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Liam and Rainbow Railroad

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Article by: Unscattered_horizons and Altersaside

Article written and questions provided by: unscattered_horizons, writer for No Stunts magazine

Interview conducted by: Altersaside, editor of No Stunts magazine

Interviewee: Dane Bland, Head of Development for Rainbow Railroad

For this month’s issue, we wanted to make space to highlight one of the charitable organisations that Liam supports. Rainbow Railroad is a nonprofit based in the USA and Canada that helps queer folks around the world, who are unsafe because of their queer identity, relocate to safety (more details below). Liam attended a fundraising event for Rainbow Railroad in May of 2022, hosted by his friends Landon Ross and Julian Morris. He also posted to Twitter following the event to voice his support for the organisation.

No Stunts was lucky enough to interview Dane Bland, the Head of Development for Rainbow Railroad. I’d like to let him share their work in his own words, and have therefore decided on this format. What follows is a transcript of that interview:

(I will be using NS to indicate the interviewer, and RR to represent Dane’s answers; I have used brackets either where the audio was unclear or where I have added context words for clarity)

NS: In my email I mentioned Liam Payne. The reason that we heard about your organisation is because Liam did some charity work with you. We like to cover different groups that are supportive of LGBT (people) and when I found out about Rainbow Railroad I was really excited. It sounds like an amazing organisation!

RR: Thank you so much! Yeah, Liam attended and was supportive of an event that we did last year, which was really wonderful.

NS: What are the fundamental things that readers need to know about Rainbow Railroad, if they haven’t heard of it yet?

RR: Our mission can be summed up in exactly one sentence: Rainbow Railroad helps at risk LGBTQI+ people get to safety. Right now, there are around 70 countries in which being a member of the LGBTQI+ community is directly criminalised, meaning that you could end up in prison or arrested or fined [for being queer]. And in 11 of those countries, potentially sentenced to death just for loving who you love or expressing your gender identity openly and freely. Over and above those 70 countries, there are dozens of other countries where even if there’s no official laws on the books, because of cultural contexts, history, and a variety of different reasons, LGBTQI+ people are simply not safe.

Rainbow Railroad receives requests from people all around the world. We received requests from over 100 countries last year, from over 10,000 individual people who needed our assistance. And to as many of those cases as possible, we respond and seek to provide safety. We do that in a couple of different ways. One: we get people out. That’s our primary focus and the main part of our mission. However, that’s expensive and logistically challenging. [Two]: we also work with partners who are on the ground in these countries, we provide financial assistance to people who are in need, we respond when there are crisis situations, and we do things like providing information and mental health support as well as working with governments all around the world to help further our mission and our cause.

NS: That’s so incredible! I feel like that would be incredibly rewarding, but it’s gotta be hard.

RR: Yeah! Our work is trauma-informed for sure. When people reach out asking for assistance from Rainbow Railroad, those are the heroes of this story. The people who are taking the brave step  – you know in some of these countries, typing rainbowrailroad.org into the web browser is an illegal act. And these are people who are taking their lives into their own hands, to forge their own destinies, on the simple belief that they should be able to be who they are and live freely. That’s extraordinarily brave. But it’s hard! These are people who are at, often, the most precarious and difficult and vulnerable points in their life. They’re facing discrimination, they’re facing legal persecution, and in far too many cases, they’re facing violence. That’s why they connect with us.

So, of course it is absolutely hard and trauma-informed, but you’re right. For all of the difficulty of doing the work and of seeing this, the opportunity to be a part of what it means to give people safety and hope is extraordinarily and extremely rewarding. It’s definitely what keeps me and my colleagues going.

NS: Absolutely! What would you say is the most utilised service from Rainbow Railroad?

RR: It’s difficult to say. We use all of the tools at our disposal to provide as much support and safety as we possibly can to each and every single individual based on their individual contexts. One of the unique things about our work is that we are doing this at a very extraordinarily high scale, but at the same time the approaches – the support that we are providing to people – is very individual in nature. We take each individual’s needs [into account]. Or if we’re working with a partner, we amplify and support our partners’ work to support people through their missions and initiatives. It’s all really highly personalised and considered.

Our core program is where we spend the majority of our efforts. Emergency travel support, which is simply the evacuation of people, is the most impactful way to get someone to safety. That ultimately remains our biggest focus in all of this. It is also the most expensive thing that we do on a case-to-case level. The average full evacuation for somebody costs about $10,000 (US), so it is not a cheap endeavour. And there are a lot of laws and policies that are anti-immigration, anti-refugee, that make doing that work extremely challenging. There are a lot of barriers to success, but it is still our most impactful program, and therefore, where we spend most of our time.

NS: Could you tell us more about your work with refugees from Afghanistan over the last few years?

RR: Since August 15, 2021, over 6,000 LGBTQI+ Afghans have reached out to Rainbow Railroad seeking assistance. That’s a very very high number. In that time, we’ve been able to provide meaningful assistance to 650 of those people, including the full evacuation of well over 200.

NS: It’s illegal [to be LGBTQI+] in Afghanistan, right?

RR: Yes, in Afghanistan, prior to the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, being a member of the LGBTQI+ community was punishable through jail time. The Taliban, through the institution of Sharia law, in theory –  and we have seen anecdotal evidence – that it is punishable through the death penalty. LGBTQI+ people in Afghanistan are reporting extraordinary violence, targeting, and persecution, which is really concerning. So we’ve provided meaningful assistance to just over 650 people.

We’re currently working with the Canadian government to provide evacuation to an additional 600 more, which would bring the total number of people we’ve been able to assist to over 1,200. This is our largest single operation in Rainbow Railroad’s history.

NS: That’s an incredible amount of people to help, and there’s still so many that need it.

RR: To do that work [in Afghanistan] has cost the organisation millions of dollars and millions of hours of effort. It is our largest organisational effort to date. But as I said, there are 6,000 people who’ve asked for help and we’ve been able to get to 1,200 of them. It’s still a good ratio, but not a great ratio. We are talking about people who are in the most dire need, and so our continued operation – on top of providing as much individual support as we possibly can to people in need – is to continue to advocate to governments all around the world to be willing to provide targeted support to LGBTQI+ Afghans specifically because of their unique vulnerability.

We have the desire and willingness to do more, but unfortunately the routes to safety are challenging and are difficult to find and navigate through inside of this work for LGBTQI+ Afghans.

For some of the people fleeing Afghanistan, they can find safety in neighbouring countries. But for LGBTQI+ people they cannot because in the neighbouring countries it is still illegal to be a member of that community. There’s a lack of safe, durable routes for people to escape the country, which makes the work very, very challenging.

One of the ways that international governments can be supportive of this [work] is to be willing to accept more refugee claimants from Afghanistan and to be willing to prioritise LGBTQI+ refugees from Afghanistan within those refugee schemes. [Then] we can get people to neighbouring countries and then onwards to safety so that they’re not stuck waiting in a country like Pakistan where it is still illegal to be gay, or to be a member of the queer community entirely. That is where a lot of people [from Afghanistan] flee to, but they’re still not safe there either.

What we need from people is an onwards destination which presents an opportunity for real safety because for far too many people it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire when it comes to escaping across a land border. The number of countries that offer visas to Afghan citizens is extraordinarily low and none of those countries are particularly safe.

NS: Are you based in the US?

RR: We’ve got an office in Toronto, Canada, and an office in New York, USA.

NS: So you’re familiar with the changes that are going on in the United States and the uptick in legislation and overall societal attacks. Given that, is the United States still a safe place for you to bring people to? Or is it mostly outside of the US?

RR: We do facilitate resettlements into the United States. But [when] we facilitate resettlement into the United States – and we do this whenever we’re facilitating resettlement – we always bring people into places where we know they’re going to find success and community. In the United States, there are certainly places on a state by state, or even urban centre to urban centre basis, where it absolutely remains safe and viable for people to get to safety.

In the US, even though we’re seeing an absolutely desperately concerning rising trend in anti-LGBTQI+ legislation, sentiment, and even violence, it’s important to recognise that bringing someone to the US from a country where they could be thrown in prison or executed for their identity is still a better option.

Our support does not end at “here’s a plane ticket and good luck.” We make sure that people successfully resettle where they’re going. What that means is being diligent about where we are sending people.

We’re working with some local communities as part of a new program that was announced only a few months ago in the US called Welcome Corps.  [It] is a scheme to help LGBTQI+ folks resettle, and not just LGBTQI+ but all refugees to resettle. We’re currently working within that scheme to help LGBTQI+ folks, and we’re looking at places like San Francisco, Chicago, [Washington] DC and the DC area, potentially places like Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, as examples of places where we know that there are really solid refugee supports, and, as well, really active queer communities that are going to welcome these people.

Creating what we like to call “communities of care” for people is really, really important for us. Part of that is really taking a look at where they are ultimately going.

NS: For me, with the work I do for the magazine, I know that a lot of our readers are closeted, but it’s not for the same reasons. It’s for family and religious reasons and things like that. It’s not at the same level of going to jail. But it’s still something that I’m very aware of and I’m always trying to help. You know, give them an outlet, give them a safe space to be in. What you’re doing is on such a global scale it’s really incredible to me what you all are working with.

RR: The thing I don’t want to do is to downplay the fact that there are people who are in real trouble and who are potentially even in danger in places like the US because of their identity, especially trans folks. What I don’t want to do is say, “Well, just because you’re from the US, your situation is not valid.”

Rainbow Railroad considers cases on an individual to individual basis. Period. That makes sure that we are not invalidating what people are going through no matter where they are going through it. The struggle that’s being faced by LGBTQI+ people is real in the United States, it’s real in Canada, it’s rising and real everywhere, and we are seeing that reflected in people reaching out, considering asking for our assistance from these places where we are based. And that’s concerning.

NS: With that, if there are people who are in those situations, do you recommend that they look at something like Welcome Corps, or are you familiar with the Trevor Project?

RR: I would look at local resources like local queer community centres and queer supports. There are national organisations like The Trevor Project and The Human Rights Campaign. GLAAD has a list of resources for LGBTQI+ people, including mental health support resources. All of these are really viable and valuable places to look if you’re experiencing difficulty or struggle at this time [in the US].

NS: I think for a lot of people, especially who want to stay within their own community, going to a therapist can make such a world of difference because you have a safe space to talk.

RR: Of course! There are national crisis lines offered by organisations like The Trevor Project for those who may not have access to gender affirming care in their communities or to psychotherapy because that can be expensive. I think the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, and The Trevor Project all maintain lists of resources for those experiencing difficulty in their communities within the US.

NS: If the readers want to get involved [with Rainbow Railroad], what is the best support we can offer? Do you have volunteer opportunities? What kind of action can we take?

RR: The smallest thing that you can do is to stay educated on these issues. Stay vocal and active. One of the things I love about digital communities like [No Stunts] is that it’s partially about just staying connected and activated. That’s super valuable.

If you want to directly be involved and learn from us at Rainbow Railroad, we are @RainbowRailroad across all social media platforms. Following us is one way to stay educated. If you want to amplify our work – hitting retweet, hitting like, sharing our stuff – that’s action. That’s meaningful, and it helps to amplify our message of support and maybe reach the people who need to hear it.

We do accept volunteer opportunities. There’s a form to fill out on our website: rainbowrailroad.org to indicate if you’d like to volunteer and what that might look like for you. Because of the personal nature of our work, sometimes volunteer opportunities come around very quickly and sometimes they take a while to surface just based on how complicated our work is. We absolutely keep every single one of those on file and we will reach out to you the second an opportunity  matches, if you want to volunteer and get involved beyond amplifying our message.

If you’re political, write your local representative or your senator or whoever your elected official is wherever you’re reading this from. Tell them that you believe more LGBTQI+ refugees should come into your country or your community because they need support. Regardless of where you’re based, write your elected official and tell them that supporting LGBTQI+ migrants is important.

The last thing – which not everyone has the means to do – is if you want to contribute to our mission you can. That option is available on our website as well. You can also host fundraisers, if you’re really inspired. We receive tons of funds from people who are doing like a GoFundMe, or a Facebook fundraiser, or hosting a third party event. You could host a bar night and donate the proceeds. Those are all viable ways to raise funds.

NS: We work a lot with fans of Louis Tomlinson and for his birthday every year people will do fundraisers. One of the things [the fandom] did recently was for It Gets Better. I think this is something that’s absolutely a viable option for something like that, especially because it was already introduced to the fandom. The idea of a fundraiser is something that we, as a fandom, are capable of doing because we’re familiar with that crowdfunding.

RR: Whether it’s $5 or $500 or $5,000, the point is that by building a community we can amplify our impact.

It’s funny you mention the It Gets Better project fundraiser. We were one of the other charitable options for that group of people. They were considerate and have been really kind in amplifying a lot of our work as well. We talked to some of the organisers of that campaign and they’ve been really kind and encouraging. Ultimately they let the fandom decide where they wanted to donate.

It Gets Better does amazing work, and they’ve been so kind about amplifying our mission and our support and encouraging people to follow along with us. Really, that is what it’s all about.

Rainbow Railroad is the kind of cause where when someone hears about us there’s – especially if you’re a member of the queer community, or you’re an ally – there’s a real desire to see justice for LGBTQI+ people around the world.

NS: Personally, I’m part of the community so it’s hard for me to see it from the outside, but I just feel like so many people, if they just heard about what you’re doing, it would make such an impact on them.

RR: Exactly, which is why opportunities to speak with folks like you and to the magazine in general, that’s really valuable, as are things like retweets and likes. I don’t want to downplay how important awareness is to doing what we do.

NS: I was also thinking, within the fandom, and within our readership on twitter, we’ve got people from all over the world. Places where it’s legal [to be queer], places where it’s not legal, and so us posting your stuff gets it in front of them. And then that person could have the opportunity to access you all and get out of a situation.

RR: Our policy is you never know who is reading something and you never know when it’s going to matter. Whether it’s someone who needs our help and discovers us and is able to go on our website and get assistance; Whether it’s someone who’s looking to make maybe a deeper impact and is looking to volunteer; Whether it’s somebody who didn’t know didn’t know this was a problem and now that they do they feel galvanised to take action. All of that’s important.

NS: I definitely agree. In that same vein, with Liam, we were curious what role celebrity endorsements play for Rainbow Railroad? Is it more hands on or are they more drawing attention to you? What does that look like?

RR: It depends. We have people, whether they want to contribute to the mission directly financially, privately or publicly – for example Sebastian Croft recently hosted a fundraiser selling T Shirts and donated a portion of the proceeds to Rainbow Railroad – really active financial support. It’s coming and learning about our organisation and amplifying our mission, or being a public ambassador for the work, which is crucially important.

Liam’s post in support of Rainbow Railroad is still the most liked post about our organisation. Obviously he’s got such an incredible platform. I can’t understate the value of what it means for people to use platforms that they have been given to raise awareness for causes like ours. It is so critical and crucial.

Or whether it’s wanting to get personally involved as a volunteer or something like that.

We’ve had the full gambit of folks who, whether they’re activists or influencers or celebrities, have been really, incredibly kind to us about amplifying our work. Whether that’s through financial support, allowing us to borrow their platform, or through rolling up their sleeves and getting a little bit more involved. We’ve seen it all.

NS: That’s incredible! Of course I’m biassed, but I’m so happy to hear that Liam’s post about you all is the most liked.

RR: He’s got such a high-level public platform. It’s certainly not everyday that somebody, anybody, posts about something like that, and so when celebrities lend their voices to causes, or when people with platforms lend their voices to causes, it’s meaningful and it’s mutually meaningful.

NS: Absolutely. And it’s a humanising thing. There is that idea, whenever you see somebody who’s famous like that, where you see that they’re helping with a charity and it’s like “oh, this is something that matters to them.”

RR: I don’t want to speak for anybody, but I certainly don’t share anything on my social media that I don’t find personally important or impactful, whether that’s as an ally amplifying the voices of communities I’m not a part of, or whether that’s as a member of a community, or whether I’m personally passionate about something and want to get involved. 

There is something in our work – as Liam shared, we’re doing important work – that more people should know. His post, his involvement, helped us do that. It was really appreciated.

NS: Do you have any reading or watching recommendations for our readers to become more familiar with foundational issues that create the need for the work of Rainbow Railroad?

RR: I’ve got a couple of recommendations. Take a look at our YouTube channel. Rainbow Railroad has a ton of videos on our YouTube channel that educate about our work broadly, as well as tell personal stories of people who have been supported through our work. It’s a great place to start if you’re into like 3-5 minute tidbits about the work that we’re doing. That’s a great place to start.

Rainbow Railroad was also profiled on 60 Minutes. There’s a clip on there featuring our work.

And if you happen to be a fan of drag, the makeover challenge episode of Canada’s Drag Race season one featured five individuals who were beneficiaries of Rainbow Railroad’s program.

NS: That sounds emotional!

RR: It’s a beautiful episode! I believe that episode of television actually ended up winning a Canadian Screen Award, so definitely go watch that.

The last recommendation, and this one comes with ALL of the trigger warnings because it’s an extraordinarily challenging watch, but there’s a film known as Welcome To Chechnya which is available on HBO Max (or your streaming platform). It tells the story of folks who are escaping from Chechnya, which is a nation-state under Russia, where LGBTQIA+ people face extraordinary persecution. It’s a very violent and visceral look into what people are going through, and Rainbow Railroad’s work is featured throughout the movie.

We were one of the international first responders to the crisis in Chechnya. This is an award winning and important documentary, but watch it when you’ve got the emotional [capacity]. It is an important thing to watch to recognise, especially if you’re a member of the queer community, what people are going through in places that aren’t where you are. If you’re in relative safety, it’s an important watch.

At the end of the movie they give Rainbow Railroad a shoutout because throughout, the people they’re speaking to on the other end of the phone, that’s us! It’s a stark film and it’s an important film and if  you want to understand the circumstances that lead people to needing to leave, that’s the film to watch.

NS: I think having things like Rainbow Railroad, it helps for people like me who are just angry that these things are happening and want to do something, because I’m not in a position of danger. When I find out about certain things I want to help and then I don’t feel like I have any way to help. All that frustration goes somewhere negative, instead of channelling into something which is actually helping people. I’m sure that Rainbow Railroad came out of someone saying “I can’t watch this anymore. I can’t take this anymore. We have to do something.”

RR: We were founded around a kitchen table in 2006 by a group of volunteers with exactly that thought. Our history is a very activist history, and we’re proud of that. I approach this work, as do a lot of my colleagues, with a ton of privilege. I’m a cis white guy, I live in Toronto, I’m paid, I’ve got a salary, I’m very, very comfortable and [I] access a ton of privilege.

I know what you mean when you say sometimes it feels like spinning your wheels. But I think so often…maybe I’ll leave you with this: 

When things go backwards, or when things go wrong, they go backwards quickly and they go wrong big. And when things go right or when progress is made it’s small and it feels insignificant, but it isn’t. In the grand scheme of things, little steps add up really fast, even if it feels like we’re always focused on the big, bad, backwards steps or regressive things that are happening in the world. Ultimately, I still believe, I have to believe, that progress is going to win, it just happens slower and it’s a little bit more invisible.

Little things, like a retweet or a like or $5 or just learning, actually taking a moment to learn about an issue, those are meaningful, progressive actions that, in the grand scheme of things, actually add up. Even if it feels like they don’t.

I personally want to thank Dane for his time and for his extremely thorough answers to our questions. I hope the readers will be inspired by the information shared through this interview, and consider following Liam’s lead in promoting their work.

If you would like to get involved with Rainbow Railroad, Dane mentioned several ways above. Their website is rainbowrailroad.org and they can be found on all social media platforms @RainbowRailroad. 

I’m grateful for the work of Rainbow Railroad, while simultaneously holding the weight of their necessity in my other hand. Our fandom is incredibly strong, and I’m proud that Liam brought this organisation to all of our attention last year. All five members of the band continue to be generous and educated citizens of the world, and I am proud to be their fan. Learning more about Rainbow Railroad and the vital work that they do has given me a deeper appreciation for my own relative safety, while acknowledging that it has been hard won by those who came before.

I look forward to following Rainbow Railroad’s work in the future. Thank you, reader, for taking the time to educate yourself and by extension your community, and I encourage you to keep sharing, liking, and spreading the word of Rainbow Railroad in whatever capacity you are able. You never know who may be helped by your efforts.

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