These people are building bridges towards equal LGBTI rights worldwide

At Amsterdam Pride we celebrate the diversity and freedom of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. Unfortunately, this freedom is not yet assured for everyone. Three international LGBTI activists shared their extraordinary stories with us.

We begin with Bram Langen, Manager of International Programmes at Dutch LGBTI rights organisation COC.

‘This December, COC will mark its 75th anniversary,’ Bram tells us. ‘That means that the Netherlands has the world’s oldest LGBTI organisation. That’s something we can be proud of. On the other hand, it’s a shame that after all these years our work is still so badly needed.’

International support for LGBTI people

‘Many LGBTI people cannot live in safety,’ Bram says. ‘There are countries where people are criminalised because of their sexual orientation or the gender they identify with. And they often face discrimination. They can lose their jobs, be thrown out of their homes, or worse. There’s still a lot to be done in the Netherlands before everyone really has equal opportunities and equal rights, but there are other countries that have a much longer way to go.’

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs works closely with COC, which supports LGBTI movements around the world. ‘We work with over 200 LGBTI organisations in more than 35 countries,’ says Bram. ‘Together with these groups, we offer help to people who aren’t sure who they are or what they feel. So that they can find each other and come together.

‘We also support people and organisations that publicly back LGBTI rights. Their example can inspire others to do the same. Unfortunately, in some countries that is still a life-threatening thing to do.’ For Lini Zurlia from Indonesia, for example, who is sharing her story today.

Lini Zurlia: ‘I can no longer remain silent’

Lini Zurlia defends LGBTI rights in Indonesia and throughout Southeast Asia, for example through the human rights activist network ASEAN SOGIE Caucus. She is also a member of the advisory board  of the Indonesian LGBTI federation Arus Pelangi (‘Rainbow Flow’). Many Arus Pelangi members work clandestinely, but since 2015 Lini has been speaking out publicly.

‘In some parts of Indonesia homosexuality and identifiying as transgender are criminal offences,’ Lini says. ‘Although in some regions the watchword has changed from criminalisation to “rehabilitation”. Viewing someone’s gender or sexual orientation as an illness or as abnormal is still an odious form of discrimination. Our movement is growing steadily – but as our movement grows, so does hostility towards LGBTI people.
‘The murders of transgender people, the persecution of lesbian, non-binary and gay people, and the constant discrimination, which I experience myself too, have all been a wake-up call for me. I can no longer remain silent. When I speak out, I’m speaking out for the whole LGBTI community.

‘I will never forget the public rally on IDAHOT (the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia) in 2016: all the bright colours, the rainbow flags being waved, and the feeling that we were standing up together for our rights. There were about fifty of us, LGBTI activists, marching together through the streets of Jakarta. But our action ended abruptly when we were assailed from all sides. We weren’t just bombarded with words, but literally, with stones.

‘These are the events that keep the fire burning inside me, that keep me fighting. Not with weapons or with violence, but by uniting the LGBTI community. I want the world to know that we are marching hand in hand to combat the injustice in the world. To struggle for a better future. These are the words that I carry in my heart.’

Building Bridges

To unite LGBTI communities worldwide, COC and the Ministry organise the Building Bridges programme each year. This is a joint initiative with the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science and the Netherlands Enterprise Agency.

‘Usually, we bring LGBTI activists to the Netherlands from countries around the world for the Building Bridges programme,’ Bram says. ‘So we can get to know each other, share knowledge and learn from one another. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we can’t invite anyone this year. Instead we’re organising two online gatherings where participants in previous years’ programmes talk about developments in their movements.’

One of these earlier participants is David Ikpo. Based in South Africa, David defends the rights of LGBTI people in other countries.

David Ikpo - Pride Amsterdam
©Thomas Ayissi
David Ikpo during the Building Bridges programme in 2018.

David Ikpo: ‘Everyone needs a hand they can hold’

David Ikpo is a doctoral researcher at the Centre for Human Rig hts. He co-founded the QUEERSPACE collective, a group whose members can express their queer identity through stories. David wrote such a story himself for his novel Fimí sílẹ̀ Forever. He also discusses LGBTI themes in his blog ‘Letters to My Africa’.

In short, David is a teller and gatherer of tales. He has learned a lot from all these stories, as a person and as a scholar. ‘Africa is a continent that consists of many different realities,’ he says. ‘People speak different languages and have different traditions, but their human needs are really not so different.

‘Because something underlies all these differences: a need for acceptance, love, growth and development . Everyone wants to move ahead in life. Everyone needs a hand they can hold. And to meet these needs, bridges must be built between people.’ This made David’s participation in the Building Bridges programme in 2018 an unforgettable experience. Especially the boat ride as part of Canal Pride in Amsterdam.

‘I’d often wondered what a truly inclusive world would be like,’ David says. ‘When you dream of a world with equal rights for everyone, what would that dream look like? I had no idea. But when I stood there on the boat, with all those people and colours around me – at that moment I knew what the dream would look like.’