Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on November 27, 2014, at 7:30 p.m. ET
RIGA, Latvia — In 1990, a new Latvian publication called MORE, which billed itself as "an independent erotic newspaper," published its first issue with a strong endorsement of LGBT rights on its front page.
Latvia was in the process of breaking free from the Soviet Union, and the article made the case for repealing the Baltic republic's Soviet-era law criminalizing homosexuality, known as Article 124, as part of "Latvia's path to Europe."
"There can be no free country that criminalizes sexual minorities," an activist who said he was from a group called the Latvian Association for Sexual Equality was approvingly quoted as saying. "This discriminatory article … only discredits Latvia in the eyes of the civilized world." The editorial, headlined "For Sexual Equality," ended with details of the organization's bank account should readers want to donate to its cause.
MORE became a sensation across the former Soviet Union. Never before in the USSR had there been a publication that dealt openly with sex. Its creator was Vladimir Linderman, who worked as a journalist and published a poetry magazine before the paper's launch. He was suddenly making serious money, but the cash was also attracting the attention of mafia bosses who demanded joint ownership of the enterprise. Linderman sold off the paper in the mid-'90s and went into politics. After Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia, Linderman moved to Moscow to become part of the leadership of one of the most stridently anti-Putin political movements, and spent six years dodging Russian police until he was ultimately deported back to Latvia.
That's why many Latvians found it ironic when Linderman, who is now 56, launched a campaign last December to collect signatures in support of a referendum on a Latvian version of Russia's "gay propaganda" ban. Kremlin allies throughout eastern Europe have pushed anti-LGBT legislation in the past couple years as part of their ideological battle with the West.
It was a shock to see Linderman acting as if he were the Kremlin's man in Riga. But Latvia is the logical next battleground in Russia's duel with the European Union. The country has the largest Russian-speaking population of any EU member state that was once part of the Communist world, and they get much of their news from television stations beamed across the country's long border with Russia.
The timing of Linderman's new campaign was also telling — he unveiled the effort just after an organization that runs EuroPride, a Europe-wide LGBT rights festival, announced it would hold its 2015 event in Latvia, when the Baltic state would assume the EU's rotating presidency. The decision to hold EuroPride as close to Moscow as possible was given a symbolic boost on Nov. 7, when Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs came out on Twitter, becoming the first openly gay official from a former Soviet country.
The story of Linderman's transformation from anti-Kremlin sexual radical to moralist crusader who many Latvians suspect of being a Kremlin agent isn't really about how Linderman changed his mind about homosexuality. During a two-and-a-half-hour interview with BuzzFeed News at a hotel in the Latvian capital, he suggested he actually didn't really have any strong feelings about homosexuality at all. Rather, his story is about how many people living in the former Soviet Union went from being desperate to escape Moscow's rule to yearning for its patronage. It is also a tale of how Putin used that desire to co-opt some of his most committed enemies and convince many living in the former Communist world that what once seemed so exciting about the West is now what is most terrifying about it.
"I dislike any ideology where I see signs of totalitarianism," Linderman said between cigarettes. MORE was his answer to Soviet repression, and his "gay propaganda" proposal is a response to what he sees as a "new totalitarianism" being pushed by liberal forces in the West.
"Sometimes, my biography confuses even me," Linderman said. "I was the father of the sexual revolution, and now I'm becoming the father of the sexual counterrevolution."
MORE began publishing in 1990, about a year before Latvia's government formally declared its independence from the Soviet Union. Parties favoring independence had already taken control of Latvia's government, and they fended off an attempted coup by forces loyal to Moscow before the USSR recognized Latvia's independence in September 1991, three months before the USSR itself dissolved.
MORE had a fair amount of gay coverage in its first few issues, but it wasn't a gay newspaper by any stretch. It was omnivorous in its coverage but exuberantly hetero in its aesthetic: A pair of women's legs sticking up into the air substituted for part of a letter in the paper's logo. A close-up photo of a vagina decorated the numeral on the top of page 2 just because. Half of page 3 was devoted to a picture of a naked woman splayed on her knees plunging her face into a man's crotch.
The newspaper's mix of porn and satire opened up the conversation about sex in the Russian-speaking world in much the same way Playboy did in the U.S. in the 1950s, but its significance was arguably more profound. The phrase "there's no sex in the Soviet Union" had been a running joke on both sides of the Iron Curtain for several years before it fell, and there was some truth to it, at least in publishing. MORE was a joyful middle-finger to all the social strictures of the Communist years, liberating in the way it might have been to wave a giant dildo in the face of Lenin. (The editors came pretty close to doing exactly that in the very first issue, placing an image of a veiny rubber phallus alongside an excerpt from a Lenin biography with a caption that began, "Have they understood that MARXISM is more real and more serious than they thought, that you can't rag on it?")
But as much fun as Linderman seemed to be having, he quickly soured on Latvia's rush toward Europe. Just months after gaining independence, Latvia's new government stripped citizenship from hundreds of thousands of Russian people whose families had moved to Latvia after it was absorbed by Stalin during World War II — including Linderman. The move left about one-third of Latvia's population of 2.6 million without citizenship. Russians like Linderman saw this as discrimination, pure and simple.
"For Latvians, it is very important that they are the owners of this territory — the masters — and the others are guests," Linderman said. "The majority of the Russian-speaking population here, we believe we are owners as well. We feel we have the same rights as Latvians."
Disenfranchisement wasn't Linderman's only disappointment with what Latvia was becoming. "Maybe I had some illusions about Western life for some years," Linderman said, but when capitalism arrived he found it too crass and felt it was up to him to preserve "artistic life" in Latvia.
"When it all started here, the process of dividing all the property and money gathered here during Soviet times … it was very unpleasant and non-artistic," Linderman said. "I believed that the new capitalistic system would be more creative, [but] over the whole history of Latvian independence for 20 years, I have seen no sign of creative activity, not in government, nor in social life, nor in arts and sciences. Many people say, 'If you, Linderman, leave Latvia, then life here is dead completely.'"
As Latvia laid the groundwork to join the European Union and NATO in the '90s, Linderman fought to drag it back toward Russia. He became a leader in the Latvian branch of a new political movement that had started in Moscow called the National Bolshevik Party. The name is confusing, because the Nazbols — as movement members were nicknamed — weren't really pining for communism, but rather a Russian-led empire that harkened back to both the USSR and the "Russian World" dreamt of under the tsars. They affected a Nazi-inspired fascist drag, directly modeling the movement's flag on the banner of Hitler's Third Reich, but with a hammer and sickle at its center instead of a swastika. Its leader, a writer named Eduard Limonov, affected a kind of casual punk militarism, a posture most infamously captured in a BBC documentary that showed him firing a few rounds from a machine gun into the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo during a 1992 visit to see the Russian-backed Serbian warlord Radovan Karadžić.
Joining the Nazbols "was my reaction to the Russophobia and nationalism here in Latvia," Linderman said.
Linderman also related to the Nazbols' aesthetic. Limonov spoke about the movement as an extension of his literary life — a sort of conceptual art project — at least at first. Like Linderman, Limonov first made his name in large part by using sex to shock Soviet sensibilities, but went even further, including writing graphically about having sex with men in the autobiographical novel that established his reputation, 1979's It's Me, Eddie. In one famous scene the eponymous narrator is pulled out of the drunken despair that had seized him while living in exile in a New York flophouse when he has sex with a stranger in the middle of the night.
"I must be the only Russian poet who had ever been smart enough to fuck a black man in a New York vacant lot," the eponymous narrator of It's Me, Eddie muses after the encounter. "For the first time in several months I was in a situation that I liked, utterly and completely... At that moment I was really a woman, capricious, demanding, and probably seductive, because I remember myself playfully wiggling my butt as I leaned on my hands in the sand."
Linderman was a leader of the Latvian branch of the Nazbol party in the late '90s and wrote for Limonov's newspaper, which was called Limonka (twisting Limonov's name into a Russian term for "hand grenade"). The paper was banned in Latvia and Linderman wrote under the name Abel, borrowing a name used by a famous Soviet spy who was captured after spending years working throughout the U.S. and Europe.
The Latvian Nazbols became more militant as the decade wore on, culminating in November 2000, when three members barricaded themselves inside the bell tower of the Church of St. Peter, which looms over Riga's historic center. One of the triggers for the protest was the trial of a former Latvian KGB officer named Mikhail Fartbukh — accused of sending 31 Latvian families to Siberia a year after the Soviet Union took control of the country in 1940 — who they cast as a martyr for Latvia's Russians.
Latvian authorities moved aggressively to shut the Nazbols down. The three who seized the church were charged with terrorism and sentenced to 15 years in jail. They came after Linderman a few years later, charging him with possessing weapons and plotting to overthrow the Latvian government. But Linderman was in Russia before the police came for him, heading to Moscow to join the Nazbol central committee. By the time he arrived, the main threat to the movement was another former KGB agent: Vladimir Putin.
When Putin became president of Russia on the last day of 1999, he represented no particular ideology, but was brought in as a firm hand that would restore order following the chaos seen under the increasingly ailing Boris Yeltsin. He immediately set about consolidating power, turning on the oligarchs who brought him to power, arresting political opponents, and crushing separatist movements with a famous promise to "waste the terrorists in their shithouses."
Gay people weren't a target in Putin's early years. That came only in 2012, after mass opposition protests made Putin worry he could actually lose power. Recasting himself as a champion of Russian values, Putin could discredit the very idea of Western values as a pretense designed to promote the rights of "pederasts" and "perverts."
But the Nazbols were on Putin's radar from day one. The National Bolshevik Party wasn't formally ruled to be an illegal extremist group until 2007, but Limonov was arrested in 2001 on charges that he was plotting to invade Kazakhstan based on an article he had written, and served two years in a labor camp. Linderman, meanwhile, landed in Moscow's Lefortovo Prison — the infamous mothership of KGB interrogation under Soviet rule — a few months after he arrived in Moscow in 2003, but then he got lucky. Russian security police arrested him on the charges he was facing in Latvia, but a good lawyer and "friends among the politicians" prevented him from being extradited and he was released after a few weeks, he said.
Linderman did not say what he was doing during the six years he spent in Moscow, but much of that time was devoted to fighting Latvia's attempts to extradite him. In 2008 he was finally sent back to Latvia and spent four months in jail until a court acquitted him of the charges. He was released and set to rebuilding his life in a country where he still could not vote. Latvia was now formally part of the European Union, which it had joined in 2004 while Linderman was out of the country.
Linderman quickly re-established himself as one of the most controversial non-citizen activists in Latvia. He founded a political party dedicated to dismantling a pillar of the country's post-Soviet identity — the law establishing Latvian as the country's only official language. In 2011, he helped gather enough signatures to force a referendum on making Russian an official language as well. When the referendum was held in 2012, voters rejected it 75% to 25%, a margin so large that it would have still lost substantially even if all of the roughly 280,000 remaining non-citizens had been allowed to cast a ballot in favor of the referendum.
When Linderman started gathering signatures for a referendum to ban gay propaganda in December of 2013, his critics saw it as an indirect attack on Latvia's European identity after his direct attack had failed. LGBT rights activists speculated that the whole effort was being funded directly by the Kremlin.
"I'm not a big fan of conspiracy theories, but it seems quite clear that this money might come from our very tiny and completely non-ambitious neighboring country that we share a border with," said Kaspars Zalitis of the Latvian LGBT group Mozaika. "This law is a direct copy of the Russian law."
Linderman denies he gets any support from Moscow and said the campaign for the referendum has raised and spent less than €7,000. In fact, he said he wished his critics' allegations were true. "I would really welcome the attempt from the Russian part to intervene somehow in local events," Linderman said.
If Linderman has any quarrel with Putin now, it is that the Russian president isn't as fervently committed to expanding Russian influence as Linderman would like.
"Nowadays everything has changed," said Linderman, borrowing a formulation that Limonov has used now that he has found himself in uncomfortable agreement with Putin on matters like Russia's fueling unrest in Ukraine: "It is not me who moved towards the Kremlin. The Kremlin moved towards me."
Linderman maintains that his anti-LGBT crusade is primarily motivated by a genuine concern about what he calls a "gender revolution taking place in the Western world." But he allows that he launched it with another goal as well: to convince ethnic Latvians that they should unite with Russians to fight against so-called foreign values.
"It was very important for us to convey the idea to Latvian society ... in this particular field it would be impossible for them to defend their traditional values without the help of Russian society," Linderman said.
Some of his supporters also hope the referendum could force Latvia to rethink its membership in the European Union. "This is, of course, a confrontation not [just] with the EU itself, but first and foremost with the Latvian government which doesn't really think about the marching orders they get from Brussels," said Ruslan Pankratov, a member of Latvia's parliament and Riga city councilman. Pankratov is a member of the Harmony Party, the center-left party that is led by the country's highest-ranking ethnic Russian politician, Riga Mayor Nils Ušakovs. (Ušakovs himself has kept his distance from the referendum, dismissing it as "an attempt to draw attention.") If Linderman were to succeed in getting his proposal for the "gay propaganda" ban on the ballot, Pankratov said, "This referendum can be a turning point for Linderman, uniting Russians and Latvians."
For the moment, however, the perception that Linderman is using this referendum primarily to win sympathy for Russians seems to be weighing down his chances of it ever coming to a vote. Anti-Russian sentiment has hardened following Russia's invasion of Ukrainian territory in early 2014, as some fear that Russia might try to foment separatist movements among Latvia's Russian population. It hasn't helped that Linderman is suspected of having links to Russian separatist movements in Ukraine. Earlier this month, police raided his apartment, alleging that he was recruiting Latvian residents to go and fight with Russian-backed forces in Ukraine. The one party that had endorsed the gay propaganda ban — the right-wing Russian Union — was voted out of parliament in elections held on Oct. 4.
As of October, Linderman said the campaign had collected only about one-third of the signatures needed before year's end to qualify for the ballot. "I can't boast that we've advanced too far," Linderman said.
Even some social conservatives gathering signatures for the referendum say he has done more harm than good.
If Linderman was so enthusiastic about this kind of referendum, he should have "asked us or someone with a Latvian family name" to sponsor it, said Yelena Kornatova, of the organization Dzimta, which describes itself as a "parental social movement." "Theoretically speaking this could be an issue on which Christian and Democrats, Latvians and Russian-speakers could be united on," but Linderman destroyed hope of that alliance by putting his name on the referendum, she said. "We still blame him for that."
Latvia's newly out foreign minister, Edgars Rinkēvičs, wouldn't comment directly on Linderman's initiative. But in an interview with BuzzFeed News, Rinkēvičs said there is a "Russian propaganda and information war which is actually launched by Russia … [trying] to play out that there is a clash of values and civilizations," and LGBT rights is just one facet of it. Even if Linderman's proposal fails — which it seems likely to do — he doesn't see this coming to an end anytime soon.
"You can call it an ideological battle for the 21st century," Rinkēvičs said.
Susie Armitage contributed to the reporting of this article.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on November 11, 2014, at 11:44 a.m. ET
MEXICO CITY — Jefferson's face was covered in fake blood as he talked about leaving El Salvador for the United States after gangs beat him up for wearing women's clothes.
The 17-year-old was wearing a cadaver costume to go trick-or-treating with a group of teenagers on the south side of Mexico City, where U.S.-style Halloween mixes with Mexico's Día de los Muertos. He had also helped build an altar of offerings of food and flowers for the dead spirits believed to visit the living in the first days of November. More than 100 kids also staying in the shelter where he has lived for the past year and a half did the same. Jefferson wore a bright smile under his makeup, running between groups of friends in the auditorium as the offerings were judged.
The shelter was the most stable home the teen — who chose the pseudonym Jefferson to keep his real name private — had known. His mother kicked him out of their home in rural El Salvador when he was 11 because he had started wearing women's clothes. "She realized this is how I was and she beat me, saying, 'I'd rather have a crazy person in my house than a gay one,'" Jefferson said. Jefferson survived as a prostitute on the streets of the capital San Salvador for three months, until his mother got sick with an illness that paralyzed her face and forced him to return home to support her. As her situation deteriorated, his cross-dressing caught the attention of some of the gang members in his neighborhood. Gangs have grown into large organized crime syndicates in Central America over the past 20 years, thanks in large part to the U.S. policy of deporting immigrants who had been part of gangs like MS13 in Los Angeles. The gang members told him they didn't like seeing people like him "contaminating the neighborhood," beat him up, and pressured him into working for them, though he didn't say what work he did.
On Feb. 19, 2012, gang members beat him up yet again. The same night, his mother took herself to the hospital. That's when he decided to head to the United States.
"I decided it was better to get out," he said.
Jefferson decided to make the trip north around the same time more and more kids from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were doing the same, sometimes at their parents' urging. These three countries alone make up 93% of the more than 60,000 children who attempted to enter the United States on their own in 2014. The explosion in the number of unaccompanied child migrants — rapidly rising from fewer than 20,000 in 2011 — has largely been driven by gang violence, political instability, and extreme poverty within their borders.
Human rights activists say these countries also have some of the highest rates of anti-LGBT violence in the Americas — especially targeting trans women — although comprehensive hate crime statistics are not readily available. The Salvadoran trans advocacy organization COMCAVIS has documented 14 murders of LGBT people this year; 12 were trans women and two were gay men. One survey of trans women in El Salvador found that 87% knew at least one trans woman who had been murdered, and not a single case in which the killers had been arrested.
LGBT kids head north in search of the same stability and security as other migrant children. But they also seek a kind of love and acceptance that seems unimaginable at home.
Jefferson remembered telling his mother as he left, "I am sick of my family. I want a better family."
Jefferson began walking toward Guatemala that night in February 2012 with almost no money in his pockets, "maybe 10 cents." He was vague about what happened before he reached Guatemala, but it took almost a year before he made it out of El Salvador. He said he walked and hitchhiked. Sometimes the truck drivers who gave him rides would also feed him, but he mostly slept on the street.
He had some luck when he entered Guatemala and found someone to take him all the way to the Mexican border in just one day. He slipped into Chiapas and stayed in a shelter for migrants while begging on the street to raise enough money to pay for a seat on the minibuses that transport migrants north to the U.S. He eventually made it on one — but the bus was promptly stopped by immigration police. They told Jefferson they were going to send him back to El Salvador.
Jefferson said he told the officers, "I can't go back to my country because I … faced death threats. ... After what I've done, they're not going to forgive me."
Jefferson had a strong claim against deportation: Both the U.S. and Mexico clearly recognize LGBT people as part of a social group that have grounds for political asylum, unlike people who are fleeing poverty or gang violence. Instead of being sent home, Jefferson's case was referred to the Mexican agency that grants humanitarian visas, known as COMAR, and he was taken to a detention facility in the city of Palenque to wait for their decision.
Advocates say most LGBT migrants don't petition for asylum in Mexico, largely because it doesn't promise the same work opportunities as the U.S., and Mexico also has high rates of anti-LGBT violence. (Advocates who work with LGBT people seeking asylum in the U.S. say that Mexico is among the most common countries their clients are fleeing.) But others simply don't know they have the right to petition or fail to navigate complicated legal processes that even many adults don't understand. Even in the U.S., where there are many programs to connect unaccompanied minors with immigration lawyers, only a relatively small number of asylum cases are filed — less than 3 percent of the children estimated to have entered the U.S. in the past year have petitioned for asylum, according to statistics from the Department of Homeland Security.
And law enforcement can pose special dangers for LGBT migrants. One 16-year-old trans girl from El Salvador who was deported earlier this year after being caught by Mexico City police reported to the El Salvadoran trans rights group COMCAVIS that she was gang raped by officers while in detention. Jefferson also said he was raped during his nearly three months in detention.
Though he was only 15, Jefferson was placed in a facility with adult men and says he was told there were no separate facilities for children. He says there were no guards inside the facility who could protect him; only the perimeter of the facility was guarded. So when he started being harassed, there was no one he could turn to.
"There were two," he said. "One closed the door, and the other…"
He said he tried to tell those in charge what was happening, but "they didn't do anything" except arrange for him to see a doctor and a psychologist and tried to broker a dialogue between him and his attacker. "They told me that he wanted to talk to me, but I didn't want to do it," he said.
Jefferson's story has a mostly happy ending — at least temporarily.
He was ultimately granted the right to stay in Mexico. After nearly three months, COMAR granted him a visa and he was taken to the airport. Those in charge wouldn't tell him where he was going — a technique to ensure that the men who had assaulted him inside the detention center would not be able to find him, he was later told. The flight to Mexico City was the first time he'd been on an airplane. The flight, he said, was "bone-chilling."
They took him to the shelter where he now lives, which houses both Mexican and migrant children who have no homes. It is affiliated with the global organization Covenant House International, but its management has asked that BuzzFeed News not publish its name for Jefferson's security.
Five boys he had met in the detention center were already living at the shelter, and being reunited with them was like coming home — but to a family that actually loved him. "I felt, like, even better than I did with my family, because my family never gave me even a hug or a toy," Jefferson said. Since the group of boys were reunited at the shelter, "we love each other as if we are brothers."
Life isn't perfect there — he has to wear boy's clothes and keep his hair short. A spokeswoman for the shelter said this was for his own safety because "unfortunately Mexican society faces some scenarios which are not LGBT-friendly."
But Jefferson said this "isn't a problem," especially since he's only a year away from being 18, when he will be able to live as he choses. He's been out to the other kids since the day he arrived and never had any problems, he said, and there is at least one other LGBT teen who lives there. Jefferson is finishing high school and studying how to cook, make clothes, and do makeup.
"Overall, I'm doing very well," he said.
When Jefferson becomes an adult in the eyes of the law, he plans to pick up where he left off and finish his journey to the U.S., even though he has a permit to stay in Mexico. If he makes it, he risks being put into a U.S. detention center, where harassment and violence targeting LGBT people has been such a serious problem that a civil rights group filed a mass civil rights complaint against the Department of Homeland Security in 2011. In addition to proving why he can't return to El Salvador, he'll also have to make a case for why he cannot stay in Mexico, because once a refugee is given safe harbor by another country, they're ineligible for asylum in the United States. And while there are many programs to get legal services to child immigrants, adults are not so lucky — they have to find a lawyer on their own, and there's no guarantee of legal representation for people facing deportation the way there is for defendants facing criminal charges.
Jefferson said too much of Mexico is just as dangerous as El Salvador. He also worries that he won't be able to earn enough money there. Despite his harsh words to his mother when he left, he says part of his reason for leaving is that he didn't want her to worry about his problems with the gangs as she struggled with her health. He's hoping that in the U.S., his diploma from the sewing school will let him find "better work [to pay for a] cure for my mother's disease."
But this time, he said, he would be determined to make the trip different than the one that brought him to Mexico City.
"I don't want to go back to what I came from, traveling in a trailer, hitchhiking," he said. "I endured hunger, cold, punches, humiliation from people. I've had enough of traveling by land."
He plans to fly.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on August 10, 2014, at 10:52 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON — As a child, Nicholas Opiyo would walk miles from his home in northern rural Uganda to sleep in town every night. They called kids like him "night commuters," a generation of children who would walk miles each night to avoid being abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army and forced into its ranks. The rebel group was fighting a fierce battle against the government of President Yoweri Museveni in the 1980s and 1990s and was infamous for its use of child soldiers.
Today, Opiyo is 34 and riding one of his biggest wins as one of Uganda's top human rights lawyers. Late last month, he and a team of lawyers won a case in Uganda's Constitutional Court, striking down the country's Anti-Homosexuality Act, which called for up to a lifetime in prison for those convicted of homosexuality.
Days later he won another high-profile case, getting the Constitutional Court to block Museveni's reappointment of the chief judge after he had exceeded the mandatory retirement age. He has now argued more than six cases before the Constitutional Court.
Taking these cases has come at some cost. In March, Opiyo was ousted as general secretary of the Uganda Law Society, when the country's Christian Lawyers Fraternity campaigned against his leadership because of his challenge to the anti-LGBT law. His Facebook wall has filled with insults, he said in an interview during a recent visit to Washington, and he says even his own 25-year-old nephew has called him "retarded" for taking the case.
But Opiyo sees taking that abuse as part of his job as one of the most high-profile human rights attorneys in Uganda. He has specialized in not only working on some of Uganda's most politically sensitive cases, but in defending people who have run afoul of authorities with no means to fight back.
"That is in no way near the pain that the members of the [LGBT] community suffered," Opiyo said of the abuse. "I am a public figure. I can withstand all of that. For me, I'm OK."
Fighting these kinds of fights is why he became a lawyer in the first place.
Opiyo grew up on the outskirts of Gulu, the capital of a northern district that was a center of fighting between Museveni's government and the LRA, a rebel group that had its roots in an extremist brand of Christianity but became increasingly devoted to raw terror under the leadership of Joseph Kony. Sleeping in Gulu wasn't an iron-clad guarantee of a safe night — the LRA overtook the town from time to time — but government forces were largely able to keep the rebels out of the heart of the city.
So, from the time he was around 8 until he was 14 or 15, Opiyo would walk 4 to 10 kilometers to sleep, often choosing a church compound in the city center. If the church was full by the time he arrived, he would sleep on the stoops of shops around town. Sometimes he would sleep alongside some of his six full siblings, and once in a while near his mother, who was the last of his father's three wives.
"I lived this injustice — I saw it," Opiyo said. His career path was set, he said, when he saw his father arrested by government soldiers in an operation to ferret out LRA collaborators within the town. The soldiers rounded up all the men over 18 and herded them into a dilapidated stadium, where they were held for days without food or adequate clothing. Through a crack in the stadium wall, Opiyo watched as his father was beaten and paraded before captured rebels who were supposed to identify those they'd worked with. Those men were then loaded into trucks and taken away. Sometimes Opiyo's father would talk to him and his siblings through the crack, but he tried to shield them from the danger he was in.
"He didn't want to explain to us the details," Opiyo said.
His father was released after three days, but the terror and humiliation of the incident stayed with Opiyo throughout his education, which his parents — both teachers — ensured he continued throughout the civil war.
"I saw terrible things happening to my family, and I said no."
Opiyo first thought he'd be a journalist so he could get the word out about abuses like the ones that had befallen his family. This was in part because the BBC played a key part in his education. From the age of 6, he would listen to the BBC program Focus on Africa every night with his father, who would then leave the room when the 8 o'clock news began. Opiyo's job was to report to his father the events of the day when he came back.
This was part of his father's way to teach Opiyo English — his mother tongue is the local language, Acholi. But it also gave him an interest in public affairs, and a pride at being engaged in world events.
"I used to be the guy in school to break the big news to the headmaster," said Opiyo, who swings from principled argument to cracking jokes in a single sentence. He especially recalled bringing in word that the first African had been elected secretary general of United Nations when Egypt's Boutros Boutros Ghali was selected in 1992.
He got his basic education in rustic private schools, where he also would sleep on the floor at night. He didn't reach the big city until he was 20, when he headed to the capital Kampala to attend Uganda Christian University. This was his first taste of relative stability, since Kampala was somewhat insulated from the armed conflict that continued to percolate throughout the country. But it was also a culture shock. It was the first time he'd encountered a flush toilet.
Though he had started writing for newspapers while still in high school, Opiyo decided to study law, in part because he was inspired by his cousin, Norbert Mao, who had entered politics after practicing law and now heads one of Uganda's opposition parties.
"First I wanted to be a journalist so I could speak about [mistreatment]," Opiyo said. "But I thought … I can go to court and change things."
He focused on human rights in university, and, after he finished law school, found a job as an interpreter for the International Criminal Court's investigation into war crimes committed during the LRA war. He then became an investigator with an organization called the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, monitoring police abuse.
He took up cases on the side. The ones that stand out in his mind are those in which people found themselves locked up without any way to challenge their detention. In one instance in 2008, he came upon a woman in tears in a jail because her father, a local official, had been arrested for forging a document just a week after his wife had died. He tried to offer her help, but she thought he was trying to pick her up and brushed him off. But he left her his card.
"I think she realized much later … you cannot get a girlfriend in a police station in a crying state," Opiyo said, now laughing. "It's the wrong place to get a girlfriend."
After he was able to secure the man's release, he thought the business was done and he was preparing to move onto another case. But the next day the whole family turned up at his office with gifts: chickens, cooked bananas, a flask (though Opiyo is a teetotaler). Another time a man whom he'd gotten out of prison after a year and a half being held without charge offered him his daughter in marriage.
Opiyo's first constitutional case began in 2006. At the end of the legislative session, the government made payments to lawmakers — and several civil society groups contend was those payments were an attempt to buy their votes. Opiyo was part of the legal team that sued on their behalf. They lost, but, he said, he was satisfied that "the point had been made."
He later was part of legal teams that took on the ruling party in other cases. He helped sue to stop elections because the voter rolls were "full of irregularities." Earlier this year he helped successfully challenge the ruling party's attempt to expel four members who had become known as the "Rebel MPs" because they openly broke with party leadership over several issues.
When a group of LGBT people, opposition politicians, and human rights advocates came together earlier this year to challenge the Anti-Homosexuality Act, signed into law by Museveni in February, Opiyo joined as a petitioner and was one of the six lawyers working on the case. He had taken up some cases over the years on behalf of LGBT people, and he had earned the trust of the community. He was also the general secretary of the Uganda Lawy Society at the time — his involvement in the case ultimately cost him his leadership post — and he'd sought the position in the hopes of prodding the group to be a clear voice in support of human rights.
Opiyo took the lead on one of the least profound questions in the case — but it turned out to be the key to victory. While other lawyers focused on the way the Anti-Homosexuality Act violated rights protected by the Ugandan constitution, Opiyo made the case that the law was invalid for procedural reasons: There were not enough members of Parliament present when they voted on the bill in December to meet the Parliament's requirements for conducting official business, and so the court had no choice but to invalidate the law.
Some other members of the team, Opiyo said, weren't even sure they should include this point in their arguments at all — they thought the court was unlikely to take it seriously. But in the end, it was the only point they argued before the Constitutional Court. The court agreed with Opiyo's argument, and dismissed the law on Aug. 1 without ever considering the constitutional questions.
The case is not over, however. On Friday, Uganda's attorney general filed notice to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court. Even if they sustain the ruling, the issue could soon be back before the courts. A group of lawmakers are collecting signatures to force a quick re-vote on the Anti-Homosexuality Act with the necessary number of lawmakers present.
Opiyo, who now runs an organization models on the American Civil Liberties Union called Chapter 4, is also working on several other high-profile cases: suits against new laws restricting freedom of assembly and the press, as well as a challenge to an Anti-Pornography Act passed the day before as the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which became known as the "mini-skirt law" because of its sweeping definition of things deemed too sexually explicit.
Opiyo, who came to Washington for the U.S.-Africa Leadership Summit organized by the White House last week, said he has no worry about returning to Uganda even after having helped defeat the Museveni regime in several high-profile cases.
Even in Uganda — where elections are dubious and the ruling party shuts down media outlets when it doesn't like what they publish — "the legal profession still has a fairly good level of independence," Opiyo said.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on July 28, 2014, at 10:36 a.m. ET
ROME — On a hot Friday in late June, the walls of a 15th-century marble palace in a secluded corner of the Vatican were lit up with the face of Breitbart News Chairman Steve Bannon.
"We believe — strongly — that there is a global tea party movement," declared Bannon, who took over the American conservative new media empire after the death of its founder, Andrew Breitbart, in 2012. Speaking via Skype to a conference on Catholic responses to poverty, he said, "You're seeing a global reaction to centralized government, whether that government is in Beijing or that government is in Washington, D.C., or that government is in Brussels… On the social conservative side, we're the voice of the anti-abortion movement, the voice of the traditional marriage movement."
Events across the Atlantic do look familiar to American eyes: an uprising against long-established parties in Brussels amid economic stagnation. But these elements have been around a long time in European politics. What is new — and what feels so American — is represented by the group Bannon was addressing: Europe is getting its own version of the religious right.
"There is an unprecedented anger because the average citizen [sees] what is being done in their name without their consent," said Benjamin Harnwell, who founded the group that organized the conference, called the Human Dignity Institute. Harnwell is a former aide to a longtime Eurosceptic member of the European Parliament, who founded the organization in 2008 to promote the "Christian voice" in European politics. It is one of many new groups that have sprouted on the continent in recent years with missions they describe as "promoting life," "traditional family," and "religious liberty" in response to the advance of laws to recognize same-sex marriage and abortion rights. Some are technically secular organizations, but their strength, their leaders concede, largely comes from churchgoers.
The analogy with the tea party isn't perfect for these groups, and some bristle at the comparison because they aren't uniformly conservative on other issues. Harnwell prefers "silent majority," but said he draws inspiration from the tea party movement because they also see their battle in part as a fight with a political establishment that has long ignored them.
These groups are still learning to work together, but after years on the political margins in much of Europe, they have suddenly begun flexing political muscles that progressives — and maybe social conservatives themselves — never knew they had. They have made themselves a force to be reckoned with in Brussels by learning key lessons from American conservatives, such as how to organize online and use initiative drives. European progressives, who long thought debates over sexual rights had mostly been settled in their favor, were blindsided.
"A bomb with a long fuse has been lit," said Sylvie Guillaume, a French MEP supportive of abortion rights and LGBT rights, who recently stepped down as vice chair of the largest center-left bloc in the European Union's parliament. "We don't know what's going to happen."
One month before Bannon addressed the Human Dignity Institute, elections for the European Parliament sent a shockwave through the political establishment in Brussels. Far-right parties calling for an end to the European Union doubled their numbers to hold around 20% of seats. Parties like France's National Front and Britain's UKIP won pluralities in their countries.
Some of these parties ran on explicitly anti-LGBT platforms, particularly in Eastern Europe. (Hungary's ultranationalist Jobbik Party, for example, printed posters featuring a blond woman with a Hungarian flag standing opposite drag Eurovision champion Conchita Wurst with an EU flag, along with the caption: "You Choose!") For the most part, though, issues dear to social conservatives were a side issue in elections driven heavily by economic frustration. Some on the far right even support LGBT rights, most notably Geert Wilders of the Dutch Party for Freedom, who has tried to recruit LGBT voters for his anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant platform.
Social conservatives made themselves a force months before the election. In December, the European Parliament took up a resolution known as the Estrela Report that called on member states to provide comprehensive sex education in schools, ensure access to safe abortions, and take other steps that its supporters consider basic to safeguarding sexual health and rights. The resolution would have had no practical impact — the EU's own rules bar it from regulating such issues — and its supporters considered it consistent with previously adopted resolutions. The vote was expected to be perfectly routine.
Then, as if someone had thrown a switch, emails started pouring into MEPs' offices calling for the resolution to be rejected weeks before the final vote on Dec. 10. After an acrimonious floor debate, the center-right bloc helped defeat the Estrela Report by a small margin in favor of a conservative alternative that essentially said the EU has no business talking about these issues. The result stunned progressives, who couldn't recall another time that the parliament had rejected language supportive of reproductive rights.
In a sense, someone had indeed thrown a switch. A few months earlier, a new online petition platform called CitizenGo sent out its first action alert. CitizenGo was conceived of as a kind of MoveOn.org for conservatives. It was based in Spain, but it had aspirations to be a global platform and now has staff working in eight languages, with plans to add Chinese and Arabic. It has an organizer in the U.S., too, named Gregory Mertz, who works out of the Washington offices of the National Organization for Marriage — Mertz actually wrote some of CitizenGo's Esterla Report petitions. In the weeks leading up to the Estrela vote, several petitions appeared on CitizenGo, garnering 40,000 signatures here, 50,000 there.
These kinds of campaigns are so common in the U.S. that they are little more than background noise. But they were new in Brussels, especially in the hands of conservatives. Grassroots mobilization on sexual rights hadn't been common on either side, and progressive advocacy groups had won many important victories relying heavily on an elite lobbying strategy.
MEPs had no idea what hit them and many of them folded, said Neil Datta, of the European Parliamentary Forum for Population and Development, which promotes reproductive rights.
"If you have a big cannon, the first [time] you shoot it, everyone runs away scared," Datta said.
CitizenGo's founder, Ignacio Arsuaga, had spent more than a decade adapting online organizing techniques from U.S. to Spanish politics before launching the group. He had been drawn into internet advocacy while studying at Fordham Law School in New York in the late 1990s. He had been "amazed" by MoveOn.org, he said in a phone interview from Spain, and he began signing petitions by groups such as the Christian Coalition, Americans United for Life, and other organizations that were "defending the rights of religious people — specifically Catholics — to express our faith in the public sphere."
"That's real democracy — that's what I lived in the U.S.," Arsuaga said. "Spanish citizens aren't used to participating. They're used to voting to every four years, and that's it."
To change this, he created an organization called HazteOír (a name that means "make yourself heard") in 2001. It ran some campaigns throughout the early 2000s, often under separately branded sites, but it was the group's mobilization against a 2010 bill to liberalize abortion laws passed by Spain's socialist government that made the group a beacon to conservatives around the world. It helped get hundreds of thousands of protesters on the streets of Madrid and kept up the drumbeat through the 2011 elections when the conservative party Partido Popular won control. Its efforts appear to have paid off. In December 2013, the cabinet approved legislation that opponents say would give Spain the most restrictive abortion laws of any democracy in the world, and it seems to be on track for final approval by the parliament this summer.
Arsuaga has steadily been working to build a broader movement. His group hosted the 2012 World Congress of Families in Madrid, a global summit of social conservative leaders organized by an institute in Rockford, Ill. It bussed supporters across the border to France in 2013 when a new organization, La Manif Pour Tous (Protest for All), organized large protests against a marriage equality law reminiscent of Spain's anti-abortion protests.
The protests organized by these two groups were a turning point for conservatives throughout Europe, said Luca Volontè, a former Italian MP who now runs a social conservative foundation in Rome and sits on CitizenGo's board. They showed that a progressive victory was not inevitable. And, in their aftermath, conservatives have won victories, especially in Eastern Europe — in recent months, Croatia and Slovakia both enacted marriage equality bans in their constitutions.
"So many people in Europe are standing up, because this ideology appears and [is] felt, really, as totalitarian," Volontè said, referring to advances for marriage equality.
La Manif Pour Tous is now following the same path as HazteOír, continuing the fight against marriage equality in France even though it became law in May 2013 and reorganizing itself as a permanent, international organization. The group launched a "Europe for Family" campaign in the lead-up to the EU elections in May, and 230 French candidates signed its pledge opposing marriage equality, trans rights, and sex education.
Twenty-three signatories won won seats in those elections, 11 of them members of the far-right National Front.
The suddenness with which social conservatives became a force in Brussels has many progressives speculating that they are the creations of American social conservatives seeking to "export the culture wars."
"As far as I understand [social conservative groups] have quite some money in them [from] the U.S., similar to all those missionary and evangelical groups that do work in Uganda," said Ulrike Lunacek, an Austrian Green Party MEP who is now vice president of the European Parliament. Lunacek, who co-chaired the Parliament's Intergroup on LGBT Rights in the last session, authored a report on LGBT rights that groups like CitizenGo and La Manif Pour Tous tried unsuccessfully to defeat this winter.
A review of tax disclosures conducted by the progressive advocacy group People for the American Way found that several U.S. groups — many of which boomed in the 1990s — had recently invested in conservative drives across Europe: The American Center for Law and Justice, founded by Pat Robertson, sent $1.1 million to its European branch, the European Center for Law and Justice, in 2012, which is the most recent year for which tax disclosures are available. Another group founded by well-known American social conservatives called the Alliance Defending Freedom spent more than $750,000 on European programs that year. The Federalist Society, which promotes conservative legal philosophy, reported spending nearly $800,000 in "conferences and seminars" in Europe that year. Personhood USA, a small Colorado-based group that has tried to pass ballot measures that would give fetuses the legal status of "persons" — a strategy for rolling back abortion rights that is controversial even among pro-life activists — poured $400,000 into Europe in 2012, just after one of its ballot measures went down in flames in Mississippi. (Personhood USA President Keith Mason declined to answer questions from BuzzFeed about which organizations received the funds or what they were used for.)
But while there are links to the U.S., the movement is very much homegrown. Arsuaga said neither HazteOír nor CitizenGo get funding from U.S. groups — and they don't need it. Arsuaga said 99% of HazteOír's 1.9 million euro ($2.5 million) annual budget comes from donations from Spanish citizens. CitizenGo has been raising 30,000 to 40,000 euros (roughly $40,000 to $55,000) each month from the 1.2 million members it's signed up worldwide since its October launch.
Today, American ties seem much more about a shared vision to build a global conservative movement rather than leaning on stronger and wealthier U.S. partners for support. Arsuaga, Volontè, and La Manif Pour Tous President Ludovine de La Rochère were all in Washington on June 19 to support the National Organization for Marriage's March for Marriage. Their more important business, however, might have been in a closed-door summit the next day, where representatives of around 70 countries met to discuss creation of an International Organization for Marriage, according to Volontè and another participant. A follow-up meeting is planned for next year.
Many LGBT rights supporters mocked the March for Marriage's paltry turnout. So these Europeans appeared as if they were there to encourage a beleaguered movement, not the other way around — they now possess the vigor that has evaporated from the U.S. movement as opposition to marriage equality has collapsed.
European social conservatives contend that they may have a new energy and sophistication, but Europeans have never been pro-abortion rights or pro-marriage equality. Dissenters just weren't given the floor, and they didn't know how to fight back. "[We] didn't know how to arrive here at the European [Union] level and make their voice heard in parliament," said Sophia Kuby, director of a four-year-old organization based in Brussels, European Dignity Watch.
Polling data doesn't appear to bear this out, at least in Western Europe. Support for marriage equality ranges between 52 and 79% in all seven Western European countries included in a June Ipsos poll. Less than a third of respondents from the two Eastern European countries included — Poland and Hungary — support same-sex marriage (and both countries have banned it in their constitutions), but more than 50% support some form of legal recognition for same-sex couples. Opinion seems to range more on abortion, which is available in most countries at least before 12 weeks, though waiting periods and other restrictions are not uncommon. An April Pew study found substantial pluralities in countries including France, Spain, and the Czech Republic say they believe abortion is "morally acceptable," while there are even more lopsided pluralities saying abortion was "morally unacceptable" in places such as Poland and Greece.
But anti-abortion activists effectively used a new mechanism for direct democracy that the EU introduced in 2012 — called the European Citizens Initiative (ECI) — to make a show of popular support. One of the first ECIs ever launched, dubbed "One of Us," was a proposal to cut off EU funding to any activity that destroys a human embryo, which in practical terms would mean ending support for stem cell research and foreign aid to family planning programs that perform abortions. If organizers could get at least 1 million signatures from seven countries, the EU's executive body, the European Commission, would have had to hold a hearing on it.
The signature drive was led by Grégor Puppinck of the European Center for Law and Justice, but the continental campaign itself was funded entirely by Spanish and Italian foundations. It quickly sailed past the 1 million signature hurdle, collecting over 1.8 million signatures from more than 20 countries by the time the hearing was held on April 9. Despite this impressive show of popular support, there was little doubt that the commission would reject the proposal even as the witnesses for One of Us walked into the hearing room — Science Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn had said as much in a January press conference.
The commission summarily dismissed the proposal in a seven-page statement issued on May 28 — just three days after the European elections, which left some organizers feeling like the commission was deliberately trying to prevent it from affecting the vote.
But that doesn't mean it was a defeat for opponents to abortion rights. Well before the process had come to an end, the One of Us campaign signalled on its website that it had bigger goals than just changing EU funding policy.
The drive "could be a starting point of a new Europe-wide mobilization of the pro-life movement," the site said. "Every experience we collect here can be used for campaigns on other pro-life issues in further course. In that sense, it can be expected that the outcome may be very enduring."
It also taught anti-abortion rights activists that they didn't have to pull their punches.
"For too long a time in Europe, pro-life people did not really say clearly and directly what they believe because [they feared] it was too much" for most Europeans to accept, Puppinck said in an interview in his Strasbourg office. "We are more direct, more open, more clear, we don't really try to negotiate on the truth…. This is why, for us, the most important [thing] is to be able to speak."
And from a political standpoint, the rejection of the One of Us initiative may have been a blessing for social conservatives hoping to build a movement. The U.S. anti-abortion movement was built in response to the 1973 Supreme Court decision establishing abortion rights, a ruling that thrust abortion into the center of American politics for the last 40 years. And they can now frame it as a question, not just abortion.
That's exactly how the Parliament's largest bloc, the center-right European People's Party, is already poised to embrace One of Us' cause. The EPP chair, German MEP Manfred Weber, told BuzzFeed he was "disappointed" that the European Commission did not act "when there are so many people standing behind an initiative."
"We have to bring people closer to the European process," Weber said, adding that the EU must not go beyond its mandate. "Europe should not be the political body which is intervening … in this question of family rights, of abortion. Very crucial and very important."
This battle now heads to the courts. On Friday, Puppinck filed a challenge before the EU's judicial arm asking that it take away the European Commission's veto power over initiatives. The suit "is not only about the right to life, but firstly about democracy," Puppinck stated in a press release announcing the suit.
In this fight, Puppinck said, "You can really say it's the opposition between the people and the elite."
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on July 1, 2014, at 9:11 p.m. ET
ROME — After Sergio Lo Giudice's baby was born in May, he appeared before a California judge to ask that his name be removed from his son's birth certificate.
Lo Giudice is a 53-year-old LGBT activist turned politician, who now represents Bologna in the Italian Senate. When he and his husband decided to have a baby via a surrogate mother, they chose to do it in California because it was illegal for them to do so under Italian law. California recorded Lo Giudice and Michele Giarratano as the child's parents, but the two men feared they would have trouble bringing him home and establishing his Italian citizenship because Italy doesn't recognize same-sex parents.
Their country doesn't recognize their marriage either. Italy is the only country in Western Europe that provides no legal recognition of any kind to same-sex couples; almost every large country in the region has enacted full marriage equality. But that may change this fall: Lo Giudice is part of a group in the Senate Justice Commission that reached agreement on a draft bill on partnership legislation last month, and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has said he wants Parliament to begin debating in September.
The fact that Vatican City is just a short walk across the bridge from Parliament goes a long way to explain why Italy has remained so far behind its neighbors on this question. And the battle over this bill pulls at the seams of Italy's twin nature as a cosmopolitan European state with obligations under international accords that increasingly protect LGBT rights and its place as the seat of the Catholic Church. It is also opening fault lines within the Holy See itself, with an old guard committed to the culture wars fought zealously by Pope Benedict set against Pope Francis' efforts to move away from the divisive fights over sexuality that he believes drive many away from the church.
While Francis' vision hasn't changed any church doctrine, his rhetorical disarmament has made it far easier for Italian politicians to back partnership rights. Those working on the bill believe marriage equality is still politically impossible, and their civil union proposal would also prohibit two-parent adoption by same-sex couples. But it would allow stepchild adoption in cases where one spouse is already the legal parent of a child, so Lo Giudice could once again be recognized as his son's father.
But some same-sex couples and local officials aren't waiting for Parliament to act. The mayor of Naples has declared that his city would start transcribing foreign marriages of same-sex couples into its wedding rolls. Naples is the first large city to take this step after a lower court ordered officials in the small Tuscan city of Grosseto to record a foreign marriage in April.
"It seems that in Italy there is a common line of thought in the battle against homophobia: toward equality," said Naples Mayor Luigi de Magistris in announcing the move. "But we never succeed in converting that into law."
The registration of foreign marriages by local officials may have an impact that is more symbolic than legal, worry some to LGBT activists, in part because the Supreme Court issued a ruling in mid-June that undercut it.
That decision came over the case of a couple who now are both named Alessandra, but who were legally married when one of them was Alessandro. When Alessandra Bernaroli legally changed her gender designation in 2009, after the couple had been married for nine years, the courts annulled their marriage, despite their objections. In June, the Constitutional Court ruled that their rights had been violated when they were forced to divorce, which initially led some LGBT rights supporters to celebrate the decision. It said, however, that their marriage was still invalid until Parliament passed a law recognizing same-sex unions and ordered Parliament to swiftly enact new legislation.
Back in 2010, the courts had already ordered Parliament to pass such legislation, which lawmakers ignored. (The Italian courts are much weaker than in places like the United States, where Supreme Court rulings translate directly into changes in law.) And the new ruling undercut the old one in a way that had many LGBT advocates feeling like it was more of a setback than a victory. The 2010 ruling left it up to Parliament whether to enact marriage equality or create a new institution to recognize same-sex unions. The June ruling instructed Parliament to create "a different form of registered partnership" that is "not the same as marriage," and included language that suggested the Italian constitution rules out marriage between people of the same sex.
But civil unions are better than nothing, said Ivan Scalfarotto, secretary for parliamentary relations in the Renzi government and Italy's first out gay government minister. Scalfarotto said that he would prefer marriage equality and full adoption rights. But he said as he approaches the age of 50, he doesn't want to wait any longer for basic protections for his relationship.
"I would not like to [wait to] live in the perfect world when I'm 80," Scalfarotto said. "I'd really love to make sure that the person I love has the right to be recognized as my partner, [and] if I pass away — now — I want him to be able to live in our house, and I want everyone to respect that. ... In principle, I would like to have everything, but principles are a luxury … [that] at this moment, unfortunately, in my country we cannot afford."
Despite the presence of the Vatican, public opinion doesn't show any evidence that Italians are much more disapproving of same-sex relationships than nearby countries with marriage equality. Seventy-four percent of Italians who responded to a 2013 Pew survey said they believed "homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society" — about the same as France, which has had civil unions since 1998 and passed marriage equality last year. A 2013 Ipsos poll found that 48% of Italians supported marriage rights for same-sex couples and an additional 31% oppose marriage but support an alternative form of partnership recognition, on par with Great Britain.
The change in tone ushered in by Pope Francis has helped create an environment where this public opinion can be translated into political action.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on June 3, 2014, at 3:52 p.m. ET
The Obama administration has delayed action in adjusting aid to Uganda in response to passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, even though an interagency review process put forward recommendations some weeks ago.
Sources familiar with the review process, which the administration announced just after Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed the anti-gay bill into law in February, told BuzzFeed they have expected an announcement from the United States government for some time because the recommendations were pending, but the White House has been silent.
This inaction follows a seemingly contradictory series of announcements in March. The White House announced an adjustment of around $10 million — including a cut to a religious organization that vocally supported the law — out of the more than $700 million that the U.S. gives to Uganda annually on March 23 because of the new law. But days later, the U.S. embassy in Kampala issued a press release saying "No Changes in U.S. Assistance to Uganda." And the initial cuts were announced on the same night as the administration said it would send military helicopters much coveted by President Museveni to assist in the hunt for rebel leader Joseph Kony.
As the review has dragged on, American LGBT and public health advocates have grown increasingly frustrated by the White House, which they say has frozen them out of consultations over responding to the law. The administration has increasingly held back details on what options are under consideration and when they might come.
"They haven't been telling us anything concrete," one told BuzzFeed.
On Tuesday, Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin publicly called out President Obama for his inaction in a letter that said the "delay is putting lives at risk."
"More than three months since the enactment of this law, I respectfully ask
that you direct the Administration's interagency review to begin issuing immediate, concrete results that will illustrate the United States's commitment to protecting human rights in Uganda," Griffin wrote. "President Museveni must understand that there will be continuing and long term political and economic consequences to state-driven homophobia."
Griffin also called for expanding the review to include other countries that have recently enacted "heinous anti-LGBT laws" — Nigeria, Russia, and Brunei — in order to "signal to the world that these consequences are not directed solely towards Africa."
National Security Council spokesman Patrick Ventrell would not comment on why the administration had not made a final decision on the recommendations from the interagency review process. However, he avoided referencing the review in a statement responding to the Human Rights Campaign's letter.
"In response to President Museveni's decision to assent to the Anti-Homosexuality Act, the United States took immediate steps to demonstrate our support for the LGBT community in Uganda, deter other countries from enacting similar laws, and reinforce our commitment to the promotion and defense of human rights for all people – including LGBT individuals," Ventrell wrote. "As we move forward, we will take additional steps to demonstrate our opposition to the Act and our support for LGBT persons in Uganda and around the world—recognizing that the struggle to end discrimination against LGBT persons is a global challenge, and one that is central to the United States commitment to promoting human rights."
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on May 25, 2014, at 12:13 p.m. ET
The front page of one of Peru's major newspapers blared the headline: "I'm gay, and proud to be so."
It was a quote from an interview with Carlos Bruce, a former cabinet minister, one-time serious contender for the vice presidency, and now one of Peru's most popular members of Congress. His sexual orientation had long been widely discussed, and for years he'd answered direct questions about it by saying: "I don't discuss my personal life."
Bruce's abrupt change in strategy last week signals just how much the politics of LGBT rights are changing in Peru, which has lagged far behind while many other countries in South America have become world leaders on the issue. Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil have all established marriage equality since 2010. This week, one of Brazil's top bishops said that "same-sex couples need legal support" and endorsed civil unions. Meanwhile, Peru's cardinal has denounced a civil union proposal Bruce introduced last September as a "caricature of marriage that will later destroy it."
Bruce came out just as his civil union proposal has become one of the most fiercely debated subjects in Peruvian politics. The bill still seems likely to fail — recent polls show between 61 and 73 percent of Peruvians oppose it — but the fact that he no longer believes coming out is political suicide suggests a cultural shift may be taking place that is even more significant than a change in partnership law.
"Carlos Bruce is one of the most beloved members of Congress in Peru," said George Liendo, of the Lima-based sexual rights organization Promsex, noting that Bruce won loyalty from many through his role in helping get Peruvians into homes when he was housing secretary. "The fact that a person like him says he is gay and is proud to be so, ultimately changes the negative connotation of homosexuality."
Bruce hadn't exactly gone to great lengths to hide being gay before coming out. His evasion of questions about his sexuality, he says, was a pretty obvious non-denial denial.
"That was a way of saying yes, but I don't want to speak about it," Bruce said in a phone interview with BuzzFeed. "Everybody knew."
And he has mostly been unmoved when the media or his political opponents tried to make an issue of it. Politicians have called him the equivalent of "faggot" on the campaign trail, national comedy shows have mocked him as the "godfather" of effeminate homosexuals, and Cardinal Cipriani accused him of using his office to "justify" his sexual orientation when he introduced the civil union bill last year.
But until this week, he felt the cost of acknowledging it would be too high. "If I can imagine a politician saying he's openly gay, for sure he [would lose] 80% of his voters," Bruce told BuzzFeed in a 2012 interview. Even if he kept his seat in Congress, it would mean writing off another bid for national office, he said.
Now he believes it might even help him if he makes another run.
"Maybe it can be a good thing for higher public office," Bruce said. "One thing that everybody is saying here — even the people who are against me — 'I don't like this guy but I have to say he has courage'."
Such as the many tweets like this one that appeared after the story ran last Sunday:
It isn't all praise, of course. In the hours after the news broke, there was a flood of homophobic comments on social media, which Peruvian outlets rushed to
compile and republish. But for the most part, the attacks hurled at Bruce in the political arena have been noticeably oblique. Instead of suggesting he's not fit to serve because he's gay, his opponents have accused him of an unethical conflict of interest in promoting LGBT rights legislation without disclosing that he would benefit.
"We haven't elected congressmen to legislate in their own interest, but rather for the good of the majority of the population," said Congressman Julio Rosas, an evangelical pastor who is leading opposition to the civil union bill. Rosas, who believes that homosexuality is an illness that can be cured, also said Bruce would be welcome in his church.
"Every Christian church takes in all people without discrimination, whether they be homosexuals, lesbians, or transsexuals, and all are welcome because Jesus came to save the sinner," Rosas said.
Others have suggested that his decision to come out was a "desperate" political move to save the civil union proposal from defeat, a charge Bruce laughed off in a television interview on the day the El Comercio interview was published.
"I'm not desperate about anything," Bruce said on the news program Cuarto Poder, pointing out that given the majority opposition to the civil union proposal, the disclosure will probably hurt him at the polls. "What I wanted to do is open a little the debate on what it means to be gay or not. If this disqualifies someone from being a good public servant or not. … Someone's sexual orientation doesn't qualify them as a good person or a bad person."
He also rebutted the conflict of interest charge, saying that is only a concern when a politician has a financial stake in a government decision. But, he said, "When we're talking about human rights, there is no [such thing] as conflict of interest."
Bruce leaves Peru at the end of this week for a two-week visit to Australia, where he may finally get a break from the media spotlight. "The worst thing about coming out is all the interviews you have to do," he joked.
The debate over the civil union bill will largely be on hold until he returns. After several delays, the congressional committee with jurisdiction over the bill is expected to begin work on it sometime in June. But the organizers of the coalition supporting the bill, known as Unión Civil ¡Ya! (Civil Unions Now!) is concerned that committee leadership is still trying to duck the issue. They are rallying for a march on June 6 under the hashtag #DebateAhora (#DebateNow).
The coalition already brought more than 10,000 supporters to the streets in April, but opponents of the bill have marched in even larger numbers, and earlier this month presented more than one million signatures on a petition opposing the legislation.
Even if the bill does get a hearing, it could be threatened by a counter proposal endorsed by Rosas and other conservatives, which would essentially allow two unmarried people to establish contracts protecting shared property, but would exclude them from any family rights. This is not acceptable to LGBT rights activists, but it is another sign of how far the debate has moved — it is very similar to a proposal Bruce himself unsuccessfully put forward in 2012.
Though now out, Bruce continues to walk a fine line, going to great lengths to emphasize that the bill does not give same-sex couples completely equal rights. The full name of the proposal is "Non-Matrimonial Civil Unions," and the proposal would not allow for same-sex couples to adopt. He says this is because the science is "inconclusive" as to whether it harms a child to be raised by two parents of the same sex, though he himself is a father.
"That's what the studies are available right now said to us," Bruce said. "If we include that gay parents can adopt kids, we have to justify it... If they're conclusive in the coming year, maybe we will change this."
Bruce said that when he decided to put forward the bill, his main goal was to get anti-LGBT politicians to show their true face. "If they're going to be homophobic, let them be homophobic. I was not positive that it was going to have too much possibility [of passing]," he said.
But things are changing fast. "Now I think it could happen," Bruce said. "All the conservatives are very afraid."
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on May 5, 2014, at 8:51 a.m. ET
KAMPALA, Uganda — With one of the world's most infamous anti-gay laws, Uganda seems like the last place on Earth an LGBTI person would go seeking safety. But almost 100 LGBTI refugees have sought help from an NGO in Uganda's capital to seek asylum in the country, and there may be many more in the country illegally without seeking formal permission to stay.
Many of them have come during the five years Uganda have been debating its Anti-Homosexuality Act, which originally proposed a death sentence for homosexuality. If they're crossing the border, you can be sure the situations in their home countries are "quite worse than Uganda," said David, who works for an NGO in Kampala that assists LGBTI asylum-seekers. David asked that his real name not be used out of fear for his safety; one of his colleagues was beaten in a supermarket last year over his LGBTI work. He also asked that the organization he works for not be identified out of concern that it could be shut down by the Ugandan government, since the version of the law enacted in February essentially bans LGBTI advocacy as well as imposing up to a lifetime prison sentence for homosexuality.
"There is a common saying, 'If you see a rat running from a bush into a hut that is burning, that means it could be hotter in the bush,'" David said. Some people in neighboring countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo or Burundi are fleeing situations that are so bad that they make Uganda seem safe.
One of these asylum-seekers is a trans man from Rwanda who asked to be identified as Green, because of his love of trees. "I like to be near trees," he said during an interview in Kampala. "They don't have hate, they don't reject me, and if I tell them [secrets], they won't tell everybody."
Green arrived in Kampala four years ago, still recovering from a police beating at his home in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, that was so severe he walks with a crutch to this day. Green grew up largely on the streets after his father turned his back on him when he was a very small child, but he managed to continue his education all the way through university, determined to be an activist for children's rights and the rights of the disabled.
According to Green's account, police showed up at his house a few months after he graduated, accompanied by a neighborhood official, who accused him of recruiting girls into homosexuality even though Rwanda has no law against same-sex intercourse.
"You're a lesbian," Green said the police asserted. "You are teaching people [lesbianism] since your childhood."
When Green denied the accusation, the police officers beat him until he lost consciousness. He ultimately escaped that day, but they hunted him down a few days later and brought him to jail. By twist of fate, one of his former schoolmates was a police officer at the jail, and she arranged for him to escape when he was let out of his cell to go to the bathroom. If he did not flee, the schoolmate warned, he would be sent to the main prison or, more likely, killed.
Green's relatives helped him sneak across the Ugandan border without papers. He made it to the capital, Kampala, and found a place to live. But then, in 2012, his neighbor began threatening to rape and kill him, he said. Green said he managed to fight off the neighbor the first few times he tried to deliver on his threat, but late one November night the neighbor forced his way into the apartment and raped him. As the neighbor left, he described his plan to to kill Green: The next time he would cover himself with HIV-infected blood before raping Green again so that he would contract the virus.
Going to the police was out of the question. Green's short-term asylum status had expired, and he had given up on seeking permanent refugee status because the process was too humiliating and risky — his masculine appearance was in conflict with his female legal name. He couldn't flee to another country because he had no papers and little money. He thought about killing himself.
"I was here in Uganda, but I was in a prison. ... I was not able to open my door at any time," Green said.
After a period of homelessness, he eventually managed to find a new place to stay, far from the rapist neighbor. But now, it is becoming less safe by the day. When he walks down the street, Green says people call him "Obama" — Obama has become a derogatory word for people who support LGBTI rights.
"I think every [day] I can be arrested again or killed," Green said. "There is no life" for him in Uganda, he said.
Surprisingly, LGBTI people could easily register as asylum-seekers with the Ugandan government before the law became law in February. David, the NGO employee, said he knew of at least four cases in the past year in which his clients had even declared they were seeking asylum because of sexual orientation-based persecution and had their petitions granted by the office of the prime minister's office, which reviews asylum claims.
Most of David's clients come from Congo, but also countries like Rwanda and Burundi. Many come from places where homosexuality isn't technically criminalized, but where they still sometimes face assault and police abuse under the authority of "morality" or "decency" laws. Before the end of 2013, David's organization handling 60 cases of LGBTI asylum-seekers and it added 30 more in the first months of 2014, mostly people who were already in the country but were now seeking legal help fearing the Anti-Homosexuality Act.
The new law has made the formal asylum process extremely risky for LGBTI people, even those who are applying for refugee status for other reasons. Under Ugandan law, asylum-seekers must begin the process of applying for permission to stay in the country by reporting to the Ugandan police. Walking into a police station "is like going into the lion's den" for LGBTI people, said David, because the Anti-Homosexuality Act seems to have given police carte blanche to arrest people suspected of being gay or "promoting homosexuality."
In March, police showed just how far they are prepared to take this authority. They raided an HIV center run by the United States Military HIV Program in partnership with Uganda's Makerere Univeristy, after an undercover investigation lasting several weeks into allegations that the initiative was "carrying out recruitment and training of young males in unnatural sexual acts." The undercover officers filed a report saying the center was collecting "sperms" from participants, and that men and boys between the ages of 15-25 were "a pornographic film as a teaching package for homosexual[s]." One staff member was arrested, and several patients in the clinic at the time of the raid reportedly were photographed by police.
Gay men and lesbians who feel they could conceal their sexual orientation might decide to chance it, David said, but it's a risk that's completely out of the question for transgender or intersex people whose status is harder to hide. "With the new law, it's something you just can't try," David said.
Most of the asylum-seekers who seek help from David's organization have gone underground since the law passed. A support group for the community has stopped meeting out of fear for participants' safety. At least one client was killed by a mob, David said, and others have been beaten. Some have just disappeared — they've stopped coming to the organization's office and their phones have stopped working. They now live with very little legal protection and almost no support network, leaving them especially vulnerable to anti-LGBTI harassment in daily life, which has increased for all LGBTI people in Uganda.
Not being able to safely petition for refugee status makes it very hard for LGBTI asylum-seekers to get somewhere safer. The United States, Australia, and some other Western countries will accept some refugees who can't safely stay in the country where they first take refuge, but only after they have been granted refugee status there. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees can sometimes use its powers to grant refugee status to individuals even if the country where they seek asylum doesn't accept their claims, but it ordinarily doesn't do that until after an asylum-seeker has been formally rejected by the government.
This leaves people like Green, the Rwandan trans man, feeling trapped.
Green was with a friend who had fled the Democratic Republic of Congo in February when he learned that Museveni had signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act. He turned to his friend and said, "Now we are going to die."
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on February 16, 2014, at 10:00 p.m. ET
BANGALORE, India — In a sweep that lasted through the first night of India's biggest celebration, Diwali, police in November arrested 13 people for homosexuality in the town of Hassan, about a three hours' drive from India's tech hub of Bangalore. At the police station, some of those arrested say they were asked if they were really men, whether they liked getting fucked in the ass, and if they had pimped out their wives to get them pregnant. At least two were stripped, beaten, and threatened with having a nightstick shoved up their rectum.
The next day, their names were splashed across the pages of local newspapers under lurid headlines. Some lost their jobs.
At first, the arrests appeared to be an example of police lawlessness, and LGBT activists from Bangalore rushed in to investigate. The cops had charged the men under Section 377, a colonial-era law criminalizing "sex against the order of nature," including same-sex intercourse. But the law was unenforceable at the time of their arrest — at least in cases of consensual intercourse — because it had been suspended under a 2009 ruling of the Delhi High Court as an unconstitutional violation of LGBT people's rights.
Now the situation is different. Just over a month after the arrests, India's Supreme Court reinstated Section 377. To activists, that cast the raids in a whole new light. Many LGBT people had decided to come out in the four and a half years since the law was suspended, believing the threat of arrest or prosecution was over. Now, as the men in Hassan wait for formal charges to be presented to the court, there is increasing concern that their situation could be a sign of how easily LGBT people's lives could be destroyed now that the law is back on the books.
This is the story of the police sweep, based on interviews with four of the 13 people arrested that night, as well as a fifth person whose accusations prompted the raids. The accuser and three of the accused spoke with BuzzFeed by phone with the help of an interpreter translating from Kannada or Hindi. The fourth accused man answered questions by email in English.
BuzzFeed also reviewed police documents provided by LGBT activists and translated from Kannada. Several calls to the cell phone of the police officer who oversaw the raids, Superintendent Ravi Channannavar, went unanswered, and he did not respond to multiple emails seeking comment.
Nov. 3 was the first night of Diwali, the most important festival in the Hindu calendar, and most Indians were lighting candles, setting off fireworks, and exchanging gifts. Late that night, a 21-year-old college student identified in court papers as "Puttaraju, son of Thippeswamy," walked into the Hassan police station to make a complaint.
According to police records, Puttaraju alleged that three employees of a government-funded HIV program called the Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement had forced him into sex work more than two years before, in August 2011. He asked police to arrest them, plus two men he said the HIV workers had forced him to service. He also named a sixth person who he said "forcefully had unnatural sex with me against my will" without the involvement of the HIV workers.
The police appear to have taken his statement twice, producing a handwritten First Information Report (FIR), which is time-stamped 10 p.m., and a second, typed version, which he signed at 12:10 a.m. on Nov. 4. The police recorded that he had waited so long to come forward because he "was not sure and was under tremendous pressure and fear," but now had "gathered strength to complain against all of them."
The accusations came as a shock to the HIV workers, some of whom said they were "quite close" with Puttaraju. He had been a client at the Youth Movement, and they'd helped him get tested and access anti-retroviral therapy when he was found to be HIV positive. They had given him some money for food since he was constantly short of cash.
In an interview, Puttaraju said he finally came forward in part because he was angry that those he accused had not done enough to help him pay for his tuition and medication. "I used to ask for support with my education and health status, [but] nobody has helped me so far," he said. He also suggested that he was also doing the sex work he claimed he'd been forced into in order to cover his bills. "I could have stopped all this, but I needed money," Puttaraju said.
The night of Diwali, the police filed two other complaints. One said they had caught three men "indulging in unnatural sex" and "inviting people to have unnatural sex with them in public" in the town's Maharaja Park between 9 and 10 p.m., at the same time that Puttaraju was making his complaint. The second said police had caught five others "indulging in similar activities" on the grounds of a local high school during the same time period.
Puttaraju's problematic complaint, and the simultaneous arrests of the other men, has raised a host of questions among LGBT activists, who believe it was a premeditated scheme by police to target the town's LGBT community. At least one of the men allegedly busted while having public sex was actually dragged out of his home five hours later, witnesses to his arrest said. And it is unclear whether the police actually caught anyone having public sex.
Within 20 minutes of Puttaraju signing his complaint, four police officers were at the door of Dr. H.K. Palaksha, a well-known local pediatrician and head of a foundation for orphans and the poor, with whom Puttaraju said he had been forced to have sex. The officers told him nothing of the complaint, but said there was an abandoned baby at the police station whom they wanted him to examine and transfer to his shelter.
The minute he walked into the police station, it was clear there was no baby. Officers seized Palaksha's cell phone and put him under arrest, never explaining why. It was only when he read the news in the days that followed that he learned Puttaraju had accused him of having "forced [him] to indulge in unnatural sex."
That same night, police arrived around 3 a.m. at the homes of two of the HIV workers to whom Puttaraju accused of pimping him out. Officers told the HIV workers there were HIV-positive people at the police station in need of counseling.
Before returning to the police station, the police stopped to pick up a 25-year-old, who asked to be identified by the alias Prajwal because he has been subject to harassment since his arrest. Prajwal is one of the men the police claimed to have arrested having sex at the high school five hours earlier. After Prajwal answered the door, he and the two HIV workers said, police grabbed him by the back of the neck and shoved him into the police van as his mother implored them to explain why they were taking her son in the middle of the night.
The four men interviewed by BuzzFeed — Prajwal, two of the HIV workers, and Dr. Palaksha — said they all endured abuse by police, and activists who investigated the incident reported that the rest of those arrested in the raids received similar treatment.
At the police station, according to the accounts of Prajwal and the two HIV workers, officers stripped off Prajwal's pants while speculating whether he truly had a penis. "Let's test if you are a man or a woman," the police said. "Let's see if you have [a dick] or not. Oh! You seem to have it!"
Then they started prodding his penis with their nightsticks, trying to force him to get an erection. They beat him when he tried to pull up his pants, and mocked him when his penis stayed soft, declaring, "He isn't a man at all." He started weeping, pleading with them to tell him what he had done wrong, as they interrogated him about his sex life.
"How do you have sex, do you take it through your backside?" they taunted. "How long can you hold on when I take it [up the ass]? Do you take it in the mouth as well? We should take you to the streets and stone you to death — how many like you are there? Tell me their names!"
One of the HIV educators, who asked to be identified by his first name, Faisal, said officers stripped off his pants and threatened to rape him with a nightstick — known in India as a lathi — as they struck him on his head and hands. One of the officers said he would "make sure the lathi is shoved up your ass."
The group arrested that night was taken to jail in the early morning, after being charged under Section 377 and then being paraded in front of local TV and newspaper journalists. Dr. Palaksha was able to secure bail after one day, but the 12 others were held for around 10 days, during which they slept in shifts to protect each other from constant threats of violence and sexual assault from other prisoners, who they say were encouraged by guards.
They learned about the charges from the reports that flooded local media in the days that followed. "Police busted homosexuals network," blared Kannada Prabha, a local newspaper. "Support for homosexuality … Homosexual sex in public places, sexual violence on innocents," wrote the Vijayavani newspaper. "Student got HIV due to his engagement in homosexual activities," said Prajavani, another local paper.
When LGBT activists obtained the police reports, several things struck them as odd.
First, the timing: Puttaraju made his complaint more than two years after the alleged events began. Activists found the speed of the police response even stranger — it is out of character for Indian police to take immediate action and they often dismiss accusations of sexual violence. "He reports it late in the night, and immediately the police swing into action? [That] doesn't happen in India," said Shubha Chacko of the Bangalore LGBT organization Aneka.
There are also discrepancies between Puttaraju's two police statements. In the first, handwritten FIR, he said he was blackmailed into sex work under the threat of being outed: "The above people threatened me, that if I don't listen to what they say they will tell my life history to everyone in college, to my parents and to the people around the room where I stayed."
But the second, typed version included a more serious charge of coercion. "They threatened to kill me if I don't listen to them," he said. Puttaraju also frequently mentioned being paid for the sex work in the second FIR, but never mentioned money changing hands in the first.
The differences in Puttaraju's complaints raise "doubt about whether it is an authentic complaint," the LGBT activists wrote in their report on the arrests; perhaps it was a sign that he was being coached — or used — by the police, the activists suggested.
The police reports regarding the men allegedly caught having sex in public have even more glaring problems: First, the activists documented that at least some of those charged — like Prajwal — were not arrested from the places the police claim. And the description of their behavior doesn't fit a charge under 377; the FIRs never allege penetration even though the law specifically criminalizes "carnal knowledge."
"The collusive fashion in which the [charges] were registered suggests that the sole objective behind these rapid [police] actions was to target the sexual minority community," the activists wrote.
Puttaraju, they suggested, was simply being used: "The tactic of coercing sexual minority persons to file a complaint against their own community members has been used before by the police."
But Puttaraju doesn't see himself as the police's pawn. He said he had thought carefully about lodging the complaint and met with police well before formally filing it. "Before I went to the police station, I met the superintendent of police and told him everything. I showed him the cruising areas and everything."
He said he finally decided to complain because he believed the HIV workers had made public that he was HIV positive. He said they had also turned down his requests for help with his tuition, as had Dr. Palaksha, whom he claimed "forced him to indulge in unnatural sex" one year before the complaint.
"Nobody helped me then, nobody is helping me now," Puttaraju said. "They made use of me [but] they never gave me money."
Those accused confirm that Puttaraju had asked for cash, but deny drawing him into sex work. The two HIV counselors said they had frequently given him sums equal to about $5. Dr. Palaksha said he only met Puttaraju once, when Youth Movement workers brought him to his clinic about a year ago for treatment of a respiratory infection, and didn't hear from again until about a month before the arrests when he called asking for his foundations' help with his school bills. The doctor said he would have to apply in the spring.
Dr. Palaksha said that, "apart from this story, I do not know" why Puttaraju might have named him in his complaint. He denied that he had paid Puttaraju for sex or had engaged in any inappropriate contact.
"I am a married man with two children," he said, adding that he lives a pious life in which he does not even "consume alcohol [or] non-vegetarian food."
Even before 2009, when Section 377 was fully in force, people were rarely convicted under it; fewer than 200 people had been convicted under it in the more than 150 years it had been in force. But focusing on convictions understates its effect, said Arvind Narrain, a lawyer who worked on the 377 case the Supreme Court ruled on in December and helped investigate the Hassan arrests. Police have used the provision as a pretense for harassing LGBT people and those who work with the community.
In 2001, employees of two HIV organizations were detained for 47 days in the northeastern city of Lucknow for running a "sex racket." The filings in the Supreme Court litigation document several cases in which the police used 377 as pretense for horrific abuse, including a 2004 instance in which a hijra — a trans woman — was tortured at a police station after officers "rescued" her from a gang rape.
Narrain said he has "no doubt" that the cases against the men swept up in the Hassan raids will ultimately fail. "But in the meantime your life is destroyed."
The media sensation around the case ensured that the men's ordeal didn't end when they were released from jail in mid-November. Dr. Palaksha said he was harassed at his clinic by reporters who threaten to invent new charges against him if he doesn't pay them, a plot in which he alleged the police were colluding. His wife has stuck by his side, but his patients are deserting him, he said, and he is having difficulty sustaining his foundation.
"I believe in God," he said. "He will definitely help me — I do not want to shut down my NGO."
The others arrested that night — who don't have Dr. Palaksha's relative wealth or education — are in an even more precarious situation. The Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement has not given the HIV counselors back their jobs since the arrests, and the counselors say they are having hard time finding other work. They say law enforcement officials are using the threat of charges to demand bribes. And the delicate balance they've maintained between fulfilling the family obligation to marry and finding ways to have relationships with men has collapsed.
One of the HIV workers, who asked not to be named, said his mother was forced to sell their cattle — a major source of income — to bail him out of jail, and that she had to leave her job because she was being relentlessly harassed about his arrest. He said he has attempted suicide because he doesn't know how he's going to support his mother, his wife, and his month-old baby.
He also quietly had a boyfriend for 15 years. But since the arrest, his partner won't even answer his calls: "Now is when I need him, and he is not around."
Police abuse has been a problem for LGBT people even without 377. For example, a gay couple was recently granted asylum in the United States after fleeing India in 2011 following sexual assault by police in the northeastern city of Chandigarh, and there have been many reports over the past four decades of police forcibly separating lesbian couples at the request of their parents even though women cannot technically be charged under 377.
And while 377 has spurred some LGBT people to be more politically engaged — pride marches have been held in parts of the country since the ruling that never had them before — LGBT people throughout the country have told BuzzFeed of people going back into the closet, corporate LGBT support groups being shut down, and increased petty crime targeting communities of trans women. The reports could not be verified, but their widespread circulation reflects the fear that the gains made while out from under the shadow of 377 could suddenly evaporate.
Even some people who are already out and politically active have shrunk from fighting for their rights because of the fear engendered by the return of the law. On Feb. 11, the Mumbai Mirror published the story of a 23-year-old man who was pulled over by police at 2:30 a.m. in the northwestern city of Ahmedabad. He said the officers attempted to rape him and then forced him to perform oral sex. He told the newspaper that the cops said they recognized him from a local gay pride parade held just before the Supreme Court ruling.
"Had homosexuality been legal, I would have had the courage to file a complaint" against the officers, he said. But he did not want to take the risk of further abuse, especially since they appear to have the court's permission to persecute LGBT people.
"My attackers were cops. How can I expect any justice from them?" he said.