Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Experts discuss violence against LGBTs in the Americas


IACHR Commissioner Francisco Eguiguren. Photo: Courtesy of OAS
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A panel of LGBT human rights experts in the Americas recently gathered in San Francisco to discuss the state of LGBT rights throughout North, Central, and South America.

The meeting was a part of a series of discussions about LGBT human rights that the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights and the Organization of American States held at Stanford University and San Francisco January 25-27.

Experts talked about "Human Rights Under the Next Administration" and addressed "The Future of the Inter-American Human Rights System" at a Spanish-language event at Stanford.

LGBT human rights experts discussed issues raised in the IACHR LGBT Unit's report, " Violence against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex Persons in the Americas," which was released in English and Portuguese. The first edition of the 283-page report detailing atrocities afflicting the LGBT community in the Americas was published in Spanish in 2015.

The rare West Coast gathering of experts included Commissioner Francisco Eguiguren, the first vice chair and rapporteur on the rights of LGBTI Persons at IACHR; Andrew Stevenson, alternate U.S. representative, U.S. mission to OAS and the U.S. State Department; Brandon Lee, consul general of Canada in San Francisco; Sneh Rao, senior policy adviser of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission; and Ana Montano, LGBTI Justice Clinic founder from El Salvador.

The panel was led by Commissioner and IACHR President James Cavallaro, who discussed the findings of the report and next steps as the IACHR and OAS continue to work under President Donald Trump's administration.

"This report is particularly relevant today in the hemisphere. It's particularly relevant in this country. It is particularly relevant in a moment for all of us who defend human rights, all of us who believe in human rights," said Cavallaro, who is a professor at Stanford Law School and is the founding director of the school's International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic. He was elected to lead IACHR in 2013.

"All of us who believe in the core principle in human dignity have reason to believe that the challenges ahead will be quite significant," he said.

However, Cavallaro stated the recent grassroots political movement protesting Trump's January 27 immigration and travel ban executive orders and progress toward LGBT rights by some countries gave him hope.


Probing LGBT rights in the Americas

"Some countries have made significant progress in recent years in recognizing the rights of LGBTI persons, but there are still very high rates of violence in all countries in the hemisphere," said Cavallaro.

The in-depth report represents a decade – 2005 through 2015 – of testimony by LGBT activists and civil society and community leaders from the 35-member OAS states at more than 37 IACHR human rights meetings. The report also included information from a survey of government officials and civil society organizations about LGBT issues and examination of some 30 cases brought to the commission within a 15-month period to learn about violence, Eguiguren said at the San Francisco meeting.

Eguiguren said he didn't find the information "very promising."

The report highlights physical violence against LGBT people throughout the Americas. It particularly examines differently bodied individuals, countries' laws and discrimination policies, and how violence against LGBT people is formed and carried out either by silence or active discrimination and prejudice, he said.

Additionally, Eguiguren noted that the transgender and intersex communities are particularly in danger as their members make up a majority of the physical abuse and homicide cases in every country throughout the Americas.

Montano, the LGBTI Justice Clinic-El Salvador founder and an immigration attorney at the AIDS Legal Referral Panel in San Francisco, said her organization's research and subsequent report also uncovered similar findings to the IACHR report.

Many of the queer asylum seekers she works with have fled their home countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East to escape persecution, incarceration, violence, and threats to their lives, she said.

"Basically, it's the same story," said Montano, who turned her focus on El Salvador, where her family originated.

"I realized what a dismal situation it was for the LGBT community," she said about her initial experience living and working with the local LGBT El Salvadorian leaders about four years ago.

She noted that at the time there was a serial killer or multiple serial killers murdering transgender women – four transgender women alone were murdered while she was traveling back to San Francisco, she said. Through research she and other activists have been able to document 169 murders of LGBT people in El Salvador as of last year, but she said local activists believe the figure is closer to 500. Nearly all of the homicides have gone uninvestigated, she told the audience.

"The leadership, they take a lot of risk in identifying themselves, being public about who they are, and organizing. A lot of the community still lives in the closet," said Montano about LGBT El Salvadorian activists who participated in a 2013 conference and some El Salvadorian transgender women who testified in Washington, D.C. about their situation.

Those initial murders so affected Montano that she's spent years working on developing legal services, legislative reform and policy implementation, and grassroots organizing with local activists and researchers from UC Berkeley to create a report, she told the audience.

There have been some fleeting signs of hope in El Salvador, Montano noted. The country's former first lady, Vanda Pignato, created an LGBT helpline, but it faltered due to lack of resources. During a recent election, transgender women were allowed to identify as their chosen gender to cast ballots.


Pressing forward

In spite of the difficult realities of LGBT people in the Americas, the report also documents the progress that has been made. Eguiguren also stressed the importance of the conclusions and recommendations to address hardline, anti-LGBT faith leaders and religious communities, respect diversity, and adopt new laws.

Lee agreed, stating that Canada prides its diversity and it makes the country stronger. He noted that in spite of Canada's progress the country still has a lot to learn. He also told the audience that Canada's leaders prefer to lead by example, while acknowledging that the LGBT issue is "difficult for many countries."

"We know one size does not fit all," he said.

Rao, the HRC policy adviser, took a different perspective. He said that the San Francisco Human Rights Commission examined the types of violence afflicting the city's LGBT community and those affecting sub-communities, such as queer refugee and immigrant communities and transgender women of color. By examining the community through this micro lens, the SF HRC learned more about San Francisco's LGBT community. The resulting report enabled the commission to address weak areas and to better understand the communities' needs in order to provide more effective services, he said.

Stevenson, the OAS official, talked about the importance of democracies in the Americas and that people "must stand up and speak about the core principles and work together" for democracy when necessary.

Lee agreed, adding that Canada is also actively working with the IACHR, OAS, and the United Nations, along with LGBT experts in Canada and the U.S., co-sponsoring several resolutions and working on multilateral levels to combat homophobia.

Stevenson reiterated the U.S.'s commitment to the OAS and the IACHR through increased fiscal support and by defending the importance of the organizations' maintaining autonomy to carry out their work.

Lee and Rao both said that there is more work to be done.

"There is much more work to be done and we should acknowledge and celebrate that the international community has made great strides," said Lee, but he also expressed interest in learning from the other speakers on the panel about "how we can all work toward positive change in LGBTI communities around the world."

The OAS, which operates like the U.N. for the Americas, created the IACHR in 1959.


To watch the panel discussion in Spanish, visit


Got international LGBT news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at Skype: heather.cassell, or


Watch the entire presentation: English:


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