Interview with ILGA World


Interview conducted by Alice Apostoly & Déborah Rouach

Julia Ehrt: ILGA World started in 1978, we are a membership-based organization meaning that we have members across the world. All our members are organizations. Currently we have more than 1600 members, in close to 160 countries; so we’re not covering all the globe but almost all of it. Our main focus is both working with the community that we serve and our members and, always with a global perspective of course, we do a lot of advocacy and policy work in the context of the UN and human rights institutions.

This is why we are based in Geneva, where the Human Rights Council is and where the treaty bodies are situated, which are the main entities we work with at the UN. We have 11 people working for ILGA World at the moment. I am the director of programmes, which means I run the programmatic work of the organisation and the programme team consists of me and four other colleagues who work on substance. Each of those four colleagues then has an intern to work with them. The four areas that they cover are, firstly, the Universal Periodic Review in the Human Rights Council as well as LGBTI workplaces and businesses, a second colleague works on Treaty bodies and special procedures, focusing on gender issues and trainings although the training aspect has been a bit difficult recently due to the pandemic. Then we have a researcher, Lucas, who produces our State-sponsored Homophobia report which is our authoritative research document on the legal situation of issues of sexual orientation in all member states of the UN.

We have just added non-independent territories to our analysis, this included territories such as Greenland, Taiwan or Hong Kong, where the legal situation might be different than in the state they belong to. Finally, we have a new programme on gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics, which is run by our fourth colleague.

As for me, I come from Trans Organizing in Europe, I have been the ED of Transgender Europe, and I have been working for ILGA World for a little more than two years.

IGG: Thank you very much, that was very exhaustive. So ever since the creation of ILGA World, more than 40 years ago now, what have been its most important developments?

Julia Ehrt: Of course, I can’t speak about the whole forty years of ILGA World’s existence since I was very young at the time of its creation. However, I think that the direction taken throughout those forty years is the constant increase in self-organising of LGBTI communities across the globe as well as, more or less, constant positive legal and social developments. There are exceptions, the developments have been larger in some parts of the world than in others, but if we look at it from a global and long-term perspective, I think it is safe to say that the general direction of both the legal situation of the LGBTI people as well as their social situation, and by that, I mean how LGBTI people and issues are accepted in society, has been positive over the last forty years.

Actually, I believe that in many parts of the world the progress, or the change that has occurred in this time period is mind-blowing. I mean, we’ve gone from a population that has been predominantly criminalized to one that is protected in an increasing number of states. In 1978, I think, none of the UN member states protected LGBTI people from discrimination, whereas, as of 2020 (when our last report was published) 81 states provide protection against any discrimination on ground of sexual orientation in the workplace. That is almost half of the UN member states. Of course, as you can imagine, there is still a long way to go but this remains quite impressive and striking.

Another aspect that is also important, and this is a development that has occurred over the last ten years, is that community organizing has, in a certain way, started as a collective movement that embraced LGBTI identities and people and has development to bring this movement back together while being aware of the differences therein and aware of the fact that this journey does not end with marriage equality. There are other issues that need to be tackled too and that is something that can be observed predominantly over the past ten years. This has been clear through the rise of trans activists and issues and the increased awareness of intersex activists as well as an increased awareness that, with all these positive developments that have been achieved, women have been very often getting the short end of the stick within civil society and in terms of their issues being neglected in LGBTI activism for decades. I think there is an increasing awareness of that.

IGG: Since when are movements and organizations defending LGBTIQ people emerging in the world and in Europe?

Julia Ehrt: “Since when?” that is a good question. So, I am based in Berlin and I think I would go back to the 1920s. Magnus Hirschfeld, a very frequently quoted German scientist, advocated and politically argued that gay and lesbian people should not be considered as sick and that was 100 years ago. Of course, the world went downhill after the 1920s and 1930s, and even then, Berlin probably stood out in a certain way, but I think our movement goes back at least to those days and probably even earlier. However, as I mentioned, there was a plunge during World War II, and it took some time in order to be revitalised, especially in Europe. Also, I think that Europe being one of the key colonial powers has done so much damage in many parts of the world, making it very difficult to say, these days, what types of LGBTI – or at least movement we would call LGBTI today – existed in other parts of the world. Of course, in modern times, in the past forty years, there has been a constant increase in LGBTI self-organising, and I think we can see that everywhere on the planet -even though, of course, there are some exceptions like Saudi Arabia and other places like that.

IGG: How do constitutions deal with protection against crimes, insults or discrimination linked to gender or sexual orientation, if they do?

Julia Ehrt: So, the straightforward answer is that in regards to gender, I don’t really know, I would assume that most constitutions on the planet protect citizens from discrimination on grounds of gender, probably not all but most of them. When it comes to sexual orientation, the number of states that protect against this form of discrimination drops considerably to only a handful. When it comes to gender identity that number drops even further to maybe 2 or 3. I don’t think any state protects intersex people in their constitution. Malta may be an exception. [NB : Intersex children in Malta have world-first protections from non-consensual cosmetic medical interventions, following the passing into law of the Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act in 2015] However, there are other documents that provide legal protection for LGBTI people. 81 states protect LGBTI rights in the workplace, and 91 -one short of half the UN member states – offer some form of protection against discrimination on ground of sexual orientation.

IGG: Which countries are the most dangerous for people that are not heterosexual or cisgender?

Julia Ehrt: Again, I think that is a very difficult question because there are two main aspects that one should look into in answering this question. The first is the legal aspect, and that is relatively straightforward and easy to identify which states are most dangerous from a legal perspective. But then there is the social aspect, one of safety and security which doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the legal situation.

So, from a legal point of view there are 6 states on the planet that impose a death penalty on consensual same-sex activities among adults. Several of those six proceed with executions. There are another six where, by virtue of the application of Sharia law, people can be executed for consensual same-sex activities among adults. So, I would say that those twelve are the most dangerous when it comes to not being heterosexual. Although, I have to say that what is usually criminalised is the sexual act in itself rather than the sexual identity. Of course, in many cases, the criminalisation of a sexual act is used to criminalise the person even though there has not been an act, but formally, only the sexual activity is punishable. The states that impose the death penalty are Iran for instance, Saudi Arabia, Yemen. South Sudan was on last list until last year, although it still criminalises same-sex activities among consensual adults, it has removed the death penalty.  That is for sexual orientation.

There is a long list of 69 states that have some form of criminalisation which ranges from a prison sentence (going from a few months to life imprisonment), or public flogging to the capital punishment. Then 13 states explicitly criminalise trans people. Most of these laws are based on Sharia law which criminalises cross-dressing. Among these states are Lebanon, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and others.

From a social point of view it is much more difficult to assess, in particular reverting the situation. Only because the legal situation is good does not mean it is a safe state for LGBTI people, and then it is a question of who is safe. Generally, many states in Europe are considered safe, but that is frankly only true if you are white, possibly middle class, if you have a migrant background, if you have a disability, if you are a woman even, this changes the situation. So even states that are considered safe are only safe for parts of our communities. Then you need to distinguish between whether a state is safe for gay and lesbian people only or whether it is also safe for trans and intersex persons, and again, it complicates the question which needs to be looked at specifically.

For example, Brazil is the state which has the most reported cases of murders of trans persons, this has been the case for years. However, it does not necessarily mean that Brazil is the most dangerous place for trans persons per se because there are a lot of reasons why Brazil comes out on top in these statistics and one of them is that it has a very vibrant and visible trans community which means that the visibility translates to a lot of cases occurring. The self-organising translates into a lot of cases actually being reported. However, this does not mean that if you go to a state that has no reports that nothing happens, because maybe these cases are not reported because no one cares to report or maybe there are hardly any visible trans people there. What I am saying is that this is a very complicated question.

IGG: About that, I would like to add something; I don’t know if it is still true but I was studying women’s conditions in Iran and I saw that it is allowed for Iranian people to change their gender and undergo gender reassignment surgery even if Sharia law is applied there.

Julia Ehrt: Yes, you are right, it is allowed. But the framing of that is usually because it is considered a cure for homosexuality. So, both legal and medical transition from one gender to another, I think in most cases it is a transition from male to female, is allowed but only if a person then becomes heterosexual. Often, there are documented cases of gay men who have been forced into changing their gender in order to avoid persecution. Iran is one of the states imposing a death penalty on consenting homosexual activities, so the choice that the persons might have been offered is either one of them undergoes a transition from male to female, or they are punished by death. So again, for Iran, it is very complicated. Of course, for trans people there is a possibility to change gender and to transition medically, but it is also a procedure used against gay men, or a way for them to evade being punished by law.

IGG: Right, so it is used by the government to make people comply with Sharia law.

Julia Ehrt: Yes. But while most of the criminalising legislation is based on Sharia law, Sharia law itself does not criminalise trans persons per se. For example, Pakistan, which is a state that applies Sharia law, has made enormous strides to protect trans persons. Although it still criminalises on grounds of sexual orientation this evolution is still a big step forward in the protection of trans people and bringing trans people into the workplace, or at least what we, in the West, would call trans people, because Pakistan is one of the countries in which, culturally, there is a third gender, similarly to India. These people have been heavily discriminated against of the past years, but this is a good start. At the Human Rights Council, two years ago and when the mandate of the independent expert was about to be renewed, Pakistan came out with a statement supporting a mandate on only gender identity. They had previously been opposing the SOGI (sexual orientation gender identity) one, because of the sexual orientation aspect. The sexual orientation repulsion is stronger than their drive to protect gender identity. Overall, this statement was very unexpected but welcomed.

IGG: Yes, a very complicated situation. And, although there is progress in the different legal frameworks for LGBTIQ people, what would be the main factors that explain why this progress is so slow and why does this form of persecution and discrimination still exist today? I know there are a lot of them, but what are the main ones?

Julia Ehrt: So, there are maybe two answers to that question. The first is that I would argue that progress is rather fast. Of course, if you look at it on the scale of someone’s life and if you suffer this type of discrimination it would seem excruciatingly slow, but from a cultural point of view, I think the progress has been rather quick over the last 20 to 30 years. The reason why there is so much opposition is today’s society is because I think that being heterosexual has been engrained in many societies for, maybe not forever, but at least a couple of centuries. And, the control of the sexual behaviour of citizens has been an important tool in our societies to control people as such. This is why this heterosexuality and cis-identity is so engrained in everyone’s thinking which makes it very persistent. Despite the fact that we, activist, are trying to change the world and other people, in general, most people don’t like change and don’t want things to change too drastically. That means that those cultural norms and understandings are very persistent. I think this is the same for other areas of work where cultural change is happening; if you look at the women’s movement for example, from a legal point of view non-discrimination on grounds of gender, gender equality is enshrined in almost every constitution on the planet, but look where we are. In terms of actual equality there is still a long way to go.

IGG: About this norm of heterosexuality and cis-identity, is it pervasive in all countries and cultures or do we know cultures in which another sexual orientation for example is valued as well? You mentioned India and Pakistan earlier.

Julia Ehrt: So, there is a large number of societies in which gender is both not attributed the way we attribute it in the West, based on a person’s body and there are a lot of cultures that only have men and women in terms of their understanding of gender identity and gender expression. Like in Pakistan and India where there is a huge community of Hijras, many others, particularly in Oceania and the Pacific know a third and fourth gender. However, most of those cultures have deeply suffered from Western influence and colonisation. Similarly, for indigenous cultures, many of them either had or continue to have approaches that were different from our cis- and heterosexual approach to gender. Many of them have been erased over the last years.

IGG: And what is the official position of international organisations, today, on the protection of the rights and integrity of LGBTIQ people? And what concrete actions have been implemented to support this position? Do they have a measurable impact on national governments?

Julia Ehrt: So, I would say that the positions international organisations do have an impact and as far as the UN Human Rights system goes, I would argue that it is very open to the understanding that the protection of gender orientation and gender identity and the fight against violence of those grounds, is an integral part of the international human rights framework. Since 2016 there is a UN independent expert who does nothing else than exactly that; and this is a reflection on how the international human rights system has progressed in regard to that topic. I think there is an impact on national systems, it is very difficult to measure of course because these types of systems or impacts are multifactorial, so it’s very difficult to pin-point what exactly the impact of the UN system or other international human rights systems was on LGBTI people or laws relevant to LGBTI people. Most of the international organisation have been adamant in defending SOGIS issues or in the last decade or so have been part of the international rights framework. That as well goes for some of the regional human rights mechanisms; in particular the Council of Europe which has taken a very strong stance against discrimination and violence on grounds of SOGI issues, and the same goes for the human rights mechanisms in the Organisation of American States. In Asia there is no such regional human rights mechanism and in Africa, there is and they, as well, have progressed. I don’t think the African human rights system is where the Council of Europe or the Organisation of American States are but there is progress in the right direction.

IGG: In recent years, some leaders have strongly opposed certain rights for the LGBTIQ people, in Europe for instance, Poland was the least LGBTIQ friendly area and Hungary opposes gender reassignment surgery. Can’t we talk about a new form of East and West cleavage in Europe on the rights of LGBTIQ people? And how do international institutions react to the issue?

Julia Ehrt: Yes, when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity issues, I think there is an East/West divide. A few years ago, I think this divide would have been more pronounced in regards to sexual orientation but that may not be true anymore.

There has been a lot of organised LGBTI movements in Eastern Europe, but also in other places in the world. I think there is a problem in Eastern Europe, you named Hungary and Poland, and I would also add placed like Bulgaria, some of the central Asian states. But we do see similar movements in Southern America. There is an increased opposition towards LGBT issues there and in Africa. The core of the opposition is not only organised in terms of policy but also in terms of money, and has a couple of common roots. One being religious tradition the other being conservative anti-rights actors which also oppose gender equality in a certain way. There is a link with how LGBTI issues are also used in order to attack gender equality, I think we can see that in places like Poland and in Hungary, where this goes hand in hand. I think it’s an attack on both LGBTI issues and some of the gains that the women’s movement has made.

So how do international institutions react? I would say that they are trying to put their foot down. That goes for Europe, that goes for the UN, and even for the European Union which I would argue is not as strong when it comes to human rights than it could be, they have put their foot down especially in Poland and Hungary, trying to make the case that they are not in line with the European Union’s values and certainly not in line with the European Council and the UN values. For example, for Hungary, the independent expert on SOGI which I just mentioned has written a letter to the Hungarian government asking for it to take back some of their actions and for explanations, and making it very clear that it is not in line with international obligations that the Hungarian state has signed.

IGG: And how does ILGA World work with international organisation? In what framework?

Julia Ehrt: Our key role is to work with our communities and elevate their voices in the UN system. Because, while the UN systems are global systems, they are very much about what happens on the national level. Our role there is to help the communities we serve to use those UN systems for their national-level advocacy. That is our primary focus when it comes to the work the international institutions. Of course, we do as well work in our own respect and we do have a standing of our own, however, all of that is developed in order to use those mechanisms in order to change things on the ground. As important as the UN is, at the end of the day laws and policies are made nationally and that’s where change needs to happen eventually. So our role is to use that system with our members and the LGBTI communities across the world to make the change happen. And this is only one tool among others, and we are the ones who are trying to master that tool.

IGG: And what main actions and campaigns have you done or implemented?

Julia Ehrt: From a global perspective the very big one was both the establishment and the defence of the mandate of the UN independent expert on SOGI which has been an action of ours that spans over more than a decade. I think the creation of the mandate goes back to what is referred to as the Brazilian resolution which was in 2011. This was the first resolution on SOGI issues or sexual orientation issues. From that, things progressed to 2016 when the Human Rights Council passed a resolution which established that mandate and then in 2019, we organised a huge campaign to defend that mandate, and we are going to do the same next year. We defend that mandate because it is impactful and it is a sign of progress showing that the UN cares about LGBTI communities. This is why we put a lot of effort into defending that mandate.

The other process that we have been strongly focussing on is the Universal Periodic Review. This is a review that is attached to the Human Rights Council in which each state is reviewed every five years in regard to their compliance with international human rights standards and in which other states give their recommendations. We have been using that a lot and we have developed our knowledge and grasp of that process in order to allow our members to use it. It is not an actual campaign but it is one of the big other items that we have been doing.

Also, over the last three years we have established the same grasp with treaty bodies, which in essence work in exactly the same way, except that they monitor the human rights treaty they are attached to. We have been increasingly using these mechanisms over the last years.

IGG: Could you maybe introduce the mechanism ‘Protect defenders’?

Julia Ehrt: Protect Defenders is a European initiative that is founded by the European Instrument for Human Rights and Democracy which seeks to protect human rights defenders globally and not only LGBTI people. So while it is founded by the EU it actually doe not have anything to do with human rights defenders in the EU. Our role in this consortium is to be the LGBTI voice and we are not directly protecting defenders ourselves but we make sure that the services that are offered are LGBTI inclusive. In essence what Protect Defenders does is that they help human rights defenders who are in physical or other types of danger due to their work, most of the time, get out of that situation, either by being brought out of that country or by being supported legally or through other means. This is what Protect Defenders is mostly about.

IGG: What are ILGA World’s goals in future actions, both short and long term?

Julia Ehrt: So, one of the goals is to defend the mandate mentioned above. That is for next year. Long term, I think it is to establish SOGIS issues as a solid part of the international human rights system. I’m not saying it is not, but there is still room for improvement. SOGI issues continue to be rather controversial in the global human rights context and we are working towards making them less controversial. Other than that, of course our long-term goal is to strengthen our own communities, and that is true on all levels, starting on the local and national level, then regional and global. Also, what I did not say at the beginning is that we have a regional structure; so ILGA World is the global entity and then we have a global structure of 6 regions. Each of these regions has its own organisation. Members are part of their regional and global organisation. To strengthen that global, regional and local approach therefore strengthening LGBTI organising on all levels is one of our long-term goals.

IGG: Talking about the ‘now’ and the future, what would be the newest challenges that the LGBTIQ community will have to face, even within the community itself?

Julia Ehrt: Within the LGBTI community, the newest challenge or maybe we could call it a task, is to give flesh to what the UN would call ‘leave no one behind’. In the history of our movement there was, to a certain degree, a gay-white dominance and I think that has been challenged considerably over the last year and maybe decade. One of our internal challenge is to give meaning to that. Not only to bring LGBTI people to the table but also to be aware of the structural discrimination that arise from other intersections, like with race and gender in particular but also, of course, disability, ethnic origin… This would strengthen us as a holistic movement and that is a huge internal challenge but it is important in order to not be divided in our position. Externally, we have been discussing the opposition to LGBTIQ and gender identity in Eastern Europe and other places, and that is one of the larger external challenges or threats that our movement is seeing because the opposition is organised and funded and has structurally large parts of the population. In a certain way, we have been fighting these types of opinions for decades and will probably be fighting them for a couple more decades. The fact that they are on the rise again in so many places is one of the other big challenges.

IGG: And how does ILGA World take on intersectionality from a legal point of view and in advocacy? How do you handle this challenge?

Julia Ehrt: So firstly, in our World Conference in 2019, in Wellington, our membership decided of our new strategic plan. What I really like about this strategic plan is the fact that paying tribute to the diversity of our movement is a goal of its own. Because of the history of our movement, because our movement has reproduced structural inequalities (of race, gender and others) to a great degree, leaving behind trans people, intersex persons, women, persons of colour, our strategic plan has these one of four goals to increase the voices to the parts of our community that have been left behind within our own community. That goes through all levels; what we are trying to do is, from the persons we hire to the policies that we defend, to the people who we work with, to the people who we bring to our policy and advocacy work in the UN, to give voice to those parts of our community that did not have a voice so far. Of course, we are battling against huge structural inequalities that have been present for decades, and I am not saying this as an excuse but rather as an assessment of the scale of the challenge. That is the part that is new in our strategic plan, the increased awareness in our movement and organisation is something that emerged in the last couple of years. I am not saying this was only introduced in 2019, it was only a reflection of a process that has been coming for a longer time.

IGG: And you mentioned a colonial baggage that explains the resilience of cis-non-native values in societies, what would you recommend?

Julia Ehrt: Wow, I don’t know. Let me ask you to whom? It depends whom I am recommending, because the fact that there is this kind of baggage or the impact of colonial history on our issues is one problem assessment, how to deal with that is of course a question to which I don’t have a ready-made recipe for. But being aware that there is this kind of baggage is probably a good start.

IGG: How has the current pandemic situation impacted the LGBTIQ community?

Julia Ehrt: Drastically! And again, on so many levels. It has impacted us and our ability, our movement’s ability to do advocacy and policy work because, firstly, there was this huge topic that put so many other issues to the margins since everyone what talking about the crisis and the pandemic.  Secondly, the restrictions that were imposed have severely impacted the way in which we can do our work because political circles got tighter. And maybe most importantly, in a crisis of this scale and this may be true for all crises, those who are already on the margins of society are the first ones to get pushed further out. We have been seeing this across the globe, that LGBTI people who have been in vulnerable positions have been made even more vulnerable and that can take all kinds of different shapes and forms. It goes from groups of LGBTI people being arrested in Uganda for allegedly violating the Covid-19 provisions as they were still meeting, to LGBTI people having to isolate with families that are, to say the least, not welcoming or openly hostile. That means that organisations which provide crisis response aid are not in a position to do it in a way that takes the needs of LGBTI people into account. In this instance, we are talking about organisations that hand out food and other supplies for everyday living and for many of them, their primary concern is not to provide their service in a way that is LGBTI inclusive.

So, in this context, all of this accumulates and aggravates. Many LGBTI people in the Global South in particular and many trans people across the world are working in informal economies. Trans people have a high prevalence to being sex workers, and the Covid-19 crisis has hit them incredibly hard because it is so much harder to continue sex work and even if they happen to live in a state where they are lucky enough to have financial support, they are certainly not going to get it since they are making their money in an informal economy. In Central and South America, several states impose gender-sensitive curfews, so men can go out on certain days of the week and women on others which of course leads to immediate violence and discrimination against trans people. Despite the fact that Columbia was part of these states and the fact that the state had said that trans people could go out every day, on the street it did not go on as planned. So, a lot of measures which from the outside seem to be neutral, often heavily impact LGBTI communities. Our communities have been hit deeply and long term and what we are starting to see is the impact on movement funding because the crisis has led to states and private entities using enormous amounts of money to battle this crisis which is going to be unavailable for LGBTI organisations in the future. We are already starting to see that effect, and those with the least money are hit first.

To quote this article : “Interview with ILGA World”, 03.03.2021, Gender in Geopolitics Institute.

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