It's still illegal to be LGBTQ+ in 70 countries. In these countries, LGBTQ+ people have zero basic human rights protections, and being outed means you can lose employment or housing. In 11 countries, queer people face the death penalty.
A Canada-based international organization called Rainbow Railroad is helping LGBTQ+ people escape countries where they face imminent danger because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In countries where same-sex intimacy is illegal, the LGTBQ+ community faces violence and discrimination from their families, their communities, and even the government.
Rainbow Railroad works to solve a multi-layered problem that goes beyond LGBTQ+ persecution — they’re also responding to a global refugee crisis. Refugees already face mounting challenges, but anti-LGTBQ+ legislation only adds to the obstacles. The organization is addressing both challenges together.
“80 million displaced people around the world, and I don't want to do any crude math around what percentage of that population is LGBTQ+ because there is not enough data, but you can imagine that there's a significant number of those people who are members of the LGBTQ+ community,” executive director Kimahli Powell told us. “On top of that, there are 70 countries that criminalize same-sex intimacy. The nexus of those two problems is where the people who reach out to us for help are — why there are folks who are members of the LGBTQ+ community who are forcibly displaced or seeking refuge in a world.”
After reviewing each case submission and determining how best to help, Rainbow Railroad works to select effective routes to safety and connect with local contacts who can provide pre-travel and logistical support. Then they provide transportation to the migrant’s destination country and immediate post-travel support.
Notably, Rainbow Railroad has been praised for helping 70 Chechen men resettle in response to anti-gay purges in Chechnya beginning in 2017.
“What I'm really, truly proud of with that story is that while I was making that trip, people were doing online fundraisers,” Powell said. “One Facebook fundraiser raised $250,000 that we were able to use to build safe houses. People were doing bake sales, drag shows, you name it. Rainbow Railroad is 100 percent funded by private sources. We really are a community movement. It shows you how people rallying together can help one person. That's what I'm most proud of with the organization.”
The organization’s community funding is especially impressive because it costs about $10,000 to help just one person.
“First and foremost, our goal is to help keep someone safe within their country,” Powell said. “That means access to a safe house, moving them to a safer place within the country, providing them access to resources, or connecting them with an organization — anything to get them out of a dangerous situation. And for cases that require emergency relocation, of course, that means providing the cost of getting them from to a country where they can make a safe asylum claim.”
In 2020, the group received 2,800 asylum requests in 2020 and helped 465 people. Since 2006, Rainbow Railroad has helped more than 800 persecuted LGBTQ+ people from 38 countries travel to safety.
“What I love most about Rainbow Road is that we really have been a queer-led response to a problem,” Powell said. “As a LGBTQ+-led organization, being able to understand the problem and understand the systemic barriers to migration and discrimination have allowed us to be really innovative in seeing solutions that can help beyond the LGBTQ+ community.”
Listen To Our Interview
To learn more about Rainbow Railroad, listen to our podcast episode with executive director Kimahli Powell.
You can show your support for the mission of Rainbow Railroad by making a donation.