"Around the world 78 countries still criminalize same sex sexual activity. That needs to be stopped.” Boris Dittrich

"I always get a lot of inspiration and motivation to continue.” Boris Dittrich

Everyday, human rights are heavily violated around the world. One man in Berlin wakes up every morning to stand up for the rights of lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual (LGBT) people in particular: Boris Dittrich (58). Originally from the Netherlands, he is the Advocacy Director of the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. Boris: “Around the world 78 countries still criminalize same sex sexual activity. That needs to be stopped.”

Boris got world-fame for his accomplishments in Dutch politics. As the first openly gay Member of Parliament, he proposed to introduce same-sex marriage in the Netherlands in 1994. Boris: “People told me I was crazy, said it couldn’t be done.” He was criticized, discriminated and even threatened to death. But he persisted and embarked on a long campaign that ended in 2001 with the introduction of marriage-equality. “I’m very proud of it. Holland was the first country to legalize it, now you can see that many other countries followed.”

But outside of Holland, Boris noticed there is still a lot that needs to be done concerning LGBT rights. When in 2007 he was hired by Human Rights Watch (HRW), a non-governmental organisation that is dedicated to defending human rights, he knew exactly what he wanted to do: “There was still so little discussion about this topic. Even the United Nations (UN) had never really spoken about discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in official meetings.” Boris moved to the HRW headquarter in New York and in May 2013 he switched to the Berlin office. 

Boris travels around the world to raise awareness for LGBT rights. “Human Rights Watch publishes reports and briefings on human rights violations and generates coverage in local and international media. It is my task to convince institutions, governments or the United Nations for example that the law needs to be changed, or that questions should be raised in parliament concerning LGBT rights.”

From his office at tourist hotspot Hackescher Markt in the heart of Berlin, Boris now mainly focuses on LGBT rights in the eastern European countries and Russia. “With the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi coming up in 2014 for example, we try to raise awereness to the discrimination of LGBT people in Russia. These games are a prestige project to Putin, so hopefully, with more pressure, he will change some laws.”

But also in Germany, there are still things that need to be changed. Boris: “Same-sex marriage is not allowed here. In the wake of the elections, I talked to several political parties about their take on LGBT rights and same-sex marriage.” The socialist SPD party assured him marriage-equality would be high on their agenda, but it turned into a big disappointment. Boris: “The moment they started the negotiations with Merkel’s party CDU, they dropped the topic. The new formed government now still doesn’t allow same-sex marriage.”

Stand up
After his e-mail to the SPD remained unanswered, Boris decided to take matters into his own hands and wrote an op-ed piece in the German Huffington Post. “I received many responses of people who were also angry about it. But still I just find it tasteless – I was simply lied upon.”

It can get him down, days like these, but not for too long: “I speak with many people who are discriminated, beaten up, expelled from their houses or fired because of their sexual orientation or identity. I feel a big responsibility because these are all very vulnerable people and I find it important to stand up for them. I always get a lot of inspiration and motivation to continue.”

Intersex movement
Next year Boris will start researching another controversial topic in Germany. He explains: “Every one out of 2000 babies is born without a clear sexual identity – they’re neither girl nor boy. Many babies used to be operated right away, letting the parents or doctors decide on the child’s gender.” Often this causes identity problems as children grow up. “The international ‘intersex movement’ now advocates that this is in violation with the bodily integrity. Also the UN acknowledges these problems, but in Germany doctors still want to operate when children are still babies. We want to stop that.”

Enough work to keep Boris busy in his new hometown. But for now, he can look back at some of the successes he already accomplished with HRW. “It is great to see that the UN now also embraced the LGBT theme and recently started a big campaign against the discrimination of LGBT people. In just seven years we turned a theme that first was hardly spoken about, into a topic that’s on everybody’s agenda,” he smiles proudly.

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