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From public toilets to beauty contests: Five wins for LGBTI rights in 2016

While it was a mixed year for the LGBTI community in India, gay and transgender rights took more prominence than ever in the global media

sex and relationships Updated: Dec 27, 2016 18:41 IST
LGBTI Community

People carry a giant gay movement flag during the Gay Pride Parade at Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.(AP)

The fight to change policies and laws to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people worldwide continued in 2016. From bathrooms and beauty pageants to diplomatic disputes and Donald Trump’s US presidential victory, this was a turbulent year for the LGBTI community.

Gay and transgender rights took more prominence than ever in the global media after several high-profile legal battles, and celebrity and cultural endorsements. Yet LGBTI people worldwide still face discrimination in many aspects of life such as employment, education and healthcare, and are subjected to widespread violence, campaigners say.

Participants hold placards during a protest demanding an end to discrimination and violence against the transgender community in Bengaluru. (REUTERS)

It was a mixed year for the community in India. In a welcome move in February, the Supreme Court set up a five-judge bench to hear curative petitions against Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalises homosexuality. However, India was among the six countries that abstained from voting at the UN Human Rights Council for appointing an independent investigator to protect LGBTI people from discrimination worldwide. Another let down has been the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016, pending in the Lok Sabha, that massively dilutes the provisions of the private member’s bill that was passed by the Rajya Sabha.

However, gay and transgender rights groups are being increasingly backed worldwide. Here are five of the biggest gains for LGBTI rights in 2016:

United Nations appointed the first gay rights investigator

The United Nations in September appointed its first gay rights independent investigator to help protect homosexual and transgender people worldwide from violence and discrimination.

Vitit Muntarbhorn’s three-year role was created by the UN Human Rights Council amid objections by Muslim countries, and several African states who sought to have his work suspended. Yet Muntarbhorn said he believed that even those countries perceived as the most virulent opponents of LGBTI rights may in fact have pockets of openness and tolerance.

Muntarbhorn, an international law professor who has served on many UN bodies, including inquiries on Syria and as a special rapporteur on North Korea, also said he does not see his task in terms of how many people he might represent worldwide.

“One person might be affected 10, 20, 100 times ... bullied at a young age, can’t go to toilet, laughed at, tortured, ultimately killed and defamed at the same time,” Muntarbhorn said. “How many violations can you count?”

US celebrities, corporations boycott North Carolina over transgender bathroom law

Entertainers such as Bruce Springsteen and companies ranging from PayPal to Deutsche Bank have pulled events and jobs from North Carolina to protest a law restricting bathroom access for transgender people in government buildings and public schools.

North Carolina in March became the only state in the country to require transgender people to use state-owned public restrooms and changing facilities that correspond with the sex on their birth certificate rather than their gender identity.

Opponents of North Carolina's HB2 law limiting bathroom access for transgender people protest in the gallery above the state's House of Representatives chamber as the legislature considers repealing the controversial law in Raleigh, North Carolina, US. (REUTERS)

Transgender rights have become an increasingly divisive issue in the United States, and the use of public bathrooms has been a flashpoint in the controversy over the past year. Republican lawmakers cited privacy and security concerns when they passed the law, but critics say the bill, which also blocks local measures protecting LGBT people from discrimination, is stigmatizing, insulting and unconstitutional.

Malta bans conversion therapy to lead way in Europe

Malta became the first country in Europe to ban conversion therapy, a much-criticised and discredited practice that aims to change sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

The southern Mediterranean island nation criminalised conversion practices – often referred to as “gay cure” therapies – with its parliament calling it a “deceptive and harmful act”. Those who prescribe or perform the therapy can be punished with fines of up to 10,000 euros (over Rs 7 lakh) and one year in jail.

The City Pride March in Valletta, Malta, commemorating the gay rights movement. (Shutterstock)

Malta is widely considered as one of the most progressive nations in Europe when it comes to LGBTI rights, having made a raft of legal and social changes in recent years. It has introduced LGBTI-inclusive education, passed same-sex civil unions and allowed transgender people to change their legal gender without any medical or state intervention. Conversion therapy is still legal in most countries worldwide, but has been banned in several American states.

Belize scraps colonial-era anti-homosexuality law

The Supreme Court of Belize, a nation on the east coast of Central America, in September ruled that a colonial-era law criminalising homosexuality was unconstitutional. LGBTI activists say the judgment will boost efforts to abolish anti-gay laws in other former British colonies in the Caribbean.

The law, which punished gay sex with up to 10 years in prison, was scrapped after years of advocacy by the gay rights activist Caleb Orozco of the United Belize Advocacy Movement.

Belize became the third country to decriminalize gay sex in 2016, along with the South Pacific island of Nauru and the Seychelles, an Indian Ocean archipelago, according to the US-based Human Rights Campaign.

Yet it remains illegal in 72 countries worldwide, most of which are former British colonies, the gay rights group said.

Beauty pageants, film industry shine spotlight on gay and transgender issues

From the first openly lesbian Miss America contestant and Israel’s inaugural transgender beauty pageant to Emmy awards for the hit transgender TV series Transparent, the entertainment industry is shining a bigger spotlight on LGBTI stars and issues.

The popularity of shows in recent years like Orange Is The New Black and movies such as The Danish Girl, which feature transgender stars or focus on issues facing gay and transgender people, have seen LGBTI rights become mainstream in the media.

Eddie Redmayne played the role of Danish artist Einar Wegener, the first identifiable recipient of sex reassignment surgery, in the 2015 film The Danish Girl

Yet this success comes amid controversy within the LGBTI community over how transgender people are portrayed, and over the casting of straight men and women in transgender roles.

“I would be happy if I were the last cisgender male to play a transgender female,” actor Jeffrey Tambour said in September in his acceptance speech after winning an Emmy for his portrayal of transgender woman Moiré Pfeiffer in Transparent.

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