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Two gay men burned in Kenya refugee camp attack

‘I thought we were all going to die’

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An attack at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya on March 15, 2021, left two gay refugees with second-degree burns. (Photos courtesy of Gilbert Kagarura)

KAKUMA, Kenya — An attack at a Kenya refugee camp earlier this month that left two gay men with second-degree burns has once again drawn attention to the plight of LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers who live there.

A press release the Minnesota-based Black Immigrant Collective sent to the Blade last week notes “petrol bombs were thrown into a group of LGBTQ+ refugees, allies and their children who live in” Block 13 of the Kakuma refugee camp on the morning of March 15.

“This attack not only set people on fire, but also destroyed beddings and personal belongings as many of the refugees sleep in the open air,” reads the press release.

The press release also notes the men who are described as “organizers” suffered second-degree burns throughout their bodies.

Gilbert Kagarura, a human rights activist and refugee from Uganda who lives in Block 13, on Tuesday sent the Blade a series of pictures of the two men that show burns on their arms, legs and other parts of their bodies. Shifra, an 18-year-old refugee who also lives in Block 13, on March 24 during a virtual press conference the Black Immigrant Collective and other advocacy groups and human rights activists in the U.S., Kenya and elsewhere around the world organized recalled the attack.

“I thought we were all going to die,” said Shifra. “Everyday I relive this horrible experience that I have.”

The U.N. Refugee Agency in a March 25 statement notes it “organized” the men’s transfer to a hospital in Lodwar, a town that is roughly 75 miles away from the camp. The men are now receiving treatment at a public hospital in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.

“UNHCR organized their transfer to a regional hospital in Lodwar and, following expert advice from burn specialists, to a Nairobi hospital,” says UNHCR in its press release. “Both are receiving specialized treatment for their burns and progress in their recovery is being closely monitored by the local medical team and a UNHCR doctor.”

Kakuma, which is located in northwest Kenya near the country’s border with Uganda and South Sudan, is one of two refugee camps the UNHCR operates in the East African nation. The other, Dadaab, is located near Kenya’s border with Somalia.

Kagarura told the Blade that UNHCR created Block 13 within a section of the camp known as Kakuma 3 in May 2020.

The press release the Blade received from the Black Immigrant Collective notes “most of the 135 refugees at Block 13 fled Uganda for Kakuma when the anti-gay bill was introduced.”

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in 2014 signed his country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, which imposed a life sentence upon anyone found guilty of repeated same-sex sexual acts. The law was known as the “Kill the Gays” bill because it once contained a death penalty provision.

Scott Lively, an anti-LGBTQ evangelical pastor from Massachusetts, is among those who urged Ugandan lawmakers to support the measure. Uganda’s Constitutional Court eventually struck down the Anti-Homosexuality Act on a technicality, but consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized in the country.

UNHCR defends efforts to protect LGBTQ refugees

Kagarura on Tuesday noted to the Blade that LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers who live in Kakuma have endured attacks, harassment and discrimination for years. Kagarura and participants in the virtual press conference on March 24 said UNHCR has failed to protect them.

They demanded UNHCR immediately evacuate Block 13’s LGBTQ residents “and fast-track the LGBTQ+ Block 13 group for expedited resettlement as they are survivors of intensive and unending homophobic violence.” They also demanded UNHCR transfer the two men burned in the March 15 attack to a private hospital in Nairobi “with specialized, competent and humane burn care treatment” and allow their caregivers “to accompany them at all times.”

UNHCR in its statement notes it “hosts around 300 refugees and asylum seekers with an LGBTIQ+ profile” in Kakuma and has “stepped up our services on the ground.” These include investing “heavily in building capacity and ensuring more attention is paid to the specific and profound challenges that LGBTIQ+ people face.”

“Despite the challenges of life in a refugee camp, the overwhelming majority report to us that they have been able to live peacefully within the Kakuma community,” reads the UNHCR statement. “This comes in stark contrast with reports of security incidents, including on social media, by a small group of refugees with an LGBTIQ+ profile residing in Kakuma 3, who are requesting urgent resettlement out of Kenya.”

UNHCR, however, acknowledged it is “concerned by these incidents as well as by the increasing tensions between this group and other refugees, including some with an LGBTIQ+ profile.”

“Several have reported being threatened or attacked by members of this particular group for refusing to join protests or lend their voice to the call for urgent resettlement on security grounds,” reads its statement.

UNHCR says “police patrols in Kakuma 3, medical, legal and psycho-social assistance has been strengthened in the camp.” The statement also notes UNHCR, along with Kenya’s Refugee Affairs Secretariat and partner organizations “have also held meetings with community leaders in Kakuma 3 to identify solutions and reduce tensions, although the smaller group of LGBTIQ+ persons has (sic) declined to engage in these dialogues.”

The statement further indicates UNHCR in recent months has “relocated” more than 30 LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers “to other parts of the camp based on the protection concerns raised by them and following careful assessment by our teams on the ground.”

“UNHCR does not tolerate discrimination or any form of violence against refugees, including violence committed by other refugees, and works with law enforcement and other branches of government in Kenya to ensure that refugees are protected and safe,” reads the statement.

State Department in ‘close contact’ with UNHCR

UNHCR says an estimated 1,000 of the more than half a million refugees and asylum seekers who currently live in Kenya are LGBTQ. It’s statement also notes Kenya “remains the only country in the region to provide asylum to those fleeing persecution based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression,” even though consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized.

UNHCR says 48 percent of the LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers who have asked to be resettled outside of Kenya have left the country.

“We strongly condemn this senseless violence,” reads the statement, referring to the March 15 attack. “We have been advised that the ongoing investigation by Kenyan police is progressing and we hope that it will bring full clarity in respect of this incident and that those responsible will be held to account in accordance with Kenyan law.”

A State Department spokesperson on March 27 acknowledged UNHCR’s statement about LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers in Kakuma.

The spokesperson noted the U.S. in fiscal year 2020 provided $120 million in humanitarian assistance to Kenya through UNHCR and other non-government organizations with which it partners. The spokesperson also told the Blade that the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration leads the U.S. government’s work with UNHCR.

“In working with UNHCR and other international organizations, we stress the need to make extra efforts and invest additional resources to ensure that vulnerable populations at risk of violence, abuse, and exploitation, as well as at risk of receiving inadequate assistance and protection, are themselves present in, engaged in, participating in, and contributing to humanitarian responses,” said the spokesperson. “The United States works with international and non-governmental organization partners to ensure and provide equal protection and support to at-risk populations who are particularly vulnerable due to their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and/or sex characteristics.” 

“We have expressed our concern about this group of LGBTQI+ refugees in Kakuma and are in close contact with UNHCR on the situation,” added the spokesperson. 

The Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration is among the NGOs that works with LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers in Kakuma.

ORAM Executive Director Steve Roth described the situation in the camp “as complex and multilayered, and has yet to be fully understood.”

“ORAM is committed to working with partners to gather all the facts and develop a complete understanding of the challenges facing LGBTIQ refugees in Kakuma, uncovering root causes and identifying sustainable solutions,” he told the Blade. “We do know that some of the core challenges that LGBTIQ refugees face in Kakuma are economic — a lack of income and ability to pay for basic necessities, which in turn creates other insecurities.” 

Roth noted ORAM in 2019 partnered with a Kenyan NGO to support microbusinesses in the camp. One such program provides LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers in Kakuma materials that allow them to make soap and raise poultry they can sell in the camp and elsewhere.

These programs help generate needed income for LGBTIQ refugees as well as providing skills training, a sense of purpose and the chance to improve their relationships with other camp residents by offering them products and services that they need,” said Roth. 

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U.S. Federal Courts

U.S. Federal Judge tosses Florida “Don’t Say Gay” lawsuit

The judge also ruled the law should not be used to treat LGBTQ students differently or to fail to step in when they face bullying

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Zander Moricz (R) a plaintiff in the lawsuit over 'Don't Say Gay' law, at Sarasota Pride 2022 (Photo Credit: Zander Moricz)

GAINESVILLE, Fl. – U.S. District Court Judge Allen Cothrel Winsor dismissed a lawsuit Monday against Florida’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay law,” on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked legal standing to challenge the law. 

Winsor, a judge on the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida nominated by former President Donald Trump,  issued a 25-page order dismissing the case brought by students, families, educators, Family Equality, and Equality Florida, against the “Parental Rights in Education” bill passed in March of this year by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The lawsuit alleged, in part, that the law violated First Amendment and due-process rights. It reads, “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

In his ruling, Winsor left open the question on the constitutionality instead focusing on whether the plaintiffs showed they had standing to pursue the case — and concluded that they had not met that requirement.

“The principal problem is that most of plaintiffs’ alleged harm is not plausibly tied to the law’s enforcement so much as the law’s very existence,” Winsor wrote. “Plaintiffs contend the law’s passage, the sentiment behind it, the legislators’ motivation, and the message the law conveys all cause them harm. But no injunction can unwind any of that.”

The judge also pointed out that violations of the law would be enforced against school districts, not individual teachers.

“With or without the law, school districts direct teachers as to what they may and may not teach,” he noted. “Plaintiffs do not allege otherwise; they do not assert, for example, that Florida’s public-school teachers may teach whatever lessons they wish. So to the extent plaintiffs allege that some teachers or others wish to provide ‘classroom instruction . . . on sexual orientation or gender identity’ to students ‘in kindergarten through grade 3,’ they would have to show (at a minimum) that without the law their individual school district would allow it. Yet plaintiffs offer no specific allegation that any teacher would be providing such classroom instruction absent HB 1577.”

Winsor gave the plaintiffs 14 days to file a revised lawsuit but also took the state to task. He stated that “nothing in the law—much less in its conceivable enforcement—could ’empower’ other students to do anything they could not otherwise do with respect to treating LGBTQ students differently.”

The judge also spelled out that the law should not be used to silence students from talking about their LGBTQ parents, to silence LGBTQ teachers from acknowledging their partners, or to exclude LGBTQ parents from school events.  And that it should not be used to treat LGBTQ students differently, to fail to step in when they face bullying, or to remove signs of support like rainbow flags from classrooms. 

In a June motion to dismiss the case, the state’s lawyers argued that the plaintiffs did not have standing. But they also wrote that the plaintiffs “have not come close to showing that the Legislature acted out of animus against LGBTQ individuals.”

“The bill reflects no governmental preference about what students should learn about sexual orientation and gender identity,” the state’s lawyers wrote. “Those subjects must be taught appropriately and, for the youngest children, they may be taught by parents, not in public-school classroom settings. That is a legitimate (state) interest.”

In a statement released after the ruling from Winsor, Equality Florida wrote:

“Judge Winsor acknowledges what has been clear from the beginning: that in DeSantis’s Florida, the political climate is so toxic for LGBTQ people that school districts are actively abdicating their responsibilities, choosing instead to capitulate to extremists and the toxic anti-LGBTQ brew they have created rather than adhere to the letter of the law.

This fight is not done. We will continue to expose the harm that Florida’s Don’t Say LGBTQ law is inflicting on children and families.  A court decision doesn’t negate that harm. This ruling focuses on whether the parents, students or organization were the right plaintiffs to bring it forward. Equality Florida made a commitment to fight to ensure every student is protected and every family is respected, and that’s exactly what we intend to do through any means necessary.”

The lead attorney for the plaintiffs who are represented by Kaplan Hecker & Fink, LLP; the National Center for Lesbian Rights; and Elizabeth F. Schwartz said in an emailed statement:

“While we are currently assessing our options, one thing we can promise for sure is that we will not give up this fight on behalf of all the Florida LGBTQ+ kids, parents, and teachers who this law literally seeks to erase from their schools and communities,” said Roberta “Robbie” Kaplan.

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Religious Extremism/Anti-LGBTQ+ Activism

Anti-Trans far-right pundit Matt Walsh says gender affirming is evil

Walsh, who has over a million Twitter followers which includes the anti-LGBTQ Libs of Tik-Tok, called gender-affirming surgery “mutilation”

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Screenshot/YouTube

NASHVILLE – Daily Wire host and far-right extremist anti-transgender activist Matt Walsh went on Twitter Monday attacking trans people writing: “I believe that gender ideology is one of the greatest evils in human history. There is nothing they can threaten that would make me back down from this fight. I’d rather be dead than surrender to this madness. It’s as simple as that for me.”

Walsh, who has over a million followers which includes the anti-LGBTQ activist account Libs of Tik-Tok, has called gender-affirming surgery human body mutilation, added in another tweet: “The medical establishment, Big Tech, and the federal government conspire to punish those of us who criticize the accepted narrative. This is full on tyranny, and it will of course be defended by every single leftist who spends every day whining about “fascism.”

Alejandra Caraballo, a Clinical Instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic and a former staff attorney at the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund and a Staff Attorney at the LGBTQ Law Project at New York Legal Assistance Group, noted on Twitter that Walsh’s tweet could incite violence against Trans Americans.

“This is a direct threat and incitement of violence against trans people. When he says “gender ideology,” he really means trans people. Matt says he’s willing to die to fight it. Some of his followers may take him up on that and engage in real violence,” Caraballo wrote.

Most recently attacks on American hospitals providing trans healthcare, especially those with clinics treating trans youth have been targeted by anti-Trans extremists led by Walsh and Brooklyn, New York-based Chaya Raichik, a former real estate agent whose ‘Libs of Tik-Tok’ have spread misinformation and lies about gender-affirming surgery which has fostered attacks on those healthcare facilities by far-right extremist elements.

Alarmed at the increase of violence,  in a letter sent Monday to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, the American Medical Association joined with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and Children’s Hospital Association asking the Department of Justice investigate [the] increasing “threats of violence against physicians, hospitals and families of children for providing and seeking evidence-based gender-affirming care.”

Referencing Walsh’s declaration and others who complain that their anti-trans view points are free speech and being censored, including the recent 7 day suspension of Raichik that expired Monday as well as the letter asking the U.S. Attorney General and the Justice Department to investigate , Caraballo noted:

“The instigators of the anti-LGBTQ moral panic are now pushing the narrative that they are going to be prosecuted by DOJ for their speech. They won’t be prosecuted. They haven’t violated the law. However, they need to fuel further outrage and feign persecution.”

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Illinois

ACLU sent letters rejecting lawsuit threats by anti-LGBTQ group

Awake Illinois has repeatedly used hostile epithets against those they disagree with, labeling them “groomers,” “hateful,” and “perverts”

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Awake Illinois advert soliciting for new members (Screenshot/YouTube)

CHICAGO – The ACLU of Illinois has authored letters to a homophobic and transphobic group that threatened two residents, who have posted online their opposition to the organization and its anti-LGBTQ+ agenda, with defamation lawsuits.

Maggie Romanovich of Wheaton and Kylie Spahn of Downers Grove received letters from leaders of Awake Illinois in early September suggesting that Awake would file a defamation lawsuit against them if they did not “cease and desist” from such criticism and remove existing online posts. 

The anti-LGBTQ+ far-right extremist group has urged removal of LGBTQ inclusive books and cancellation of drag events in the suburbs. The group and it’s members consistently use harsh and offensive language against others to advance their interests, and now are trying to suppress their critics.

Awake Illinois officials have repeatedly used hostile epithets against those they disagree with, labeling them “groomers,” “hateful,” and “perverts.” Yet in the instance of the letters to Romanovich and Spahn, the ACLU of Illinois says Awake seeks to curb the speech of others. 

The ACLU of Illinois letters to Awake Illinois on behalf of Romanovich and Spahn reject the threatened lawsuits as groundless, noting that all of the material cited by Awake Illinois is protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

“These letters from Awake Illinois are empty threats with zero legal basis,” said Rebecca Glenberg, senior supervising attorney at the ACLU of Illinois who signed the letters. “Awake Illinois and its members consistently use harsh and often offensive language directed against others to advance their interests, but now feign injury when our clients express strong feelings against them.”

“If they think these letters will stop our clients or others from speaking out against what they see as a dangerous agenda, they are wrong.” 

Awake Illinois’ letter to Romanovich referred to her letter to the editor printed in the Daily Herald, which criticized a congressional candidate for his connection to Awake Illinois, opining that the group is appalling, extremist, homophobic, racially insensitive and otherwise objectionable.  Such opinions are constitutionally protected and cannot be the basis of a defamation lawsuit, the ACLU of Illinois wrote. 

The action comes shortly after a Member of Congress revealed that he had received a similar “cease and desist” letter from Awake Illinois. In mid-September, the Chicago Tribune reported that Awake Illinois sent the letter to Representative Sean Casten, a vocal critic of the group.  Like Romanovich and Spahn, Casten rejected the group’s threats of a lawsuit. 

“Our Constitution allows groups like Awake Illinois to express their views in the public square like anyone else. But they may not use the courts to suppress the views of others,” Glenberg noted. 

You can read the letters to Awake Illinois on behalf of Romanovich and Spahn here and here.

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