Law Panels Stress LGBT Unity

Alice E. M. Underwood

Panelists discussed law, sexuality, and human rights at the fifth annual Harvard Lambda Legal Advocacy Conference at Harvard Law School last Friday and Saturday.

Law students, legal rights activists, government officials, and interested individuals from around the globe gathered at Harvard Law School for the fifth annual Harvard Lambda Legal Advocacy Conference, “Diverse Sexualities/Disparate Laws: Sexual Minorities, the State, and International Law.”

The conference featured panels examining a range of issues on how the law can help or hinder sexual minorities. Panelists discussed issues such as sodomy criminalization, same-sex marriage, asylum for sexual minorities under refugee law, and perspectives on lesbians’ rights, women’s rights, and sexual rights.

“There have been great developments for sexual minorities around the globe, but there is much work to be done,” said Mina E. Khalil, co-chair of the conference and political co-chair of HLS Lambda. “We’re bringing together people from all over the world with the aim of collaboration across national and disciplinary boundaries.”

The panel entitled “Transnational Perspectives on Transgender Movements” particularly emphasized this goal of collaboration.

“Transgender identity is often artificially separated from gay identity,” said Shannon P. Minter, Legal Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, who spoke at the panel. “The bifurcation of those two movements is a significant problem for trans legal activism internationally.”

Lohana Berkins, founder of the Fight for Transvestite and Transsexual Identity Association in Argentina, said that she has observed similar divisions, which are often intensified by the low visibility of transgender people in Latin America.

“There are two or three well-known activists and no one else,” she said. “The priority is gaining visibility, getting together and finding a common agenda.”

But transgender issues are even less visible in East Africa, according to Victor J. Mukasa, a Program Associate at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

“Our stories as transgender people have gotten mixed up with gay and lesbian stories,” Mukasa said. “In Uganda, where I’m from, they only know sexual orientation, and if anyone biologically female presents themselves as male, then they are definitely a lesbian.”

Mukasa said that groups such as IGLHRC are making connections with gender activist groups in Africa to define an African trans movement.

“We are all human beings and we all deserve to have our human rights respected,” Mukasa said. “The issues affecting us are too much for us alone, and we have to work in collaboration with one another.”

The panelists agreed that while there has been increasing visibility and new venues for collaboration between various LGBT activist groups in recent years, the fight for more legal rights must continue.

“It’s difficult to talk about transgender identity without having to talk about violence, discrimination, and a lot of other hardships,” Berkins said. “We want to change that.”

—Staff writer Alice E.M. Underwood can be reached at aeunderw@fas.harvard.edu.

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