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How a Stockholm-trained lawyer became a global LGBTQ rights star

Herman M. Duarte came to Stockholm University from El Salvador to study commercial arbitration law. When he left, pop star Ricky Martin was among a growing legion of supporters praising this emerging human rights powerhouse.

How a Stockholm-trained lawyer became a global LGBTQ rights star
Stockholm University alumnus Herman M. Duarte (left) and US marriage equality activist Evan Wolfson

For the first 22 years of his life, Herman M. Duarte lived with a carefully guarded secret.

Coming from a prominent family in El Salvador (his great uncle, José Napoleón Duarte, was president in the late 1980s), Duarte was forced to live according to unwritten expectations governing what was seen as acceptable behaviour.

But then in 2010 he moved to Stockholm to enrol in the International Commercial Arbitration Law master’s programme at Stockholm University.

Suddenly, everything changed.

“For the first time in my life I felt secure. So secure, in fact, that I dared to come out of the closet,” he explains.

“In Sweden you can chose for yourself who you want to be. It's an egalitarian society with a government that takes care of its people. Simply put, Sweden is what democracy should be.”

Duarte recalls a dinner at a Stockholm restaurant with a good friend from the International Law Students Association that truly opened his eyes.

It was a huge relief to me that he could eat dinner at a restaurant with me and not care at all that I was gay or what the other patrons would think about it,” he says.

Learn more about International Commercial Arbitration Law at Stockholm University

Emboldened by the freedom of expression he experienced in Stockholm, Duarte took to Facebook to come out of the closet publicly for the first time and tell the world that he was gay.

Suddenly, everything changed — again.

The Facebook post went viral, soon attracting more than 50,000 views and dozens of encouraging comments, including a direct message to Duarte from Latin singer Ricky Martin.

Herman M. Duarte speaking to reporters in Panama.

However, the lion’s share of comments were negative, with people writing things like “Sweden's turned you into a pervert,” “You're going to rot in hell,” and “You should have kept quiet instead of hurting the people who love you.”

Duarte’s Facebook confession also had serious repercussions for his career. When he returned to El Salvador in 2011, law firms gave him the cold shoulder, despite his qualifications.

“I broke an unwritten rule. If you are homosexual and come from the Salvadoran middle class, you get a quiet type of acceptance as long as you keep it to yourself,” he explains.

While a few law firms did show an interest in Duarte, they weren’t willing to pay him enough to even cover his student loans.

Instead, the then 23 year-old newcomer struggled to find his own clients before finally landing a role at the Costa Rican firm Batalla Abogados.

Once again, things changed.

With confidence and support from his new law firm, Duarte began to work on LGBTQ issues in his home country. He began writing columns in a popular Salvadoran newspaper, challenging the societal norms in El Salvador.

Eventually, the firm helped the emerging LGBTQ advocate strike out on his own, giving him seed money to found HDuarte LEX, the first law firm dedicated to human rights and arbitration, and eliminating discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

At the interamerican court of human rights with John Corvino and Auxiliadora Alfaro

HDuarte LEX was quick to take action, filing a lawsuit against the government of El Salvador for the unequal treatment of its citizens that reached the country’s Supreme Court.

“LGBTQ rights are not about getting special privileges. We don’t want to restrict other people’s rights. We only want to be granted the same rights as everyone else,” he says.

Duarte has since been earning accolades across the globe, becoming the first openly gay Central American lawyer under 30 to be ranked in the famous Chambers & Partners list.

In October, he was in London for a gala to be honoured for being named to the Financial Times’ OUTstanding list of top 50 LGBT future leaders.

Click here to read more Stockholm University alumni stories

And he’s also been named Alumnus of the Year by the Stockholm University Master of International Commercial Arbitration Law for his fight in support of LGBTQ rights in Latin America.

“I cried with happiness when I received this recognition from my Swedish alma mater,” he recalls.

“The things that I learned about litigation in Stockholm University’s master’s programme has been very useful in my work on human rights. I owe a debt of gratitude to Dr Patricia Shaughnessy, the programme director for the Master of Commercial Arbitration Law, especially for her work building close, strong bonds among the students in the programme. It’s meant a lot for me and my work.”

Despite the progress made so far when it comes to promoting and protecting LGBTQ rights in Latin America, Duarte believes more can be done and that countries like Sweden can be a force for positive change in the region and elsewhere.

“I wish that the Nordic countries would have a clearer voice in Latin America and the world,” he says.

“They have so much to give when it comes to issues like democracy, freedom of expression and human rights.”

Find out more about Stockholm University's International Commercial Arbitration Law programme

Study at Stockholm University: www.su.se/study

This article was produced by The Local Client Studio and sponsored by Stockholm University

EDUCATION

‘They feel conned’: Swedish universities fight for PHDs hit by new residency rules

Sweden's top universities are to call for doctoral students to be exempted from Sweden's tough new permanent residency rules, arguing that it will damage both academic standards and national competitiveness.

'They feel conned': Swedish universities fight for PHDs hit by new residency rules
At Lund Technical University, a majority of doctoral students are international. Photo: Kennet Ruona/LTU

In a post on Wednesday, Astrid Söderbergh Widding, the chair of Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions, said that Sweden’s universities had agreed to submit a joint letter to the government “very soon”, calling for parliament to put in place a special exemption for PHD students to make it easier to stay in Sweden after their studies. 

The parliament, she wrote, “should introduce an exemption for doctoral students and young researchers from the requirement to be financially self-sufficient”. 

Previously, doctoral students were eligible for a permanent residence permit if they had lived in Sweden with a residence permit for doctoral studies for four out of the past seven years. Apart from a slim set of requirements, this was granted more or less automatically.

But according to Sweden’s new Migration Act, which was introduced in July this year as comprehensive legislation to control the number of asylum applications, they now need to be able to additionally show that they can support themselves financially for at least a year and half.

The new law means that the rules for permanent residency are now the same for all categories of applicants, including doctoral students.

Stefan Bengtsson, the rector at Chalmers University of Technology, said that the change would mean as many as 400 to 500 doctoral students, many of whom have built up considerable expertise, might be unable to stay in Sweden.

“This makes for an uncertain future for those from outside of Europe who have applied to come to Sweden for an academic career, which is cause for great concern and disappointment among those who came here under other circumstances,” he told The Local. “Some of them may, of course, feel like they’ve been conned

But what was even more worrying, he said, would be the impact the change to the law might have in the longer term. 

“This change to the law could contribute to giving Sweden a bad reputation. This will create difficulties in recruiting internationally and damage our long-term skills supply.”

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At Lund University, the majority of doctoral students in the science and technical faculties are from outside Europe, while Söderbergh Widding, who is also vice chancellor at Stockholm University, estimated that about half of doctoral students were international. 

Söderbergh Widding told the TT newswire that the change was “a devastating death blow”, which put to waste a “previously hard-won battle to make it possible for doctoral students to obtain a permanent residency permit after four years of studies”. 

She said in her letter that the change contradicted the research policy proposition from December 2020, which stated that the “number of foreign doctoral students who stay in Sweden should increase”, and said that giving residency to doctoral students was a good way to increase this.  

Ole Petter Ottersen, the rector of the elite Karolinska medical university, told the newswire that he thought the change in residency laws would damage Swedish competitiveness. 

“This is not good for Sweden. This will damage our ability to attract and recruit talent from other countries. For a country that lies on the periphery, the goal should be to make it easier, not harder, to recruit competence.” 

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