FARMINGTON HILLS – When a visitor to the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills enters the traveling exhibit Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945, they are encouraged to leave a message for others. One of these messages captured the sentiment for those gathered March 5 for a briefing on the state of LGBT civil rights worldwide, “I am glad I have the blessings to be safe, loved and free. I wish I hadn’t learned of this gift from the lives that were sacrificed.”
Over 60 people attended the forum Be in the Know: A Briefing on the Rights of the Worldwide LGBT Community and heard about conditions on the ground from Jay Kaplan, LGBT project staff attorney of the ACLU of Michigan, David C. Koelsch, director of the Immigration Law Clinic at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, and Thomas “TJ” Rogers, case manager and program assistant at Freedom House. They discussed the current state of civil rights for LGBT people and their families with an emphasis on Russia, Nigeria and Uganda. The speakers helped connect the dots between the state, national and international events that are impacting people right now.
In his introductions, the museum’s Executive Director Stephen Goldman said, “This program came about because of what has been in the news lately,” referencing the Michigan marriage trial, the antigay laws in Uganda and Nigeria and the worldwide attention on Russia when it passed anti-gay laws leading up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The programming is part of a larger project that opened in January and runs through May 4.
“Is discrimination a basis for seeking asylum under U.S. law?” And with an emphatic “No,” Koelsch clarified an important point.
“Discrimination happens all the time. I may not like you because you are wearing a blue shirt…that’s discrimination. Persecution is stepping it up a level…Forms of discrimination, if they are bad enough, can be rise to the level of persecution, but discrimination on its own is not a basis for asylum.”
This distinction was especially clear when looking at the current and relatively peaceful legal proceedings in the U.S. around marriage equality contrasted with the dangerous and life-threatening work in countries like Uganda or Nigeria – where there is no safe way to counter the government’s persecution of gay people.
Freedom House’s Rogers described a poignant example. He explained how, even after asylum is granted to an LGBT Ugandan, the difficulties of coming out from internalized homophobia – even in a safe environment like Freedom House – along with the genuine fear of endangering family and friends back in Uganda for simply knowing a gay person – are hauntingly familiar against the backdrop of the museum’s own testament to persecution by Nazi Germany.
Addressing how today’s “international scene ties into events of past” Koelsch pointed to recent comments by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry regarding both Russia and Uganda’s treatment of their LGBT citizens. Kerry referred to it being “akin to Nazi persecution.”
“These are pretty strong words coming from Secretary of State… equating bigotry and persecution of gays with one of the most evil experiences in human history,” said Koelsch.
In looking at the differences between Russia, Nigeria and Uganda, Koelsch described Russia as being perhaps the most “hopeful.” He described Russia having “societal prejudice” that could eventually be moved with education and exposure.
He was more pessimistic about Nigeria and Uganda, where he described similar environments on the ground for both countries including tribalism, factionalism and long running civil wars. Koelsch said leaders in the government and church were using persecution of LGBT people as a way of uniting the country.
He said the recent anti-LGBT law in Uganda, signed by the president after 8 years of debate, “Emboldened vigilante groups to go after LGBT people … The day after the President signed the law a special tabloid edition was printed in Kampala outing over 200 Ugandans with photos and in some cases addresses …”
The panel pointed out that the impetus for the Ugandan law is rooted in the U.S., where anti-gay zealots like Scott Lively have exported their hatred toward gays to countries like Uganda and Nigeria, expounding on “the evils of homosexuality.”
“A sign of real progress I think, is that the entire world is looking at what is happening in Uganda, and Nigeria and Russia – and is creating a global movement,” said Kaplan.
He stressed that a real danger to progress anywhere in the world is “complacency.”
He urged everyone to remain vigilant, especially as momentum seems to be in favor of LGBT rights here in the U.S., stressing that while the groundswell around marriage equality has been exciting, fast and hopeful there remains a lot to do, especially here in a state like Michigan where anti-gay politicians are currently in control.
He said in Michigan, for the first time in close to 20 years, there is an excellent chance at amending Elliott-Larsen, the state’s non-discrimination law, to include gender identity and sexual orientation protections.
Kaplan urged the audience to stay educated about bills trying to be passed into law around the country that would carve out a “religious exemption” for individuals who did not want to do business with gay people. While some recent attempts in Kansas and Arizona (to name a few), have been pushed back in the past month, attempts at such laws are still being tested around the country. They have also been attempted here in Michigan over the past decade.
All the speakers urged the audience to share what they had learned with others; to stay engaged and educate themselves further on the issues and to reach out to elected officials as well as ambassadors to let them know how they feel about these issues.
“I want to give a shout out to how important this year’s election is here in Michigan,” said Kaplan, pointing out that current state policy is “what we got based on how people voted or did not vote in previous elections.”
On its website, Freedom House Detroit describes itself as “a temporary home for survivors of persecution from around the world seeking legal shelter in the United States and Canada.” Rogers told the audience they are currently housing 40 residents, and six currently in the hone are LGBT of whom are LGBT. He emphasized how important it is to support the work on the ground and that places like Freedom House Detroit offer all their services free to individuals seeking help.
Both Kaplan and Rogers discussed the work of LGBT activists on the ground in Uganda, including Frank Mugisha who recently visited Detroit. Mugisha’s the executive director of SMUG – Sexual Minorities Uganda – which is seeking to hold Scott Lively, a U.S. citizen and anti-gay preacher, accountable for the persecution of Ugandan LGBT people. SMUG has filed a lawsuit under an alien torte statue for Lively’s role in the persecution of Uganda’s LGBT citizens
“I cannot stress the importance of having this conversation tonight because for so long it has been pushed to the margins and I am glad to see we are bringing back to center,” said Rogers.
The programming is part of a larger project that opened at the museum in January, Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933 -1945. The exhibit is on display through May 4. The final event on May 4 will feature keynote speaker former U.S. Congressman Barney Frank who will appear at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. at the Museum located at 28123 Orchard Lake Rd. For more information call 248-553-2400