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There is something electric about being in an LGBTQ space. The spark, the sizzle of energy, compassion and willingness to both question and listen fills the air. Though I grew up in a lesbian-headed household my whole life, it was not until I was 13 that I was in a consciously LGBTQ space. I had joyfully joined the end the Boston Pride Parade a few years earlier, tossing candy to kids on the parade route with, at times, a little too much enthusiasm. Though this was a fun memory, it was not until I joined COLAGE programming at Family Week in Provincetown, Mass., that for the first time I was in a room filled with youth who also had LGBTQ parents. I felt safe, I felt understood and I felt home. That feeling has influenced my activism and personal choices ever since.
Knowing the deep impact LGBTQ advocacy and LGBTQ-inclusive spaces have had on my life, it deeply saddens me to know that my experience is somewhat unique. There are people throughout the U.S. who have not yet felt that current of acceptance and there are people around the world who are legally and socially barred from ever creating that space.
In a country like Belarus, where non-governmental organizations (NGO) are required to be registered with authorities, LGBT activists face discrimination, threats and other abuses at the hands of the police. Just this year, Ihar Tsikhanyuk, an openly gay man and LGBT-rights activist, was physically and verbally abused by police after he tried to register the Human Rights Center Lambda, an NGO that supports the rights of LGBT people in Belarus.
Not long after first registering the NGO, Ihar was taken from the hospital, where he was being treated for a stomach ulcer, to the police station. There police officers repeatedly punched and taunted him, demeaning him for being gay and threatening him with more violence. When police officers returned Ihar to the hospital, he asked for his injuries to be documented, but the hospital staff refused.
Those responsible for beating and threatening Ihar Tsikhanyuk have yet to be held accountable. Other activists connected to the Human Rights Center Lambda also remain at risk of further threats and abuses due to their sexual orientation or gender identity and continued LGBT activism. When silence accompanies abuse, it both condones and perpetuates the violence.
Other human rights activists in Belarus face similar harassment and intimidation from authorities. While it is important to recognize that LGBT activists are not alone in the crackdown on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly in Belarus, the unique reality faced by LGBT activists targeted for their identities matters.
Most people have, at some point in their lives, felt isolated or alone. For some, this alienation is brief and a community or individual embraces that person and changes their life. But imagine that you are isolated from other individuals or communities who share your identity. LGBT people in countries like Belarus are trying to create that space to demonstrate to themselves and others that they are not alone. Every person has the human right to a life of dignity free from discrimination, but this is a distant reality for many who face grave personal risk just for expressing their identity.
This year, Amnesty International’s Write for Rights campaign is standing with Ihar Tsikhanyuk and the members of the Human Rights Center Lambda. In December we will come together to send messages of solidarity by urging the government of Belarus to initiate a thorough, independent and impartial investigation into the ill-treatment and threats that Ihar suffered at the hands of police officers.
Activists like Ihar must be protected from further violence and humiliation. By joining us in writing to the Belarusian government, you can join millions of activists from around the world calling for change, so they too can create welcoming spaces without risk and advocate for their rights. This is our moment to echo around the world that LGBT activists and individuals are not alone.
Emily McGranachan is the social media lead for Amnesty International’s LGBT Rights Coordination Group. This spring she will complete a master’s degree in Ethics, Peace, and Global Affairs at American University.