OPINION: Invest in the LGBT+ movement and change will come

LGBTQ activists and supporters outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, October 8, 2019 – Image: REUTERS/Jonathan

LGBT+ activists on the ground are the most important tool for creating change for the community around the world, writes Jessica Stern

By the time I have my last day at the end of this week, I will have served as executive director of OutRight Action International for nine years and 358 days. My friend tells me that’s a decade. Almost. But I’ve always prized precision in the global fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer rights. I’m in awe of the global transformations I’ve witnessed, so I’m assessing what I’ve learned over years of activism.

The LGBT+ movement perpetually debates the most effective ways to create lasting change. We ask because we are motivated to invest precious time, money, programs, and relationships strategically. Some have alleged that international organizations are superfluous, but international organizations create precedents that have shaped some of the most significant legal cases advancing the rights of LGBT+ people of the past 10 years.

Many have argued that evacuation from whichever country is in the news is the only way to make LGBT+ people safe. That would mean evacuating millions of people, yet no country has open borders or a perfect human rights record. Although safety for asylum seekers and refugees must be respected as a human right, I believe that we should equally prioritize safety for LGBT+ people within the country someone considers home.

Many have told me that we need more innovation to secure our rights, yet the notion that we need to invent a magic bullet relies on a fallacy. The central obstacle to progress is not lack of innovation but the disproportionate strength and wealth of those who dehumanize LGBT+ people. Over the past decade, I have witnessed firsthand how LGBT+ activists are some of the most creative, resourceful, and effective on the planet.

In my time as executive director, I argued many times what I know to be true. There are two fundamentals to achieving LGBT+ liberation: diverse strategies and strong LGBT+ organizations.

If there was an easy, one-size-fits-all solution, homophobia and transphobia would be a historical note. They aren’t, which is why we must have diverse tools in our toolbox for the right time and place.

In India, Brazil and Colombia, the courts have been crucial to momentum for LGBT+ equality, while in Tunisia and Nigeria, art has often been activism. In Iraq, brave alliances with the women’s rights movement helped build momentum for LGBT+ rights, whereas progress in the Philippines has been shaped by community organizing with migrant workers and disability rights activists.

LGBT+ activists in countries like Kenya and Singapore have demanded that laws criminalizing homosexuality be toppled once and for all while campaigners in Ghana, China, and Hungary challenge new or proposed laws equating LGBT+ activism with foreign influence or LGBT+ rights information with child abuse.

My conclusion is that we must tailor strategies for achieving LGBT+ equality based on the independence of the courts, strength of the rule of law, influence of religious organizations, and relevance of national histories and cultural traditions. Singular methodologies don’t work on a global scale because each country’s struggle and opportunities are unique.

Yet, we can create transformative potential in every situation by investing in LGBT+ activists and organizations who fight despite scarce resources or great personal risk. We are steadfast. Whether we’re concerned with legal, political, social, or cultural change, LGBT+ organizations and activists are responsible for the strongest and most enduring victories for LGBT+ people.

This point seems so simple. Yet at its essence, this is about who is credible, who we should listen to, and who should hold power. Community-based advocates possess knowledge, credibility, and trust that no other institution or strategy can provide. LGBT+ activists and organizations enable the creation and deployment of the tools in our toolbox; in fact, they are the toolbox itself.

Invest directly in the LGBT+ movement, and change will come.


Jessica Stern is outgoing executive director of OutRight Action International, and incoming Special Envoy to Advance the Human Rights of LGBTQI+ Persons of the Biden administration in the United States. This opinion piece was first published by, and reproduced under creative licence from, Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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