Good afternoon. Thanks so much for that introduction and thank you
for having me. I have the distinction of being the executive director
of the organization with the very worst acronym in the world: IGLHRC,
the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
And we've thought about changing the name, but 20 years into this work,
we feel like we've established some name recognition. And so, one thinks
about making those changes, but for now, we'll stick to IGLHRC. And
it's really a great pleasure to be with you today. I was asked to speak
with you about the global movement for LGBT rights and what role IGLHRC
plays in that movement.
So I'd like to talk to you about some of the
victories we've also experienced over the last year, some of the biggest
challenges that we've faced, and the setbacks. And finally, I'd like to
talk to you about what I might perceive and what you might perceive as
your role - as lawyers, as legal scholars, as activists - as you move
forward with your careers and your lives, working and trying to address
human rights violations in the global LGBT movement.
organization's mission, quite simply, is to help create a world in which
people enjoy the full breadth of their human rights, regardless of
sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. And I want to break
that mission down a little bit, because it will explain a little bit
what our theory of social change is and how we move forward as an
organization, and as a movement.
Our mission is to help create a
world. We do not see ourselves as actors acting independently. When we
created this organization, and I'm happy to say I was on the first board
of directors of the organization 20 years ago, we were really the only
organization doing this work.
Groups like Amnesty International,
which were in the lead of the international human rights movement, did
not consider gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people arrested or
killed because of their sexual orientation to be, with regard to
arbitrary arrest, prisoners of conscience. So one of our first struggles
was to work with worldwide movements like Amnesty to change their mind
on decisions like that.
But we work as part of an international
movement that has local components, regional components, and
international components. And in our work, we are always trying to
foreground the voices of local activists, activists that are working at
grassroots levels, in their communities, in their towns, in their
churches, in their cities, and in their states. And I'll come back to
that in a bit.
We work from a human rights framework because we
think that a human rights framework is one of the frameworks that has
validity in terms of bringing about social change. And by human rights
framework, I'm talking about the sets of treaties and obligations that
states have signed and that are part of holding states accountable to
the commitments they make to their citizens and to the citizens of the
Starting, of course, with the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights, and then all of the treaties that go into making the
promises of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights real and making
them law, specifically, the International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and
Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination
Against Women, the Children's Rights Convention, etc.
And then, of
course, those are functioning at the international level, but then we
have regional human rights treaties which are equally, and sometimes,
more important in enforcing and promoting rights of LGBT people at the
local level, treaties like the African Convention on Human and People's
We work around sexual orientation, gender identity
and expression. We specifically zero in on that community and those sets
of individuals. So our theory of change is that the lives of individual
LGBT people can be improved through collaborative local, regional, and
international cooperation, in the context of a human rights model. There
are lots of other models. Service delivery models. Civil rights models.
We're working specifically from a human rights model.
believe that the international LGBT rights movement is part of a larger
set of rights movements. And we situate ourselves sort of within that
sect of concentric rights circles, which include the sexual rights
movement; which include rights for people to fully express their
sexuality, their sexual orientation and be protected from unwanted
sexual advances; the rights of sex workers; the rights of people who are
HIV+ to sexuality, to marriages, and to childrearing, for example. So
we situate ourselves firmly within a sexual rights movement.
situate ourselves within a women's rights movement, which has, at many
points, been resistant to acknowledging and promoting the rights of
lesbian and bisexual women, and transgender men and women. We situate
ourselves within a movement for minority rights, which include
linguistic minorities, which include ethnic minorities.
situate ourselves within movements for prisoner rights, because we know
that LGBT people who face arbitrary arrest and detention and who are in
prison are at particular risk in detention, and face particular violence
and face particular lack of access to services when in prison.
we work in collaboration with all of these movements, which don't
always want to work with us, which sometimes fear that working with a
validly LGBT organization will compromise their mission and will make
their job harder. But we strive to make connections with these movements
by working in four major areas.
First, we work for the repeal of
laws and policies that criminalize, stigmatize, and prevent individuals
from living full, safe, empowered lives based on their sexual
orientation and gender identity. You see we start by firmly situating
ourselves within a legal framework.
You probably know this, but
more than 80 countries around the world still criminalize consensual
same-sex acts in relationships. And almost every country in the world
still has legislation that, in some ways, criminalizes cross-dressing,
or other forms of gender non-conforming expression.
Now many of
these countries, not all, but many, have inherited, particularly sodomy
laws, from their colonial masters, specifically from Britain. France had
pretty much abolished its sodomy laws when most of its colonies went
into the decolonization process.
But the British left a very harsh
legacy for LGBT people in the parts of the world that they colonized,
and we are still working to try and fight off that legacy. And that's
why I feel, in fact, that the United Kingdom has a very special
responsibility to provide support and funding for decriminalization
efforts in countries in the Commonwealth.
Other countries that
continue to criminalize same-sex acts, cross-dressing, and other sorts
of behaviors that criminalize transgender people's lives have these laws
as a result of the imposition of Sharia, or other religiously-inspired
The best example I can give you of the ways in which IGLHRC,
my organization, works against those laws is by telling you a bit about
the situation in Uganda. It's a situation that many of you have heard
about. It's probably the most well-publicized example of homophobic laws
being implemented around the world.
Some of the world is moving
towards decriminalization and greater acceptance. Other parts of the
world, and even within a country, there are sometimes different strains.
Uganda is moving towards further violence, criminalization, and
stigmatization of LGBT people.
Just by way of background, in March
2009, we first heard a tale of a conference that was going to happen in
Kampala, which is the capital of Uganda. It was sponsored by some
shadowy group that we never heard of called the Family Life Network.
when I say we never heard of it, we have staff on the ground who are
from the countries that we focus on. So we have a Uganda trans-man on
our staff, and in our South African office, we have a Kenyan human
rights attorney on our staff. We've never heard of these people.
little by little, we came to find out that, in fact, this conference
was being orchestrated by U.S.-based evangelicals, whose failed strategy
here in the United States is now being taken on the road as a way of
defeating emerging LGBT movements in other parts of the world before
they even get onto their feet.
This seminar featured a number of
U.S. speakers who are known for their efforts to dehumanize LGBT people,
and promote a belief that homosexuality is an illness and can and
should be cured. The speakers included people like Scott Lively, Don
Schmierer, and Caleb Lee Brundidge. Lively is a person whom you may have
heard of who lost a lot of credibility by coming up with a very strange
explanation for the Holocaust and the role of gay people within Nazi
Brundidge is affiliated with the extreme Prophetic
Ministries in Phoenix. And Schmierer is a member of the board of Exodus
International. So these folks are going to Uganda to put on a conference
to scare people, to scare Ugandans, to whip up a fury and frenzy that
there's an international homosexual agenda. And that international
homosexual agenda is to eat your children, to molest your children, and
to promote an agenda that's un-Christian, that's un-African. And people
bought into it.
We had no idea at the time that the purpose of
this conference, horrible as it was...And we're strong believers in the
First Amendment. As long as you're not practicing hate speech or
promoting violence, you are free to say what you like. But we had no
idea that this conference was setting the stage for the introduction of a
piece of legislation worse than any legislation we have seen in the 20
years that we have been in existence.
Six months after this
conference, the Ugandan parliament began debating a bill called the
Anti-Homosexuality Bill. I'm sure you've heard about it. First of all,
homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda under Section 140 of the
Criminal Code, which is a holdover of British colonialism. In 1990, the
Ugandan parliament raised the penalty from 14 years to life
The Anti-Homosexuality Bill takes the next step. And
what it does is it makes many instances of relationships punishable by
death. The death penalty would be the punishment for what's referred to
as "aggravated homosexuality". The bill is pretty aggravating.
"aggravated homosexuality" would be things like an HIV+ person being
involved in a homosexual act, or repeated homosexuality. So if you've
been arrested once before, and you're again arrested, you are now
eligible for the death penalty.
The bill goes so beyond the
Ugandan constitution and regional and international law, it's
ridiculous. It says that anyone who commits a homosexual act outside of
Uganda can be prosecuted under Ugandan law. It removes Uganda's
commitments to all of its international treaties that would be in
conflict with the anti-homosexuality law. And this law is still being
debated in the Ugandan parliament today.
Our organization has been
working against this law, and we've done it in a number of ways. We've
been engaged in letter writing campaigns to the Ugandan government, like
they're really going to listen. But there are still people in the
government, in parliament, who have to listen to what we're saying.
also have found that the most effective way is to look towards other
states. We live in a world community. Uganda is part of the African
Union, and it's part of the United Nations. So we've been trying to put
pressure on many of Uganda's partners such as the United States, such as
And let me just speak for a minute about South
Africa. In terms of LGBT rights, South Africa has been both a beacon of
the possibilities for real change and a disappointment. As you know,
South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world.
has language in its constitution that promises protections based on a
number of categories including sexual orientation and gender identity.
South Africa is one of the five countries in the world that has
protected and legislated for same-sex marriages. So there are a lot of
very positive things happening in South Africa.
At the same time,
South Africa completely shirks its responsibilities with regard to its
role in the international arena. South Africa consistently votes against
membership of LGBT organizations in the United States and in the United
Nations bodies as observers.
And there's quite a bit of anti-LGBT
violence within the country that South Africa fails to address. So
that's my example of the first piece of work that we do, which is
against legislation that criminalizes same-sex acts and criminalizes
LGBT people in general.
Second, we also work for the introduction
and implementation of laws and policies that protect people from
discrimination, violence, and stigma based on sexual orientation and
gender identity. This work can happen at the domestic, the regional, or
the international level. A wonderful example of this is the recent
decision that was made by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission to
protect the rights of lesbian and gay people around custody cases.
we work for the full enjoyment of social, economic, and cultural rights
of people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity and
expression. And we work for the range of social rights. And when we
talk about economic, social, and cultural rights as different from
political and civil rights, - though they are certainly all linked -
we're talking here about rights like the right to housing, the right to
health, and the right to education.
One of the most important
social rights, for example, the right to health, is guaranteed under
Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights.
It's systematically denied to LGBT people in a variety of ways. From
gender-based violence that's visited on lesbian women, to lack of access
to hormone treatments and other treatments for transgender people, to
poor prison conditions.
But one of the most compelling and
devastating failures of states to protect the right to health is the
denial of access to HIV prevention, treatment, and care services. We
know that men who have sex with men are many times more likely to be
vulnerable to HIV.
In Africa, men who have sex with men are up to
nine times more likely to be HIV+ due to a variety of interlocking set
of circumstances: lack of access to services because they're gay;
increased vulnerability as a result of discrimination, as a result of
stigma. But we also know that less than 1% of the funding for HIV
programs worldwide is going towards programs that address the
vulnerability of men who have sex with men.
existence of sodomy laws in more than 80 countries around the world, in
and of itself, makes gay men and bisexual men more vulnerable to HIV and
AIDS. I was with some partners from UNAIDS the other day, and we were
talking about the Caribbean.
And just statistically, we know that
in countries where acts between same-sex people are still illegal - such
as in Jamaica and Trinidad - and where those laws create a level of
violence for LGBT people, seroprevalence rates are higher. In other
countries in the region that never had sodomy laws, seroprevalence rates
These laws create an environment in which men who have
sex with men have to hide. And for anyone who's involved in public
health, hiding does not create an environment in which you can seek the
treatment, the prevention, or the education that you need. Wives and
female partners of men who have sex with men are forced to hide along
with them. And this creates this "dance of disaster" in which
heterosexual women and men who have sex with men are made shockingly
vulnerable to the devastation of HIV through harmful, archaic laws.
comes into play again in providing cover for bad government policies
including the refusal to provide HIV services. The Ugandan government,
for example, says, many governments say this, that they can't include
men who have sex with men, or transgender people, or lesbians in their
HIV prevention programs. Why? Because the law says that homosexuality is
illegal. And if the law says it's illegal, we can't include them in our
strategies. We would be promoting an unlawful act.
law plays another role. Governments arrest, time and time again, HIV
activists who are working on behalf of LGBT people. In China, LGBT
activists who were doing HIV prevention work were rounded up in parks.
In Senegal, nine gay men were arrested in the midst of holding an HIV
prevention seminar in their home.
In Kampala, at the U.S.
government-sponsored, HIV Implementers Conference, three Ugandan
activists were arrested for coming into a hall just like this, and
holding up signs that say, "LGBT people need a type of prevention too, "
arrested and hauled off to jail, and charged. Luckily, we were able to
work with various places to get them out of jail.
So, finally the
fourth area that we work in is against violence, specifically addressing
the issue of violence. Because we realize that specifically for lesbian
women, whose lives in many parts of the world are kind of
circumscribed, and who do not operate as much in the public sphere, so
aren't as subjected to arbitrary arrests and detentions, the policing of
their behavior happens in the home.
It happens through honor
killings. It happens through forced marriages. It happens through a
situation of domestic violence that is mainly contained in the home, and
in the community. So, there is a specific need to address violence,
specifically as it impacts on gender non-conforming women.
the ways we are doing this is through a multi-year campaign that is
mainly focused on Asia, to work with lesbian rights groups in Singapore,
Malaysia, Japan, Thailand, and China, to research how violence is
impacting on their lives as lesbian bisexual women, and to present that
research in ways that can change laws, and that can change minds.
what are some of our big wins for the year? How do we feel we have been
successful in the past year? The judgment in the Kara Natalia case. The
decision by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights to
contradict a decision by the Chilean Supreme Court, and to say that
sexual orientation cannot be used as a means for determining custody.
lesbian woman, whose children were taken away from her when she became
part of a lesbian relationship, and for 15 years she battled to regain
custody of her children. The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights
made a decision just about a month ago, that sexual orientation could
not be used as a way of denying someone the custody of their children.
One big victory!
The second big victory this year; the reading
down of Article 377, the Sodomy Law in India, the world's biggest
democracy if you will. Not in India. I am sorry--in Delhi. It is unclear
what impact the decision will have on the entire country, but within
the Delhi area, millions of people who were at risk of arrest, at risk
of blackmail, at risk of persecution, because their sexual orientation
was criminalized, are no longer living under that stuff. Huge victory!
very important also, victory, because of India's strategic importance,
it is a country in the global south, in the east, in which it can't be
chalked up to being, "This is a Western thing. This is a White thing.
This is a non-African thing. This is a non-Asian thing."
It was a
decision made by courts in an Asian country, about the rights of people
in that country, that expanded those rights in a way that was proper.
So, it is an important step, and we feel it will have reverberations
throughout countries of the commonwealth. Another victory!
mentioned to you the case of nine cynical east men, who had been
arrested while they were in their home engaging in an HIV prevention
seminar. They were sentenced to eight years in prison. That conviction
was overturned on appeal.
The importance of it, it is just one
case, it is just nine guys, but the importance of that is it says that
the rule of law can work. If a lower court makes a bad decision, then a
higher court can overturn it and there can be justice in such cases.
lawyers in those cases worked, presented proper arguments, and that
conviction was overturned on appeal, and those men are now free. I won't
say they are back to their life's, because the level of media exposure
and stigma. Many of them were thrown out of their homes. Many of them
cannot find jobs now. So, I mean their lives have been irrevocably
changed, but they are now free.
I had a chance to actually visit
them in detention, and then again visit them after they had been
released. We are still trying to find ways to help them reintegrate into
Then I would cite finally as an important gain, the
January 2010 lifting of the US HIV immigration ban. For 15 years the
United States refused to allow, except under very certain special
circumstances, people who were HIV positive from applying for
immigration or short-term stays here in the United States. That
discrimination was lifted in January 2010.
What have been our
setbacks, some of the biggest setbacks we have had? The introduction of
the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in New Ghana. A piece of legislation that we
are all very afraid of the consequences of.
So, I think I am
going to just move forward very quickly, and just sort of say what I
think your role might be, as people, many of whom are moving into legal
careers. I think that we're making a common commitment here, whether we
are lawyers, or whether we are activists.
We are making a
commitment to be on the sexual rights stage internationally, from a
courtroom, to the classroom, to healthcare centers, to the picket line.
We are working as advocates, and we're working to refine and articulate,
and then deploy a set of arguments and strategies for achieving
fundamental human rights.
International law is an evolving and
becoming thing. Slowly but surely, it is becoming more deliberately
inclusive of sexual rights and of sexual and gender diverse people.
Decisions by the UN Human Rights Committee, by various UN treaty bodies,
by the European Commission of Human Rights, by the Inter-American Human
Rights Committee, and progress also in Africa at the African Commission
on Human Peoples Rights, have provided the basis for some good
jurisprudence and for decisions that are having impact in domestic
courts as well, in the United States, in New Ghana, in South Africa.
collaborative efforts are crucial if we are going to make international
human rights law as important as it may be to us, mean anything at all
in the lives of people who voices have been reduced. The most important
thing I think you can do as lawyers, and we can do as activists, and we
can do together, is to contribute to social change that positively
affects the lived realities of those whose voices are muffled.
is all very well to know that you have the right to equality, as
expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the right to
life that is guaranteed in your National Constitution, or the right to
health that is guaranteed in the African Charter, but none of this means
a thing to you if you are not able to see those rights manifest.
are having a roof over your head through consistent and respectful
employment, through being able to have a family, however you define
having a family, and through being able to access healthcare,
particularly HIV prevention strategies, cancer prevention strategies,
and from just plain feeling safe on the streets.
For most LGBT
people around the world, these rights are far from realized. The fact
that their continued imprisonment in Malawi is illegal under
international conventions will only mean something to Tionga Chimbalamba
and Steven Monjesa if their lawyers can challenge the homophobia of the
courts, of the media, and the community to hold the government of
Malawi to its commitments.
The laws offers, we know, a powerful
tool for change, but changing laws and official policies are not enough.
People arrested in countries that have never had criminal laws, laws
criminalizing same sex relationships on the basis of presumed sexual
orientation, people get arrested under other laws.
arrested under morality laws. People get arrested in Kenya for
loitering, for vagrancy. People get arrested for vagabondry. It's my
favorite. And the lesbians, bisexual women, and transgender men, the
policing of behavior as I've said often happens outside of the legal
sphere in the home, in the church, on the bus, in the community.
organizations that we work with at the grass roots level every day
reminds us that there's a false tension being created between legally
sound human rights arguments on one side, false tension, and the notions
of culture and tradition. These tensions may limit the kinds of legal
claims that the sexual rights movement can make.
that may be logical for the movement in one nation may be completely
illogical and even counterproductive in others. Many argue that law must
reflect the beliefs or morals of a society.
Others see law as an
instrument to influence these beliefs and to ensure that the power of
the state is used to bring about a society in which the inherent rights
of individuals are respected and protected from the tyranny of the
However one views such a debate in making decisions
about deploying international human rights claims, whether through
courts or pushing through legislation, we must take into account the
particular political realities of the national context. The time was
ripe for the reading down of 377 in Delhi.
It had been prepared.
There was a movement. There were activists working at multiple levels.
There was media engagement. Local activists also believe that the time
may be ripe for a similar challenge to the sodomy laws in Botswana and
laws against cross-dressing in Guyana.
Advocates in other
countries are clear that such head-on legal challenges could seriously
damage LGBT rights movements in other places. An attempt nearly 10 years
ago to challenge the sodomy laws in Botswana had pretty disastrous
consequences. This was 10 years ago. We're having the same challenge to
sodomy laws in Botswana now.
But 10 years ago the argument was
made that there was a sodomy law, and it said that men who have sex with
other men are subject to, I think it was, 14 years of imprisonment and
that that was discriminatory and unfair.
So what the high court of
Botswana did was they said, "OK. Well, what we will do is we will make
it also illegal for women who have sex with women to have sexual
relations. Now we have equality. So be careful about those equality
But it's 10 years later. There's been some change.
There's been some work. There's a movement in Botswana today, and maybe
the decision that will be made by the courts this time will be
different. These decisions can lead to lasting and significant change.
indeed. I will.