Here we are, nine years out from September 11, 2001. Obviously, the acts that took place on that day were terrible acts of violence committed by desperate men carrying out a perverted form of religious belief. But the terrible acts that get carried out in the name of patriotism are also deserving of some questioning.
Apparently, the burning of Qu’arans isn’t going to happen after all, but that doesn’t mean that things like that don’t happen everyday, in America and elsewhere. The thing we have to realize is that we’re dealing with structural issues. Imperialism, colonialism, war, corporate greed, capitalism… it’s a very thick net that many have woven, and it’s strangling us.
My mom is a very talented musician, and she put out an album years before September 11 was more than just a random date on the calendar, with a song called “Terrorist.” There’s a line in that song that I think sums this point up very well: “Powerless gain power, and the power stays the same.” And the song, as a whole, makes another important point: it’s not about good and evil people, and when we think of the world in good and evil sides, well, we miss that choking net entirely.
You can listen to “Terrorist,” by Mean Mad Momma, here. The lyrics are below the cut.
There’s been a bit of radio silence here, as you may have noticed, though I’m still blogging fairly regularly with my ladies at the F-Wave. I wanted to break that silence, though, to make a comment on World AIDS Day.
Last year this time, I was on the floor of my apartment in Iowa City with my friend Rita, researching and creating a poster presentation to mark the day at our law school. I remember thinking as we did that presentation how many populations are affected by AIDS, and also how much AIDS is tied in with legal/political issues in various tangential arenas. Take a moment today to think about some of these, and add your own in the comments:
- Funding for development, both HIV/AIDS related and generally
- Laws that criminalize/penalize sex workers and those who work with them
- Sex education, especially focused on sexual violence prevention
- Marginalization of women of color and women generally worldwide
- Laws that keep HIV positive people and people living with AIDS from adequate health insurance coverage, work, travel, and giving blood
- Sodomy laws that make it difficult to work with men who have sex with men and provide proper prevention and treatment, as well as endangering unknowing wives
- The use of rape as a weapon of war in Darfur and elsewhere
Although the current interrogation manual used by the Army does, I am happy to say, specifically prohibit the use of sexual or religious interrogation techniques, I was rather disturbed to read about the previous approach to interrogation, based almost entirely on the degree of physical force used to determine whether inappropriate techniques were being used. This approach is flawed from the general standpoint of how the armed forces should look at lawful interrogation versus torture in the first place, but I was specifically bothered by the use of sexual and religious methods designed to humiliate a detainee because they represent a complete failure to understand why these methods are inappropriate. In conducting interrogation, the question should not simply be, “are we torturing the detainee in violation of international law?” Certainly, that should be a threshhold question, but beyond that there is another question I want the interrogators to be asking. “Are we using techniques that (1) are actually designed with the sole purpose of obtaining information and (2) conform with our social expectations of dignity and respect for human beings?” The whole point of having laws of war is that there are certain expectations that apply, even when dealing with the enemy (putting aside for the moment the question of whether some of these detainees even are legitimately “the enemy.”)
I’m bothered by any interrogation technique that is designed to humiliate the prisoner because it’s disrespectful and it doesn’t work. First of all, from everything I’ve seen and read, the most effective interrogators are those who are patient and develop a rapport for the detainee. Respect is a very powerful tool, as is cultural understanding. Ideally, interrogators should be those who speak the subject’s language and whenever possible either come from or are very familiar with the subject’s culture and religion to whatever extent possible. Even inadvertant cultural faux pas can diminish respect for the interrogator and make a subject defiant. Intentional humiliation techniques in many cases are only going to harden the subject against revealing anything, and at the same time they compromise the interrogator. If the army uses these techniques, it’s going to develop self-hatred and psychological damage among its interrogators as well as the detainees. It will also further damage our already pretty shitty international reputation. And finally, using these techniques is evidence of a purpose that has little to do with information – desire to humiliate, to dehumanize, to make one’s self greater than the subject. Use the Golden Rule, folks. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Unrelated note: Please note that discussion is open on Patience & Sarah, as is the Round Four suggestions thread. To encourage more discussion in the future, I’ll be posting specific discussion questions within each round’s discussion forum on the boards to get the juices flowing. Of course, anyone is welcome to simply post their thoughts or start a thread with a question of their own, but I’m hoping that more directed discussion will encourage more participation. Of course, as always, this is an entirely guilt-free group, and if I’m the only one reading in a round I’m just happy to have read the book! Feel free to comment on a discussion post well after the round has started if you read the book late. I myself haven’t read P&S yet, which is why discussion questions aren’t up yet 😉
From time to time, I get really thoughtful comments that make me want to respond a little more thoroughly than a usual quick reply, and unfortunately the WordPress system doesn’t allow for any sort of direct reply or notification. I got one of those comments the other day from reader Teresa on this post, and so I thought I’d post my reply here. It raises some interesting questions.
Yes, I think our descendants will be embarrassed about a number of things happening now. You bring up that there is a difference between a constitution and democracy, and that’s something most Americans probably wouldn’t think about. The Constitution lists what the government cannot do to us, while “democracy” is focused almost entirely at this time on what the government should be doing for us.
Obama has picked up FDR’s idea for a second Bill of Rights to give the country a “positive” list of what the government must do rather than what it must not do. Included in the list are things like jobs and houses and health care and education. But are those correctly labeled as “rights”? I understand a right as something natural that doesn’t impinge on another. If we guarantee everyone a satisfying job or house, then that means government must force someone else to provide it. I honestly don’t think most Americans have fully considered what Obama is proposing, or they are so stunned they don’t believe he will pursue these things.
The notion that Obama or his supporters would support the right to a job or housing or health care and construct the government machinery to strip mine the country for the resources but not the right to marry is outrageous, and I marvel still at the coalition of constituencies that gave him the election while denying this basic human right to the LGBT. Freedom and equality are not the same thing. Often they are contradictory, with freedom being the riskier, and only truly democratic ideal.
So what is a right? The classic notion is that for someone to have a right, someone else must have a corresponding duty. At the time of this country’s founding, the Framers were thinking about negative liberties in the context of an aggressive, intrusive imperial government. The duty of the government was simply to stay the hell out – don’t stop people from speaking, from practicing their religion, from electing representatives. These were freedoms from intrusion, not freedoms to a particular object. One man’s right ended where another’s began.
But then socialism began to ascend, along with the idea of a state that has a positive duty to provide certain benefits to its citizens, whether that be health care, a living wage, or education. People started talking about economic, social, and cultural rights. Personally, I’m a strong believer in these rights, and in the idea that the state, to the extent of its resources, has a duty to provide them. So my idea of rights does include jobs, houses, health care, and education, not only the “natural rights.”
Still, the “to the extent of its resources” bit is crucial. I tend to support politicians that I think lean towards my socialist ideology, which includes providing to the citizens. I also recognize that no politician can actually provide health care for all, quality education for all, a house for every citizen or a job for every citizen. I think we should work towards these goals, but we don’t have the resources to achieve them. We can’t achieve world peace, either, but does that mean that constantly working towards it is a waste of time? I don’t think so.
I agree with Teresa, though, that it’s interesting that people would simultaneously vote for a candidate who is trying to assure everyone these positive economic, social, and cultural rights and vote against propositions that simply assure everyone the civil and political right to be left alone. The right to marry does generally fall under positive rights, but as the Supreme Court has recognized there is a big difference between not having the resources to provide a service at all and having the resources but excluding only one group from its benefits. I do see how this particular fight can fall into the category of government intrusion into individuals’ private lives, and I find it upsetting that the people of several states have decided this election to allow it.
Throughout the coming year, I’ll probably be bouncing around thoughts on this space as I prepare for my Student Note with the Journal of Gender, Race, and Justice. Tonight, I have some observations in three areas.
The first deals directly with gay rights, and it was a bit of an emotional crisis I had the other night. I had been receiving some conflicting messages about the extent to which our Notes can pertain to an international issue. That’s since been cleared up, but at the time I was asking myself – can I write a domestic issue? Well I could write about a domestic issue. So I started doing some searches in legal databases for the issues to see if there was anything interesting I could write about. I’m not saying that there isn’t, but a lot of what was coming up were the same issues – marriage, adoption, IVF, the military, discrimination, hate crimes, immigration. All important topics that I believe in. So why do I find it hard to write about domestic issues?
It’s like putting a bandaid on a corpse. I believe, and I am a pessimist and sincerely hope that I’m wrong, but I believe that each of these issues, though solveable, will not help the situation in this country all that much. They will provide individual solutions for individual problems. People will be able to get married, or serve in the military. But this will not change the systemic hatred, intolerance, violence, ignorance, and annoyance towards LGBT Americans. The discrimination is persistent, it is terrible, and it is real. It may be more obvious in certain pockets of the country, but it exists everywhere. Everywhere, young LGBT Americans are terrified to come out to their peers. Adults experience the same fear, and with just reason. When I started thinking about the possibilities, it only made me upset. Of course LGBT people face discrimination all over the world, but this is so close to home. This is my own experiences, my communities, my adolescence. It’s hard to look in the eye. Like other minority groups, I think this struggle will take us hundreds of years, and it may never fully be over. That’s difficult to think about.
Another thought I had when thinking about my Note topic was how I wrote in my application for the Journal about the essentialization of identity. I’m wondering if I haven’t started to essentialize my own identity. The more out I become, the more I make myself a poster child for lesbianism. I’ve been able to embrace being the gay one in the room. I’m cool with that. But it becomes “my issue,” and other parts of who I am – female, Southern, etc – disappear into the background. It doesn’t change the fact that I want to write about an LGBT issue, but it does make me wonder what I’m missing by “zooming in” so much.
Finally, just a general observation about human rights. I’m seeing two complementary views of human rights that I hadn’t before, and I’d like to share them. One, which I’ve understood and held very dear for a while, is the concept that rights do not have to be enjoyed by anyone to exist. People say “but if human rights are universal, there must be very few, since people don’t really have most of the rights on the list.” My response is that they have the rights, they just aren’t recognized or enforced. African slaves had the fundamental human right to liberty throughout their enslavement in the United States, but that right was violated. Women have the right to be treated humanely and not discriminated against, but they do not fully enjoy that right in many places. It doesn’t mean they don’t have it. The second view, however, is an interesting one that I haven’t thought about as much. That view is that rights can come from practice, even where they are not recognized by the law. A scholar on Mexico, Speed (Sharon, I think?), makes this point in relation to the Zapatistas in Mexico. They took over their communities and implemented human rights, and then told the government that they didn’t need to negotiate for legislation protecting them. They had the right and so they were going to implement it themselves. Interesting food for thought.
ps – Lesbian Book Club folks, I’ve posted my thoughts on Stir-Fry here. Feel free to chime in if you’ve read it, and if you’re reading or planning to go at your own pace and post your thoughts whenever you get to it. No pressure. (Don’t forget to log-in to access the link).
I still have a great big pile of blog posts and news clips to blog about, which I’ve finally organized into posts based on topic, but since my week is a little crazy, I’d just like to make a little off-the-cuff comment about what’s going on in Turkey. For those of you who don’t know, the highest court in Turkey ruled today not to allow a ban on the ruling party but instead to cut its state funding in half for trying to impose Islam on the secular nation.
When the news was first coming out about the headscarf issue, I found it very interesting to hear the perspective of my Turkish teacher, Bahar, who like many women in Turkey is Muslim but believes strongly in the secular state. The way she described it, secularism is the most fundamental principal of the Turkish state and thus allowing women to wear headscarves in school would be a threat to the state’s historical foundations and its values. In other words, there is a huge fear of the slippery slope.
I have trouble deciding where I stand on this – not that it really matters, as I’m not Turkish, but I still tend to have an opinion on foreign politics. On the one hand, I see her arguments, especially in light of what has happened in neighboring states and considering Turkey’s position and reputation as a unique secular, modern, democratic state whose population is mostly Muslim. On the other hand, I grew up in the US where freedom of religion is heavily valued, and it seems strange to me that someone would ban a political party based on its religious ties – not all that democratic, I would think. It will be interesting to see how all this plays out, in any event.
1) Democracy’s a decent system, I’ll agree. But democracy occurs in context. It works well in America for a number of reasons, including an old and successful Constitution, historical precedent, our collective value system as it has evolved historically, our socio-economic condition as a nation, etc, etc. Oh, and let’s not forget that we’re technically a republic. Democracy works well in other areas, too, but it isn’t the only system. I don’t think it should be the only system. When you become obsessed with one or two options, in any area, things start to get bad. Diversity has something to show for itself. And I think that in some areas, given geopolitical reality, value systems, etc, democracy isn’t the best choice. What are we doing when we “export” democracy? We’re colonizing. A lot of people have talked about the Imperial United States, and they all have a good fucking point. I read an article in 2001 or 2002 in Der Spiegel called “Das zweite Rom” (or was it “der?” irrelevant, anyway). The Second Rome, yeah, very good point. Really, what business do we, as an overextended, declining state, have to try to shove democracy at every little country (and some big ones) that we can find? What right do we have to use our military to conduct “diplomacy?” Here, have a democracy, folks, we’ll just physically ravage your country and starve your people first. No biggie. America’s going to get what’s coming to it, sooner or later.
2) Beyond my problems with insisting on democracy for the world, uh, newsflash. This thing we’re exporting? It ain’t democracy. If we truly wanted to bring democracy to the world (through non-violent means) I might be okay with it. If we were to genuinely ask “hey, who would you Iraqis like to run our country?” I wouldn’t be so up in arms. If we were to get behind self-determination, and lend diplomatic aid in some way, or if the UN were to send in unbiased teams of people to monitor elections and make sure they were conducted fairly, I’d be cool. But these people wouldn’t be electing someone George W. Bush is happy with. So what does he export? “Democracy.” Dudes with guns saying hey, sure, you can have an election… wink, wink, nudge, nudge. This is why we need to step back from the situation. Because we’re too greedy, and too tempted by a chance to extend our sphere of influence. What if we actually had left the political situation in, say, Africa, up to Africans? (And with that example I mean a broad “we,” which includes Europeans). I have some hope that they would have come up with a creative solution that worked for their continent. Borders that made sense, for example. Politics based on value systems as they actually exist in the country. Hey, there’s a novel idea!
Oh, America. When do I get to abandon you?
My Foreign Relations Law professor, who is a Russian national, made an interesting point today. He was talking about the decision to bomb Kosovo, and referred to the humanitarian intervention as a pretext, which I don’t agree with. However, it’s good to remember that there are two sides to every story, and though I think in this case intervention was the right thing given Serbia’s history of ethnic cleansing, the credibility of the threat, and the lack of national interest beyond humanitarian concerns (very unlike Iraq), there is a Serbian side to the story. Of course, Russia is an ally of Serbia, and it was due to the promise that Russia and China (nervous about the idea of invading sovereign territory) would veto the move in the Security Council that NATO chose to strike out on its own without UN approval.
The professor was making a link to one of the Federalist Papers, wherein the author (I believe it was Hamilton) mentions the inability of a young United States to remonstrate with dignity. To illustrate the meaning of this phrase, he used the example of Russian Prime Minister Primakov flying from Moscow to Washington to meet with Vice President Al Gore. Before leaving, Primakov was informed by Russian intelligence of NATO’s plan to bomb Kosovo. He called Gore, who informed Primakov that his information was bad. Primakov got on the plane, and when he arrived at Shannon to refuel, he called once again, again receiving intelligence information that the bombing was imminent. Gore responded in the same way. Well, Primakov was over the Atlantic when he found that the bombing was taking place. Had he arrived in Washington and had his picture taken with the Vice President, the obvious message would have been that Russia supported the mission. So Primakov asked the pilot to take a U-turn, and he returned to Russia. In my professor’s words, “that was when the United States lost Russia.”
I find this story interesting in two respects. One is the perspective that many Americans have when it comes to Russia. I grew up thinking of Russia as a country that was strong throughout the Cold War, though it had trouble feeding its own people and was probably in some way inferior, and after the war ended, I didn’t really think of Russia as anything. It was this state out on the other side of world that we didn’t have to worry about any more, essentially. But I’ve come to realize that Russia is a country to watch for, and also to respect. I think Russian leaders have done some horrible things in terms of human rights, but I also think that to ignore or try to manipulate Russia is a bit foolish.
The other respect in which I find the account interesting deals directly with Kosovo. I’ve been reading Richard Falk’s recent book, in which he talks a lot about how Kosovo was illegal but legitimate. One side you don’t really get, however, is the Russian (or Serbian) side. Again, I think it’s fairly clear that the mission saved a lot of lives, and that imminent humanitarian attrocities justified the attack, but the nature of the attack is another question. Humanitarian intervention is still intervention, and respect for sovereignty is one of the key rules of diplomacy. I think we could do better. High-altitude bombing, for example, doesn’t seem like the solution. I think the global world order needs restructuring so that nations can show respect for each other and universal non-acceptance of human rights violations. If Russia, for example, had been able to retain the option of being Serbia’s ally but at the same time could have refused to use its veto due to the human rights violations going on, and at the same time NATO powers had agreed to use only targeted military force when absolutely necessary in a way that would avoid civilian casualties and ensure quick withdrawal, maybe we’d be in a different position today. I think that we should work to prevent human rights tragedy no matter what the geopolitical consequences, but I also think we should be careful about verifying the threat and using appropriate responses. Losing Russia, I think, is proving to be a relatively big deal.
So what is the goal? I think universal acceptance of at least the very most basic human rights is a good start. This is an extremely difficult goal to achieve, but it is in the self-interest of nations to adhere to the principle. If we could all carry out diplomatic relations as sovereign states, but at the same time understand that none of our allies will help us if we commit human rights atrocities, even within sovereign territory, that our international reputation will be irrevocably tarnished and our economic position threatened… who knows. Maybe the situation would improve. I’m not naive enough to think that the world will go pacifist anytime soon, but I have to believe that there is a better way of doing things.
As a human rights activist, my personal goal is to be more sensitive to geopolitical realities and cultural concerns. Though I do strongly believe that people deserve a minimal standard of living, the way to go about it isn’t to burst into a country and declare that I’m right. Situations are often complicated, and cultural understanding is essential to intelligent diplomacy. I do believe that diplomacy is the way to achieve human rights victories, not force. If international organizations can gain more respect on the world stage, they also may have a critical role to play in informing nations of their human rights violations in a way that appeals to national self interest and cultural context, not just the universal “civilizing mission” that nations are understandably hesitant to embrace. Even in the human rights field, there are two (or many) sides to the story. Hopefully we can reconcile them and still manage to save a few lives along the way.
To celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia, instead of doing a post I offer you two items of possible interest. The first is an article that ran today in Le Monde, which I have translated for you. The original text in French appears here. Keep in mind that I am not a translator by profession, and I did this quickly without editing. It should be accurate, but if it reads a little stilted it’s because I only translated directly, instead of doing a “smoothing over” after the fact. The article is an interview with Daniel Borillo, and it caught my eye because I used an essay of Borillo’s on gay parenting in France for my seminar paper. Fellow history enthusiasts may find it especially interesting. The second item is the text of my high school graduation speech, delivered in 2003 in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Interview with Daniel Borillo: “The battle against homophobia is worldwide”
Since 2005, the International Day Against Homophobia has taken place each year, on the 17th of May. One of the objectives of this day is the decriminalization of homosexuality throughout the world. What regions are currently the most affected by the legal prohibition of homosexual practices?
There are, in the world, more countries that impose sanctions on homosexuality than countries that celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia! Homosexuality is penalized today, often in a very brutal fashion, in more than eighty countries.
In most of them, Islam is the official religion, to which we add the secular states like Tunisia, and the Islamist regimes like the Sudan. Homosexuality is a crime punishable by the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, in Mauritania, and in Nigeria. Homosexuals risk a life sentence in Uganda, in India, and in Singapore.
The Qu’ran isn’t more homophobic than the Bible, but in the countries of the Christian tradition, the action of the secular movements has allowed a weakening of religious power.
What is unfortunate is that, in these countries, the initiatives of civil society are immediately censured. In 2004, a very important website of information on the prevention of AIDS, gaymiddleeast.com, was thusly blocked by the Saudi authorities, which has had dramatic consequences for the diffusion of the epidemic. In this country the Islamists, who have pressured the governments to a virulent homophobia, are greatly responsible, but the society as a whole also participates in persecution in rejecting homosexuals.
You have shown, in a critical anthology that pulls together the writings of more than fifty authors, that the West has itself for a long time considered homosexuality a sin, seen as a crime. What were the successive faces of this stigmatisation?
In Europe, the victory of Christianity constituted the first step in a long persecution of homosexuals. In 313, under the Emperor Constantine, Christianity became a state religion, and in 390, under the Emperor Theodoseus I, the punishment for sodomy was death by burning. Homosexuals were then persecuted as sodomites, and in a systematic manner from the end of the thirteenth century.
These peresecutions, which culminated in the setting in motion of a veritable Inquisition at the European level, also targeted Jews and witches, but homosexuals have long had the sad privilege of being pursued as sinners, as sick persons and as criminals. After the Inquisition, the persecution of homosexuals during the Nazi regime constitutes the most tragic chapter in the history of homophobia. The Central Office of the Reich for Combatting Homosexuality, created by Himmler, took part from the beginning in the arrest, imprisonment, deportation, and death of tens of thousands of homosexuals.
Finally, until the end of the 1970s, homosexuality was, in one way or the other, punished in all the European countries: legal sanctions, police repression, jurisprudential practices.
It wasn’t until the decision of the European Court in Strasbourg, in 1981, that the repression of homosexuality among consenting adults was judged contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights.
These persecutions contrast with the practices of antiquity, which tolerated, even valued, certain forms of homosexuality. How do you explain that these cultures did not recognize what we today call homophobia?
Greco-roman antiquity basked in a climate of tolerance with regard to homoeroticism, but homosexual practices were very coded. The sole form of accepted homosexuality was pederasty, that is to say relations initiated between a young man who was to have public responsibilities and an aristocratic adult man. This was due to the fact that this profoundly misogynistic society strongly condemned the assumption by any free man – Roman or Greek – of the passive role, that is to say his behaving sexually like a woman. But this didn’t apply to a young man – who was in a relationship of apprenticeship to masculinity – or a slave – who was in a socially inferior situation.
It is then the active-passive dichotomy, and not the homosexual-heterosexual one, that determined the sexual morality of the ancients. In France, how was the calling into question of Christian heritage accomplished?
This was accomplished thanks to the veritable political and cultural revolution that the liberal thought of the eighteenth century, which pronounced the distinction between private and public life and the protection of the individual against the interference of political power, created. For the liberal philosophers such as Condorcet and Bentham, an act that didn’t cause any harm to others, such as homosexuality between consenting adults, could be morally condemnable but didn’t merit any penal or civil sanction. Later, the Industrial Revolution and the migration of populations into the cities permitted homosexuals to distance themselves from the rigid social structures of the countryside. Free from the familial constraints of rural life, homosexuals could assume their sexuality more freely.
Did the AIDS epidemic, starting in the 1980s, play a role in the growing consciousness of the discrimination experienced by homosexuals?
We often say that the AIDS virus is “intelligent” because of its manner of transmission, which makes fighting it medically very difficult. I like to say that the virus had “intelligence” to appear at the moment when the gay and lesbian movement took a structure. Until then, all epidemics on this scale were handled by classic mechanisms of imprisonment and exclusion of the sick. What is extraordinary with AIDS, is that the epidemic was handled, in the West, in a liberal and democratic manner, thanks to the individual awareness of responsibility among the infected and the partnership between associations and public powers.
This wasn’t obvious: in the case of AIDS, homosexual practices became dangerous and society could have taken on an attitude of growing hostility. But the existence of an organized gay movement showed that exclusion, instability, and isolation aggravated both the medical situation of the sick and the social problems that confronted this community. In spite of its dramatic dimension, AIDS did more for equality than all the previous mobilisations.
It is at that moment that society became conscious of the fact that a man who had lived for years with his sick companion wouldn’t be recognized by the hospital authorities and that he would be expelled the next day from their communal housing. It is thus due to the political mobilization around AIDS that one can enter into a PACS.
Has Europe in its many forms (the Brussels Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the European Court at Strasbourg) participated in this movement for decriminalization of homosexuality, followed by the penalization of homophobia?
The Council of European and the European Parliament were pioneers in the fight for equality. These supranational bodies allowed for a change in perspective: in twenty years, Europe has replaced criminalization of homosexuality with penalization of homophobia. I often cite Sartre, who was asked about the Jewish question and responded, “There is no Jewish question; the real question is anti-Semitism.” For homosexuality, it is the same thing: the question, today, in Europe, is no longer homosexuality, but homophobia. Homosexuality is no longer a sin, a mental illness, or a crime. What is a problem for democracy is intolerance towards homosexuality.
What are today, in your eyes, the discriminations that persist in France with regard to homosexuals?
France lacks a real policy on the prevention of homophobia in the schools and in the education of police and judges, but the discrimination principle is written into the law: it is the refusal of gay parenting and marriage between couples of the same sex. For me, this demand doesn’t deny the difference between the sexes: it is freedom and equality, not masculine and feminine, that constitute the democratic values. I just read a UNICEF report that affirms that twenty million children in the world today are orphans: I said to myself that what is urgent is to welcome these children into families, and not to debate the difference between the sexes, as the opponents of equality do.
In the past decade, several European countries such as Belgium, Spain, and the Netherlands have opened marriage and filiation to couples of the same sex. Do you believe that this evolution is “inevitable,” using Luc Ferry’s word?
History doesn’t make itself: it is made, day after day, by social movements. If the gay and lesbian movement continues its struggle, yes, this change in legislation will be inevitable. France will join with Spain, where marriage is authorized and where homosexuality has become commonplace, this is the ideal situation.
But one must distrust the rhetoric of the mobilizers, because the gains are always fragile: the examples of yesterday’s Poland of the Kaczynski brothers or of Italy under Berlusconi today show that steps backward are always possible.
Raleigh Charter High School Graduation Speech, May 2003
Over spring break this year, I went to Key West to visit my family. One day I was riding my aunt’s spare bike to the Eckerd’s to get some film developed, and while I was unlocking the bike from a rack in front of the store, a woman walked by me. She looked fairly old, her face was very wrinkled, and she was wearing overalls and ratty sneakers. When she passed, she said “hello, sister.” Immediately, my guard went up. Was the woman homeless? Or perhaps mentally handicapped? Thinking I had misheard, I looked up and asked, “sorry?” She stopped and said, “I said hello, sister. You’re my sister, because I believe we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.” She paused, and unsure of what to do, I just looked at her. “You may not believe it, but that’s what I believe,” she said. I still couldn’t think of the appropriate response, and she continued on her way. As I rode back to my aunt’s condominium, I thought about the encounter with some guilt. I do, after all, consider myself a Christian in some respects, and I like the thought that we are all brothers and sisters. It demands a certain amount of love and respect for one another that seems lacking in the world today. However, I couldn’t just show my agreement, smile, and move on. I had to start churning out assumptions. Is she homeless? Is she insane? Am I in danger? This sort of experience is troubling, and I’m not the only one who has done something of the kind.
I have no doubt that the students at our school are kind and respectful, and that many would go out of their way to help someone in need. However, there is a mindset that many of us carry around that says, whether we admit it or not, that those who are different need to be “fixed” in some way. We are not comfortable around them, and we may not feel safe. It is easier to just be politically correct and stand for broad concepts like being against racism, sexism, and homophobia, than it is to actually accept and affirm someone whose thoughts or actions differ from our own.
College will be a place where intellectual and other kinds of diversity are celebrated, and where thought that differs from the norm is encouraged. However, it can be easy not to question the little things we do that reject other people, and to lock ourselves into an “it’s okay, my neighbor did it too” mentality. This is why it’s best to challenge yourself not just in the classroom, but throughout all parts of your life. Are you unconsciously more likely to associate with someone or agree with them because of factors beyond their control? Do you do unkind things without thinking about them, just because they seem acceptable? Are you unlikely to go against the grain and really think when someone asks you a question? Do you challenge yourself to answer truthfully no matter what other people think?
The other day, I was eating lunch with Ms. Solomon when Agnes came in for help with a speech on character for the NHS induction. Ms. Solomon gave her a piece of advice that really resounded with me. Those who have character are not always the most recognized people, or the ones you hear about. They aren’t necessarily the people who wind up in the statistics. People with character are those who only one person, or perhaps no one at all might recognize, but they are those who feel good about themselves because they have done the right thing, whether or not it was the easiest.
Last month, Caitlyn Meuse, a 16-year-old student in Massachusetts, was hit in the head with a baseball bat after participating in her school’s Day of Silence.
A few months ago, two gay men were murdered in their home by a man who also bombed an abortion clinic and a synagogue. His sentence could be as little as 23 years in prison.
Between 1994 and 1995, 1,459 hate crimes were committed. 95% of the perpetrators acted alone; obviously the hate they felt is something that pervades our society, not just isolated groups. Most of the perpetrators did not feel they did anything wrong.
9,271 hate crimes were committed in this country in 2001 alone. 4,367 were committed on the basis of race, 2,098 on the basis of ethnicity, 1,828 on the basis of religion, 1,393 on the basis of sexual orientation, and 35 because of bias against a person with a disability.
In June 2001 a 32-year-old member of a white supremacist group punched a 16-year-old black teenager in the mouth after seeing him with a white young woman, saying that he should only associate with black women.
You probably just said in your head about at least one of these cases, “that’s wrong” or, “that can’t be possible in this day and age.” Yet, despite how much statistics and stories like these affect us, it is the people who encourage and cultivate diversity that fail to get the most recognition, not unlike those with general good character. It takes courage to defeat the internal assumptions about other people that are founded on culture, upbringing, and history – not on logic. These comments, gestures, and attitudes towards other human beings are what keeps the culture that breeds stereotypes self-sustaining. Yet if you can think about these assumptions and consciously try not to submit to them, you will be all the better for it.
If you think about it, you will probably be able to recall an incident in which someone made an assumption about you based on some extenuating factor. Perhaps someone laughed at your southern accent once, or assumed you wouldn’t want to join in a basketball game because of your height. Everyone makes assumptions, and everyone is the victim of them. However, I believe this class can do something to improve this troubling social climate. It doesn’t take much to change an attitude, or think before you say something damaging to another person. If just the few hundred of us in this room try to challenge one assumption tomorrow, to give one smile to a stranger or to carefully consider one person’s viewpoint, I believe we will be making a big step towards improvement.
If you want to make a difference after graduating here, and be a citizen of a truly better world, be just a little more aware of who’s around you. Think before speaking, and challenge your assumptions. You may not feel like any big hero, but you will be able to live with a clear conscience and a knowledge that you’ve done what was right.
I was thrilled when I heard about the “Bloggers Unite for Human Rights” event, because as you may have figured out, international human rights is kind of “my thing.” I plan to have a long career as a human rights activist, and to keep writing and learning about human rights. This semester, I took a seminar on international human rights law, and wrote a seventy-three page paper proposing an express non-discrimination principle based on sexual orientation in the application international human rights law. Unfortunately, I can’t share the paper with you just yet, because I plan to condense and submit it to either a law journal or an essay prize, and then to expand it into a book, but I did want to talk a little bit about the intersection between gay rights and human rights, and why you should care.
Often, when social conservatives hear the words “gay rights,” I think they conjure up an idea of far out there, leftist, liberal, radical rights for gay people that necessarily conflict with and infringe on their own rights, whether those be social, cultural, religious, economic, privacy, or anything else. The thing about human rights, though, is that they are universal. Putting gay rights in a human rights framework really challenges us to think about our humanity, and our dignity. It requires some tough questions. I think in any context, thinking about human rights is a long process, and to really “get it,” you have to engage in some fundamental paradigm shifts. When you picture “gay rights,” whether you’re gay or straight, conservative or liberal, you might imagine a catalogue of rights that are unique in some way, that only apply to people who fit into a particular “gay” box.
There are some problems with this view, though, no matter where you’re coming from. First, this model necessarily excludes some people. It means you have to be “gay” (or lesbian, or bisexual) to have or fight for those rights. When we base rights on status and identity, we require people to engage in a particular kind of identity formation. This model is embraced by many in the West, but it causes problems when well-meaning activists import it to the developing world. (More on that in a future post.) It also doesn’t necessarily include everyone in the West. There are plenty of Americans who are uncomfortable with certain labels, or those who don’t consider their sexual conduct a valid indicator of their sexual identity. The “gay rights” model is also problematic politically, because it makes it easy to oppose. You might think that gay rights are “special” rights, or that they necessarily mean that other people can’t have rights. You might think that gay marriage, for example, harms the heterosexual marriage institution, or that affirmative action in employment means you’ll be out of a job. It’s also easy to think of “gay rights” as being radical, liberal, Democratic, or opposed to Christianity. I don’t agree with these arguments, but they exist, and they are something to which you constantly have to respond when using the “gay rights” model.
This is why I suggest human rights as an alternative. One of the most important characteristics of human rights as a group is that they are universal. Some may be more justiciable than others, certainly. Some rights are labeled “aspirational,” meaning that people do all have a right to a certain thing, but due to limited resources, unsympathetic governments, or whatever else, they are denied that right at the moment. Just because a right has being violated, even if it has always been violated, does not mean we do not have that right.
When we think of these individual issues or rights claims (gay marriage, employment non-discrimination, right to privacy, etc), we must execute a mental shift. If we think of these rights in universal terms, then we begin to realize that it is hypocritical to oppose them for others, but not for ourselves. Discrimination is illogical. John Rawls coined the term “veil of ignorance.” This means that in thinking about rights, we consider ourselves from an initial position of ignorance about ourselves. We imagine that we cannot see ourselves, and we know nothing about ourselves – we don’t know if we’re black, Muslim, gay, disabled, French, middle-aged, upper class, or anything else. In this position, we necessarily would confer as many rights as possible without infringing upon the rights of others, because we don’t know where we’ll end up. It would be stupid to deny rights to a certain class, if we might end up in that class.
So take a moment to consider yourself in this position, completely ignorant as to your sexual orientation. I think you’d be a little hesitant to differentiate between orientations as you dole out rights to individuals. You wouldn’t want to limit rights for gay people, or straight people, for men who have sex with men, or women who have sex with women, for those who have sex with both sexes, or those who have sex only with the opposite sex. You wouldn’t want to limit how people are allowed to express themselves, or associate with others. You’d want to make sure everyone has as many rights as possible to preserve their own dignity – their own humanity – without harming others.
So the next time you hear about “gay rights” in the media or in the courtroom, in the school or in your workplace, try to frame them mentally in a different way. Think about the right to marriage, for example. If you’re straight, you wouldn’t be very happy if someone told you that you weren’t allowed to marry your opposite sex partner. Or think about the right to privacy. What if there were a law on the books that said (due to population control problems, for example) that men and women were not allowed to engage in procreative sex in their own homes? Think about freedom of expression. What if holding hands with your opposite sex partner, or wearing a t-shirt with a slogan such as “I like boys” if you’re female, exposed you to ridicule and violence? You wouldn’t like it very much.
Those of us who are comfortably gay and have always advocated gay rights can also benefit from this perspective. It isn’t just a new way to make the argument to those who don’t agree with us, but it’s also a way to be more inclusive. We can stop thinking so hard about who belongs in the acronym, who can show up at the festival, who gets to enter the club, and whose rights we want to fight for. Fighting for human rights means fighting for everyone. It means identifying gaps where they exist, and filling them in. Perhaps in a given society, people are targeted for same-sex conduct. Maybe in another society, identity as gay or lesbian or some other moniker is what matters. Perhaps it’s non-normative gender expression that results in violent responses or inadequate legal protection. This strategy helps us open our eyes, and see what needs to be fixed, no matter how we personally identify. It also gives an opportunity for coalition building. Gay rights are human rights. So are women’s rights. So are rights for people regardless of race or ethnicity. If we recognize that we are all fighting for the same thing, we can help each other recognize violations and work together to eradicate them.
I hope if you’ve made it to the end of this post, you’ll have some time to think about and digest what I’ve said. I’m always happy to engage in discussion, so feel free to comment. And, if you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend the following readings (please excuse the slightly incorrect citation format as I can’t do large and small caps here):
- Carl F. Stychin, Same-Sex Sexualities and the Global Human Rights Discourse, 49 McGill L.J. 951 (2003).
- Eric Heinze, Sexual Orientation: A Human Right (1995).
- Hassan El Menyawi, Activism from the Closet: Gay Rights Strategising in Egypt, 7 Melb. J. Int’l L. 28 (2006).
- Laurence R. Helfer & Alice M. Miller, Sexual Orientation and Human Rights: Towards a United States and Transnational Jurisprudence, 9 Harv. Hum. Rts. J. 61 (1996).
- Robert Wintemute, From ‘Sex Rights’ to ‘Love Rights’: Partnership Rights as Human Rights, in Sex Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures 2002 186 (Nicholas Bamforth, ed., 2005).
- Sonia Katayal, Exporting Identity, 14 Yale J.L. & Feminism 97 (2002).
- Vincent J. Samar, Gay-Rights as a Particular Instantiation of Human Rights, 64 Alb. L. Rev. 983 (2001).