On June 10, the UN Human Rights Council started a three-week session, where—rumor has it—a new resolution addressing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity might be discussed.
Here’s how that development is simultaneously timely and late.
On June 5, the General Assembly of the Organization of American States adopted a resolution condemning violence and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and intersex persons.
That resolution is one of several recent international developments to codify the notion that all human beings have equal rights, regardless of our sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status, or any other qualifier. In late May, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights passed a resolution, condemning violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Also late May this year, seven United Nations agencies issued a joint statement in support of transgender and intersex people’s right not to be forced to be sterilized, a sentiment the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe had discussed a couple of years earlier. Last year, the United Nations’ two regional economic commissions for Asia and the Pacific and for Latin America and the Caribbean, respectively, expressed the need to address the exclusion and rights of people of diverse sexualities in order to achieve development.
Of course, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared all “men” equal in dignity and rights already in 1948. Setting the gendered aspect of this wording aside, it is clear also that, more than five decades later, not all human beings in practice enjoy equal rights. Exclusion is multilayered and complex, but it is fair to say that discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, and intersex status is rife most everywhere.
For starters, there are the more than 76 countries, often cited, that criminalize adult same-sex sexual conduct in some shape or form. While it usually is a specific sexual conduct that is criminalized on paper—such as, for example, sodomy or anal sex—the effect is to punish gender expression and perceived sexual orientation more broadly.
State-sponsored discrimination targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or intersex persons also takes other forms, many of them as punitive as if sexual orientation or gender identity had been criminalized directly. For example, Russia does not criminalize same-sex conduct itself, but a law outlawing “gay propaganda,” which was signed into effect in June 2013, has contributed to a situation where violence against those who are known or appear to be gay or lesbian is quite normalized.
And even broader than that, states’ failure to deal with higher drop-out rates for LGBTI youth, employment discrimination, and lack of access to housing, leads lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and intersex people predictably to be overrepresented among the poor, the homeless, or the otherwise marginalized. Recently, a ruling from Peru’s Constitutional Court condemned a trans woman to a life in perpetual fear, by noting that while she was free to enter her female first name on her official identification card, her papers would continue to identify her as “male.” Anyone reading statistics on violence against trans persons will know that constantly having to “out” oneself as trans, regardless of context, is not a good way to stay safe.
This is why all eyes should be on the UN Human Rights Council this week. The council adopted its first resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity in July 2011, in which it commissioned a study on the effects of discrimination and promised to stay engaged on the issue. Now, three years later, information has been gathered, and several inter-governmental bodies, including most recently the General Assembly of the Organization of American States, have declared themselves in favor of equality and rights.
The rumored Human Rights Council resolution would join the growing mass of global documents that declare, unequivocally, what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights implied some 50-odd years ago. We are all equal; and when we are not treated as such, it is time to step up.