O’Donnell Hosts LGBT Activist Delegation from Latin America, Strategizes on How to Face Common Challenges

This morning, New York State Assembly Member Daniel J. O’Donnell was honored to host a delegation of LGBT activists from Latin American through the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program. Over breakfast, the group held a strategy session about the challenges each of them face in their own countries, and how they can learn from one another. Topics ranged from Marriage Equality to anti-bullying to violence against LGBT individuals, and Assembly Member O’Donnell shared important lessons he’s learned in the struggle for equal treatment and protections for LGBT New Yorkers.

The resounding message of the morning was the need to employ diverse strategies to change people’s hearts and minds. O’Donnell commended all the leaders on their individual visibility and hard work to draw attention to their causes. When Paulina Torres Mora of Costa Rica, Coordinator of Beso Diverso, asked Assembly Member O’Donnell how civil activist groups can best pressure the government, he underscored the importance of getting openly gay elected officials into office, saying “That way someone is always around when legislation is being debated, not an outside person or group, but one of their own, a colleague.” In his own experience, when a colleague did not support Marriage Equality, he was able to put pressure on them whenever the issue came up. He explained: “I made it extremely uncomfortable for my colleagues.”

O’Donnell spoke at length with Diane Marie Rodriguez Zambrano of Ecuador, President of the Silueta X Association, who was the first Trans person to run for elected office in Ecuador, running in May 2013. Though she lost, (as O’Donnell noted, many politicians do the first time, himself included), she broke down an important barrier. As a result, she was invited to President Correa’s inauguration, and was able to set up a meeting with him for Ecuadorian LGBT activists. Rodriguez Zambrano focused on improving his understanding of the murders and violence against Trans and all LGBT individuals in Ecuador, and showing him that while the Ecuadorian constitution professes equality, in practice many are left out.

Deivis Ventura of the Dominican Republic, General Coordinator of REVASA (Network of Volunteers “Amigos Siempre Amigos”) asked Assembly Member O’Donnell not only about his work with the LGBT community in New York, but about how to best advocate among non-LGBT Latinos, who can be very hard to convince.

“You have to change the movie in their heads,” said O’Donnell. The key, he says, is to make a clear separation between civil marriage licenses and church ceremonies. In his early speeches O’Donnell spoke about marriage as a civil right, but as time went on his message evolved to one he found to be more effective, that equality was the goal. Esteban Paulon of Argentina, President of FALGBT (the Argentine Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Federation) pointed out that the fight for Marriage Equality was similar in Argentina. In fact, he said that they experienced a similar progression in language from gay marriage to same-sex marriage to Marriage Equality before the law was passed there.

Assembly Member O’Donnell was honored to meet with such a passionate group of Latin American change-makers, all of whom have achieved incredible progress in their countries. These extraordinary efforts have included fighting for improved protections for LGBT individuals, promoting LGBT visibility, preventing discrimination and harassment, winning the fight for Marriage Equality, and running for office as the first trans woman.

From being the first Trans woman to run for a seat in the legislature, to fighting for improved protections and access to medical care, promoting LGBT visibility, preventing discrimination and harassment, and winning the fight for Marriage Equality. He looks forward to keeping in touch and working together to develop strong ties among the global LGBT community, in order to pursue change together.

Jenny Eisenberg of the U.S. State Department noted that the International Visitor Leadership Program has been around for 75 years, hosts about 5,000 visitors annually, and boasts 45 current heads of state and over 290 past heads of state among its alumni. O’Donnell added, to the group, “the next elected officials could be you!”