freedom train

Kimahli Powell conducts an underground railroad for the persecuted

Kimahli Powell of Rainbow Railroad

Name: Kimahli Powell, 43

Who he is: Fundraiser, activist, lifesaver

What he’s accomplished: Raised in Canada by Jamaican-born parents, Kimahli Powell knows how he lives in a forward-thinking country that prioritizes equal rights for all its citizens. Not content to simply enjoy his own good fortune, Powell has spent his career helping others, through his work at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Dignitas International, and other non-profits. In 2016, he became Executive Director of Rainbow Railroad, leading efforts to usher LGBTQ people out of dangerous home countries to safety and asylum.

There are 70 countries in which homosexuality remains a crime. In 11 of those countries, the punishment can reach all the way to the death penalty. Though the laws remain symbolic in some nations – as encoded sanctions of extreme abuse, bullying, and oppression – the latest country to adopt the death penalty, Brunei, upped the ante, announcing it will enforce the punishment before backing away after an international outcry.

When Chechnyan authorities began aggressively targeting gay men in 2017 – according to Powell, using dating apps like Grindr to entrap men, torture them, and then return them to their families for ritualistic “honor killings” – Rainbow Railroad stepped in, ultimately bringing 42 Chechen men to safety in Canada.

Rainbow Railroad also entered Egypt that same year, after authorities began rounding up citizens following a Cairo concert where two men raised a rainbow flag. They’ve brought refugees out of Syria and Barbados as well: 600-plus people in all, from a total of 22 countries.

Powell recently told 60 Minutes:

The majority of people that we help have told harrowing stories of being hunted down, of being excommunicated by their churches, their families, their communities, and so they’ve come to us really desperate.

Rainbow Railroad’s #60in60 campaign last November aimed to save 60 lives in the final 60 days of 2018.

Why we’re proud: Supporting equal rights is one thing. Flying into hostile territory to locate and rescue those whose very lives are in danger is a whole other level. While Powell stresses that Rainbow Railroad is far from a one-man show – hundreds of staff and volunteers are involved in the operation – his leadership and outspokenness have paved the way for worldwide recognition of the abuses LGBTQ people still face, and the steps necessary to end that abuse.
As he told NBC News:

It’s really personal and scary to see my brothers and sisters internationally facing persecution for being who they are, and so I take it with a point of personal privilege and pride that I’m able to help. If I wasn’t [born in Canada], I could very well be one of the individuals who our organization is there to help.

What should Pride at 100 look like?

Pride at 100 should be able to celebrate the eradication of laws that criminalize same-sex intimacy. It is not cliché to envision a world where Rainbow Railroad, like the Underground Railroad, no longer exists, because people are not living in fear of their lives, and in fact, are also celebrating Pride.

Pride50Welcome to Queerty’s Pride50. We’re celebrating the members from our community who are responsible for some of the most inspiring and extraordinary moments for LGBTQ people over the last year. See all the honorees