At the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO), we work to ensure that all people’s human rights are upheld and respected, no matter who they are or what their circumstances. Although advocacy areas are often separated, with some organizations and people working to combat discrimination based on race and others focused on sexual orientation, separate identity-based advocacy may not be the most effective way. On Thursday, July 21st, 2016, the UU-UNO hosted a panel event titled “At the Intersection of Racism and Homophobia: Joint Activism for Human Rights & Dignity.” The esteemed panelists held a wide variety of professional, academic, and personal backgrounds and areas of expertise, and complemented each other perfectly to produce a simulating and dynamic conversation. This powerful event left audience members inspired to get to work for intersectional justice.
Panelists included: Tanya Hernandez, professor of Law at Fordham University School of Law; Fabrice Houdart, Human Rights Officer at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in New York; Rashima Kwatra, Communications Officer at OutRight Action International; Dr. Monica Motley, Health and social justice advocate for racial, gender, and sexual minorities; and Betty Jeanne Rueters-Ward, Interim Program Director at the Unitarian Church of All Souls, NYC. These panelists, with their diverse backgrounds, touched on the issue of racism and homophobia in a number of contexts, from Thailand and Iran to the U.S.’s rural south, to the United Nations’ Free & Equal campaign and Unitarian Universalist congregations. They emphasized that no one can be truly free from discrimination unless discrimination is abolished in all its forms.
The panelists shed light on the magnitude of this problem, highlighting instances of racism and misogyny in LGBTQI campaigns, the failure of courts to address discrimination based on multiple identity factors, and security concerns for LGBTQI people worldwide. Following the panel discussion, audience members had the opportunity to explore different aspects of their identities and consider the integral nature of each, reinforcing Audre Lorde’s idea, echoed by Dr. Motley, that there is no “hierarchy to oppression.” An African American lesbian woman who experiences discrimination cannot say that she was oppressed because of her race, or because of her sexual orientation, or because of her gender to the exclusion of the others, just as she cannot choose to prioritize different aspects of her identity. Her identity as a woman is not stronger than her identity as an African American, or as a lesbian. Examining intersecting identities in this way helped participants to understand the importance of unifying LGBTQI and Racial Justice campaigns.
As Unitarian Universalists and as activists, there is a lot that we can learn from this conversation. Betty Jeanne Rueters-Ward, reflecting on her own experience as a UU activist, pointed out that even campaigns with good intentions can get so narrow in focus that they miss opportunities for joint activism. They fail to acknowledge other injustices that are threatening or disadvantaging the very community members that they are trying to support. Many people focus on the scarcity of resources, and do not open their minds to consider the opportunities that are possible if those volunteers expanded their scope. It is inspiring to see some UU congregations marching with Black Lives Matter banners in their local Pride parades – expanding this kind of integrated advocacy is key to opening up possibilities for collaboration with more groups and achieving more together.
The panelists also addressed why it is so important to take immediate action. In scores of countries worldwide, people face brutal punishment and even death as a result of strict anti-LGBT laws. Additionally, as Dr. Motley observed, there is a lot of racism, homophobia, and transphobia in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, which can lead to major medical problems because those oppressed communities’ needs are never addressed. Professor Hernandez stressed that even systems designed to protect people from discrimination, are themselves discriminatory, as exemplified by the unwillingness of legal courts to consider intersecting and overlapping identities.
When it comes to the role of faith in activism, religion was cited both as perpetuating oppression and as a champion of justice. As UUs, we have the ability to drive progressive faith-based social justice campaigns. We can bridge the gap between other religious communities and create cooperative initiatives. Betty Jeanne Rueters-Ward addressed how her work is guided by the Unitarian Universalist Principles promoting “the inherent worth & dignity of every person” and “respect for the interdependent web of which we are a part.” Her understanding and internalization of these ideas have driven her to social justice work, as they motivate and empower UUs across the globe to find empathy for those directly affected by homophobia and racism, and to recognize that directly or indirectly we are all harmed by discrimination and hate. In this interconnected world, only by working together for the benefit of those who are oppressed can we all be achieve peace, liberty, and justice for all.
by Kelly Diaz, UU-UNO LGBTQ Rights Program Intern