For the past month, Americans have been engaged in a national discussion of sexuality among young people, bullying, suicide, and support structures to improve young people’s lives. These conversations are important components of the struggle to destigmatize and decriminalize sexuality so that everyone’s human rights are respected. However it is only one piece of the puzzle, and it’s important to learn about and grapple with the bigger picture.
This weekend Navanethem Pillay, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post that ties together important and relevant issues going far beyond teen suicide. Although homophobia and bullying certainly has an effect on young people’s development when they are (or are perceived to be) gay, beyond the harm that people can do to themselves there is plenty of violence being done to LGBT people around the world by their fellow citizens and by the states they live in.
To that end, here’s some of what Pillay had to say:
Homophobia, like racism and xenophobia, exists to varying degrees in all societies. Every day, in every country, individuals are persecuted, vilified or violently assaulted, even killed, because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Covert or overt, homophobic violence causes enormous suffering that is often shrouded in silence and endured in isolation.
The first priority is to press for decriminalization of homosexuality worldwide. In more than 70 countries, individuals still face criminal sanctions on the basis of their sexual orientation. Such laws expose those concerned to the constant risk of arrest, detention and, in some cases, torture or even execution. They also perpetuate stigma and contribute to a climate of intolerance and violence.
But as important as decriminalization is, it is only a first step. We know from experience in those countries that have removed criminal sanctions that greater concerted efforts are needed to counter discrimination and homophobia, including legislative and educational initiatives. Here again, we all have roles to play, particularly those in positions of authority and influence, such as politicians, community leaders, teachers and journalists.
So, yes, we should be concerned about young people, bullying, and suicide here in the United States. It’s also imperative that we look at the bigger picture to begin to understand the cultural and systemic effects of homophobia, which include ferocious laws that violate human rights.
We must also look beyond homophobia and investigate transphobia, and the ways that it is often subsumed to or conflated with homophobia. The perception of gayness is usually linked, especially in young people who may not yet be sexually active or expressive, to gender presentation. In our culture, effeminate boys and masculine girls are singled out as being gay and lesbian—but gender non-conformity on its own isn’t an expression of sexuality. A broader acceptance for and protection of gender non-conformity is sorely needed, coupled with explicit human rights protections for transgender men and women.
Making sure that American LGBT kids feel safe and supported growing up is not a separate project from ensuring that the human rights of LGBT people around the world are protected. Both are complex and rooted in inequalities and injustices that are perpetuated at all levels of society. We need to consider the ways all of these things are connected as we imagine the way forward.