3 min

When relief organizations and human rights collide

Picking the right group to donate to

The entire population of Canada has been asked to contribute funds to the tsunami relief effort in Asia. Unprecedented donations have poured into non-profit organizations that are working to help survivors. At the same time, it is essential that queer Canadians ensure that their hard-earned money is going to organizations that recognize human rights issues as they relate to the global community of queer people.

Some of the organizations providing aid are religion-based. The US-founded Christian organization World Vision is by far the largest among these, and advocates prayer teams as a tool of development. Although it is clear that such organizations embrace humanitarian values, it is also true that the Christian right continues to work towards limiting gay and lesbian human rights on a global scale.

The Canadian Red Cross is known for bringing aid to people in crisis. Its fundamental principles allow for immediate help to people, “whatever their race, political beliefs, religion, social status, or culture.” There is, however, no mention of sexual orientation and gender identity in their on-line mandate. Is it to be understood that queer rights worldwide are cloaked within this list of people? Or rather, are we to infer that gay and lesbian people are not among those supported by the Canadian Red Cross? In short, does the Red Cross deliver aid to the transvestites who are part of the cultural mosaic of the Thai people?

It could be that Canadian non-governmental organizations, mindful of not offending the peoples they are aiding, have accepted the homophobic stance that homosexuality is a Western phenomenon. For this reason, they may be loath to include sexual orientation on their list of human rights. However, this thesis seems unlikely given that our communities exist in every country. In a world where people are increasingly outing themselves, it is essential that aid organizations recognize queer people as among those they support. The countries affected by the tsunami all have vibrant queer communities.

Homosexuality is legal in Thailand. Historically, there has been little official condemnation of lesbians and gay men. There is also no prohibition of same-sex relationships by Buddhism, the religion of Thailand. The country has a growing pink economy offering up guesthouses, tours, restaurants and clubs to its denizens and visitors. Chief among these is the gay resort of Phuket, now in ruins, which has been the site of an annual Pride celebration for half a decade. Thailand’s grassroots lesbian group, Anjaree, was formed in 1986. Its representatives regularly speak on lesbian, gay and women’s issues to the Thai media. Thai lesbians have even developed their own vernacular, preferring to call themselves “tom” or “dee,” words that roughly correspond to the Western terms butch and femme.

Indonesian government and society pretend that homosexuality does not exist. In a climate of compulsory heterosexuality, Indonesian lesbians and gay men are compelled to marry, but many also maintain same-sex relationships. Gaya Nusantara, Indonesia’s national gay rights group since 1987, continues to defend the country’s queers against repression and censorship. The capital, Jakarta, is home to the annual Q! Film Festival.

Although family and societal pressures force Sri Lankan lesbians and gay men to lead hidden, underground lives, queer citizenship is slowly emerging thanks to gay and lesbian activism. Women’s Support Group (WSG) is a grassroots Sri Lankan lesbian activist group that brings support to the community with the ultimate goal of winning legal rights and social acceptance. They form part of the Sri Lankan gay organization, Companions On A Journey, which has lost 36 of its members in the tsunami. (See story on page 5.) The work of WSG includes advocacy for women with transgender identities, especially those who adopt male identities in order to maintain relationships with the women they love. WSG also supports women’s basic human rights from reproductive health to violence against women in Sri Lanka. The group works with and has the support of human rights organizations at an international level.

As millions of dollars of Canadian aid are arriving in areas of Southeast Asia devastated by the tsunami, distribution is now becoming a challenge. It is even more critical that Canadian NGOs distribute aid to the many diverse communities from an impartial standpoint.

In my final analysis, I choseto donate to Oxfam’s Asia relief efforts. A supporter of queer communities in South Africa and the former Yugoslavia, Oxfam’s emphasis is on working with women. Oxfam also partners with Amnesty International, an organization that is at the forefront of developing universal human rights standards to include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.