Why There's No 'Cultural Exception' To LGBTI Equality

To those who claim that protecting tradition requires denying equal rights, the UN has a simple message.
05/16/2017 10:50 am ET Updated May 17, 2017
Photo: UN Human Rights Office

Launching today, a new campaign from the United Nations Human Rights Office explores the role of culture and tradition in the lives of lesbian, gay, bi, trans and intersex (LGBTI) people around the world.

Culture and tradition are an important part of most people’s lives. They provide a sense of identity, of home and history. At their best, they bring people together, fostering bonds of community and family belonging.

But not everything done in the name of culture and tradition is benign – to put it mildly. While some customs and traditions promote values of inclusion and mutual respect, others perpetuate stigma and inequality. Child marriage, marital rape and intersex and female genital mutilation have all been defended on grounds of culture and tradition, as have restrictions on women driving, voting, working or inheriting property. In each case, defenders of the status quo used cultural arguments to push back on legitimate demands for change.

The latest group to feel the sting of culture and tradition being used against them are millions of LGBTI people, whose claims for equality are frequently blocked on the basis they pose a so-called threat to prevailing cultural and traditional values. Even straightforward anti-discrimination and anti-bullying programs are sometimes opposed on these grounds — as if stopping employers from firing workers for being gay or trans, or tackling the brutal bullying of queer youngsters in schools might spoil culture and tradition for everyone else.

At the United Nations, where allies of the LGBTI community have made notable gains in recent years, diplomats of countries resistant to change frequently cite defense of culture and tradition to justify their position. Human rights, it is argued, are subject to certain cultural exceptions – a kind of small print exclusion clause that allows governments to deny rights to certain of their people if majority cultural mores so dictate.

As a line of reasoning, this is fraught with problems. First, there are no exclusion clauses in international human rights law: rights are universal, for all people everywhere. Different cultures, traditions, religions, customs and beliefs are all part of the world’s brilliant mosaic, and the context in which people live their lives and exercise their rights as individuals. But diversity doesn’t absolve governments of their responsibility for making sure that people’s rights are respected and protected – no matter who they are or where they live. Culture and tradition are not a license to discriminate and can never be an excuse for violence.

But just as importantly, culture and tradition are not defined or owned exclusively by any one group — even if that group makes up a majority in society. Cultural rights, like religious freedoms, are individual rights. Everyone is entitled to take part in the cultural life of the communities where they live. But while each of us gets to decide for ourselves what culture and tradition mean for us as individuals, none of us get to make that decision for other people.

The #CultureOfLove campaign features a trilogy of short, poignant videos that show what it looks like when culture and tradition are opened up to LGBTI people. In the first, a young man in Mumbai brings his boyfriend to a family celebration of the Festival of Holi. In the second, a genderqueer youngster in Britain joins their father at a soccer match and basks in the feelings of comradery and belonging that go with supporting the local team. In the final video, Chinese parents shake off their initial hesitation and include their daughter’s same sex partner in their Lunar New Year celebrations.

In each of these vignettes, the story could so easily have turned out differently. The gay, lesbian and genderqueer protagonists could have been rejected, with negative consequences for them, their friends and families. An Indian dad would have missed a chance to share the joy of Holi with his son and his son’s boyfriend; a father and child could have suffered abuse and humiliation at the hands of a hostile crowd of soccer fans in the UK; and Chinese New Year celebrations would have been marred by a painful family rift.

To those who claim that protecting dominant culture and tradition sometimes requires denying equal rights to LGBTI people, the UN has a simple message: culture and tradition should bring us together, not drive us apart. Ultimately, the customs, rituals, celebrations and traditions that connect us with one another and with previous generations are capable of absorbing diversity. Far from being threatened, they are strengthened when all of us, including LGBTI people, can join in.

Watch the “Tradition”, “Culture” and “Family” trilogy below and visit www.unfe.org/cultureoflove to learn more about the UN’s #CultureOfLove campaign.

#CultureOfLove is an initiative of UN Free & Equal – a global campaign for LGBTI equality launced and led by the United Nations Human Rights Office. For more on UN Free & Equal, visit www.unfe.org and follow the campaign on Facebook (facebook.com/free.equal) or Twitter (@free_equal).

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