Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Dramatic wins and crushing setbacks dominated 2017


Leo Varadkar, center, became Ireland's first openly gay prime minister in 2017. Photo: Courtesy the Independent
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The year saw dramatic victories and stinging defeats for LGBT people around the world.

One of the biggest newsmakers was Leo Varadkar, a gay man who became prime minister of Ireland.

But a year that started out hopefully with India and Pakistan initiating what appeared to be positive changes for transgender citizens took a new turn as LGBTs around the world prepared for a global backlash with the January inauguration of President Donald Trump.

Little did LGBT advocates know that in Chechnya, alleged queer people, mostly men, were being rounded up and detained and tortured by authorities starting in December 2016.

It was the beginning of a global anti-LGBT backlash following eight years of global progress for LGBT rights.

After the LGBT-friendly Obama administration, homophobic individuals were now in charge in the United States, the world's superpower, giving permission to anti-gay countries to flex their muscles with their own anti-gay actions that dominated headlines.

However, there was some hope toward the end of the year as seven countries ushered in same-sex marriage and a few new LGBT politicians were elected.


Hate rose up

Perhaps it's a last rally cry for homophobic leaders or a new beginning for so-called religious freedom fighting against progress when it comes to acceptance and understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity.

This year, anti-gay countries came out of the shadows and LGBT people took the brunt of the punches.

Horrifying headlines of LGBT people being detained and tortured, and laws restricting freedom of expression, captured the realities as anti-gay leaders unleashed their hate on LGBTs in Chechnya, former Soviet states, Egypt, Indonesia, Turkey, and other countries.

Some homophobic leaders even gained some seats in the United Nations at the beginning of the year.

Amnesty International explained Russian influence over its former states in a December 22 report, " Less Equal: LGBTI Human Rights Defenders in Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan."

Headlines throughout 2017 captured a global culture war over LGBT rights and religious freedom with Russia leading the way against queers, supported by the United States' new reluctance to uphold the country's stance to protect LGBT rights.

Under Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley's leadership on LGBT rights took a backseat as religious rights moved to the front of the new administration's agenda.

In Chechnya, anti-gay leader Ramzan Kadyrov and his government detained an estimated 100 alleged LGBT Chechens in a northern region of Russia. News of the arrests and torture of LGBT Chechens broke in April after reporting by Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

Three men reportedly died during detainment.

Russian President Vladimir Putin denied what was happening in Chechnya. Kadyrov lashed out at the reports, claiming that there weren't any LGBT people in Chechnya and condoned killing LGBT Chechens by their families in the Muslim-majority region.

Another wave of detainments was reported in June, a month after Putin appeared to bow to international pressure to investigate the situation in Chechnya that was confirmed by a variety of international human rights organizations in May.

The Russian LGBT Network acted quickly, setting up safe houses in Moscow and establishing escape routes to LGBT-friendly countries where victims were resettled.

Canada became a beacon of refuge, working closely with a Russian LGBT organization and the Rainbow Railroad, a Canadian-based LGBT group, by taking in a handful of LGBT Chechens in the fall. France reportedly took in one gay Chechen who escaped after being detained and tortured.

That wasn't the end of Russia's assault on LGBTs. Through media outlets Russian propaganda in former Soviet states fueled anti-gay sentiment propagating discrimination and violence against LGBTs, according to the Amnesty International report.

Governments in Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan also cracked down on LGBT citizens. Some of these countries implemented Chechen-style detainment and torture of alleged gay people while others instituted anti-gay laws restricting freedom of expression and assembly.

Toward the end of the year concerns of anti-LGBT discrimination rose in Paraguay, too.

California led the way combatting Russia with its Assembly passing a resolution that called upon the Trump administration and Congress to take action against Russia and Chechnya for the detainment of LGBT Chechens in June. The resolution was adopted in September.

There were moments when Tillerson and Haley spoke out against what was happening in Chechnya, but it wasn't until the end of 2017 that the U.S. finally took some action.

On December 20, the Trump administration, along with the state and treasury departments, imposed sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act against five Russian officials, including Kadyrov and Chechen Ministry of Internal Affairs Ayub Kataev, who allegedly detained and abused gay men this year.

Imposing the sanctions on the Chechen officials means the men are prohibited from making any financial transactions in the U.S. and bans Americans from conducting business with them.

The Magnitsky Act, passed by Congress in 2012, focuses on a large Russian tax fraud scheme and gross human rights violations.

"We welcome this step taken by the U.S. government, which sends a message to human rights violators around the world the United States remains committed to protecting the human rights of LGBT people worldwide and abuses will not be met with impunity," said Human Rights First's Shawn Gaylord in a statement following the announcement.

"Sanctioning Kadyrov and Kataev for human rights violations, including the extrajudicial imprisonment, torture, and murder of gay Chechens, is a critical step in providing accountability and justice for the LGBT victims of the Chechen authorities," continued Gaylord. "Kadyrov and Kataev are directly responsible for a wave of detention, torture, and terror throughout Chechnya with LGBT people being only the most recent target."

Jessica Stern, executive director of OutRight Action International, said the sanctions were a good response.

"Punishing Kadyrov and Kataev through the Magnitsky Act is the right thing to do," Stern said in a statement to NBC News. "Of course, two people responsible for the arbitrary arrests, mass detention, and torture of gay men should be held accountable."

The New York-based global LGBT human rights organization has campaigned for the international community to take action against Chechnya's anti-gay purge and hold key actors responsible accountable.

She applauded the sanctions, but said it's only a step in the right direction as sanctions aren't enough.

"Both men still walk freely," she said, "but it's an important step."


Political wins

Some political firsts happened this year from Ireland to Japan to Serbia to South America.

Ireland and Serbia gained their first openly gay prime ministers.

Varadkar assumed his seat as the head of Ireland in June. He was followed by lesbian Ana Brnabic who was appointed by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in July.

Transgender politicians made their mark in Japan, Ecuador, and Uruguay by becoming the first to be elected to local and national seats in 2017.

Ecuadorian activist Diana Rodriguez became the first transgender individual to win a seat in the South American country's National Assembly at the beginning of this year.

Uruguayan activist Michelle Suarez became that country's first openly transgender senator when she was appointed to her seat in October.

Tomoya Hosoda became the first openly transgender man to win a seat on the Iruma city council, a conservative-leaning suburb of Tokyo, in March.

Looking forward to 2018's elections, Tatiana Pineros, a transgender woman, announced her run for Colombia's Senate earlier this month, reported the Washington Blade.

Pineros formerly ran Bogota's social welfare and tourism office under Mayor Gustavo Petro administration, which ended in 2015.


Same-sex marriage

Taiwan became the first Asian country to legalize marriage equality while Australians voted yes on a mail survey and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull signed the marriage equality bill into law before Christmas.

Austria got marriage equality just afterward when the country's Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. It will take effect in 2019.

Germany, Finland, and Malta also ushered in marriage equality.

The moves bring to 26 countries that have legalized same-sex marriage.

Bermuda had legalized same-sex marriage through a court ruling in May, but earlier this month the Caribbean island's Legislature reversed the decision. It now has the dubious distinction of being the first country to re-ban same-sex marriage, though couples will receive the rights without the name.


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


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