In many ways, 2011 was a good year for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities. In December, the United Nations issued its first ever report on LGBT rights. At the same time, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared to the United Nations that “gay rights are human rights.” Clinton’s speech, which challenged governments to commit to the protection of LGBT rights, was delivered in conjunction with the anniversary of the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, the UN report and Clinton’s speech neglect the dangers of an internationally enforced LGBT rights program in a world where power is unequally distributed.
The UN’s efforts are bold. They take place within a climate of increasing hostility against LGBT people in countries like Nigeria, Uganda, Malaysia, Hungary, and Russia. The report condemns the insurmountable number of discriminatory practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, singling out discrimination against LGBT people as particularly violent and vicious. It lists several recommendations to UN member countries, urging them to commit to the protection of LGBT rights by decriminalizing homosexuality, abolishing the death penalty for consensual sex relations, passing anti-discrimination legislation, protecting LGBT refugees and asylum seekers, and educating the public to counter homophobia and transphobia.
While Clinton remained sensitive to the “personal, political, cultural, and religious beliefs” that pose challenges to the global commitment to protect LGBT rights, her speech emphasized the fact that LGBT rights are not a “Western invention” but a “human reality.” Her efforts are timely, if not a little overdue, and crucial to ensuring cross-cultural and transnational support for LGBT rights.
However, Clinton’s speech and the release of the report should not obscure the underside of globally recognized LGBT rights, spearheaded by countries of former (and existing) colonial power and whose values are historically articulated in the form of individual rights and freedoms. Countries like the United Kingdom are considering tying their foreign aid to the condition that countries receiving aid end their bans on homosexuality. I hesitate to congratulate such efforts: if the UK is not careful, other countries might interpret them as a recapitulation of past imperialism. Holding countries at ransom for the sake of expanding LGBT rights must not come at the expense of developing good governance, reducing poverty, and improving other human rights. Withholding aid will not be an effective tool of LGBT rights promotion, especially against a backdrop of unequal geopolitical power and histories of colonialism.
In fact, existing laws banning same-sex intercourse in countries like Malaysia, Pakistan, and Singapore are a legacy of British colonialism. In Uganda, a proposed anti-homosexuality bill that would have sentenced homosexuals to life imprisonment or death was financially backed and promoted by US-linked evangelical groups. The events that followed the murder of David Kato, an LGBT rights activist, sparked an intense global protest that eventually stalled the bill’s passage. However, extreme homophobia still remains and may have even been exacerbated by international pressure.
Indeed, rigorous international campaigns can jeopardize local LGBT activism and put grassroots activists in danger. Several African countries have pushed back against Clinton’s speech. News portals in South Africa and Liberia have noted Africa’s weariness over what they see as a Western preoccupation with the issue of LGBT rights. An opinion piece published in New Dawn Liberia urged President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who spoke at Harvard during last year’s commencement ceremony, to say “no to infesting Liberia and Africa for money.” A few weeks later, President Sirleaf’s minister announced that the president would not be signing any law decriminalizing homosexuality.
While foreign development aid and international relations play an important role in expanding LGBT rights protections, the UN must also support local LGBT rights groups. The UN report and Clinton’s UN address have already sparked new conversations for governments and organizations, opening up spaces for LGBT groups to gain much-needed visibility for their work. However, these international efforts must remain sensitive, supportive, and collaborative if they are to continue successfully.
The UN’s new focus on LGBT rights should be used to offer support to local activists and governments, not to perpetuate economic and social inequalities. No doubt, cultural relativism is not an excuse for defending human rights violations. However, it is only with some humility and sensitivity that international LGBT rights advocacy can spur difficult, collaborative actions that lead to the protection of the dignity and rights of all human beings.
Jia Hui Lee ‘12 is a women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Leverett House.