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Teaching Tolerance: A Lesson for Kosovo’s Educators in LGBT Awareness

Over 140 principals in Kosovo recently took part in annual training hosted in municipalities throughout the country under USAID’s Basic Education Program. But this year, for the first time, training included Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) rights.

The municipality of Dragash/Dragaš, nestled in the mountainous border with Albania, is one of the most remote, diverse and traditional parts of Kosovo. The large Bosniak and Gorani minority communities live harmoniously with the Albanian majority population in this quiet mountain town where, unlike elsewhere in the Muslim-majority country, head scarves are a common sight.

The municipality of Dragash/Dragaš in southern Kosovo is home to a diverse community of 33,590 people, including 12,000 members of the Bosniak and Gorani minority communities. Strong Muslim faith unites this community, which is an example of ethnic tolerance for the country. / USAID

The municipality of Dragash/Dragaš in southern Kosovo is home to a diverse community of 33,590 people, including 12,000 members of the Bosniak and Gorani minority communities. Strong Muslim faith unites this community, which is an example of ethnic tolerance for the country. / USAID

Spelling it Out

It was here that a recent LGBT session took place on November 15.

When trainer and Kosovo Pedagogical Institute Director Ismet Potera opened the discussion by asking participants to write what they believed “LGBT” stood for, only one of the nine Dragash/Dragaš principals knew the meaning, adding that “it is a reality and a shame.”

“I must admit, I shared that prejudice before I understood the facts,” Potera explained to the group of male educators. “But now I understand that members of the LGBT community don’t choose that lifestyle, and most importantly, they are deserving of our protection.”

Ismet Potera (and Arbërie Nagavci) lead a session on inclusiveness, the seventh and final module of the USAID Basic Education Program’s annual training for school principals. For the first time ever, the module included a session on LGBT sensitivity, Nov. 15, 2014 / USAID

Ismet Potera (and Arbërie Nagavci) lead a session on inclusiveness, the seventh and final module of the USAID Basic Education Program’s annual training for school principals. For the first time ever, the module included a session on LGBT sensitivity, Nov. 15, 2014 / USAID

An Unlikely Advocate

As Potera and fellow trainer Arbërie Nagavci continued to present the information prepared by local LGBT organization Center for Social Emancipation (Qendra Për Emancipim Shoqëror) about the differences between sexual orientation and gender, they got some unexpected support from one of the participants.

“Human sexuality is rooted in science,” said Bahtijar Bojaxhiu, a biology teacher of 25 years who currently serves as principal for over 600 students at several village schools near Dragash/Dragaš. “Studies have proven that it is determined by a combination of genetics and hormones, so homosexuality is natural.”

While Kosovo’s open LGBT community is small—estimated at around 300 people in a country of 1.9 million—the fledgling democracy’s laws offer them explicit protection from discrimination and even the right to same-sex marriage. But societal acceptance has yet to catch up to legal mandate. In December 2012, a magazine launch party in the capital of Pristina was targeted for violent homophobic attacks because the issue tackled the topic of homosexuality.

Spreading the word

In the village of Pjetërshticëin central Kosovo, only 8 percent of the local community has a university education. Elementary school principal Lutfi Gashi believes that, following the USAID training in nearby Shtime/Štimlje, it is his personal and professional responsibility to ensure that teachers and parents alike are aware of the country’s anti-discrimination laws.

“It is my duty to create a safe environment for all of my students,” explained Gashi, who is establishing an inclusiveness working group of teachers, parents, and students to address factors that could be contributing to the school’s dropout rate.

The halls of Idriz Ajeti Elementary School outside Shtime/Štimlje in central Kosovo, where signs encourage students to "Speak little, but listen much" and that "It's a person's mind that makes him/her beautiful." The school’s principal is adding a new lesson for students, parents, and teachers alike in inclusiveness by forming a working group to address causes for the school’s recent dropouts, Nov. 14, 2014 / USAID

The halls of Idriz Ajeti Elementary School outside Shtime/Štimlje in central Kosovo, where signs encourage students to “Speak little, but listen much” and that “It’s a person’s mind that makes him/her beautiful.” The school’s principal is adding a new lesson for students, parents, and teachers alike in inclusiveness by forming a working group to address causes for the school’s recent dropouts, Nov. 14, 2014 / USAID

The dialogue continues

As the discussion came to a close in Dragash/Dragaš, Potera and Nagavci talked about how schools in this region are uniquely positioned to promote LGBT inclusiveness, given the example set here of ethnic inclusiveness. One participant, who had appeared skeptical through much of the discussion, finally spoke up:

“In all of our cultures, families take care of each other. If a person from this community is rejected by their family, then it’s the responsibility of the school to teach acceptance and support them.”

Nagavci was pleased. “I’m not sure we changed any minds today, but we certainly tickled a few, and opened a dialogue that I hope will continue.”


Bridget Nurre is a communications specialist for USAID/Kosovo. Follow her @BridgetNurre and keep up with the Kosovo mission @USAIDKosovo

The Economic Case for LGBT Equality Worldwide

Dr. Claire Lucas, USAID’s senior adviser on partnerships, addresses the audience at the launch of the joint Williams Institute-USAID report on LGBT inclusion and economic development. Seated, left to right: Carla Koppell, chief strategy officer, USAID; M.V. Lee Badgett, report author and research director, Williams Institute; and Brad Sears, executive director, Williams Institute. Photo credit: Matthew Corso/USAID

Claire Lucas, USAID’s senior adviser on partnerships, addresses the audience at the launch of the joint Williams Institute-USAID report on LGBT inclusion and economic development. Seated, left to right: Carla Koppell, chief strategy officer, USAID; M.V. Lee Badgett, report author and research director, Williams Institute; and Brad Sears, executive director, Williams Institute. / Matthew Corso/USAID

What if there was hard-and-fast evidence that discriminatory laws and actions against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals hurt economic prosperity in emerging markets and developing countries?

Last week, I was proud to join in the launch of a groundbreaking report published by the Williams Institute as part of USAID’s LGBT Global Development Partnership that undertakes this empirical analysis. The underlying study found that human rights and economic prosperity are intertwined and that greater inclusion of LGBT people in emerging economies, at both the micro and macro levels, is positively associated with a country’s economic development.

Across 39 emerging economies and other selected countries, the study found substantial evidence that LGBT people are limited in their freedoms in ways that also create economic hardships.

The study uses, for the first time, the Global Index on Legal Recognition of Homosexual Orientation, which establishes categories of legal recognition and protection for lesbians and gay men, as well as a provisional index on transgender rights that was created specifically for the report. The index identifies eight types of laws that indicate a country’s level of legal recognition of LGBT people. It includes legalizing consensual acts between same-sex adults, providing protections against discrimination in employment or the provision of goods and services, and legal recognition of same-sex couples or the legal ability of couples to adopt children. The index allows for a numerical value to be assigned to each country in the study based on the number of laws currently enacted that provide either basic protections or address family recognition and adoption rights.

Based on this index, the study was able to show that one additional legal right in the index is associated with approximately a $320 in per capita GDP, or about 3 percent of the average in the sample countries, and a higher human development index value. For instance, Kenya has a score of zero, as it does not provide any legal protections for LGBT people and has a per capita income of $1,318. In contrast, Argentina has a score of seven and a per capita income of $13,323.

This positive correlation is significant because it allows us to put a price tag on discrimination. Based on the models and anecdotal evidence, we can see that countries that discriminate against LGBT people are pushing entire groups of people out of the formal economy and reducing the economic gains they would otherwise enjoy if they were allowed to be productive members of society.

So what does this mean for development and the LGBT community?

This research has potentially powerful ramifications for the way USAID works, for the donor community, for business leaders, for policymakers in emerging markets, and even for the U.S. taxpayer and legislators.

By linking stigma and discrimination against LGBT individuals to a country’s economic well-being, the issue of bigotry is not just felt and understood by those who are LGBT, but by anyone who cares about that country’s economic growth.

In April, Marco Andrés Jaramillo—an entrepreneur and CEO of EgoCity, an online and print magazine in Medellín, Colombia—joined 60 LGBT Colombians for #ActivatingLGBT, an entrepreneur training hosted by USAID partner, the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce of the United States, and the Colombian LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

The training, held in Barranquilla, coached innovative LGBT entrepreneurs on how to create and sustain economically viable businesses, conduct trade with international partners, and make use of inclusive procurement policies. With new skills and connections, his business is booming.

Today, Jaramillo is turning his business from a small, niche magazine focused on his local community into one serving major multinational clients throughout Latin America and Europe. In the past year alone, business has grown by roughly a quarter.

Entrepreneurs like Jaramillo are engines of growth for their communities, countries and continents. Far too often, LGBT individuals around the world are excluded from contributing to their economy because of who they are. The fact is simple: Economic growth depends on a healthy, inclusive workforce, and people can’t work if they are routinely excluded from schools, jobs and health care or subject to other harms such as violence and police abuse.


Claire Lucas is a Senior Adviser in the U.S. Global Development Lab focused on partnerships.

“Being LGBT” in Asia


Thomas White, deputy director, Governance and Vulnerable Populations Office, Regional Development Mission Asia, USAID

This month marks the release of the eighth series of comprehensive country reports under USAID’s “Being LGBT in Asia” initiative, a partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) begun in 2012. The initiative seeks to learn about, meet and engage lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people across Asia, developing a better understanding of their lives as well as recommendations for further development assistance activities.

Conducted through national dialogues and interviews among LGBT communities—including over 650 LGBT people and 220 LGBT organizations—the initiative highlights the Asian LGBT experience and raises awareness about USAID’s LGBT rights and development policies.

Taken collectively, the reports highlight important trends and lessons about LGBT life. On the promising side, Vietnam has seen sweeping changes in the acknowledgement of LGBT rights in recent years, including dozens of television shows and interviews in the media with LGBT people, culminating in a parliamentary vote on same-sex marriage earlier this year, although the measure did not pass. Thailand is genuinely friendly in many ways, and openly welcomes LGBT tourists. But LGBT people in Thailand face strong pressure to be “good citizens” and put family concerns before their own, a pressure that is similar in Cambodia.

The Philippines paints a mixed picture with high levels of basic social tolerance and acceptance, and even LGBT political parties. At the same time, there is widespread friction with the Catholic Church and the country’s Muslim communities. Other countries face deeper challenges. Basic social acceptance of LGBT people is lacking in most of Indonesia; if you are LGBT in Aceh province, the courts prescribe whipping, caning and egregious fines. Ultranationalist gangs have taken to violent repression of LGBT people in Mongolia. In China , being LGBT is deeply challenging with the country’s cultural focus on family and, in some cases, LGBT people marry and have children against their will to fulfill social requirements.


To mark the global celebration of the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO), the United Nations Development Programme and USAID held a series of events to highlight the plight of LGBT people in the Philippines May 12-16, 2014, as part of the “Being LGBT in Asia” initiative. This is part of the ongoing exhibit at the RCBC Galleria Plaza in Makati, Metro Manila, Philippines / Being LGBT in Asia

Nepal is widely lauded for a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that annulled laws containing discrimination against sexual minorities, but being LGBT in Nepal is truly difficult because of the country’s poverty, continuing political crisis and powerfully entrenched patriarchal values. Brunei, Burma, Malaysia and Singapore continue to criminalize LGBT status, a position the United States opposes.

“Being LGBT in Asia” country reports are now available for Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Mongolia, Nepal, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, and reports are in both English and the associated local language.

In addition to country-level reports, USAID reached out to LGBT communities across Asia using social media, websites and crowd-sourced videos.  USAID also recently released its LGBT Vision for Action, a strong stand on developing an inclusive environment for all LGBT people.

Since the beginning of the initiative, U.S. ambassadors across Asia have held receptions to reach out to and recognize LGBT people. More recently, “Being LGBT in Asia” has garnered broader support that includes the White House, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and UNDP Administrator Helen Clark.

As President Barack Obama has said: “The struggle to end discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons is a global challenge, and one that is central to the United States’ commitment to promoting human rights.”


Thomas White, Deputy Director, Governance and Vulnerable Populations Office, Regional Development Mission Asia (RDMA), USAID

Moving Forward with USAID’s LGBT Vision for Action

A gay rights activist holds a rainbow flag during a Rainbow Pride rally in Kolkata on July 15, 2012.

India: A gay rights activist holds a rainbow flag during a Rainbow Pride rally in Kolkata on July 15, 2012. More than 500 people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities and supporters participated in the annual event to show solidarity and to create awareness about their basic rights. AFP PHOTO/Dibyangshu SARKAR


With June’s Pride month celebrations behind us, I reflect on the reasons I celebrated.

Reverberations continue from President Obama’s ground-breaking Memorandum of December 2011, which outlined the U.S. Government’s commitment to the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) folks around the world. USAID continues to take a lead among foreign affairs agencies in fulfilling the tenets of the Presidential Memorandum, recently issuing its own document: USAID LGBT Vision for Action.

USAID’s vision is a world in which the basic and universal human rights of LGBT persons are respected and they are able to live with dignity, free from discrimination, persecution and violence. In this world, LGBT persons are able to participate fully in democratic decision-making in their households, communities and countries; have equal access to sustainable livelihoods, economic assets and resources; are not barred from accessing the basic education, health and other services that are enjoyed by their fellow citizens and that are essential for personal well-being and growth.

In Colombia, for example, USAID has worked hard to build the skills of LGBT leaders so they can participate fully and effectively in democratic processes. We are supporting a project designed to extend democratic governance and respect for human rights to all Colombians, as well as mainstream LGBT and other vulnerable populations’ rights (e.g. through improving relations with law enforcement and pursuing legal cases to enforce human rights). Our Colombian civil society partners are developing advocacy and policy strategies, improving relations with law enforcement, pursuing legal cases to enforce human rights abuses, and raising awareness to institutionalize a culture of respect for LGBT rights.

A demonstrator holds a rainbow flag in Bratislava on June 9, 2012

Slovakia: A demonstrator holds a rainbow flag in Bratislava on June 9, 2012, during the Rainbow Pride Parade, a march for the human rights of non-heterosexual people and the celebration of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) pride in Slovakia. AFP PHOTO/SAMUEL KUBANI

When I first engaged in the struggle for human rights of LGBT folks numerous Administrations ago, my government was a determined adversary. Look where we are today.

The first Pride celebration I attended, decades ago, was small, apologetic and attended by only a furtive few. My calendar this past June couldn’t possibly have accommodated all the events hosted by the White House and federal agencies across Washington, D.C., let alone the numerous events hosted by USAID missions across the more than 80 countries in which we work. Near the end of June, I co-moderated a session at the first ever White House Forum on Global LGBT Human Rights.

When I first engaged as an American in the struggle for the human rights of LGBT folks around the world, it was often difficult to identify local LGBT representatives with whom to interface. Today they have bravely and proudly organized in most countries. They guide us, and trust us to join forces with them, shoulder to shoulder, as they live and breathe and move their cultures and countries toward realization of the Martin Luther King Jr. teaching: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”


Vietnam: A participant dances during a flashmob organised by the local LGBT community in Hanoi on September 23, 2012. Two first ever flashmobs by LGBT communities were held at the same time in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s two largest cities. AFP PHOTO/HOANG DINH Nam

Soon after arriving at USAID, four months ago, I travelled to Uganda to meet with some of these brave, proud individuals. I came away not only bowed by the enormity of their challenges and the urgency and critical importance of supporting them, but also – by virtue, above all, of their brilliance and tenacity – convinced of the inevitability of their success.

While many of us celebrated this June openly and joyously, others of us were forced to do so behind closed doors, shielding ourselves from hostile environments. In some 80 countries around the world, same-gender consensual relations are criminalized; in a half dozen countries, same-gender consensual relations are punishable by death. In countries like Uganda, Nigeria and Russia, this past year saw backsliding of enormous and tragic proportions.

To say that there is a lot of work ahead is to state the obvious. At the same time, more than ever before in my lifetime, I understood and joined in the celebrations of Pride month 2014.  I look forward to Pride month 2015, and celebrating the further achievements of our global community.




Todd Larson is the Senior LGBT Coordinator at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

New Report Highlights the Hardships and Hard-Won Victories for LGBT People in the Europe and Eurasia Region


A demonstrator holds a rainbow flag in Bratislava

A demonstrator holds a rainbow flag in Bratislava on September 21,2013, during the Rainbow Pride Parade, a march for the human rights of non-heterosexual people and the celebration of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) pride in Slovakia. AFP PHOTO/SAM

As the recent winter Olympics in Sochi illustrated all too well, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Russia face tremendous hurdles in their everyday lives, including openly hostile laws and an extremely difficult working environment for the grassroots organizations that advocate for social change in the face of grave personal risks. The situation in Russia is unfortunately not unique, with LGBT people facing increasing hostility, discriminatory laws, and escalating threats of violence in many countries around the world, whether in Uganda, Nigeria, or Eurasia.

The U.S. government and USAID are strong supporters of LGBT rights. The Agency’s new mission statement places a premium on the inclusion and the empowerment of marginalized people through our work across the globe. Our missions in the Europe and Eurasia (E&E) region have stepped up their efforts to ensure that LGBT issues are addressed through development projects and that LGBT people are able to participate fully and effectively in all that we do. Testing the Waters: LGBT People in the Europe and Eurasia Region, a new report that was just released by USAID today, was designed to support these efforts by comprehensively documenting the status of LGBT people across the region and describing in detail the challenges they face in seeking to claim their human rights and role as full participants in their communities and societies.

The challenges that the report reveals are daunting. Across the region, attitudes towards LGBT people are very negative, with openly derogatory remarks and homophobic sentiments commonly expressed in public and in private. LGBT people are not legally protected from discrimination in the region, and they frequently suffer physical attacks and intimidation.  Gathering places and offices of grassroots LGBT advocacy groups have been ransacked and destroyed. Harassment at home, in school, and at the workplace is a common feature of everyday life. Not surprisingly, many LGBT people in the region choose not to reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity, even to families and friends.

Despite all of these challenges, the report also makes it clear that LGBT people across the region are speaking up and making a difference. Grassroots organizations advocate for LGBT rights in every E&E country, provide safe spaces for LGBT people, and offer support and much-needed social services. Many people take on great personal and professional risks in their efforts to ensure that the societies they live in are accepting of all people, regardless of who they love or how they express their gender identity.

I hope you will take the time to read this report  and to think about what you too can do to ensure that no-one is left out of our joint efforts to create a world in which everyone is treated fairly and equally.

Let’s Stand Up For Inclusion, Not Exclusion

The stigma and discrimination faced by people living with HIV/AIDS continues to be a roadblock for access to critical prevention and care. Yet every day I see significant steps that are being taken to overcome this obstacle, especially efforts led by USAID.

I was invited to speak at the USAID-funded Panos Caribbean media launch of its latest publication, “Speaking Out! Voices of Jamaican MSM.” This publication is a compilation of oral testimonies from the men having sex with men (MSM) community in Jamaica and an important product by the Panos Caribbean/World Learning project which works to strengthen and improve the livelihoods of these men. Through this publication, Panos Caribbean develops public awareness about the issues affecting the MSM community and promotes through the media, tolerance and accountability for MSM who are impacted by HIV/AIDS.

Denise A. Herbol

Denise A. Herbol

The social complexities surrounding the MSM community in Jamaica is often polarizing to the public.  There is serious stigma attached to any activities by this community. This is compounded by the fact that HIV remains a complex issue among the most-at-risk populations in Jamaica, including the MSM community. Current statistics on HIV prevalence rates in Jamaica are 1.7% in the general population, or roughly 32,000 persons living with AIDS. Figures are significantly higher in a number of high risk groups: for the MSMs, the prevalence rate is 32%, which in many cases can be directly attributed to the stigma, discrimination and fear of violence or legal sanctions.

In an effort to achieve an AIDS-free generation, breaking down the barriers for all individuals is essential. With support from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), USAID is allocating significant resources to reach populations most at risk for transmitting or becoming infected with HIV/AIDS. PEPFAR seeks to promote an enabling environment of supportive laws, regulations, policies and social norms in order to facilitate meaningful access to HIV services for these populations at both the facility- and community-level.

USAID, in partnership with Panos, is leading positive efforts to promote tolerance and accountability in response to HIV through constructive use of the media.  Panos continues to equip these men with effective tools to expand their voices and concerns so that they can be heard across Jamaica.

Progress will continue to be hampered until we include all people to achieve an AIDS-free generation.  Each of us must do our part to promote inclusivity, celebrate diversity, and eliminate stigma and dehumanizing stereotypes.

LGBT Rights in Jamaica: A Conversation with Maurice Tomlinson

From November 25th (International End Violence Against Women Day) through December 10th (International Human Rights Day), USAID joins the international community for 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. During this time IMPACT will highlight  USAID’s work to combat gender-based violence.

Regina Jun, Gender Advisor for the Bureau of Latin America and the Caribbean, spoke with Maurice Tomlinson, who is an Attorney-at-Law, law lecturer on sexual rights, and HIV/AIDS advocate. He is leading an initiative, on behalf of AIDS-Free World, to have the region’s anti-sodomy laws repealed.

In 2012, Maurice was awarded the inaugural David Kato Vision and Voice Award. Maurice is featured in the Abominable Crime, a documentary that explores the culture of homophobia in Jamaica. 

Photo of Maurice Tomlinson. Credit: Maurice Tomlinson.

Photo of Maurice Tomlinson. Credit: Maurice Tomlinson.

Q1: How have the situations for the LGBT persons changed in Jamaica?

For the past 4 years, AIDS-Free World has been working to eliminate homophobia in Jamaica. This includes working with civil society groups on the island to document and respond to human rights violations against the local LGBT population. In that time, we have seen a near 400% increase in the number of reported homophobic attacks. In the last few months alone there have been several brutal assaults, including murders and home invasions.

Q2: Why is the violence against LGBT persons such an important issue in the Caribbean?

Violence against LGBT persons in the Caribbean has been identified as a significant reason that the region has the second highest HIV prevalence rate in the world. This violence drives LGBT citizens underground, away from effective prevention, treatment, care and support interventions. Jamaica, where homophobic violence is most acute in the region, has the highest HIV prevalence rate among men who have sex with men (MSM) worldwide at 33%.

Q3: What projects are you currently working on in the Caribbean?

I am working on several court cases challenging anti-gay laws across the region. These include the first ever domestic challenge to Jamaica’s anti-sodomy law, as well as a case before the region’s most senior tribunal, the Caribbean Court of Justice, to strike down the sections in the immigration laws of Belize and Trinidad which ban the entry of gays.  As part of a team, I conduct LGBT sensitivity training with police across the region and also train civil society groups on how to effectively document and report human rights violations against LGBT citizens.

Q4: What are some of the positive changes you have seen so far?

We have seen unprecedented editorial support for LGBT rights by the major newspapers across the Caribbean. There have also been positive statements from politicians — especially Minsters of Health — who underscore the need to repeal homophobic laws in order to address the region’s HIV epidemic. Mainstream civil society groups are also taking greater interest in and actively advocating for the human rights for LGBT persons.  Further, the polling pioneered in the region by AIDS-Free World on the levels and drivers of homophobia points to a small but important movement towards greater tolerance for LGBT citizens.  Finally, while the number of police attacks against LGBT persons has decreased, they still occur too frequently, especially involving LGBT citizens from the lower socio-economic strata.

Q5: In your opinion, what can be done to increase acceptance of greater sexual diversity in the Caribbean?

The visibility of LGBT persons will help to dispel some of the myths and misconceptions about sexual minorities. Once persons realize that someone they know and quite possible care deeply about is gay, this will help to humanize the issue of homosexuality.  It is easier for people to hate what they do not know. That is why AIDS-Free World has produced and tried to air tolerance ads showing positive images of LGBT persons.

Furthermore, political leaders continue to be very influential in the young nations of the Caribbean region. They can help to encourage more rational discussions about homosexuality by making unequivocal statements condemning homophobia.  Such statements would help neutralize some of the more virulent anti-gay pronouncements being disseminated by powerful religious fundamentalists across the Caribbean.

Like Maurice, USAID is committed to advancing the rights of the LGBT community, including providing support to local LGBT advocacy organizations to extend democratic governance and respect for human rights to all individuals, and creating blueprints for increased access of comprehensive healthcare services to transgender and transsexual persons. Learn more about USAID’s work against gender-based violence

A Lesson in Holistic Care: What I Learned from Working with Transgender Women and Health Providers in the LAC Region

November 20 is Transgender Day of Remembrance.

I have collaborated closely with transgender women and health providers in Latin America and the Caribbean to learn more about the needs of transgender populations and to train health workers to provide quality services. Working alongside transgender women on needs assessments, trainings for health providers, and in the development of a blueprint (PDF) for comprehensive transgender services, opened my eyes to their experiences, gaps in existing programs that limit access to critical services, and the opportunities we need to pursue. To help you understand my recommendations, I would like to share a story I heard repeatedly from transgender women:

I was 13 years old when my family threw me out of the house because of who I am. I tried to continue my studies, but I dropped out of school because my classmates insulted me every day and sometimes hit me, and I was afraid to use the boys’ bathroom (the only one I was allowed to use) because I was afraid of being assaulted by male students. The teachers looked the other way or called me names. I have developed a thick skin because when I step out of my home, people stare, make comments and give menacing gestures. Going to a clinic is also unpleasant. I get sick like everybody else, but the nurses always assume that I am a sex worker and that I have HIV. Frequently, they give me condoms and an HIV test and send me home. One time I was jumped by four guys in the street, and I ended up in the emergency room. When one of the nurses opened my robe and saw that I am a transgender woman, she gave me a look of disgust and called me a homosexual. She must have told others about me because several nurses came, opened my robe and walked away laughing. I waited for a long time before a doctor saw me. He told me that real men do not dress like women, and that I should cut my hair and stop wearing make-up so I could get a job. I had a cut in my head that needed stitches and the doctor did not even clean the blood in my hair.

REDTRANS and Miluska staff conducting a workshop on HIV and human rights. Photo credit: Manuel Contreras

REDTRANS and Miluska staff conducting a workshop on HIV and human rights. Photo credit: Manuel Contreras

This story, and the others that I heard through this work, underscored the need for a new approach to transgender health:

  1. Prevention efforts must engage families and schools to foster supportive environments.  Transgender teens frequently experience rejection from their families and bullying in school. Homelessness, low literacy, and lack of family protection not only increase the likelihood that these teens will experience exploitation, but also severely limit their opportunities to find jobs.
  2. Many people, including health providers, do not clearly understand the spectrum of sexualities, genders, and identities. Their confusion often leads to stigmatizing attitudes and discriminating practices in health care settings, which in turn discourages transgender women from seeking care.
  3. Increasing access to counseling and testing and other HIV services should not be an end in itself. Securing the human rights of transgender communities and creating a safer environment where they can access appropriate services without fear of violence or discrimination should be the focus.
  4. Increasing access to condoms and HIV information are cornerstones of HIV prevention, but national prevention programs need to go beyond these two strategies. Policies and programs should also support employment and education opportunities for transgender persons. The pressure to put food on the table and a roof over their families’ heads can lead to poor decision making, resulting in risk-taking behaviors.
  5. Engaging transgender persons in program activities as facilitators or data collectors strengthens their technical capacities and allows them to engage with health providers and communities as professionals and peers. This can effectively dispel myths and negative beliefs about transgender women, their capacity, and their behavior.

By sharing my observations and the stories I heard, I hope to raise awareness of the issues that come into play and to encourage all of us to reconsider how our programs can better contribute to the well-being of transgender persons and their communities. We can make that commitment today on Transgender Day of Remembrance, an internationally recognized day to memorialize those who suffered or died as a result of anti-transgender hatred or prejudice.

Aysa Saleh-Ramirez, MPH is AIDSTAR-One Senior Technical Advisor at John Snow, Inc. AIDSTAR-One is funded by PEPFAR through USAID.

Why the Arts and Youth Matter for LGBT Global Development

Last month, I had the opportunity to join Urooj Arshad of Advocates for Youth in a conversation following a performance of The Laramie Project, Moises Kaufman’s play about Matthew Shepard at the Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC. As I watched characters like the Muslim Bangladeshi-American university student and a skeptical university student slowly learning about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, I was reminded of the importance of the arts and youth in international development.

USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah dances with a Family Ayara Youth Foundation dancer in a trip to Bogota, Colombia in April 2013. Photo credit: USAID

USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah dances with a Family Ayara Youth Foundation dancer in a trip to Bogota, Colombia in April 2013. Photo credit: USAID

The power of images and storytelling moves people and societies. USAID has been at the forefront of using the arts as a tool for social change in countries where we work:

  • In Lebanon, USAID supported youth in photography, painting, writing, and drama as a way to express fear about “the other” and find a way to understand those different from themselves.

  • Most recently, in Colombia, the Canal Capital television network broadcast a one-hour documentary on LGBT issues and the diversity of families in Colombia. Local television networks throughout the country are re-broadcasting this documentary, contributing to increased awareness of LGBT families in Colombia. Promoting LGBT issues is a core part of USAID’s efforts to help civil society build a culture of human rights in Colombia.

USAID’s efforts to protect and promote the rights of LGBT persons in Colombia is not unique. We take hate crimes and the vulnerability of LGBT persons seriously by focusing on the resilience and power of LGBT persons as change agents.

These efforts are part of USAID’s overall focus on inclusive development. We believe that men, boys, girls and women, persons with disabilities and the LGBT community, internally displaced persons, indigenous peoples, ethnic and religious minorities, and youth, are an integral part of the development process. USAID’s suite of policies include the first ever Agency-wide Youth in Development Policy, as well as Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy (PDF), U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally (PDF), and U.S. Government Action Plan on Children in Adversity. Our Youth in Development policy highlights many of the challenges and opportunities facing youth as a specific population group and simultaneously emphasizes the fact that youth are not a homogeneous group.

Based on data in the U.S. and anecdotal evidence in my travels worldwide, we know that LGBT youth are at increased risk for being abandoned by their families and rejected, barred, or deterred from accessing schools, all of which undermine their ability to learn and develop the skills that are necessary for a productive life. In an online survey sponsored by Vietnam’s Center for Creative Initiatives in Health and Population showed that 77% of LGBT youth experienced verbal abuse and 44% experienced physical assault in school. 42% of these youth lost interest in school, 33% skipped school, and 6% abandoned school.

The Laramie Project and data on LGBT youth underscore the importance of ensuring marginalized youth have a voice and are able to engage in policy-making processes in their communities. Focusing on LGBT youth is critical to global development.

The data may be daunting; however, based on a track record ranging from the arts to inclusive development to human rights programming and our expertise on NGO organizational development, USAID is leading in addressing the challenge of integrating vulnerable populations, particularly youth and LGBT persons in our programming.

Empowering LGBTI people in Colombia to Advocate for Their Own Rights

I recently had the privilege of traveling to Bogotá and Cartagena, Colombia to observe the incredible work USAID is doing to support Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered and Intersex (LGBTI) populations advocate for their own rights under the law. As an advocate and supporter of the LGBTI community here in the United States, I know firsthand the importance of LGBTI physical safety, the issues of workplace discrimination, and access to education and health care.

As part of USAID’s historic LGBT Global Development Partnership launched earlier this year, we are expanding our support to local civil society organizations in Colombia through our partnership with the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. Activities include partnering with the Gay and Lesbian Victory Institute to conduct trainings on how to run for office and participate in democratic processes. This partnership forms part of USAID’s wider commitment to inclusive development, and to engaging LGBTI communities as important actors in international development who have the potential and power to advance human rights, promote broad-based civic participation, and drive inclusive economic growth.

Victory Institute, with support from USAID, conducts training on on respecting and protecting LGBTI rights in Cartagena

Victory Institute, with support from USAID, conducts training on on respecting and protecting LGBTI rights in Cartagena. Photo credit: Victory Institute

Since 2006, USAID/Colombia has been a flagship bilateral mission for its work in supporting LGBTI community efforts fighting discrimination and stigmatization. In addition, USAID/Colombia has provided training for police and other public servants on respecting and protecting LGBTI rights. These continued efforts and strong ties to grassroots LGBTI organizations made Colombia a good fit for piloting the LGBTI Global Development Partnership trainings.

As reported in the Washington Blade, from August 29th-September 1st, the Victory Institute – with support from USAID – led a four-day training in Cartagena for 30 Colombian LGBTI activists interested in running for political office or managing campaigns. These inspiring individuals, who hailed from as far away as the Amazon rainforest, rural regions along the Atlantic Coast and Bogota, came together to learn the art and craft of running successful political campaigns in an effort to become more effective advocates for LGBTI rights in their own communities.

One such activist I had the pleasure of meeting was Jhosselyn Pájaro, a transsexual woman who ran for municipal council in the city of Arjona outside of Cartagena. She ran for office to let her community know that LGBTI people like her lived in the community and wanted to make a difference. Although she did not win a seat on the council, she was successful in raising awareness about LGBTI people and the rights and concerns they have living in Colombia. She attended the USAID-supported training to learn new skills as she hopes to again run for political office, and next time, win.

It is inspiring stories like these, from LGBTI individuals who face discrimination on an almost daily basis that makes the work of USAID all the more important. Through the LGBTI Global Development Partnership, USAID is working with our partners to strengthen LGBTI civil society organizations, enhance LGBTI participation in democratic processes, and undertake research on the economic impact of LGBTI discrimination.

At USAID, we are bringing together local activists and community leaders. In Colombia, organizations such as Colombia Diversa, Caribe Afirmativo, and Santamaria Fundación illustrate the dedication and service to their constituents that USAID values.We are helping these community leaders to advocate for a more inclusive society that embraces what LGBTI people have to offer in the development of their own societies, economies, and local institutions. Together, in partnership, we are working to ensure LGBTI people have equal rights as enshrined in international human rights and domestic law, and access to education, employment, health care and housing – what we consider as important elements of inclusive sustainable development.

Learn more about how USAID is advancing and protecting the human rights of the LGBTI community.

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