By Fabrice Houdart, Alturi Executive Board Member
At the end of April, a Bangladeshi gay rights activist and his friend were hacked to death. The murders were the continuation of a series of deadly attacks reportedly claimed by Islamist militants. Yet, because of the sexual orientation of the victim, it instantly became international news. A Google News search on that specific murder returns close to 7,500 articles. A similar search on the most recent murder, of a homeopathic doctor, only returns eight.
Amidst the fleeting media attention, an Indian activist shared on Facebook an unsigned statement allegedly penned by Bangladeshi LGBTI activists asking Westerners to ponder on: “what is at stake when the international media focuses on some deaths and not others.” A respected American political scientist reposted the plea as “a very eloquent, important, powerful statement calling into question LGBTI exceptionalism and how it's exploited by Western neoliberalism as well as rethinking the meanings of solidarity.”
Her comment struck me because, in my new role at the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, I have been paying close attention to human rights abuses against LGBTI people worldwide. As an example, a couple of weeks ago, five people died and 12 were injured in an attack on the gay bar “La Madame” in Veracruz, Mexico. I relayed the news on Twitter even though Veracruz, one of the most dangerous states in Mexico, has witnessed continuous gang violence for years.
The dangers of “LGBTI exceptionalism” are not only raised by queer activists. Opponents to the LGBTI movement raise this issue regularly. Queer activists believe demands for individual rights for LGBTI people (particularly same-sex marriage) undermine demands for broader forms of societal change (such as eliminating patriarchy altogether). On the other hand, opponents of “gay rights” fear that a relatively small “LGBTI lobby” has diverted attention from “real” human rights abuses in order to secure “special” rights (ie. same-sex marriage, adoption or the right to choose which bathroom to use). Finally, both sides increasingly condemn “Pink Washing”: an alleged attempt by nations or institutions to conceal other human rights violations by comparing their track records on LGBTI rights with geopolitical foes. Last week, queer activists announced that they would boycott London Pride after the Royal Air Force aerobatic team confirmed they would perform at the event.
I observed the opposition to “LGBTI exceptionalism” firsthand recently. Two weeks ago, the United Nations released its video “Why We Fight” on the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT – May 17th) eventually reaching 6 million viewers worldwide. On IDAHOT, the video was linked by Google on its homepage leading to about 650,000 contacts in North America who would typically not have been exposed to the video. Among them, some YouTube viewers raised the question of LGBTI specialness in their comments. One viewer wrote: “Thousands of Christians are being beheaded, tortured, shot, stabbed, raped, etc in other countries […] So why is this suddenly an issue? Why aren't Christians shown the same kind of support? WHY?” (460 viewers gave a “thumb up” to this comment), “There are more important matters than this like ending poverty or stopping further ISIS attacks” (526 thumbs up);“all these places around the world. People are struggling with hunger, disease, and crime. And their #1 issue on the agenda is [LGBTI] acceptance? …” (173 thumbs up) or “No offense, but LGBT prejudice is a first world problem. I'd rather give my money to a homeless shelter.” (a mere 17 thumbs up).
Some of these comments are explained by rhetorical misconstruction of “gay rights” as different from the immutable human rights which are “rights inherent to all human beings” a trap our office has always been careful not to fall into. They also show a lack of awareness of the intersectionality of abuses against LGBTI people as illustrated by the killings of homosexuals by ISIS. This week the New York Times had an article on “America’s Global Campaign for Gay Rights.”. Yet, in the United States, there was no “African-American Rights movement” but a “Civil Rights movement” so who coined the expression “Gay rights”?
If these YouTube viewers had paid more attention, they would have noticed that the signs held by the LGBTI activists featured in the video were indicating that they are fighting for the same rights as everybody else. Rights that are outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948 such as protection from torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment (Article 5); arbitrary detention on grounds of identity or beliefs (Article 9); restriction of freedom of association (Article 20) or denial of the basic rights of due process (Article 10). Nothing new here…nothing special or exceptional…
It is not that respect for the human rights of LGBTI people has suddenly emerged as the latest “thing”, it is that for most of history nobody paid attention and in many ways still do not. In fact, the dehumanization of LGBTI people is such that their very own existence continues to be challenged and debated. This partially explains why the double murder in Bangladesh made international headlines … it challenged the commonly accepted notion that LGBTI people do not exist in South Asia.
Human rights abuses against LGBTI people, even when justified by moral, culture or local values are dehumanizing. They include execution by the state, denial of employment, housing or health services, loss of custody of children, rape and otherwise torture in detention, threats for campaigning for LGBT human rights and regular subjection to verbal abuse as documented by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in its 2015 report titled “Discrimination and violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity” (A/HRC/29/23). The weekend of May 22-23, in Moldova Gay Pride was interrupted as anti-gay demonstrators threw stones, in El Salvador two transgender persons were killed, in Uganda the organization Hrapf was broken into and a guard was killed and in Pakistan the head of Trans Action Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was shot to death. And that is just your average tip-of-the-iceberg weekend for LGBTI people globally. Violations like these need to be combated with the same force applied against all other human rights abuses: nothing more, nothing less.
Human rights abuses based on sexual orientation, gender identity (SOGI), gender expression and sex characteristics are not more important than other human rights abuses but their justification remain truly unique and continue to defy all analogies or comparisons. Their amplitude is also staggering: as an example 2.8 billion individuals or roughly 40% of human kind live in a place where homosexuality is criminalized.
This post does not respond to the crucial question of why tragic violence in Bangladesh or Veracruz is mostly ignored by international media but it highlights the fact that we are far from a point in which human rights violations against LGBTI people receive too much attention. While it is important to ensure that the LGBTI movement is not instrumentalized and to remain focused on the whole human rights agenda, the most pressing question remains how to channel global attention in a way that continues to respond to the urgent need for respect of human rights for LGBTI people globally.
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