12/13/2011 09:49 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Gay Rights Across the Globe

In her speech on LGBT rights in recognition of International Human Rights Day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton forcefully stated that "gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights." The speech and other actions by President Obama commit U.S. foreign policy to advancing gay rights internationally.

An important aspect of the speech is the claim that "being gay is not a Western invention." Clinton made this point to counter claims by regimes that defend oppressive policies and laws against gay people as a reflection of local culture. Such regimes reject claims for gay rights as Western interference and explain their anti-gay stand as a valid anti-colonialist assertion of their independence. For example, recently, after Britain said that it would assess the state of gay rights (among other factors) when determining a country's eligibility for foreign aid, President Mugabe of Zimbabwe condemned Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, saying, according to the Telegraph, that "homosexuality was inconsistent with African and Christian values." Clinton correctly noted that regardless of cultural and religious convictions, countries across the world have advanced gay rights. Notable among these is South Africa, whose constitution protects gay people.

I believe that Clinton's assertion that "being gay is not a Western invention" is important because it makes a foundational claim about the presence of a global gay person with a stable gay identity for whom civil rights can be claimed. Clinton describes LGBT people in language regularly used to refer to other groups, such as women and racial/ethnic minorities, that deserve human rights protections.

But this characterization of a gay identity -- as valid across national and cultural boundaries -- has been debated by academics. Already Clinton's speech has been criticized. For example, Jim Downs, on The Huffington Post, retorted: "Actually, being gay is a Western invention." Downs warns not only that Clinton's speech will not help gay rights but also -- echoing Mugabe -- that she "posits a familiar strand of American cultural imperialism."

Downs and other critics reject the idea that we can talk of a global gay person in the sense that Clinton describes when she said that "gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world." The critique is that by using terms like "gay" and "LGBT" globally, we inappropriately apply Western terms and ideas that bias our understanding of sexual orientation in non-Western regions of the world. Critics like Downs view sexual orientation and sexual identities as culturally bound, closely tied with Western cultures (and white Western cultures at that). Related to this is the critique that sexuality, however we understand it, is fluid and changeable. Because sexuality is fluid and sexual identity culturally bound, the critique continues, it is impossible (and even wrong) to talk of a gay person beyond the confines of white Western society and culture.

I disagree with this critique. To some extent gay identity is a Western invention (indeed, that can be said of the very notion of identity), but that misses the point. That identity and LGBT rights movements first emerged in the West does not make them improper for use by others. Indeed, the gay rights movement, like the women's and civil rights movements in the U.S. before them, have served as important (although not sole) models for the advancement of civil rights in the West and beyond.

The problem is that some of the critics have taken the idea, referred to as "social construction," that the meaning of sexual identity stems from social processes to suggest that it has no stable meaning at all. But in fact, social processes create strong and enduring meanings. Social construction theory teaches us that these meanings get transferred across generations and across national boundaries -- we learn about categories such as "gay" through social and cultural interactions.

It is such social processes that explain why we see some global convergences about the meaning (or construction) of LGBT identity. In many parts of the world, people -- and rights organizations -- have been using concepts of LGBT identity and community that had their origins in the West. But these are not simply mimicked; rather, concepts are intermingled and grow integrally with the local culture and history. In part, the increasing similarities across nations in using LGBT rights language may have resulted from cross-fertilization that comes with globalization and tourism. More generally, social processes unrelated to LGBT identity may have led to the emergence of rights discussions that have, in time, included a focus on LGBT rights.

This is not to say that there are no significant cultural variations in understanding and expressing sexual identity. And, of course, this is not to suggest that the actual words "gay," "lesbian," or "LGBT" are (or must be) used uniformly. LGBT identities and communities are different across the world (and even within our own culture), and meanings and understandings are continually in flux. The same is true of other social concepts: the ways we understand "woman" and "man," "black" and "white," or "Christian" are different, depending on culture and other social conditions.

Recognizing cultural differences should not preclude us from talking about women's rights, the rights of racial/ethnic minorities, or religious freedoms in language that is applicable globally. It is true, though, that by talking about LGBT rights globally or locally, we are conveying a value that is not shared by all. It is for that reason that I think Clinton's speech is important. She did not shy away from asserting that the U.S., with all its own imperfections, stands for civil rights for gay people globally.

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