Global LGBT Forum

Fleeing Home - LGBT Refugees' Stories
Syrian refugee Danny Ramadan, now living in Canada, shares his life story on camera for the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum video series.
Fleeing Home - LGBT Refugees' Stories
Nicole Bogart 

For some people, relocating to another country can be an exciting opportunity for a new life. For others, it is the only way in which they can even stay alive. The number of LGBT refugees is growing as people are forced to flee their homes in face of legal persecution and the very real threat of death – at the hands of the state or even their own neighbors. The following stories come from the personal experiences of Fellows of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum.

As an Iranian gay man living in exile in Canada, Arsham Parsi founded the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees, providing counseling and support to LGBT refugees by way of financial aid, food and healthcare. Parsi was forced to flee Iran in 2005 when his work as a queer rights activist made him known to authorities. He now works to secure international refugee protection status for an increasing number of Iranian queer asylum seekers.

“Homosexuality in Iran is punishable by death, and many people like me escape Iran to Turkey and other countries to have their basic and fundamental human rights. It is very difficult. The Iranian LGBT situation is very crucial - we don’t have human rights homosexuals, we have discrimination and violation of human rights. I hope that one day Iranian LGBTs have their own freedom and don’t need to escape Iran to have the very basic that lots of people take for granted.” 

As a gay Syrian refugee living in Canada, Danny Ramadan is familiar with the emotional toll relocation can have. Born to a conservative Muslim family, he was forced to leave home after coming out to his father at 17. He has faced relentless gay bashing online and a homophobic attack that left him hospitalized after coming out on social media. Dedicated to changing the refugee experience, Ramadan helps facilitate private sponsorships for LGBT refugees coming to Canada. His novel The Clothesline Swing, published in April 2017, addresses refugees and homophobia.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand that refugees are forced out of their own countries which they love... I love Syria. I love my own country… I’m connected to it, and I wouldn’t have left it unless I had to…

“As a refugee, I embodied certain privileges. 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. I am thankful for being in Canada and yet I was also pushed away from my country and community…

“A lot of people think this is the end of the fairytale, when people arrive at the airport and they’re like ‘Oh, you’re in Canada, everything is going to be fine now.’ You’ve left all the horrible behind and everything is good ahead of you. And that is a black and white understanding of the experience of LGBTQ refugees. To begin with, you didn’t leave all the horrible, because you also left your family; your connections; your chosen friends and family; your spiritual connection to the land itself; your familiarity of using Arabic, a language that you understand. When you are able to tell a joke to someone and they get it right away, you see what I mean? Then you face a lot of challenges when you arrive; as you go through the culture shock, finding a job and finding meaning to your life now that you are completely disconnected to everything that has meaning in your life. Yes, you remain true to your identity, but your identity doesn’t click with the community yet. I honestly believe that those challenges are very unique, but they echo in all the refugee stories that I hear. Not everyone is faced with the same challenge, but we are all faced with cultural shock, finding meaning to ourselves. Just getting to know those people, knowing how they find meaning in their lives, and seeing them building their stories, and coming here and sharing it with others is very important.”

Nader is a volunteer at a refugee center in Bergen, Norway, welcoming LGBT refugees and helping them feel safe in their new home. A Syrian refugee himself, Nader knows first-hand how important it is for refugees to build new communities and lives in their new homes. Before being granted asylum in Norway, Nader lived in Istanbul for two years where he established the “Tea and Talk” support group for Arabic-speaking LGBT refugees.

“My teenage experience with psychologists that tried to ‘cure’ my homosexuality, although deeply scarring, inspired me to study psychology and plan to study the psychology of gender and sexuality. But revolution started in 2011. I spent a year in the protests and had 27 of my friends killed.

“A cousin I had in the military service escaped to Jordan but he couldn’t stand life there so I helped him to return to Syria. One night, my mother told me of TV news announcing that terrorists were killed trying to enter from Jordan. My cousin was amongst them. He had my number on his phone so I needed to think where to go. Going into Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon all posed risks. I found my way to Egypt. I didn’t think of leaving during the revolution but the risk I faced and the way in which the revolution was taken over by Islamists left me with nothing left. Two days after leaving for Egypt, the secret police came into my house in Damascus, accusing me of aiding terrorism.

“In my brief time in Egypt, my parents supported my university studies, but the Syrian currency collapsed. I tried to work but I didn’t get paid and I was beaten in the streets for being Syrian. I thought: It’s time to leave. I moved to Jordan. Unable to work or study, I spent six months selling tea to drivers.

“I moved to Turkey, where I met photojournalist Bradley Secker and his network of friends that helped me with an asylum application. I waited for a year and a half. Suddenly, I got an asylum interview and relocated to Norway. Now, I have a loving husband, and I’m building a life in Norway. The homesickness is there and I miss my family but I feel safe and I’m healing.”

Noël and Negede
Noël Iglessias and Negede Gezahegn, LGBT activists and co-founders of DANA Social Group, a grassroots LGBT support organization in Ethiopia, have been granted asylum in Austria after facing multiple threats due to their activism; from their home being ransacked to daily death threats.                                                                                                                                   

“In 2013 we founded the DANA Social Group, an LGBT advocacy organization, in the context in which anti-gay rallies were being organized by evangelical Christian organizations. We ran an online campaign titled ‘Stop The Hate, Spread The Love’ to push the repealing of a constitutional article that criminalizes same sex relations with up to 15 years in prison. As the first LGBTI advocacy organization in Ethiopia, we tried to have the first nationwide conversation about homosexuality. We reached out to LGBT groups abroad so that our campaign could have international attention. The reaction from locals towards the campaign was very negative. 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.’ The harassments continued, but we kept at our work.

“In July 2015, after our participation in the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum, we did a ‘Rainbow Photo Project.’ In it, we showed with the rainbow flag near Addis Ababa. The slogan was ‘This is my story’ and it had a statement in Amharic [Ethiopia’s official language] and English. It became viral, but it triggered an unimaginable anger against us. It agitated the government, but also many LGBT people who were angry at the visibility it caused. Eventually, the seamstress that made the rainbow flag we photographed talked about us and neighbors found out who we were. That was a breaking point. Our house was ransacked twice and the police asked constantly for bribes. This safe space we built for the LGBT community was now being attacked. Over three years, tensions built, some of us were beaten and the neighbors and police kept harassing us.

“By 2016 a state of emergency was declared nationally and people were being killed, intimidated or detained. The threats became more direct and real, including menacing messages from the government. We hadn’t become internationally recognized or had any major significance in the LGBT movement, so we feared that our detention or death would go unnoticed.

“We received an invitation by Salzburg Global Seminar to bring an LGBT perspective to a session on genocide and extremism. 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 no longer were safe in our very country of birth. We decided to seek asylum in Austria. 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.”

Ta worked for a nonprofit that supported gay men and lesbian women in Bangladesh. After his friend Xulhaz Mannan, the founder of Roopbaan, the country’s only magazine for the LGBT community was brutally murdered, Ta briefly fled and continues to maintain a low profile for fear of attacks on him or his family.

“It was in April 2016, like any other day. My phone rang and I was told that two of my activist friends were killed in their apartment. I couldn’t go back to my home so I had to go to a secret shelter offered by our allies. On the third day after the phone call, an Islamic movement claimed the attack and announced that more people were on their list.

“In the shelters, people offered support and I ended staying there for around two months. I did not report to the police station as in Bangladesh there are cases of people who disappeared because of state security forces.

“Later I found out what happened in my friend’s on that April day: people stormed into the apartment and slaughtered my friends. This attack was a surprise. LGBT activists had not been targeted before and we didn’t know they could reach that degree of violence.

“As a community, our activities have all but stopped. The few who haven’t left the country are too afraid to get organized. It’s frustrating that all the progress achieved by the LGBT community in Bangladesh has been set back several years. [After the attacks] when I tried to cope with my regular life in Dhaka, the biggest challenge I faced is self-censorship. I had to remove my interviews, blogs, articles and all the traces of my activism. I had to change my mobile phone number. In the last year and a half, I have had to change my location eight times. I have been advised not to use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or other platforms that could reveal my location.

“I was afraid, and I had to go away. The need to step out of any risk was something like an animal fear, a survival instinct. I had to leave my job and jump into uncertainty as I could be traced easily from my workplace. I started applying for different fellowships and thus managed to move to New York City. I have been slowly adapting to live there, and most importantly I decided to be active again in social media, and continue my advocacy.”

Since this interview, Ta has decided to return to Bangladesh, where they are struggling to cope with the new realities of life and reorganize their group informally.

*Ta is a pseudonym – the name has been changed to protect the Fellow.


Bisi Alimi - Overcoming "Activist Guilt"
Bisi Alimi is a Fellow of the  Salzburg Global LGBT Forum, having participated in the 2017 session – Home: Safety, Wellness and Belonging.
Bisi Alimi - Overcoming "Activist Guilt"
Nicole Bogart 

Bisi Alimi has certainly earned the title of social activist. Not only is he the founder and director of the Bisi Alimi Foundation, which “advocates for the rights and dignity of LGBT people in Nigeria by addressing public opinion and accelerating social acceptance,” he is also the first Nigerian to come out on national television, and is a prolific social media personality (his TEDx Talk “There Should Never Be Another Ibrahim” has been listed as one of the most inspiring queer TED Talks of all time). But Alimi admits his journey is not entirely comprised of celebration.

Alimi, originally from Nigeria, moved to the UK in 2007 as a refugee, at the peak of his activism. Just two years prior he, along with a group of friends, started the Independent Project for Equal Rights. Forced to leave Nigeria, Alimi found himself struggling to manage the demands of his activism from abroad.
“I got to the UK in April [and] by December I had lost it,” he says. “I remember many nights I wouldn’t be able to sleep. I was crying. I was diagnosed as clinically depressed.” After seeking help for his depression, Alimi says it was a psychiatrist who helped him realize he was suffering from what many activists refer to as “activist guilt.”

“[She told me] I had to see the UK as home, and I had to start accepting the fact that I can still contribute to what is going on in Nigeria. It was very personal to me. I was angry at myself; I was angry at everyone. But she helped me to get to a position to say, ‘It’s ok,’” he says. “Now, when activists come to me with this guilt, I tell them my story and say, ‘Let nothing stop you.’ It’s just a matter of borders and geography; we live in a global world now and you can still have the same impact.”

The fifth session of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum centered around the theme of “Home” and took a detailed look at the lives of LGBT refugees and their journey to redefine their sense of belonging and home. Alimi, who has now lived in the UK for ten years, explains that migration forced him to redefine the concept of family. “It meant that I had to discover and develop a new form of family. It means a lot to me; the process of finding people that I can call father, mother, brother. When I find them it goes deep into my soul.”

Family for Alimi now includes his husband, whom he married in November 2016. “For me – that little boy from Nigeria who lived in a country where just thinking about the idea of wanting to get married could land you in jail for 14 years – just having that experience of looking into the eyes of this gorgeous man and saying ‘I do’ was like living in a fairytale.”

Alimi’s birth family, whom he says rejected him from childhood, did not attend the wedding, nor have they acknowledged their son’s marital status. “It was the only dark spot on my joy,” he says.

Yet the activist, a first time Fellow of the Forum, says he has now welcomed many of his fellow participants into this ever-evolving family of choice, speaking of the energy the Forum has fueled inside of him.

“It was such a huge honor that I could not [have] imagined I would be part of this,” he says. “The films that are shown here, the stories of how people are changing generations in their country – it’s very inspiring to me. I know that I am going to go home and do something completely different.”

Bisi Alimi on the guilt activists feel after leaving their home country

Irene Fedorovych - The Case of Ukraine
Irene Fedorovych is a Fellow of the Salzburg Global LGBT forum having participated in the 2017 session - Home: Safety, Wellness and Belonging
Irene Fedorovych - The Case of Ukraine
Nicole Bogart 

All refugees flee for fear of their safety, but the reasons why they face such danger can differ greatly. Where they can safely seek refuge thus also differs. A country that may be a safe haven for those seeking asylum for political reasons may not be so safe for those fleeing because of their sexual orientation. Such is the case for Ukraine, explained Irene Fedorovych, chair of the country’s Coordinative Council at the Anti-Discrimination Coalition during the fifth session of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum – Home: Safety, Wellness and Belonging.

“Ukraine is a unique country; we are a country of destination, where people come and seek refuge, but we are also a country which people flee,” Fedorovych explains. “When it comes to people from LGBTQI communities, those who come to Ukraine to ask for asylum normally do not feel safe.

Ukraine has a low rate of refugee acceptance and what Fedorovych describes as a slow and inefficient asylum system that often leaves people without support during the process. Coupled with a high hate crime rate, including discrimination against LGBT individuals, many LGBT refugees are left feeling alienated.

“[We noticed] by working with our partners from LGBT non-governmental organizations that we were not ready,” she says. “We were not ready to understand that refugees might differ, that people flee for different reasons – it might be political or economical crises. But it might be sexual orientation and gender identity, and not everyone is ready to accept that [and] provide services without discrimination.”

While many LGBT individuals flee Ukraine due to persecution, the influx of LGBT refugees into the country stems from people fleeing often worse situations in neighboring countries, including Russia and Belarus. “That’s the easiest way – they can enter without a visa and stay for 90 days without permission. People are also trying to come to a country where at least they know the culture and the language is similar.”

Through her work, Fedorovych aims to ensure that refugees receive equal treatment and access to services, regardless of the reason for their application.

“We had to learn to deal with people. Making sure that we respect every side of them and explain to service providers what’s wrong, why people do not feel safe, why they do not want to go to certain service providers,” she explains, noting that transgender individuals, for example, may want a lawyer to accompany them to migration services due to the obstacles he or she may face.

Despite the difficulties still faced by LGBT asylum seekers, Fedorovych notes some progress has been made: “I think its our greatest victory that after years of work, UNHCR managed to hire a special consultant on LGBTQI issues.”

Video: Irene Fedorovych on the challenges LGBT refugees face in Ukraine

Pema Dorji - The Trauma of Bullying in Schools
Pema Dorji - The Trauma of Bullying in Schools
Nicole Bogart 

For teenagers, school is not just a place for learning, but one for social and emotional growth, and while bullying is something faced by many students across the world, studies show that LGBT youth suffer disproportionately. Many people – LGBT or not – continue to suffer long-term mental health effects from the bullying they experience in adolescence. One of the Forum’s youngest Fellows, Pema Dorji shared his experience of bullying in his home country of Bhutan.

Pema Dorji grew up in a normal middle class family “in a country with a happiness measurement index” – as he reminded us. During childhood he felt normal, and enjoyed his love for music and the company of girlfriends. At five years old, schoolmates started to call him insulting nicknames to the extent that some people stopped using or forgot his actual name. Growing up wasn’t easy for Dorji. Going to school for him was “like going to a war.”

“Growing up wasn’t fun at all for me, especially because my peers around me never failed to make me realize that I don’t belong with them, that I was an abnormal anomaly around them. The situation became so bad they even forgot my name, only remembering me by the name they used to call me – a word that roughly translates to ‘not a male, nor a female.’ After a while it takes a toll on you, you start to feel upset and at the same time angry. Being a young person, I automatically started to blame myself. It was me against a world where there were literally 10 to 20 fingers pointed at me, and I was helpless to point back.”

One episode marked him for years. One classmate’s teasing became so acute that Dorji, in self-defense, threw a bottle at him and the bully retaliated by pouring a bucket of freezing water over Dorji. When Dorji asked his teacher for support, the bully argued: “He behaves like a girl!”  Instead of offering comfort, the teacher told him: “You need to change if you want this to stop.”

Dorji felt lonelier and would constantly think of the words that people would tell him day to day. Without any information or ways to find support, Dorji grew depressed. He tried to commit suicide twice.

“It’s not easy for me to go back and recollect on those days because whenever I have alone time, whenever I am going to bed, these thoughts come across my mind saying that if I hadn’t been through this experience I might be a really different person; better or worse, but still a different person. The emotion that I felt is a sense of despair, a sense of sadness. But also I feel really proud of myself for going through the situation at a very young age. As a kid you are not supposed to be exposed to the reality of the cruel world that’s out there. But due to that I am really proud I was able to survive that…
“I’m also trying to create a better environment for the upcoming generation, so that they shouldn’t have to go through the same thing I went through as a child. Because no child deserves to go through the same situation that I went through.”

Pema Dorji on being bullied in school

The Role of Rule of Law
The Role of Rule of Law
Louise Hallman 

Ahead of the inaugural session of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum, Archbishop Desmond Tutu sent a message of support: “As I wrote in the Lancet last July, ‘In the future, the laws that criminalize so many forms of human love and commitment will look the way apartheid laws do to us now – so obviously wrong.’ We know that LGBT people are a part of every human community. “We therefore need a forum for a truly global conversation about how they contribute to, and are affected by, the law, culture and creativity – and how we can ensure that their voices are heard and understood. I applaud Salzburg Global Seminar for deciding to hold a session on LGBT and Human Rights: New Challenges, Next Steps, at which all regions of the world will be represented, and I hope that it will mark the beginning of that global conversation.”

Five years on and the decriminalization of “human love and commitment” very much remains a challenge – and the global conversation plays an ever-growing role through which change can be encouraged, strengthened, but also endangered.

Many of the countries which still criminalize homosexuality and transgender expression base their discriminatory laws, now hailed as a signature of their sovereignty, on a former global process: colonization. The British Empire, in particular, has left an anti-LGBT colonial legacy in its former occupied countries; today almost 70 percent of states with a British colonial history continue to criminalize homosexual conduct. While Nepal, which was never colonized, has made rapid progress in the decriminalization of homosexuality, the recognition of gender identity and legal protections for its LGBT citizens, neighboring India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, like much of the Commonwealth, still all criminalize aspects of same-sex relations – a legacy of the British Empire’s anti-sodomy laws. In regard to legal support for transgender recognition, all three countries however have made stringent progress.

When the Forum was founded in 2013, 76 countries criminalized same-sex relations. Today, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA)’s annual State-Sponsored Homophobia report, 72 states continue to criminalize same-sex consensual activity. (Former British colonies account for over half of these countries.) In 2013, only 65 countries had legislation offering protection to their LGBT citizens. Today that number is 85. On the issue of families, the number of countries that now have equal marriage and adoption rights stands at 23 and 26 respectively, up from just 14 in 2013. (The UK, a former proponent of anti-sodomy laws through its former empire, has now decriminalized homosexuality, allows gay marriage and adoption, legally recognizes changes in gender identity and offers a variety of protections against discrimination for its LGBT citizens.) Transgender people also have made significant legal progress and built a growing public understanding in some parts of the world; with the 2012 legal gender recognition legislation in Argentina, followed by similar laws in Colombia, Denmark, Ireland and Malta. In April 2017, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that requiring sterilization for legal gender recognition violates human rights.

But this progress is by no means certain. Nor does legal protection ensure societal respect.

Just as some countries have made steps forward, others have taken significant steps back. Most notable in this regard are Uganda with its Anti-Homosexuality Bill that tried to introduce the death penalty for same-sex relations, and Russia with its similarly notorious federal law “for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values,” more commonly known as the “gay propaganda law.”

The struggle to advance LGBT rights through courts or legislatures has thus not always been as effective as hoped. As Mark Agrast, executive director of the American Society of International Law recalled at the fifth session of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum in 2017, early moves to achieve marriage equality in a number of US states resulted in federal legislation to outlaw same-sex marriage nationwide. Only after years of effort and major shifts in public attitudes did the United States Supreme Court affirm that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry in 2016. Guatemalan human rights lawyer Mónica Leonardo offered another example to illustrate Agrast’s point: In 2017, Guatemala’s LGBT community proposed anti-discrimination laws in Congress – a move that triggered the threat of a counter law that would have legalized discrimination of LGBT people in areas such as marriage and sexual education in schools. Unless legal progresses are part of a broader strategy to change hearts and minds, such efforts can fall short, or even provoke a backlash.

Such setbacks exist at the global level too, explained South African human rights lawyer, Sibongile Ndashe, in 2013. After the equality resolution by the UN Human Rights Council from 2011, in which violations based on sexual orientation or gender identity were explicitly forbidden, many countries from the Global North encouraged the passage of a second resolution that would have established mechanisms to protect LGBT people against these violations. Although the initial resolution was spearheaded by South Africa and backed by other countries in the Global South, there was a strong lobby from the Global South in opposition to this approach, explained Ndashe, fearing a backlash from local governments and leaders.

Despite potential setbacks and backlashes, legal progress remains the most relevant tool to safeguard equal treatment of all citizens. In its yearly sessions of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum, discussions on the rule of law led by human rights lawyers have been key to the Forum’s overall objectives. The role of international law was incorporated into the Statement of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum: Advancing human rights for LGBT people and communities, urging that “Gender identity and sexual orientation […] be incorporated into procedures for documenting and monitoring human rights violations around the world.”

The key recommendation raised by Fellows year after year is: together with pushing forward an LGBT-inclusive legislative agenda, make sure that an educational campaign, media training and political networking go hand-in-hand. If equality legislation is strongly supported at the global level, make sure to understand the local situation and be guided by local human rights groups. Legal reforms should come hand-in-hand with public education schemes to ensure that once these laws have been enacted, both LGBT communities and the public know what the laws are, and the justice system upholds these laws, ensuring that the state and society-at-large respect them.

As one Fellow remarked: “Sometimes there will be opportunities where government passes something that sounds good but the lived realities of the intended beneficiaries mean that they aren’t able to benefit because the change [in society] has not happened yet.”

Aung Myo Min on his survey of how LGBT Burmese are affected by the colonial British sodomy law

Milan Antonijevic on combating LGBT hate crime in Serbia

Danish Sheikh on using the law to advocate for LGBT rights in India

Mark Agrast - Legal Advances for LGBT Rights
“A healthy respect for the rule of law is necessary for human rights to flourish,” said American lawyer Mark Agrast on a panel “Building Home on the Rule of Law” in 2017.
Mark Agrast - Legal Advances for LGBT Rights
Nicole Bogart 

Executive director of the American Society of International Law, Mark Agrast explains how pursuing legal change can help – and hinder – the advance of LGBT rights around the world.

Mark Agrast has devoted his career to advancing social justice and human rights, specifically pertaining to the freedom and security of LGBT individuals, through the rule of law. Agrast, who served as deputy assistant attorney general in the Obama administration, is a longtime leader of a number of legal institutions, including the American Bar Association and the National LGBT Bar.

Where are we when it comes to advancing LGBT human rights?
It depends on where you’re from and the conditions in your country. Certainly in the United States there has been tremendous progress in advancing the rule of law for LGBT Americans. But there are always a few steps forward and a few steps back. It’s a constant struggle, and I think that’s the history of the rule of law; it’s never something that’s finally established for all time.

Every generation has to fight the same battles over and over again, so I think it’s important that we equip our community and our allies to that fight. You start with what you have, conditions as they exist, and you insist on applying universal principals of the rule of law, as derived from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the many international covenants and agreements that most nations have signed on to. Countries may or may not follow them in every respect – and they have to be reminded that these are binding obligations that apply to every society.

How do you change laws that are discriminatory?
There is obviously a legal discussion at the foundation of all of this, and that involves legislatures and courts in most countries. But I think the more important effort to advance the rule of law is to try to inculcate the sense of rule of law… It’s not intuitive for most people – it’s something that has to be learned, has to be acquired. I think as a movement for human liberation, the gay rights movement is in a particularly good position to advance its goal to the rule of law and, in doing so, to advance the rights of all communities everywhere.

What does the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum mean to you?
I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for real interchange at a human level – and at an intellectual level. A chance to be in these beautiful surroundings and engage with people who are in different stages of the development of the LGBT movement. Some are at a point now where they can almost take it for granted; they have the right to marry and the right to walk down the street and not be assaulted. And there are other people who are here who bring a much different and darker experience, a different reality; and, in many cases, they have a lot to teach those of us who are perhaps in places that have advanced further in LGBT rights. And perhaps they have something to learn from how we went about the process of advancing rights in our countries – both the successes and the failures that we experienced.

Mark Agrast on advancing the rule of law for LGBT human rights

Staying Safe Online and IRL
With her extensive experience in using social media and meeting with representatives from major platforms, veteran LGBT activist Kasha Nabagesera was able to offer valuable insights to Fellows in Thailand.
Staying Safe Online and IRL
Louise Hallman 

The internet offers a wealth of information on LGBT experiences, access to support networks, and a seemingly safe haven in which LGBT people can communicate and express themselves – often in ways that would be unsafe “IRL,” in real life. However, the online space houses its own dangers.

A topic addressed by the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum since its first session has been how LGBT activists and individuals in general can remain safe online. In more oppressive regimes, most LGBT activists depend heavily on social media in order to discuss LGBT rights and issues in their respective countries, mainly because the internet offers a safe space, where activists are not faced by the same threats of doing activism on the ground. However, during the last few years, arrests based on people’s online activism have been on the rise, especially in the Arab world.

At its inaugural session, security expert Fadi Saleh led a knowledge café discussion on how to remain safe online and spoke to Salzburg Global on camera: “There is an increase of using online activism more than anything else across the region because of course, on the ground it’s very dangerous all the time for a lot of people,” explained Saleh. “So people get a sense of security when they go on the internet. But this is of course a false sense of security. And that’s the issue we [Tactical Tech] try to tackle… especially because across the [Middle East and North Africa] region in the last few years many of the attacks, the arrests, the blackmailings, all of it happens because of online activism and what people post online.”

Cases exist across the Middle East and North Africa: from two men in Algeria being arrested for merely changing their relationship status on Facebook; a LGBT magazine in Tunisia being hacked leading to the arrest of their journalists; to gay men being entrapped by police in Egypt via online chatrooms, leading to them being arrested and tortured. Similar cases have been reported in other countries, including Russia where homophobic vigilantes have used location-based gay dating apps like Grindr to lure gay men and blackmail or beat them.

“So all of this is important – how to change your behavior online? What sort of information are you supposed to share, in which context?” asks Saleh. He realized that there was a great level of ignorance about how unsafe the online space could potentially be. As a consultant for the Berlin-based collective Tactical Tech, Saleh has contributed to “toolkits,” detailed guides on how to stay safe online. Saleh and Andrea Rocca from Frontline Defenders, with whom these resources were developed, presented them at the 2014 Berlin Forum meeting at the German Foreign Office to make them more widely known. All are available online:

Even when LGBT people are not lured into danger “IRL” (in real life), engaging online can still be discouraging and disheartening as LGBT people – activists and private individuals alike – face harassment, bulling and “trolling” for anti-LGBT extremists. Many of these “trolls” might not be audacious enough to attack someone in the street but they have few qualms about sending messages of hate online from behind the safety of their own screen.

In these cases, many social media platforms now all have features to report abusive comments and accounts. “Use them!” was a key point of advice from Kasha Nabagesera, who as one of Uganda’s most prominent LGBT activists – both online and offline – has long endured such online harassment. As activists, there can be the expectation or belief that you must engage with those who disagree with you, but the relentless nature of social media engagement can be disheartening. “Stay healthy!” a Russian Fellow advised, by blocking or reporting those who abuse you and mobilize your followers to also report abusive comments and users. However, these report/block functions can also be used against LGBT activists to silence them. Nabagesera has extensive experience in personal and professional social media engagement and, having spoken to representatives from numerous social media corporations, offers the following advice:


Apply for verification (the blue tick). Activists do not need thousands of followers to do this and if awarded it can stop instant blocking if reported by anti-LGBT users.


Ask other “legitimate” and well-recognized human rights groups to message Facebook on your behalf to vouch for you. This will also prompt Facebook to stop enforcing an immediate block and get you out of  “Facebook jail” if falsely reported by homophobic users.


Apply to Project Shield to protect your website from negative reviews and reports in Google Search.

Several Fellows of the Forum have taken steps to protect their online identities. Some use pseudonyms, others do not share images of themselves online to protect their offline identities. Another simple piece of advice to stop hackers is to use the two-step verification features that are now offered by many platforms. Many of the major social media platforms also have LGBT staff and interest groups within their corporations; activists should try to cultivate a relationship with these groups.

Saleh sees staying safe online as being not only a local or regional issue but also a global one: “Current human rights and LGBT discourse is getting more and more international… If you want to [join that discourse] you need to do it as securely as possible – not only for your sake but the sake of everybody else as well.”

Fadi Saleh on how LGBT activists can be safe online in the Arab world

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