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Columbia University researcher helps evacuate LGBTQ people from Afghanistan

Taylor Hirschberg working with Belgian lawmaker

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Taylor Hirschberg (Photo courtesy of Taylor Hirschberg)

NEW YORK — Some of the 50 human rights activists that a Columbia University researcher has helped evacuate from Afghanistan since the Taliban regained control of the country are LGBTQ.

A press release the Los Angeles Blade received notes Taylor Hirschberg — a researcher at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health who is also a Hearst Foundation scholar — has worked with Belgian Sen. Orry Vandewauwer to help 50 Afghan “activists leave the country.”

“The refugees included those who identify as LGBTQI+ or gender non-conforming and their families,” notes the press release.

The Blade has seen the list of names of the more than 100 people that Hirschberg and Vandewauwer are trying to evacuate from Afghanistan. These include the country’s first female police officer, the independent U.N. expert on Afghanistan and a number of LGBTQ activists.

“There are many more human rights advocates we are still trying to get out of the country,” said Hirschberg.

Hirschberg has previously worked in Afghanistan.

He and Vandewauwer were also once affiliated with Skateistan, an NGO that works with children in the Middle East and Africa. The documentary “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone” features it.

Two men in Kabul, Afghanistan, in July 2021 (Photo courtesy of Dr. Ahmad Qais Munzahim)

The Taliban entered Kabul, the Afghan capital on Aug. 15 and toppled then-President Ashraf Ghani’s government.

A Taliban judge over the summer said the group would once again execute gay men if it were to return to power in Afghanistan.

The U.S. evacuated more than 100,000 people from the country before American troops completed their withdrawal from the country on Aug. 30. It remains unclear whether the U.S. was able to successfully evacuate LGBTQ Afghans from Kabul International Airport, but Immigration Equality earlier this month said it spoke “directly” with 50 LGBTQ Afghans before the U.S. withdrawal ended.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sept. 13 during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing expressed concern over the fate of LGBTQ Afghans who remain in the country.

The Human Rights Campaign; Immigration Equality; the Council for Global Equality; Rainbow Railroad; the International Refugee Assistance Project and the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration have called upon the Biden administration to develop a 10-point plan to protect LGBTQ Afghans that includes prioritizing “the evacuation and resettlement of vulnerable refugee populations, including LGBTQI people.” Canada is thus far the only country that has specifically said it would offer refuge to LGBTQ Afghans.

Hirschberg on Monday told the Blade that he and Vandewauwer have charted an airplane to evacuate Afghans, but they have not secured a “third country” to which they can bring them.

“Currently, we are working towards a multi-country collaboration for resettlement,” he said. “Our work has now expanded to include election officials and women activists, including those from the LGBTQI+ community.”

Hirschberg also urged the U.S. and humanitarian organizations to do more to help evacuate LGBTQ people, human rights activists and others from Afghanistan 

“I understand that this is complicated and that I do not have all the working pieces but why does the United States ignore those who helped in building their agenda in Afghanistan. The same goes for multilateral organizations,” he told the Blade. “Why are neither funding charters and creating agreement with partnering states? If they are why have the not contacted the countries that we are creating collaborations with?” 

Editor’s note: Hirschberg is a Blade contributor.

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Southern-Central Asia

First gender-neutral university in India garners praise

National Academy of Legal Studies and Research made announcement on March 26

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(Photo courtesy of the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research's Twitter page)

HYDERABAD, India — India’s National Academy of Legal Studies and Research will become the first gender-neutral university.

The National Academy of Legal Studies and Research in Hyderabad on March 26 announced on its official Twitter page that it has decided to create a gender-neutral safe space for LGBTQ+ students and designated the ground floor of a dorm for them. The university also said rooms will be allotted to students who identify themselves as members of the LGBTQ+ community.

The university has announced the bathroom on the dorm’s ground floor is now gender-neutral. While the university is drafting its final policy, LGBTQ+ students’ concerns will be addressed using the interim policy.

Vice Chancellor Faizan Mustafa told the Washington Blade that since he joined the university in 2012, he has followed the “liberty model” of administration rather than the “control.” According to Mustafa, his model of administration allowed him to let students participate in policymaking, which led to a gender-neutral campus.

“I feel that the knowledge creation happens in liberal spaces,” said Mustafa. “And the knowledge creation requires that the university spaces should be liberated because knowledge creation requires creativity, and creativity does not come if you have control.”

A student in June 2015 requested the university not include gender in its diplomas. The university swiftly accepted this request and used the neutral prefix “Mx.” This led to the idea of inclusivity at the university campus.

“When some students reached out to me that while the liberty model is good for everyone, we are not doing enough for the gender and Transgender people. So, I constituted a committee,” said Mustafa. “I included some students in the committee, some teachers, and then I said let’s make a new beginning. Accordingly, the policy was approved by me, and now we are inviting suggestions for the policy before we go to the statutory bodies of the university. We will not follow the gender-binary at the campus.”

The university’s Trans Policy Committee drafted the “Policy on Inclusive Education for Gender and Sexual Minority.”

Under the self-identification policy, students need to write a self-attested declaration, which will be the basis of gender identity recognition. The policy also suggests that gender in official records should be independent of the student’s honorific titles in the legal documents.

The policy states no documents will assign any gender to a student. Even after the declaration of gender identity, students will be able to change their names and pronouns. The policy also highlights self-identified gender will form the basis for all entitlements that result from the policy, for instance, dorm accommodation, scholarships and the right to file discrimination claims.

“Certainly what the university did is great but the entire discourse and activism around creating gender-neutral spaces were led by students and informal student collectives like NALSAR Queer Collective, Savitribai Intersectional Study Circle, NALSAR Minorities Forum, etc.,” said Kranthi, a fourth-year student who co-founded the NALSAR Queer Collective.

Kranthi is a member of the committee that drafted the new policy.

“I must add, LGBTQ+ students in NALSAR would not have achieved the recognition of their basic rights without the support and solidarity of Dalit, Adivasi, Muslim and Bahujan students,” said Kranthi. “The support and solidarity of other marginalized groups in the university is an important part of our struggle for gender-neutral spaces.”

Kranthi said the creation of gender-neutral spaces sends a strong message to the world that anyone who doesn’t fit or refuses to fit in the gender binary system is welcome and recognized.

“What has happened so far in our university is only little, and so much more needs to be done if we want to shift the whole institutional culture towards real inclusion of gender and sexual minorities,” said Kranthi. “Until economic and social support is provided for Trans and queer students from lower socio-economic backgrounds these changes brought by the university would mean nothing to them and would only serve the interests of upper caste, upper-caste queer students. Hopefully, we will be able to focus more on substantial aspects like capacity and skill development, financial aid and scholarships, internship-aid for queer and Trans students than on formal procedures and piecemeal changes.”

A spokesperson for Queer Nilayum, a support group for LGBTQ+ people in Hyderabad, praised the new policy.

“We think providing gender-neutral washrooms and hostels is a great step towards creating a safer and more affirming campus for Transgender (trans), non-binary (nb), and gender-nonconforming people (GNC),” they said. “However, creating gender-neutral infrastructure and just saying that ‘there will be no discrimination based on gender’ isn’t enough to protect the rights of gender marginalized people. There needs to be a lot more awareness and education about gender so that people who are gender-marginalized recognize their biases and preconceived notions about Trans, nb (non-binary), and GNC (gender non-conforming) people. There also need to be policies in place to prevent instances of discrimination and to ensure fairness and justice for those who face discrimination.”

A study that UNESCO conducted in 2019 found 60 percent of LGBTQ+ of middle and high school students in India faced bullying or harassment. Forty-three percent of respondents said they faced sexual harassment in elementary school, while 70 percent of LGBTQ+ students who were bullied said they suffer from anxiety and depression and 33 percent dropped out.

Ankush Kumar (Mohit) is a freelance reporter who has covered many stories for Washington and Los Angeles Blades from Iran, India and Singapore. He recently reported for the Daily Beast. He can be reached at [email protected].

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Indian Defense Ministry denies clearance to film about gay former soldier

Onir wrote the ‘We Are’ script

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Onir, an Indian filmmaker, has criticized the Indian Defense Ministry's decision not to approve his film about a former soldier who came out as gay. (Photo courtesy of Onir)

NEW DELHI — An Indian filmmaker has criticized the country’s Defense Ministry’s decision to not approve his film about a former soldier who left the military after he came out as gay.

Onir, who wrote the script “We Are,” which is based on the real-life story of former Maj. J Suresh, filed an official request with the Defense Ministry last year for clearance. The Defense Ministry denied his request after reviewing the script.

According to Onir, Defense Ministry’s officials in a phone call with him said that a main character is a soldier who is gay, which is illegal in the Indian Army. That makes his film ineligible for clearance.

The Defense Ministry in 2020 wrote a letter to the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. It stated that producers must obtain permission from the Defense Ministry before broadcasting a movie or a Web series about the Indian armed forces. While justifying the decision on clearance for any film that shows Army personnel, the Defense Ministry said the morale of Army personnel falls when film producers show an Army man in a derogatory manner.

“There are 56 countries across the world where the LGBTQI community is accepted as part of the military,” Onir told the Washington Blade.

“After the Supreme Court’s verdict of 2018, organically different institutions should have followed the Supreme Court ruling and empowered the community while celebrating the diversity and inclusion, but this is unfortunate that even after Supreme Court’s verdict, the Indian Army does not accept the community as fit enough to serve in the armed forces,” he added further.

The law governing the Indian military makes homosexuality a punishable offense. According to Section 46(a) of the Army Act 1950, any person guilty of any disgraceful conduct of a “cruel, indecent or unnatural kind” will, on conviction by court-martial, face up to seven years in jail.

“Anyone, irrespective of their sexuality, should be evaluated for their work, skill, patriotism or intelligence,” said Onir.

“Sexuality does not define anyone’s skill in the Army or anywhere else, and so LGBTQ people serving the country are equally heroes,” he added.

Onir told the Blade that he had already sent an appeal to the defense secretary and expressed concerns that rejection of his request is discriminatory, but he rejected the idea that he will go to court if the appeal is not granted. Although he is very optimistic this time, Onir said he will think of other ways to make the film possible if the defense secretary rejects his request.

Former Indian Army Chief Bipin Rawat in 2019 said the armed forces will continue to consider homosexuality an offense. Rawat also said that the Indian Army under the Army Act was not “westernized and modernized,” and was “conservative” when it came to dealing with adultery or homosexuality.

Rawat last month died in a helicopter crash.

Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, a right-wing Hindu nationalist, in 2013 said that his party (Bharatiya Janata Party) does not support homosexuality. While taking a conservative position on the matter, Singh further said that homosexuality is an “unnatural act” and can not be supported. In 2018, while striking down colonial-era law, that criminalized homosexuality, the India’s chief justice said that the law will not apply to sex between consenting adults, irrespective of their gender.

The Indian government last year argued in the Delhi High Court that the law does not recognize same-sex marriage in India.

While defending Singh’s 2015 statement in 2015, BJP leader, Subramanian Swamy, in a bizarre statement said “homosexuality is a danger to the national security.” Swamy also said that homosexuality is a “genetic disorder.”

Some BJP leaders have a history of taking extreme homophobic stands. Sudhir Mungantiwar, a BJP lawmaker, recently stirred controversy by questioning Maharastra state’s government’s move to appoint representatives of the LGBTQ community as members of universities.

“Are you going to hire lesbians and gays as members? Shouldn’t a joint medical committee be set up on this? It mentions bisexual and asexual relations. However, no one has yet defined these,” said Mungantiwar. “Even someone who has sex with an animal can become a member, as per the government’s proposal. Will the animal certify to their sexual relationship?”

Onir believes the Indian military will soon adopt the policy to allow the LGBTQ people to serve.

“India has good relations with American, French and the British military. All these countries allow LGBTQ personnel for the service,” Onir said. “These militaries practice together sometimes, so sooner or later Indian Army will change the policy and will allow LGBTQ people.”

Onir has won 16 film awards, including two national awards. Talking about his upcoming movies, Onir said he is working on “Sid,” a coming-of-age film, and a lesbian rom-com which is based on the life of writer Raga Olga D’silva.

“Although Bollywood, the Indian film industry, makes over a thousand films every year,” said Onir. “The number of films depicting LGBTQ stories is still negligible,” he added.

Lieutenant Gen. Manoj Pande took over as the new Army chief on Feb. 1.

It remains to be seen if the new Army chief adopts the more liberal policies or follows his predecessors, but a growing number of Indian young people are demanding equal rights for the LGBTQ community.

Mohit Kumar (Ankush) is a freelance reporter who has covered different stories that include the 2020 election in the U.S. and women’s rights issues. He has also covered NASA, the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency and loves to help people. Mohit is on Twitter at @MohitKopinion and can be reached at [email protected].

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Southern-Central Asia

Report: Iran executes two gay men for sodomy

Advocacy group says execution took place in Maragheh prison

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Iran, gay news, Washington Blade
The national flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran (file)

MARAGHEH, Iran — Iran has reportedly executed two gay men who were convicted of sodomy.

The Associated Press cites a report the Human Rights Activists News Agency released on Sunday that says Mehrdad Karimpour and Farid Mohammadi were sentenced to death six years ago for “forced sexual intercourse between two men.” The Human Rights Activists News Agency notes Karimpour and Mohammadi were hanged at a prison in Maragheh, a city that is 310 miles northwest of the Iranian capital of Tehran.

Iran is among the handful of countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain punishable by death.

The AP notes two men in Maragheh who were convicted of sodomy were executed last July.

The State Department last May condemned the murder of Ali Fazeli Monfared, whose relatives reportedly kidnapped and beheaded him after they learned he was gay. Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a few months later arrested a lesbian woman as she tried to enter Turkey.

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