LGBT Rights in International Politics

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Yale Journal of International Affairs: In September, the UN Human Rights Council passed an important resolution to combat violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and the resolution was largely led by a coalition of Latin American countries. Historically, the conversation about LGBT rights on the international stage could be categorized as “the West vs. the Rest,” but you argue that in recent years, this has definitely been shifting. Does this recent Latin American leadership indicate a further shift toward the Global South leading this movement?

Graeme Reid: Countries from all regions in the world supported the resolution, and the margin of votes in favor of this resolution was much greater than for the first resolution. So we are seeing a shift, both in terms of leadership and the voting record. The first resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity at the UN Human Rights Council was in 2011, and that was a South African-led resolution. So, again, the model of the “West vs. the Rest” doesn’t hold. It’s been a controversial issue but increasingly we are seeing more widespread support, significantly from the Philippines, and Vietnam for example and that is in addition to the Latin American states that led the resolution. This indicates wider support from a broader range of countries on this particular issue.

YJIA: There is talk of “backlash” against the LGBT communities around the world following this resolution and others like it. What sort of backlash is this? Is the international push for LGBT rights jeopardizing progress made on the ground by activists in individual countries?

Reid: The term “backlash” itself is one that we need to be cautious of, because it suggests that it is something inevitable. And this obscures the fact that what we are seeing at the moment is the very deliberate use of homophobia for specific political ends. That said, it is the case that there has been a reaction against the significant gains that have been made. And let me draw an example from sub-Saharan Africa, a region I am particularly familiar with. Over the last two decades there has definitely been an increase in public rhetoric, public homophobic rhetoric, by leaders in several countries within sub-Saharan Africa. In part this is a response to a growing LGBT movement in the region. Twenty-five years ago, there wasn’t a movement to speak of. Now there is a vocal, visible LGBT movement. Homophobic rhetoric by political leaders is certainly a response to that. But many leaders have learned (and they could have learned it from Mugabe twenty-five years ago), the political expediency of homophobia. You can almost tell when an election is looming in Zimbabwe by the increase in homophobic rhetoric from the ruling party—but unfortunately we are seeing that increasingly in other countries such as Uganda, such as Nigeria. If we take Uganda as an example, in order to understand the passage of homophobic laws there, we need to understand the broader political context—the competing interests within the ruling party, and the clamp down on civil and political rights within Uganda. Homophobia becomes a very useful tool for that broader clamp down. Under the guise of homophobic rhetoric—of accusing organizations of ‘promoting homosexuality’—a number of organizations that have got nothing whatsoever to do with LGBT rights are also targeted as part of this broader clamp down. So it gives a moral justification for a political clamp down and for the restriction of civil rights.

YJIA: So that is sort of at the domestic level, that these LGBT rights and homophobic legislation are being used for political reasons, but on the international level how are LGBT rights being used for politics?

Reid: That’s a very good question. I want to talk about Russia, because Russia has played a very significant role in attempting to couch bigotry in the acceptable language of “traditional values.” Indeed Russia has positioned itself internationally as the champion of vaguely defined “traditional values,” which means nothing and means everything at the same time. So it’s a convenient shorthand for an anti-LGBT coalition that has gained some momentum internationally, including at the UN Human Rights Council. Russia uses the rhetoric of LGBT rights as a wedge issue in order to create a false dichotomy between “traditional values” and “human rights”. And it is particularly pernicious and dangerous, because underlying this is a challenge to the fundamental principles of human rights, namely that they are universal and indivisible, and that everybody has equal rights. The other side of the resolutions on sexual orientation and gender identity is Russia championing resolutions on “traditional values”. While the content of those resolutions is fairly mild, the symbol is the suggestion that human rights should be imagined in terms of a kind of cultural relativism. And that potentially robs the value and potency of human rights as a universally agreed set of principles that countries have signed onto by virtue of their membership to the UN and the various treaties that go with that.

YJIA: Okay, I’d like to push you on that a little bit. Many people who criticize this, and push for more cultural relativism, would say that this universalist idea of human rights is also ethnocentric. That this is Western ethnocentrism, that from the viewpoint of Europe and America, this is what human rights are. How do you reconcile the universality of it with the vantage point of the Global North?

Reid: My political understanding comes from the South; it comes from my experience in South Africa. And there, we have a very interesting example. I’d like to talk anecdotally about the first pride march that took place in South Africa in 1991. The leader of that march was a man by the name of Simon Nkoli, who was an anti-apartheid activist, as well as a gay leader. And he made the point there that “in South Africa, I am oppressed as a black man, and I am oppressed as a gay man and I can’t separate those two oppressions.” So the human rights language that I’m deeply familiar with is a language that actually comes from the Global South. It was used very effectively against a deeply repressive regime. So human rights are not the currency of the Global North. In fact, human rights is currency that has been used very effectively in anti-colonial struggles throughout sub-Saharan Africa, and also in Latin America. What we are actually seeing is an elite leadership trying to hold onto power and using the language of “traditional values” as justification for holding onto power. This kind of knee jerk rhetoric against human rights is more about being threatened by the very values that human rights suggests, because most of the countries that are expressing this deeply homophobic rhetoric are not democratic, are clamping down on political opposition and curtailing civil rights, and [are] using the language of traditional values as a cynical justification for that.

YJIA: Staying with South Africa, it’s sort of an exception, I think, because of its progressive constitution. We actually had a chance to sit down with Justice Albie Sachs pretty recently and talk about constitution-making in South Africa, and something that is included [in the South African constitution] is sexual orientation and gender identity, as well. Is that an effective model of LGBT rights safeguarding against “traditional values” around the world, or is [South Africa] an exception?

Reid: The South African constitution is complicated. You’re right, in that it does indeed protect on the basis of sexual orientation, and gender has been interpreted to include gender identity, and that is deeply significant within the whole democratic project in South Africa. In some real senses, the sexual orientation clause in the constitution is seen as a litmus test for the success of constitutional democracy, precisely because it’s unpopular. The protection of an unpopular minority is seen as a marker of the success of the democratic project, in contrast to the oppression under apartheid. It’s very important from that point of view. But there is also an inherent, unresolved contradiction within the South African constitution, which is that there is a recognition of traditional law and there is a recognition of constitutional law, and constitutional law is supreme. And so we see a tension within South African society around a different understanding of gender and sexuality, in particular. That is an ongoing conversation, and we’ve seen a lot of interesting cases in which traditional law has been looked at in relation to constitutional law, with the idea that traditional law would develop in such a way as to be compatible with the South African constitution. But it remains a tension. And we see it playing out often around questions of gender and questions of sexual orientation. I wouldn’t say it’s resolved within South Africa—it remains a tension—but it is a model.

And while it is unique in its explicitness, it’s not entirely unique in the region. Botswana retains its sodomy laws, but still has a non-discrimination law that prevents discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the workplace. And [in] Mozambique there is an archaic law around “acts against the order of nature,”—its Lusophone equivalent—but the Minister of Justice there said, “Well, homosexuality is not against the order of nature, so it doesn’t apply.” So the law remains, but it’s not enforced.

It is unfortunate that many anti-colonial struggles embraced a limited view of human rights that were less inclusive than South Africa. And that speaks to the specificity of South African history—a consensus within South Africa at the time of political transition that never again would there be discrimination on the basis of natural characteristics, including sexual orientation.

YJIA: That’s really interesting. I think South Africa is a really interesting case. But you use this idea of the “litmus test.” Can we use LGBT rights as a litmus test for human rights on a more global stage?

Reid: We need to be very specific in our work and not draw general conclusions from that. I am making specific reference to South Africa where, in both the imagining of the South African constitution and in the language of the first Chief Justice of South Africa, the idea of sexual orientation as a litmus test is made explicit. It is not accurate to say, “Well, if LGBT rights are in place, then [there are] human rights in general.” It is often the case, but it’s certainly not always the case. Perhaps a good example is Rwanda, where there was a suggestion to introduce a law that would criminalize same-sex practices, and it was rejected outright by the Minister of Justice, citing the history of Rwanda. But, as we know, there are other human rights issues within Rwanda. And of course, a regular example that is used is one of “pinkwashing”—in Israel, for instance, the championing of LBGT rights, at the expense of looking at other human rights issues. And we can also look at immigration policies in the European Union and how in some countries LGBT rights have been misused as one of the arguments to curtail immigration—in this case acceptance of same-sex relations becomes a kind of “measure of modernity” and ability to integrate into that society. There are all kinds of problematic ways in which equality on the basis of sexual orientation can be used. It’s not that straight forward.

YJIA: So I’ll shift a little bit. I want to ask you about the role of non-governmental international organizations in the global push for LGBT rights. I am specifically thinking of organizations like the International Olympic Committee and FIFA, which have brought LGBT rights to the fore with their decisions to give host status to Russia and Qatar. So what do you think the role is of these non-governmental international governing bodies?

Reid: We at Human Rights Watch have been working very hard around the International Olympics Committee, especially during and after the Sochi Olympics, and the IOC have agreed that in future, nondiscrimination will be a priority issue in terms of granting the Games to a particular country. And non-discrimination explicitly includes ‘sexual orientation’. That is definitely a move forward. There is a specific commitment to that, whereas that hasn’t been the case in the past. I think that in large part, the IOC is – or should be – deeply embarrassed around the Sochi Olympics. They could have taken a much stronger stance against the anti-LGBT laws in Russia and they chose not to. In fact the IOC was very muted in their response. So, I think that the fact that they have committed to that is going to make a huge difference. But it has taken a lot of work. It hasn’t just happened, it has taken pressure from a number of international organizations working on that issue.

YJIA: I have a question about generational tensions. I think that in the US, gay rights and LGBT rights are something that is generally thought of as generational, that younger generations are more progressive, are more prone to accepting LGBT rights. On the international stage, is this the case?

Reid: You know, I wish it were the case, because then I would be a lot more relaxed and think, “Well, all one has to do is wait a generation, and then the kinds of prejudices and bigotry that we experience today will fade away and disappear.” But we also need to remember that there are a lot of young people who are pretty committed homophobes. For example, some Evangelical movements that are also homophobic, attract a young membership. They attract young people for different reasons, for the sense of community, for the sense of possibility that is created, whatever it is. Again, it is very country specific, and we need to be careful not to draw generalization from the experience in the US, where it does indeed appear to be the case that there has been a dramatic and significant shift towards same-sex marriage that by and large can be explained by a generational shift in attitude.

YJIA: I want to talk about something that you briefly touched on in your talk earlier today, and that is your relationship with the Holy See. I think that’s an interesting pairing. Can you talk a little bit about it that?

Reid: I would like to say it’s a relationship, but at the moment it’s been more of a one-sided correspondence. But, we have been publicly engaging with the Holy See. And the Holy See has made certain public statements that condemn violence, opposition to unjust discrimination, and opposition to unjust criminal penalties. And so we feel that in those three areas, there is common ground. Our approach has been that there are fundamental differences in the ways we approach the world, and we will never see eye to eye on that, but can we agree to these ground rules, that sexual orientation or gender identity should never be the basis for criminal penalties, it should never be the grounds for unjust discrimination, and it should certainly never be the grounds for violence? That’s the public and official position of the Holy See. And yet around the world, we see officials of the Church, bishops, high-ranking officials, making statements that are contrary to the central message of the Church. So it makes sense to address it as a management problem, rather than a theological problem. This is the official position of the Church and yet there are representatives who are acting in direct contradiction to that. We’ve seen that in Nigeria and we’ve seen that at certain points in Uganda. Although in Uganda it has been ambiguous, because at times the Church distances itself and at times, in its public presence, has tacitly endorsed the Anti-Homosexuality Act. In Nigeria, there have been senior ranking officials who have explicitly supported the passage of the so-called “Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act,” which has got a lot to do with many things and has got little to do with same sex marriage.

YJIA: I think in your day-to-day goings on, you see a lot of negatives in the work that you’re doing. What gives you hope for the future of LGBT rights?

Reid: You know the last year has been a difficult year. We had our staff retreat at the beginning of the year, and our facilitator decided to start with a “How are you feeling?” session. And it wasn’t very good, because we had a lot of setbacks. We had India’s judgment on 377[1], we had the passage of the laws in Nigeria and Uganda, we had the developments in Russia and we had the rhetoric around “traditional values” internationally. LGBT issues were increasingly a lightning rod, a wedge issue, and so in times like this, it can feel quite daunting. On the other hand this response and reaction is also a measure of the strength and success of a movement over time—this reaction can, in part, be understood as a response to a growing international consensus that it’s not acceptable to be discriminating, to be perpetrating acts of violence against LGBT people. And in the midst of this, we see small but significant positive developments. The fact that the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights passed a resolution condemning violence against LGBT people and calling for the perpetrators to be brought to justice in 2014 is a very significant development—not only because it’s the first time that sexual orientation and gender identity has been recognized within the commission, but also because it sends a clear message condemning violence, and that is a good start. So, in the midst of the negative, there is always a positive. The most recent SOGI resolution was a cause for hope for the reasons we discussed earlier—not only the number of countries that supported it, which showed a growing trend, but also the range of countries from different regions of the world.

YJIA: We like to end with a couple of form questions here at the Yale Journal. What book are you reading now?

Reid: Right at this very moment I’m reading a book called Dude, You’re a Fag, recommended to me by Ali Miller, co-chair of our Advisory Committee. I’m reading it because it’s an ethnography of a school environment and the production of ideas about sexuality and gender. I’m reading it because I’m interested in bullying, and I’m interested in how Human Rights Watch might intervene in terms of doing more on the experience of bullying at schools in an international context. The book appeals to me because it is an ethnography and my training is as an anthropologist, and it looks at the institution and the way in which homophobia limits and restricts life possibilities and options for everyone, including heterosexual people within the school environment, because it is a way of policing masculine and feminine norms. So the school as an institution produces particular forms of gender and sexuality. I am enjoying the book for those reasons.

YJIA: What do you think the most important issue is in global affairs right now? What keeps you up at night?

Reid: Working at Human Rights Watch, every day I see the very pressing issues that my colleagues are working on. To me, the most daunting challenge is groups and organizations around the world that seem to relish the fact that they are abusive of human rights. It’s a kind of mark of pride, the excesses that are perpetrated, and that to me is a very worrying and disturbing trend.

About the Interviewee

Graeme Reid is the LGBT Program Director at Human Rights Watch. Prior to joining HRW in 2011, Graeme was the founding director of the Gay and Lesbian Archives of South Africa, a researcher at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research and a lecturer in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies at Yale University. Trained as an anthropologist, Graeme is the author of several academic works, including “How to Be a Real Gay: Gay Identities in Small Town-South Africa.”

[1] Chapter XVI, Article 337 of the Indian Penal Code states “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.” In 2013, the Supreme Court of India determined that homosexual acts were criminal, in accordance with Article 337.


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