Irreverent or Irrelevant?: The United Nations and Gay Rights



As a Lebanese diplomat at the United Nations, I have been compelled more than once to vote against sexual orientation becoming a human right. As a sympathizer of a humanist and inclusive agenda, I am appalled at the warlike rhetoric of conservative leaders around the world that politicize the issue to get the masses charged. To my dismay, however, the suit-wearing, clean-shaven UN delegates in New York have not proven to be much better.

Granted, global consensus on cultural issues is extremely difficult. Sometimes I wonder if it is possible at all. After more than three years of doing human rights work, I have found three clear obstacles to getting lesbian and gay issues on the international agenda: continuing stigma, poor organization, and the understanding that many states – especially those with Catholic or Islamic majorities – will block initiatives in this area. In addition, there is flagrant selectivity in human rights work in the UN. Many issues are avoided, such as discrimination against women in Muslim States, the lack of democracy in Saudi Arabia, racism in the United States, the caste system in South Asia, and the human rights performances of the major powers. Advancing a new issue in the UN requires effective lobbying and lead states. Yet most developing states firmly uphold that homosexuality does not exist in their culture! Therefore, it is difficult for them to see how an extension of rights to homosexuals would mean anything. It is as if they view western activists as constructing the politics of sexual minorities, with the aim of imposing them on the rest of the world. It is this perceived homogenization that is resisted by most UN member states.

The problem is that there is a strong Western bias in the very conception of existing human rights instruments. These were built upon premises of liberalism and individualism, and to impose these assumptions on cultures that reject them is often seen as a manifestation of imperialism. As a result, tying human rights instruments to a Western notion of sexuality unknown to developing states weakens these very instruments, especially since these states are required to apply the human rights instruments in their different national contexts.

Developing states often use anti-Western rhetoric to justify discrimination against homosexuals. In 1992, the Prime Minister of Malaysia even stated that the enhancement of democratic rights would actually lead to homosexuality! In April 2003, Brazil put forth a resolution at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva urging an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation. After vigorous opposition from a group of Islamic countries, action was eventually postponed. Pakistan, a US ally in the fight against terrorism, went so far as to distribute a memo to Council members asserting that: “The toothless nondiscrimination resolution would constitute an insult to all Muslims.” While other Western countries supported the resolution, the US said it would abstain if it came to a vote.

Other attempts to address gay and lesbian issues at the UN have had limited but promising success. In August 2003, the largest public event addressing gay issues was organized by UNGLOBE, the gay and lesbian employees association at the UN, attended by Secretary-General Kofi Annan. But despite such symbolic gestures, real progress is likely to be blocked by a strong block of homophobic nations, in which gays and lesbians are socially, culturally, and legally excluded.

Interestingly, these human rights violators are affected by political lobbying much more than by their actual adherence to human rights instruments – to which they voluntarily committed! For example, in 1992, the UN Human Rights Commission easily passed a resolution censuring Iraq. However, in 1989, before Iraq lost the support of the United States, a resolution denouncing Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against the Kurds could not even get co-sponsorship.

In drafting human rights instruments, it is common to avoid controversial language if it is not previously agreed upon. Sexual orientation is an excellent example of such language. For example, the draft final statement of the 1993 Vienna Conference on human rights had a paragraph on equality that condemned discrimination on listed grounds. When Canada proposed adding “sexual orientation” to the list, a heated debate ensued, resulting in a general, open-ended prohibition of discrimination, without a list. The advantage of this course of action is that consensus is achieved. However, upon implementation of such a general paragraph, several interpretations inevitably arise on the question of whether sexual orientation is implicitly included as a right protected from discrimination.

It was not until 1995 that the first substantive discussion of sexual orientation took place in a UN forum: The Beijing Conference on Women. The draft Platform of Action contained four references to sexual orientation. These were discussed by the drafting committee, in a meeting now famous in the UN because it ended at 4 a.m. on a Friday, at the end of which the chair suggested that the controversial references be omitted. Thirty-three states supported inclusion of the references, and twenty objected. Five years later, during the “Beijing+5” review conference, (then) UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson delivered a controversial statement substantially in favor of a right to free sexual orientation. The session was marked by a revolt of many developing countries over the question of sexual orientation. The delegate from Pakistan said that Western delegations are “holding the women of the world hostage to one term, ‘sexual orientation,'” when their real needs are clean water and help in overcoming illiteracy. Conservative NGOs charged the “rich west” with forcing a “failed personal morality” upon the developing world. The government of Poland was even (reportedly) threatened by European Union negotiators with losing Union membership over the pro-family positions it took during the conference.

The Platform was created with the purpose of creating equality for women, was feminist-driven and represented a seemingly significant threat to the traditional family. Conservative states viewed this feminist agenda as embracing an anti-family philosophy, promoting homosexuality, abortion-on-demand, and the removal of parental rights. Under the guise of equality and human rights, they said, the Platform appeared to be the vehicle through which feminist ideology would infiltrate governmental systems worldwide.

For example, according to the Platform, gender is considered to be socially constructed, not innate. The most powerful member states refused to define gender as either biologically male or female, thus allowing the inclusion of transsexuals by certain governments. The Platform also redefined the family by stating: “In different cultural, political and social systems, various forms of the family exist,” thus paving the way for homosexual partners to raise children as a family. The text also catered for reproductive rights, and undermined parental rights since it regarded children as autonomous.

Not surprisingly perhaps, the trend of recent UN human rights discourse to deconstruct and redefine the natural (traditional) family has prompted conservative NGOs to raise awareness to the threats that this trend poses to society. Their representatives routinely come up to me and insist that this deconstruction begins with an “attack” on faith and religion. They are then quick to demonstrate how the ensuing attack on the natural family operates by denying due recognition to the vital role of family and parents in child-rearing and cultural building, and by insisting that there is nothing unique about the relationship between a man and a woman, and that there are various forms of the family. However, the central issue at stake here is much larger than sexual orientation! The threat that such conservatives are responding to comes from the fact that
family life has become severed from reproduction, and that absent any relation to procreation, the sexual act is reduced to purely sensory experience – in their words “whether the sensation is physical, mental or emotional.” They carry large files around the UN building filled with studies, numbers and charts “proving” that the potential procreative power of heterosexual couplings is the basis for society’s compelling interest in preferring potentially procreative relationships over relationships founded primarily upon mutually agreeable physical (or emotional) sensation. The danger, they say, lies in the fact that once same-sex marriage receives international protection, the same arguments would require the same protection for any consensual sexual practice, no matter how socially repugnant, even those involving sexual intimacy with children…

While it is true that, to some extent, a few recent UN positions have put into question the importance of the traditional family, I really cannot see how the international community could adopt a position that somehow confines sexual conduct to exclusively procreative purposes versus physical or emotional sensation. Furthermore, I can easily argue that extension of marriage benefits to same-sex couples (and its consequences on the “traditional” family) can prove beneficial to society. The elimination of the opposite-gender requirement for marriage could help diminish the patriarchal and gender-subordinating components of that institution.

What we call “gender” depends upon, and derives from, the structuring that marriage provides. Turning men and women into husbands and wives, marriage has designated the ways both sexes act in the world and the reciprocal relation between them. Patriarchy has shaped internal family arrangements and practices that have contributed immensely to the second-class status assigned to women, both inside and outside the family. In light of this history of subordination, then, when NGOs argue that a marriage must be between a man and a woman, they are in fact crystallizing the power hierarchies that are based on gender roles and privileges.

It seems to me that conservatives are simply afraid of the reality that de-gendering marriage will contribute to a reduction of sexism. They are concerned that male privileges within the marriage (and hence outside it too!) would be undermined by same-sex marriage, because in male-male or female-female relationships the internal arrangements and dynamics must be worked out anew, given there are no predetermined gender roles to provide guidance. With each passing day, we are witnessing more and more that, in same-sex relationships, gender is irrelevant, and that the purported essentiality of gender reflects little more than the perceived essentiality of traditional gender roles and their accompanying male privileges.

It is not surprising that feminist theory made important contributions to the discourse on sexual orientation. The first is that it separated the social from the biological, insisting on the difference between what is the product of human ideas, mutable and changeable, and what is the product of biology, stable and relatively unchangeable. The second contribution is related to the first: by separating the social and the biological, the constructed and the innate, feminist theory insisted that gender was not something innate or “essential” to an individual’s identity. Essentialists argue that the view of sexuality as a social construct meant that queer history thus far related the “idea” of the homosexual, and not the actual experience of the homosexual, leading to a form of intellectual ethnic cleansing. Essentialists view the homosexual as born, not made – as having an innate queer essence. Of course, it is easy to confuse essentialism with constancy and uniformity. However, although queer desire is innate, hence constant, we cannot deny the variability of its expression. There need not be only one gay root. The conception of self can be innate and still allow for the presentation of the self to be a social construct.

Meanwhile, as the tension between essentialists and social constructionists increases, the corresponding tension between a conception of sexual morality founded on a traditional code of conduct and one that downplays the importance of privileged sexual acts (reproductive intercourse within heterosexual wedlock) grows stronger in societies across the globe. In the United Nations, many of the most divisive political issues, from reproductive rights (abortion) to the right to life (sexual orientation) to children’s rights (teenage sexuality), reflect this tension. But can the UN prove to be more than just a forum for debates on sexual orientation?

In our tendency to categorize social problems, we often miss the interdependence of human rights issues. Oppression has many faces, and sexual orientation does not (and should not) stand apart from other concerns in the United Nations. Some of the most vocal activists for a free Palestine are queer Jews. As an Arab, I am outraged at militant extremist Moslems who hijack a dynamic and peaceful faith and use the name of God to justify horrors like that of September 11th.

But I am even more outraged at a world where civil liberties are destroyed and battle cries are sounded – in the name of a “war on terrorism,” which has not only fueled the rhetoric of xenophobia in the media, but also increased the number of hate crimes and encouraged the continuing crackdown on sexual minorities around the world by oppressive regimes now legitimized by the US government. And yet, gay and lesbian activists are among the first to join forces with anti-war organizations all over the world.

As a tolerant organization whose credibility and relevance are questioned more and more everyday, the UN must avoid at all cost the very real risk of falling prey to the extremist views of some of its member states. After all, that Berlin’s gays and lesbians would witness in the 1930s the most systematic assault in modern history could not have been predicted from the tolerant Bohemian atmosphere of the 1920s. The United Nations is a work in progress – and it desperately needs a rewrite.