This month marks the 50th anniversary of the historic Stonewall uprising in New York City—an event that ignited the modern gay rights movement. In honor of that powerful, life-changing legacy, I am reflecting on the grit and courage of LGBTQI leaders I have met around the world who are achieving historic victories large and small today with the help of American Jewish World Service.
I want to introduce you to three of them, on three continents.
Esther “Essy” Adhiambo, a lesbian who grew up as a herder in rural Kenya, has a no-nonsense way of confronting power.
Moving to Mombasa, on the Indian Ocean, Essy was horrified to see men who beat up people because they are gay, lesbian or trans, and she decided to defend the rights of gender and sexual minorities. She worked with religious leaders and police, training them to respect LGBTQI people.
She soon realized that one of the greatest threats to the community was the “boda boda” motorbike drivers—men known for their violent homophobic assaults on LGBTQI people. Essy worked on the drivers, often one by one, to change their attitudes. She set up training sessions and enlisted the drivers as allies. Astonishingly, the drivers are now protectors of the LGBTQI community.
AJWS supports Essy’s group, Initiative for Equality and Non Discrimination (INEND), which trains Kenyans to respect people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
Essy says many people are ignorant about others, but that’s not a reason to deride them. “Bring them to the table, sit with them, educate them and inform them.”
Anjana “Tang” Suvarnananda, 61, is a pioneer in Thailand’s lesbian, gay and transgender community. In her early teens, she knew she was attracted to girls but stifled herself because her relatives believed that gay and lesbian children would bring shame and bad luck to a family.
Tang had a political awakening in the mid-1980s, while studying in the Netherlands, where she saw activists demanding women’s rights and LGBTQI rights. In 1987, back home, she formed Thailand’s first organization to support the rights of lesbian, gay, bi and trans people.
Soon she was giving interviews to newspapers and TV programs. She convinced a leading teacher training institute to stop discriminating against educators who are trans. Then she became the first lesbian to host a radio show in the country. In her first five years on the show, she was stunned to receive more than five thousand appreciative letters from lesbian, gay, and bi Thai people.
Tang connected with human rights activists across Asia. She spoke at forums from Beijing to Tokyo to Manila, demanding equal treatment for people, no matter what orientation or gender they express.
Last year, Tang joined AJWS as our Sexual Health and Rights program officer in Thailand. “As I work with the groups AJWS supports,” Tang told me recently, “I keep in mind the pain that came through in the letters I received as a radio host. Each letter inspired me to do what I am doing today.”
Cassandra Peralta, 34, has a boisterous laugh and she’s quick to call anyone querido, or “my dear,” after a brief chat. We met not long ago when I accompanied AJWS supporters on a trip to the Dominican Republic.
Cassandra—named Fernando at birth—was born to a middle-class family. In grade school, classmates threw rocks at Fernando because of what they derided as her “feminine voice and feminine walk.” Gradually, Cassandra says, “I realized I would be my true self only if I transitioned to a trans woman.”
At 19, Cassandra started taking hormones and dressing like a woman, and says she felt free. Her joy didn’t last. When her mother died, Cassandra, at age 21, found herself with no home. She turned to sex work to earn a living, and these days she rattles off a litany of abuses, including how police extorted money from her and beat her.
Cassandra found welcoming counselors at Comunidad de Trans Travesti Trabajadoras Sexuales Dominicana, or COTRAVETD, which fights for the health and rights of trans sex workers with AJWS’s support. After volunteering with COTRAVETD, Cassandra became a staff member. “I want to make sure other trans people can go through a normal day without the terrors that I endured,” she confided.
As I write this, I am thinking about the news a few days ago from Essy’s homeland, Kenya, where the High Court unanimously upheld a colonial law that criminalizes same-gender sex. Courageous leaders there are vowing to regroup and bring the case to Kenya’s Supreme Court.
As a Jewish gay man, who came of age in South Africa, I identify with both the pain of this setback and the certainty that we must carry on. Over the millennia, we Jews have persevered through slavery, exile and persecution—never giving up hope, like so many others who wish to be free to be who they are.
Just after the ruling in Kenya, I thought about how my Kenyan AJWS colleague Gitahi Githuku, a fighter for human rights, reacted by adapting a famous phrase of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: “This isn’t new, and the arc of history will bend, in the fullness of time.”
If anyone can bend history toward justice, it is these LGBTQI heroes. This year, this Pride Month, they bring me great hope that love and equality will triumph.
Robert Bank is President and CEO of American Jewish World Service, the leading Jewish organization working to promote human rights in the developing world. Robert has spent his career championing human rights as an attorney, activist and leader. He joined AJWS as Executive Vice President in 2009 and previously served in New York’s municipal government and in the leadership of GMHC—one of the world’s leading organizations combatting HIV/AIDS. Robert has been honored with GMHC’s Lifetime Achievement Award and the Partners in Justice Award from AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.