Reflections on LGBTQ+ Rights, Acceptance, and Safety Around the World Since Stonewall

June 28th, 2023 | Viewpoint


As we head into the final stretch of Pride month and the anniversary of Stonewall here in the U.S., I’ve been thinking a lot about the state of the LGBTQ+ rights, acceptance, and safety in the world today; some dread as we slide back in many places, but ultimately hopeful that we’ll come through these days stronger and determined to never give up.

Let’s start with how far we’ve come. I’m 57 years old and if you had told the teenage me that I would be living my life openly gay, happy, fulfilled, and surrounded by friends, I would have thought you were nuts. I’ve been blessed with a family that always loved and cared for me; that was never in doubt. I know that isn’t the case for many and I don’t take it for granted. But it isn’t just about being accepted by your family. I lucked out 33 years ago when l landed at JSI. It may have taken me a while to inch out of the closet at work, to trust that it would be okay, but once I did, I was met with nothing but support. For me, JSI has always been a place to which I could bring my advocacy, passion, smarts, curiosity, and everything else to work. When I first took on leadership of the HIV Center, I said to Joel Lamstein, founder and former president and CEO of JSI, that I wouldn’t be in the closet about being gay or living with HIV. He responded that I wasn’t expected to. Again, 18-year-old me would have been floored. JSI has always followed words with actions, be it the provision of health insurance in the days before gay and lesbian couples could marry to implementing a comprehensive HIV prevention and treatment access program, including ARVs for staff and their families around the globe long before PEPFAR.

But everything today is not rosy, that is for sure. The news has been filled with stories of Uganda and its new laws, which make it a crime to self-identify as gay, lesbian, or transgender and includes the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.” There are fears that other countries in the region will follow suit. For me, the situation is particularly depressing. I have spent a lot of time supporting some brilliant Ugandan public health leaders’ and community activists’ efforts to implement comprehensive, people-centered HIV programs. During my time there, I was open about being gay and HIV+. People had questions, often a lot of them, but were always respectful. Friends invited me into their homes because they wanted to know how they could support gay and lesbian family members and those they loved. It pains me to know that now I can’t step foot in the country without putting myself or others at risk.

Andrew fullem, third from left, sits with three others.
Andrew Fullem, third from left, at a forum for LGBTQ+ rights during the 2016 International AIDS Conference in Durban.

But let’s be clear, this willful march backward and government efforts to stigmatize and marginalize the LGBTQ+ community is happening here, right in our own country. The Human Rights Campaign has identified 75 state laws enacted this year that put basic rights at risk. In Florida, it is the law of the land that medical providers can refuse to provide care to any person identified as LGBTQ+ if it offends their religious beliefs. Tennessee is prepared to forfeit millions of federal dollars for HIV prevention services because those funds would have to ensure access to services for gay men, men who have sex with men, and transgender men and women. In a recent Pew Charitable Trust poll, 60% of Americans said an employer should be able to deny rights to an LGBTQ+ employee if providing those rights could be interpreted as acceptance. In May, the Department of Homeland Security reported that threats by domestic extremists against the LGBTQ+ community, including school-based programs, are on the rise across the country. These are chilling and painful reminders that nothing is settled.

So what do we do? Sit back? Sorry, but that isn’t an option. We’ve fought too long and hard to be heard and seen and for the government and communities to act. It’s time for all of us, especially those who are privileged with supportive family, friends, community, and workplaces, to act up. We know when laws, policies, work benefits, actions, and words hinder our and others’ ability to live our true lives. We must take bold actions to challenge transgressive policies and laws at every level of government, and use our economic power to influence discriminatory private company practices. At the same time, we and our allies must speak up when our families, colleagues, friends, and communities talk and act in ways that harm and try to make us smaller, to behave, to conform. We owe it to ourselves to be ourselves. Not one more step backward.

By Andrew Fullem, Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer

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