Clinton and LGBT rights: Whose voice really matters?

Stephen Wood

At an event in Geneva yesterday celebrating Human Rights Day, Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, gave a speech in which she stated clearly that, “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights”.  This speech is to be welcomed, due in part to the honesty in which she highlighted her own country’s difficulty with living its values towards their LGBT citizens. It was heartening to see her carefully avoid language that dictated to individual countries, focussing more on the concept of combating discrimination and the state’s responsibility to foster equality.

The backdrop to her speech has been a rapidly worsening situation for LGBT people across many parts of the globe. Only this week, a bill is navigating the Nigerian Senate that calls for 14 year prison sentences for same-sex marriage, making public displays of same-sex affection an offence with a jail sentence and criminalises individuals who do not report their fellow citizens to the authorities. It feels as though every other month, another country starts in motion legislative attacks on the human rights of LGBT citizens that require mobilisation of local activists and their international partners. Uganda, Malawi, Senegal and Russia are supporting similar legal strictures against these marginalised sections of their population. Not only are these laws pernicious, but they are equally unworkable too. Banning same-sex affection in public? How will the values of community and society be reshaped by such an intrusive and aggressive scrutiny of human relationships?

There are more positive signs coming from the global south. Local social movements have championed legal and policy changes successfully in countries such as India, Bangladesh and Nepal for both LGBT and third gendered people. There are networks of activists, those involved in collective action, practitioners and legal experts in these settings whose expertise needs to be shared more broadly. At the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), we are committed to working with partners to try and support south-south dialogues among people who are marginalised because of their sexuality. There have already been many Southern-led articulations of what international efforts are needed and it behoves the development sector to pay them greater attention.

As I’ve argued previously, there is a need for countries like the US (and the UK, whose Coalition Government has made increasingly positive noises that they want to commit themselves to promoting LGBT equality) to match their resolve with new financial resources to support the strengthening of legal NGOs, women’s groups, sexual and reproductive rights organisations, LGBT organisations, human rights groups and advocacy campaigns that are committed to sexual rights and human rights.

Clinton’s commitment to a $3 million start-up for a Global Equality Fund, which will support groups working for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights worldwide is promising, but disappointingly modest. As the backlash towards Western countries has intensified over the contested ground of LGBT rights, the US Government has begun to realise that they cannot dictate change like an imperial power, but should support grassroots organisations. Fine speeches are all well and good, but at a time when so many communities find themselves under sustained attack, we now need real dialogue and financial muscle to back the laudable renewed commitment to universal human rights.

Stephen Wood is a member of the Sexuality and Development Programme in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS and can be found on Twitter at: StephenWood_UK

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