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White House names Jessica Stern as next US envoy for global LGBTQ rights

Council for Global Equality praises appointment

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Jessica Stern (Photo courtesy of OutRight Action International)

WASHINGTON — The White House on Friday announced it has named Jessica Stern as the next special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ rights abroad.

Stern for the past 11 years has been the executive director of OutRight Action International, a global LGBTQ advocacy group. The White House in its announcement notes Stern is also an adjunct associate professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

“Serving as OutRight’s executive director has been the honor of a lifetime,” said Stern in an OutRight Action press release that announced her appointment and departure from the organization. “I can think of no organization that works with more integrity, more skillful staff, more motivated board members, more valued partners or greater impact. After 11 years with OutRight, leaving will be bittersweet, but I know that the organization could not be stronger.”

Then-Secretary of State John Kerry in 2015 announced the position within the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. It had remained vacant since 2017.

President Biden in February signed a memorandum that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ rights abroad. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his confirmation hearing pledged to make the envoy an ambassador level post, but the White House’s announcement about Stern’s appointment does not refer to her as such.

Stern was also a vocal critic of the previous administration over its LGBTQ rights record, among other issues.

“Another Trump administration would mean more funding for U.S.-based right-wing organizations to spread homophobia and transphobia globally,” Stern told the Los Angeles Blade last October in a statement ahead of the presidential election. “It would mean more opposition to life-saving global institutions that serve LGBTIQ people, like the World Health Organization. It would mean more examples of the U.S. forging coalitions to oppose social justice movements and equal recognition of the family with some of the most conservative countries in the world.”

The Council for Global Equality in a statement congratulated Stern over her appointment.

“The special envoy is a key leadership position at the State Department and Jessica Stern is a respected leader in the global movement for LGBTQI equality,” it said on its blog. “We could not imagine a better choice to lead President Biden’s vision for equality and human rights abroad.” 

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Southern-Central Asia

Pakistan’s LGBTQ & intersex communities forge ahead

“Practicing construction of systems of protection for LGBTQ+ allied people requires a culturally sensitive & community-informed approach”

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LGBTQ and intersex activists in Pakistan (Photo courtesy of Hussain Zaidi)

KARACHI – Pakistan is a country that is notorious for its human rights violations, and the LGBTQ and intersex community is one of the most vulnerable groups in the country. Despite the challenges, the community is fighting for their rights and slowly making progress.

Since homosexuality is illegal in Pakistan, the LGBTQ and intersex community is often forced into hiding. This makes it difficult to estimate the size of the community, but it is thought that there are tens of thousands of LGBTQ and intersex people living in Pakistan. Many of them live in wealthy areas of Karachi, the country’s largest city, without fear, as do community members in similar parts of Pakistan.

The community, however, continues to face many challenges in Pakistan. They experience discrimination and violence both from individuals and the government. 

In 2018, for example, the Pakistani government passed a law under Section 377 of the country’s colonial-era penal code that made same-sex marriage punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Homosexuality remains criminalized in Pakistan.

In addition to the criminalization of LGBTQ and intersex Pakistanis, the community also continues to face discrimination and violence that family members often perpetuate.

Many LGBTQ and intersex people face verbal, emotional and even physical abuse from their families due to societal and religious pressures. This can lead to them dropping out of school or foregoing higher education altogether. 

Discrimination in the workplace and education system forces many LGBTQ and intersex Pakistanis to remain in the closet, and those who are out often cannot find work or continue their education. Access to health care — including testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and infection — is an ongoing challenge.

A law that permits transgender people to legally change the gender on their national ID cards and other official documents, allows them to vote and bans discrimination based on gender identity in employment, health care, education and on public transportation took effect last year. Pakistan’s Supreme Court in 2009 ruled in favor of recognizing trans people as a third gender on identity cards. Discrimination against trans Pakistanis remains pervasive in spite of these advances.

Pakistan’s LGBTQ and intersex rights organizations fight for change

Some of the country’s LGBTQ and intersex advocacy groups organizations are based in Lahore, but most of them are in Karachi. 

Pakistan’s first gay rights organization was founded in Lahore in 1994. There are now more than 20 groups that are working to spread awareness and understanding about the LGBTQ and intersex community.

O, also known as O Collective, was founded in Lahore in March 2009 by activists dedicated to the protection of the rights of sexual minorities, specifically LGBTQ and intersex people. They are committed to the education and support of queer communities, sexual minorities, and their families and friends. O provides a safe space for the community to meet and discuss issues such as sexual health and legal rights.

The Naz Health Alliance is a public health NGO that works with the government and other stakeholders to provide technical assistance to public health programs, conduct research, provide capacity building, advocate for policy changes and social inclusion, and create awareness regarding the sexual health and human rights of MSM (men who have sex with men) and transgender communities. 

The group also works towards building a healthy and inclusive society by addressing social exclusion faced by the MSM and transgender community. Qasim Iqbal founded the Naz Health Alliance in 2011.

Uzma Yaqood founded the Forum for Dignity Initiatives in 2013.

FDI is a research and advocacy organization that aims to improve the lives of sexual and gender minorities in Pakistan through education, health and other social services that are sensitive to their respective identities. The organization works to ensure women, young people and trans individuals are able to live their lives without fear.

Jannat Ali — who describes herself as an “artivist” — is the executive director of Track T, a trans rights organization that is based in Lahore.

Her organization in 2018 organized Pakistan’s first-ever trans Pride parade that nearly 500 people attended. The country’s first-ever Pride parade — which violence marred — took place in Karachi the year before.

Ali in March 2021 launched a program with episodes on Instagram and YouTube. She is the first openly trans person to host her own show in Pakistan.

Jannat Ali at WorldPride 2021 in Copenhagen, Denmark (Photo courtesy of Jannat Ali)

Hussain Zaidi is a recent Swarthmore College graduate who has worked tirelessly to ensure trans people can access public health care in Pakistan. Zaidi spoke with the Washington Blade about how Pakistani’s view LGBTQ and intersex communities and what can be done to ensure their safety.

“LGBTQ+ communities are typically seen as communities adopting a Western framework for sexuality that is incongruent with the cultural norms within Pakistan,” said Zaidi. “There is an indigenous culture in Pakistan where queerness and trans bodies can thrive, but our conception of this cultural praxis and way removed from global narratives of LGBTQ+ freedom and self-autonomy.”

Zaidi added “labels for the LGBTQ+ community are considered illegitimate and propaganda arguing that Pakistani individuals on the queer/trans spectrum are coopting identities oriented towards Western frameworks and lenses.” 

“Even within communities that would be considered LGBTQ+, we see people rejecting the LGBTQ+ framework and instead arguing for the acceptance of local, indigenous praxis of transness and queerness,” added Zaidi. “So overall the social landscape of LGBTQ+ rights is complex and intersectional, with the perception of the label differing based on what class, status, educational level and background the Pakistani acting as the perceiver comes from.”

Zaidi said safety for LGBTQ and intersex Pakistanis “starts first by doing the work to understand how communities in Pakistan want to represent themselves in broader Pakistani culture.” 

“Practicing the construction of systems of protection for LGBTQ+ allied people requires a culturally sensitive and community-informed approach,” said Zaidi. “Often foreign organizations providing aid and support expect programming to revolve around terminologies and ideas that are globally accessible and originated from/digestible by the West. Due to this, the important work of understanding how to support existing communities in establishing and advocating for their identities and rights goes ignored or under-prioritized.” 

“By understanding what existing communities want, a community-informed strategy to safely advocate for LGBTQ+ aligned people can be implemented that also doesn’t put the community itself at risk in any way,” added Zaidi. “There are not many organizations doing work of this nature, due to the level of public censorship and policing that is arranged by dissenting opponents to the LGBTQ+ framework. By guaranteeing basic systems of protection and safety, we can expect the number of people and organizations committed to supporting variant sexual and gender identities to increase.” 

U.S., German embassies support LGBTQ, intersex activists

The U.S. Embassy in Pakistan works to raise awareness and understanding of LGBTQ and intersex issues and people in the country. 

It organizes community and educational events to build connections and support among LGBTQ and intersex Pakistanis and works to fight discrimination and oppression based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The embassy, which is located in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, in 2011 hosted an LGBTQ and intersex event.

“Mission Pakistan works to strengthen and support the LGBTQI+ community,” tweeted the embassy on May 17, which is the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia. “We strive every day to ensure the human rights of the LGBTQI+ community are respected and protected from oppression. We continue to press for full equality.”

The German Embassy in Karachi in 2021 also hosted an event for queer Pakistanis.

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The Vatican

Vatican newspaper: Pope Francis meets with trans folk sheltered in church

L’Osservatore Romano noted that the pope previously met with some of the transgender residents sheltering in the church

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Screenshot/YouTube Weekly papal audience via EWTN Europe

ROME – The Vatican’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano reported that during the Pope’s weekly audience in St. Peter’s Basilica on Wednesday, Pope Francis met with a fourth group of transgender people who are staying in a church on the outskirts of The Eternal City.

Sister Genevieve Jeanningros and the Rev. Andrea Conocchia told  L’Osservatore Romano that this was the fourth papal audience since The Blessed Immaculate Virgin community in the Torvaianica neighborhood of the Roman suburbs opened its doors to transgender people during the coronavirus pandemic.

L’Osservatore Romano noted that the pope previously met with some of the transgender residents sheltering in the church on April 27, June 22 and Aug. 3. “No one should encounter injustice or be thrown away, everyone has dignity of being a child of God,” the paper quoted Sister Jeanningros as saying.

Francis has earned praise from some members of the LBGTQ community for his outreach. When asked in 2013 about a purportedly gay priest, he replied, “Who am I to judge?” He has met individually and in groups with transgender people over the course of his pontificate the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

But he has strongly opposed “gender theory” and has not changed church teaching that holds that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.” In 2021, he allowed publication of a Vatican document asserting that the Catholic Church cannot bless same-sex unions since “God cannot bless sin,” the AP noted.

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Russia

Russian official confirms negotiations over WNBA star Brittney Griner 

Speaking publicly last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had confirmed that he was “ready to discuss” a potential deal

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Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ivan Nechayev (Screenshot/YouTube)

MOSCOW – Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ivan Nechayev told Russian reporters in a press briefing on Thursday, that negotiations are underway to release WNBA star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan in a prisoner exchange.

Speaking publicly last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had confirmed that he was “ready to discuss” a potential deal, however, the comments today from his spokesperson were the first public acknowledgement that talks were ongoing.

According to Nechayev, the talks are happening within the parameters previously set for diplomatic communications between the two super-powers by Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Joe Biden.

“We proceed from the fact that the negotiations should take the interests of both sides into account,” he stressed to reporters “We would recommend abandoning futile attempts to put pressure on us and we are calling on them to concentrate on practical work along the available channels. There is no other way,” Nechayev added.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had previously acknowledged the U.S. has offered Russia a deal to secure the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, another American citizen who is serving a 16-year prison sentence after his conviction for spying.

Nechayev had noted that the exchange of prisoners was one of the topics discussed in a telephone conversation between the Russian Foreign Minister and the U.S. Secretary of State in late July.

Although specific details have not been made public, U.S. officials had offered Moscow to exchange Russian businessman Viktor Bout, who is serving a prison term in the US for arms trafficking, for Griner, sentenced to jail for drugs trafficking, and Whelan, a former U.S. Marine and American businessman, convicted in Russia of spying.

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