A Conversation With LGBTI Activists on Community-Building

Rainbow Rights Paralegal Training

Navigating challenging and complex civic spaces is nothing new for local organizations working to advance the rights and inclusion of LGBTI communities. Join NDI Senior Program Officer for Citizen Participation for a conversation with three partners from across the globe working to sustain their advocacy for equality and inclusion, while tackling some of the unprecedented challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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Whitney Pfeifer: Navigating challenging and complex civic spaces is nothing new for local organizations working to advance the rights and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex communities. Regardless of the levels of tolerance and legal protection in a country, these groups know how to quickly adapt and utilize innovative approaches to maintaining their work and advocating for change.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has forced organizations to cancel Pride events, training, and in-person advocacy efforts, LGBTI organizations have been quick to respond and adjust, playing an integral role in meeting the basic needs of LGBTI individuals while utilizing online creativity to stay connected and sustain LGBTI community building.

Today, we are joined by three partners from across the globe, each working to sustain their advocacy for equality and inclusion, while tackling some of the unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic.

We'll be speaking to each of these local partners to discover how they have successfully built digital communities that achieved real-life results. Welcome to DemWorks.

In Panama, Fundación Iguales is working to shift social attitudes towards greater respect and acceptance of LGBTI communities. Part of this process includes collecting stories of how LGBTI communities are being impacted by COVID-19 and its response, demonstrating that as humans, we are all impacted by the pandemic, regardless of how we identify. We spoke with Ivan to learn more. Ivan, thank you for joining us.

Ivan: Thank you.

WP: Could you tell us a little bit more about the LGBTI community in Panama and the types of challenges LGBTI individuals face in building and maintaining a community?

I: We are a country between Costa Rica, who just last month legalized civil marriage for same sex couples, and Colombia, a country with equal marriage since April 2016. We're a part of that less of the 30% of Latin Americans who live in a territory where marriage equality is prohibited. Moreover, are known for public policies that takes into consideration LGBTI persons.

The challenges, there are many. As a gay person, for example, I'm not protected by any non-discrimination law, or the gender identity of the trans community is not part of what is respected by the government. There is unfortunately still a lot of stigma and discrimination for being queer.

We're a small country where there's a strong control from conservatives and religious groups, but what are the good news, I guess? The civil society is finally organized, and organizations like Fundación Iguales are doing a marvelous work promoting the respect of our human rights, creating community, helping the LGBTIQ community to be more visible, and therefore more respected by the general public.

We start a legal process to have marriage equality in Panama since 2016. We are very optimistic we will conquer in the courts and in the public opinion, by strategic innovative and emphatic messages of equality.

WP: You alluded briefly to how Fundación is contributing to building and strengthening the community in Panama. Could you discuss the facts a little bit more about how Fundación is contributing to and strengthening during these uncertain times?

I: First of all, with positive messages and with a clear presence in national conversations about the measures during the pandemic, highlighting the reality of LGBTI persons. We have had a very tough situation with restriction based on sex to restrain mobility of people here in Panama, and that had impacted dramatically the trans community and the nonbinary community of Panama, in some cases affecting their access to food and medicines. Yes, to be able to even go to the supermarket and buy bread and milk.

We decided to join forces with other organizations, specifically with an organization called Hombres Trans Panamá. It's an organization conformed by trans men to create a solidarity network. The network was created for two main activities. The first one, it is to assist directly trans and non binary people who register for humanitarian assistance. We already covered 120 people who were in need of food and medicines.

The second part of that program is an online survey to register discrimination cases for the trans community during the quarantine time. We have already had the report of 26 cases, mostly of trans person who were restricted to enter supermarkets to buy food because their gender identity or expression did not match what the police "expect" from them that day. That report was sent to the government, to regional organizations that monitor human rights, and we hope that impact possibly their lives.

For other programs that Fundación Iguales is promoting during this times of pandemic, one that is very important is a series of podcasts called Panademia LGBTIQ+, a program of Fundación Iguales with [foreign language 00:06:20], which is an independent group of journalists to highlight stories of LGBTI persons during these times, telling their stories, especially the trans community.

WP: That sounds like a lot of excellent work and strengthening the collaboration between groups has been really effective, I think, in this COVID pandemic situation.

I: Indeed.

WP: You alluded briefly to these podcasts. Are there other forms of technology that Fundación is using to continue the work that you're doing?

I: Yes, and that's very interesting because we have to reinvent our work, basically. Just before COVID, we finished a super nice, unprecedented program going through the different provinces of Panama that we call the human rights tour, with the idea to be more democratic on the contents of human rights, specifically talking about Inter-American Court of Human Rights decision on equal marriage and gender identity, the Advisory Opinion 24. It was such a success and we planned to right away continue around the whole country. With this situation we have, being confined at home with mobility restrictions, we have to change all that, but we were lucky to have a strong presence in social media with a robust content that we were able to share and build from it. Also, our capacity of doing initiatives jointly with other NGOs like I mentioned before and you highlight, were also key to show the work that we were doing on respecting human rights.

That coordination and collaborations, like the podcast example, the solidarity network, the level of infographic videos and social media interactions of Fundación Iguales are very solid. Since we dedicate an important part of our work to be present in national and international platforms for political participation, that allowed us to be more visible and not to be forget during these complicated times,

WP: It sounds that you've been able to pivot pretty smoothly and quickly, despite I'm sure what have appeared to be challenges that we're all facing during the pandemic.

Would you be willing to talk about kind of the role and benefits of partnering with international organizations such as NDI in your work?

I: When I started Fundación Iguales, I was very privileged to know that working with international organizations like NDI was essential. I lived almost eight years in Washington, D.C., And before that I studied in New York City, and I worked for almost eight years in multilateral organizations. That experience gave me a different look to understand how, and how specifically a country like Panama, a country with so many challenges, with the lack of the government support and local support, I would say, organizations and enterprises and so on ... so for me, it was very important to know that a key part of my work was to knock some doors abroad because it's essential to boost the work that we do here. Definitely, without the help, assistance, donations and more important, the moral support of embassies and organizations like NDI, our work would have been way more difficult than what actually is.

WP: As NDI, we like to partner and collaborate with our partners and recognize you as the experts and provide the technical assistance and guidance as needed. So it's good to hear that this has been beneficial for Fundación. My last question is about what's next for Fundación?

I: We're very focused that we want a social change for our country in a social change for good. We want a Panama where all persons will be respected and where they can all be happy. We want Panama to join the club of countries where same sex couples can have the support and protection of the government, and more importantly, where society in general welcomes their families. We're trans persons can fully live and decide about their dreams and lives. And we're going to conquer that by strategic campaigns, with messages, with empathy.

WP: Thank you, Ivan, for taking the time to speak with us. We look forward to seeing what Fundación is able to do in creating a safer and more equal space for LGBTI communities in Panama.

I: Thank you, it's been a pleasure.

WP: For more than 35 years, NDI has been honored to work with thousands of courageous and committed democratic activists around the world to help countries develop the institution's practices and skills necessary for democracy's success. For more information, please visit our website at

You've heard about how an organization is engaging with communities and collecting stories to plan for future advocacy efforts from Fundación Iguales. But what happens when you are in the middle of a project, when things get disrupted? LGBTI communities in Romania successfully organized to prevent an amendment to the constitution that would ban same sex marriage that was put to a referendum in 2018. In the aftermath of these efforts, there was a need to establish priorities moving forward and create space for dialogue within the community about the next steps for the overall movement. Mosaic organized different segments of the LGBTI community, including transgender communities, LGBTI, Roma, women, and older people to build consensus around an advocacy agenda moving forward.

In the midst of these community outreach efforts, COVID-19 happened. Vlad Viski, executive director of MosaiQ is with us. Vlad, thanks for joining us.

Vlad Viski: Thank you for having me.

WP: Can you tell us a little bit more about your project?

VV: Between 2015 and 2018, in Romania, there was a national campaign to change the constitution and ban gay marriages, initiatives which were supported by conservative groups and a large share of the political party. For three years, in Romania, society has been talking, probably for the first time in a very serious manner, about LGBTI rights, about the place for the LGBT community in society. This conservative effort ended with a failure at the polls for the referendum to change the constitution, only 20% of Romanians actually casting the vote for this issue when the minimum threshold of votation, of turnout, was 30%.

This was possible with quite a successful campaign coming not from not only from MosaiQ but from other LGBTI organizations in Romania throughout the country. We all kind of went on the boycott strategy, we're actually asking people to boycott the referendum because human rights cannot be subject to a popular vote.

Once the referendum in 2018 failed in Romania, there was a question in the community. What should we do next? How should our agenda look like for the next couple of years? We at Mosaic, we really tried to focus and we really thought the issue of intersectionality as being extremely important. This is how the idea of this project started, Engage and Empower was the name of the project. It focused on six groups within the LGBT community: transgender people, LBTQ women, elderly, people living with HIV, Roma LGBT people, and sex workers.

WP: Could you talk a little bit more about how the organization is trying to maintain momentum in this community building efforts, despite what's going on with the pandemic?

VV: We at MosaiQ, we had to reimagine some of the projects that we were involved in, so that included canceling events or postponing them or rescheduling for the fall. But the problem is also that we don't really know the timeline for this story or when it will end. We've had issues related to personal issues of people in the community. People living with HIV were not getting their treatment due to the fact that hospitals were closed except for the coronavirus. Then we've had issues related to sex workers not being able to work anymore. The issue of poverty has been quite an important issue. A lot of people have been laid off, a lot of people were not able to pay rent, a lot of people were either in unemployment benefits, and so on.

At the personal level for us and as an organization, all of a sudden we got a lot more messages from people asking for help. We've tried to help them on a case by case basis. We are not a social health kind of organization, but we've tried to fix as many problems as we were able to. Then throughout this, and actually talking about issue of intersectionality and the issue of the project and the way we work with the Roma LGBT community, what we've witnessed throughout this pandemic and the lockdowns, especially, was an increase in violence, against Roma people from the police. So together with colleagues from civil society, especially Roma groups, we had to monitor hate speech in the media, monitor cases of abuse and violence from the police, and also make statements and letters to official institution, to the president and the prime minister and so on. So for us, it was an issue of also solidarity with other groups affected by the pandemic.

WP: I believe that you've had to move some of your activities online, correct?

VV: That was another part, which we kind of tried to make the best out of the situation. We felt that there were a lot of young kids, for example, who, because schools were closed, they had to go back and live with their homophobic parents. A lot of organizations, LGBT organizations in Romania were not able to have the Zoom meetings with their volunteers because they were living with homophobic or transphobic parents so they could not reveal what they were doing or who they were talking to. So the issue of depression and psychological pressure that comes on people being locked down, people trying to survive throughout this pandemic, we decided to have a campaign online, which was called MosaiQ Quarantine, and that included parties online in order to support queer artists who were not able to earn any money because there were no gigs. We organized these online parties and we paid them and we supported their work.

Then we had the zoom talks with, or like talks online, with all of the organizations and groups in Romania, LGBT groups, to kind of better see the situation on the ground in different cities in Romania. That was for us extremely important because we felt like there was a need to have this dialogue within the community.

Then we had the all sorts of posts on social media and different kinds of events. We also talked with organizations from the region, from the US, from Moldova, from Russia, to kind of see what the feeling also over there.

So for us, it was quite an exercise to take advantage of the fact that using social media and using online tools, we were able to reach out to people who otherwise would not have been able to participate in our events, being so far away.

WP: It sounds like Mosaic has certainly stepped up to the challenges. Could you just briefly talk about what NDI support has meant to Mosaic?

VV: I think the project funded by NDI was extremely important, both for the community ... right now, we have an active Roma LGBT group. We have all of these, the issue of intersectionality being put on the agenda. We have the [inaudible 00:19:36] sports, which is a sports club run by women who is also trying to grow based also on the support that Mosaic has offered through NDI. We've had, at the Pride last season, the first Roma LGBT contingent putting the issue on the agenda. So for us, in many regards, this project kind of focused us more on this intersectional approach to activism and the need to include all voices within the community. The trust that they had in us was very important.

WP: I'm glad to hear that it's been a fruitful partnership, both for NDI and Mosaic. Vlad, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

VV: Oh, that's it.

WP: We'll be back after this short message.

To hear more from democracy heroes and why inclusion is critical to democracy, listen to our DemWorks podcast, available on iTunes and SoundCloud.

Before the break we heard from two partners using digital platforms to create and support communities. But how are groups sustaining their online networks and communities once created? Rainbow Rights trained paralegals in the Philippines on legal issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity and how to support LGBTI communities. Through Google Classroom, these paralegals formed an online network to help communities facing discrimination and violence. Eljay, welcome to our podcast. Could you tell us a little bit more about the paralegal support project?

Eljay: Yeah. One of the main components of our community paralegal program is to create a national online platform wherein all of the trained paralegals of our organization will be able to share their experiences, their cases, and they could also refer some of the difficult cases to us. So that's the main idea. It's just that it gained a deeper significance in this COVID-19 pandemic that we're experiencing because a lot of legal organizations hurried to do to do what we had been doing in the past year, which is to create an online platform.

Right now, even though there's a lot of problems in the Philippines barring the central autocracy, we have been maintaining the platform. People are still referring cases to us and we are working on those cases. Part of the deeper significance that it has is in the Philippines, human rights violations have increased because of the lockdown. So it became a source of reporting documentation for these human rights violations during the lockdown. We did not expect that it will evolve that way but we're happy that it has, and despite some connectivity issues in the Philippines, it has been reaping as well.

WP: So when you're talking about the program, there've been increased human rights reports, is that generally more broad human rights abuses? Or are we talking specifically to the LGBTI community?

E: Yeah, we accept every report on numerous violations, but we take on the LGBTI human rights violations specifically. When we receive human rights violations that is not really in our lane, so to speak, we refer them to bigger organizations. We have seen increased numerous violation against the LGBTQI community here.

WP: You had mentioned that Rainbow Rights fortunately had organized the training for the paralegals before the pandemic hit and already have a plan in place to use online platforms, which was Google Classroom, to create this network across the country. You've briefly referenced what the current situation is like now, but could you go a little deeper into that? What kind of challenges is Rainbow Rights facing in continuing to engage with the community?

E: As I have mentioned, maybe a bigger challenge is the connectivity issues in the Philippines. We don't have good internet here, and that's a challenge. It's also challenged to keep the interest level of our paralegals and keep them engaged. That is also challenged because they have bigger problems now. Because of the pandemic, they're thinking of their health, they're thinking of their livelihoods, and that is a challenge during these times.

However, before the pandemic, we also saw that we had to be creative at the level of interest, so that's a challenge. The situation, it's working. Overall situation's working. We have referrals, we continue to share modules in our platform, refreshing their memory on the training. We also try to be light. There are some light moments so that they be so that they keep themselves also, the interest level is high and that they see us and they trust us in maintaining this platform.

WP: You alluded to the fact that it's often difficult to maintain interest of your paralegals when engaging online.

E: Basically, we had a two-pronged approach on this. One is to find the people who has a genuine interest to serve the community. So in our selection process, we have chosen people who have track records of service in their communities. The other side of the approach is to build on the spirit of camaraderie, friendship, and community solidarity between us. So even before the pandemic, we have been setting up calls and checking on them, even adding them on Facebook and Twitter just to continually engage with them. I think that's a big part of our strategies. We're also looking to ... I think in my personal view, I think a lot of what they do is labor, so I think in the future, we will be able to compensate them for their efforts in their community and we're looking into that as well.

WP: That's really interesting. Could you speak a little bit more to the role and benefits of partnering with international organizations such as NDI in your work and as well as helping to sustain this national network?

E: Yeah. I think it's invaluable. Foreign support, foreign funding support such as the NDI had been really great for us. We have been envisioning this project for a long time and NDI gave us the opportunity to really implement it. They also gave us a level of freedom in how to execute the program because there's a recognition that we in the ground know how to solve our problems. But there's also a lot of technical support aside from the funding. Like in digital security, NDI has given us a lot of resources, even given us a training for this and how to secure our online platforms. They also provided a lot of coalition building resources. So there, and I think we are also sharing what our experience with NDI to our other funders, because I think with NDI, we had a lot of freedom and we had a lot of support because you guys always check on us, so that's great.

WP: Well, I'm glad to hear that NDI is taking care of our partners. Thinking about how June is Pride Month for a lot of communities around the world, and Pride is often equated to the community of LGBTI people around the world how would you say Rainbow Rights efforts have contributed to strengthening the community in the light of the violence and the discrimination that LGBTI people face on a daily basis in the Philippines?

E: Since 2005, Rainbow Rights has been doing this approach wherein we come ... a top down approach at the policy level, but we also complement it with from the grassroots, bottom up approach. We make sure that whatever we bring at the policy level, it is informed by our grassroots services. I think that's one of our biggest contribution, is to really complement policy with experience on the ground. Most of the policies that we've pushed for is really coming from what our experiences and what are the real needs of the people that we serve in the communities. I think that's one of our biggest contributions in our approach. We're not just the legal, we don't just bring cases to court. We don't just bring legal expertise, but we also inform it with community level approaches and grassroots approaches.

WP: Well, thank you LJ again for taking the time to speak with us and telling us a little bit more about how Rainbow Rights is contributing to a holistic support system to the LGBTI community in the Philippines.

E: Thank you so much for this opportunity.

WP: Thank you to Ivan, Vlad, and Eljay for sharing their experiences and for the work you're doing to advance LGBTI equality and inclusion, and thank you to our listeners. To learn more about NDI or to listen to other DemWorks podcasts, please visit us at