By Dillon Tatum
By Dillon Tatum
Human rights groups around the world are applauding the recent decision by the Obama administration to sign a United Nations statement calling for the worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality. The universal application of human rights, the ultimate goal of such measures, appears to be within the new administration’s agenda. However, the US’s endorsement of the text is an empty statement if the country cannot reconcile its own record on issues of equality for minority groups, such as the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) community, or even offer protections to its female citizens, who make up more than 50% of the population.
International politics, and calls for global change, begin at home; it is only when the US is able to practice what it preaches that its credibility as a model for justice, equality, and uniform citizenship will be taken seriously.
|"Conditions around the world are abysmal."|
Conditions around the world are abysmal. According to a survey done in 2003 by the International Lesbian and Gay Association, 82 countries criminalize homosexuality. Additionally, in eight of these countries, homosexual acts are punishable by the death penalty.
However, the issue runs far deeper than the mere decriminalization of these laws, as issues of violence (both individual and state sponsored), discrimination, and human rights violations transcend mere legality. For example, it was reported recently that two gay men were killed in Sadr City, a Shi‘i area of Baghdad, apparently by family members. Furthermore, in Egypt, for instance, the Queen Boat, a tourist boat on the Nile frequented by the Cairene gay community was raided by police in 2001. 52 men were arrested for crimes such as “habitual debauchery” and “obscene behavior”; 21 of the men were convicted and imprisoned and all were publicly humiliated.
While the US federal law does not criminalize homosexuality, or institutionalize violence against its GLBT citizens today, the US support of the UN statement is still largely only symbolic. After all, let us not forget the status of GLBT rights in America. It was not until 1973 that homosexuality was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual which classified it as a disorder.
Violence perpetrated by police officers against gays was not a rare occurrence up through the 1970’s. Even today, federal laws preventing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the workplace do not exist; gay men cannot donate blood; defenses against “gay-bashing” and other hate crimes have included such gems as “the gay panic defense” (as used in the Matthew Shepard murder case, in which one of the defendants justified his actions on the basis of a panic from alleged sexual advances made towards him); and, of recent political interest, in only three states is same-sex marriage legal.
In many ways, the situation of gay rights can be considered increasingly regressive as of late. Rather than merely not allowing certain rights to the GLBT community, many states are explicitly refusing them by passing laws and amending their constitutions. Alabama, for example, in the 2008 elections passed a proposition banning the adoption of children by same-sex couples. Half of the states have outlawed same-sex marriage through constitutional amendment.
This is not even to mention the fact that other groups, including women, who make up more than half of the US population, still lack federal protections and assurances that would have been guaranteed under the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. In fact, even with protections afforded women under the Equal Pay Act of 1963, women still earn around 77% as much as men, in the workplace. How, then, can the UN expect meaningful global change if one of its founding members, the United States, cannot address issues of sexual and gender equality at home?
In sum, until UN members such as the United States institute major, federal, initiatives at home to promote equality for their citizens, the UN statement for the decriminalization of homosexuality is nothing more than an empty shell of feigned concern.
Dillon Tatum is a first year graduate student at the Elliott School of International Affairs. His primary areas of study are nationality and identity politics in the Middle East.