Global LGBT Human Rights Defenders Headline Plenary at Creating Change Conference

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and Human Rights Defenders from Malaysia, Uganda, and Guyana speak out at Creating Change

Download a PDF of Nisha Ayub's presentation at Creating Change »


On January 28th, International LGBT Human Rights issues took center stage for the first time at the National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change, with a plenary panel discussion organized by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). This was an opportunity for nearly 3,000 US-based lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists attending the conference to get a first-hand perspective of the challenges LGBT people face around the world. At the end of the plenary, attendees were invited to promote human rights for everyone, everywhere with an e-mail action alert.

Cary Alan Johnson, Executive Director of IGLHRC, moderating the panel, contextualized the issues in a “best of times, worst of times” scenario. Nisha Ayub, Val Kalende, and Joel Simpson, human rights defenders from Malaysia, Uganda and Guyana, headlined the discussion, sharing their stories of the violence and discrimination they and other LGBT people experience in each of their countries. Mira Patel, representing the US Department of State, highlighted the United States’ commitment to promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender human rights.

Today, over 70 nations around the globe criminalize consensual same-sex intimacy and discriminate against individuals based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, expression and behavior. In seven of those nations, such behavior is punishable by death.

Cary Alan Johnson

Johnson opened the discussion describing 2011 as a “decidedly ambivalent” year.

He explained: “Marriage equality is the law of the land in Argentina, Belgium, South Africa, Canada, Spain, Sweden, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway and Portugal. BUT a bill to place a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage has yet again been introduced in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. And the dreaded anti-homosexuality bill still hangs over the head of LGBT people in Uganda.” Johnson closed his remarks by highlighting the triumphs and challenges that exist in the pursuit of human rights throughout the world, including the United States.

The human rights defenders, who were greeted with standing ovations from the audience, shared their stories.

Nisha Ayub

Religious officers arrested Nisha Ayub, a transgender activist from Malaysia, in her home state of Malacca when she was 21 years old. Ayub was imprisoned under the Sharia law that prohibits men from “impersonating” women. Ayub recounted the humiliation and violence she faced while she was in jail, “I was put in a male lockup. I was treated badly. Tortured. Discriminated against. And of course, I was sexually abused in the jail.” Ayub added that in the jail there was no one to help her. “I can’t say anything because in Malaysia, if you are a transgender person you have no rights.” Ayub is currently the Transgender Programme Manager at PT Foundation in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Val Kalende

Val Kalende a noted Ugandan activist for LGBT people helped to launch Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG) in 2003, Uganda’s only lesbian organization. “I’m glad to stand before you today. Last year at the Creating Change conference, my colleague Frank Mugisha attended one of the workshops only a few days after we lost our colleague and friend, my father, David Kato. Today I stand here with a message from the LGBT community in Uganda to let you know that things are getting better.” Kalende described the growth of Uganda’s LGBT movement in the past year, especially through a coalition of 33 civil society organizations who have come together to fight against the anti-homosexuality bill, which was re-introduced in Uganda’s parliament on February 6th.

Joel Simpson

“In Guyana, it is illegal, and considered ‘gross indecency’ in the eyes of the law, for adult men to express any form of sexual intimacy, whether in public or private.” Joel Simpson, founder and co-chairperson of the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) in Guyana spoke about the colonial era “anti-sodomy” laws in Guyana, and Simpson described the recent arrests of male to female trans individuals under Guyana’s “ cross-dressing” law.

SASOD recently received accreditation at the Organization of American States. Of this, Simpson said “it is significant for us because it means our government gave our expressed approval, as the Organisation of American States works by consensus of all member states, including the U.S…. I am confident that with continued, sustained, long-term investments in indigenous organisations like mine, we too can create change in Guyana and the Caribbean region.”

Mira Patel

Mira Patel, Special Advisor on LGBT and Women’s Issues at the US Department of State, spoke about the historic remarks Secretary Clinton delivered to the United Nations in Geneva and the department’s commitment to LGBT human rights. “Secretary Clinton believes that America stands with people like David [Kato], and Val, and Joel and Nisha who are trying to build a better, stronger future for their societies. Their ideas, their talents and their commitment are indispensable to the progress that we all seek. ”

Patel described the grave impact of the discriminatory laws and attitudes the Human Rights Defenders had shared. “In addition to violating basic human rights, these laws and societal attitudes empower police and other authorities to imprison, abuse, and even execute private citizens. They hinder social cohesion, economic development, and public health.” On the department’s policy to promote LGBT human rights abroad, Patel added “never before has their been such an open, unambiguous, and clear policy priority placed on these issues as they have been under the leadership of Secretary Clinton."

At the end of the discussion, Johnson invited audience members to hold up their mobile devices and participate in an action alert campaign by sending e-mails, calling on US ambassadors to Malaysia, Uganda and Guyana to fulfill the recent White House mandate to promote lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender human rights in the countries where they serve.