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Oh, the Drama! The UN Human Rights System Tackles Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

By Cynthia Rothschild | May 10, 2012

The United Nations hosted its first-ever high-level panel on violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in early March. Convened by the government of South Africa, some would argue – myself included – that this event is at least ten years overdue. Nonetheless, seeing Ban Ki Moon, the Secretary General of the UN, in an opening video statement uneqivocally offer his support in this struggle was extraordinary:

To those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender... You are not alone. Your struggle for an end to violence and discrimination is a shared struggle. Any attack on you is an attack on the universal values the United Nations and I have sworn to defend and uphold. Today, I stand with you… and I call upon all countries and people to stand with you, too.

I’ve been doing LGBT human rights work for two decades, and this was probably the “gayest”, or certainly the most theatrical UN moment I’ve encountered: As house lights lowered within the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, strips of lighting on hundreds of desks in the room cast an eerie florescent glow. The ceiling—a three dimensional wildly-colored apocalyptic landscape–was set in emergency lighting haze as a giant on-screen Secretary General implored states to address and prevent violations. Pretty moving stuff, actually. With many LGBT and sexual rights activists attending from global South and North alike, the Council was duly queered and filled with intrigue.

This event was a landmark within the UN system. But it represents a particular win amidst a rollercoaster of to and fro in the political landscape of sexual rights and specifically sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI, as we now call it) within the UN. The backlash against any “progressive” or feminist focus on sexuality – including claims for autonomous decisionmaking about sex or reproduction, or sexuality education, or even freedom from discrimination – is fierce, and crosses continents with dizzying speed.

While the SOGI panel was breaking new ground in Geneva, at literally the same time at the UN in New York, the Holy See (which functions as a state within the UN), conservative governments and a handful of US right wing organizations were boldly doing damage at the Commission on the Status of Women, the UN’s annual meeting on rights of women. Their goals were tried and true: in government negotiations, promote a monolithic heterosexual notion of "the" family; block promotion of comprehensive sexuality education; weaken any language that could support women's access to abortion or reproductive health services, and stifle references to "key populations" affected by the AIDS pandemic – specifically men who have sex with men or sex workers.

govt-delegations
Government delegations raise placards to be recognized to speak at Council's SOGI session.

In these spaces of global governance, the resistance to women's and LGBT rights is profound and often revealed in side programming alongside the official negotiations. Back in Geneva, two days after the pioneering SOGI panel, the Holy See hosted a hastily-put-together, somewhat veiled anti-gay unofficial event at the Human Rights Council. Abortion-related rights provide the Holy See’s other rallying point, with support of conservative governments and many US right wing groups. Some of the unofficial UN events these groups host are - this can’t be said diplomatically – mindblowing: some promote the value of breastfeeding, but maintain a main plot that links abortion to breast cancer. For the record, the World Health Organization debunked this connection years ago. These events come across as desperate attempts to roll back the clock, or in this case, the legacy of progressive social movements, scientific evidence-based study and even international human rights law. And they're painful to sit through, too.

Ok, so that was March in the UN. Bring on April, and the UN Commission on Population and Development (CPD)—another New York annual weeklong governmental meeting attended by many sexual and reproductive rights and right wing organizations. Fasten your seatbelts: here’s another swervy ride.

The CPD always has a theme related to health; this year’s was “adolescents and youth”. Remarkably, the CPD produced a resolution calling on governments to protect human rights of adolescents and youth “to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health” and to provide them with “evidence-based comprehensive education on human sexuality.” These are big wins that fly in the face of conservative efforts to regulate sexuality of young people. But these gains came with compromises. Gender and sexual rights language became lightning rods since they were seen as “covers” for sexual orientation and gender identity.

So even as an official human rights panel on sexual orientation and gender identity takes place in one UN site, the ideas supporting that work become lynchpins in another UN venue 3000 miles away. And even when allies try to focus on the daily violence and discrimination LGBT people face in all regions, what’s heard by those in opposition is entirely different: they hear (because they want to) “demise of marriage”, “the ruin of the family” and the “end of childbearing”.

There was a not-very-interesting walkout by some governments as the sexual orientation and gender identity official panel began at the Council. In fact, some of the same delegates that left the room were spotted in the overflow viewing gallery minutes later. Activism lesson: If you’re going to stage a walk-out, at least leave the building, no? Their opposition generally rested on weak and manipulated arguments about international law: “homosexuality is a ‘Western import’, is not mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and has no place being discussed in a context of international law”, or “this discussion is about affording ‘special rights’ to a specific group”.

These arguments are, of course, paper-thin. The human rights framework argues that all people should be able to enjoy all human rights. And that no one should be subjected to violence (including torture, extrajudicial killing, or violence in the home) or discrimination (including arbitrary arrest, or denial of education or health care).

So even with the back and forth, the up and down... I think the Human Rights Council panel in March, and its related first-ever official UN report on SOGI violence and discrimination, was nothing short of a watershed moment in UN and LGBT political history. It’s undeniably significant that the highest-level UN human rights body has said “these violations exist and they must be stopped”. It’s a simple claim, and one that results from decades of activism of LGBT and gender-non-conforming people around the world. It’s also a claim that can help stop the arrests, rapes and murders of LGBT people everywhere. Even Ban Ki Moon agrees.

Read the UN SOGI report here.