Opinion: A globalized LGBT rights fight

Published: November 8, 2011

New international agreements show redrawing of decades-old battle lines.

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.

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