Advocating for LGBTQ Rights Worldwide: Q&A with HRC Global Innovator Andrea Ayala

by Guest Contributors

President Biden has restored the United States leadership and engagement on the world stage, ushering in an administration committed to bringing us together as a global community. This is especially true for LGBTQ rights, following his directive to every federal agency to examine the impact of their policies on LGBTQ people and to protect our communities through their work. As we look ahead to American leadership, Jean Freedberg (she/her), Director of Global Partnerships for HRC, talked with Andrea Ayala (she/her & they/them), an HRC Global Innovator, about how the Biden administration can make a difference for LGBTQ people worldwide and what she hopes to see in the coming years.

Jean: Do you mind providing a bit of background as to who you are, the work you do and how you connected with HRC?

Andrea: Of course! I am an international human rights advocate originally from El Salvador but now living in Europe as a refugee. I work in the LGBTQ advocacy space on a global scale, helping speak out on the issues that affect our community in every corner of the world. I previously served as the Executive Director of ESMULES, an organization advancing LGBTQ rights in El Salvador. I was an HRC Global Innovator in 2017 and have loved getting to connect with community leaders everywhere to make a difference for LGBTQ people.

Jean: What was it like to be LGBTQ and watching the U.S. over the last four years? What does it feel like now that we have President Biden in office, and what do you hope this administration can achieve for our global community?

Andrea: As someone who works in the LGBTQ advocacy space, it was difficult watching everything happen during Trump’s presidency. The decision to pull the United States out of the United Nations Human Rights Council was probably the biggest hit under the administration, especially given how many countries regard the U.S. as a leader in that space. Communities around the world look to the U.S. for hope, for a chance their own policies can change, so to lose that affected people everywhere. Additionally, the change in policies for those seeking refuge hurt on both a personal and professional level. I’m a refugee from El Salvador and know so many stories of people who were turned away at the border and are just lost as to what to do next.

President Biden and Vice President Harris have definitely restored my sense of hope. They’ve started appointing people who understand the communities in need of help, such as refugees, immigrants and LGBTQ people. There is also this renewed faith in the U.S. being a leader both in and outside of the United Nations. Countries everywhere feel like they’ve gained back one of their biggest allies in the fight for global equality.

Jean: Why is it important for the U.S. to be a leader, and how can the U.S. help make global change? How can the U.S. leverage its leadership in the right way to help our LGBTQ communities.

Andrea: LGBTQ communities around the world really see the United States as one of our strongest allies. Its past actions, like the creation of a special envoy for LGBTQ issues under President Obama, helped set the stage for countries to begin changing their own policies and advancing equality. I remember the envoy meeting with the U.S. embassy in El Salvador, which gave us the chance to start conversations there and advocate for more inclusive policies. We’ve also seen how the U.S can make a difference by building partnerships with governments and organizations that really put our stories front and center, calling on people to take action.

President Biden can keep improving the state of LGBTQ people globally by closing the gap caused under Trump. He’s already started doing that by prioritizing LGBTQ issues, and especially those centering trans people, and should keep doing so throughout his presidency. Also, building and strengthening the ties we have between communities and partners is key. We can achieve a lot when we work together, and it seems that Biden really wants to establish the sense of unity we had in the past.

Jean: What are some of the most pressing issues facing the global LGBTQ community?

Andrea: The most pressing issue right now is COVID and its impact on LGBTQ people. The United Nations recently released a report about the impact of the pandemic on our community, and it’s clear just how devastating it’s been. Food insecurity, economic instability, domestic violence — and this is all on top of the fact LGBTQ people are disproportionately affected by COVID in terms of health. It’s important for us to tackle the mental and physical health issues happening right now and provide people the support they need. This includes ensuring access to health care and the vaccine itself.

Jean: How can you be an advocate no matter where you are in the world?

Andrea: The biggest thing you can do is provide community to others. Whether you’re in the country of your birth or a different one for whatever reason, having a strong support network to rely on is crucial. I’ve experienced this first hand having grown up in El Salvador and now living in Europe. From overcoming a language barrier to entering a culture not fully reflective of my identities, I’ve struggled at times to find others who I can rely on for that sense of community. It’s important to realize that we all deal with that no matter who we are and can find it difficult to establish our “people.” If you can be that go-to support for someone, or connect them into a larger community, you can make a difference.

You can also be an agent for change by sharing your voice and lifting up others. Through my work, I’m able to share my multiple identities — as a lesbian, a refugee, an advocate — and get to hear about other’s experiences. The more we talk with one another, the more we see just how much we have in common, even if our stories are not the same. This really gives you a sense of what challenges people may face and how you can make a difference by acting on those issues.

Jean: Any final thoughts?

Andrea: First, it’s important to remember how impactful the U.S. can be at a global level. Yes, there’s work to be done to restore the country’s credibility and standing with others, but the U.S. will always be a point of reference within the overall fight for human rights. We have to keep this in mind when we’re building partnerships and trying to make a change.

Second, we must acknowledge our own agency and the role of community building. I was a part of the HRC Global Innovators program in 2017, and to this day still keep in touch with a lot of my fellow program members. We’ve developed projects together, shared ideas — we’ve even managed to have Zoom calls during the pandemic across five different regions. This community has been so crucial to my own work, and it’s important for others to create their own communities for change. The internet may make the world feel small at times, that everything is just a click away, but really it enables us to connect with one another in ways we didn’t think were possible in the past. If we really come together on these issues, building upon the work of one another, we can improve the lives of LGBTQ people everywhere.