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LGBTIQ refugees in Kakuma need durable solutions to address challenges

Death of gay refugee last month underscored plight

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(Photo by Hai Yang via Flickr)

The recent, tragic death of Chriton Atuhwera, a gay refugee who was the victim of an arson attack in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, has caught international attention.

Chritron was one of two gay men who suffered second-degree burns after a petrol bomb was thrown near the pair while they slept on a mattress in the open air, during the attack on March 15 in Kakuma.

This unspeakable and avoidable tragedy is just one piece of the puzzle. LGBTIQ asylum seekers and refugees in Kakuma have faced ongoing violence and discrimination and face elevated rates of economic and social exclusion including barriers to accessing employment and social services and challenges to effective organizing and advocacy for their human rights.

This tragic death and the ongoing threats that the community faces have precipitated the need for a more complete and long-overdue understanding of the situation on the ground for the LGBTIQ refugee community which in turn can lead to more comprehensive and durable solutions to benefit the broader community.

Today, Kakuma refugee camp is home to nearly 200,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers. Many have fled overland from Uganda, South Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The majority of the world’s refugees remain for years, often decades in refugee camps or informal settlements.

In total, there are approximately 300 LGBTIQ refugees and asylum seekers — perhaps more — currently living in Kakuma, which remains the only country in the region to provide asylum to those fleeing persecution based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. The situation they face in Kakuma refugee camp is complex and multilayered.

While the goal of most LGBTIQ refugees and asylum seekers is to ultimately be resettled to a safe third country, resettlement slots have drastically fallen and are only available to less than 0.6 percent of refugees, a fraction of the world’s refugees. U.S. resettlement numbers dropped to historic lows during the Trump administration, and the Biden administration recently flip-flopped on its pledge to increase refugee resettlement slots. We urge the administration to honor its original commitment, recognizing that it will still only benefit a tiny fraction of refugees globally.

At the same time, LGBTIQ refugees in Kakuma face immediate challenges including poverty, isolation and lack of access to health and social services.

There are a number of groups of LGBTIQ asylum seekers and refugees scattered in different parts of the camp, and while these communities face many of the same daily struggles of life in a refugee camp, with individuals hailing from a variety of different countries of origin and cultural settings, not all LGBTIQ refugee communities in the camp have the same lived experiences nor do all LGBTIQ groups agree on one basic need and approach to better their lives and safety.

With the increased numbers of LGBTIQ asylum seekers and refugees arriving in Kakuma in recent years, the need has grown for a true and complete understanding of the challenges facing LGBTIQ refugees in Kakuma, uncovering root causes and identifying sustainable solutions. It is vital that this is done.

Especially in light of recent incidents, there is a clear need for further action and support, based on facts, taking into account the current situation on the ground and raising the voices of those groups whose needs are not always in the forefront. The lack of clear, detailed and well-rounded information regarding the situation experienced by LGBTIQ refugees in the camp also creates challenges for those interested in helping to ensure the rights and well-being of this community.

That is why, ORAM together with Rainbow Railroad have announced a joint Kakuma research project. The research project, endorsed by the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, will provide accurate information on LGBTIQ asylum seekers and refugees living in the camp — a critical piece in more effective advocacy on behalf of the community.

In keeping with the organizations’ focus on local leadership, the research will be Kenyan-led. The researcher will conduct first-hand interviews with LGBTIQ refugees and asylum seekers, as well as community leaders in the camp and lead stakeholders. Based on the information gathered, the report will identify overarching issues facing the community, identify service and resource gaps, pinpoint solutions and make recommendations to address systemic challenges facing the community.

Kakuma refugee camp is a complex and challenging environment for LGBTIQ refugees and asylum seekers. This report aims to provide a deeper understanding that can lead to a number of multifaceted solutions to meet the urgent and critical needs of LGBTIQ asylum seekers and refugees in the camp, from improved living conditions to expedited resettlement.

We all having a duty to look out for the most vulnerable and marginalized among us. We need to prioritize the safety and protection on LGBTIQ asylum seekers and refugees and address the challenges they face on their journey to safety, Kakuma refugee camp, in Kenya in general and beyond. We must promote policies and practices that treat the forcibly displaced as fully human and with all the dignity and humanity that they deserve.

Log onto ORAM’s website for more information about our work in the camp.

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Commentary

How twisted and amoral has America become?

We will all die in some version of stone cold obscurity if we let compassion die quietly. Silence Still = Death

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ACT UP/LA founder Mark Kostopolous arrested outside FDA Headquarters, Silver Spring, Md. mid 1980's (Screenshot via ACTUP/LA video)

By Karen Ocamb | WEST HOLLYWOOD – Dec. 1, 2021 – a date that will live in infamy for so many reasons, not the least of which is the announcement of the new Omicron variant coronavirus case in the US.

Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times reported it’s in LA. The Times also reported: “The Omicron variant, now present in at least 23 countries around the world, was probably incubated in the body of a person with an immune system battered by HIV or another immune-compromising condition that can cause a prolonged coronavirus infection, according to the South African scientist who detected the fast-spreading genetic mutant.”

From the beginning of COVID, those of us with some familiarity with the AIDS crisis have been stunned by the odd similarities. COVID is, in fact, the mysterious fatal airborne disease everyone first thought HIV/AIDS was.

Remember how people panicked and were afraid to be in the same space, touch an object owned by a person with AIDS, share a cigarette or a straw or eating utensils with someone infected with HIV lest the user catch AIDS? Eventually, the CDC said that’s not how HIV is transmitted – it’s not airborne.

Nonetheless, people with HIV/AIDS were stigmatized, shamed and ostracized – which is why we had to take care of our own. Today, the CDC is begging the public to recognize that COVID and its variants ARE airborne and easily transmitted. But instead of panic, too many Americans inconceivably believe wearing a mask to protect themselves and others somehow deprives them of their freedom.

And scientists tethered to the so-far fruitless search for an HIV/AIDS vaccine applied that work to creating COVID vaccines with unprecedented speed – which has been met with loud hostile protests from millions of anti-vaxxers who search Google for remedies that conform to their conspiracy theories.

This is just mind-boggling to those of us who witnessed, protested and survived the AIDS crisis. I vividly remember the shouting match that broke out between Project Inform’s Martin Delaney and Being Alive’s Dave Johnson in 1989 over who should get experimental HIV drugs first as the foot-dragging FDA started to consider compassionate release of experimental AIDS drugs on a parallel track while continuing their efficacy tests.

Delaney was in West Hollywood to discuss the very controversial drug Compound Q that Jim Corti smuggled out of China. Despite some dire news reports, gay men clinging to life were clamoring to get into Delaney’s trials. Desperation was choking the hope out of everyone in that WeHo Park Auditorium as HIV-negative Delaney and HIV-positive Johnson debated whether experimental AIDS drugs should be triaged so only those with the best chance of getting better should get the drugs first or they should go to the people closest to death.

Let that sink in. West Hollywood Park Auditorium was the frontline bunker in a virtual war zone with young gay squad leaders arguing over who gets saved and who’s left to die.

This Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, occurred during the 40th anniversary of the first CDC article announcing the arrival HIV/AIDS. Among the many commemorations by AIDS Healthcare Foundation, APLA Health, The Wall Las Memorias, In The Meantime Men, and the AIDS Monument in WeHo — ACT UP/LA announced they are creating a new oral history project (see actupla.org), including leader Mark Kostopolous (h/t Ann Bradley).

In a press release, ACT UP/LA recalled: “Activists took a stand to confront and demand redress of attitudes like those of Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum, when he dismissed the recommendations of the County AIDS Commission [demanding an AIDS Ward at County Hospital] stating: “If you were to poll the man on the street, I think you would find the vast majority of the public really has no interest in the subject of AIDS and certainly could care less about the public financing, the needed programs that you’ve articulated.”

But we cared. And in addition to protesting, pushing elected officials and creating institutions and agencies to meet the needs, we loved and took care of our brothers and sisters in a thousand small ways.

Courtesy of the author.

Allen is but one gay man whose name has been lost to all but his Latino lover. I knew Allen from our shared 12 Step program. One night he called in a panic, crying because he’d thrown up and soiled himself. His partner and his partner’s mother – who didn’t like Allen – were out for a dinner break in Silver Lake. I jumped in the car and dashed over. The lover left the door open in case paramedics needed to be called. Allen was so humiliated and afraid, he would have sunk into the bed and disappeared if he could have.

As I cleaned him up and gagged over the vomit on the floor, he kept apologizing for being a burden. And then he started talking about how he knew he was dying but couldn’t talk to his partner about it. His partner was having difficulty watching Allen waste away, not knowing how to make it all stop and go back to their glorious time together. I just listened and stroked Allen’s arm and wiped his fevered brow.

The partner and the mother were shocked to see me when they walked in, almost as if I was an intruder. As I explained why I was there, I could see Allen go from being happy to see them to looking like he was a hostage with Stockholm Syndrome. I stroked his hair back from his forehead as I said goodbye. He thanked me with his frightened eyes. I never saw or heard from or about him again.

Cut to today. So far, 777,000 people have died from COVID and its variants since the first case in California in Feb. 2020. To repeat: of 48.1 million COVID cases, 777,000 have DIED in 22 months, most in obscurity like Allen. Where’s the protest? How twisted and amoral has America become?

We will all die in some version of stone cold obscurity if we let compassion die quietly. Silence Still = Death.

ACT UP Los Angeles Oral History Project

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Karen Ocamb is a veteran journalist, who now works for Public Justice. She has chronicled the lives of LGBTQ+ people in Southern California for over 30 plus years.

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Commentary

The end of LGBTQ+ rights is maybe here

The court is signaling that we are returning to a time where “community morals” are sufficient basis for law

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LGBTQ Task Force and other pro-choice protesters at the U.S. Supreme Court 12/1/21 (Photo by Cathy Renna)

By Brynn Tannehill | FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va. – On Wednesday, December 1, 2021 the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson on whether to uphold Mississippi’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks. This would effectively overturn Roe v. Wade, which holds that states cannot limit access to abortion “pre-viability”.

The court appears poised to either overturn Roe v. Wade, or render it moot. This would reverse 50 years of precedent in the U.S..

It is also a sign that LGBTQ+ rights in the U.S are about to go backwards as quickly and irrevocably. During arguments, Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh asked, “Why should this court be the arbiter rather than Congress, the state legislatures, state supreme courts, the people being able to resolve this?” He also suggested that the court should, “return to a position of neutrality on that contentious social issue rather than continuing to pick sides…”

The conservative majority of the court is declaring that anything that remains controversial should be overturned and kicked back to the states (or Congress) to be decided. Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted under this theory cases like Obergefell (marriage equality) and Griswold (access to contraception) would have to be overturned as well.

The Mississippi solicitor general hand-waved away these questions by claiming that Obergefell was no longer controversial, so there would be no push to overturn it.

This is a lie, however. An amicus brief in Dobbs v. Jackson, submitted by the former Texas Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell (one of the architects of Texas “abortion bounties” law), explicitly calls for the court to overturn Roe v. Wade, and Obergefell, Lawrence v. Texas, and Griswold along with it under the same legal theories. 

Twelve states have “trigger laws” banning abortion that will go into effect the moment that Roe v. Wade is overturned. Similarly, 31 states still have laws or constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage on the books that would go back into effect if Obergefell goes down, including California, Oregon, Colorado, and Virginia.

Fourteen states still have anti-sodomy laws that would make gay sexual relations illegal again if Lawrence is overturned.

Given that the bans on abortion are primarily based on religious beliefs, the court is signaling that we are returning to a time where “community morals” are sufficient basis for law, and that the Supreme Court will be reluctant to intervene.

Given that deceased anti-gay Associate Justice Antonin Scalia decried legalizing consensual sex between adults as a matter of equal rights or fairness, “The law is constantly based on notions of morality,” he opined.

We are now at a moment where Scalia’s vision of the law is dominant at the Supreme Court. Obergefell rests on Lawrence rests on Roe rests on Griswold. With Roe gone or rendered impotent, the house of cards will almost certainly fall, Pandora’s Box will open, and all the horrors in hell will pour out of it.

States like Texas would dearly love to overturn Obergefell and will almost certainly file to do so within weeks of the court releasing its decision in the Summer of 2022. This sets us on a course for Obergefell to be overturned in 2024, and Lawrence a few years later.

Conservative states would also target the 1996 case of Romer v. Evans, which ruled that states cannot pass laws targeting minorities without a rational basis beyond “community morals”. With these re-established as a basis for law, Romer is probably doomed as well, allowing red states to pass all sorts of nasty laws that deliberately target LGBTQ+ people.

For example, they could pass laws banning transition related care for all trans people, not just youth. Or, they could pass a law forbidding the state, or state contractors, from hiring “known homosexuals”. Or create a special “potential sex offender” list for anyone diagnosed with gender dysphoria and make most health care professionals and teachers mandatory reporters.

The list of potential horrors once Obergefell, Lawrence, and Romer are gone is almost endless. All three of them are almost certainly doomed if the signals we’re getting from the court are an accurate indication.

It’s reasonable to believe all three will be gone by 2028, if not sooner. When they’re gone, the only thing preventing states dominated by the GOP from going for the metaphorical jugular is if they somehow, inexplicably, decide that they’re going to tolerate LGBTQ+ people in their midst, when they don’t have to.

Our community’s continued existence is counting on the GOP to collectively develop empathy for us and forgo the chance to “Make America Great Again” by going back to 1954 when queers had no rights and were all confined to the closet.

That’s a sucker’s bet if I ever saw one.

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Brynn Tannehill is a senior analyst at a Washington D.C. area think-tank, and is the author of “American Fascism: How the GOP is Subverting Democracy.”

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Commentary

Abortion access is an LGBTQ+ issue

The anti-abortion movement is about controlling the bodies of women. It’s about controlling the bodies of trans folks and nonbinary people

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LGBTQ Task Force and other pro-choice protesters at the U.S. Supreme Court 12/1/21 (Photo by Cathy Renna)

By Tony Hoang | LOS ANGELES – On Wednesday, the State of Mississippi asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade — the landmark 1973 decision that affirmed a constitutional right to privacy and protected abortion access in America for the last five decades.

This is not the first challenge Roe has faced at the Supreme Court. But given the 6-3 conservative majority on the court, the Mississippi case is the gravest threat Roe has faced in decades.

This window of opportunity to overturn Roe has prompted anti-abortion extremists have worked overtime to pass extreme new laws limiting abortion access all across the country this year — with state legislatures passing a record-breaking 106 new abortion restrictions. And this September, Texas implemented the nation’s most extreme abortion law since 1973, effectively banning all abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. 

Preventing abortion access and abortion care would have devastating consequences – especially for the LGBTQ+ community. 

LGBTQ+ people who can get pregnant — which may include lesbian and bi+ women, transmasculine people and nonbinary people — need access to safe, legal abortion care. They need access to contraception, HIV testing and treatment and pregnancy care. The right to access all of these essential health services is protected by Roe and the fundamental right to privacy.

Indeed, LGBTQ+ community — especially people of color — face disproportionate rates of  discrimination and violence. Studies suggest that around half of transgender people and bisexual women will experience sexual violence at some point in their lifetimes. The Mississipi abortion law, which bans most abortions after 15 weeks, significantly before fetal viability, would not allow survivors of sexual assualt enough time to make a critical life-altering decision. 

But that’s not all — Roe v. Wade also serves as the constitutional foundation for other LGBTQ+ civil rights. The Court relied heavily on precedent set by Roe when it decided Lawrence v. Texas, the ruling that overturned so-called “sodomy laws” — laws that criminalized LGBTQ+ relationships.— in states across America. Roe and Lawrence in turn fueled two decades of Court decisions safeguarding the civil rights of LGBTQ+ Americans.

LGBTQ+ people — especially those who are low-income or live in rural areas — also rely on the same clinics that anti-abortion extremists are trying to shut down, often as the only affordable provider of culturally competent basic medical care, reproductive healthcare, gender-affirming care and more. If these clinics are shuttered because of extreme anti-abortion restrictions, millions of people won’t just lose access to abortion — they’ll lose access to other affordable and affirming services, including cancer screenings, STI testing and treatment and gender-affirming healthcare.

Just two months ago in October, supporters poured into the streets in cities across the country to protest Texas’s extreme abortion ban. In Los Angeles, Equality California and Planned Parenthood Advocacy Program Los Angeles County, along with Planned Parenthood affiliates everywhere turned out thousands in support of reproductive freedom.  

Let’s be clear, most anti-abortion extremists aren’t trying to protect life. If they were, they’d advocate for nutrition assistance and affordable childcare, expanded access to healthcare, gun safety reform and an end to the barbaric death penalty. They certainly wouldn’t pass legislation that endangers the lives of women and people who give birth — as experts warn the Texas ban does.

The anti-abortion movement is about controlling the bodies of women. It’s about controlling the bodies of trans folks and nonbinary people. And if we allow far-right extremists to control pregnant people’s bodies — to deny them basic agency over themselves — then where does that control stop?

As Justice Sonia Sotomayor incredulously asked during yesterday’s arguments, “Will this institution survive the stench that [overturning Roe v. Wade] creates in the public perception that the Constitution and its reading are just political acts?”

Abortion access is a women’s issue. But it’s also an LGBTQ+ issue. It’s a gender equity issue, a racial justice issue and an issue of economic empowerment. It’s an issue for which no one can afford to sit on the sidelines because our democracy is not a spectator sport.

If the U.S. Supreme Court won’t protect reproductive freedom and access to abortion, then Congress must act immediately to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act. And voters should hold those who fail to act or stand in the way accountable. 

Eighty percent of Americans — and majorities of both major political parties — support legal abortion. One in three women will access abortion care in her life. There’s no question that the American people have the power to safeguard abortion in America. The question is: will we use it?

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Tony Hoang is the Executive Director of Equality California, the nation’s largest statewide LGBTQ+ civil rights organization.

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