Global Roundup: Armenia Trans Activist, Feminists in Lebanon Parliament, Singapore Gay Rights Rally, Nepal Pride Parade, Virtual LGBTQ+ Museum
Curated by FG contributor Samiha Hossain
Lilit Martirosyan at the International AIDS conference in Amsterdam in 2018 | Photo credit: The Right Side NGO via Open Democracy
Lilit Martirosyan is the founder of the Right Side, a non-governmental transgender and sex workers’ rights group in Yerevan, Armenia. In 2019, Martirosyan became the first out trans woman to speak in the Armenian parliament, calling for an end to violence and discrimination towards trans people. Since her speech, she has received online death threats, doxxing, and calls by parliamentarians to have her burned alive. When she tried to report the threats to the police, they laughed at her. Most health centres also turned her away when she sought treatment for the panic attacks she’d developed.
In order to avoid harassment, Martirosyan wears a mask in public, despite COVID-19 restrictions having been lifted in Yerevan. Though awareness about transgender people in Armenia has increased thanks to her speech, living openly as a trans activist remains extremely hard in the conservative country. Nevertheless, Martirosyan refuses to leave.
Of course, I can take my passport and go to different European countries or to the US, but my community is here. Transgender people, especially transgender women, are in a bad situation here. - Lilit Martirosya
There is no legal definition of “hate crime” in Armenian law. The lack of protection against discrimination and harassment in the workplace makes earning a living difficult for trans people in the country. Many, Martirosyan included, get into sex work to provide an income. She provides psychological and legal support for sex workers at the Right Side and says that many clients are tired of doing sex work, but must continue because they need the money and receive no support from the government.
Another issue is how trans people wanting to correct their gender marker on their birth certificate require paperwork proving sex-reassigment surgery – a medical intervention that is outlawed in Armenia and costly to do abroad, and which not everyone wants to go through. Access to hormone therapy is also a problem in the country.
Martirosyan also discusses how political unrest makes the situation even more unsafe for trans people. Opposition parties have been using LGBTIQ topics against the current government. During the snap parliamentary elections in June 2021, one opposition MP told citizens not to participate in a rally organized by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, saying doing so meant opposing the army and the church, and “supporting the LGBT community and traitors.”
For Martirosyan, the hardest part of her job as an activist is raising awareness and changing societal attitudes about trans people in Armenia.
Maybe after ten or more years things will change. We will continue to work even though it’s dangerous for us. - Lilit Martirosya
Halimé Kaakour, a newly elected feminist MP. Photo Reuters/Emilie Madi via L’Orient Jour
There are currently eight female representatives in the Lebanese parliament, a record number of women among the 128 seats. Lebanon has one of the highest overall gender gaps in the world, and some of these women aim to fix that now from inside the institutions. Half of these women come from the protests of the October 17 revolution in 2019.
For instance, the Beirut port explosion made Najat Saliba, an atmospheric chemistry specialist, go into politics as a “counterreaction.”
I felt like I had to step out of my ivory tower in academia and start actually pushing for a new way of living forward. - Najat Saliba
Lebanon has one of the highest overall gender gaps in the world, ranking 145 out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum Gender Gap report 2020. Political representation is one of the most affected areas, as the country does not have any gender quotas in the political system. Despite being very politically involved on the ground or through voting patterns and having a higher education level compared to others in the region, women have historically been excluded from decision-making positions in both public and private sectors.
You can't talk about rights without including a feminist agenda. The revolution broke a lot of barriers when they normalized talking about gender rights and gender issues in public spaces. - Myriam Sfeir, director of the Arab Institute for Women.
Myriam Sfeir does not believe that a higher number of female representatives is the solution to the gender inequality, since some of these newly elected members of parliament are not advocating gender rights. She says the priority is “to have in parliament both men and women who are holders of a feminist agenda.” Newly elected member of parliament Halime el-Kaakour is known for her feminist agenda. The author of the book "Lebanese Women Journey to the Parliament" talks about the many obstacles she faces as a woman.
I have had more obstacles than men, especially regarding violence against women in politics. There have been rumors about my personal life, which my male competitors did not have to face. - Halime el-Kaakour
Hostile online and offline environments and the denial of media exposure and coverage are just other tools to dissuade women from political activity. However, women like Kaakour and Saliba are determined to disrupt this patriarchal space.
Thousands of people in Singapore dressed in pink gathered at a park this weekend calling for greater recognition of LGBTQ rights, the first such rally since 2019 after COVID-19 restrictions were eased. People at the rally waved rainbow flags, danced and brandished placards with slogans such as "We're not nuclear, we are queer", and "Power to the queers." Singapore's "Pink Dot" gay rights rally started in 2009 and has regularly attracted sizeable crowds. After holding online-only events during the pandemic, large numbers turned out Saturday as the rally returned to a downtown park – the only place in the city-state where protests are allowed without a police permit.
I want to have my voice heard, I want to know that we matter and I want to have equality in Singapore. We are human beings, so we just want to be treated equal in the face of the law. I want to be able to marry my partner. - Susan Helen, a 39-year-old business manager taking part
Activists point to authorities maintaining the British colonial-era law that prohibits sex between men as indicative of Singapore’s slow progress on gay rights compared to other country’s in the region. Several attempts to overturn the legislation have failed in recent years. The latest challenge was dismissed by Singapore's top court in February, which ruled that the law would be maintained but on the basis that it "would not be proactively enforced."
Officials have maintained that most in socially conservative Singapore would be against repealing the law, which carries a maximum of two years in jail for homosexual acts. But Law Minister K. Shanmugam has acknowledged shifting attitudes, telling parliament earlier this year that the government is considering the best way forward.
Photographed by Sagar Chhetri via Vogue
Last weekend, after a two-year, COVID-induced hiatus, members of the Nepali queer community and their allies took to the streets of Kathmandu for the Nepal Pride Parade. They celebrated their hard-earned wins over the past decade, and looked to the future of LGBTQ+ rights within the landlocked Himalayan country. Nepali photographer Sagar Chhetri was able to document the event.
I was aware it happened because I had been following the people organizing it quite closely. But this year was my first time seeing it in person. It was quite exhilarating, to be honest, and so exciting to see all these young people laughing, smiling, dancing to music—all of it. - Sagar Chhetri
Nepal is known for its progressive stance on LGBTQ+ rights in South Asia, compared to many of its neighboring countries. But those political freedoms did not come easy, and Nepali activists note there is still a long way to go. Following the abolition of its monarchy in 2008, the new constitution drafted by the country’s Supreme Court recognized LGBTQ+ rights as fundamental human rights. But same-sex marriage is still yet to be legalized, and challenging discriminatory laws around access to property and education remains a key objective of Nepali activists seeking equality moving forward.
Another key change many Nepali activists and their allies are looking for is a recognition of trans, intersex, and nonbinary people enshrined in law. The core tenets that underpin Nepali Pride are reflected in the acronym PoMSOGIESC, which encompasses people of marginalized sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex characteristics beyond the limitations of the LGBTQ+ rubric.
Chhetri notes that he was impressed by the event’s inclusivity. For instance, every message was translated into sign language from the multitude of languages and dialects that are spoken in Nepal. While Chhetri was moved by the deeper political significance of the event, at the end of the day, it was the simplest message of all that resonated: he found himself reflecting on the meaning of the word pride.
Everything that I was attracted to, people coming together, hugging, smiling, dancing, definitely had a profound impact on me. I think I realized that what I was looking for, most of all, was love. - Sagar Chhetri
LGBQ+ VR MUSEUM CREATOR ANTONIA FORSTER IN A VR HEADSET AND PATRICIA CRONIN'S SCULPTURE MEMORIAL TO A MARRIAGE IN . PHOTO: COURTESY OF FRASER AND PR via VICE
Devised by Antonia Forster – activist, speaker, self-taught coder – the LGBTQ+ VR Museum offers a cultural exhibition based on contributions across the queer community, from the southwest of England to Denmark and Ghana. Each exhibit is made up of a 3D scan of a particular object and an accompanying voice message telling the story of its significance.
Foster created the virtual LGBTQ+ museum because she realized something like this has never been done before. There was no dedicated LGBTQ+ museum in the UK at the time (Queer Britain has since opened its doors as a physical museum, where Forster’s project will be making an appearance in July). Foster’s negative experience coming out as bisexual and polyamorous to her family made this project intensely personal for her. Thomas Terkildsen was one of a wave of contributors who responded to a call-out on social media, and it quickly became apparent that his background in VR development opened up possibilities for more in-depth collaboration on the project.
I remember going on school trips to museums where I saw paintings of men and women being in love. I never saw any artworks telling stories of men loving men. I’m sure it would have helped me find myself if that sort of representation existed. And now it does. - Thomas Terkildsen
New York-based artist Patricia Cronin contributed a virtual rendition of the marble statue she created in 2002; titled Memorial to a Marriage, it depicts Cronin and her partner Deborah locked in an embrace to mark their love after death, at a time when they couldn’t marry. It remains the world’s first and only marriage equality monument.
I rarely see my reflection in white male heterosexual patriarchal culture. When I do see it, lesbians are usually the butt of a joke in a movie trailer or in pornography designed by and for straight men. So, in addition to not to seeing women honoured in public monuments and same-sex marriage being illegal in the US at the beginning of the 21st century, I decided to imagine a world where misogyny and homophobia didn’t exist. - Patricia Cronin
The museum has become an international success. It won the New Voices Award at Tribeca Festival in New York, where the experience has been augmented by a biometric element – the user wears a device with electrodes that can measure heart rate and skin conductivity, which translates into emotional arousal and engagement with the content. In October, Forster and her team will be working with the Danish consulate in New York to stage a New York version of the museum.
Samiha Hossain (she/her) is a student at the University of Ottawa. She has experience working with survivors of sexual violence in her community, as well as conducting research on gender-based violence. A lot of her time is spent learning about and critically engaging with intersectional feminism, transformative justice and disability justice.
Samiha firmly believes in the power of connecting with people and listening to their stories to create solidarity and heal as a community. She refuses to let anyone thwart her imagination when it comes to envisioning a radically different future full of care webs, nurturance and collective liberation.