Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Uruguay Lower House Of Congress Passes Same Sex Marriage Bill, Reports That Transgender Prostitutes Face Horrific Abuse In Ivory Coast, 24-Year-Old Robert Titman Arrested And Charged With Hate Crime Offence For Key West Attack, University Of Iowa Becomes First Public Institution In U.S. To Allow Students To Identify As LGBT, Iowa Supreme Court Asked To Uphold To Lower Court Ruling Requiring State To List Both Parents Of Child Born As Part Of Same Sex Marriage

Uruguay has moved closer to legalizing same sex marriage after the lower house of Congress approved a law making all marriages equal. The measure, which was passed by a wide margin, now goes to the Senate where it is expected to be approved. It would make Uruguay the second Latin American country after Argentina to allow gay marriages. Same sex marriages are legal in Mexico City, while civil unions are recognized in several countries in the region. After a long debate, Uruguayan deputies voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday night to approve the Marriage Equality Law. "This is not a homosexual or gay marriage law. It is a measure to equalize the institution independent of the sex of the couple," said Julio Bango, one of the bill's authors. The bill now goes to the Senate where President Jose Mujica's governing coalition has a majority. In recent years, Uruguay has moved to allow same sex civil unions, adoption by gay couples, and to allow gay members of the armed forces. Uruguay's neighbour Argentina legalized gay marriage in 2010. Same sex marriages have been legal in Mexico City since 2009. In a recent decision Mexico's Supreme Court overturned a law in the state of Oaxaca that banned gay marriage. The ruling could pave the way to legalization across Mexico, according to legal experts. In May, Brazil's Supreme Court voted overwhelmingly in favour of allowing same-sex couples the same legal rights as married heterosexuals.

In Ivory Coast, it seemed like a case of simple blackmail. Late one night last month, two cars carrying around 10 soldiers pulled up to a group of prostitutes in Abidjan's Vallon neighborhood and began demanding bribes. To save themselves, some of the women in the group approached the soldiers and told them what they knew would divert their attention: They pointed to a sex worker cowering among them who goes by the street name of Raissa. And they sold her out. The soldiers cornered her, stripped her and discovered her secret: Raissa, who requested that her real name not be used out of fear for her safety, is not a woman at all, but rather a man dressed as one. They savagely beat her with their belts. Such scenes have become routine since the Republican Forces of Ivory Coast assumed control of Abidjan in April 2011 at the end of a five-month conflict to oust ex-President Laurent Gbagbo and install his elected successor, Alassane Ouattara. In interviews with the Associated Press, five victims and activists say transgender sex workers have been regularly stripped and beaten. In the most extreme case, those dressed as women who were discovered to be men were held overnight at military camps and raped with Kalashnikov rifles, they say. Others charge their heads were shaved with broken beer bottles. Raissa said she has endured three attacks during which she's been stripped, beaten and forced to beg for her life as soldiers threatened to shoot her. "With the rage that's in their eyes, you never know when they'll stop," she said. "It's hard to talk about the first time or the second time because it's just happened so many times," said a transgender sex worker who goes by the street name, Sara. "No one has escaped the army." Unlike many West African countries, homosexuality is not explicitly outlawed in Ivory Coast, though committing an "outrage against public decency" with a same sex partner is punishable by up to two years in prison and fines starting at $100. But victims say entrenched homophobia at all levels of the security forces left them with no outlet for filing complaints. "Who would I file a complaint with and where?" asked one victim. "No matter where you go you're going to get hit for that." The allegations from the transgender sex workers come as the army, known by its French acronym of FRCI, is facing greater scrutiny over alleged human rights abuses. In recent months, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented torture against detainees suspected of involvement in attacks on military positions dating back to early August. The AP reported in October that detainees in the western port city of San Pedro were being subject to electric shocks. The abuse of transgender sex workers, however, began long before the recent attacks and subsequent crackdown. Victims said they immediately noticed a difference under Ouattara compared to the Gbagbo years, when such abuses were not nearly as extreme or widespread. Ouattara signed a decree creating the FRCI in March 2011, and it was composed primarily of members of the New Forces rebel group, which used to control Ivory Coast's predominantly Muslim north. Victims almost uniformly attribute the attacks to the fact that many soldiers in the new army are Muslim. During one attack in Abidjan's Zone 4 district in July, Raissa said a soldier invoked the Quran in justifying the violence. "He said, 'In the Quran it says that when you kill a homosexual you go to heaven,'" she recalled. Claver Toure, executive director of the gay and lesbian group Alternative Cote d'Ivoire, said that while many transgender sex workers believed the soldiers' religion was fueling the violence, he suspected it had more to do with their limited education and lack of exposure to Abidjan's nightlife culture - which is far more freewheeling than the conservative interior. "They came from the bush up in the north. They can't read. They don't have an open mind," Toure said. "They came to Abidjan just because of the post-election crisis and they saw gay people for the first time in their lives. And they thought, 'Oh, that's what that is. That's what we call homosexuality.'" Matthew Thomann, an anthropologist and doctoral candidate at American University who has investigated the attacks as part of his research, said they were part of a broader pattern of abuses against all sexual minorities by the security forces. The most recent United States State Department Human Rights Report for Ivory Coast said that in 2011 "there were reports security forces targeted LGBT individuals for abuse." A report produced by local and international NGOs for the October session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights said sexual minorities in Ivory Coast were targeted daily for arbitrary arrest, violence and intimidation. The report said Ivorian authorities had failed to investigate or even acknowledge the abuses. Thomann said the most extreme abuses targeted transgender sex workers. "They're the marginalized of the marginalized," he said. Several transgender sex workers said direct physical violence had declined somewhat as soldiers have grown accustomed to their presence. But they haven't gone away by any means. In late September, a sex worker named Jennifer was taken back to a military base in Vallon after a run-in with the soldiers. For two hours, soldiers beat Jennifer and three other sex workers with belts and anally raped them with assault rifles. "The whole time, they just insulted us and said, 'You're crazy. You're going out dressed as women to sell yourself. You're cursed," she said. "The soldiers treat us like slaves. They can do whatever they want." The four women were forced to sleep naked on the ground outside the camp buildings. They were released at noon the next day with no money to get home. The commander at the military camp in Vallon declined to comment for this story, and military spokesmen could not be reached. Matt Wells, West Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch, called for the abuses to be investigated. "The Ivorian government has sat idly by for far too long as soldiers flaunt their impunity and wreak havoc on vulnerable populations," Wells said. "Authorities should immediately investigate the targeting of transgender sex workers for harassment and abuse and bring those responsible to justice."

In Key West, Florida, last week, an Ohio man marked his birthday on Wednesday by being charged with felony battery charge for allegedly committing a hate crime. Robert Titman of Zanesville, Ohio, who turned 24 Wednesday, was charged after a police investigation tied him to a November 10 Duval Street incident in which he allegedly called a gay Brooklyn, New York, couple "faggots" and punched the two men. Under Florida statute, conviction of a hate crime allows for upped criminal penalties. State Attorney Dennis Ward said it's simply "another element we have to prove." Police spokesperson Alyson Crean said, "The victims were able to describe their attacker, including a unique tattoo on his throat. Titman, who fit the description, was in the Monroe County Detention Center on unrelated charges when detectives showed his photos to the victim." In that case, Titman is charged with felony attempted assault of a law enforcement officer and creating a public disturbance. A police report shows he was drunk and attempting to start a fight with a group of acquaintances at Olivia Street and Windsor Lane around 3:00 am November 13. On Friday, Titman had yet to be assigned an arraignment date. In 2010, there were 149 hate crimes reported statewide, according to the Florida Attorney General's Office.

The University of Iowa has made two changes to a portion of its undergraduate admissions application designed to make the process more inclusive to prospective students who are members of the LGBT population. The changes make UI the second university in the U.S. behind Elmhurst College to allow students to self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in an identification portion of the application, rather than in an interest portion of the application. Elmhurst, which made the change last year, is a private college, and UI is the nation’s first public institution to make the change. In an online portion of the admissions process, students will now have the option of selecting ‘Transgender’ as their gender, rather than only ‘Male’ or ‘Female.’ Another portion of the application will now contain a box that says “Do you identify with the LGBT community?” that students can opt to select. UI Senior Admissions Counselor Jake Christensen said that even for students who don’t identify as LGBT, the options will let them know early on that the UI campus is accepting of all orientations. “It sets that precedent of all people of all different kinds of diversity are respected here,” he said. “Even if you don’t want to identify, just seeing that I think communicates a pretty strong message to prospective students.” Christensen, a UI alumnus and member of the LGBT community, also works for the organization Campus Pride, which advocates for LGBT rights on colleges campuses. Campus Pride initially approached Christensen about making the change, which he said he suggested to UI’s Director of Admissions Michael Barron, who was supportive. Iowa City is already known throughout Iowa as being an accepting environment, and Christensen said he thinks the change will strengthen that reputation. “Students are coming here because of that,” he said. “I think this will enhance that.”

Also in Iowa, Iowa Supreme Court justices were urged Tuesday to uphold a Polk County judge’s decision that required the state to list both parents on the birth certificates of children born as part of a same sex marriage. Camilla Taylor, marriage project director for advocacy group Lambda Legal, said same-sex parents need the immediacy and permanency offered by being declared a legal parent of their children. The exclusion of one parent from a birth certificate forces an unfair requirement that same sex spouses either go through expensive and time-consuming adoptions or face an uncertain legal status in cases where the biological parent is unable to make decisions, Taylor said. Those comments came as part of Tuesday’s oral arguments in a lawsuit brought by Melissa and Heather Gartner against the Iowa Department of Public Health after that agency refused in 2009 to list both names on the birth certificate of their daughter, Mackenzie. Polk County District Judge Eliza Ovrom ruled in the couple’s favor in January, finding that the state had failed to properly follow the 2009 court case that legalized same sex marriage in Iowa. State administrators are bound by 2009’s Varnum v. Brien to interpret laws in a way that gives “full access to the institution of marriage,” Ovrom wrote. “Pursuant to Varnum v. Brien, where a married woman gives birth to a baby conceived through use of an anonymous sperm donor, the Department of Public Health should place her same-sex spouse’s name on the child’s birth certificate without requiring the spouse to go through an adoption proceeding,” Ovrom concluded. “Petitioners have proven the Department’s actions are in violation of law and based on an erroneous interpretation of the law.” Iowa lawyers appealed. Deputy Iowa Attorney General Julie Pottorff argued Tuesday that the Varnum decision shouldn’t apply to an area such as birth certificates, where biological differences provide a solid basis for the state to treat same and different gendered couples differently. “Only opposite-sex couples can conceive a child,” Pottorff said. Both lawyers responded when Justice Thomas Waterman asked whether, in light of expected U.S. Supreme Court rulings next year, the Iowa justices should just withhold ruling on the case for now to see whether there’s a change in the federal laws prohibiting same sex marriage. Taylor urged expediency: “I think there is an urgent need for resolution of this issue, considering the number of families who are in limbo out there as a result of the department’s current position.”

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