Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on October 22, 2015, at 1:22 p.m. ET
ISTANBUL — M was standing at a bus stop on the outskirts of Damascus when a group of armed men pulled up in a car and ordered her to get in.
M wears thick-framed glasses and her black hair cut just above the ear. She stood out in a largely devout neighborhood where most women wore headscarves, making her a target that day in July 2014.
“You are not covered — and why is your hair short?” she remembered her captors asking, slapping her across the face and striking her on the back of her head. They demanded she recite a verse from the Qur'an to prove she was a Muslim, and she was lucky they picked one that she had learned as a child.
“Why are you imitating men?” they demanded. “All this entitles you to execution.”
They held her blindfolded for two days; she kept time by counting the calls to prayer from a nearby mosque.
The 46-year-old M lived in an area that was a battleground that summer as government forces attempted to push the rebels back from the Syrian capital, and many of her neighbors had been wounded when the area was under siege. She practiced alternative medicine for a living, caring for the wounded regardless of which side they supported, without accepting payment.
This charity is what ultimately saved her life. At the end of the second day, a leader who her captors called “the sheikh” said an order had been issued for her execution for being a “mistarjili” — literally, a woman who acts like a man. But, she said he told her: “Listen, I will not impose the ruling … I asked all the people in the area and they told us that you are a person who helps all people.”
The group released her with nothing but her ID card and a warning that the reprieve was only temporary.
“At any moment you might be killed,” the sheikh warned her. “You should leave the area immediately."
“Why are you imitating men?”
Her neighborhood was being shelled, so she never went back to the small home where she lived for 15 years. Instead, M borrowed money from a friend and headed to Turkey later that summer as soon as she could get a passport.
For seven months, she was barely scraping by working a series of black-market jobs that required her to work 12-hour days. But she felt a surge of hope in April when she learned that she was eligible to be considered for resettlement to someplace like the United States or Europe by the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). She went to an office of the NGO that takes new cases, told them about what had happened to her in Syria, and waited for someone to call her with good news.
Six months passed. The phone never rang.
“My dream was to live in a country that respects a queer woman like me as a human being,” she told BuzzFeed News in Istanbul last month. “I felt that finally my problems will be solved ... but it turned out to be an illusion.”
If she had the money, she would do what her roommate did earlier this summer: hire a smuggler to carry her to Europe on a boat. But that costs about $2,500, more money than she can even dream about. In Istanbul she hasn’t been able to find work for several months even washing dishes. She is on the verge of being thrown out of her tiny room, which smells of sewage and has drug dealers conducting business just outside her window.
The people who met her when she arrived say her time here has aged her at least a decade. Deep worry lines cut into her sunken face, and her clothes sagged off her withered frame.
Finally, she decided to do something she describes as a way to commit suicide: She bought a ticket back to Syria.
“I’m returning to my death, but what choice do I have?” M said.
UNHCR actually fast-tracks LGBT refugees for resettlement because it considers them especially vulnerable. But the process still leaves many in despair, showing that the system wasn’t really built to rescue large numbers of people in immediate danger. The fates of refugees who are desperately seeking security are in the hands of a bureaucracy that spans multiple governments, agencies, and NGOs. These institutions generally don’t have nearly enough staff to keep up with the workload created by the influx of Syrians since the war began.
LGBT refugees will usually have to wait about two years for a ticket out of Turkey, said Selin Unal, spokesman for UNHCR's Turkey office: one year for UNHCR to decide if they’re eligible and a second for another country to grant them a visa and fly them over.
“We are trying our best to shorten waiting periods,” Unal said, but given the numbers seeking resettlement, “this period is not really too long.”
Those who “have been resettled are probably very grateful to UNHCR for having helped them and given a chance to build their life in a new environment,” she added. “We acknowledge the difficulties of a daily life for refugees during a waiting period … [and] we do not spare any efforts in order to support and assist [them].”
The two-year wait is far shorter than the one faced by refugees not considered vulnerable — advocates who work with other categories of refugees report that UNHCR is telling their clients they won’t even have their first meeting with an agency caseworker until 2022 or 2023.
But to an individual, those two years can feel like an eternity. Refugees are generally barred from working and often survive doing back-breaking black-market labor or sex work. One sign of how at risk they feel is that all of those who spoke to BuzzFeed News for this story asked to be identified by their first names or nicknames. Many — especially trans people who stand out on the street — will be victims of hate crimes from Turks or other refugees who come from the very countries they are fleeing, according to the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration (ORAM), which advocates on behalf of LGBT people.
UNHCR-Turkey now reports 700 LGBT people in its system, but ORAM believes there are many more who don’t know they can seek asylum on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity or are too afraid to out themselves. In 2014, UNHCR asked the governments that resettle refugees from Turkey to consider the cases of 227 LGBT people, most of whom were from Iran.
The process for resettlement is well known to Iranian LGBT people because most have friends who have gone through it in the past several years. But it’s newer for Syrians, who just began to seek asylum in large numbers since the start of the war. Before the conflict began, the Assad regime was brutal with political opponents, but it was secular and didn’t seek out LGBT people for harassment the way authorities do in places like Iran. What primarily makes Syria dangerous for the LGBT people now arriving in Turkey is Assad’s loss of control in much of the country to the Islamist rebels trying to overthrow him.
LGBT Syrians arrive along with millions of other Syrians — from both sides — fleeing the fighting. Their vulnerability gives LGBT refugees a path to resettlement that most other Syrians won’t be able to access, but they must go through a process that often feels incomprehensible and capricious.
Refugees bound for the U.S. — which takes the lion’s share of refugees resettled from Turkey — will generally pass through five different stages each requiring a new interview. Months can pass between each step without word on the real status of their cases, and there is little support if they can’t find somewhere to sleep, face a medical emergency, or are assaulted. There are precious few resettlement slots: The U.S. resettled just 5,162 refugees from Turkey in the last year. (Fewer than 100 of all refugees resettled in the U.S. in that period identified themselves as LGBT.)
Many advocates who work on LGBT asylum issues say they believe UNHCR’s staff is genuinely committed to getting these refugees out as fast as possible. But, said ORAM’s Neil Grungras, the system itself is “bureaucratic and inefficient from the get-go” — and now the agency’s 330 staff members in the country are completely overwhelmed as the total numbers seeking asylum in Turkey climb past 2 million.
“The system is failing them,” Grungras said. “The people who are truly vulnerable aren’t being whisked out of harm’s way soon enough.”
This is what that failure looks like.
Istanbul has become an increasingly important safe haven in recent years as other cities — like Cairo and Beirut — have become ever more dangerous for LGBT people.
Back in June, Nader, a bushy-bearded 26-year-old Syrian, helped organize about 100 Arab refugees to turn out for the city’s 13th annual pride march, exhilarated at the chance to celebrate with tens of thousands of people. They carried signs like "Stop the persecution of gays in the Arab world" and "Your life isn't worth more than mine."
So it felt like a deep betrayal when local officials banned the march at the last minute and police turned tear gas, plastic bullets, and water cannons on participants. (Turkish LGBT activists are not sure why the event was shut down after years without incident, but it fell during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and came in the wake of a defeat at the ballot box for the party of Turkey’s Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.)
“I thought we were safe, but the police were attacking us and the people just watching,” said Nader. “That was my last straw with being here.”
Nader had worked hard to build a life in Istanbul since arriving in June 2014. He had started a weekly support group for Arabic-speaking LGBT refugees called Tea and Talk, drawing people from as far apart as Morocco to Iraq. He had also fallen in love with a sweet-faced 21-year-old from Damascus named Omar, moving in with him a couple months after they first met in one of Istanbul’s best-known gay clubs in December. They set up house just before Valentine's Day.
Istanbul was the last stop for Nader on a four-year exodus since he left his native city of Homs, Syria, for good in August 2011, five months after the uprising against Assad began. He grew up in a Sunni family in the Bab al-Sibah neighborhood, which was the frontline in sectarian fighting with members of the city’s Alawite community before the conflict became a full-fledged civil war. The city was wracked by a cycle of killings between the two communities, and many of Nader’s childhood friends gravitated to Sunni militias.
One day, a close friend took Nader to see a house in Homs where a massacre had taken place and showed him the remains of a group of Alawites. “We’re taking our revenge,” he said. Horrified at what his friends were becoming, and scared they would come for him because of his sexuality, Nader moved to Damascus immediately.
“I used to have a wild sex life in our neighborhood.”
Nader had actually fooled around with some of those friends now fighting with groups morphing into the Islamist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra. “I used to have a wild sex life in our neighborhood,” he said, and he never really hid that he was gay as he became an adult.
Once behind the lines of President Assad’s forces in Damascus, he even told an old hookup buddy turned rebel fighter on the phone that he was “gay for sure.” A few days later he learned that the friend reported the conversation to his group’s imam, who proclaimed it debauchery and said “the Islamic rule for it is throw him from off of the high building.”
So when anti-Assad fighters successfully attacked the Al-Midan neighborhood in the heart of the Damascus in January 2012, Nader made plans to go to Cairo.
But Cairo proved not to be very welcoming either, and he said he was twice beaten up in the streets during his year there, caught up in the unrest amid mass protests that gripped the city during the one-year presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi. Next he tried Amman, Jordan, but discovered the city was awash in Syrian rebels fleeing Assad’s forces, including some who looked familiar from Homs.
In June 2014, one of them recognized him and tried to grab him on a street in the city center.
“You are the faggot — we captured you!” Nader remembered the man shouting. “You escaped from Syria so you think you are safe right now. [But] we will fuck you, we will kill you!”
The yelling drew a crowd, and Nader managed to shake him off in the commotion. Two days later he bought a ticket to Istanbul, and went to the NGO registering new cases for resettlement to North America or Europe, the Association for Solidarity with Asylum-Seekers and Migrants (ASAM).
Earlier this month, Nader finally got a call from UNHCR that Norway had agreed to take him. He will probably be moving within six months. There was only one problem: It would mean leaving his boyfriend almost entirely alone.
Omar’s resettlement petition appeared to have gotten stuck in a personnel shake-up at ASAM. Though he’d registered in June, he had to essentially re-do his first interview with a caseworker three months later because the official he spoke to the first time had left the job without forwarding his paperwork to UNHCR. (ASAM did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story.)
The pair spoke to BuzzFeed News hours after they learned Nader would be going to Norway, and Omar’s eyes were visibly red from crying. They had thought about sending Omar on the boats but they were afraid he would be detained by authorities before reaching Norway. They even had a long-shot idea about going to Brazil — the only country they said they had found that performs same-sex marriages and grants visas to Syrians — to get married in order to enable Nader to bring Omar as a spouse.
“He’s leaving and we don’t know when we will meet again,” Omar said.
They were basically considering anything they could think of so they wouldn’t have to rely on UNHCR.
“I don’t trust them,” Nader said.
This is the bureaucratic maze that generally awaits refugees seeking resettlement from Turkey — if they don’t run into any problems:
Most start by giving a basic outline of their story to ASAM. They’re also supposed to register with the Turkish government, which will assign those in UNHCR’s resettlement process to remote “satellite cities” where they must regularly appear at a police station to prove they haven’t left. (Generally only Syrians, to whom the Turkish government have given special status, can choose to live in large cities like Istanbul.)
ASAM refers eligible cases to UNHCR, and refugees can wait months or years to be summoned for a “pre-interview,” where they’ll give the in-depth version of their stories and submit any corroborating documents: medical records of assault, threatening messages from family members, arrest records. Next they have the UNHCR “interview,” where they tell their story in yet more detail — the appointment can take a full day or require a second interview.
If UNHCR decides to grant them refugee status and refer them for resettlement, the agency will have a short conversation with each of them about where they want to be resettled, though the decision depends almost entirely on which countries have open slots at the time and not on their preference.
Most will go to the U.S., so they will next be interviewed by the International Catholic Migration Commission, the contractor processing refugee cases for the U.S. Then they are interviewed again by a “circuit rider” from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on one of their periodic visits to Istanbul — that person goes over their story again from beginning to end primarily to check that they are eligible to be resettled under U.S. law. Then their personal information is sent to other U.S. security agencies to look for red flags like service in a hostile military or support for blacklisted groups, which would disqualify them for a visa. Advocates say cases can wind up on long holds even if relatively minor questions about their record are raised.
If they get final approval, they wait for an agency in the U.S. to agree to handle their resettlement and wait to be given a spot on flights purchased by the International Organization for Migration. They are forbidden from flying on their own if they find an earlier flight, and are required to start repaying the full fare in installments six months after arriving in the U.S. Before their flight date, they also must secure an exit permit from the Turkish government.
"It is truly a challenge," said Veysel Essiz, senior program officer at Refugee Rights Turkey. "You flee your own country to find at least some safety, but the feeling that the overwhelming majority of refugees in Turkey have is that they will be in limbo for eternity."
The wait in Turkey can be dangerous, especially for those who don’t manage to learn Turkish and so wind up more dependent on other refugees to share housing and navigate day-to-day life. And those who are visibly queer often worry about being assaulted.
Reza, a 34-year-old gay Iranian who wears makeup and has feminine mannerisms, told BuzzFeed News he was head-butted by a man on the street in the southeastern Turkish city of Denizli where he is living while waiting for resettlement. He said he came to Turkey after being beaten, sexually assaulted, and detained by police on several occasions, and now is too afraid to leave his apartment in Turkey alone.
“He beat me because I had red lipstick on,” he said of the December 2014 attack.
Refugees who find themselves living in enclaves with others from their home country — often the only way they can find housing — regularly find the same kind of threats they fled have followed them.
But even those who could pass as straight put themselves in danger when they try to live a relatively normal life. Ahmad, a slight, 23-year-old Syrian who wears a fedora and smokes a Sherlock Holmes pipe, told BuzzFeed News he was forced to share an apartment with Syrians who had fought for al-Nusra and would make jokes about ISIS executing gays — a situation several gay Syrians in Istanbul have encountered.
He arrived in Istanbul in April and said he was assaulted for the first time in June. He got jumped by a group of Syrians outside his apartment building — they had apparently seen him hanging out with some gay friends in the central shopping district.
“You gays put us all to shame.”
“Did you finish hooking up with your friend?” he remembered them saying before they jumped on him. “You gays put us all to shame.” Photos from the incident, which he submitted to ASAM to demonstrate the danger he is in in Istanbul, show his face purple and swollen.
He was attacked again about a month later — this time by a friend of a friend he thought he was meeting for a date — and he said that if it happens again, it would be “the next level” and he would be killed. If he had the money, he would be on a boat to Europe despite the risk of drowning and rumors he’s heard about smugglers killing refugees and selling their organs.
“It is dangerous, but it’s better than me staying here,” he said.
It’s been six months since he registered and he’s heard nothing from UNHCR. He is also worried that he’ll be sent to the U.S. while he is desperate to get to Germany.
That’s where he believes he will “find the first love of my life,” a man named Mohammed.
They had dated for four months in Damascus six years ago, when Ahmad was around 17. Ahmad came to Turkey carrying dried flowers — which now have withered to just a stick and bundle of grass — that Mohammed had given him on the day they first had sex. But not long after, Ahmad lost his cell phone when he was mugged, and he hadn’t memorized Mohammed’s phone number nor even knew his last name — it was not uncommon for people who were afraid of being outed to keep their family names secret from each other when they began dating.
“After that, I didn’t know anything about Mohammed,” Ahmad said.
But he knew Mohammed had a brother in Germany, and they had fantasized about traveling there at a time “when there was no war or anything called a refugee.”
“My inner feeling is that [Mohammed] is in Germany, and I’m going to find him,” Ahmad said.
Ezeddin Fadel contributed to this report.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on August 25, 2015, at 5:36 p.m. ET
After more than six months in prison, several rounds of torture, and two hospitalizations for his injuries, Alieu Sarr fled his country by boat under cover of night late last month.
Sarr was arrested last fall, alongside at least 15 others, by security forces controlled by Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, one of the world’s most ruthless dictators. Jammeh had launched a new witch hunt in the months following the August adoption of a law that would punish “aggravated homosexuality” with life in prison.
Most of those with whom he was arrested were released after short detentions, but Sarr and two other men were held to face charges. They were paraded before the media by security officials as Jammeh repeatedly made public pledges to execute LGBT people, including promising in a May speech to slit the throats of homosexuals. “No one will ever set eyes on you again, and no white person can do anything about it,” Jammeh vowed.
In a phone interview from Senegal’s capital, Dakar, Sarr told BuzzFeed News he was sure he would die, as dozens reportedly have while detained by the National Intelligence Agency. But in a final court hearing on July 28, the man he says tortured him and then fabricated a confession denied any knowledge of the investigation. Sarr and another were released; the third is out on bail and still facing charges.
Sarr said his acquittal felt like God had directly answered the prayers he would recite every time he went to court. But his tale — from mysterious arrest to arbitrary acquittal — is a parable of just how tenuous life is for the roughly 2 million people who have lived under Jammeh’s capricious and iron-fisted rule since 1994.
It also shows how lives are ruined even when people like Sarr survive police brutality and a corrupt judiciary. Sarr arrived in Dakar, the nearby capital of Senegal, just as eight people were sentenced there for homosexuality, including one well-known journalist. Sarr, who is sheltering with a friend who fled as soon as he learned Sarr had been arrested, is afraid to even go outside.
“Senegal and Dakar are the very same” as in the Gambia, he said. “My life is not safe in the whole of Africa.”
Sarr was in a taxi heading home from dinner with a friend on the night of Nov. 9 when two officers pulled him out of the vehicle. He didn’t know why he had been detained until he arrived at the headquarters of the National Intelligence Agency, the security force that reports directly to Jammeh.
“My life is not safe in the whole of Africa.”
“We know you are homosexual — everyone told us about you,” he remembered the agents telling him. He said they gave him a choice: “If you want [us] to deal with you easily, you will call the names of homosexuals, because you know their names and we want to get them all.”
This was not the first time Sarr had been arrested. He was taken into custody back in 2012, the last time there was a mass arrest of people alleged to be LGBT, which began with a raid on a party. Sarr faced harassment — including from his family and people on the street — so relentless in the years since that he was forced to shut down his small business selling shrimp from a bucket in a local market.
Sarr’s lawyer told BuzzFeed News that a security agent who testified at Sarr’s trial said he was arrested under “directives that certain people were engaged in homosexual activity,” but declined to say where the directive had come from.
“Anybody who knows me in Gambia, they know that I am homosexual,” Sarr said. “Everyone [is] against me [because] they say that this is a Muslim country. It’s very hard for me.”
After he was arrested, Sarr said he was tortured between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. every night for the next eight days. He described how officers would pin him to a table and beat him with a fan belt from a car, or beat his hands with a ruler. Exhausted from the ordeal, he said he finally told the officers “about my story,” but he refused to give them names of other gay people. He believed the stakes were life or death — there were rumors that anyone the security services caught “making the homosexual act” would be fed to crocodiles, Sarr said.
“They were trying to get it by my mouth. I told them I don’t know any homosexuals in the Gambia,” he said.
So the officers turned to his phone and his Facebook account, Sarr said. They claimed some of his contacts were boyfriends. They also found he was connected with Gambian dissidents now in exile, and they claimed he was giving information to Jammeh’s political enemies.
On Nov. 17, the interrogations ceased and he was transferred to a high-security wing at Mile 2 prison, which houses the most dangerous prisoners as well as prisoners in cases of special interest to the regime. Sarr was held in isolation most of the time, while continuing to bleed from internal injuries inflicted during his torture. When he was hospitalized for his injuries in January, he was held under heavy guard at the private block of the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital, where other prisoners had died under mysterious circumstances while in custody.
A witness, who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution from the Jammeh regime, told BuzzFeed News at the time about seeing Sarr coughing up blood in the hospital while repeating, “‘I know I’m going to die.”
Three weeks later, Sarr was sent back to prison, and then to the hospital again in April, where he stayed for two months. “I was bleeding in my mouth, in my nose. I was bleeding seriously,” Sarr said.
Sarr’s account is backed up by his lawyer, but it could not be independently verified. The Jammeh regime keeps a tight grip on information in the country — including arresting and allegedly assassinating journalists — and it has intensified security since a failed coup attempt this winter.
But human rights groups have documented similar cases.
Amnesty International first told BuzzFeed News in mid-November that it had received reports that police were running a “well organized operation” attempting to identify and arrest LGBT people. Fatou Camara, Jammeh’s former press secretary who became a human rights activist when forced into exile in 2013, said at the time that she had spoken to a source in the intelligence service who said the agency had compiled a list of 200 people targeted for arrest. According to one lesbian who fled to Senegal as the arrests began, in some cases police visited their homes in the company of a 17-year-old boy, the youngest arrested in the sweep, who they believe was tortured into naming others.
Even in a country where the regime has arbitrarily detained — or killed — scores of people, this wave of arrests was unusual. Since seizing power in 1994, Jammeh generally targeted political opponents, not specific minority groups. Also unusual was the fact that forces known as “Junglers” or “Black-blacks” (because they dress all in black and cover their faces), which are essentially Jammeh’s personal secret police feared for their role in tortures and disappearances, were involved directly in the roundup.
But as the United States and European powers pressed countries like Uganda to drop sweeping new laws criminalizing homosexuality, Jammeh appeared to see a political opportunity to curry favor internally by burnishing his Muslim bonafides and justify the Gambia’s increasing status as an international pariah. Just weeks after Uganda’s Constitutional Court struck down the newly adopted Anti-Homosexuality Act in August 2014, the Gambia adopted a law closely modeled on Uganda’s which included a life sentence for “aggravated homosexuality,” defined as including cases like when someone repeatedly has same-sex intercourse, when the accused is HIV positive, or when the accused has sex with a minor.
In December, Sarr and two others were formally charged with full media coverage, the apparent show trial that would be the culmination of Jammeh’s growing anti-LGBT campaign.
Nearly eight months after he was first arrested, Sarr’s case had its final hearing on July 28. By then he’d developed a special prayer he would recite before each hearing: “God, help me when Seedy Camara comes.” Camara was the officer Sarr said interrogated and beat him, and his testimony could put him away.
Sarr’s lawyer, Aji Kombeh Gaye, is still mystified about what happened when Camara took the stand that day. She told BuzzFeed News that Camara “refused to have anything to do” with the “confession” that prosecutors had submitted as evidence, which bore Camara’s signature as the officer who wrote it down.
“We don’t know why he turned around and denied it,” Gaye said.
Sarr and another person charged in the case, Morr Sowe, were immediately released. The case of a third person still facing charges from the sweep last fall, Modou Lamin Bittaye, is still pending. His family had been able to secure bail for him, and so his case was not moving with the same urgency of Sarr and Sowe, whose lawyers were trying to them get out of prison.
Sarr had been unable to work since his first arrest in 2012 and survived largely on gifts from human rights activists living in exile. This time, he could see no way to stay in the Gambia, and three days after he was released by the court in the capital of Banjul, he began his journey to Senegal. He posed as a fisherman and took a small boat out on the Atlantic Ocean, crossed into Senegalese waters, and then slipped ashore. He finally made it to Dakar, about 100 miles north of Banjul, two days after leaving the Gambia.
Once there, he was taken in by Amadou Jallow, another Gambian who had been arrested alongside Sarr in the 2012 sweep and fled to Senegal by car in November 2014 when he learned Sarr had been rearrested. Jallow was surviving by washing dishes at a neighborhood restaurant, even saving a little bit of money.
Jallow has since spent those savings on Sarr’s medical costs, he told BuzzFeed News. Sarr still has coughing and internal pain from the beatings, as well as some kind of rash that Jallow says look like chicken pox. Fatou Camara, the Gambian activist now living in the United States, has set up a fundraising campaign to help Sarr get treatment.
Jallow’s meager salary, just under $2 per day, now supports them both. With the recent arrests in Senegal of alleged homosexuals, they agree that it’s too dangerous for Sarr to be in public. “He’s too feminine,” Jallow said. “Whenever he goes out people know he’s gay.”
They are petitioning for asylum through the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees with the hope that they will eventually be resettled someplace like the U.S. or Europe. But they have very little hope that will happen soon — they have heard rumors that some people wait 20 years in Senegal before being resettled.
“I want to do my life how I want to do my life … to be happy,” Sarr said. He hasn’t been happy since his first arrest in 2012, and now he feels imprisoned in the small compound where Jallow lives in Dakar.
“If I go outside, they say that this is [a] homosexual. That’s why I hide here, in one compound, till God comes to help me,” Sarr said.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on July 31, 2015, at 9:26 a.m. ET
SEOUL — Jonah Lee, a round-faced 63-year-old with a swoop of graying hair, once spent his days running gay bars and drag clubs in Korea and Japan in the '70s and '80s. His flagship, Hot Love, was a hit in both Seoul and Tokyo.
Today, Lee is known for something else entirely. He claims, through a ministry he started in the Korean capital in 1994, to have counseled more than 1,200 people seeking to “escape homosexuality.”
Lee’s story — from gay entertainment pioneer to the leading spokesperson for Korea’s ex-gay movement — was made possible by the trajectory of many of South Korea’s Christian churches, which have grown exponentially since Lee first became a Christian almost 40 years ago. For most of that time, homosexuality was basically a non-issue even in the most conservative of these churches, and Lee said no one raised concern about his business for 11 years after he started attending South Korea’s largest megachurch; he even started going to theology classes while dressed in women’s clothing, according to a former teacher.
Today, many of Korea’s most important Christian leaders have come to preach homosexuality as an existential threat. These churches believe their movement is doing more than just saving people from sin; they believe they are saving the nation itself. Lee’s path to ex-gay leader is a story in miniature of how homosexuality rapidly went from an almost invisible issue in South Korea to one that is now bringing tens of thousands of shouting protesters to the streets.
On June 28, Lee took to the stage at a rally organized by the Korean Churches Anti-LGBT Response Committee, an umbrella group that brought together five major Christian organizations to protest an LGBT march through the center of Seoul. He was on the same program as Pastor Lee Young-hoon, president of the Christian Council of Korea and head of the 800,000-member Yoido Full Gospel Church, where Jonah Lee first became a Christian.
“The church has to serve the nation faithfully in delivering the message of salvation to the homosexuals!” Lee told the crowd. Almost all of the several thousand people in attendance wore visors printed with the motto “Oppose homosexual provocation.”
Back when Lee first converted from Buddhism to Christianity — in 1978 — this event would have been as unthinkable as his participation in it. While Christian leaders who spoke to BuzzFeed News maintain Korean churches have always subscribed to a doctrine opposed to homosexuality, barely anyone ever preached against it because there were virtually no out people in Korea, let alone an organized movement.
In an interview in the small office building that houses his church at the edge of Seoul’s upscale Gangnam neighborhood, Lee said he became a Christian because he believed he was responsible for the suicide of his mother, a devout Buddhist, and needed a way to find forgiveness.
In the late ‘70s, Lee told his mother he could not marry because he was attracted to men. She told him she had been able to conceive him only after 100 days of beseeching Buddha for a son, and she now believed that his homosexuality was the price for having her prayers answered. His mother believed she could free him from his homosexuality by cleansing herself of her sins, and the only way to do that was for her to kill herself.
“My mom thought the reason why I’m gay was due to her sins. She thought it was her responsibility to resolve this problem — she wrote a will and committed suicide,” Lee said.
Lee still carried tremendous guilt for her suicide, but he didn’t run from his homosexuality. “I was heartbroken after my mother’s death,” Lee said. “But that didn’t change things. I was still gay.”
Soon after her death, he opened his first gay bar, called Hot Love, which Lee claims was the first in the Itaewon neighborhood that today has a thriving gay strip. He would perform drag there, too, taking the name Lee Ae Ma Ma, which translates to Lee Loves Mama.
Lester Feder for BuzzFeed News
Jonah Lee (center) at the event announcing the creation of the "International Association of Ex-Homosexuality" and the second "Ex-homosexuality Human Rights Youth Forum."But he was lonely and miserable. So when an old drinking buddy returned from a stint living in Japan and told him she had become a Christian and Jesus had told her to bring him to Christ, he erupted in tears.
“I started having this feeling that I wanted to repent for my sins and I wanted God to forgive me,” Lee said. “I wronged my mother and I wanted her to forgive me, but since she had passed away, I had no one to ask forgiveness from…. I repented, converted from Buddhism to Christianity, and I truly felt I was forgiven.”
Accepting Jesus didn’t mean turning away from homosexuality. He began attending Yoido Full Gospel Church even as his business took off, and he continued to run gay bars and drag clubs.
“I felt this happiness that I was able to communicate with God, but I was still homosexual,” Lee said. “I didn’t think it was a problem at the time — no one had mentioned to me that it was a sin.”
Lee was one of hundreds of thousands of people who flocked to Yoido, one of the country’s most popular and influential churches. Yoido was just one of many Protestant churches that were growing exponentially as South Korea’s economy took off in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, fueled in large part by a “prosperity gospel” that preached faith would be rewarded by wealth.
Yoido was started by Pastor Cho Yonggi, a Buddhist convert, in the 1950s, when less than 3% of Koreans were Protestant. Though Korean diplomats first brought Christianity to the peninsula in the late 1700s, it really took off after the Korean War and the South’s turn toward the United States as its most important ally and economic partner.
“I felt this happiness that I was able to communicate with God, but I was still homosexual.”
American churches and Christian relief groups took a special interest in South Korea in part because Christianity had been especially well-established in the North before the communist regime. Korean Christians had been important leaders against Japanese rule in the first part of the 20th century, and its associated with nationalism grew stronger over South Korea’s 60-year conflict with the North. As of 2010, almost 25% of South Korea was Protestant and another 7.5% was Catholic.
When Lee met with Pastor Cho to ask about the nighttime panic attacks he had been having and whether they might be a sign that God wanted him to become a pastor, Lee said Pastor Cho raised no concern about his sexuality.
“You’ve been selected by God,” Lee said Cho told him during an encounter in Tokyo, where Lee had fled in 1988, when Lee said police shut down gay bars in Itaewon in response to the spread of AIDS. “I think he was aware that people are born gay.”
Cho, through a spokesperson, declined to comment for this story. He stepped down as leader of Yoido in 2008 and was convicted in 2014 of embezzling millions from the church and of tax evasion.
The kind of culture wars then charging up U.S. evangelicals had yet to arrive in the region when Lee devoted himself to studying full-time at a Yoido-backed Bible school in Tokyo. He lived off the $3,000 a month he earned from renting out the Tokyo outpost of Hot Love and would regularly come to class dressed as a woman, according to his most important mentor, Pastor Koichi Hirano.
“I was shocked to find out he was a man,” said Hirano, who is the pastor of the Horizon Chapel in Tokyo. Hirano said that Lee had “very fair, beautiful skin for a man of his age”; though Lee was almost 40, Hirano said, he “looked like a 25-year-old woman.”
Then, 11 years into Lee’s life as a Christian, something changed.
Hirano was the first to tell Lee that he could not be gay and become a pastor. And he went one step further: He told him he wasn’t born gay and that Bible study could cure him.
“If you were indeed born gay then something is wrong with God — God created a male and a female, and he said that homosexuality is a sin,” Lee recalls Hirano telling him. “There must be something wrong with God if he says being gay is OK.”
Lee, eager to fulfill his calling to become a pastor, asked Hirano how he could stop being gay. Lee remembers Hirano pointed to him to Corinthians 6:11, promising he could be “sanctified by the Holy Spirit” if he devoted himself to scripture.
Hirano had lived in the United States for 21 years, from 1968 to 1989, where he had heard many stories of “ex-gays.”
Though Hirano had been ordained at Duke University’s liberal Methodist seminary, his preaching was heavily influenced by the Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, a megachurch that was the seat of one of the largest revivals of the 1970s. He had been posted to a church in nearby Huntington Beach after finishing seminary in 1975, and he witnessed Calvary’s legendary Pastor Church Smith bring thousands of hippies and others on the cultural margins to the church. There, Hirano had seen alcoholics and drug addicts saved by faith — and, he said, he knew “a lot of gay people [who] recovered at Calvary Chapel.”
For two years, Lee studied with Hirano and “refrained from leading a gay lifestyle,” but then had sex with an ex-boyfriend despite his resolve. He went to tell Hirano he was abandoning his studies, but while listening to Hirano finish teaching a story about Jesus exorcising a man of demons, he felt a blow to the head and it seemed as though his soul had left his body, as if chasing a tornado. He started to cry and sweat as if something were escaping through his pores.
When it was over, Lee said, he “felt a change … like cool water running through my stomach.” Though he'd had sex with a man just a few days before, he said, “I started feeling that a woman is beautiful and males are just males.”
Through Hirano, Lee said he developed a relationship with Calvary Chapel and received his certificate of ordination from its Santa Barbara branch when he visited California in 1995. Ricky Ryan, then-pastor of the Santa Barbary Calvary Chapel, declined through an employee of his current church to respond to BuzzFeed News' requests for confirmation.
At first Lee hid his gay past, and his churches struggled. By 2007, when South Korea was producing more missionaries than any country in the world other than the U.S., Lee was thinking of joining their ranks by evangelizing China.
But before he could leave, LGBT rights burst into the national debate for the first time. South Korea’s legislature, the National Assembly, took up a human rights bill that would have barred discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation along with several other controversial categories, including “ideology,” “military status,” and “family type.” The fight that ultimately sunk the bill finally gave Lee his niche.
Lee became one of a handful of activists who thought the major churches and religious organizations weren’t doing enough to defeat the bill. This was the first attempt to import LGBT rights laws primarily crafted in Europe and the Americas to Korea under the banner of human rights, a concept that was particularly sensitive in the country because its most popular politician, Ban Ki-moon, had just become secretary general of the United Nations.
Like anti-LGBT activists where such laws had passed, they warned this would lead to censorship of churches that preached against homosexuality. And, even though a homegrown LGBT movement had been hosting small pride marches since 1999, many viewed homosexuality as something that would never have become an issue if not for foreign influence.
Lee founded his own organization, called the Holy Life Center, to “treat homosexuals.” The group also organizes events to promote “ex-gay rights,” which Lee appears to primarily mean the right to continue to practice his brand of therapy at a time when many European and American jurisdictions are moving to prohibit it. Lee said that as word got around about his past, the groups mobilizing against the bill recruited him as a spokesperson. Ultimately, the sexual orientation language was stripped from the bill and the whole proposal was shelved.
Lee’s fame began to spread beyond his small ministry. “I heard that there was a gay pastor in Korea that was treated, and we invited him to hear his story at one of our church meetings,” said Lee Yong-hee, leader of a group called the Esther Prayer Movement. The group was originally created to “make the nation pure” in the hopes of reunification with North Korea, but it has become one of the most visible of the small Christian groups of Korea’s growing anti-LGBT movement over the past few years.
Jonah Lee eventually split with the Esther Prayer Movement and groups like it, because, he said, “they were portraying gay people as bad people” while he views “gay people as someone who needs to be saved, not as my enemy.” For the past two years, Lee's Holy Life Center has put on a series of seminars about helping people “escape homosexuality” that coincided with this year’s Korean Queer Cultural Festival. The festival, which has been organizing pride marches and other events since 1999, became the focus of the churches’ newfound fear of LGBT rights in 2015, when they organized their Anti-LGBT Response Committee in a failed attempt to get city leaders to shut down the march and LGBT rally in front of city hall.
Demonstration against the Seoul pride march in June.This year, Holy Life also organized an event at the National Assembly announcing the formation of a new international ex-gay organization to replace Exodus International, which collapsed in 2013. Lee also maintains a website where he fields questions from people seeking to be cured from homosexuality.
“Will you, Pastor Jonah, help me save myself from homosexuality? I cannot trust God. I believe that without believing in the miracles of the Lord, I cannot overcome homosexuality like this,” one young woman wrote to him. He replied, “The reason that you cannot overcome homosexuality is because you are choosing to waste your life as a homosexual being, even if you will burn with an eternal judgement…. The Biblical command is for you to come forth with a heart for repentance, and also a clear mind wishing to change completely. You must fight for your faith and have a determination of patience.”
Until this year, Lee, the Esther Prayer Movement, and a few other small organizations were the only ones consistently mobilizing against LGBT rights, though their reach was amplified by more established religious leaders who were influential in both of South Korea’s major parties and helped kill a few attempts to revive the nondiscrimination language first defeated eight years ago.
That changed this year when the Christian Council of Korea, which claims to represent 60,000 churches with 12 million members, helped organize the Korean Churches Anti-LGBT Response Committee. The committee appeared to want to capitalize on the small success of a small band of protesters in 2014, who managed to delay a pride march through Seoul by lying down in the street.
"If values such as LGBT rights seep into our society, these traditional principles and our social structure [will be] torn apart."
This year, Yoido’s top pastor and other high-profile religious leaders waged a months-long battle to get city officials to deny permission to hold the parade altogether — and nearly succeeded. The march went ahead only after a court ordered it be allowed to proceed. The Anti-LGBT Committee focused its energy on getting thousands of protesters on the streets in an unsuccessful bid to drown it out.
Yoon Deuk Nam, the general secretary of the Christian Council, told BuzzFeed News that as the pride marches began attracting crowds of more than 20,000 in the heart of the city, homosexuality had become a threat to South Korea. A special fear is that the military — the only South Korean institution that explicitly criminalizes sodomy — would be weakened if homosexuality were allowed to become accepted. The country is still technically at war with North Korea, and all South Korean men are required to serve two years in uniform.
“Of course these so-called values [of LGBT rights] will undermine our national strength,” Yoon said. “We have to send all able-bodied men to the military when they reach a certain age…. and if values such as LGBT rights seep into our society, these traditional principles and our social structure [will be] torn apart.”
Lee’s mission is critical to the churches’ efforts to defend South Korea, said Park Young-ryul, former general secretary of the Christian Council of Korea, speaking at an event Lee organized at the National Assembly in June.
“Many politicians and activists said that homosexuality is something you are born into, they must be recognized.… but Jonah was our only hope, our only alternative that proved this wrong — he showed us that homosexuality is something that can be escaped,” Lee said. “This person’s precious ministry is a milestone to the Korean history and society.”
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on June 29, 2015, at 8:58 a.m. ET
SEOUL — The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that same-sex marriage is a question of basic equality before the law is not only the end of the long political battle in the U.S., but is also a tipping point in the global conversation over whether LGBT rights are human rights.
This is not because the United States has raised the bar of what LGBT equality means — it is well behind more than 20 countries in Europe and Latin America in crossing the marriage equality finish line. Nor is it because now that the U.S. has accepted marriage equality, the rest of the world will follow — the wave of anti-LGBT legislation adopted in countries like Uganda and Nigeria in 2014 were in part a reaction to marriage wins in the West, and some countries may intensify their anti-LGBT rhetoric in response to this decision.
But once its full implications are understood, the decision will push the global debate over what it means for countries to fully protect the human rights of gays and lesbians into a new phase. Before the Obergefell decision, even many campaigners trying to get international human rights institutions to treat LGBT rights kept marriage at an arm's length out of fear that asserting it as a fundamental right would intensify opposition to any LGBT rights protections in many parts of the world. After Obergefell’s statement that this is a clear question of equality for gays and lesbians, it seems impossible to exclude partnership rights from the list of fundamental rights that same-sex couples are entitled to regardless of what country they live in.
You won’t hear many LGBT rights organizations saying this, at least not yet — the reality of the decision is still sinking in, and those organizations based in the U.S. and Europe that work globally have treaded carefully or steered clear on this issue for years. But the U.S.’s own trajectory on marriage equality — and the personal trajectories on the issue of President Barack Obama and his first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton — make it clear why it seems impossible for it to stay on the margins.
Obama and Clinton were the essential figures for making LGBT rights a serious part of the global human rights discussion. Before Obama took office in 2009, the U.S. was one of the most important opponents in blocking an LGBT rights push at the United Nations. In 2011, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed its first resolution addressing LGBT rights with U.S. support, and Clinton gave what was considered a groundbreaking speech in which she declared, “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”
But at the time, Clinton herself was on record as opposing marriage equality. So was President Obama, who announced his support for marriage equality only six months before the 2012 election. It would be hard for the U.S. to endorse anything that suggested marriage was a universal right in 2011 — far more U.S. states banned recognizing same-sex couples’ marriages than established marriage equality.
So when the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released its first global survey of LGBT rights — a report ordered by the 2011 resolution — it barely considered partnership rights, focusing instead on the criminalization of same-sex relationships, free speech rights for LGBT activists, and hate crimes.
This sometimes put U.S. diplomats in awkward situations as the global battles over marriage equality intensified at a breakneck speed. Ahead of a 2013 vote on a marriage equality ban in Croatia, for example, the State Department’s then-top officer for human rights, Uzra Zeya, said in a press conference at Europe’s largest annual gathering of LGBT activists that “the U.S. government does not advocate for or against same-sex marriage in other countries.” Instead, she said, it limits its promotion of “rights for LGBT persons” to countering criminalization of “LGBT status,” combating hate crimes, and “other core issues.”
When asked by BuzzFeed News why she said marriage was not a “core issue” for LGBT rights, she said, “I’m not saying it’s not a core issue. I’m just telling you what our focus is.”
In less than two years, the State Department went from the confused position Zeya presented to a strong statement from Secretary of State John Kerry, thanks to the clarifying effect of Obergefell.
“The Court’s decision also sends a clear message to every corner of the globe: no law that rests on a foundation of discrimination can withstand the tide of justice,” Kerry said in a statement released following the judgement’s announcement. He also noted that he’d recently appointed “the first-ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons, Randy Berry” — himself a married gay man with two children — “who is fighting every single day so that people all over the world have the rights they deserve.”
The U.S.’s symbolic status and soft-power clout has given its steps toward marriage equality huge weight even though it has never been at the vanguard. The first European nation to establish marriage equality, the Netherlands, passed its law in 2000, and today the only two major EU members in Western Europe without marriage equality are Germany and Italy. In the Americas, marriage equality has been the law in Canada since 2005, in Argentina since 2010, and in Brazil since 2013. Mexico’s Supreme Court has been ruling state bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional since 2012, taking an additional important step toward establishing universal marriage equality earlier this month.
And the global impact of Obergefell is so significant in part because the conversation has already progressed so far in other corners of the globe. In some ways, the symbolism of Ireland becoming the first nation in the world to enact marriage equality by popular vote in May was more powerful than Obergfell in countries like Australia or Italy — the lopsided vote refuted the argument from conservatives that marriage was being imposed by ruling elites over the will of the people. And the shift at U.N. was detectable weeks before Obergefell — in his 2015 version of the LGBT human rights report, the high commissioner for human rights said partnership protections were necessary to protect gays and lesbians’ human rights.
More countries could very well enact marriage equality before 2015 is over. Opposition parties in Australia began making a serious push for a vote on a marriage equality law following the Irish vote, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott has shown signs that he might allow members of his ruling coalition to vote for it despite his personal opposition. The proposal’s sponsors are expecting a vote to happen this fall.
The U.S. Supreme Court decision may have its most direct impact in Colombia, which has a marriage equality case currently pending before its constitutional court. Colombia and the U.S. are joined under the human rights system of the Organization of American States, and the Colombian court takes into consideration foreign rulings (even though the United States explicitly does not follow foreign precedent).
Mauricio Albarracín, head of the Colombian LGBT rights group Colombia Diversa and an attorney who has worked on the litigation, told BuzzFeed News that, just as the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1955 ruling on racial discrimination in Brown v. Kansas Board of Education has influenced law throughout Latin America, Obergefell “is a beacon for our national debates [on marriage equality]."
Of course, the number of countries that have marriage equality are still a small minority — just over 20, as compared to the around 80 countries that criminalize homosexuality. They are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Americas and Western Europe, lending ammunition to LGBT rights opponents in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe who say they’re standing up for national customs against “cultural imperialism” from the West. The celebrations in Ireland and the United States feel very far away in countries like Morocco, where two men were sentenced to jail on charges of embracing in public, or Turkey, where police shut down a pride march on Sunday with tear gas and water cannons.
“Maybe Korea will follow the U.S. ruling, but never in our time,” a 22 year-old student named Jang Hyun-joon told BuzzFeed News on Sunday at a pride march in the South Korean capital Seoul, which was almost banned in the face of opposition from Christian groups.
But the ground for the debate has shifted, and it could change faster than even people like Jang expect. A BuzzFeed News/Ipsos poll conducted this spring found 53% of South Koreans support legal protections for same-sex couples. And the country’s best known politician, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon — who polls show would easily be elected if he decided to run for president of South Korea in 2017 — sounded an awful lot like John Kerry when he spoke about the Obergefell decision on Friday.
The ruling “marks a great step forward for human rights in the United States,” Ban said during a ceremony in which he was presented a medal for his work promoting LGBT rights. “When the time comes to look back on my tenure, I will feel enormous pride in the fact that I have been the first U.N. secretary-general to push hard for equal rights and respect for LGBT people around the world.”
Obergefell is a turning point for the LGBT movement, not only because the United States has crossed what many now view as the clearest litmus test over whether LGBT people are equal citizens. It will change how LGBT rights campaigners talk about their own agenda on the global stage.
It’s hard to imagine any politician — or government — maintain that marriage equality is not a “core issue” while maintaining that “gay rights are human rights” ever again.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on May 12, 2015, at 9:00 a.m. ET
DUBLIN — In less than two weeks, the Republic of Ireland could become the first country in the world to allow same-sex couples to marry thanks to a popular vote, boosting the marriage-equality movement, which has swept across western Europe.
The latest poll shows 78% of voters in favor of passing the amendment on May 22. That is a staggering number, considering that Irish voters only approved divorce in 1995, and with a margin of less than 1%. It also reflects how diminished the power of the Catholic Church has become over the past 20 years, thanks in large part to devastating sexual abuse scandals that have undermined its moral authority. Catholic bishops have come under fire from some conservative laypeople for not doing enough to stop the referendum, while a few priests have even come out in support of it.
After 20 years of fights in the U.S. and around the world, this is the first time LGBT rights activists have locked horns with conservatives in a battle for the direct support of an entire nation. Several eastern European countries have held referendums to bar same-sex couples from marrying, but Ireland is the first country to ask its electorate to vote on whether to establish marriage equality. A win would counter the criticism from conservatives that marriage equality has been imposed by elites over the will of the people. But a defeat could embolden a growing movement in eastern Europe that wants to enact constitutional bans against marriage rights for same-sex couples.
Paradoxically, the high poll numbers are making Yes campaigners even more nervous. Irish voters have a history of abandoning proposed constitutional changes in the final days of the campaign. And the shadow of California’s Proposition 8 — when voters rejected marriage equality in the state in 2008 after a win seemed likely — looms large.
“Look at how Prop 8 happened — Prop 8 was a slam dunk [for LGBT rights supporters] until the result came in and it turned out it wasn’t,” said Brian Sheehan, co-director of Yes Equality, the campaign group created to get out the Yes vote. The fact that pollsters comprehensively failed to predict the outcome of last week’s general election in the United Kingdom hasn’t boosted their confidence either.
Lampposts across Ireland are plastered with posters representing both sides. The No side says it's printed around 10,000 posters in pink and blue with pictures of babies alongside slogans like “children deserve a mother and father.” Brightly colored signs from the Yes campaign urge people to vote Yes for “a more equal Ireland” and “because marriage matters.” The version in Gaelic translates to “lend me your hand,” a phrase that can both mean asking for help and someone’s hand in marriage.
The Yes campaign has had the upper hand in the debate for months. Backed by every one of Ireland’s political parties, it has been running a bus tour to generate support for the referendum that was recently joined by Ireland’s head of government, Taoiseach Enda Kenny. The Yes campaign has also racked up an impressive list of endorsements from celebrities and athletes, including actors Colin Farrell and Chris O'Dowd, the musician Hozier, and the former captain of the country's rugby team Brian O'Driscoll. Yes Equality is also running a canvassing operation that hopes to knock on all 1.8 million doors in Ireland.
Until recently, the leaders of Ireland’s Catholic Church had done little more than pass a formal declaration in December opposing the referendum. The archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, took a more forceful tone early last week, which he said was in response to criticism from the conservative Catholic press that he “had ‘confused’ the press" with his "attitude to the referendum and had given constant solace to the Yes campaign.” This was followed by a round of statements condemning the referendum from Ireland’s top bishop, Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin, and several other senior bishops in their dioceses over the weekend.
This is quite a reversal for an institution that long dominated family policy. Condoms were not widely available without a prescription in Ireland until 1985, so it was common for women to travel across the border to Northern Ireland — part of the U.K. — to purchase contraception. Sodomy wasn’t decriminalized until 1993, 26 years after it was legalized in England. Voters rejected a referendum to allow divorce in 1986, and it took almost another 10 years before it was finally approved by the narrowest of margins.
The No campaign has mostly been led by a small Catholic think tank, the Iona Institute, and an ad hoc group of conservative newspaper columnists and individuals with little political experience who’ve come together under the name Mothers and Fathers Matter. In addition to organizing the poster campaign, Mothers and Fathers Matter is a clearing house for spokespeople against the referendum for the debates that broadcasters are organizing almost daily.
The tactics of the No campaign — which is built around the argument that children will be harmed if same-sex couples are allowed to wed — look disturbingly familiar for American LGBT rights advocates, who are watching the Irish vote carefully. This is exactly the kind of messaging that ate away at support for marriage equality in the Proposition 8 campaign, and they believe it has the fingerprints of the conservative group that pulled off that upset victory, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM).
“When the other side filed [to name their group] as Mothers and Fathers Matter, that was an instant signal to me that their messaging is 100% from the playbook of NOM and the U.S.,” said Thalia Zepatos, director of research and messaging for Freedom to Marry, an organization established in 2003 to counter the wave of ballot measures in U.S. states to ban marriage equality. Like NOM, she said, Mothers and Fathers Matter was using a “drumbeat of fear-based messaging [about children by the No campaign that] brings the numbers lower and lower and lower.”
The Irish campaign “reminds me more of Prop 8 than any other campaign I’ve seen since then,” said Zepatos.
The No side denies that it is borrowing tactics from California, saying it's learned more from campaigns in eastern European countries like Slovenia in 2012 or Croatia in 2013, where referendums were passed curtailing partnership rights for same-sex couples.
“We wouldn’t be taking too many more lessons from Prop 8 than from elsewhere,” said David Quinn, head of the Iona Institute and adviser to Mothers and Fathers Matter. Quinn, who also writes a regular column in the Irish Independent newspaper, is widely regarded as the savviest campaigner on the No side.
“Obviously the only way two men or two women can found a family is by violating a child’s right to have a mother and a father.”
But the No camp has gotten some input from veterans of the California campaign and other marriage fights abroad. Frank Schubert, the conservative political consultant credited with the Proposition 8 victory, told BuzzFeed News before an NOM rally in Washington earlier this month that he has sent private polling, focus-group work, and other messaging guidance to activists on the No side. NOM President Brian Brown also said he had “talked a lot” to Quinn periodically over the past few years, though they hadn’t communicated in over a year.
They’ve also sought advice from opponents of same-sex marriage in the U.K., Keith Mills, a spokesperson for Mothers and Fathers Matter, told BuzzFeed News last Tuesday. The next day, he said, the group was due to meet with a representative from La Manif Pour Tous, an organization formed in opposition to France’s 2013 marriage equality law that has established itself as an engine for movements opposed to marriage equality across Europe.
“We would take most succor from what happened in Slovenia,” Quinn said, referring to the 2012 referendum that reversed a law passed by parliament extending legal protections to same-sex couples. Opponents have also consulted the leaders of the 2013 campaign that blocked marriage equality in Croatia.
They hear the same advice from campaigners in every country, Quinn said. “The message that comes back all the time, loud and clear … [is] keep talking about the children.” Marriage is inherently bound up with the right to found a family, Quinn argued: “Obviously the only way two men or two women can found a family is by violating a child’s right to have a mother and a father.”
Yes campaigners call this argument a “red herring.” The Oireachtas, the Irish parliament. passed a law last month to expand adoption rights to same-sex couples; a Yes vote in this referendum would do nothing to change that, and they say it would leave existing law on surrogacy unchanged. The country's major children's charities have also endorsed a Yes vote.
Mills and Quinn both said the No campaign had not received any funding from international donors, however. Quinn said the Iona Institute's only substantial international funding has been €24,000 over the past few years from an Italian foundation headed by a former member of the European Parliament, Luca Volonté, who sits on the board of the conservative online campaign platform CitizenGo along with NOM’s Brian Brown. But none of that money has gone to the referendum campaign, Quinn said.
By contrast, the No campaign has been making an issue out of the millions of dollars that have been given to Ireland’s leading LGBT rights organization by the New York-based Atlantic Philanthropies. Atlantic was created by Irish-American billionaire Chuck Feeney in 1982 and has contributed to a range of sectors in Ireland and to LGBT rights causes around the globe. Though Yes Equality says all its funding has been raised from Irish citizens, the No side has been arguing that the vote will be a test of whether “American money [can] buy an Irish referendum.”
Marriage equality campaigners did consult the U.S.’s Freedom to Marry as they were thinking about formulating their campaign, however. Noel Whelan, strategic adviser to Yes Equality, said American advice was especially helpful in learning how to engage people outside the gay and lesbian community about the importance of marriage to same-sex couples.
That hasn’t “directly translated” into an Irish context, Sheehan said, in part because Ireland “never had a culture war” about LGBT rights the way the U.S. did. Most advances for LGBT rights — from decriminalizing sodomy in 1993 to establishing civil partnerships in 2010 — were made in single votes in Dublin and not in a series of state-by-state battles or judicial wins. And this unfolded as economic change transformed Ireland from a society dominated by the church to one that shifted more toward Europe and the U.S. during an economic revolution in the late 1990s.
“Ireland has been on such an extraordinary journey,” Sheehan said. “We want this campaign to be different than any other campaign.”
“I think this is a campaign that we can win, but this is a campaign that we can lose.”
Last week, Ireland’s first openly gay elected official, Sen. David Norris, appeared on one of the constant stream of broadcast debates, which are the primary battleground during Irish campaigns since direct advertising is banned. Norris, a well-known politician who ran for president in 2011, was a leader of the push to decriminalize sodomy in the 1980s.
“This is all about equality — equality and nothing else,” he began, recounting how voting to approve marriage equality would finish the work begun by repealing the sodomy law.
“We cannot win this on our own,” he said. “We are relying on the goodwill, the decency, and the sense of compassion from our heterosexual friends, families, and neighbors ... I want my participation in the Irish family to be recognized once and for all in the constitution.”
Tom Finnegan, an anti-abortion activist representing Mothers and Fathers Matter, countered that existing civil partnerships guaranteed equal rights to same-sex couples. “If we pass this referendum, it will be constitutionally impossible for any Oireachtas ever again to give preference in law for [a child to have] a mother and a father.”
Spokespeople for the Yes campaign spent a great deal of time rebutting these points in the first major round of debates held last week. From their point of view, every second they spend addressing these questions could potentially cost them votes. They believe the No campaign has an easier job than they do — voters don’t have to be against same-sex marriage to vote No; all they need to do is feel unsure to choose to stick with the status quo.
“All [the No campaigners] have to do is confuse,” Tiernan Brady, policy director for the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, told BuzzFeed News at the Yes Equality headquarters last week. The consensus in the Yes campaign office was that their side had been drawn into a shouting match with their opponents in an important television debate the night before.
Nearby, Yes Equality co-director Brian Sheehan was talking on the phone: “I think they can taste a victory after last night.”
It is hard to gauge what impact these debates are having; the poll that found support at 78% was the first released since the formal campaign period began, and pollsters found that 9% of people said they made up their minds only in the past seven days. These voters were split evenly between Yes and No.
But this is so out of sync with the experience of past referendums — where support for an amendment would already be dropping two weeks before the vote — that the Yes supporters think they must just not be picking up what's actually going on in the electorate.
On a canvas the following evening in an upscale neighborhood in southern Dublin, volunteers for the Yes campaign routinely heard the arguments about parenting No campaigners had been making on television from people who said they were leaning against the referendum.
“We’re listening to the debate on the television and on the radio,” said one undecided voter. “Personally, I have problems around the whole surrogacy and the unintended consequences around things that haven’t happened yet.”
He’s exactly the kind of voter the Yes campaign is worried about. It fears more like him could begin having reservations now that the campaign is entering the key period when Irish voters typically decide their vote.
"I think this is a campaign that we can win, but this is a campaign that we can lose," said Kieran Rose, who founded the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network in 1988 to work on repealing the sodomy law and is now campaigning for marriage equality. "We're keenly aware of that."
May 15, 2015, at 1:12 p.m.
The Gay and Lesbian Equality Network was founded in 1988. A previous version of this article misstated the date.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on April 11, 2015, at 12:42 p.m. ET
BRASILIA — A group of hard-faced young men marched military style through a cheering crowd, giving straight-armed salutes. “Thank the Lord, we are here today ready for battle, and determined to serve you — We are Gladiators of the Altar,” they declared, in a video that went viral in February.
The video wasn’t a clip from an army training exercise or propaganda for some sort of militia. According to the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, which posted the video, the Gladiators of the Altar program essentially amounts to a Bible study class for at-risk young men. The video, posted in February by a Universal Church in the northern coastal city of Fortaleza, got around one million views in the 24 hours before the church took it offline, following widespread uproar.
The video caught fire in part because it embodied the ideological battle now playing out in Brazil’s capital. Backed by the country’s rapidly growing evangelical population, a large number of religious conservatives won election in October as part of a broad conservative coalition that now controls Congress. They have taken office bent on reversing recent gains for LGBT rights, including a 2013 decision by a judicial panel that established marriage equality nationwide. Progressives have struggled to draw public attention to the implications of the vote, in part because even President Dilma Rousseff — who supports LGBT rights — courted evangelical support for her reelection.
“The photo is shocking,” wrote Brazil’s only out gay member of Congress and best-known progressive standard bearer, Jean Wyllys, in a long comment on an Instagram post of the Gladiators. The threat of “religious fundamentalism” has gone ignored as Brazil’s major parties have scrambled for the votes of conservative evangelicals who now make up more than 20% of the population, he wrote. This “Christian fundamentalism” is every bit as dangerous as “Islamic fundamentalism” in the Middle East, and now threatens “individual liberty, sexual diversity, and secular culture” in Brazil, he said.
“When will we wake up to the true nature of the monster emerging from the lake,” he asked.
The Gladiators’ militaristic march became such a lightening rod partly because the Universal Church already casts a large shadow over Brazilian politics. Founded 37 years ago and headquartered in São Paulo, it is one of South America’s fastest growing denominations and now claims well over 8 million adherents in Brazil and millions more in countries including Argentina, Angola, and the United States. Its founder and patriarch, Edir Macedo, subscribes to a kind of “prosperity theology” that suggests the faithful are rewarded with wealth and encourages believers to give large gifts to the church. He has amassed a personal fortune estimated to be more than $1 billion while head of this growing religious empire. Much of that comes from his ownership of Brazil’s second largest television network, Rede Record.
Rumors persist that he controls the Brazilian Republican Party, a small party created in 2005 under the leadership of his nephew, Senator and Universal Church bishop Marcelo Bezerra Crivelli. The party, however, officially maintains it is independent and secular. (Through a spokesperson, Macedo declined to be interviewed for this story.)
The Brazilian Republican Party won 21 seats in last October’s election, almost all of whom are reportedly Universal Church members. They are among the more than 80 evangelicals elected to Congress, a gain of around a dozen over the previous congress. An informal grouping known as the “Evangelical Bloc” now forms the backbone of a newly emboldened social conservative faction.
“I think we have the most conservative congress yet,” said Deputy Alan Rick, a freshman from the Republican Party who was tapped to lead a 330-member “Family Front.” In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Rick said that the Front was organized in part to block a nondiscrimination law known as the law to “criminalize homophobia.” This law was a long-standing priority for LGBT rights advocates because Brazil has one of the highest reported rates of anti-LGBT hate crimes in the world. (The human rights arm of the Organization of American States counted 347 assaults or murders of LGBT people in Brazil in the one year period ending March 31 of 2014 alone.) The Front also hoped to pass its own legislation giving protections to fetuses from the moment of conception, potentially expanding Brazilian law that limits abortion only to cases involving rape or if it is the only way to save the mother’s life.
“When will we wake up to the true nature of the monster emerging from the lake?”
Many progressives are stunned to find a Congress that not only has a larger number of social conservatives, but also has stronger factions allied with the military, police, and cattle-ranching interests — a conservative coalition known as the “BBB Bloc” for bibles, bullets, and bulls. This majority is painful for them because widespread 2013 protests against economic inequality had raised hopes for a progressive election wave. But this failed to materialize, and the progressive favorite for president, environmentalist Marina Silva, finished third after she backtracked on support for LGBT rights and made other other concessions to the right to appeal to evangelicals and other conservatives.
Warning cries from progressives about the threat to LGBT and women’s rights have fallen on deaf ears, in part because of a sprawling corruption scandal involving the state oil company, Petrobras, that threatens to bring down the Rousseff government.
In March, investigators named 49 politicians suspected in a kickback-for-contracts scheme. Rousseff, who oversaw the company for many years as a member of the board of directors and as minister of energy, was not named and has denied any knowledge of wrongdoing while she ran the company. But there have been large-scale protests calling for her impeachment.
One of those named by investigators is Eduardo Cunha, the president of Congress’s lower chamber, the House of Deputies. Cunha has still managed to eclipse Rousseff as the most powerful politician in Brasilia. In one emblematic episode, he got Rousseff’s administration to oust the education minister and then announced his firing from the House floor before the administration had time to prepare a formal announcement.
Cunha is an evangelical who thumbed his nose at progressives when he took office by proposing bills to create a “Hetero Pride Day” and to criminalize “heterophobia.” He also told abortion rights supporters they would “have to go over my dead body to vote” on legislation to decriminalize the procedure. Brazilian political observers routinely compare him to House of Cards’s Frank Underwood, a comparison Cunha told one newspaper he dislikes because Underwood “is a thief, gay, and a cuckold.”
Through a spokesperson, Cunha declined to speak with BuzzFeed News.
Social conservative lawmakers said they were feeling bullish under his leadership.
Marco Feliciano is a megachurch leader and gospel singer who was elected to the House from São Paulo state in 2010 and won reelection in 2014 with the highest number of votes of any evangelical member of Congress. In his words, Cunha “is a political genius.” Feliciano is known as one of the most bombastic of Congress’s social conservatives. In 2013, after winning the chairmanship of the House human rights committee, he tried to advance a bill reversing a ban on mental health professionals practising “conversion therapy” to make gay people straight. When the outcry against his chairmanship began in the spring of 2013, Feliciano said even members of his own party wanted him to step down, but Cunha told him to hang on.
“You’ll get a political gain out of this,” Feliciano said Cunha told him. “You’ll be a symbol to any Christian running for office.”
The proposal that most worries social progressives in Cunha’s Congress is a new family code. The bill’s opponents view it primarily as a way to undermine a 2013 decision by a judicial panel that established marriage equality nationwide. If the bill passes, “the LGBT family will lose the legal protection of the state,” said Wyllys, the out deputy.
Wyllys and many others on the left complain that churches have an unfair advantage in the political arena: their earnings are tax exempt, even when they come from church-owned businesses that have nothing to do with worship. Many deputies are also stars of religious broadcasting or well known gospel singers, and their publicity gives them a leg up.
The chairman of the committee writing the family law, Sostenes Cavalcante, is a prime example of what they complain about. His third largest source of campaign funds is one of Brazil’s wealthiest and politically influential religious leaders, Pastor Silas Malafaia of the Assembly of God Victory in Christ Church in Rio de Janeiro.
Cavalacante could not be reached for comment after several attempts by BuzzFeed News. Campaign financial records, show Malafaia contributed $31,000 to Cavalcante’s campaign via his Gospel Central publishing company in 2014 with an additional $17,000 via Malafaia’s brother. Malafaia’s endorsement alone carries tremendous weight: when he tweeted a demand that Marina Silva retract LGBT rights language from her presidential platform last August or lose his potential support, she cut it immediately.
During an interview at his church in the western part of Rio de Janeiro, Malafaia disputed that he and other evangelicals were using the political arena to go after LGBT people. They are simply fighting back against a movement he said wanted to send them to jail for practicing their religion.
“Gay activism is the most intolerant movement of postmodernity,” Malafaia said.
Malafaia, also a licensed psychologist, said he’s faced four unsuccessful suits by LGBT activists trying to have his license revoked, and said the anti-homophobia law was simply an attempt to “censor” churches.
“Soon they will make a law to forbid us to preach in our churches against practices we don’t believe in,” Malafaia said. Recent proposals in Brasilia such as a bill to allow minors a path to legal gender reassignment, he argued that evangelicals were fighting against “the state overruling the family,” a kind of “cultural Marxism” that will “destroy family and society and civilization.”
The only thing that’s changed in this Congress, Malafaia said, is that “Congress represents people’s ideology and thinking.”
“Gay activism is the most intolerant movement of postmodernity"
At base, Malafaia argued, Brazilian politics are changing in line with Brazil’s population. Census data shows that evangelical protestants now account for more than 22% of Brazil’s population, up from around 10% in 1991. (About one-third of these belong to Malafaia’s denomination, the Assemblies of God.) The rate of growth is staggering that many demographers believe that a country that was more than 90% Catholic in 1970 could soon be majority evangelical. This could lead to a continuing decline in support for marriage equality; polling data shows that only 25 percent of Brazilian protestants support marriage equality as opposed to 51 percent of Catholics.
“That’s where our power comes from,” Malafaia said. “We are more than 50 million — 50 million evangelicals who go to church.” And unlike other politicians, he said, “evangelicals do not separate the church and practical life.”
His opponents see something much more sinister: an alliance between social conservatives and those who are nostalgic for Brazil’s dictatorship, which only fell in the 1980s. For them, the most emblematic evangelical leader is Deputy Jair Bolsonaro, who infamously said in 2011 that he would rather one of his sons “died in an accident” than to be gay. Bolsonaro also recently proposed a bill that would name the waters off the Brazilian coast the “President Medici Sea” after Brazil’s former dictator.
“We live a crisis moment in Brazil,” said Erika Kokay, a deputy who represents Brasilia in Congress and is a progressive stalwart on the Human Rights Committee. “The fundamentalist bloc is making arrangements with other conservative blocs in Congress … That’s a fascist logic.”
Alexandre Orrico and Olivia Florencia contributed to this report.
Courts in more than two-thirds of Mexico’s 31 states have granted same-sex couples the right to marry over the past two years in a series of rulings that will likely make marriage equality a reality nationwide in the near future.
The wave of rulings throughout Mexico hasn’t caused the uproar that has followed rulings in the United States over the past year striking down state laws barring same-sex couples from marrying. Couples have not rushed to marry nor have conservatives organized major protests.
This is in part because the technicalities of Mexican law have meant these decisions have been much more narrow in their immediate impact. Each decision applies only to the individuals who have brought the cases, and other same-sex couples will still have to sue in order to marry. It takes multiple cases meeting certain technical requirements for the courts to nullify a state law in Mexico — a hurdle that has not yet been met.
But with new rulings being announced almost every week — judges in seven new states ruled in favor of marriage equality in the first three months of 2015 alone — it seems almost inevitable that this day is coming, say legal experts who have closely followed the litigation.
“It’s just a matter of time,” said Geraldina Gonzalez de la Vega, a lawyer who worked on the first of these suits filed in 2011 and is now a clerk to a Supreme Court minister. “This has spread all over the country.”
The first place in Mexico to allow same-sex couples to marry was Mexico City — a federal district that functions like a state, sort of like Washington D.C in the U.S. A marriage equality law was adopted by the city’s legislature at the very end of 2009. When opponents took the law to Mexico’s Supreme Court, the judges ruled that it was constitutional for Mexico City to recognize same-sex couples and went one step further: They also held that the city’s marriages were valid in every state of the country.
But the Supreme Court left state marriage codes restricting marriage to heterosexual couples in place. The first case to argue that state marriage laws restricting marriage to a man and a woman were also unconstitutional seemed like a long shot. Unlike in the United States, where legal activists spent years spelling out the grounds for marriage equality and some state challenges attracted A-list attorneys, the idea to challenge a state marriage code came from a law student in the largely rural state of Oaxaca.
Alex Alí Méndez Díaz has now been involved in lawsuits in 19 states even though he is still finishing advanced studies in Mexico City and has an unrelated full-time job. Méndez first thought about challenging state marriage laws when he met a couple named Alejandro and Guillermo while helping to plan a pride parade in his native state of Oaxaca in 2011. The two wanted to marry, but they couldn’t afford to make the trip to register their union in Mexico City.
“These guys said to me, ‘We want to get married but we don’t want to leave. ... Can we get married here in Oaxaca?'” Méndez recounted during a 2012 interview with this reporter in Oaxaca City. He downloaded the ruling in the Mexico City case and concluded that it laid the foundation for challenging Oaxaca’s marriage code.
Others in Oaxaca’s local LGBT rights organizations thought going to court was a bad idea, Méndez said, in part because they were worried that the state wasn’t ready for a public discussion about same-sex marriage. But he was sure of his legal arguments, so he decided to bring the case by himself.
“I said, ‘Fine, if the collective won’t do this as a group, well, I’m the only lawyer [in the organization]. I’ll do it,'” he said.
In August 2011, Mendez filed cases on behalf of Alejandro and Guillermo and another couple he recruited through Facebook. In early 2012, he filed one more. These were amparos, a kind of suit in the Mexican system concerning human rights violations. He lost two of them — including Alejandro and Guillermo’s — but the third, on behalf of a couple identified as Lizeth and Montserrat, eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. In December 2012 the Supreme Court sided with the couple.
“Like racial segregation, founded on the unacceptable idea of white supremacy, the exclusion of homosexual couples from marriage also is based on prejudice that historically has existed against homosexuals”
The written decision in the case, published in early 2013, made an impassioned argument for marriage equality. A unanimous opinion authored by Supreme Court Minister Arturo Zaldívar Lelo de Larrea said that the court needed to step in partly because of a provision added to the Mexican constitution in 2011 prohibiting discrimination on the basis of “sexual preferences.” Unlike in the U.S., Mexican courts recognize rulings from other countries, so Zaldívar also based the decision in part on landmark U.S. Supreme Court judgements striking down racial segregation.
“Like racial segregation, founded on the unacceptable idea of white supremacy, the exclusion of homosexual couples from marriage also is based on prejudice that historically has existed against homosexuals,” Zaldívar wrote, referring both to the 1954 school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education and the 1967 case striking down laws banning interracial marriage, Loving v. Virginia.
The judgement allowed just the petitioners to marry — Mexican law requires essentially five identical rulings on a subject from a high-level court in order to establish precedent binding all government officials. But it provided a very clear blueprint for bringing more challenges. Méndez announced on Twitter less than a week after the decision was handed down in December in 2012 that he was preparing to file amparos on behalf of more couples in Oaxaca, and lawyers in several other states immediately began talking about copying the strategy.
“In the two years [since], we have succeeded in covering almost the entire country.”
Méndez also began working on an amparo colectivo, a petition of 39 individuals from Oaxaca challenging the marriage restriction. These actions didn’t revolve around specific couples alleging their rights had been violated because they’d been denied the right to marry. Instead, it was a group of gays and lesbians who said it was inherently discriminatory for the state to bar them from matrimony. This would streamline the process, allowing large numbers of couples to win marriage rights through a single suit, and also allow single people to win the right to marry even if they didn’t yet have a partner.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of this amparo colectivo in April last year. Since then, groups numbering in the hundreds have successfully brought these suits in multiple states.
As of late February, there have been rulings in favor of marriage equality in 22 states, according to local news reports, and cases have been filed in at least four others. This legal wave nudged the legislature of one state on the U.S. border, Coahuila, to pass a marriage equality law in September. And the Caribbean state of Quintana Roo — where same-sex marriages actually began taking advantage in 2011 of the little-noticed fact that the wording of its marriage statute was actually gender-neutral — held two mass weddings of same-sex couples this year.
Méndez himself seems astonished at the pace of change.
“Imagine, in 2012, we won the first judgement in Oaxaca,” Méndez marveled during a phone interview last week. “In the two years [since], we have succeeded in covering almost the entire country.”
Even some LGBT rights supporters are a little mystified that marriage equality rulings haven’t sparked a national backlash. The fight over Mexico City’s 2009 marriage equality law brought strong opposition from the country’s Catholic hierarchy. Yet while some state bishops have condemned marriages between same-sex couples in the past few years, there has been no substantial opposition.
“The church was really concerned with the amendment here in Mexico City,” Geraldina Gonzalez de la Vega, the Supreme Court clerk who helped Méndez bring the Oaxaca case, said. But now, with scores of amparos pending, “they are not saying anything.”
Gonzalez attributes this in part to the fact that there isn’t much history of using the courts to force widespread change in Mexico, and so neither activists nor the media fully understand the scale of the change that’s underway. Méndez thinks this will change as the litigation moves from cases involving individual couples and produces the kind of rulings that will allow same-sex couples to marry in their states without having to file suit.
“The moment that there is an order from the Supreme Court forcing reform we’ll begin to see all kinds of resistance,” Méndez said. “We’re going to have serious problems with protests in opposition.”
Méndez expects the Supreme Court to start issuing the kinds of decisions that would make marriage widely available to same-sex couples throughout the country sometime in the next “two or three years,” based on the timeline for the cases already in the works. That may come sooner in some states — on Wednesday, the Supreme Court issued a ruling ordering the state of México (which borders Mexico City) to change its marriage codes, but it will take an additional case to make that binding precedent in the state. Three more states — Oaxaca, Jalisco, and Colima — are also on the verge of crossing that threshold.
As the wins become more substantial, advocates may no longer be able to carry on their work under the radar, and there are already signs that a backlash is coming. January brought the first high-profile resistance by local officials to a Supreme Court ruling allowing a couple to marry, a marriage equality standoff that made some national news. This came when the state of Baja California tried to duck a Supreme Court court order allowing a couple to wed in the city of Mexicali. The couple was turned away from city hall three times, the last of which after a volunteer who performs a mandatory pre-marital counseling session at city hall submitted a complaint saying the men “suffer from madness.” LGBT rights activists organized a protest in front of city hall under the hashtag #MisDerechosNoSonLocura (#MyRightsAreNotMadness), and city officials finally capitulated and allowed Víctor Fernando Urías Amparo and Víctor Manuel Aguirre Espinoza to marry on Jan. 17.
There are also signs that it could emerge as a theme in the campaign for national congressional elections that will be held in June, at least in some states. The clearest hints of this have come from Chihuahua, where Méndez said there have been 25 successful amparos. On Feb. 10, the leader of the opposition PAN party in the state legislature declared, “We are going to oppose approval of gay unions, we are going to vote against them, and that is what we were discussing with the bishop.”
But even if a backlash erupts now, Méndez said, the cases they’ve already won make marriage equality all but inevitable.
“Outside of Mexico, and even inside of Mexico, these advances are not widely known,” Méndez said. “It is very slow, it is very invisible — but it is irreversible.
Rex Wockner provided research assistance for this story.
This post has been updated to reflect a March 4 ruling against a law in the state of Chiapas banning same-sex couples from marrying
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on February 16, 2015, at 10:38 a.m. ET
CAIRO — When asked to explain what Cairo's medical inspectors look for when they examine someone who's been arrested for homosexuality, Dr. Maged Louis picked up a pen and started sketching an oval with sharp points on both ends.
"The shape of the hole will change," he said. The anus "won't be normal any more and will look like the female vagina."
More than 150 people have been arrested on charges of homosexuality since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power just under two years ago, the largest roundup of alleged LGBT people in more than a decade in Egypt. Anal exams are a routine part of the investigation in such cases, and Louis has a role in overseeing all of them. He is the deputy director of the Justice Ministry's Forensic Medical Authority, as well as the chief of forensic medicine for the Cairo police district.
"First we make them take the prostrate position — the position that Muslims take when they pray," he said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. The tests are intended not just to determine whether someone has ever had anal sex, but also to detect "chronic homosexuals," because the letter of Egyptian law only criminalizes men who engage in "habitual debauchery." Louis said that he believed that in addition to their elongation, the anuses of "chronic homosexuals" also don't clench when touched or don't contract as tightly. They are smooth and lack the "corrugations" — wrinkles — found on "normal" anuses, he said. And though he denied that examiners penetrate subjects under examination, he also said they can detect a "chronic homosexual" if his anus can accept larger objects.
"A normal man's anus can't take more than one joint of the small finger," he said.
International human rights and medical experts dismissed Louis's checklist as having "no medical basis" and being "categorically not true." Most of those interviewed by BuzzFeed News couldn't contain their shock before all of the criteria were listed.
"I think you heard my laugh — I think that says it all," said Dr. Joel Palefsky, a professor at the University of California San Francisco specializing in anal cancer who is president of the International Anal Neoplasia Society. "We run a clinic where we do anal examinations of thousands of patients ... Never in my 20 years of doing this have I seen an anus that looks like a vagina."
Human Rights Watch and other advocacy organizations have long denounced such anal exams — which are routine in several of the world's roughly 80 countries that criminalize sodomy — as a form of torture that violates international law. Medical leaders in some of the countries where these exams are used have called for their abolition, such as in Lebanon.
But Louis was incredulous that anyone could doubt his inspectors' work.
"All of what I said is science and written in books," he said. "Doctors all over the world know that."
The idea that inspectors are intentionally fabricating evidence because of their own homophobia isn't what makes these exams so disturbing — though that does sometimes happen, according to defendants' accounts. It's that beliefs about homosexuality are leading doctors — some of whom have done extensive (and horrific) research into perfecting diagnostic techniques — to believe that what they are doing is science.
One of the modern pioneers in anal examinations in Egypt was Dr. Aymen Fouda, Louis' predecessor as deputy director of the Forensic Medical Authority, who went on to become chief medical inspector from 2005 through 2007.
During a 2003 interview with Scott Long, then-director of Human Rights Watch's LGBT program, Fouda said the exams were based on techniques developed in Europe.
"In this kind of investigation there are six criteria which were established by the celebrated Frenchman [Auguste Ambroise] Tardieu," Fouda said, referring to the 19th-century forensic doctor who published a book in 1857 called The Forensic Study of Assaults against Decency. In the book, Tardieu spelled out six "characteristic signs" of "habitual pederasty," which included those described by Dr. Louis as well as sores and fissures. But, he wrote, "[t]he unique sign and the only unequivocal mark of pederasty" is an "infundibuliform" — or funnel-shaped — anus.
Fouda told Long that forensic experts were working on developing "new, advanced methods" to detect homosexuality "involving the use of electricity." Fouda had co-authored a 1998 study published in a journal published by the Egyptian Society of Forensic Medical Sciences that experimented with inserting hypodermic needles into the muscle of the anus in "unanesthetized humans" which claimed to demonstrate that gay men's anuses conduct electricity at a different rate. Other researchers continued experimenting with related methods, including a doctoral student who defended a dissertation at Ain Shams University — one of Egypt's most prestigious — in 2003 entitled "Medico-legal Assessment of the Anal Sphincter Functions in Sodomists."
Tardieu's theories were suspect in Europe even when they were first published, said Khaled Fahmy, a historian of Egyptian forensic medicine at the American University of Cairo who has studied its translation into Arabic.
"Even back then this is a highly ideological book," he told BuzzFeed News, part of a "morals campaign" that was a response to events in Paris at the time. And he thought it "would be shocking" to the Egyptian public if it were widely known that courts were continuing to treat examinations as serious evidence that were based on science that was 150 years old.
But, he speculated, they endure in part because they reinforce certain basic notions about homosexuality that circulate in Egypt: that it is like a disease, usually passed on to children through sexual abuse.
"There is a belief that this abuse during childhood will leave a physical mark, and it leaves a mark on the anus," he said. "We now have a homosexual body — not only a homosexual character which is a defective character, but it has physical traces that a forensic doctor can discern."
And though these anal exams now seem laughable in Europe and the United States, the belief that a detectable physical basis for sexual orientation persists into the 21st century. In 2010, the Czech Republic announced that it would stop subjecting gay refugees to a practice called "phallometry" or "penile plethysmography" — which involves attaching a pressure-sensing device to the refugee's penis while he is shown heterosexual pornography — after it was denounced as "degrading treatment" by the United Nations Refugee Agency.
The same belief for a measurable sign of homosexuality also lingers in the hunt for a "gay gene," suggests Graeme Reid, the current head of Human Rights Watch's LGBT program. Though the argument that homosexuality is determined by biology has been very effective for the LGBT rights movement in the U.S. and Europe, Reid said, efforts to isolate a "gay gene" are also based on a simplistic, "flawed cultural assumption" about the biological basis of sexuality.
"The idea that there is kind of one causation for sexuality seems absurd given what we know about the complexity of human sexuality," Reid said.
Some defendants who have undergone anal exams in Egypt describe open cruelty on the part of the doctors. One of the defendants in Egypt's largest homosexuality trials in recent history — the 2001 trial of 52 men that became known as the "Queen Boat" case — told Long of Human Rights Watch that the anal exam was one of the "two worst times in my life"; the other was when the judge sentenced him to two years in jail. "The doctors treated us like pigs," said another quoted in Long's report on the trial, and several noted that their degradation was compounded by the fact that they were forced to assume a sexually subservient position in front of women. Anal exams are far from the only intrusive practice that appears to be becoming more common in Sisi's Egypt — "virginity tests" for women who are arrested are also making a comeback since the military reasserted control, and Sisi has personally defended the practice.
Fahmy said that some of the doctors "may" see themselves as administering a form of punishment through these exams. But he thinks in most cases, the doctors "would be thinking this is not torture; they're not really humiliating them." A man who has allowed another to penetrate him — which carries much greater stigma than doing the penetrating — has already lost his honor in the eyes of many Egyptians, and so these exams seem like nothing by comparison.
Doctors likely believe that "these are people who have forfeited their honor to begin with," Fahmy said. "By being who they are, by being homosexual, they effectively have forfeited the constitutional protection that they are entitled to."
Because these "examinations have no forensic or evidentiary value for consensual homosexual acts," Human Rights Watch maintains that doctors who perform them violate the United Nations Principles of Medical Ethics, which says physicians should not "apply their knowledge and skills in order to assist in the interrogation of prisoners and detainees in a manner that may adversely affect [their] physical or mental health or condition."
And there is no doubt that these exams are absurd, say doctors practicing in the United States. Dr. Ross Cranston, director of the Anal Dysplasia Clinic and Research Program in the University of Pittsburgh Division of Infectious Diseases, said not all gay men have anal sex regularly or at all, and that no credible study has ever shown any clear difference in things like muscle strength.
"I could not tell a gay anal canal from a straight anal canal," Cranston said. "There's no typical sign of the gay anal canal."
Human Rights Watch's Reid said the organization will begin a project this spring to document how common anal exams are and the role of medical practitioners in them. The organization has documented them in at least six countries in the course of investigating specific cases of abuse, but no comprehensive review has ever been done to establish how widespread they are. And it's not clear, Reid said, whether "there's a collaboration between medical examiners and police to deliberately subject people to humiliation and torture, or medical examiners genuinely believe that this has some kind of a medical basis."
Anecdotal reports suggest there is a good deal of skepticism about anal exams even in countries with notoriously homophobic regimes. In Uganda, for example, anal exams are "the first line of investigation" when someone is arrested for homosexuality, said Adrian Jjuuko, director of the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, which often provides legal support in cases involving LGBT rights. A Ugandan man who was arrested for homosexuality along with two others in November told BuzzFeed News that police stuck their hands down their pants when they were first detained to "see if we had Pampers," believing "gays put diapers on themselves" because anal sex causes incontinence.
But despite the police's fixation on the anus, Jjuuko said, "the state does not use [anal exams] as evidence."
The amount of research Egypt's forensic experts appear to have invested in anal exams would seem to set them apart. It's not clear whether the doctors who perform the exams have the same rigor — Long collected reports from defendants in the 2001 case who said investigators reached their conclusions based on the fact that they appeared feminine or had no hair on their chests.
Belief in the scientific rigor of anal exams is widely shared in Egypt. Medical examiners aren't just a tool the police use to simply rubber-stamp charges — in fact, they've contradicted the charges in Egypt's two most high-profile homosexuality trials under Sisi's regime.
During the trial last month of 26 men accused of participating in a "gay sex party" at a working-class bathhouse, it wasn't prosecutors who introduced the results of the anal exams, but the defense. Prosecutors didn't introduce them because only three of the men were found to have been sexually "used," contradicting the testimony of the arresting officer, who claimed to have personally witnessed multiple couples engaged in anal sex.
All 26 men were acquitted in January, the first time defendants had been acquitted on charges of homosexuality in a high-profile case since Sisi began controlling Egypt. But an exam pronouncing a defendant's anus "un-used" is not a guarantee of acquittal. Examiners routinely add a disclaimer to reports when they find no evidence of penetration that says anal sex can be undetectable if it happens with "full consent, taking the right position, and the use of lubricants." And in another recent case — in which eight men were prosecuted based on a YouTube video prosecutors alleged was of a same-sex wedding — all were sentenced to a year in jail despite the fact that medical examiners said there was no evidence of penetration.
Even some Egyptian lawyers who support LGBT rights don't question the legitimacy of the exams.
In some cases, attorneys even demand police send their clients for forensic exams in the hopes that it will refute the charges. Mohamed Abo Zakry, a defense attorney with an organization representing seven of the defendants in the bathhouse case, reacted as if it were a stupid question when asked about challenging the legitimacy of the tests during an interview with BuzzFeed News just before the acquittal in January.
"We cannot say the exams are not accurate," Zakry said. "They are accurate. Any [doctor] who has experience can see clearly if this guy is gay or not."
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on February 8, 2015, at 10:52 a.m. ET
SENSUNTEPEQUE, El Salvador — Karla Avelar had a backache when she reached the Sensuntepeque Penal Center, a cluster of cinderblock buildings perched on the side of a lush green valley near El Salvador's border with Honduras. So, after lunch, she took off her shirt and lay facedown on the cement floor of a room that doubles as activity space and cafeteria. Five women in bright makeup gave her a head-to-toe massage. They used hand cream as massage oil and placed a small candle over the knot in her back to draw out the pain.
Avelar was so at ease inside the prison that it is hard to imagine that she was regularly raped and tortured while she was incarcerated there between 1996 and 2000. Avelar, now 37 years old, was one of the many trans sex workers from San Salvador, El Salvador's capital, who has done time there over the past several decades. The ones who passed through there around the same time as Avelar report being abused by guards and pressed into a kind of slavery by the gangs who controlled the prison.
Those days are over, thanks in part to a legal complaint Avelar herself filed after her release. The women who rubbed her back on her recent visit, just before Christmas, are among the roughly 50 inmates who live in Sector 2, a special unit that houses trans women along with a handful of gay men. They still interact with the other prisoners in some common areas — several of them have boyfriends in the men's unit, and the prison supplies them with condoms — but they live and sleep in a part of the prison that is walled off from the men's unit for their safety.
"Today there is no rape," said one 25-year-old inmate who gave her name as Kendra. Kendra said she was subject to some verbal abuse when she first arrived in 2010 — a guard forced her to kneel for two hours while hurling homophobic insults at her — but Avelar came to see her and helped put a stop to it. The sealing of Sector 2 in that same year coincided with a decision by the prison administration to move the gang members out of the prison, which also went a long way to improving the trans and gay inmates' situation.
Many of them have stories much like Avelar's: Thrown out of home at an early age, they got by as sex workers, and survived rape or run-ins with gangs before landing in Sensuntepeque. They look to Avelar as a cross between a godmother and an advocate, able to win concessions from the prison administration that they could never get on their own. During the December visit, Avelar delivered a petition from the residents of Sector 2 to the warden asking that they be allowed to join the women's unit for a Christmas pageant. He agreed to it in writing on the spot.
"They're a little afraid of me because I've gotten them to remove certain guards," she told BuzzFeed News during the three-hour drive to the prison from San Salvador. "So with me, [the guards] are all like, 'Hello, Niña Karlita,'" greeting her with an affectionate nickname.
In a country where HIV and violence claims so many trans women's lives that there are few trans women in San Salvador over the age of 35, it's remarkable that Avelar is even still alive. She was raped and threatened with murder for the first time when she was 10, has survived at least three murder attempts as an adult, and has lived with HIV that went untreated for more than 13 years. Since 2008, she has run the trans rights organization she founded in San Salvador, known by the acronym COMCAVIS Trans. She regularly travels around the world to make the case for trans rights before international human rights bodies.
Avelar is part of a generation of trans activists in El Salvador, most of whom never finished primary school. They have won some substantial victories — including a directive issued by the government in 2010 prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity in government jobs — even though human rights advocates consider El Salvador one of the most dangerous countries in the Americas for LGBT people. Based on media reports, COMCAVIS has documented at least twelve women and two gay men were killed in 2014, a figure they believe understates the actual number of murders.
"In terms of Karla's transformation, I can say, 'Wow, when I'm all grown up I want to be just like her' — only that she's younger than me," said William Hernández, who founded El Salvador's first LGBT rights organization in 1994, Entre Amigos (which translates to "Among Friends").
"We met her on the streets," Hernandez said. "We knew the comings and goings of all of the things she lived through." Now, he marvels at seeing her in meetings seated next to ambassadors and cabinet ministers. "And she's not just sitting there — she's actually expressing herself, making decisions and laying the cards on the table."
Avelar was born in Chalatenango, a rural district just to the northwest of the one that houses the Sensuntepeque prison. She left home when she was 10 years old, after the second time her cousin raped her in their family house. Another cousin used to shoot at her from time to time — and finally told her to get out.
"My cousin warned me that if I didn't leave home he'd kill me, because in his family there were only machos," Avelar said. She was dressing as a boy at the time, she said, but "I wasn't fooling anybody. ... In my town, in my neighborhood, everybody stopped calling me 'Carlos'; they called me 'Karla' instead. Or 'the faggot.'"
She left without enough money for bus fare, so she started walking toward San Salvador. She walked for a day and a half before reaching Apopa, a town just outside the capital, arriving at around 11 p.m. A man took pity on her and paid for her to take a bus the rest of the way. She spent the next six months sleeping in the San Salvador bus station or on the street, feeding herself from the trash.
She eventually saved up a little money from begging and bought a case of Coca-Cola, and began a business selling soda in one of the city's largest markets. There she met a woman named María who took her in but made her work a grueling schedule of domestic chores.
The woman's son also raped her, Avelar said, "but I stayed there because I didn't know what else to do."
One of her most dangerous chores was buying tortillas. María's house was in a neighborhood controlled by the 18th Street gang, but the tortillería was in territory of the rival Mara Salvatrucha (MS). On one of these tortilla runs, a group of MS members grabbed her and took her to a place where she said about 15 men raped her. There were more waiting their turn, but she found the courage to make a break for it.
She returned to homelessness shortly after. That's where she first met another trans woman, named Diana, who invited Avelar to come along with her when she worked the streets. Avelar discovered that sex work finally gave her a way to earn money on her own and a little bit of control over her life.
"I was young [and] I made money," she said.
Avelar stayed friends with Diana until about eight years ago, when Diana was killed by her partner, a police officer. They had no real name for what they were at the time they first met. Most of the trans women in San Salvador were lumped into the category of "homosexuals" or they called themselves "locas," which literally means "crazy women" but often is used to mean something similar to "fag."
"At that time, we didn't even know that we were 'trans' or that we were the subjects of rights or anything," Avelar said.
Many of the trans sex workers who were already working in San Salvador when Avelar entered the business in 1990 remember those years as the tail end of a golden age. A civil war raged in El Salvador from the early 1980s until 1992, but the capital itself was comparatively peaceful and home to a thriving red-light district where gay men were relatively open and trans sex workers enjoyed steady business from the soldiers and police. There were a few strips where they worked, but the center of activity was a four-block area known as the Praviana. The women who spent time there in the '80s and early '90s estimate that in an area of about four blocks, anywhere from 70 to 90 trans women lived, most of them sex workers in the neighborhood's hotels.
Avelar was too intimidated by the other trans women to work in the heart of the Praviana. The veterans didn't exactly welcome her with open arms — they bullied her ruthlessly, calling her "la machorra" ("the dyke") because she wore short hair.
The "trans women who had been there a long time … would walk up and steal my money — sometimes they would even leave me naked," Avelar said. Once, a woman waved a machete in her face and told her she "had a pretty face for slicing up into little pieces."
Avelar eventually learned to fight back, and she began dishing out the same kind of abuse to the women who had treated her so badly. But this was as the Praviana began to decline in the 1990s. Many of the women left for the United States, following a well-worn path that many Salvadorans took in the dangerous and unstable period as organized gangs tightened control of the country following the civil war.
And then there was the "Matalocas" — the "Trannykiller." A serial killer started attacking trans women on the street in a series of drive-by shootings. He was said to have a wooden leg.
A man matching his description nearly killed Avelar in 1992. One night, Avelar said, she got into the car of a john who drove her to a secluded part of town after agreeing on a price. Her heart stopped when she went to go down on him and discovered he had an artificial leg.
"I touched his peg leg and I got scared," Avelar remembered. "I said to myself, 'He's already killed me.'"
She tried to act calm and finished the blow job, but he had noticed her panic. He pulled her off his penis, smacked her across the head with the butt of a pistol, and then made her get out of the car. That's when "penetration occurred" she said, and then he forced her back into the car and promised to kill her if she tried to escape.