Diego Garcia Blum headshot

Diego Garcia Blum

Program Director, Global LGBTQI+ Human Rights Program, Carr Center 

Diego Garcia Blum is the Program Director for the Global LGBTQI+ Human Rights Program at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. His work is dedicated to advocating for the safety and acceptance of LGBTQI+ individuals globally, particularly in regions where they face significant risks. It is a calling born out of his own story of overcoming oppression as a gay man and witnessing the heartbreaking assault on LGBTQ people in repressive areas of the world. At Harvard, Garcia Blum's efforts have centered on driving social change through policy, impactful research, political engagement, storytelling, community organizing, coalition-building, and developing training programs for advocates.

Can you tell us a little about yourself and what brought you to work in LGBTQI+ human rights?

{DGB}: You pick what you want to do for a career when you're 16 or 17, but you don't really know what calling you're going to find later in life. For me, I studied nuclear engineering in undergraduate school; it's something that I've always been interested in. But when I came out, that whole process of self-reflection, self-acceptance, and the incredible injustices that exist rearranged my entire life. It rearranged what I was passionate about and what I wanted to work on. 

When you experience some kind of injustice in your life and in the world, you want to work to undo it. I didn't come out to my family until I was 23 and out of college. I had an entirely different career than I do now. It was also a time when it wasn't normal for people to be out in college yet—and especially not in high school. Little by little, I started doing what I could. I became a volunteer community organizer with the Human Rights Campaign, which is the largest LGBTQ rights organization in the United States. And then I became involved with their global team. 

I am an immigrant from Colombia, and a lot of the work that I did in the nuclear world took me to a lot of places. I was very aware that the situation was much worse in Colombia for LGBTQ people. That was always on top of mind for me: that even though I'm here and it's not easy, I could have been there. When I traveled to other places, I saw firsthand the fear, or I even had to go back in the closet in some places [to be safe].

When you experience some kind of injustice in your life and in the world, you want to work to undo it.

One year, the Human Rights Campaign did an event with a mother of an LGBTQ kid who took his life after being bullied in school in Bogotá. I met the mother in D.C. for the event, and learned that her son was born the same year I was, in the same city. I realized that if my parents had not brought me to the United States, that could have been me. It made me realize that this was a calling that I had, and that I got lucky, but that there was just so much more to do.

As the Program Director of the newly launched Global LGBTQI+ Human Rights Program at the Carr Center, can you tell us about the program and how it came about? 

{DGB}: First, one thing to understand is that the LGBTQ rights movement is not very old. This is a very nascent movement. In many of the places where we're trying to do work in LGBTQ rights, there is nothing being done, or there are just a few brave individuals facing really tough odds. Those who started the movement very naturally wanted to focus on their own countries where they were until things got better or good enough to spare some attention to other countries. That only really started in the beginning of the 21st century, where activists had the opportunity to start thinking about people in other places. 

The Carr Center's Global LGBTQI+ Human Rights Program comes at an inflection point in the movement where we have achieved some good progress in many of the countries in the Global North, but at the same time, that progress is seen as a threat by many countries in the Global South. We are at a very critical moment where we can gather even just a portion of the resources that we have in the Global North to share with the Global South and build more transnational solidarity in that sense. 

The Global LGBTQI+ Human Rights Program is really at the heart of this. It's focused on empowering those brave activists doing this work in the hardest parts of the world and teaching them what Harvard does best: training and research. Harvard Kennedy School has—over many decades—built very strong human rights, public leadership, and organizing and advocacy curriculum. The idea of the program is to empower those in the movement by providing them with these resources on activism, organizing, and so on. 

There are a whole host of myths, misconceptions, and misunderstandings [about LGBTQ people] that people believe or employ that keep us under discrimination.

Apart from training, we want to work on high-impact research, as that is currently also lacking. From my own research, I realized that LGBTQ people are massively misunderstood around the world. There are a whole host of myths, misconceptions, and misunderstandings that people believe or employ that keep us under discrimination. If someone believes that being LGBTQ is not a real thing, but rather some kind of fad or invention, then they don't believe it is a human right. Those myths need to be debunked. So, we're developing a strong research project that aims to debunk those myths. 

The movement is difficult. Any movement in human rights has a lot of tensions about the possible approaches and what should be done, and it is the same for the LGBTQ rights movement. Previously, we haven't had many forums where we can go and discuss these issues. But at the Carr Center, we have the convening power to host discussions on some of these major issues, and we can bring in leaders who are making decisions around the world to have more productive conversations.

What are some of the current human rights challenges that LGBTQI+ global community faces?

{DGB}: Around the world, 62 countries criminalize being LGBTQ, and I believe around seven of those still impose the death penalty for being LGBTQ. But that doesn't effectively capture how things have changed. For example, in Russia, being LGBTQ isn't exactly criminalized, but they now have labeled any LGBTQ organization a terrorist organization. Things have changed dramatically. 

I think overall there is, in all of those countries, very low acceptance of LGBTQ people. These are countries where maybe only 7–8% of people say that LGBTQ people should be accepted in society. In these places, at the very least, LGBTQ people are living in the closet, suffering for not being able to be who they are, at risk of losing their jobs, their families—everything—just for who they are. They live this awful existence, and we often forget their experience. When it is this bad, we see the development of a lot of mental health issues that can lead to suicide. Even in the U.S., a 2023 Williams Institute study found that half of people who identify as transgender attempt suicide. That's a startling statistic. 

“Even in the U.S., a 2023 Williams Institute study found that half of people who identify as transgender attempt suicide. That's a startling statistic.

On the worst side of things: in some countries, when people are found out to be gay, there are "honor killings" where someone in the family will kill another family member for being LGBTQ. I can't think of something worse. In Chechnya, we saw police- and state-sponsored persecution in 2016, 2017, and 2019—they essentially built concentration camps for LGBTQ people. I worked with someone who escaped from Chechnya, a person named Amin, who was put in the back of a car by the police, taken to a concentration camp, and tortured. After torturing Amin, their family members were told, "If you don't kill him, we will." Luckily, he escaped with an organization called Rainbow Railroad. And that's just a snippet of the stories we hear. 

Even in places that have changed a lot in the past 20 years, like the United States and Latin America, there is still a lot of societal persecution, especially for transgender people. Worldwide, the combination of state, societal, and even family violence is terrible and violates essential human rights, including the right to life.

In 2023, you organized the first International LGBTQI+ Activism Summit and brought together LGBTQ activists from all around the world. Can you tell us about the Summit and your plans for the next one?

{DGB}: The International LGBTQI+ Activism Summit brought together activists from the highest-need areas of the world. For our pilot Summit last year, we brought in activists from Ethiopia, Congo, Brazil, and more. We provided them with a grounding in history, studies, academic papers, and analyses, and what these show making a difference in LGBTQ rights. We also created spaces for them to share their lessons and what's working for them in the hopes that they can learn from each other and recreate some of the things that are working in one place in another. 

We ended with a capstone the last day where they took everything they've learned, looked at what they're doing now, and then we worked through an exercise where we rethought, reimagined, and recreated their work based on what they've learned. They started enhancing their educational public awareness initiatives to add a little bit of what we had done. We challenged everyone to work on undoing the myths about LGBTQ peoples, and we challenged them to create more safe spaces for people to come out. We see a lot of change when that happens.

“What has also been fascinating is our ability to connect them with the faculty here—any many of our activists have reached back out to our professors.”

These activists go home with what they've learned and a new way of doing their work. What has also been thrilling is our ability to connect them with the faculty here—many of our activists have reached back out to our professors for consult. Professor Marshall Ganz provided trainings for an organization in Nigeria called the Bisi Alimi Foundation, which then used what was learned to gather young, brave social media influencers in Nigeria who are LGBTQ and teach them how to effectively undo the myths and use public narrative in their work. Suddenly, we went from connecting with one leader in Nigeria to reaching 30 students in the Rainbow Academy program he started. 

Professor Timothy Patrick McCarthy, who is the Faculty Program Chair of the Carr Center's Global LGBTQI+ Human Rights Program, went and provided testimony for the Czech Republic bill on same-sex partnership, because one of the people who came to our summit was the individual who was leading the marriage equality campaign in the Czech Republic. We just recently heard from that participant that the bill he had been working on just passed their Upper House there—it is incredibly exciting that these people are putting to work all that we taught them during the Summit.

We're very excited to hold this Summit at the Carr Center on an annual basis and continue to bring in activists from around the world. In fact, the 2024 Summit will take place in-person at the Kennedy School, but we also plan to have a year-long, virtual training program with the same content for people from all over the world who are committed to the LGBTQ rights movement, alongside workshops given by practitioners and NGO leaders. We're hoping to have around 200 activists join the program, and our efforts will be to supercharge everything that they're doing back at home with what we do here.

What do you foresee as the potential impact of the Global LGBTQI+ Human Rights Program?

{DGB}: What we hope to do is elevate the capacity and the effectiveness of the brave people doing this work in hopes that it will improve LGBTQ people's lives everywhere. I hope that our training programs help accelerate the rate of change and the acceptance of LGBTQ people, so young people can grow up in a more accepting world. 

For our research, I hope that some of our ideas on advocacy can help crack the very difficult places that activism cannot get to nowadays. Hopefully, that can spur change as well—maybe we can reach those places that are usually completely closed off to the LGBTQ rights movement. We are working to become a unique player in this space: if there are opportunities for the LGBTQ movement that we need to hash out as a community, we can do it at the Carr Center through convenings, research, and training. 

For the LGBTQ movement to be successful, we must think of a grander strategy and get out of our silos. We need to think more collectively, work together, and create a strategy where we can make connections transnationally. In the end, the advocacy work is being done by folks on the ground. But we hope that through our training and our research, we can supercharge what they do, and we can finally start making a difference in the places that have never, ever been able to receive this kind of activism before.