This post was contributed by Calogero Giametta, Visiting Research Fellow at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, October – December 2016
LGBT rights are divisive and prone to instrumentalisation, nationally and globally. In the past thirty years LGBT rights have attracted the attention of a diverse set of actors: from civil society to states, from liberal to conservative parties, and more recently from global capital institutions to far-right politicians and movements.
Over the past decade we have witnessed a human-rightisation of LGBT demands. In this time, the internationalisation of LGBT rights as human rights has seen an important acceleration (e.g. the Declaration of Montréal and the Yogyakarta Principles in 2006, and the UN Human Rights Council Resolution on ‘Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity’ in 2011). In this new political territory, the human rights framework has become the official vector for advancing rights claims on the part of LGBT groups globally. To various degrees, these standard-setting resolutions have, in turn, been trickling down to the domestic legal apparatuses of different countries.
There are continuities between what happened to women’s rights in the late 1980s and what’s happening today to queer and trans people. The formation then of international NGOs dedicated to protect women from gender-based violence is comparable to the establishment of international resolutions, treaties and structures protecting LGBT rights today. However, more than women’s rights, LGBT rights have been extremely schismatic within the various international political platforms to which they have gained access. They have become symbols of civilisation and progress; Western politicians have instrumentally used them to reinforce the righteousness of their neoliberal states—those very principles of liberal tolerance under threat today with the spread of right-wing populisms. They have also been used by African political leaders to point to what they denounce as a neocolonial plot from the West in imposing the adoption of a (Western) LGBT rights framework domestically.
LGBT rights also now feature within the World Bank and the UN. In this context it is relevant today to think through how LGBT activism has diversified in the face of the new geopolitics of sexuality. In the summer of 2016, the UN Human Rights Council created the new role of an independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity—to monitor and report on violence against LGBT people globally. A few months after the appointment, the African Group of the UN tabled a resolution seeking to suspend the work of the LGBT independent expert, stating that they were: ‘strongly concerned by attempts to introduce and impose new notions and concepts that were not internationally agreed upon’. This created outrage across many member states. The UK was one of the outraged countries, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office minister Alan Duncan came to prominence in the debate. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Duncan said: ‘Anti-gay laws in Commonwealth countries are totally out of date, highly inappropriate and should be changed’.
In the UK some LGBT activists have praised the work of Duncan for his commitment in safeguarding the respect of human rights for LGBT people globally, and in so doing they had to be willing to forget or forgive Duncan’s recent political obscenities.
On a different occasion this year, David Cameron has also been commended by some LGBT civil society actors and awarded with the PinkNews Ally of the Year award in October 2016 for securing equal marriage. Will it be Duncan’s turn to be awarded next year?
Scott Long’s argument is very apt in stressing the inconvenient question of what happens to those who defend human rights when they relate to power. He asks: ‘Are we inside it or outside it? What will we do to get power’s attention, sustain its regard, enjoy its favors? And what does that do to us?’
Some LGBT activists from a number of different countries contested the role of an LGBT independent expert at the UN, even before the official appointment. Among those who opposed it there were the members of the Coalition of African Lesbians. Here’s an excerpt of the statement they released on their website in May 2016:
There is some support by some states to have such a mechanism in place [LGBT rapporteur]. The Coalition of African Lesbians does not support the creation of a Special Rapporteur (or any other “special mechanism”) that addresses issues of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression in isolation from broader issues related to gender and sexuality rights…
A critical root cause of the violations against all these groups is patriarchy and heteronormativity, which regulates, controls and constrains our freedom to exercise our rights to make decisions over our own bodies and lives. We need one Special Rapporteur [or a Working Group] to provide additional protections for all of these groups and to assert the reality of human sexuality and gender freedoms and the idea of bodily integrity and autonomy
The Coalition’s position gestures towards the question: what do we do with the human rights language if it perpetuates exclusion (of reproductive rights claims or issues concerning sex workers) and creates false exceptionalism (under which LGBT issues are understood as exceptional and unique)? Some other LGBT advocates did not see much value in problematising the LGBT expert’s mandate at the UN as they uniquely saw the African Group’s move as an abuse of human rights. A divide here becomes evident: those we can call the ‘pro-human-rights’ activists view the UN role as fundamental in ensuring the human rights of LGBT people—thus it must be defended at all costs. The ‘questioning-human-rights’ activists are saying that the human rights framework must be constantly put under scrutiny in order to challenge its inherent universalising drive, which privileges some livelihoods over others. Adding that the narrowness of the LGBT expert’s mandate could function as a way of further externalising the problem of homophobia and to relegate it to, and locate it in, some specific geographies:
Foregrounding the experiences of LGBT people at the UN is important, but it does not have to imply that LGBT rights claims be treated in isolation from the other ways in which people are oppressed; on the grounds of race, class, disability and very importantly geography. Most activists refer to intersectionality, as this word has officially entered the lingo, but they operationalise it in different ways. The kind of intersectionality we should strive for should overcome the additive logic that often sustains it. Activists and scholars alike, who use Intersectionality as a mode of thinking and operating, must be aware that this framework can suddenly be compromised when it comes face to face with the workings of power, and particularly at this historical conjuncture when hegemonic feminism and the burgeoning LGBT-right-ism are tightening their dangerous liaison with global capital.