The idea of a human rights framework is that its universal, but that’s not how it plays out in reality.
I’d thought I’d make a blog spot (hence the name 'human rights(ish)') that features l things LGBT human rights because it’s such a big issue in society today – both the gay thing and the human rights thing. And this combination really interests me – personally and politically.
All over the US and Europe, issues of marriage and partnership for gays and lesbians are being discussed in ways activists from the 80s and 90s would not have imagined possible. The words homophobia and transphobia have become part of the lexicon over the past decade (in lots of languages and at international fora). Youth mental health and bullying are themes regularly focused on in campaigns (It gets Better, etc) and in TV shows (Glee, etc). Responses to the global HIV pandemic centrally includes Men who have Sex with Men and Women who have Sex with Women (MSM and WSW- studiously avoiding the identity labels gay, lesbian, bisexual) – although these categories are still not as fully included in national AIDS responses as they should or could be. Sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) are terms that have a universal application, and in issues of justice and law these terms do have traction – we all have a sexual orientation, right? Why is mine one that can be discriminated against and yours is not? Same with gender identity – am I not the best person to determine what gender I identify as, and what gender I want to identify as – is this not my body to do with as I will? Many activists feel that gender identity politics and human rights is an important aspect of feminism, bringing together some of the core issues that have been discussed for years – both internal and external.
I think what has loosened the discourse in societies to allow this freedom to speak about all things gay (I use the word ‘gay’ as a shorthand) is that an applicable framework has been presented in the post-WW2 period with the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights.
(That's Eleanor Roosevelt in 1948 with a weighty piece of paper - this one in Spanish - she did photoshoots like this in six languages!!)
I add that it has taken the best part of 50 years for the gay part of this thing to come forth, but hey, who said it’d be easy or quick. This frameowrk has been adopted by 192 countries around the globe, under the umbrella of the United Nations. The principles enshrined are wide enough and non-authoritarian enough to be interpreted and tested by all sorts of societies – allow your people to gather, to create unions, to speak and express themselves, allow them access to health and to education, to legal representation, keep them free from torture and do not let certain groups of them be discriminated against because of ethnic or other characteristics. It all sounds simple, but of course the 1948 thing is not a legally binding declaration – it is simply that, a declaration of intent and of political leaning. There are always exceptions. Religious and sexual rights are currently at an impasse within the rights framework in international fora – the Westboro ‘church’ crew are a good example of how ‘conflicting’ rights can play out in the one spot – but that’s another track to go down another day.
However, there are stack of UN legal instruments that have been elaborated based on the Declaration, and what is relevant about these is that when a country signs up, ratifies or accedes to them – for example the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984), or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) – it means that within a decade or so that country has to make its national laws ‘fit’ together with the international agreement it has made – a process called transposition. So this is where the fun starts. There is a stack of these legal instruments – these conventions and resolutions – that almost everyone has signed. For the most part they fit in with the moral or ethical traditions that a country has going on – or can be made to fit. They are after all called human rights, made by humans. They do not deviate much from previously evolved human codes such as the first ten amendments of the US constitution that is the Bill of Rights, or to the Magna Carta in Europe. So after the atrocities of the war, and what happened to Jewish people particularly in concentration camps, and the psychic shock that Hiroshima sent around the world (i.e. that the fate of humankind is in the hands of humans in terms of destruction), finding some common agreement on how to live together as a human family became sort of imperative, or so our leaders seemed to think.
Yesterday, April 27, according to PinkNews in the UK (http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2011/04/27/last-known-gay-holocaust-survivor-to-receive-frances-top-honour/) Rudolf Brazda, 97, who spent three years in Buchenwald concentration camp is to receive the Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest honor. There is a reason this makes news – it is so incredibly rare and significant that a State recognizes what has happened its gay citizen (because he or she is gay) in any official capacity. There are a limited number of monuments and memorials to gays pre-war (Magnus Hirschfeld, Oscar Wilde, etc) and even less acknowledgment of the hundreds of thousands who died as a direct cause of their sexual orientation or gender identity being known (the homo-monument in Amsterdam is one, though only opened in 1987). But this is how it is. To me it’s a bit like the whole AIDS thing – pretty much invisible for years and years – mostly young men, politically voiceless, dying in their thousands before a powerless population of decent people who had not a clue how to respond to the media and leadership silence. Shame and fear of rejection still renders vast swathes of populations inarticulate about gay stuff no matter how developed the human rights infrastructure, support or education (I sense that people distance themselves so that they are not identified or ‘mistaken’ as ‘queer’ amongst a plethora of other reasons – for future postings!!). Stigma is still being activated in the majority and it can be horribly traumatic for young people to come out at home and in their society in US and European cultures. In ex-Soviet countries, most Asian and nearly all African countries the situation is so much worse for gays and lesbians trying to be themselves – all this gay stuff is seen as un-Armenian, un-Ugandan, inhuman.
Human rights are unevenly applied, liberally ignored and utterly abused in so many environments. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not seen as valid claims for human rights standards to be applied by very many states – i.e. they are unapplicable criteria for human rights claims because they are not criteria (terms) that international Covenants or agreements have ever included – this is the line the Vatican and a political grouping known as the Organisation of Islamic Conference (66 states) at the UN use in their attempts to disable or delay LGBT advocacy at the UN.
In 2008 a crew of people came together from all around the world – activists, human rights experts and leaders – and put together a document called the Yogyakarta Principles. This is simply a text that takes some central human rights laws (from various Conventions) and applies them to sexual orientation and gender identity and offers some guidance to governments what they need to do to make update their law so that it applies to gays as much as to any other citizen (e.g. allow Pride marches and protect marchers from neo-nazi marchers, or make partnership options available to LGBT people, or explicity outlaw‘corrective’ rape by state police, etc). So it’s the application of existing, not new, human rights law to LGBT people and what that looks like, and how that can even out the access to rights in real ways in real people’s lives. This will be an important social story over the next decade, much as the women’s movement has been over the past few.
(PS. There’s so much to write about in this area and so many stories to tell – its hard to know where to start! Ideas welcome of what might be interesting to read around this LGBT human rights subject, or maybe more to the point, what would not!!!)