“I didn’t want to hide or live in fear anymore,” says Jacque Larrainzar. “And the place I kept coming back to was Seattle.”
In 1997, Larrainzar became the first Mexican to receive political asylum in the U.S. based on sexual orientation. After traveling the country looking for a new home, Larrainzar says, Seattle, and the LGBT community here, just felt right.
Larrainzar cried seeing a gay couple holding hands on Capitol Hill for the first time. “I saw a patrol car going by [them] and nothing happened,” says Larrainzar, who now works for the Seattle Office for Civil Rights. “I couldn’t believe it.”
In the almost 20 years since Larrainzar’s arrival, Seattle has distinguished itself as a champion of LGBT rights — legalizing gay marriage and supplanting
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San Francisco as the city with the highest concentration of gay-couple households.
During the same period, we’ve also become a hub for global health and development, headquartering powerhouses such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the nonprofit PATH (Program for Appropriate Technology in Health) and a constellation of smaller organizations working internationally.
But these two worlds — LGBT rights and global health — don’t intersect as often as you might expect.
“This is a topic near and dear to my heart,” says Mariel Boyarsky, a graduate student with the University of Washington’s Department of Global Health and coordinator for an international conference on gender, sexuality, social movements and global health planned at the UW this weekend. She says it’s “one that I feel is neglected and lacking in the field of global health.”
The conference, also known as the Western Regional International Health Conference, looks to help challenge the global-health organizations here to include issues such as anti-LGBT violence, accessing rights for LGBT communities and providing health care for LGBT people (even if they aren’t in groups at high risk for HIV) to their agendas.
“In global health, priorities are often driven by funding, and so it can be slow to change,” says Boyarsky in her office crowded with pallets of water and bags of chips for conference volunteers.
It can be difficult for funders to see the link between health and human rights, says Amie Bishop, senior program adviser with PATH’s Reproductive Health Program.
Bishop says that anti-gay legislation recently passed in Uganda and Russia, and violence against LGBT communities worldwide should be viewed through a global-health lens because “fundamental human rights are essential to health and well-being.”
Even once that connection is made, this is controversial work. Russian and Ugandan leaders have accused Western-funded LGBT rights organizations of inappropriately imposing their cultural values. Closer to home, World Vision U.S., an international Christian humanitarian organization based in Federal Way, quickly revoked its decision to hire employees in same-sex marriages when the move sparked outrage among its supporters.
“Health organizations sometimes shy away from engaging in human rights as a fundamental basis of the work,” says Bishop, “partly because donors don’t want to get too political.”
Despite the challenges, Bishop thinks Seattle has an important role to play in the global fight for LGBT rights.
Jessica Stern, executive director of the New York City-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), agrees. Stern is here this week meeting with global-health and LGBT-rights leaders to explore the possibility of starting a Seattle chapter of the commission.
“The LGBT community is global,” says Stern, explaining how members of her staff “stalk diplomats” in the halls of the United Nations in an effort to get LGBT issues in front of world leaders. The commission also partners with LGBT-rights organizations around the world, including South Africa, Colombia, the Philippines and Iraq.
Bishop (who is also on the board of IGLHRC) and Stern aren’t sure yet what a “Seattle Chapter” might look like (in fact they invented the idea as a way to build ties with our city) but they’re excited to start the conversation as part of this weekend’s conference.
“We’ve benefited so much and made so much progress,” says Bishop, who worries that just as LGBT rights are increasing for Americans, they are in decline in other countries. “Our city and state have so much to offer; I think we can offset some of this imbalance.”
Find out more about the Western Regional International Health Conference at: www.wrihc.org
Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder of The Seattle Globalist, www.seattleglobalist.com, a blog covering Seattle’s international connections. Sarah Stuteville: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @SeaStute