Behind the Scenes of the UN’s First-Ever LGBT Gala

Yuli Rustinawati

Yuli Rustinawati walked to the stage in tears. She cradled an award, shaped like a globe, in her hands. She took a deep breath and addressed a room of activists, donors, and supporters from around the world—all gathered for the first-ever gala at the United Nations honoring LGBT rights pioneers.

“Time flies,” she said. “New challenges emerge. The trajectory of change is not necessarily upward. But we are not tired.” She held back tears and clutched the award. “We have hope. We are not giving up.”

As Rustinawati left the stage, the whole audience rose, clapping.

Organized by OutRight Action International, Monday night’s Celebration of Courage event gathered together activists like Rustinawati, who are on the front lines of the global LGBT rights movement.

Many shared success stories in troubled countries. Others, like Rustinawati, talked about new waves of conservative backlash.

“We were shocked,” she told us before the ceremony. “In the last 10 years, I’ve never been in a situation like this.”

Rustinawati founded Arus Pelangi a decade ago in Indonesia, an organization committed to LGBT advocacy in the Asian country. The LGBT movement had grown in the country over the years, totaling 120 organizations across the country. However, in January, religious conservatives gained control of the Indonesian government, setting off what OutRight official’s called a “moral panic.”

“Intolerance has now got legitimacy,” Rustinawati said. “They have legitimacy not only to spread hate, but to also do violence to LGBT people.”

Indonesian Minister of Defense Ryamizard Ryacudu in March accused LGBT citizens of “brainwashing” others in a “proxy war” that he said was more dangerous than a nuclear attack.

Since the new regime, discrimination against LGBT Indonesians has increased dramatically.

“The government of Indonesia started this, and the government of Indonesia has to end this,” Rustinawati said.

Crown Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil of India, a fellow honoree, also talked to us about the fight in his country. He founded the Lakshya Trust to combat rising HIV infection rates in India, and while the charity receives government support and funding, his workers still face local police harassment.

“My workers have been arrested by the police for distributing condoms,” he said. “They have been threatened, blackmailed with outing, even sexually assaulted at police stations. So I ask—who are the criminals here?”

When comparing their countries to the U.S., both activists said that recent breakthroughs—like the landmark Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage—had reverberated throughout the international community. For better or worse.

“We are not even looking at marriage now because we have not got our fundamental rights,” Gohil said. “That is our priority.”

Rustinawati agreed. “What happened last year in the U.S. with the same-sex marriage ruling is also affecting us,” she said. “The media is reporting that marriage is now our sole agenda. That is not the case—at least not now. Freedom of assembly, freedom of expression—that’s what we’re fighting for.”

The struggle for basic human rights was a centerpiece of the OutRight event, which also honored U.S. special envoy for LGBTI rights Randy Berry; Microsoft’s Dan Bross; and Logo’s Omar Sharif Jr.

Sharif and Logo premiered the Global Ally Project, where Egyptian-born Sharif helps share stories of LGBT people around the world. The project also includes a survey of 100,000 people in 65 countries on attitudes toward LGBTI people.

Celebration of Courage host Alan Cumming congratulated the efforts of the activists and the Global Ally Project for bringing to light the real stories of LGBT people.

“Homophobia is a form of fear,” he told us. “All fear, when you’re exposed to it or understand it, goes away. You open your heart a little bit. It would be easy to be complacent and forgot what’s happening in the world.”

Rustinawati certainly isn’t complacent.

“We can see clearly who is our enemy,” she said. “At least we have that.”

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