On Sunday June 24th, New York City’s 5th Avenue was full of rainbow flags, music, and hundreds of thousands of people celebrating a diverse spectrum of sexual orientations and gender identities during the New York Pride March. The winding down of Pride Month provides a welcome opportunity to reflect on the history of Pride, the progress that has been made by the LGBTQ community, and the further progress that must be made worldwide. This blog post provides a brief history of Pride and explains how the United Nations and civil society organizations work to advance the rights of those with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities (SOGI). At the United Nations, the term Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) is used more often than lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) in order to encompass and represent all peoples who fall in the sexual orientation and gender identity spectrum, and because terms like lesbian or gay are considered Euro-centric.
History of Pride
Many Pride events are celebrated in June to commemorate the Stonewall Riots in which queer people of color fought back against discriminatory police raids of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, NYC. Riots took place over three days beginning on June 28, 1969 and galvanizing the gay rights movement. The first Pride march was held in New York City the following year and was political in nature, representing the fight against discrimination of LGBTQ people. Since then, beginning in the early 1990s, Pride has also come to have a celebratory tone, honoring the beauty and diversity of the LGBTQ community (Human Rights Campaign). New York’s 2018 Pride parade certainly took on this celebratory spirit, and also had a political message with signs opposing Trump and his policies, and chants of “abolish ICE.”
Pride Around the World
In the last several decades Pride events have come to be celebrated throughout the world—more than 175 International Pride related events are listed on the 2018 Gay Pride Calendar. However, there are still many places throughout the world where LGBTQ people are not free be open about—let alone publicly celebrate—their true identities. The following infographic from Column Five illustrates where Pride events are embraced (pink), where they occur despite political and/or violent opposition or do not occur (yellow), and where homosexuality is against the law (black).
The 2017 report State-Sponsored Homophobia: A world Survey of Sexual Orientation Laws: Criminalization, Protection and Recognition, researched and written by Aengus Carroll and Lucan Ramón Mendos and published by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), provides detailed information about the state of homophobia in the world. The report shows:
- 72 states criminalize same-sex sexual relations (45 of these criminalize relations between women as well as between men);
- 8 states have laws permitting the death penalty for same-sex sexual relations;
- 19 states in North Africa and the Middle East have laws restricting the freedom of expression of LGBTQ people;
- 25 states have laws restricting the recognition and work of NGOs focused on sexual orientation rights.
Following years of advocacy led largely by the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO), the UN has, in recent years, worked to address these harmful policies and promote the right to love and be loved for all people. One recent action that demonstrates the increasing attention the UN has given to SOGI rights is the 2016 appointment of the Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn. The job of the Independent Expert is to investigate and bring attention to violence and discrimination against people based on their real or perceived SOGI and report annually to the General Assembly and Human Rights Council. The position was established after it was called for by ILGA with the backing of 628 NGOs from 151 countries, including Unitarian Universalists. The establishment of this position faced fierce opposition, and resolutions to abolish it were brought to the General Assembly four times; however, through advocacy from many organizations, its existence was protected.
SOGI rights are also addressed during countries’ Universal Periodic Reviews (UPRs). Every UN member state undergoes UPRs every four or five years on a rotating schedule and receives feedback from the other member states and the international community about their human rights policies. These reviews provide an important avenue for civil society organizations and states to call out policies that are harmful to various communities whose rights are violated, and provide suggestions for change. Since the first reviews in 2008, over 1,100 recommendations have been made regarding SOGI rights, accounting for 2.5% of all recommendations. Emphasizing the value of these reviews, the ILGA report states, “It is clear that the UPR mechanism facilitates deepening dialogue between civil society, which in turn can lead to action on meaningful implementation.
SOGI rights are also gaining more attention and traction in UN Treaty Bodies. IGLA found that in 2016, for the first time, mentions of SOGI issues were included in over half of all Treaty Bodies discussions. Additionally, in 2013, the UN launched the Free and Equal Campaign which works to increase acceptance of people with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities around the world through public outreach. In 2017 their social media content—including videos, infographics, and factsheets—was shared on 2.4 billion social media feeds worldwide.
Civil society organizations have also been working to advance SOGI rights, both at the UN and at the local policy and grassroots level. For example, the UU-UNO has worked to help ensure SOGI issues are on the UN agenda—in 2008 Director Bruce Knotts hosted the first UN workshop on SOGI issues at the UN DPI-NGO conference; in 2014 the UU-UNO called for explicit inclusion of SOGI recognition and rights in the Sustainable Development Goals; and the office also works to support SOGI asylum seekers. An example of a group working outside the UN context is the newly formed Refugee Coalition of East Africa (RefCEA) which is an umbrella organization that supports the work of NGOs that help LGBTQ refugees (you can watch their introduction video here). In recognition of Pride month, RefCEA has called for the marking of June 27 as “International LGBTI Refugee Day.” Additionally, one of RefCEA’s member organizations, Refugee Flag Kakuma, recently hosted the first ever Pride event to be held in a refugee camp (you can see a video about the event on RefCEA’s website).
One of the most powerful signs I saw at this year’s New York Pride Parade read “Love is a Human Right.” As a Unitarian Universalist this is one of my most deeply held beliefs—attending Pride made me feel grateful to be part of a faith community where this right is embraced, and to live in a country where it is respected. It also made me feel angry that there are so many places where this right is under attack. I am thankful that the UU-UNO works to advance SOGI rights at the UN and for all the organizations worldwide with the mission to create a world where everyone has the right to love and be loved no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity.