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Despite gains made in many parts of the world, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people are, in some regions, increasingly persecuted and denied basic human rights. Where Love Is Illegal is a space for people to share stories of discrimination and survival. Read the stories, share them, and contribute your own.

Behind Where Love Is Illegal is a group of people that believe human rights are universal and that persecution based on sexuality or gender identity must end.

That group of people also believes that stories have the ability to connect people, transform opinions, open minds, and change policies.

Where Love Is Illegal started as a photo based project by award-winning photographer and human rights activist Robin Hammond. For a decade Robin has travelled through sub-Saharan Africa to document human rights and development issues. During that same time, he has been shocked to see the rise of intolerance towards LGBTI communities in some countries.

In mid-2014 while on assignment for National Geographic Magazine in Nigeria Robin learned of five young men in the north of the country who had been arrested and flogged in court because they were gay. A few days later, he sat with the young men. They were homeless and in hiding, facing a frightened and uncertain future.

A few weeks later, he made a second trip to see them.

With the images he took of them and the stories he collected, he applied for the Getty Grant for Good, which provides funding to a designer and a photographer to work together to create a worthy awareness raising campaign. Designer Erin Joy joined him, and together, they were awarded US$20,000 to create Where Love Is Illegal.

Robin traveled to Uganda, South Africa, and Cameroon to continue this project, but he realised that the issue expanded beyond Africa. LGBTI rights activist Harold Smith-Franzen helped Robin to continue the project in Malaysia, Russia and Lebanon. Others joined in the campaign along the way offering their support.

In each country Robin worked with grass-roots LGBTI groups fighting for the rights and welfare of a people persecuted for who they are.

For many of the people Robin met, it was the first time they had told their story. Many of the stories were devastating, while others were empowering. The entire Where Love is Illegal team was profoundly impacted. They all knew about the laws that discriminated, but had never heard the personal stories. Intellectually, they understood the injustice, but in the reading of the stories, they felt it.

Many of the grass-roots organisations that collaborated in the making of this project are struggling to provide the desperately needed services they offer. So Where Love is Illegal became about more than raising awareness; it became a drive to support these organisations financially. The team behind the project believes the best way to support LGBTI people in these countries is to support the groups who are from those communities.

So this space was born, a space where people can share stories of discrimination and survival. It is a stand against discrimination, persecution, and violence, by a people who cannot and will not be anything other than the way they were born–a people who refuse to be silenced.

What can you do?

Share your story

See how you can share your story.

Share the campaign

Speaking out against bigotry is one of the greatest weapons in defeating it. So let’s make everyone hear our voices. Follow and share this campaign on your networks using #whereloveisillegal

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Support

Donate money to grass-roots organizations making a difference.

Volunteer

Where Love Is Illegal is entirely run by volunteers. If you’re interested in volunteering, contact the team and tell them how you think you can help us end homophobia.

Organise an exhibition

The goal of Where Love is Illegal is to share LGBTI stories of discrimination and survival around the world. It was initiated by photographer and human rights activist Robin Hammond. Exhibitions of the images made and stories collected by Robin are a powerful way to engage your community in LGBTI rights issues.

At their exhibitions, they also allow the audience to contribute their own stories of discrimination and survival. They set up an interview booth to take stories and images that they add to Where Love is Illegal.

If you are interested in organising an exhibition please get in touch via the contact page.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO SUPPORT MORE PROJECTS LIKE THIS?

This project has been produced by Witness Change, an organisation dedicated to exposing seldom-addressed human rights abuses and effecting change on those issues.

Find out more about Witness Change.

Here are some stories:

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Rihana & Kim / Uganda

In early 2014 they were evicted by their landlord and severely beaten by the local community. The police intervened and both were arrested and charged with ‘Homosexuality’. They spent seven months in prison awaiting trial. They complain that they are continuously harassed by the police.

“We were arrested on 6th Jan 2014
On that day, there first came mukisa’s land lord and warned him to what was coming next so there passed five minutes when the chairman & village mates came asking we should put everything out. We also put them out and we were taken to old Kampala police and forced to make a statement.
There passed one week in the police station and we were taken to prison and we had hard life e.g we were beaten, forced to do hard work.
We spent seven months there (in prison) and we came out but we are suffering a lot and we are not feeling well about the society.
The reason why we were taken to prison is that we were charged of homosexuality (or being gays).”

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Shelah! / Malaysia

“I love my country. I may not want to be here some days, but don’t you dare say I don’t love my country. I’m a satirist. I’m an entertainer. And yes I’m a drag queen. Quite a public one in fact, It’s funny how ‘public’ I am considering the sociopolitical climate of Malaysia. I guess that’s what drives my work. I believe in the people and whatever is left of it’s spirit.” Shelah!!! Was a radio presenter for BFM before The Censorship Commission silenced her program. “they still haven’t told me why I was taken off the air.”

“What hurts me is when I’m told to ‘reign in’ what i do best. There’s a lot of don’ts. And not much trust. What people don’t seem to realize is how attuned we are to everything around us. A drag queen, to me is a mirror. I see as you see. When you tell me to stop because of your own narrow perceptions. You have blinded both of us .

My parents raised me well. To be fair, to be tough and to always enjoy myself. I’ve always done what I think was given to means to give back to whoever wants it. Positive living I guess. To be the best I was meant to be and to share that being. It’s difficult to just be. Society says one thing, your heart says another and then your head has other ideas.

Like many, I have battled with my identity with family, with people I meet. It’s hard but I’ve learnt to answer questions and I’m still learning to deal with the ‘dont’s’. You just don’t know how we’ve affected each other.”

During the day Shelah is Edwin. Edwin is a committee member of Seksualiti Merdeka a LGBT movement/collective in Malaysia. Seksualiti Merdeka provides a safe and open space for people to share their stories and learn about legal rights, safe sex and police discrimination. In 2011, police broke up the 4th Seksualiti Merdeka festival after it was labeled “The Sex Club” by politicians and the media. Seksualiti Merdeka has not taken place since.

“I feel so passionately about this because this is where Shelah first officially appeared in the world. It’s very upsetting. I thought I had found my own safe space. It’s painful when you see something of such great potential breaking down.”

In some respect things are going backwards” Shelah! says, “there are sectors of the Malay community that look at the LGBT community as a big no, no… There is no differentiation in the minds of politicians between Malay and Islam. They feel like LGBT people are a challenge to the Malay identity. The funny thing is that 20 years ago, drag queens were visible. Malaysia is in the middle of a racial, political, sexual identity crisis… We are not fighting for LGBT issues, we’re fighting for basic human rights – the right to be!”

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Wolfheart / Lebanon

“I was in a cruising area in Beirut. I was with my partner, in my car, driving around, meeting new people of course. I started chatting with someone in a car coming in the opposite direction. We were talking when a green car with tinted windows stopped behind us. The car in which the person I was talking to drove off quickly. Before I knew it I had the barrel of a Kalashnikov against my head and I was ordered out of the car. My partner tried to escape, but he was caught. One of them was wearing a military uniform. They shouted at me to put my hands behind my back, they handcuffed me to my partner and blindfolded us. We were taken up to the police office and they starting searching us. We had to take off our pants and drop our underpants. We were made to squat to see if we were hiding anything. One of the three officers in the room took out his mobile phone and started to take pictures while the others would take turns making fun of us, making signs behind us, and the other would slap us. They took my partner to another room. Then I started hearing my partner screaming next door. They were torturing him. I felt sad, we had been together for six years, it was horrible to think of him in that situation. They found gay porn (on my phone). When they found that I started to feel scared. They didn’t stop insulting us. They would ask us questions like “do you like to get fucked?!” If we didn’t answer they would slap us.” For three days they were tortured and questioned. They were then taken from the military department to the police department. They were placed in a small airless room. “I felt like I was suffocating there.” They stayed in there for 12 days. They were then sent to the police office specialized in investigating moral issues. “We were there for 18 days sharing a small cell with, at one time, 22 others.” The interrogation continued. “They asked us many questions about my sexuality. They continued to beat my partner. I could sometimes hear him screaming.” After 18 days they were taken to court. There they waited seven days for trial, “we were being charged with homosexuality.” They were given a prison sentence of 45 days and a fine of US$200. “I was very happy to leave prison. But I was unhappy because the news had reached my partners family and they were really unhappy. We had to break up.” “Six months later I drove through the same area and saw the same guys doing the same thing, holding a gun to the head of some people in a car and arresting them. I felt angry, I would like to see their own children subjected to this treatment! I felt angry but powerless and that at anytime I might receive the same treatment.”

“The crime was that I am homosexual, and the punishment was forty days in jail losing my job, and losing my partner. I learned to survive, and to be more picky where to find friends. I learned to consider my safety first.”

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Mohammed / Persian Gulf

“I was tortured so many times because of my sexuality being gay I was beaten by family members father uncle elderly brothers.

I’m a big shame to my tribe and family it just begun with me when i was 14 my uncle beated me by a pipe and threaten me by a knife it was more mental abuse than it physical eventually he put me in dogs cage. Because of family abuse i went to mental therpy now my life is just getting worse the more i grow up. Its inside u u know u r gay since childhood.

I suffered alot being gay i was forced last year to leave school and join the army the royal gaurd so i can be a real man and tough like my father.

We are not religious my family doesnt care about religion they care about reputation and their principles and culture

My mother is the only one who is support me but the wrong way she took me to sheikh (religious guy) to give me a lecture about how bad is it to be homosexual and how to throne of god is shaking when someone do sex with same sex partner. She took me even to mental illness doctor in 2009 she always says the verse from quran which says your children and your partners is your enemy so be aware of them.

In 2011 my uncle who is as i saw him was gay too my grandmother forced him to get married to his cousin (her niece) he commite suicide in 2011 by hanging himself on the roof.

What can i do we especially this part on the world is so conservative and far away from getting our rights as lgbt community its still big taboo suject you cant even talk about it in public.

Nobody likes me no one even talk to me i don’t know why im still alive to be honest but i hope there is hope.

I dont want to end like this i dont want to end like this i dont want controlled by family or who ever i think im going to immigrat somewhere and live independly when i find a good chance to escape.

This is my story”

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Artyom / Russia

“For as long as I remember it’s been like this. From an early age I preferred playing doll games with girls rather than noisy games with boys. In my family everyone noticed I was different from other boys, and they tried to ‘fix’ me. They would say ‘Don’t be like a girl’, and I would say I wanted to be a girl. They would buy me toy cars which I wasn’t interested in, instead of the dolls I had requested.

But the serious problems began in school…

It was amazing the cruelty of guys in high school… Throwing my clothes out of my locker, and pushing me out of the locker room, insulting me, humiliating me – it became a daily routine.
And all of this (my problems at school) I kept secret from my family.
I was alone at school and alone at home because I couldn’t tell my parents about my problems.
So I became isolated. Alone at school, I silently tolerated the beatings, the mental and physical assault of my peers.

My stepfather was ashamed of me. He was annoyed that I was not like the sons of his friends. I didn’t like fishing (I was sorry to kill the fish) or playing football. I preferred planting flowers, and knitting in my garden. I was not interested in cars and other “boyish” toys. He was irritated by my, as he called them, “girly hobbies”.
My mother pretended not to notice my features.

At school, when I walked through the corridors, I always heard people shouting “there goes the fagot”. And everyone would look at me. I didn’t want to look weak in front my parents, or vulnerable. I was ashamed to tell them that at school they called me gay. None of the teachers at the school, not once in five years, said anything to either of my parents about my problems.
They were silent. As I kept a silent.

So past 5 years.
Then I was transferred to another school. I didn’t want the same thing to happen at the new school, to become a local “celebrity”. So I decided to become a gray mouse. I didn’t say anything, didn’t talk to anyone, didn’t get close to anybody. I would come to school, sit quietly in the classroom, quiet when on break, and go home. But still, I did not go unnoticed.
I was no longer called ‘a fag’, they just thought I was weird – autism is easeir for others to tolerate than homosexuality.
The path of my boyhood – it was loneliness, loneliness, loneliness…
It seemed to me that I was the only one in the whole world.

The first time I asked God to take my life was when I was 12 years old.
At this age, I was going through a real identity crisis.
In the background were the problems of beatings and humiliations at school and was worsened the situation in the family …
At school I had no close friends. At home, I was also alone.
I remember how in 6th grade I liked a boy. He stood apart from everyone, as I did. I went to him to get acquainted. We talked until the end of break. After that he didn’t talk with me anymore. It turned out he was a newcomer. He didn’t know it was dangerous to talk with me, that he would be called gay after they’d seen us together. Since that day, in order to clear his reputation, he became one of the most active conspirators against me.

What should a child do in my case?
Nothing, except to bask in his warm world of dreams and fantasies.
I threw myself into the construction of a greenhouse of tropical plants, as compensation for the deficit of love I was neglected, and in communion with the temperature, the lighting, and the humidity. After school, I had tutoring, and when I returned home, I could sit in the greenhouse for hours, talking to the flowers, caring for them. I even turned on Tchaikovsky for them…
Surrounded by rudeness, boorishness and vulgarity, I turned to my inner world separated off from the outside with an impermeable barrier.

The period of fragile calm in my life was to be interrupted sharply.
It was when I was in the graduating class of school. One day at dinner, my mom said that she was getting divorced.
And it meant the end of everything for me.
My orchids died, my palm tree died. And I remember, as I sat there on the boxes, watching my orchids wither, knowing that all the little goodness that was in my life was over. A deep feeling of emptiness. I thought that my life was done.
I wanted to eat pills and disappear.

But then I was accepted into University to study psychology and it saved my life.
It was the first time in my life that my peers accepted me as a person, for who I am. And it changed me. They helped me. I felt better.
Now I’m 21 years old. I graduated from the department of psychology at the university, and I am very glad.”

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Gad / Syria

“I left Homs because my neighborhood was under attack, it was bombed many times. I moved to Lebanon to try to find a job. I found work at the hammam giving massage… I was obliged to work like this so I can assist my parents in Syria. It also provided me a place to stay and not pay rent. I used to work for two months, go back to Homs for a short time, then come back again. One evening in August 2014 we were raided by the police… They punched and kicked me. They put a black cloth bags over my head. They continued to punch and kick me. I would never know where it was coming from. They were doing the same to the others. Sometimes we were alone in a room, sometimes there were two or three of us. We could hear each other being tortured. This went on for three days. They would beat us with water tubes… They beat me a lot. If they asked a question and it wasn’t what they wanted to hear they would start beating me again… I refused to give names.

After three days the eleven Syrians, four Lebanese and one Iraqi were taken to Zahle Prison. As Gad walked down the hallway two men took him aside, took him to another level of the prison, into a cell where he was beaten by two men. Then one went to the door, the other took him to the bathroom he took out his dick and forced me to suck him. Once he was finished he sent him in the other guy. After he was finished the third came in and tried to sodomize me. I started to cry and begged him to stop “I’ll kiss your hand, God bless your parents, please stop.

After 28 days they were released. They will appear in court charged with “Homosexuality” under article 534 of the Lebanese Penal code which prohibits having sexual relations that “contradict the laws of nature” and is punishable by up to a year in prison.

Despite us trampling on our humanity, they cancel our dignity, they braze on our hearts… just because we are gays
Injustice… a word means breaking the wings of the heart and blow up the basics of humanity and it is the biggest fear in our lives.
Despite that I look normal to others but… Silence lives inside me in the darkness of fear and a despotic desperation…which settled in the hidden parts of the soul.”

Read more stories here.

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