Figure 1: Rainbow Railroad (CNW Group/Rainbow Railroad. CNN Newswire. 18 Apr 2017.

The Rainbow Railroad is a Canadian based charitable organization that helps LGBTQ identifying refugees’ escape to safer countries through facilitating information, networks, and contacts to LGBTQ identifying individuals in countries where they will face imminent persecution. They work with local contacts to charter safe travel routes out of dangerous and life threatening situations and if needed, provide funds to extradite these refugees from physical violence, imprisonment, and death sentences. They do not help resettlement or assimilation efforts, but partner with other organizations in various countries to facilitate access and networking for newly arrived individuals.

  • Origins
    • Today
  •  Response to Global-Political climate for LGBTQ persons
    • International spotlight in Chechnya
    • Countries of Concern for LGBTQ rights in 2017
      • The United States in 2017
  • Organizational Set Up
    • Founder
    • Chair of the Board of Directors
    • Michael Battista
  • 2016 Annual Report & Fundraising
  • Further Reading
  • Endnotes


  1. Origins

In 2006, leading Canadian LGBTQ representatives visited World Pride in Tel Aviv to meet a young homeless Palestinian whose story and situation inspired the group to global action.
In 2009, a Jamaican refugee named Gareth Henry joined the emerging group to help others in his country facing similar persecution. He is a former director of the Rainbow Railroad, who helped facilitate dozens of extractions. Gareth begins long lines of former refugees’ that are helped by, and then work for, the Railroad to facilitate other extractions.
In 2013, the Rainbow Railroad was granted official recognition as a charitable organization by the Canadian government. They expanded their infrastructure by setting up an official office building and hiring full time staff in 2014. Their website reports “over 70 refugees helped since ’06.”[1]

1.1 Today

As of 2016, the Rainbow Railroad has reportedly raised $833k, in one year alone. They purportedly spend at least 70% of their budget on case spending, employing four full time employees, and over 30 active volunteers.[2] While always a necessity, the state-sponsored persecution of LGBTQ people globally has increased and become law in more countries recently.

  1. Response and Global-Political Climate for LGBTQ persons

         2.1 International spotlight in Chechnya

            Broken in early September 2017, The Rainbow Railroad publicized their working relationship with the Canadian government to allow LGBTQ Chechen refugees’, who make it to Russia, into the country since the early summer of 2017. This policy follows the Canadian governments new commitment to taking in refugees. Rmazan A. Kadyrov, the pro-Putin leader of Chechnya, instigated a program early in 2017 to find, imprison, and kill Chechnya LGBTQ persons, predominately young men, by forcibly detaining and torturing them into making contact with other LGBTQ individuals for persecution through gay social apps like Grindr, other social media platforms, and through their own cell phone contacts.[3] Kimahli Powell, the director of the Rainbow Railroad said in a New York Times interview that it is harder to get LGBTQ women out of Chechnya than men.[4] This difficulty stems from new restrictions on women’s rights, as recently in Russia Putin decriminalized domestic violence.[5]

Figure 2: @RainbowRailroad. “There are still over 75 countries around the world where identifying as LGBTQ can lead to physical abuse and even death.” Twitter, 19 Sep 2017, 1:36 p.m.

2.2 Countries of Concern for LGBTQ rights in 2017

The Rainbow Railroad has published on their twitter a list of 75 countries in which the state can persecute LGBTQ persons for identifying as such in 2017. In alphabetical order: Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Antigua & Barbuda, Bangladesh, Barbados, Bhutan, Botswana, Brunei, Cameroon, Comoros, Cook Islands, Daesh, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Grenada, Guyana, Guinea, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, St. Kitts & Nevis, Kenya, Kiribati, Kuwait, Lebanon, Liberia, Malawi, Mauritania, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Mauritius, Morocco, Namibia, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, Papua New Guinea, Qatar, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sr. Lucia, St. Vincent, The Grenadines, Sudan, Swaziland, Syria, Tanzania, Togo, Tonga, Trinidad, Tobago, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Tuvalu, Uganda, Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe.
In a western-media lens, most of these countries are viewed as culturally Muslim dominate. Since this publishing, Georgia and Azerbaijan have reportedly conducted raids and detentions of LGBTQ individuals.[6]

            2.2.a) The United States in 2017
The United States recently voted against a U.N. resolution to ban the death penalty for LGBTQ persons unilaterally, citing wishes not to ban death penalties entirely. The United States has also signaled to leave the U.N. agency for “promoting education for peace and protecting culture under attack,” or UNESCO, over an “anti-Israeli” bias.[7] The U.S. previously left UNESCO under Ronald Regan citing the same reasons, only to be reinstated by George H.W. Bush.[8] In October 13th 2017, Trump also spoke to the Christian religious-right group the Voters Value Summit, the first sitting President ever to do so. These actions signal a bias in favor of ‘Judeo-Christian’ values over other identities present in the country, which directly scapegoat and impact LGBTQ individuals as against these values.[9] There were 2 requests for help from the U.S. in 2016.[10]

  1. Organizational Set Up

            3.1 Executive Director
Kimahli Powell is the executive director as of 2017. He is a Certified Fund Raising Executive and a leading non-profit fund raising professional, with over fifteen years of experience in social justice work, who has advocated and created legal networks in Canada for persons with HIV/AIDS. He has also worked as the director of the Toronto LGBT film festival Inside Out Toronto. Primarily he focuses on legal advocacy globally for those with HIV/AIDS. He worked to challenge Jamaica’s anti-sodomy law by launching the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.[11]

3.2 Chair of Board of Directors
Michael Battista
Michael Battista is a prominent Canadian immigration and refugee protections expert, practicing law since 1992. Battista notably helped facilitate extending “family class” status to same-sex partners within the immigration and refugee protection act of Canada, which helps couples and families stay together during the immigration process. He was a leading member on the Canadian Bar Association’s Citizenship and Immigration Section from 2006 to 2008 and he is a former board of directors member of the AIDS Committee of Toronto. Battista is also a law professor in Canada.

  1. 2016 Annual Report & Fundraising

On their website, the Rainbow Railroad purports to have helped 81 people leave dangerous countries for safer ones, with the goals of helping 100 in 2017, 130 in 2018, and 170 in 2019; however in 2016 alone they received 630 requests for help.[12] LGTBQ persons in Jamaica had the highest requests for assistance at 91, followed secondly by Uganda at 82, and Syria at 54. Requests are prioritized by death penalties, prison or jail time, and then by gay propaganda laws in place in the country that discriminate and foster inhospitable environments for LGBTQ persons. Despite the growing and alarming need for more intervention, requests are processed on a case-by-case basis to assess individual needs.
Fundraising is sought from big to small, seeking large donations from organizations with similar interests, such as the Elton John AIDS foundation, and the American branch of fundraising, the American Friends of Rainbow Railroad.[13] The Railroad also encourages small donations and hosting events in LGBTQ communities to raise money for cases and the expenses of those in need, as the average cost of a case is $10,000-$12,000 depending on individual need.[14]

Further Reading


[1] “About Us.” Rainbow Railroad

[2] “About Us.” ibid.

[3]Kramer, Andrew E. “’They Starve You. They Shock You’: Inside the Anti-Gay Pogrom in Chechnya.” The New York Times. 21 Apr 2017. ; Lokshina, Tanya. “Anti-LGBT Violence in Chechnya: When Filing “Official Complaints” Isn’t an Option.” The Human Rights Watch.Org. 4 Apr 2017.

[4] Porter, Catherine. “Chechnya’s Persecuted Gays Find Refuge in Canada.” The New York Times. 3 Sep 2017.

[5] Kim, Lucian. “Russian President Signs Law To Decriminalize Domestic Violence.” All Things Considered, NPR. 16 Feb 2017.

[6] @RainbowRailroad. Twitter.

[7]Beaumont, Peter. “Unesco: Israel joins US in quitting UN heritage agency over ‘anti-Israel bias.’” The Guardian. 12 Oct 2017; Harris, Gardiner and Steven Erlanger. “U.S. Will Withdraw From Unesco, Citing Its ‘Anti-Israel Bias.’” The New York Times. 12 Oct 2017.

[8] Gwertzman, Bernard. “U.S. Is Quitting Unesco, Affirms Backing For U.N.” The New York Times. 30 Dec 1983.

[9] Taylor, Jessica. “Trump To Values Voters: In America ‘We Don’t Worship Government, We Worship God.’” NPR. 13 Oct 2017.

[10] “2016 Annual Report.” Rainbow Railroad

[11] “About Us.” op. cit.

[12] “2016 Annual Report.” op. cit.

[13] “2016 Annual Report.” op. cit.

[14] “Take Action.” Rainbow Railroad


— NW

NW is currently a student in WMST 595, Sexing the Body. Chime in with your thoughts in the comments section!