"Gay rights" is a radical imposition of the decadent West, a neocolonial conspiracy, and an affront to moral societies. Or so we are likely to hear, now that the Human Rights Council of the United Nations has received a new report on best practices to combat the oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people worldwide.
The report itself compellingly details the "continuing, serious and widespread human rights violations perpetrated, too often with impunity, against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity." Nonetheless, certain now-familiar nations are likely to claim that "gay rights" is a threat to their traditions and cultures. They may even argue that by forcibly suppressing the "evils" of homosexuality, they are protecting the morality of their societies.
These arguments are demonstrably untrue, but they are likely to be amplified through the media both within these leaders' nations and around the world. Thus, such claims must not go unchallenged. In fact, the defense of this report, and other ongoing initiatives at the UN, may be almost as important as the report itself.
Still, the attacks will come, and they must be swiftly and clearly rejected by the world community, focusing on three key points.
First, there is really no such thing as "gay rights" as such on the international stage. Rather, LGBT individuals simply have human rights, which all UN member states are obliged to protect. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, after all, contains the clarion call that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights...without distinction of any kind."
The sad truth, of course, is that human rights of all types are routinely violated in both authoritarian and democratic countries alike. But such violations should be cause for countries to be on the defensive, and certainly not a way for them to claim any sort of moral high ground. Still, we can expect that repressive leaders will condemn LGBT people both as a domestic rallying cry and as a distraction from their own corruption and misrule -- thereby weakening the rule of law for all.
Second, it is simply false to claim that the goal of international LGBT advocacy is to impose alien social norms onto other societies. For example, few international human rights defenders are emphasizing the complex issue of same-sex marriage, which is in fact a recent development and not necessarily a template for all other countries.
Rather, human rights defenders are mainly focused on protecting the basic security, dignity, and personal autonomy of LGBT people, who are exceptionally vulnerable to sexual assault, violence, harassment, rejection, discrimination, and deprivation of basic access to housing, education, and employment. Such defense is especially needed because the very pillars of society that might otherwise be sources of protection -- including religion, custom, the law, and even the family -- are often the greatest oppressors of LGBT people. Despite claims that LGBT people are somehow seeking "special rights," they are in fact simply seeking the same fundamental freedoms that everyone should possess.
Third, the argument that nations have the right to protect the integrity of their cultures and traditions is true, but only goes so far. In a globalized world, we are all interconnected and interdependent, and many norms and ideas flow across borders. It was just such an exchange of values that contributed to earlier critical (if still incomplete) human rights advances, ranging from the abolition of slavery to the emancipation of women to the protection of ethnic and religious minorities.
In any case, LGBT people are not truly alien to any culture. Abundant evidence from history, language, and folklore demonstrates that the individuals, relationships, and identities that we would today term "LGBT" have always existed as integral parts of societies. Further, in the developing world, these were generally not regarded as legal offenses until after the imposition of sodomy laws and anti-LGBT attitudes by European missionaries and colonizers.
Ultimately, each country must approach LGBT issues in its own way and through its own structures. No single uniform approach is possible, or even to be desired. But all UN member states are bound by their international duties to protect the human rights of everyone within their jurisdictions. They are also required by their own constitutions and laws to defend against vigilante violence, extrajudicial killing, and dehumanizing forms of discrimination. This is where governments' energies and efforts need to be directed -- not at demonizing LGBT communities and activists.
No one should have illusions about how long a road there is ahead to protect human rights, nor about how much ability the United Nations has to effect immediate or direct change. But a core element of the promotion of human rights must be the protection of LGBT people -- not because they specifically are LGBT but because they simply are people.
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