International Call 

A Richmond native explains why she quit her post at the United Nations over LGBTQ rights.

click to enlarge Returning to Richmond this week, Mala Kumar reflects on why she left the United Nations.

Scott Elmquist

Returning to Richmond this week, Mala Kumar reflects on why she left the United Nations.

Mala Kumar credits Maggie Walker Governor’s School for inspiring her to seek to understand the world. She returned to the school Monday to speak to students about her new journey to make the world understand her.

Kumar recently quit her position as a program manager for the United Nations Children’s Fund. In doing so, she announced in the Advocate that she is gay, and that the U.N. has been less than welcoming. She says she came to the decision when she realized she couldn’t promote her new novel, “The Paths of Marriage,” while remaining silent about her identity. Part of that realization came from the late English teacher Greg “Bear” O’Bryan, who died in October.

Style: What inspired you to come out in that article now?

Kumar: A lot of things. While I was in Burundi for work the teacher I dedicated my book to died. Being gay is obviously a big part of my identity, but it’s not something I’ve felt comfortable talking about publicly. It’s the decision of any one person. A lot of my queer friends don’t, for any number of reasons. But as I wrote a book that deals with LGBTQ rights, the character deals with being gay and South Asian. I decided to be the messenger of the book and actually embrace who I am. When I went to Burundi it wasn’t possible to be publicly out. When I made the decision to leave the U.N., I wanted to get the message out. To put it bluntly, I got tired of fighting who I am.

Can you tell me about your work at the U.N.?

I worked in information and communications technology for international development. I mostly worked on the macro scale. This project was the first one I was doing on the micro scale, working directly with the ministry of health on a new software program that UNICEF built that could … reduce infant mortality through [short messaging service] messages and the software platform.

Why did you feel like you couldn’t be out at the U.N.? A lot of people probably would think the organization is more open.

It really depends on which country office you’re based in. At least half the time much of the staff is going to be local, and the local norms are going to be a huge part of that office. So if you’re in New York your “local” staff are probably well-educated, are probably more progressive. If you go to an office in Africa or West Africa, the local atmosphere is going to change greatly. In the U.S. two same-sex people being married is a normal thing. In the rest of the world it’s not the same. As strange as it sounds the U.N. isn’t very good about it. On the policy side the U.N. is quite terrible about including sexual orientation and gender identity in its nondiscrimination policy.

What has the reaction been?

Most of the people I work with directly already knew and were already supportive. For my own safety I didn’t tell local staff in the Burundi office. I was quite paranoid about it. I was walking around with mace, not going out alone. There are a lot of LGBTQ people in the U.N. who echoed the sentiment. The fact that I had to be in the field meant I had to choose between being a writer and activist for LGBTQ rights and doing my job. [And that] became an increasing problem, especially for those of us who came from environments that allowed us to be who we are.

How was your experience at Maggie Walker?

It was very progressive, not only for the area but around the country. The kinds of things the school was doing — whether it was its LGBTQ groups or languages — it opened up a lot of possibilities. We had a lot of motivated staff and teachers … who created this really great environment open to different ways of thinking. Bear [O’Bryan] was really the epitome of that.

Overall I had a really positive experience at Maggie Walker. It was one of those places where people weren’t discriminated against because of superficial things. Who they were, how much money their parents had — those things fell by the wayside. It definitely helped shape me, and put me on the path I’m on now.

What message are you going to bring to the students?

I think I’ve started to appreciate finding one’s own voice, as clichéd as that sounds. With all the social media and ways we have to express ourselves, it’s becoming apparent that people are just promulgating the same thoughts over and over again. Now more than ever, if you can find an actual point of view and put that in coherent terms, that’s incredibly powerful. The equalizing power of the Internet was something I worked on in my job throughout the world. The power of the internet — the power of communications through an infrastructure — it’s massive. If you can find your voice, there’s actually an audience to listen. S


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