United Nations Out for LGBT Rights at Sixth Annual Forum
BY ANDY HUMM | At the sixth annual United Nations conference on “Leadership in the Fight Against Homophobia” that marked Human Rights Day on December 11, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was flanked by singers Ricky Martin and Yvonne Chaka Chaka of South Africa. But his voice was the most rousing in unequivocally condemning homophobia wherever it lurks in the world.
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” he said. “All human beings — not some, not most, but all. No one gets to decide who gets human rights and who does not.”
Ban paused before declaring, “Let me say this loud and clear — lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are entitled to the same rights as everyone else… I stand shoulder to shoulder with them in their struggle for human rights.” He was “proud,” he added, “I have a global platform to highlight the need to end violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”
More than 400 LGBT activists and their allies from around the world crammed into one of the temporary meeting halls at the UN, which is undergoing renovation, for the panel that also featured lesbian activist Olena Shevchenko, fresh from her arrest in Ukraine for protesting the country’s new anti-gay “propaganda” law and headed back to face trial the following day, gay leader Gift Trapence, director of the Centre for the Development of People in Malawi, and Blas Radi, a trans activist from Argentina, which was cited as having the most progressive protections for LGBT people while still having to work on homophobia and transphobia in society. Transgender people, Radi said, have a life expectancy of just 35 in his nation.
With the “kill the gays” bill once again not passing the Uganda Parliament this week, some of the credit has to go to the leadership of Ban, who has made justice for LGBT people a hallmark of his tenure as secretary-general, which began in 2007. This year, the UN’s Human Rights Committee affirmed the responsibility of member nations to protect LGBT rights and — according to a release from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) — “the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on extrajudicial executions with reference to sexual orientation and, for the first time, gender identity.”
Chaka Chaka, a star in South Africa and internationally who survived apartheid, has thrown herself into the fight against homophobia. “I am the mother of four boys,” she said. “Why should they be discriminated against if they bring Peter home?”
Martin, appearing prior to going on stage in “Evita” that evening, spoke of his public coming out two years ago.
“For years I did nothing,” he said. “I lived in fear. I was hating myself. I grew up listening to a crooked concept — ‘You’re gay; you’re going to hell.’ Come out! You’re loved! We are here fighting for love and social justice.”
Martin said the spark for his coming out came from his children.
“I didn’t want to live a lie,” he said, adding that fans and journalists sometimes tell him, “OK. Stop talking about LGBT issues. We’ve had enough of it.” But, he insisted, “I’ll keep using my music to talk about it.”
Shevchenko said that every single member of Ukraine’s Parliament voted for the anti-gay bill there. Now, she said, “every public action” by gay people “can be a crime” carrying a three to five year penalty.
Trapence had this message for Western activists who want to help the African LGBT movement: “Engage them at the grassroots. Ask them how they can engage their governments. Activists want that protective cover when there are threats of violence.”
South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu delivered a stirring five-minute video message, saying, “No one is born hating another person. If you can learn to hate, you can learn to love.”
Tutu, a longtime supporter of LGBT rights said, “I cannot be free unless you are also free.”
Jessica Stern, executive director of IGLHRC, which co-sponsored the panel, said at its conclusion, “The UN is in the process of institutionalizing LGBT rights across its work.”
If you are wondering if an afternoon panel can have far-reaching effects for LGBT rights, Eric Sawyer, Civil Society Partnership advisor for UNAIDS and a longtime gay and AIDS activist, said that the stirring images from this forum “can be circulated around the world to show the leadership of the UN and the leadership of the secretary-general standing up for dignity, equality, and the protection of human rights for everyone.”
“Homophobia expressed locally in any town, city, or region is a global issue that we all have to address,” said Roberta Sklar, a spokesperson for IGLHRC.
It was last December’s Human Rights Day when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a sweeping speech to a UN group in Geneva about the universality of LGBT rights and President Barack Obama issued a directive about the integration of the issue into US diplomatic practices.