.”

Families We Raise

Much progress has been made to embed LGBT equality as a fundamental part of the global human rights agenda, including the right to create one’s family, be it through same-sex partnership laws or adoption rights for LGBT couples. Though many still struggle for these legal rights and visibility, many LGBT individuals continue to redefine their meaning of family by raising families of their own.

Wanja Kilber, Germany

“[My son] is the lucky one. He has two loving moms – the best moms in the world; he has me, trying to be a good father; he has my partner. The politicians just have to deal with it. It’s not that seldom – a lot of people have two mothers and two fathers, if their parents get divorced and married again. It’s not a new situation, politicians just have to accept it and make it the new reality. [He is now] seven weeks and four days young, and getting happier every day. I was dreaming about it, since I can remember, and I always knew, sooner or later, I was going to be a father.”

Kelsey, Cha Roque’s daughter

“A few months ago, I came out to my friends. But wait, it wasn’t me who really came out. I told them my mommy is a lesbian and thought, ‘So that is how it feels to come out.’ Even if you’re not the person herself, you’re going to get anxious thinking they’ll despise you. If you have a family a loved one who is an LGBT [person], show the world that you’re proud of them. Then maybe, little by little, the world will start to accept and love them… I got judged and laughed at for having a lesbian mom… I was bullied for not having a dad. But I told them ‘It’s okay, I have two mommies!’”

Cha Roque, The Philippines

“We are very open in communicating with each other, but we don’t really talk about it like, ‘Mom I accept you for being a lesbian.’ It’s not an everyday thing. When you hear this being delivered by your daughter, in front of other people, it’s really heartwarming… She is very outspoken on her social media accounts. If there is an issue about LGBT or human rights issues in particular, she will always say something about it.”

Tamara Adrián, Venezuela

“I had my initial family as a heterosexual man. It was a perfect nuclear family. But things changed when I opened up about being a trans person. I could not see my children for years because their other mother didn’t let me. My children and I restarted our relationship eight years ago. They are independent individuals with no rush to get married. Now I am a bit afraid that I will not be a grandmother soon!”



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Hiroko Masuhara - “A Very Strong Message to Japanese Society”
Hiroko Masuhara is a Fellow of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum, having participated in the 2017 session — Home: Safety, Wellness and Belonging.
Hiroko Masuhara - “A Very Strong Message to Japanese Society”
Nicole Bogart 

When Hiroko Masuhara and her wife married in 2013* their partnership not only marked a significant milestone in their own lives but also for all same-sex couples and even society-at-large in Japan: They were the first couple to be issued Japan’s first-ever certificate recognizing a same-sex union.

“In the last three years, Japanese society has changed very rapidly,” she says. “[My wife and I] obtained the first issued same-sex partnership certificate by Shibuya city [a city district in Tokyo]. This changed a lot about the notion of family and marriage in Japan. In Japan, to be ‘normal’ is a very strong message – but [the fact that] same-sex couples can be happy and build their own families is a very strong message to society.”

Same-sex marriage is not legal in Japan and these certificates are currently only issued in two districts of the capital, Tokyo. The same-sex partnership certificates are mostly symbolic, allowing couples to sign a notarized document promising to love and protect each other. While the certificates ensure partners can become each other’s life insurance recipients, hospitals, landlords and businesses are not legally bound to recognize them.

These certificates did, however, ignite further conversation about LGBT rights in Japan, especially in the corporate world. “Japanese companies, not only global companies like Google and Apple, but domestic Japanese companies started to face LGBT employees and consumers. [More] companies started LGBT training and [offered] welfare for LGBT employees,” she says.

Masuhara now specializes in promoting LGBT inclusiveness in the workplace by delivering diversity training for private companies. “When I was young, I couldn’t dream of making my family, and possibly having children, but now I can,” she says. “Young generations in Japan have the possibility and the choice to make a family.”

She continues: “When I was young there wasn’t social media, so I didn’t know that there were many LGBT people in the world, or in Japan, or in my own town. But now kids can Google. There are many chances to be yourself, for younger generations.”

But for all the positive progression for LGBT individuals in Japanese society, there is still work that needs to be done. “We have many problems still,” says Masuhara, “like bullying at schools and high suicide rates among younger LGBT people. So even if, as a society, [we’ve taken] good steps forward, the problems remain. We have to fight against homophobia and transphobia. We have to promote diversity and raise awareness of LGBT people.”


Hiroko Masuhara on change in Japan on LGBT human rights

*This interview was conducted in May 2017. In December 2017, Masuhara and Koyuki Higashi announced they had ended their six-and-a-half-year relationship and returned their partnership certificate to Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward. In a joint statement posted on their websites, they said, “We will continue to work together on issues surrounding LGBT, SOGI (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) and women and children’s rights.” The statement said they would also remain good friends.


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Family is... A Global Conversation
Family is... A Global Conversation
Klaus Mueller 

The Salzburg Global LGBT Forum has conducted nearly 100 video interviews over three years, over 40 of which focused on developing a global portrait of families and their LGBT members today. Our 2017 documentary film Family is…? A Global Conversation is based on these testimonies. We invite you to share the film – a free resource – widely through your networks, at film festivals, or on your website. 

Being part of family is a fundamental human condition as well as a human right. All of us long to feel at home with the families of our birth, in the families of our choosing, and in the families we raise. But how do we narrate our own stories of family?

Throughout our three-year project “Family is…” we interviewed Fellows and collected their authentic stories. They shared their personal experiences of acceptance, silence and exclusion in their families and ways to heal and protect families in all their shapes and forms. You can watch all the interviews on our YouTube channel.

The interviews on family are part of our larger collection of testimonies through which Forum members share their professional expertise and life experience. These are all also available on our website.

Our 2017 film documentary Family is…? A Global Conversation premiered in May 2017 at the German Ministry of Family Affairs in Berlin with whom we partnered on this project. State Secretary Ralf Kleindiek and Klaus Mueller thank all the Fellows for sharing their stories and enabling this global and complex portrait of family and their LGBT members. 

Family is…? A Global Conversation


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Seeking Safety
Seeking Safety
Klaus Mueller 

“With our house being ransacked, with us being attacked, with all the news spreading… Those were the things that kind of escalated to a point where we couldn’t live there anymore.” [Noël]

“Getting death threats… random people anonymously sending you your photo, your phone number, your address, and telling you ‘We know who are and we are going to kill you.’ It is a very uncertain condition which paralyzes you.” [Negede]

- Noël Iglessias and Negede Gezahegn, Founders of DANA Social Group, LGBTI rights organization in Ethiopia


Legislative discrimination, social alienation and hate speech can all impact the safety of LGBT people, their wellbeing and sense of belonging. Addressing persecution and anti-LGBT extremism has been a major feature in many of our discussions. Forum members shared their expertise that homophobia and transphobia and hatred cannot be diminished to only the activities of fringe groups or individuals. Globally we see that this anti-LGBT prejudice permeates actions led and enforced by many political, legal, religious, cultural or economic systems that reinforce each other.

Persecution also happens behind closed doors. Research on identity-based violence has found that in some situations, 80 percent of anti-LGBT extremism occurs as domestic and household violence. Often, social media platforms enable LGBT individuals to break out of their isolation and to learn about their communities. But online bullying, surveillance and hate campaigns can also subject them to new dangers, as we learned in training sessions from online security experts.

At the global scale, migration and exile shape the lives of many LGBT individuals as well as the communities and families they are forced to leave behind. Refugees from countries including Ethiopia, Syria, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Guatemala shared their stories and explained their specific needs and challenges. Activists responding to recent attacks of anti-LGBT extremism in countries such as Chechnya, Indonesia, or Uganda reported on emergency measures, but also warned about the growing trend of Western-based religious extremists exporting anti-LGBT hate speech and contributing to anti-LGBT laws in Russia, Uganda, Nigeria, Jamaica and elsewhere.

How should we react? Supporting causes and bringing attention to a specific country is important but context sensitivity is crucial. Sometimes the political voices of overseas LGBT organizations do more harm than good to local LGBT groups. International solidarity is important, but needs to be guided by local LGBT groups. Gathering evidence and documentation on violence helps to build cases, statistics and better policy to tackle anti-LGBT extremism and persecution.

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LGBT Refugees

Fleeing Home: LGBT Refugees’ Stories

Profile: Bisi Alimi

Profile: Irene Fedorovych

Profile: Pema Dorji

The Role of Rule of Law

Legal Advances for LGBT Rights

Staying Save Online and IRL


 

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The Plight of LGBT Refugees
Negede Gezahegn embraces Mariano Ruiz at the 2017 session of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum – Home: Safety, Belonging and Wellbeing – six months after he and fellow activist Noël Iglessias fled Ethiopia for safety in Austria.
The Plight of LGBT Refugees
Louise Hallman 

The plight of asylum seekers and displaced people is high on the global agenda as the world faces its greatest refugee crisis since the World War II. LGBT refugees encounter further struggles as they continue to face prejudice and persecution through the asylum system and in their receiving countries. The Salzburg Global LGBT Forum has been addressing the issues of LGBT refugees since its beginnings, with a special focus placed on their trials at the 2017 session, Home: Safety, Belonging and Wellbeing.

Forced “cures.” Homes vandalized. Vicious beatings. Friends murdered. These are just some of the reasons why a number of Fellows of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum have fled their home countries and sought refuge overseas.

Just as the global population of forcibly displaced people has grown substantially from 33.9 million in 1997 to 65.6 million in 2016 (according to the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency), so too has the number of LGBT refugees grown. According the UK’s Home Office (interior ministry), applications for asylum in the country on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity has risen 400 percent between 2009 and 2014 – even before incorporating the large influx of refugees that Europe saw in 2015.
Homosexuality remains criminalized in 72 countries around the world, with several countries – or non-state actors within the country, such as the so-called “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria – imposing the death penalty for same-sex relations. Even in some of the 120 countries where homosexuality has been decriminalized, LGBT people still face great social stigma and frequent persecution.

A matter of safety or death
Ethiopian activists, Noël Iglessias and Negede Gezahegn were repeatedly harassed by their neighbors after their LGBT advocacy efforts were uncovered. Their home was ransacked twice and they received death threats after they launched an online campaign called “Stop The Hate, Spread The Love.” “We remember one particular message we received: ‘I am going to get a machete in the name love, name it ‘love’ and kill all of you while declaring the love of God,’” they shared when they returned to the Forum in 2017 for Home: Safety, Belonging and Wellbeing. They had first attended the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum in 2015 under the condition of official anonymity. Their names and photographs did not appear in any materials for fear of putting their safety in further jeopardy.

However, by the time they were invited back to Salzburg for another, non-LGBT Forum session in December 2016, their situation – much like the rest of the country, which was placed in a national state of emergency – had dramatically worsened. “At that time, we were in a dark state. While in Salzburg, the threats kept coming. It became a matter of safety or death. We had our lives, studies, job, community and activism in Ethiopia but it hit us that we were feeling alienated in our very country of birth. We decided to seek asylum in Austria.” The two friends were granted asylum in Austria in August 2017 and are receiving administrative and emotional support from participants of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum and the local LGBT community as they start to build their new lives in the foreign country they will now call home. 

Continuing difficulties
Making the decision to leave everything – friends, family, support networks, jobs – behind and seek safety in a foreign country is just one of the many struggles refugees have to face. LGBT refugees are often struck with further difficulties as they continue to face persecution and discrimination during the asylum process. Non-activists can find it especially difficult, explains Michael Heflin, director of equality for the Open Society Human Rights Initiative: “When refugees are trying to enter a country to seek asylum, one of the biggest problems they face is that through the asylum process, you have to prove that you personally have well-founded fear of persecution. In their own countries, they had to lie about their identity and had to live in secrecy. But if you have been very secretive about your life, because you know the situation is dangerous, often it becomes hard to prove that you personally have a well-founded fear of persecution.”

While the UNHCR has started implementing guidelines to better protect LGBT refugees and sensitizing local personnel, these improvements are slow to “trickle down” the entire system. The European Asylum Support Office offers specialized training on how to best handle LGBT asylum cases, but this training is not mandatory. Language barriers can be a common hurdle to overcome for all migrants, but this can be further heightened for LGBT asylum seekers. “In some countries there are no ways to express certain aspects of sexualities and that cannot be solved by training immigration officers. So to explain stories, experiences, and to communicate them in a way that is understood as they are meant to be understood is a challenge,” explained Lucas Hendriksen, program officer for LGBT rights at HIVOS, a Dutch development organization, at the 2015 session, Strengthening Communities: LGBT Rights and Social Cohesion.

As Mary Audry Chard, board member and co-chair of the organization Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) shared on the 2015 panel, “Extreme Forms of Exclusion,” in camps, other refugees sometimes attack their LGBT compatriots; this situation worsened when the UN fast-tracks LGBT cases, thus generating a perception of LGBT privilege and igniting further anger in the camps. LGBT individuals and same-sex couples can often be discriminated against in the refugee system, which is biased towards (heterosexual) families. Fear of further persecution in the camps leads some refugees to further flee again. Outside of the camps, without passports or any legal access to support services, these refugees are especially vulnerable to corruption, human trafficking and illegal activities such as sex work, says Stella Murungi, a protection officer in the Security Management and Protection Department at the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project (EHAHRDP) in Uganda. 

Once they have arrived in the receiving country, many refugees struggle to adjust. Depression and “activism guilt” are worryingly common. Many refugees seek a sense of belonging in their diaspora communities in receiving countries. This option is often unavailable to LGBT refugees. “Your own nationals can make you feel unsafe in a new place, since you do not know their political affiliations or LGBT attitudes,” explained a Russian Fellow. Many refugees who struggle to adjust feel homesick – and thus face accusations of being ungrateful to their host country. While he is grateful to Canada and the opportunities his new home has afforded him, as Syrian refugee Danny Ramadan recalls: “I couldn’t say that I missed home, because it felt impolite. But I missed it; it’s the place where I climbed a tree, where I kissed a boy the first time.”

Lacking a support system, “people may contemplate suicide because they had a good job and the process takes long or they go to an isolated village in Europe or end up unemployed. They get depressed,” explains Dennis Wamala, program manager at Icebreakers Uganda, an LGBT support NGO in the country. In the past decade, Wamala estimates that Uganda has seen nearly 70 percent of its LGBT activists leave. He often stays up at night “talking to extremely depressed people living abroad.”

Diaspora tensions
Having a sympathetic ear on the other end of a transcontinental telephone call can be a literal lifeline for LGBT refugees, but sadly they are often regarded with suspicion by their activist peers they have left behind. This is especially the case if they have been “rescued” by well-meaning international LGBT and human rights NGOs, which often prioritize specific leaders, leaving their lesser-known colleagues behind. This focus on specific individuals can demotivate, demoralize and disempower movements at large. “In rescue missions, they ask for a name, not for lists,” explains Kasha Nabagesera, one of Africa’s most high profile LGBT activists. “The others know they won’t be rescued. How do we support members that are not as visible?” Elle Fersan, a Lebanese activist who recently relocated to the US, explained at the 2017 session that “people at home feel upset because you left and the people where you are do not often understand what you went through.” However, rather than viewing them with disdain for “abandoning” the country, she suggests that this LGBT diaspora should be embraced as a useful resource; overseas activists can provide crucial skills, networks and information for advocacy back home.

Whatever drove them to flee and whatever their fate, all refugees are seeking the same thing: safety. As they now consider their future in Austria, Iglessias and Gezahegn believe they have found this: “We are in a healing process, and we feel safe and loved. But this is still a rollercoaster of feelings as we build a new home.”


Victor Yang on who gets to sit at the table: Discrimination, racism, and difference

Wanja Kilber on LGBT refugees and violence faced in asylum center


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