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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, May 7, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 19
International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission's Executive Cary Alan Johnson
Section One
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International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission's Executive Cary Alan Johnson

by James Whitely - SGN Staff Writer

From April 26-28, Cary Alan Johnson, the executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) visited Seattle for a variety of speaking engagements. Johnson spoke to the University of Washington School of Law about the role lawyers play in moving the struggle forward around the world. He also spoke at Seattle University and the PATH (Program for Appropriate Technology in Health) Seattle Offices.

Johnson, who has been executive director of the commission for the last year, seemed excited to be in Seattle. According to him, the organization doesn't "get enough time to talk to people in the United States about the work we do." In addition to his public engagements, Johnson was able to sit down with Sally Clark and Tom Rasmussen, Seattle City Council members who are both out LGBT civic leaders.

Johnson joined SGN at Capitol Hill's Cupcake Royale to talk about the methodology of IGLHRC, his work as the former director of IGLHRC's Africa Program in Cape Town, South Africa, and the direction of the organization, which began in San Francisco in 1990.

The mission of IGLHRC is to advance human rights for everyone, everywhere to end discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

"The reasons are many and the repercussions are severe," said Johnson in regards to the reason for IGLHRC's work. "Victimization, violence, verbal abuse, complete lack of access to HIV services & and the U.S. plays some role in perpetuating this."

According to Johnson, under the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), launched by President George W. Bush in 2003, the U.S. made $15 billion available for AIDS relief. Approximately 1% of that has gone to men who have sex with men.

"Sodomy laws still exist in over 80 countries around the world. Lesbian and Bisexual women face violence in their homes and communities," Johnson said. "We know that while Gay men often bear the brunt of oppression from the state, women face violence and policing of their behavior in the home and the community."

Before taking the position of executive director, Johnson spent four years in Cape Town as director of IGLHRC's Africa program. In addition to responding to human rights emergencies, the Africa program focuses on changing laws, attitudes, and perceptions. Under Johnson's leadership as senior Africa specialist, the Africa program grew significantly.

"South Africa is the country that has probably the most progressive legislation in the world," said Johnson. "Protections based on orientation and gender are in the constitution." However, one of the biggest barriers Johnson said he saw there was religious fundamentalism. "[It] is the main enemy right now to the struggle for LGBT Rights," Johnson told SGN.

Partnering with LGBT rights organizations around the world to address situations in critical times - such as rising against legislation like sodomy laws and cross-dressing laws - IGLHRC sees itself as part of an international LGBT rights movement.

Unlike lobbying organizations like the Human Rights Commission, the IGLHRC works with activists worldwide to strategize on the ground level. The IGLHRC accomplishes all of this with a staff of only about 20 people - half working out of New York City, where the organization is headquartered, and half abroad.

The IGLHRC is currently vying for United Nations Observer Status. If they get it - which is likely, according to Johnson - they will be the first LGBT organization to be given the important privileges the status grants.

Organizations with Observer Status have the right to speak at United Nations General Assembly meetings, participate in procedural votes, and to sponsor and sign resolutions, but not to vote on resolutions and other substantive matters. Examples of organizations with this status include the International Olympic Committee and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

If the IGLHRC gets Observer Status, it could be one of the most radical steps forward for LGBT human rights on an international level.

Cary Alan Johnson is an author and activist with more than 20 years of experience in the LGBT rights movement and in African social and economic development. He has worked in management positions for Amnesty International, Africare, the U.N. Human Rights Commission, and Planned Parenthood. He has worked in many Sub-Saharan African countries, including Rwanda, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and many others.

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