I've been here before. I hear it in their stories. Fearful of rejection by their own families, silenced by a fiercely homophobic culture, abandoned by friends who dare not associate with them, they fear for their lives. Each of them faces an onslaught of trauma: bodies beaten, homes lost, livelihoods stolen, the threat of death becoming the ultimate "quarantine."
I've been here before. The world largely ignores their plight. The numbers don't mean much, because the lives of LGBTQ people just don't count for much.
So it was then, in the early years of the AIDS epidemic. So it is now with an epidemic that has no comparable name, no CDC to pursue a cure, no ACT UP to invade city halls and corporate headquarters. It is a worldwide scourge. It is anti-LGBTQ persecution.
Here are some numbers: 76 countries with over 40% of the world's population criminalize homosexuality, while others enable persecution of LGBTQ people despite laws in place to protect them. It is happening every day and, in fact, in many parts of the world, it is happening more.
What does persecution look like? It is about as ugly as an opportunistic infection in the early years of AIDS. I remember.
If you're a gay man in Egypt, you unfurl a rainbow flag at a concert one night and find yourself imprisoned and fearful of attack in the morning. If you're a trans woman in Jamaica, you become a "gully queen," exiled from your family, denied work, slashed more times than you can count, settling into Kingston's sewer system for refuge. If you're a lesbian in the Middle East or North Africa, you're compelled to marry, bear children, and restricted from association with others like you. If you are arrested for any reason and it is determined you are a lesbian, you may be raped.
Gay in Iran? The sentence can involve getting thrown off the roof of a tall building. Nigeria? The sentence is 14 years, if a mob doesn't set you ablaze first. Aceh, Indonesia? 85 lashes with a cane. If you engage in same-sex relations in Chechnya, you can be detained, tortured and forced to name names, only to be returned to your family whom the state implores to kill you.
It is an epidemic, and the tragedy and loss is mounting. And here's one more parallel to the early years of AIDS: It's up to usthe LGBTQ community and our alliesto do something.
And we are. LGBTQ people in some of these countries, under the most adverse conditions, are forming connections and starting groups. Some are openly organizing and advocating at great personal risk. These are today's heroes as surely as the heroes of ACT UP were in the 1980s. They are worthy of our support.
One more number: there are an estimated 15,000 LGBTQ people in the U.S. waiting for asylum. Most of them dare not speak for themselves for fear of jeopardizing their case for freedom. It is our obligation to speak for them when we can and give them a forum when they are able to speak for themselves. We have an obligation to make this country a welcoming place for those members of our worldwide LGBTQ family fleeing for their lives, forced to leave all they know and love. We have an obligation to care for them and to fight for them.
What can you do? Start with this: On Thursday, Aug. 16, 6:30 p.m., at Center on Halted, a group of organizations are coming together to sponsor a panel/community discussion entitled, "If Not US, Who? The Struggle of LGBTQ Refugees and Asylum-Seekers." U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley will speak, along with a panel of experts and an amazing trans woman named Gabrielle who just won asylum in the U.S. Hear what they have to say. See this as an opportunity to be moved, to learn what we can do, and to act. Join us.
We've been here before. We know what to do.
Tickets for "If Not US, Who?" are available at: www.eventbrite.ca/e/if-not-us-who-tickets-47916204658 .
Bruce Koff serves on the All Aboard USA Committee of Rainbow Railroad, an international organization dedicated to rescuing LGBTQ individuals facing persecution abroad and bringing them to safety.