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A Serious Accountability Problem

By Eric Cherry

This entry was written by Diana Sands, LGBT Program Associate at the Unitarian Universalist UN Office. From civil rights to human rights, what is at stake is humanity and dignity for all: the oppressed, their oppressors, and the spectators. Here I want to compare traditionally marginalized human rights issues in the United States with those in South Africa. Both countries have had significant controversy and advocacy around Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender (LGBT) and Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity (SOGI) human rights, and both countries have a serious accountability problem obstructing progress on these issues. Across the United States, members of LGBT communities are struggling to have their families and relationships recognized and respected by laws and institutions. At the same time, LGBT rights defenders and average gender non-conforming people on the street in the U.S. (gay or not) have reason to fear that they could be targeted with sexual and physical violence. A recent report noted the spike in LGBT-targeted hate crimes in the wake of Proposition 8 in a county just south of San Francisco, California (from 15% in 2007 to 56% of all hate crimes in 2008). So we see a relationship between increasingly visible advocacy and violent backlash here in the U.S. (and in many other countries as well). Much like Jim Crow and its legacy of de facto racial segregation, this relationship between advocacy and violence persists whether local legal criminalization statutes or protections exist or not. Our criminalization statutes in the U.S. were outlawed in 2003, but LGBTs continue to face de facto criminalization through adoption bans and immigration and asylum denials, trans and gender non-conforming people are arrested in bathrooms, and astounding numbers of homeless kids identify as LGB and/or T. When the Statement on Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Human Rights was read at the General Assembly of the United Nations in December of last year (among other things denouncing criminal sanctions for SOGI worldwide), 66 countries from around the world signed it including every member of the Western Group, except for the United States. (News update: this week the Obama administration announced that it will support the statement). Everywhere in the United States, we see LGBT police, corrections, and military personnel facing discrimination and violence in their workplace without recourse – and we also see police, corrections, and military personnel perpetrating horrific violence against LGBT people in detention with impunity. We have an accountability problem here in the United States when it comes to violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity. We have a problem with the alignment of our local and national civil rights laws with even the most basic tenets of human rights (see the Yogyakarta Principles for an example of what that looks like). And yet I observe generally that the feeling among LGBTs and their allies in the U.S. is that as violent (sexually, physically, and institutionally) as it can be here at times, this must be the safest place on earth to live – rights or no rights. So for contrast, let’s look at another country where LGBT rights are a controversial issue and where the government also refused to sign the UN General Assembly Statement on SOGI and Human Rights: South Africa. South Africa stands out among African nations as the only country with discrimination based on sexual orientation explicitly outlawed in its constitution and it is also the only country where same-sex marriage is legally recognized by the state. As you probably know, both of these rights are denied in the United States. South African Anglican Archbishop and revered human rights advocate Desmond Tutu as well as South African UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanetham Pillay speak powerfully in support of sexual orientation and gender identity human rights, but it would be very hard to find a member of any LGBT communities in South Africa who believes that it is the safest place on earth for them to live. With all of this visibility and legal protection for sexual orientation rights (‘gender identity’ is still a marginalized rights category in countries with progressive laws protecting sexual orientation), the level of violence against LGBTs in South Africa is shocking, even in comparison to the U.S. For example, UUA President William Sinkford and his delegation visited with the Triangle Project in Cape Town on his trip to South Africa in November of 2008. Speaking with the Triangle Project's Director of Community Services, Marlow Valetine, Rev. Sinkford learned of the prevalence of sexual violence targeted against women presumed or known to be lesbians. Specifically, Valentine recounted numerous cases of “corrective rape,” which is the popular notion that lesbians and gender non-conforming women can be “cured” of their behavior if they are raped by a man. (By contrast, this concept has not been reported to be applied to gay and gender non-conforming men although they are often raped by men as a ‘punitive’ measure). It is not that this horrific attack is inconceivable (because surely it could and does happen in the United States), but across South Africa sexual and physical violence against real and presumed lesbians is so pervasive that numerous organizations and campaigns have been launched to fight it. The Triangle Project reports that they deal with up to 10 cases of “corrective rape” a week! This year, for the first time in a decade, a man has been convicted (by plea bargain) of raping and killing a prominent lesbian. One of athlete and advocate Eudy Simelane’s attackers was convicted last month, due mostly to the courageous activism and organizing by the Triangle Project, Joint Working Group, Coalition for African Lesbians, the 07-07-07 Campaign, and Simelane’s mother. However, even this progress is bittersweet because in the sentencing portion of the trial last month, the judge ruled that the sexual orientation of the victim was of no significance in the crime. This case represents a monstrous accountability problem in which ten years of cold cases of sexual assault and/or murder of lesbians and other women remain unresolved; further, when one man was finally held accountable, the state denied the whole reason for the death of the victim. In this example, rather than a decriminalization of sexual orientation and gender identity, it instead seems more like a de facto decriminalization of violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Non-state actors are policing sex and gender expression and their violence is condoned by state actors who do not hold them accountable to the laws of the state. Here we see two countries with such different legal frameworks regarding sexual orientation which are still struggling for accountability to some legal standard of human-ness and whose citizens are still struggling for equality and dignity. What I would like for readers to take away from this blog entry today is that there is no “safest” or “most dangerous” place on earth for sexual and gender minorities. There are only places where the human rights of all people are more likely to be protected by laws, societies, and institutions. We have a lot to learn from freedom struggles in other places so it is important to keep informed about what is going on and maintain solidarity with them. Aside from the two countries examined here, over 80 countries around the world still criminalize sexual activity between people of the same sex and many more condone state and individual violence against transgender and gender non-conforming people. Criminalization is tacit permission from the state for civil society and even religious institutions to police sex and gender expression. Rather than doing anything to prevent people from being gay and gender non-conforming (which we can assume is the intended purpose), criminalization only increases violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity with the assurance that attackers will not face accountability for their actions because the victims are not recognized as whole citizens by the state. However, as I tried to illustrate above, states without criminal statutes regarding sexual orientation and gender identity have a responsibility to actively protect the human rights of all people, especially ensuring accountability when SOGI human rights are violated. If not, the reality for people in those countries is no different than that of people living with criminalization. That dialog needs to take place at the United Nations and thanks to a wonderful grant from the Arcus Foundation, the Unitarian Universalist-UN Office is now working to facilitate it.

About the Author

Eric Cherry

Eric was the Director of the UUA’s International Office since August 2007. Prior to this Eric served for 12 years as a parish minister with UU congregations in Burlington, Iowa and N. Easton, Massachusetts. Eric has long been involved in the UU Partner Church movement, serving as the English...


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