Building movements for social justice with Dr Kimahli Powell

Dr Kimahli Powell works to protect LGBTQI+ people facing state-sponsored persecution because of their sexual orientation, sex characteristics or gender identity.  As CEO of the international NGO Rainbow Railroad, an organisation that helps LGBTQI+ people find safety through emergency relocation and other support, Kimahli gives a voice to the experiences of refugees displaced by homophobia and transphobia.

In Australia for World Pride, Kimahli was the guest speaker at the 2023 PIAC Social Justice Dinner.

According to Kimahli, same-sex intimacy is criminalised in 68 of the 195 UN Member States, with punishments including imprisonment and even death. While progress is being made in relation to the rights of LGBTQI+ people in many parts of the world, in some places they are becoming more precarious.

Faced with that reality, Kimahli leans on Dr Martin Luther-King’s seminal quote: The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

He points towards changes to laws in India as an example of why he remains hopeful. 

‘Before India struck down their laws, two-thirds of LGTBQI+ people were in a country that criminalised same sex intimacy. India is now looking at tabling marriage equality.’

‘There are activists around the world who are fighting every day to protect LGBTQI+ people at risk. There’s a lot of progress. I don’t want to deny the progress. Yet at the same time, we can’t ignore that so many people can be imminently displaced just because of who they are and who they love.’

Rainbow Railroad launched in Canada after marriage equality was won there, with the founders recognising their work was not complete while ‘queer brothers and sisters’ around the world were facing persecution.

Kimahli emphasised that ‘looking outward’ was a central part of a social justice movement.

‘For the LGBTIQ+ movement today, it means we need to be intersectional in our approach. We can’t just sit back and enjoy marriage equality while – in Canada – Indigenous persons still don’t have access to clean drinking water. If one person is denied justice, then everyone is denied justice. That intersectional lens is what’s going to build our movements of the future.’

For Kimahli, working intersectionally means listening to the voices of people who have been marginalised and understanding from them what work needs to be done to support their cause.  

‘I think any political debate that starts with that is one that will end up going towards justice.’

And what keeps Kimahli motivated?

‘We know that social injustice is always going to exist. It’s a continuous journey that we’re on. What’s remarkable about being at nights like this and why you all are here is that you’re invested in this work too. And that’s what inspires us doing the work. That we’re doing it in solidarity with people who understand it’s important.’

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