Is Seattle’s global health sector ready to embrace gay rights?

Activists in New York City take part in Global Day of Rage Against an Indian Supreme Court Judgment that reinstated Section 377 and re-criminalized homosexuality. (Photo by Sarah Bennett / IGLHRC)

“I didn’t want to hide or live in fear anymore,” says Jacque Larrainzar. “And the place I kept coming back to was Seattle.”

In 1997 Larrainzar, became the first Mexican to receive political asylum in the U.S. based on sexual orientation. After traveling the country looking for a new home Larrainzar says that Seattle, and the LGBT community here, just felt right.

Larrainzar cried seeing a gay couple holding hands on Capitol Hill for the first time.

“I saw a patrol car going by [them] and nothing happened,” says Larrainzar who now works for the Seattle Office for Civil Rights. “I couldn’t believe it.”

In the almost 20 years since, Seattle has distinguished itself as a champion of LGBT rights — legalizing gay marriage and usurping San Francisco as the city with the highest concentration of gay-couple households.

During the same period, we’ve also grown to become a hub for global health and development headquartering powerhouses in the sector like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, international non-profit PATH and a constellation of smaller organizations working internationally.

But these two worlds — LGBT rights and global health — don’t intersect as often as you might expect.

“This is a topic near and dear to my heart,” says Mariel Boyarsky a graduate student with the University of Washington’s Department of Global Health and coordinator for an international conference on gender, sexuality, social movements and global health planned at the UW this weekend, “and one that I feel is neglected and lacking in the field of global health.”

The conference, also known as the Western Regional International Health Conference, looks to help challenge the global-health organizations here to include issues such as anti-LGBT violence, accessing rights for LGBT communities and providing health care for LGBT people (even if they aren’t in groups at high risk for HIV) to their agendas.

Banner for the Western Regional International Health Conference, April 4-6 at UW.
Banner for the Western Regional International Health Conference, April 4-6 at UW.

“In global health priorities are often driven by funding,” says Boyarsky in her office crowded with pallets of water and bags of chips stocked for conference volunteers, “and so it can be slow to change.”

It can be difficult for funders to see the link between health and human rights says Amie Bishop, Senior Program Advisor with PATH’s Reproductive Health Program.

Bishop says that anti-gay legislation recently passed in Uganda and Russia, and violence against LGBT communities worldwide, should be viewed through a global health lens because “fundamental human rights are essential to health and well being.”

Even once that connection is made, this is still controversial work. Russian and Ugandan leaders have accused Western-funded LGBT rights organizations of inappropriately imposing their cultural values. Closer to home World Vision US, an international Christian humanitarian organization based in Federal Way, quickly revoked their decision to hire employees in same sex marriages when the move sparked outrage among their supporters.

“Health organizations sometimes shy away from engaging in human rights as a fundamental basis of the work,” says Bishop “partly because donors don’t want to get too political.”

Despite the challenges, Bishop thinks Seattle has an important role to play in the global fight for LGBT rights.

Jessica Stern, Executive Director of the New York City based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), agrees. Stern is here this week meeting with global health and LGBT rights leaders to explore the possibility of starting a Seattle chapter of the Commission.

“The LGBT community is global,” says Stern, explaining how her staff will “stalk diplomats” in the halls of the UN in an effort to get LGBT issues in front of leaders from around the world. The Commission also partners with LGBT rights organizations around the world including South Africa, Colombia, the Philippines and Iraq.

Ging Cristobal of IGLHRC (center w/rainbow head wrap) with activists at the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) People's Forum in Yangon, Mayanmar. (Photo by Arus Pelangi)
Ging Cristobal of IGLHRC (center w/rainbow head wrap) with activists at the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) People’s Forum in Yangon, Mayanmar. (Photo by Arus Pelangi)

Bishop (who is also on the board of IGLHRC) and Stern aren’t sure yet what a “Seattle Chapter” might look like (in fact they came up with the idea of forming chapters as a way to build ties with our city) but they’re excited to start the conversation as part of this weekend’s conference.

“We’ve benefited so much and made so much progress” says Bishop — who worries that just as LGBT rights are increasing for Americans, they are in decline in other countries. “Our city and state have so much to offer, I think we can offset some of this imbalance.”

Find out more about the Western Regional International Health Conference at:

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at