A Conversation on Global LGBTIQ Rights
Siri May of OutRight Action International shares trends and hope in global movements for equality
June 17, 2018
Note: Seattle Foundation hosted a discussion on global movements for LGBTIQ equality during Pride month. One of the speakers was Siri May, the United Nations Program Coordinator for OutRight Action International. Siri leads intergovernmental work for OutRight, the only global LGBT organization with official consultative status at the UN based in New York. Siri previously served with the Australian Human Rights Commission and her career has been dedicated to social justice, human rights and public health.
Siri May, United Nations Program Coordinator for OutRight International
What is OutRight, and how do you work?
OutRight Action International is dedicated to advancing human rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) people everywhere. We envision a world where all LGBTIQ people are safe, enjoy fundamental freedoms, form strong communities and thrive personally and economically. For nearly 30 years, we have been fighting on the frontlines for equality and justice by providing training, organizing strategies and technical assistance to grassroots activists around the world, holding governments accountable at the UN and in the media, and researching and documenting human rights abuses.
What are LGBTIQ people facing globally right now? And what are the solutions?
LGBTIQ people are part of the bigger global picture where we see a rise in nationalism and a shrinking space for civil society. This impacts LGBTIQ people in particular, because we are among the most vulnerable populations.
In 2017 we saw the largest number of mass arrests of LGBTIQ people across the globe and we watched in horror as people were rounded up, tortured and in some cases murdered simply for being perceived to be LGBTIQ.
Today, mainly due to the legacy of colonial laws, 73 countries criminalize consensual same sex behavior and 43 of these include consensual same sex behavior between women. In some countries transgender and gender non-conforming people can face arrest under ‘cross dressing laws.’ LBT women are subjected to forced marriage, honor killings, violence and so-called ‘corrective’ rape as a way of ‘fixing’ their sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. Intersex babies, children and young people are subjected to medically unnecessary surgeries without their consent, sometimes irreparably damaging them for life.
In the United States children are subjected to harmful conversion therapies, and in my own adopted city of New York, 40% of the homeless population under 25 are LGBTQ.
The trend is that the existing inequalities, violence and discrimination experienced by LGBTIQ communities are exacerbated when governments are less accountable for their actions. We need to fight for governmental accountability now more than ever.
What kind of work does OutRight do at the United Nations, and why?
We work to ensure the visibility and human rights of LGBTIQ people across UN headquarters with a focus on human rights, peace, security and sustainable development. As a formal part of the UN system, OutRight works with world governments and UN agencies.
We use our access to build relationships with stakeholders who are in positions of power and influence. We assist in negotiations between countries on a range of issues like gender justice and violence. Most importantly, we make room for international LGBITQ human rights defenders and activists to access and shape the system themselves. We fund, train and support over 80 LGBTIQ activists each year to visit New York to tell their stories and advocate for their movements at home. That is the most important and inspiring part of my job.
How did you become an LGBTIQ activist?
I love that I am part of the queer community and I have been active since I came out in the 1990’s. I started off as a peer educator in high schools talking to fellow students about being a lesbian as part of an anti-bullying program. Since then I have worked across many spaces, from community-based HIV and sexual health, to the Australian Aboriginal community, with the private sector, in government and more.
This journey taught me empathy, creativity, resilience, courage and hope. I learned to understand my own privilege and how to work at the intersection of many peoples and cultures. I am a better person because of that community and being part of it has been one of the great privileges of my life.
What gives you hope for the future?
We have so much knowledge and skill as a global movement. Now is the time to listen to our mates from around the world and ask, How do you do it? What can we learn from you? How can we walk with you? What can we do to support your work?
Many of them have been living under oppressive regimes for a long time - and they don’t just survive it - they unapologetically resist it and thrive in spite of it.
We have so much resilience to share with each other and this gives me hope every day. I often think of an adage by Australian Aboriginal activist Lilla Watson: "If you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."
How can people in Seattle get involved?
We have so many great opportunities to get involved in our work. For news about what’s happening around the world, you can follow us on social media: @OutRightIntl. We also welcome donations and encourage people to give monthly to our Global Dignity Fund. There is a strong and growing base of OutRight fans in Seattle, and our new West Coast Director is based in Seattle. You can contact Katie Hultquist at email@example.com to volunteer or find out about local events and activities. This year’s Seattle Pride March is focused on Pride Beyond Borders, and OutRight will be helping kick off the parade - come march with us!