Syria, Sochi & Gay Rights at the G20 Summit

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Leaders of the world’s top economies meet in St. Petersburg this week for the G20 Summit and global economic recovery is on top of the agenda. The crisis in Syria, however, overshadows the gathering, with Obama and Putin circling each other and Hollande and Xi on their respective corners.

Gay rights advocates were hoping President Obama would put the spotlight on Russia’s anti-LGBT laws and the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi. Human Rights First (HRF), an advocacy organization that “challenges America to live up to its ideals,” released a report last week, which documents the violent crackdown on the LGBT community in Russia, traces the evolution of the country’s homophobic laws, and explains the broader context that spurred Putin’s escalating repression of dissent and personal freedoms. The report also recommends actions Mr. Obama can take while in St. Petersburg.

“It is moments like this that test U.S. leadership and commitment to human rights,” argues Innokenty Grekov, author of the HRF report. “President Obama has pledged leadership on LGBT rights and that leadership is needed now.”

Indeed, Mr. Obama, along with former and current Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, have advanced the cause of human rights for gay and transgender people worldwide. It is highly unlikely, however, that LGBT rights, much less the 2014 winter games, will be at the forefront in St. Petersburg. The use of chemical weapons in the murder of more than 1,400 innocent civilians, including hundreds of children, is more urgent. President Obama and his team will understandably focus on Syria and the economic concerns behind the summit.

Buzzfeed does report that Mr. Obama has invited representatives of LGBT groups to join a scheduled meeting with other Russian civil society activists. While the human rights advocates’ presence would no doubt annoy and embarrass Mr. Putin, the issue of the Winter Olympics will be one of many other concerns NGOs will put before President Obama.

It can be argued that it is strategic not to beleaguer the point on Sochi for now and avoid backlash when LGBT rights advocates are perceived or portrayed as insensitive to the horrific carnage in Damascus.

This is not to say that LGBT lives are of lesser value. They are of equal worth to any other, deserving of the same dignity and fundamental rights. In a way, gay and transgender people in Russia and so many other countries that oppress sexual minorities die a slower death, decimated one at a time through savage murder, disease, and suicide. The magnitude of this massacre is not readily apparent and does not elicit outrage.

The Syrian people, the Russian LGBT community, and sexual minorities worldwide do share one horrible thing in common. They are mere objects to many of their leaders and governments, disposable in the quest for power and control.

So while Sochi might take a back seat in St. Petersburg this week, LGBT rights are human rights and the fight for human rights will continue.

Reposted on the Huffington Post.

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Will Our Next President Be Another White Male?

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The relentless focus on the Benghazi attack makes me think about 2016. This is about Hillary Clinton after all, isn’t it? If she runs, then let this be her Achilles heel. But what if she doesn’t run? Or runs and loses? After our first president of color, will we put another white male in the White House? Or will we elect a person who represents either half the population or our growing communities of color?

While the current Republican prospects include Latino Senator Marco Rubio and Asian American Governor Bobby Jindal, they are all men nonetheless. Paul Ryan, Chis Christie, Rand Paul and Jeb Bush round out the list.

The Democratic field is far more diverse and inclusive. Aside from Hillary Clinton, names being tossed around include Joe Biden; Governors Andrew Cuomo, Martin O’Malley and Deval Patrick; Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren; and Mayors Cory Booker, Antonio Villaraigosa and Julian Castro.

Of course Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin may try again and perhaps Susana Martinez and Nikki Haley will join the fray.

Twenty-sixteen should be interesting. At the end of the day, however, we need to elect the person best qualified to lead and unify our country as it continues to be more diverse and polarized.

Diplomat’s Servant Exposes Modern Day Slavery in the U.S.

A rally to support the rights of domestic workers. (Photo: Bobo Yip/flickr)

On February 22, New York Magistrate Judge Frank Maas recommended that Indian national Shanti Gurung be awarded nearly $1.5 million by her former employer, Neena Malhotra, a diplomat in the Indian Mission to the United Nations for enslaving Gurung.

Maas wrote that Malhotra and her husband compelled Gurung to “work without pay by seizing her passport and visa, restricting her ability to leave their apartment, and constantly warning her that if she traveled on her own without their permission, she would be arrested, beaten, raped and sent back to India as ‘cargo.’”

Adhikaar, an advocacy group for the Nepalese community that successfully lobbied for the New York State Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, reports that the diplomat and her husband brought Gurung to New York in 2006 with the promise of paying her $100 a month to do light cooking and a few chores. The 17 year old ended up working 16 hour days, cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry, grocery shopping and giving massages.

Gurung was paid once, less than $120 over a period of more than three years. She felt trapped and helpless, paralyzed with fear over the Malhotras’ threats.

Eventually the young woman mustered the courage to leave in 2009 and sought the aid of Adhikaar, which facilitated her her lawsuit.

Advocates for women like Shanti Gurung consider the judge’s ruling a victory for all domestic workers.

“This is a validation of Shanti’s story and her struggle – and that of many more sisters who are trafficked and face inhumane forms of labor exploitation,” said Adhikaar’s Senior Community Organizer Narbada Chhetri.

Unfortunately Gurung’s case is not unique, and for most victims of human trafficking, justice usually does not come swiftly enough. As Adhikaar states on their website:

This modern day slavery continues in our midst. Trafficked workers, particularly women domestic workers, are forced to toil for slave wages with extremely long hours, no days off, fraudulent and false promises, and coercion, including passport theft and threats of deportation. The lack of fair labor standards and regulations, society’s low regard for women’s work, and the isolation of these women workers in the privacy of employers’ homes all contribute to the extreme exploitation of trafficked domestic workers.

Ai-jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, estimates 2.5 million domestic workers are caring for families in this country. “Thousands of them, like Shanti,” she said “have survived trafficking.”

Adhikaar, in tandem with DAMAYAN Migrant Workers Association, is advocating for the protection of workers trafficked by diplomats and consular officers, and for holding traffickers accountable.

Leah Obias, Campaigns Coordinator and Case Manager of DAMAYAN, said that both organizations have called upon Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the State Department to take a more principled stand on the human rights of domestic workers, by waiving diplomatic immunity in cases of trafficking and by enforcing the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).

They would also like to see the countries of trafficked workers held accountable and diplomats barred from bringing domestic workers into the U.S.

“Diplomats are protected under the law, but workers are not protected by law in the U.S. and their home countries,” explained Obias.

A 2010 State Department brief reports that it has made progress ensuring “that foreign diplomatic mission personnel act in a manner consistent with the principles of the Palermo Protocol and the TVPA in the United States.  Improved safeguards for domestic workers who are employed by foreign mission personnel include transparent payment mechanisms, and education on their rights while in the United States, as well as protections from exploitation.”

The Palermo Protocol is the United Nations’ protocol to “Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.”

The Malhotras clearly did not abide by the Palermo Protocol and the TVPA failed to protect Gurung. Obias suspects that there are other diplomats who flout the UN treaty and treat domestic workers inhumanely.

Gurung may have won her case, but it’s highly unlikely she will ever see a cent. The Malhotras returned to India last year before they could be served the lawsuit and it is doubtful that the Indian government will intervene. The State Department has yet to act on Adhikaar and DAMAYAN’s call for action.

Secretary Clinton has been a fierce advocate of human rights and the equal and fair treatment of women. Actively supporting the rights of trafficked domestic workers in our own backyard would send a strong message to foreign diplomats and the world that we remain committed to the dignity and equality of all individuals.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds and the Huffington Post.

Documenting DOMA’s Injustice

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently articulated the Obama administration’s unequivocal support for the human rights of LGBT individuals while admitting that much more needs to be done in the United States.

“I speak about this subject knowing that my own country’s record on human rights for gay people is far from perfect,” she said at a Human Rights Day speech. “We, like all nations, have more work to do to protect human rights at home.” The Secretary also made clear that gay rights and human rights are not separate and distinct, “but, in fact, they are one and the same.”

Among the civil rights America has yet to bestow on queer individuals is the freedom to marry, which brings with it over a thousand federal, state, and local benefits and privileges that straight married couples take for granted. Amanda Lucidon, a straight documentarian, hopes to put a spotlight on this injustice that is suffered by lesbian and gay couples thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Lucidon, an award-winning photojournalist, is the producer and director of The Legal Stranger Project, which documents, through a series of intimate personal stories, the great disparities encountered by lesbian and gay couples under DOMA, which, according to Lucidon, “allows the federal government to merely recognize these couples as ‘legal strangers.'”

Lucidon was inspired by what she witnessed when marriage equality was legalized in Washington, D.C. two years ago.

On the first day marriage licenses were issued, she was waiting for couples leaving the Superior Court of D.C. with their licenses when she met Rev. Bonnie Berger. Berger was marrying couples on the spot and invited the photojournalist to attend a mass wedding of gay couples the following week.

It dawned on Lucidon during the mass wedding that gay married couples are not treated equally and fairly.

“I met Amy Sokal and Alex Khalaf, a couple whose lives I’d end up documenting,” Lucidon said. “At first I thought I would follow Amy and Alex’s journey through the first year as newlyweds after D.C. legalized marriage for same-sex couples. But as I began to look deeper into the issue, I discovered that there are actually 1,138 federal rights, benefits, and entitlements associated with marriage.”

She reflected on how she and her husband, along with other married straight couples, are automatically entitled to such benefits. She began asking friends, “Did you know you’re entitled to 1,138 rights when you get married?”

Most people had no clue. Lucidon was spurred to act. “I wanted to take a closer look at the issue to see the personal impact on same-sex couples and families.”

She has since spoken to and documented stories of lesbian and gay couples. She was struck most by the story of Kelly Glossip and Dennis Englehard.

“I’ve spent time documenting Kelly Glossip, a widower whose spouse, Dennis Englehard, was killed on Christmas day while working for the Missouri highway patrol,” she recounted. “Since their 15-year relationship was not recognized, he has been denied survivor benefits. He was left out of the funeral arrangements and burial services. Kelly continues to struggle emotionally and financially with the loss of his partner. He is suing the state of Missouri for survivor benefits.”

Lucidon hopes to share these stories to a broader audience, but like so many other documentarians, funding has been a challenge.

“Until this point, all of the content for this project, including photography, video, audio, and production, has been self-funded,” she said. “It’s very expensive to shoot and produce the stories and we need help.”

Lucidon and her team of volunteers have therefore started a fundraising campaign on IndieGoGoto help offset the ongoing costs of the Legal Stranger Project. She hopes that others would help her shed light on the injustice suffered by lesbian and gay couples by donating, sharing the campaign link, or following the project’s progress on Facebook and Twitter.

Originally posted on Huffington Post Gay Voices, December 19, 2011.