Rainbow Railroad

How Rainbow Railroad is Saving LGBTQI Lives Worldwide

Person holding the Pride flag. Yannis Papanastasopoulos. CC 2.0

Person holding the Pride flag. Yannis Papanastasopoulos. CC 2.0

Love is one of the most powerful acts of humanity. Unfortunately, it is an act not all can do freely. For those in countries that disavow LGBTQI+ rights, love is illegal for them. To express it is a crime, dangerous and potentially life-threatening. For these individuals, there almost seems no hope. “I want you to imagine being beaten, interrogated, stabbed for who you love,” says Executive Director Kimahli Powell in a YouTube video by Rainbow Railroad titled SAVE A LGBTQI LIFE. “I want you to imagine this is all happening to you because you live in one of over 70 countries where your government not only tolerates, but supports and initiates this violence towards you—and in some cases, you might even face the death penalty all for loving who you love.”

Rainbow Railroad is a non-profit organization solely focused on rescuing and aiding LGBTQI+ individuals across the globe. They help those who are living in countries that do not condone the LGBTQI+ community. Rainbow Railroad is currently “working on 30-50 open cases, confirming their details, putting them in touch with local resources and helping them identify safe routes for escape.”. One of their most recent cases helped Ahmed, an Egyptian activist and Rainbow Railroad rescuee, escape.

Ahmed was persecuted by his own country solely because he made the brave decision of brandishing the rainbow Pride Flag at a Marshrou’ Lelia concert in Cairo, Egypt. The consequence of the impactful decision? Ahmed being sentenced to jail for a little over three months. “It was the worst feeling I had ever felt,” states Ahmed in a video detailing his story on the Rainbow Railroad site. “Knowing that all of the country was against you and all of the country wanted to … arrest you and kill you.” Ahmed then pauses in the video and then pridefully states, “Now I am free.”

Egypt has no explicit laws condemning homosexuality, but the country has many ways of making the law work in their favor. Many individuals who are suspected of being apart of or supporting the LGBTQI+ community can face “debauchery and public morals laws with prison terms of up to 17 years” according to Lonely Planet's advice column for LGBTQI+ travellers going to Egypt. But they are not alone in their mistreatment.

Countries such as Malaysia, Brunei, Maldives, Yemen, United Arab Emirates, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan have strict and life-threatening laws in place that subject anybody who is openly or suspected of being in the LGBTQI+ community in danger. The laws in place range from years in imprisonment, fines, public whipping/physical abuse, and in the worst cases, death. Rainbow Railroad has been able to aid the people in these countries, specifically Tarek and Mazen, a couple from Syria. They applied for aid and were granted asylum in Canada in 2016, where they now live happily and freely.

But how does Rainbow Railroad do it? They raise funds from donations that volunteers, visitors, or supporters of their cause can donate at any time. All donations are put into a general fund that helps the organizations overall mission. Rainbow Railroad also provides a way where one can turn their upcoming birthday party or celebration into a sponsored event. If a host opts to sponsor an event, the proceeds they will raise go directly to a case they are sponsoring. According to a spokesperson for Rainbow Railroad, “Rainbow Railroad has community sponsorship, which means the organization facilitates helping LGBTQI refugees through the government PSR program (http://www.rstp.ca/en/refugee-sponsorship/the-private-sponsorship-of-refugees-program/). Groups of community members get together, raise about $20,000 to support a newcomer as they prepare for their journey, meet them at the airport and through their first year in Canada.” Rainbow Railroad also has volunteers across the globe to help with tasks from outsourcing people to verifying individuals request for help. For more information, click on their TAKE ACTION tab on their website, rainbowrailroad.com. There they list step by step how to get involved and how to contact them regarding how one wants to get involved.

Ahmed is one of the 198 people helped in 2018, but there are still many more individuals in need of escape. If you are interested in helping Rainbow Railroad, under their TAKE ACTION tab on their website, rainbowrailroad.com, list the many ways you could get involved with their organization. The most immediate way to help is to click the DONATE tab and give whatever you are able. Our capacity to love is what keeps us powerful and Rainbow Railroad continues to exemplify the actions that can be taken with said power.

OLIVIA HAMMOND is an undergraduate at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. She studies Creative Writing, with minors in Sociology/Anthropology and Marketing. She has travelled to seven different countries, most recently studying abroad this past summer in the Netherlands. She has a passion for words, traveling, and learning in any form.

Screen Shot 2019-06-17 at 6.22.00 AM.png

In Honor of Pride Month, an Overview of LGBTQ+ Triumphs and Setbacks Across the Globe

From Taiwan to Kenya to the United States, LGBTQ+ individuals face profound discrimination and tirelessly advocate for equality.

DC Capital Pride Parade in the United States. Bossi. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

DC Capital Pride Parade in the United States. Bossi. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

June is Pride Month in the United States, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer individuals across the country are commemorating the anniversary of the historic 1969 Stonewall Riots, recognized as a turning point for the LGBTQ+ liberation movement. Yet around the globe, simply existing as a sexual or gender minority can be profoundly dangerous and even life-threatening—and even amongst celebration in the US, legislative developments threaten to undo the decades of progress that have afforded LGBTQ+ individuals their rights to live with dignity and respect.

Recently in the news for LGBTQ+ discrimination is Russia, whose grim record of intolerance based on sexuality is particularly pronounced in the region of Chechnya. Located in the North Caucasus, Chechnya experienced a vicious anti-gay purge in February 2017, and one that is now tragically recurring. In early May, Human Rights Watch reported that Chechen police were rounding up men presumed to be gay or bisexual, proceeding to detain them at the Grozny Internal Affairs Department, where they were humiliated, raped, and brutally beaten. Activists with the Russian LGBT Network asserted that at least 23 men were detained between December and April due to their sexuality. Chechen authorities have denied reports of the persecution, and Russian federal authorities have neither commented nor launched an investigation.

Demonstrating against Russian homophobia. Marco Fieber. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Demonstrating against Russian homophobia. Marco Fieber. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Perhaps even more shocking than the negligence of the Russian authorities, some governments have actively ratified discriminatory treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals: Across the globe, 76 countries still place criminal sanctions on homosexuality. One such country is Brunei, a small nation located on the coast of the island of Borneo, whose Syariah Penal Code went into effect on April 3 of this year. The code calls for a wide range of barbaric punishments affecting LGTBQ+ individuals, including death by stoning for anal sex and 40 lashes with a whip for lesbian sex. It prohibits consensual same-sex conduct, broadly discriminates against women and sexual and gender minorities, and infringes upon freedom of expression and religion. In response to international outcry, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who holds absolute power in Brunei, has put forth a de facto moratorium on capital punishment, but the ban could be lifted at any time and does little to mitigate the dire rights offenses of the penal code.

Later that month, in Kenya, the High Court upheld similarly anachronistic laws criminalizing consensual acts between same-sex adults. The laws are a relic of colonialism, first put forth by British settlers in 1897; while they are rarely enforced, they nevertheless validate a climate of prejudice and violence, and are used to justify police harassment, employment and housing discrimination, expulsion from schools, and artistic censorship. The court case that concluded on May 24 addressed a 2016 petition by three Kenyan human-rights organizations, which asserted that the criminalization of same-sex conduct violated various rights—including equality, privacy, and human dignity—enshrined in Kenya’s constitution.

Just that same day, across the ocean in the United States, LGBTQ+ rights sustained a blow with the proposition of a new rule by President Trump’s administration. The rule would remove nondiscrimination protections for transgender people under the Affordable Care Act, erecting further barriers to wellness for a community that already faces difficulty in accessing healthcare. Protection on the state level is of little consolation, given that only 14 of out 50 US states prohibit health insurance discrimination based on gender identity, and 10 specifically exclude transgender-related care under Medicaid policy.

Protesting the Trump administration’s anti-LGBTQ+ policies. mathiaswasik. CC BY-SA 2.0

Protesting the Trump administration’s anti-LGBTQ+ policies. mathiaswasik. CC BY-SA 2.0

Within a sea of devastating setbacks for the global LGTBQ+ community, instances of progress and activism stand out as beacons of hope. In the deeply Catholic Mediterranean archipelago of Malta, a transgender woman named Joanne Cassar was recently allowed to marry, representing the culmination of her nine-year legal battle. The following day, on April 1, the Maltese government passed a gender recognition law, which came into existence largely due to Cassar’s efforts, and which acknowledges that “gender identity is considered to be an inherent part of a person which may or may not need surgical or hormonal treatment or therapy.” The law also initiates a working group on transgender healthcare to research international best practices, with one-third of the group mandated as being experts in the field of human rights.

In May, another historic ruling made Taiwan the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage, effective from the 24th of the month. “Today, we can show the world that #LoveWins,” tweeted Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, the morning of the ruling, celebrating the same sentiment as the crowds that turned out in the streets, cheering, weeping, and waving rainbow flags as news of the decision spread. There is still room for legislative improvement, particularly given that the law does not provide equal adoption rights for same-sex couples, but the events of May 17 nevertheless represent an impressive step forward for the East Asian region.

Appeal for Rights parade in Taipei, Taiwan. Luke,Ma. CC BY 2.0

Appeal for Rights parade in Taipei, Taiwan. Luke,Ma. CC BY 2.0

While legislative strides are crucial to affording LGBTQ+ individuals the rights they deserve, grassroots activism can be an incredibly powerful driver of official change—such as in the case of Joanne Cassar, or of the LGBTQ+ organizers who recently marched in Honduras to celebrate the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia. The activists’ demands included an end to pervasive violence against LGBTQ+ people, legal recognition of trans identities, and curtailing prohibitions on same-sex marriage and adoption. Currently, two petitions brought forth by the leaders of activist groups—one pushing for a process allowing official name and gender changes for trans people, and one encouraging equality of marriage and adoption—are pending before Honduras’ Supreme Court, and various other LGBTQ+ rights cases are afoot in Congress and in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Like any human-rights movement, seeking legislative and societal parity for LGBTQ+ individuals will doubtless continue to be an arduous battle fraught with discouraging defeat—particularly considering the vast disparities between rights in different countries, as celebration of one victory in one nation is dampened by news of horrifying injustice in another. Yet with the efforts of LGBTQ+ community members and allies, and the renewed conviction offered by recent progress in Taiwan and Malta, the international community can continue to hope that each Pride Month will bring more to celebrate than the last.

TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.