The LGBTQ+ community’s enduring struggle to gain rights through the UN

By Talia Porter

The United Nations, supposedly representing the values of each country and globalization, has taken its time to accept those in the LGBTQ+ community. I believe that the issue that the United Nations faces as it begins to more openly tackle is that due to the homophobic and transphobic nature of many of its member states, it is constrained to using masked language. These debates have been relentless since its annual goals have included something along the lines of “Reducing Inequalities For All” for years. Knowing world leaders, this statement should raise some questions regardless of how you identify: specifically, who does “All” include? 

To be frank, it sounds like a stupid question until you learn that 1994 was the first year the United Nations has formally addressed the violation of human rights based on sexual orientation. Which probably means that the previous leaders from the United Nations either didn’t have the gall to bring it up, or more likely, that world leaders didn’t view people in the LGBTQ+ as people whose vote needed to be secured. In recent years, the UN has tried to be more proactive about fighting for the rights of each person in every member state, and they have attempted to set goals which will hopefully change the lives of billions of people. 

Before discussing further, I’d like to define the terms which will be pertinent to the editorial:

  • LGBTQ+: LGBTQ+ is an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning. These terms are used to describe a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. (GayCenter) *If you would like more information, Spectrum has several informative articles which could be more explanatory*
  • The UN: The United Nations (UN) is an international organization formed in 1945 to increase political and economic cooperation among its member countries. Almost every country in the world is represented in the UN (193 countries in total). A few states lack membership despite exercising de facto sovereignty, either because most of the international community does not recognize them as independent (North Cyprus, Somaliland, Abkhazia), or because one or more powerful member states have blocked their admittance (Taiwan, Kosovo). The UN is made up of five principal organs: the UN General Assembly, the UN Secretariat, the International Court of Justice, the UN Security Council, and the UN Economic and Social Council. (Will Kenton)
  • Intersectionality refers to the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, sexuality, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group. Experienced together, they create overlaping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage. (Brukab Sisay
  • A sodomy law is a law that defines certain sexual acts as crimes. The precise sexual acts meant by the term sodomy are rarely spelled out in the law, but are typically understood by courts to include any sexual act deemed to be “unnatural” or immoral. Sodomy typically includes anal sex, oral sex, and bestiality. In practice, sodomy laws have rarely been enforced against heterosexual couples, and have mostly been used to target homosexuals. (Jeffery Weeks)

The discussion of LGBTQ+ rights was first brought to the attention of the United Nations in 1994 in the case of Toonen vs Australia. Toonen complained to the United Nations after he was fired for identifying as gay, since his company was funded by the government and being LGBTQ+ was illegal under sodomy laws. It’s important to note that sodomy laws are a global legacy of British colonial rule. 

The Australian government posed an argument around upholding the sodomy laws, which disproportionately affected gay men like Toonen. Toonen oriented his argument around the current privacy laws and stated that sodomy laws threatened his right to privacy and liberty. Tasmania, where Toonen was from, was the last of the Australian states to decriminalize sodomy in 1997, following the United Nations ruling that discrimination based on sexual orientation is a human rights violation. 

Since 1994, significant progress has been made. In 2008, the UN declared that it would begin efforts to decriminalize homosexuality. The declaration received support from 66 countries in the United Nations General Assembly. Disappointing millions, the United States, Russia, China, the Roman Catholic Church, and members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference refused to support the declaration, which, if passed, would not be binding. A prominent supporter was France, who, along with a large portion of Europe, Scandinavia, and Latin America, made their view on the violence towards those in the LGBTQ+ community (Neil McFarquhar) clear.

This declaration, while not supported by the majority of the United Nations Security Council, started a much larger discussion in the United Nations. On the March 7, 2012, the Human Rights Council held its first panel discussion on violence and discrimination against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity (ARC International). And on  Human Rights Day 2010 the Secretary-General of the United Nations (Ban Ki-Moon, from the Republic of Korea, 2007-2016) expressed his concern in a speech saying:

“As men and women of conscience, we reject discrimination in general, and in particular discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity … Where there is a tension between cultural attitudes and universal human rights, rights must carry the day. Together, we seek the repeal of laws that criminalize homosexuality, that permit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, that encourage violence.” – The Secretary-General (Ban Ki-Moon, from Republic of Korea, 2007-2016) expressed his concern in a speech on Human Rights Day 2010

The inclusion of gender identity in the last nine years shows that members of the United Nations are becoming educated about the LGBTQ+ community, and is being inclusive where it might have previously been discriminatory. 

Obviously, there is still work to be done. Having relations between people of the same sex is illegal in 72 countries and punishable by death in eight (ILGA), and identifying as transgender isn’t even recognized in most. There is hope, though, because the sustainable development goals do plan to address these inequalities. Your support is needed for organizations such as Human Rights Watch that have a history of persuading the United Nations to advocate for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. If your voice is heard, international organizations such as the UN will understand that our community is important and that we demand equal rights. 

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