Putting The US LGBT Domestic Agenda in Perspective: The First UN Report on LGBT Rights

Peter Dunne

It has been an extraordinary ten days for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Rights – both in the United States and abroad.

As I previously posted, last week Hillary Clinton made a landmark speech on sexual orientation and gender identity rights at the United Nations (UN) in Geneva. Her address was accompanied by the release of a US Presidential Memorandum, urging US Foreign Diplomats to make LGBT rights a priority in their work, and announcing the creation of a three million dollar Global Equality Fund. On Thursday December 8th, the UN hosted its fifth annual LGBT Side Event, bringing together activists from all corners of the globe and, in the process, filling the Economic and Social Council Chamber. The following day, the United Kingdom’s government announced its first ever plan of action to promote Transgender Equality.

This morning, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published its much anticipated report on sexual orientation and gender identity: “Discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.” The report, the first ever at the UN to focus specifically on LGBT issues, documents widespread discrimination and violence faced by individuals worldwide and calls upon States to apply the international legal framework to end these human rights violations.

The report is shocking to the extent it highlights the abuse, violence, torture and killings to which LGBT persons are still routinely subject around the world. It stands in sharp contrast to the current US domestic gay rights agenda which tends to focus more on civil and political rights, such as marriage and equal benefits. How can a same-sex couple even contemplate State recognition of their relationship, when their primary concern is to keep each other alive and out of harm’s way.

Of course, very few people would question the importance of the marriage equality debate. Even among those individuals who do not identify with the movement for relationship recognition, there are many who understand that the question of marriage has transcended the normal boundaries of a single issue debate in America, and become, in and of itself, a symbol for wider LGBT equality. There is thus good reason to support and lend our assistance to marriage advocates.

But there are also pitfalls we must avoid. While marriage may have become a symbol of greater equality, we must recognize that it does not actually represent the realization of that goal. If the US Supreme Court were to affirm a right to equal marriage tomorrow, there would still be widespread legal and cultural discrimination against LGBT people, particularly  lesbians, young persons and the transgender community. In fact, as others have noted, achieving same-sex marriage may even have negative results for the LGBT community, creating a two tier system where individuals are expected to seek State recognition of their relationships and when they refuse, they are subject to social disapproval by their own.

However, at its most basic level, today’s report simply shows us that there are numerous concerns other than relationship recognition and spousal benefits of which we must have regard, without lessening the importance of those two former concerns. The US, as a global leader, has a unique position from which to address the violations raised in the report. It must work constructively with foreign partners to help end foreign LGBT violations, and look within our own community, to ensure that the values we espouse on the global stage are also reflected in our domestic policy.

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