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Gays' Global Search For Acceptance

TONY COX, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Tony Cox in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

Around the globe, men and women are being punished, sometimes with death, because of their sexual orientation. A recent study by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association reveals that it is a crime to be gay in 76 countries. As a result, many gays live in constant fear or become refugees fleeing for their safety.


Some nations are now considering whether sexual orientation is grounds for political asylum. Today, we're going to talk about gay and lesbian rights in countries other than the United States.

And, as always, we want to hear from you. If you are gay or lesbian and have lived, worked or visited abroad, what's it like? Tell us your story, our number 800-989-8255. The email address, And to join the conversation, go to our website,, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's first go to Uganda, where late last year, a bill was introduced in that country's parliament that would have increased penalties for homosexual conduct, including death for gays who have sex with minors.

Joining us now on the phone from Uganda is Gregory Branch, a correspondent with the international news site, and he has been following this story. Gregory, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. GREGORY BRANCH (Correspondent, Thanks, Tony, how are you?


COX: I'm fine, thank you. Let's begin with this, Gregory: What is the status of the bill in Uganda?

Mr. BRANCH: At present, the bill is stalled in a parliamentary committee. It's Uganda parliament's Committee on Legal and Parliamentary Affairs. The bill has been in that committee essentially since it was initially put forth by Member of Parliament David Bahati.

COX: Now, there is already a law in Uganda, is there not, that makes homosexual acts illegal? Why the need for this new bill?

Mr. BRANCH: That's true, and it's a very interesting question that you get various answers for here in Kampala. There is a law on the books in Uganda that is a law that's been here since colonial times, it was left by the British, that outlaws homosexuality.

This particular bill, as per the author, David Bahati, is to safeguard particularly Ugandan children from what he calls predatory adults.

COX: Can you give us a sense, Gregory, of what life is like for gay people in Uganda given the climate and the attempts to criminalize them?

Mr. BRANCH: Well, right now, things have sort of shifted and changed a bit since the bill has been stalled for about 10 months. But essentially, like most African countries, Uganda proclaims that homosexuality is not a part of (technical difficulties) or its tradition.

The gays and lesbians who live here tend to live in the shadows, so behind the door, inside the closet I guess is the best way to put it.

COX: Is there a difference in the way that gays versus lesbians are treated? For example, are gay men more likely to be targeted by the authorities than lesbians, for example?

Mr. BRANCH: I don't think there's been any study that would show that lesbians are treated better than gay men. However, the idea of gay men engaging in sexual intercourse is more repugnant to the Ugandan society than lesbian women.

The bill in particular, when you read it, sort of deals specifically with aspects of male-to-male homosexual sex. I believe that gay men are definitely stigmatized more so.

COX: My final question, Gregory, is this: Is there any international pressure on Uganda to not pass this bill?

Mr. BRANCH: Yes, there has been. Actually, earlier this year, Sweden threatened to end their development and financial aid to Uganda if the bill were passed, and there's been several conversations, one which has sort of been going around the media here in Kampala, that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had with Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni.

And after that 45-minute conversation, he publicly, here in Uganda, distanced himself from the anti-homosexuality bill. In fact, shortly after that, he commissioned a panel to review the bill and see if it was actually legal and constitutional, and the panel came back and suggested that the bill be withdrawn from parliamentary consideration.

COX: Gregory Branch, I know that it is late there in Uganda. Thank you very much for your time today.

Mr. BRANCH: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.

COX: Gregory Branch is GlobalPost correspondent who joined us from Uganda.

Now we turn to Andrew Meldrum, a senior editor at He is editor of their series "Rainbow Planet: The Worldwide Struggle for Gay Rights," which explored the status of gays and lesbians in 20 countries around the world. Welcome, Andrew, to TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. ANDREW MELDRUM (Senior Editor for Africa, Hi, Tony, thanks very much.

COX: We appreciate your coming on. Let's begin with this: Homosexuality has long been considered a crime in many, many countries around the world. What is changing, if anything?

Mr. MELDRUM: Well, we recognize this at GlobalPost because we were getting reports from our correspondents all over the world. And we saw that it was an issue Asia, it was an issue in different African countries, it was an issue in Europe, and we decided to do a survey of 20 countries.

And it is something where yes, there as you have pointed out, there are 76 countries where homosexuality is a crime, including seven countries where it's punishable by death.

But on the other side of the same coin, there are 53 countries that have anti-discrimination laws, and there are 26 countries that recognize same-sex marriages.

And so there is a historic trend, actually, that is moving in that direction, and it puts the whole issue of gay rights right at the center of I'd say the political debate in countries all over the world.

COX: You know, before we ask a second question of you, let me remind the audience that this is TALK OF THE NATION, and we would like you to invite you to participate in this conversation, a very important one.

If you are gay or lesbian and have lived, worked or visited abroad, what is it like? We want to hear your story. Call us at 800-989-8255, that's the phone number. The email address is

As a matter of fact, we do have a caller that's on the line right now, and I would like to ask you, Andrew, to just hold on. We're going to take this caller. This is Anna(ph), joining us from Manchester, England. Anna, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ANNA (Caller): Hello, how are you?

COX: Hello, fine, how are you?

ANNA: I'm okay, thanks.

COX: And you would like to say what?

ANNA: I'm Lebanese originally, and I have two very strict, Muslim parents. And I left Lebanon when I was 17 because both they wanted me to marry. I had come out to my mother, thinking, you know, she's my mother, so she would understand. But she didn't.

And, like, almost six weeks after I came out to her, she pretty much said here, we have this husband for you. And I couldn't reconcile myself with being forced to marry. So I pretty much left all on my own.

COX: How did you let me ask you, Anna: How did you decide where to go, where you felt that you would be accepted, and where it would be safe for you?

ANNA: I have a lot of friends in England. And I think that England's always been pretty much accepting, especially of, like, political asylum. I don't want to say that, you know, they accepted me because I'm gay, but I've always felt comfortable here. And the one time I had visited, when I was younger, I always felt that I could be myself and, you know, open and free, and it's really true here. There's a huge, supportive gay community here.

COX: Thank you for that call, Anna, very much. Andrew, what about that? How and what are the differences that various countries have in terms of how they treat people who are gay and lesbian?

Mr. MELDRUM: Well, there it's a very complex issue. There are many countries, let's say like England or Australia, where gay and lesbian and bisexual, transgender people are have legal rights, have legal status, also South Africa.

And yet at the same time, even in those areas that look to be the most tolerant, there are crimes, violent crimes in London, in Sydney, against people who, you know, are identified as being gay or lesbian. So, you know, there's no place completely safe.

However, also I'd like to point out that there is a great level of tolerance even in countries where it may be illegal, there are generally people often find a way how to live their lives there.

So no place is completely safe, but there are many places that it still is, you know, they find a level of tolerance.

COX: Is this in any way akin to let's say the Underground Railroad, a sort of a network or a system of communicating and traveling where you can be safe? Is this something that happens within the gay and lesbian community on an international basis?

Mr. MELDRUM: Well, we have found in the survey that there are many people who are living what they call in the shadows. But, you know, it is for instance in Senegal, where there has been a recent religious anti-gay campaign, and people who had been living rather openly had to then go, you know, further into the closet and into the shadows.

However, what we have found is even in Senegal, where there was this wave, there had been, over the course of the past 100 years, a tradition of gay people who played a role in traditional African society.

And so there's often a redefinition of where, for instance in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe will say, oh, well, this is completely un-African. And then you can speak to people who say, well, actually, you know, 20 years ago or 50 years ago in rural areas, there were same-sex relations between people, and there were spirit mediums who did that.

And so there has been, often, a suppressed area of traditional society that had been accepting of that.

COX: I wonder if there is a way to determine, Andrew, whether or not from continent to continent, from Europe to South Africa, I mean to Africa, to South America and elsewhere, whether the treatment of gays is noticeably or palpably different and if there's a way of researching that and finding out what some of the best places to go are.

I'd like you to think about that concept for me for just a minute because I want to come back after the break that we take in a few seconds and ask you to elaborate on that. Then we're going to open up the phones again to have people call us.

If you are gay or lesbian, have lived, worked or visited abroad, we want to know, what is it like? Tell us your story. Call us at 800-989-8255, that's the phone number. The email address is Again, we are talking about the struggle for gay rights acceptance around the world.

I'm Tony Cox. It is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Tony Cox, in Washington.

Until 2001, China considered homosexuality a mental illness. Official government statistics in China say there are 15 million to 30 million gays and lesbians, but the real numbers are probably much higher.

South Africa was one of the first countries in the world to enshrine gay and lesbian rights in its constitution. In 2006, South Africa became the first and only country in Africa to legalize same-sex marriage.

There's more information about the state of gay rights around the world at our website: Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And again, we want to hear from you. If you are gay or lesbian and have lived, worked or visited abroad, tell us what it is like. Tell us your story. 800-989-8255, the phone number. Email us at And to join the conversation at our website, just go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We are talking with Andrew Meldrum, a senior editor for He edited the series "Rainbow Planet." And in just a moment, joining us will be Rachel Tivens, the executive director of Immigration Equality, a nonprofit that represents the immigrant LGBT community.

Let me come back to you, Andrew, and that question that I posed to you before the break. We were talking about is there a continent that is safer than another, or one that it worse than another to go to with regard to the protection, or the lack thereof, of gay and lesbian people?

Mr. MELDRUM: I would say that there are areas in every continent where it's very dangerous, and there are areas where there is, you know, greater tolerance.

Let's look at Latin America, for example. There is, just recently, Argentina, in the past couple of weeks, has legalized same-sex marriage. And it was surprising to many people because it was thought that Argentina was the center for the, you know, Latino machismo culture. And yet, now they have made this big stride.

And what has happened is then the mayor of Mexico City said, well, yeah, Argentina can legalize same-sex marriage, but I, the mayor of Mexico City, you can also have a gay wedding here in Mexico City. And it was seen as a kind of a trying to catch what they call the pink peso. And so, you know, there's a competition. They're going for where is the most tolerant area in Latin America.

In South Africa, as you asked about continents, Africa could be considered to be very dangerous. I spoke about Senegal, about Uganda. There's also Zimbabwe, which Robert Mugabe has made a lot of very strong anti-gay statements.

However, South Africa is the only country in the world to have gay rights enshrined in their constitution. And the big cities, Johannesburg and Cape Town, have very large pride parades, and they also have, you know, marriages with you know, they have businesses that cater to same-sex marriages. So those would be greater areas of tolerance, as well.

COX: Thank you for that. We're going to take a call from Denver, Colorado, in a second, but I want to bring in Rachel Tivens to the conversation right now, if I can, the executive director of Immigration Equality, a nonprofit that represents the immigrant LGBT community. Rachel, welcome to the show.

Ms. RACHEL TIVENS (Executive Director, Immigration Equality): Thank you.

COX: Nice to have you. Let's go back to this call, because I think it's germane to what Andrew was just talking about, and then Rachel, we'll come back and spin around and talk with you, as well.

Ben, you're on TALK OF THE NATION from Denver, Colorado. Welcome.

BEN (Caller): Thank you.

COX: And your comment, sir, is what?

BEN: I lived in Argentina three years ago as a foreign exchange student in high school, and I accidentally came out to a few of my fellow classmates. And there was an immediate response among all of the male students to never spend any time with me outside of what was absolutely necessary for schoolwork.

And then I found it ironic that they passed same-sex marriage recently, when in the United States, I feel comfortable in most situations being out, and there's still only same-sex marriage in a handful of countries.

COX: Thank you for that call. Andrew, what about that? I'm not sure what it meant necessarily to accidentally come out, and I didn't want to pry too much with him on that, but his experience, is it typical in any way?

Mr. MELDRUM: Well, I think that it is. As I've tried to point out, it's a complex issue, where even in countries and cities where things - let's say, like London or Cape Town, where, you know, there is a big gay culture, there is still a level of intolerance in some social situations - particularly, let's say, with adolescents or with younger people, or sometimes with older people.

So it's something that is shifting all the time. It's in flux, and it's right at the center of the political debate. It's right at the center of the human rights debate, and it also means that it's right at the center of a debate within families, within social groups.

So, you know, I don't think you can say anywhere that it's, you know, one way or the other. It's in flux worldwide.

COX: Rachel, I know that - I believe that you deal with the community more so here in the United States than internationally. Is that right?

Ms. TIVENS: Immigration Equality represents lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and HIV-positive asylum-seekers from all over the world who have come to the United States because they're fleeing exactly the kind of persecution that we're discussing.

In addition, we advocate for equal immigration rights for LGBT immigrants and their families, and it's relevant to some of this back and forth that, of course, there's a tremendous irony here.

On the one hand, the United States has, really, an admirable record in protecting people who are fleeing persecution. Immigration Equality has represented nearly 500 LGBT asylum-seekers in the past five or six years. We've won almost all of those cases. And it is certainly possible to win asylum in the United States if you are fleeing persecution on account of your sexual orientation or your gender identity.

At the same time, of course, there is ongoing discrimination in the United States against LGBT immigrants and LGBT Americans with immigrant partners. There is no way that an American citizen with a foreign national partner can sponsor that person for a green card. And for that reason, Immigration Equality has been advocating for a long time for legislative change that would ameliorate that situation.

COX: Is there a region of the United States - I'm sorry, not a region of the United States, but is there a region of the globe, a part of the globe where those who come here seeking asylum primarily come from, and for the same reasons?

Ms. TIVENS: Immigration Equality sees asylum-seekers from literally all over the world. Everywhere in the world that you might imagine that it would not be safe to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, we have had clients. That, you know, unfortunately, is almost everywhere, except Western Europe.

There are some notable trends. Over the past five years, 40 percent of our asylum-seekers have come from Latin America, 25 percent have come from the Caribbean, and 20 percent of our clients over the past five years have come from Jamaica alone.

We are headquartered in the Northeastern United States. So we see probably a slightly disproportionate Jamaican population because of proximity, but the primary reason is the extraordinary level of homophobic violence in Jamaica.

The cases that we see from Jamaica and from throughout the English-speaking Caribbean are quantitatively and qualitatively more severe than some of the cases that we see from other places, but, of course, that is not a distinction that the Caribbean gets to carry alone.

We have, of course, African clients and Middle Eastern clients with very dramatic and horrible stories of persecution.

COX: Let me ask you briefly to detail for us, before I come back to Andrew, the legal criteria for being granted asylum. I don't know that people are aware that being homosexual is potentially grounds for getting asylum here.

Ms. TIVENS: To win asylum in the United States, an asylum-seeker has to prove that he or she has suffered past persecution, or - and/or has a well-founded fear of future persecution on the basis of one of five grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

And since 1994, sexual orientation and gender identity have been recognized as a subset of particular social group.

COX: I have a question for you about that from a particular listener, but before I read it to you, Rachel, let me ask you, Andrew: In terms of the issue of asylum, how important is that? How large is that in terms of the efforts to find a right place to be by those who are homosexual internationally?

Mr. MELDRUM: I think it's very important, particularly for people who are facing persecution, who perhaps are facing a legal action against them. We have seen, for instance - and places where there is a wave of violence. And, for instance, in Iraq a couple of years ago.

And many Iraqis then fled to Lebanon, to Egypt, where there was a more tolerant group. But then many, many people are seeking asylum. They have fled already to one country, but then they're seeking asylum to a country where they feel that they would be even safer. People from Iran, for instance, have left. Many are in Turkey. But that's only temporary. They're trying to get into the United Kingdom or to the United States, where they feel that their situation would be even on firmer footing.

COX: Let me read a couple of emails. The second one is the question that I made reference to, Rachel, for you. The first one comes from Sharon(ph) in Mexico. She writes: I am a US citizen currently living in Mexico. When I first came here 14 years ago, I was warned to be very careful, that it was illegal to be a lesbian here and I could be deported. Now same sex marriage is legal in the capital and probably soon to be legal in the entire country. The times they are a-changing, she writes. My partner and I will be married next month.

So this comes from Aman(ph) in San Francisco. I believe I'm pronouncing that correctly. Growing up in Egypt, I was told that there is no such thing as being gay. The shame and guilt of being gay that I grew up with is almost impossible to deal with. Why is it most countries will not consider asylum until you are either within their borders while it is near impossible to get a visa to get out? Had I not left Egypt, I'd have probably been killed by now.

Can you give a response to that?

Ms. TIVENS: That is one of the most significant barriers for people who are seeking asylum from all over the world. The United States allows people to apply for asylum only once they have arrived either in the United States or are present at a land border of the United States. So what that means is there are many, many potentially deserving asylum seekers.

Immigration Equality gets emails all the time from people around the world saying, you know, for example, I'm a gay man from Iran, can you help me? And if you can't help me, I'm going to kill myself. And unfortunately, that is a piece of the way that the asylum system is structured, that it has not yet changed to accommodate the reality of global migration. And I think that there's no question that we would see a wider variety of people from around the world who are easier. For example, since 2001, since September 11th, it has been extremely difficult for single Muslim men to get a visa to the United States, even to visit. And that makes it extremely difficult for someone who might be a gay man from a Muslim country who is genuinely in fear of persecution or fleeing past persecution.

But if you can't get here, it is - the writer is correct. It is impossible to seek asylum in the United States, and the system of refugee protection that is available internationally is very limited in terms of its recognition of sexual orientation and it's quite difficult to protect yourself when you are still abroad.

I think that with - the way that the system works for people who are seeking to visit the United States as a tourist or for work is in some cases stacked against individual lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people because, for example, to get a tourist visa to the United States, you may have to prove to the satisfaction of the State Department that you don't intend to remain in the United States. And so some of the traditional ways that you can prove you don't intend to remain are that you have a good job in your country of origin, that you're married, that you have children, that you own property. If you're someone who has been ostracized by your community, your education may have been affected by anti-gay discrimination. You may not have a good job and you certainly might not have a spouse and children. So...

COX: Let me interrupt just to do a little bit of business here, take a call, and then come back and get some more answers from you.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

All right. We want to take a call, Rachel. Hold on. We want to get some answers and get some more comments from people who are in our listening audience. This call comes from Charlie(ph) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Charlie, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

CHARLIE (Caller): Hi. Thanks. I grew up as a foreign service child in Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Sierra Leone, West Africa - and Singapore, particularly in high school. And I now work on Southeast Asian studies and part of what I study is sexual orientation, sexuality nationalism. And I have graduate students working particularly on Indonesia and the gay and lesbian states there.

I think what strikes me about a lot of what's being said here is how local some of this phenomenon is, even within a place like Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim majority nation. There are spaces that are very, very easy for gay men and lesbians to live in. They may be circumscribed, but in general they're doing that.

There's a group in Indonesia, GAYa NUSANTARA, which celebrated their 32nd anniversary this week of being a gay rights movement in there. And even within that gay rights movement, there are some groups that are really sort of Western, upper-educated focused, and then there are some which are more about sort of working class issues in small towns.

COX: Charlie, thank you for that. I've got to stop you only because I want to give Andrew an opportunity to respond to that and talk about whether that is something that is, again, typical in terms of your experiences and your research. Again, thank you for that call. Andrew?

Mr. MELDRUM: Yes. It's very typical. You know, the spaces and the areas where traditionally people of various minorities could live amongst society and carry out roles that are acceptable in society. And I would - Indonesia is one area. Also India - it had been illegal, but in 2009 they struck down an old colonial law that was - came from British colonialism - against homosexuality. And there has been a new movement where people who had been confined to the shadows are now becoming more open. And, in fact, Bollywood, you know, the big media empires of, you know, the big movies industry in India is now introducing gay characters and gay relationships in the movies, so that is a sign that, you know, that things are, as I say, in flux and moving.

COX: All right. Our time, unfortunately, is out. I appreciate both of you coming on. Andrew Meldrum is senior editor at the online news site He joined us today from the studios of Harvard University in Cambridge. And Rachel Tivens is the executive director of Immigration Equality. Again, both of you, thank you very much for coming on today.

Ms. TIVENS: Thank you.

Mr. MELDRUM: Thank you, Tony. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.