"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." -- Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"Whoever saves one life, it is as if he [or she] has saved the whole world." -- The Talmud
The histories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ) people are replete with incredible pain and immense pride, of overwhelming repression and victorious rejoicing, of stifling invisibility and dazzling illumination. Throughout the ages, dominant groups have labeled LGBTQ people using many terms: from "sinners," "sick," and "criminal," to having a "preference, "orientation," "identity," and even being given "a gift from God."
Though same-sex attraction and sexuality and gender nonconformity and expression has probably always existed in human and most non-human species, the concept of "homosexuality," "bisexuality," "transgenderism," "heterosexuality," and "gender conformity," in fact, sexual and gender identities in general and the construction of identities and sense of community based on these identities is a relatively modern concept. It is only within the last 160 or so years that there has been an organized and sustained political effort to protect the rights of people with same-sex and both-sex attractions, and those who cross traditional constructions of gender identities and expression.
As we enter the momentous month of June, a time set aside in countries throughout the world to commemorate and celebrate our annual LGBTQ Pride events, we can take stock and reflect back on our setbacks and also on our victories great and small over the past years within the personal, interpersonal, institutional, social, political, and religious realms.
For me, the highpoint of the past year came from United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who presented a historic address to the United Nations delivered on International Human Rights Day, Dec. 6, 2011 in Geneva, Switzerland. The majority of her speech centered on the assertion that LGBTQ rights are, indeed, human rights. That same day, President Barack Obama issued a memorandum directing all federal agencies to "promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons."
While I too felt pride for our president "coming out" for marriage equality on May 9, 2012, during a televised interview with Robin Roberts, I was particularly impressed by Hillary's courage and forthrightness in bringing to the highest level of world attention a simple truth that many of us understand on a deep level and have been working towards for most of our lives. Her entire speech deeply moved me, and in particular when she said:
It is a violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave. It is a violation of human rights when governments declare it illegal to be gay, or allow those who harm gay people to go unpunished. Being gay is not a Western invention; it is a human reality. And protecting the human rights of all people, gay or straight, is not something that only Western governments do.
Throughout the decades, I have both organized and participated in hundreds of LGBTQ-focused events, and I have attended numerous LGBTQ Pride activities, including precedent-setting and annual marches and parades. I was fortunate to have attended the second annual Pride march for LGBTQ rights in New York City in June 1971. This was the first time I felt the freedom and liberty to be fully myself as I walked down the boulevards with thousands of my comrades.
A few months later, I returned to visit my former college classmates for the first Pride march through the streets of downtown San José, Calif. This experience was vastly different from the open atmosphere in Manhattan, as 28 of us walked very tentatively down the main street, while bystanders hurled vicious epithets and pelted us with garbage and rocks.
When I sometime begin to take the annual LGBTQ Pride events for granted, I think back to those early marches in New York City and San José, and as I do, I refocus on the importance of continuing the struggle for the rights and dignity of expression for LGBTQ people and our allies, and for all minoritized people whom dominant groups attempt to construct as "other" in this country and throughout the globe.
I soon will be traveling to Ukraine to meet with LGBTQ activists to compare and contrast organizing strategies between our two countries. I recently learned that on Sunday, May 20 of this year, organizers of the first scheduled Pride march planned for Ukraine in the capital city of Kiev were compelled to cancel the event over safety concerns as an estimated 500 neo-Nazi nationalists threatened to disrupt the proceedings. This comes shortly following the seventh consecutive prohibition by Russian authorities of Moscow Pride.
In Ukraine, a group of masked thugs savagely attacked activist and organizer Svyatoslav Sheremet of the group Gay Forum of Ukraine, following a media briefing regarding the march's cancellation, just before it was due to start. Also, the previous day, vandals destroyed a photo exhibit that showcased the lives of LGBTQ families in Ukraine under the former Soviet Republic. Elected officials in Ukraine, and in several areas of the current Russian Federation, are now in the process of passing through the legislative pipelines a number of bills that would further restrict human rights from LGBTQ people and ban informational efforts to educate and raise LGBTQ visibility and awareness.
Among other organizations, Amnesty International and the European Union have denounced the violent events transpiring in Ukraine and Russia. In reference to Ukraine, Catherine Ashton, European Union Policy Chief, expressed in a formal statement her "solidarity with the victims of these acts," and urged the Ukrainian authorities to investigate the violent incidents "thoroughly and to bring the perpetrators to justice." Ashton also asked Ukrainian authorities "to protect and to enforce the rights of all Ukrainians, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, to peaceful assembly and to freedom of expression."
In this current era, as the political and theocratic right attempts to reverse progressive human and civil rights initiatives won over the past decades, and to prevent such measures from taking root where they have not grown previously, I am extremely encouraged by the leaders from the highest levels and from the grassroots showing courage in the face of resistance and backlash.
During her speech at the United Nation, Secretary Hillary Clinton committed herself to and spoke for people of good will everywhere when she said: "To LGBT men and women worldwide: Wherever you live and whatever your circumstances... please know that you are not alone."
As the truism advises, "Think globally, and act locally," my hope is that we can join together to create the world as be a place where everyone will celebrate their Pride safely and with integrity in ways that express their truest joys while showing their full humanity, freedom, and liberty. During this Pride season and throughout the year, let us join to make this a reality.
(Written on my 65th birthday, Sunday, May 27, 2012.)
For access to my LGBTQ History PowerPoint presentation, go to: www.public.iastate.edu/~wblumen and then click "AnLGBTQHistory"