In December of 2011 the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released the first-ever report from the entire UN system on violence and discrimination related to real – or even perceived - sexual orientation and gender identity. This doesn’t mean that the UN system hasn’t ever addressed these issues – in fact quite the opposite is true: there is an 18 year trend of evolving attention from UN treaty bodies and independent experts called “special rapporteurs” that has been integrated into their other areas of focus.
But in 2011, the main human rights arm of the UN (the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) was tasked for the first time to conduct research and produce a report on the mounting body of evidence from around the world that shows, quite simply, that people are killed, tortured, raped, arrested and denied health care, employment and education because of who they are, who they are seen to be, or, in some instances, because of who they choose to love.
Long overdue, the slim twenty-four page UN document “Study of discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity”, has its roots in a process that also was late in coming: in June of 2011, the UN Human Rights Council adopted the firstever resolution to focus solely on violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (often called “SOGI”). The process was controversial, yet forward- thinking ideology prevailed as Council member states agreed to adopt a resolution put forward by South Africa that called for the research and report, and then an official follow up Council session, which took place in March 2012.
That groundbreaking panel was the first high level official SOGI session ever held by the UN system. In United Nations terms, this is breakneck speed for a set of issues deemed by some governments to be “too controversial” to be surfaced in these spaces. And, of course, advocates and ally states have long thought these issues were rendered invisible for too many years.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon gave a very moving video introduction to the panel, and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, addressed the full house in March. With their participation, the UN human rights machinery has come out of the UN closet: there’s no turning back now.
Although calling for a report and convening a panel seem so moderate, in the political universe of global governance, these were bold demands. In fact, they were bold enough that more conservative states used the opportunity to rebel: after opposing the June resolution that simply acknowledged that people face violence and discrimination because of sexual orientation and gender identity, some actually staged a mildly entertaining walk out of the Council panel.
The report, which I made contributions to, rests on previously documented experiences of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender (LGBT) people. But the report also speaks to gender-non-conforming people who do not claim those identities or labels. It argues that people are targeted for violence as severe as torture and the death penalty and various forms of discrimination because they are not seen to fit gender norms, including those related to physical appearance.
The study makes such simple but powerful claims: First, LGBT people, and lesbians within that group, exist. We are targeted for various violations - sometimes those abuses are at the hands of family members or police. We experience discrimination in health care, schools and in employment.
Our organizing and advocacy are interrupted through police raids on our offices, or made illegal, as in when our organizations are not officially allowed to register with the state. And, of course, LGBT activists, or “defenders” of rights, are harassed and targeted for attacks, some of which result in death.
Overall, the report isn’t gender specific, yet much of the lesbian-specific information that UN entities have addressed is captured in it. Lesbian cases are woven throughout, as are women-specific issues, such as forced pregnancy. Abuses that more frequently occur with women as targets, such as forced marriage, and rape (including in marriage) are also highlighted.
The report names sexism and gender inequality in both the global North and South as forces with great impact on people’s dayto- day experience. Notably, trends of violence that are often inadequately punished include killings of lesbians, and attacks in the home. In fact, one important contribution the SOGI report makes is in the elaboration about violence perpetrated by family and community members; it’s in this so-called “private” sphere where women are most at risk of abuses. The report argues that where patterns of these abuses take place, the state must be held accountable, including in preventing future attacks and punishing perpetrators.
Many UN reports rest on information that has been previously generated by bodies within the UN. This presented a circular problem for this SOGI report: although there are now many LGBT references by treaty bodies and special rapporteurs, overall, this research has been spread over regions and time, and the result of either targeted advocacy by activists or the specific support of particular individuals serving in these UN-related roles. Since the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has issued this official and more comprehensive report, that gap of inconsistency and relying on personal interest is beginning to be filled.
One thing remains true, however: the UN system has not adequately addressed lesbian experience, with recent notable exceptions including the special rapporteur on violence against women and the CEDAW Committee, which measures state compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. In a few other cases, lesbian identity and experience have been noted by other rapporteurs and treaty bodies.
There is great need for lesbian-specific deeper work, more consistent research, and more nuanced analysis, including on asylum issues, torture, “private” acts of violence by “non-state actors”, on experiences of young lesbians (and LGBT people, generally) and discrimination lesbians face in housing, education, and health care arenas.
The next steps are for UN bodies, including OHCHR, to move beyond monolithic experiences of “LGBT” communities. Lesbian experience is sometimes different from that of gay men and trans people; there are sometimes added layers of sexism and misogyny that fuel violence and discrimination against lesbians (although I would argue that homophobia has roots in these forms of gender oppression, as well) and the UN ought to be better able to recognize these realities. The good news is that the trend in UN reporting on SOGI is unequivocally moving in the right direction. But it’s now the responsibility of advocates to demand more work in this area, and greater nuance from governments and the UN system itself.