The rights of queer people to live freely are, shockingly to some, a nascent phenomenon. No matter how advanced and progressive the west thinks itself to be, issues like gay marriage and transgender rights have only gained widespread support in recent years. It has not even been a decade since the bill legalising same-sex marriage was passed in the UK, and no country legalised it before the 21st century. The recent protests and legal challenges to queer activities and spaces have proven that the legal freedom of LGBTQ+ people is still in its infancy. 69 countries in the world have not even reached the threshold of decriminalising homosexual activity. Many queer people flee these oppressive states to be able to live their true selves without fear of repudiation. In some countries, particularly those whose legal systems are based on an interpretation of Sharia law, the ability to escape safely can be a life-or-death situation.
The legal oppression of homosexuality in these states, including the banning of so-called homosexual ‘propaganda’, means that there are no local organisations who can openly cater to the needs of queer people. They must rely on the support of foreign charities or else brave evading persecution by themselves. One of the most impactful organisations working to bring LGBTQ+ refugees to countries where they can live freely is Rainbow Railroad.
Rainbow Railroad is a Canadian charity founded in 2006 which aims to relocate queer people whose lives are in danger in their home country. Their 2021 annual report stated that 8,506 people across the world reached out to them for assistance, more than two times the number of the previous year. This significant increase in those seeking help is undoubtedly tied to the Taliban’s takeover of the government of Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul in August 2021.
Though LGBTQ+ rights in Afghanistan were oppressive before the Taliban took power, the Taliban’s Leadership Council has refused to respect rights to freedom of expression, freedom of speech and the education of women among many others. They have even openly mentioned their intention to criminalise homosexuality. In 2019 a representative of the Taliban told Reuters that LGBTQ+ rights were “against our Sharia law” and would not be upheld if they seized power in Afghanistan.
Rainbow Railroad reports that they have received more than 5,400 requests for help from Afghanistan since August 2021. They have been able to provide financial support to 648 people and have resettled 247 of those people in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom or Ireland. Their resettlement programs are frequently accomplished in collaboration with local charities; for instance, Stonewall UK has assisted Rainbow Railroad in getting LGBTQ+ Afghans to the UK with support from the Home Office. Rainbow Railroad estimates that their support of queer Afghan refugees has cost at least $1.5 million to date. Even with all this money being put towards rescuing and resettling these refugees, there are many more who still need support.
Many queer people in Afghanistan view fleeing to another country as the only option to escape the Taliban’s persecution but most of them lack the documentation or financial resources to cross the border. A Rainbow Railroad report based on information they received from those seeking their help after the fall of Kabul reveals that many LGBTQ+ Afghans have faced physical and sexual violence from the local community or members of the Taliban themselves. Even for those who manage to leave Afghanistan, most of its bordering nations also criminalise homosexuality so the danger is certainly still present. Those who flee to neighbouring Iran face capital punishment for being queer.
More can definitely be done to support queer people living in countries which persecute homosexuality. The governments of Canada and the United States have been called upon by Rainbow Railroad to make them and similar organisations formal partners to make the resettlement process easier. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has only exacerbated the need for more support for queer refugees around the world, since Russia has oppressive laws regarding homosexual expression. The Russian government has even made homophobia part of their anti-Ukrainian propaganda. In October 2022 Vladimir Putin lambasted the “newfangled trends” of the west, including “dozens of genders and gay pride parades”. The same month Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, called the leaders of the west “the supreme rulers of hell” and argued that Russians were imbued with a “sacred power” to take on the “dying world” of the west.
These sentiments are not new in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Queer people in areas of Ukraine occupied by Russia have long complained of heightened discrimination and outright violence against themselves. Donetsk in eastern Ukraine saw an increase in homophobic violence after the formation of the Donetsk People’s Republic by Russian-backed separatists in 2014. In 2015 the self-proclaimed republic’s Deputy Minister of Political Affairs said that a “culture of homosexuality” was spreading and that the separatists “must kill anyone who is involved in this”. In February 2022, shortly before Russia recognised the independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic from Ukraine, The Guardian described public opposition within the republic as “virtually non-existent”. Queer people in areas of Ukraine occupied by Russia have been under threat of literal extermination for almost a decade. The invasion of Ukraine in 2022 only highlighted a problem which was already extant in the so-called republics of eastern Ukraine.
Rainbow Railroad and organisations like them have been working diligently to take LGBTQ+ refugees out of states which could persecute them at any moment. However, a lack of awareness or support for their goals has limited their impact. This is particularly true in terms of government support. Rainbow Railroad’s contributions to the resettlement of queer refugees has been recognised more prominently in the media, however. CNN interviewed the organisation’s executive director in 2021 about their involvement in Afghanistan and their work was highlighted in a 2020 episode of the popular reality series Canada’s Drag Race. The show’s contestants were asked to give a drag makeover to LGBTQ+ refugees who had received support from Rainbow Railroad and the prize for the winner of the challenge was a $10,000 donation to the charity in their name.
Positive media portrayals can only take you so far though. In order for queer refugees to resettle in progressive countries governments need to collaborate in providing safe travel and appropriate documentation to those Rainbow Railroad want to help. The UK and Irish governments seem to have developed a good working relationship with the charity to facilitate resettlement, but they still seek a more formal collaboration with the American and Canadian governments. Given that Rainbow Railroad was only given charitable status in Canada a decade ago, they seem to be slow on the uptake when it comes to supporting their vital work.
LGBTQ+ people still face open discrimination across much of the world, especially in areas of conflict where compliance with the law is not a major concern. It is similarly dangerous in states whose laws hold the lives of queer people in their hands like Iran, Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. The governments of western countries who say they promote progressive values need to focus more on supporting refugees facing persecution for their identity in their home country. In particular, those countries who actively participated in the conflicts of a region like the Middle East have a duty to protect people affected by the chaos of war. The withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan directly contributed to the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in 2021 and the increased danger queer Afghans now face as a result. They should therefore be doing much more to assist those who want to flee the persecution of Sharia law. It should not fall to a relatively small Canadian charity to rescue people who are facing discriminatory violence because of the actions of the United States government. At the very least, they should be working with Rainbow Railroad in a more impactful way to allow their support to reach more of the thousands of people seeking it out. In a world undergoing multiple geopolitical crises, it is important to not forget to safeguard the relatively recent advancements in the rights of western queer people and show that their values of freedom and inclusivity stretch beyond their own borders.
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Charlie is a first year History student at Oxford University. He researched and wrote this article as part of the Oxford University Micro Internship programme.