Opinion: A globalized LGBT rights fight

By Graeme Reid

In 1994 South Africa included protections for sexual orientation in its interim Constitution — the first country in the world to do so. The following year the president of neighboring Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, condemned homosexuality as a perversion imported from the West.

Having lost his credibility as a regional statesman and contemplating living in the shadow of Nelson Mandela, Mugabe used gay bashing as a tool to distract his citizens’ attention from economic woes and dwindling political fortunes. In lashing out at homosexuality, Mugabe claimed the mantle of spokesman for ‘authentic African culture.’ In doing so, he depicted South Africa’s approach to gay and lesbian equality as a symptom of cultural imperialism.

For decades this has been the dominant narrative in a globalizing world. The human rights of LGBT people have been cast as a preoccupation of the liberal West.

The emergence of gay rights movements and the increased visibility of LGBT people are seen as signs of Western influence and the deterioration of local culture. In Africa this meant that homosexuality was seen as ‘unAfrican.’ But this is echoed in many other parts of the world where homosexuality is used as a way of identifying ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders,’ ‘own’ and ‘other.’

But the past two decades have seen this simplistic narrative disrupted by developments in Africa, Asia and Latin America. And two important developments so far this year are further refuting that narrative. On June 17, South Africa introduced a resolution on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The resolution was adopted with 23 in favor, 19 against and 3 abstentions. This simple one-page document calls for a report by the UN High Commissioner and a panel to discuss the findings and suggest appropriate follow-up action. Although on the surface these are modest recommendations, it was a watershed moment. It was the first UN resolution to bring specific focus to human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The real significance of the resolution, however, is not detail but symbol. The fact that South Africa introduced the resolution, supported by Brazil and co-sponsored by 39 nations from across the globe shatters the false dichotomy between the ‘liberal West’ and the ‘conservative rest.’

Ten days earlier the General Assembly of the Organization of American States had adopted a resolution condemning “discrimination against persons by reason of their sexual orientation and gender identity.” These two resolutions are significant milestones for the global LGBT movement, and markers of a significant southward shift in the global discourse on sexuality and gender identity.

In 1998, Ecuador emulated aspects of the South African constitution by including express protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in its Constitution. In 2009, lawmakers in Mexico City ruled in favor of same-sex marriage and adoption. Argentina passed the ‘Law of Egalitarian Marriage’ in 2010. In May this year the Supreme Court of Brazil ruled in favor of civil unions with full rights and in October the Supreme Appeals Court upheld a same-sex couple’s right to marry.

Also this year, the Constitutional Court of Colombia gave Congress two years to legislate on equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. In Asia, in 2009 the Delhi High Court read down the 150-year-old sodomy laws. The long-awaited Nepalese Constitution is likely to follow the 2007 Nepal Supreme Court ruling on non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Globalization has had paradoxical effects for the LGBT rights movement — on the one hand it has facilitated the movement, and on the other provoked a backlash. New possibilities for communication and connectivity have given impetus to international solidarity. Electronic communication has provided a vital tool for organizations that need to work clandestinely. The internet in particular has provided an invaluable channel of communication.

The international response to HIV/AIDS epidemic has led to an increased public discussion on sexuality and a health focus on vulnerable populations including MSM. AIDS funding has helped emerging gay movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America and health workers recognize that access to health care cannot be separated from legal equality. This has given renewed impetus to calls for decriminalization, even in countries where laws exist but are seldom implemented. In these places, LGBT people are made into a criminal class, of “unapprehended felons,” as South African Constitutional Court Judge Edwin Cameron once put it.

But globalization has also seen the growth of religious fundamentalism, as we see with the export of the U.S. ‘culture wars’ to Africa, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe. The internet can also be used as a tool for surveillance and entrapment. And, not unexpectedly, sexuality has increasingly become a site of moral panic in a situation of rapid social change. Many people feel that their traditional way of life is changing too rapidly, and LGBT people often become scapegoats.

Instead of a move towards decriminalization, we see some countries introducing new legislation or tightening up on existing legislation or implementing previously dormant laws. Stricter laws are seen as a way of shoring up ‘traditional culture.’ Of course, the irony that most of the sodomy laws are a vestige of colonialism in the first place is often lost.

Academics continue to argue about the effects of globalization on gender and sexual identities — some argue that there is evidence of increased homogenization and that we all march under the same rainbow flag. Others emphasize the resilience of local concepts of sexuality and gender and the emergence of a more diverse global movement, albeit on an uneven playing field.

What is clear from these recent developments, of which the UN resolution is the most recent and significant, is that the terms of debate have shifted from a North vs. South or East vs. West dichotomy to something much more promising and productive. For example there was widespread support for the UN resolution from Latin America, opening up new possibilities for South-South alliances.

No doubt there will be a reaction on the African continent to South Africa’s stance. The support of Mauritius and the non-committal posture of Burkina Faso and Zambia might raise eyebrows amongst the nine African states who votes against the resolution. But whether for or against, no one can say the conversation is ‘unAfrican.’ indeed it is unquestionably an African debate.  

Graeme Reid, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender rights program, is an expert on LGBT rights in Africa. He has conducted research, taught and published extensively on gender, sexuality, LGBT issues, and HIV/AIDS.

Before joining Human Rights Watch in 2011, Reid 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. An anthropologist by training, Reid received a master’s from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and a PhD from the University of Amsterdam.