As many of you will be aware, the United Nations human rights office (OHCHR) recently published a report on violence and discrimination against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. The report’s findings and recommendations will be taken up by the Human Rights Council next week.
It is extraordinary to think that this report is actually the first ever official United Nations report to deal with this issue – an issue that relates to serious human rights violations affecting the lives of millions. That fact in itself speaks to the resistance we have faced – and will likely continue to face –when it comes to questions of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Even so, we are not starting from scratch. The OHCHR report draws on almost two decades worth of jurisprudence and documented material gathered by United Nations human rights treaty bodies and special rapporteurs. It also integrates information from regional organizations, national authorities and some NGOs.
What emerges from all of the material we gathered is a pattern—a clear pattern of targeted violence and discrimination directed at people because they are, or are perceived to be, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT).
I am not going to try to summarize the complete report here: it is available online in all official UN languages. But I would like to touch on a couple of points of particular relevance to the theme of our discussion today, which is homophobic and transphobic violence as it affects lesbians, bisexual women and transgender persons.
The first point relates to the data on violence, which is patchy—at least in so far as official statistics are concerned. This is in large part because many States do not have systems in place for recording and reporting hate-motivated violence of this kind.
Even where such systems exist, officials often lack the training needed to deal sensitively with victims or even recognize and therefore be able to record the real motives of those responsible for the violence.
And time and again we hear how the victims themselves are often reluctant to come forward to report attacks because they have no confidence in the police.
But even if we do not have comprehensive, let alone comparable, statistics covering all regions, whatever disjointed pieces of data we have confirm that killings, physical attacks, sexual violence and torture are taking place at an alarming rate.
To give you just a few examples relating to hate-motivated killings of LGBT people, the report refers to:
- 27 murders reported in the United States in 2010.
- In Honduras, 31 murders in the course of an 18 months period ending in 2010.
- In the OSCE area, 44 murders in 2009, based on partial data from only 22 States.
- And, 680 reported murders of transgender people worldwide since 2008, according to an NGO that maps such killings.
Supplementing data from other sources, United Nations human rights special rapporteurs have over several years gathered a plethora of examples of attacks on individuals. Among the many incidents we highlight in the report:
- The case of a transgender woman found dead in a ditch, her body beaten and burned, showing evidence of rape and blows to her face from stoning so severe as to render her remains virtually unrecognizable.
- Gang rape of lesbians, sometimes characterized as so-called “corrective rape,” as well as the targeted killings of lesbians.
- Multiple allegations of abuse carried out in police and prison cells, including cases of a lesbian couple beaten by police officers and sexually assaulted, and a transgender women, placed in an all-male prison and raped more than 100 times, sometimes with the complicity of prison officials.
An area that we included in our report but which has received less attention, at least from UN sources, is violence and discrimination directed at LGBT people within families. While many families are caring, understanding and supportive, some turn brutally against their own simply for being different.
Examples include children and adolescents thrown out of family homes, disowned and disinherited by their own parents, sometimes forced out of school or into psychiatric centres … Girls forced into marriage or pregnancy in an attempt to “cover up” their sexual orientation and protect their family from the associated stigma ... And, conversely, young women, forced to relinquish their children when their sexuality becomes known … Even reports of so-called “honour killings” of gay sons and lesbian daughters.
What can possibly explain acts of such cruelty? Why do some people feel such hatred towards LGBT people that they are driven to acts of appalling violence?
Much of the violence directed at LGBT people is, at its, core, gender-based violence. It is violence directed against people who challenge stereotypical gender roles, who transgress gender norms.
If society holds fast to the idea that to be female you must, for example, be heterosexual, play a supporting role to a man, and dress and express yourself in a certain pre-ordained feminine manner, then anyone who lives their lives differently is challenging prevailing gender norms.
Lesbians and bisexual women, as well as transgender persons, challenge gender norms simply by existing and by expressing their sexuality, their identity and their gender in an open and honest way. In doing so they are all too often exposed to disapproval, stigma and violence.
This is important because it helps to explain why there is such a strong gender dimension to these violations, especially when we look at violence and discrimination in a family context.
Because within families it is often male family members who are in a position of power and authority, and who use that power and authority to enforce gender norms and punish those who transgress them.
Now, a few words on how States should respond to this challenge. First, our report includes a number of practical recommendations on how to improve State responses to homophobic and transphobic violence:
- to systematically record and report relevant incidents;
- to sensitize and train relevant law enforcement personnel;
- to investigate all reported incidents promptly and thoroughly; and
- to hold perpetrators to account.
In short: to end impunity.
But beyond these practical steps there lies a longer-term challenge, which is to better understand and address the root causes of this violence, which lie in discriminatory attitudes.
Ending the killings, the attacks, the rape and the torture will take more than good police work. It will take effective action to counter homophobia and transphobia, which exist to varying degrees in all societies.
That in turn requires changes in the law – beginning with criminal laws used to criminalize people for engaging in consensual same-sex relationships, as well as so-called “cross-dressing” laws.
Every month, my office receives reports of individuals being harassed, arrested and detained under these laws, many of which are relics left over from the colonial era. The latest reports came earlier this week from Cameroon, where ten women were reportedly arrested on the suspicion of engaging in same-sex relations. The past weeks have also seen attempts in the Liberian and Ugandan parliaments to strengthen existing criminal penalties for those involved in consensual, same-sex relationships.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Criminal laws of this kind are incompatible with international human rights standards. They also have a far-reaching effect on society at large—reinforcing stigma and discrimination and, helping to feed hatred and violence against LGBT people.
These discriminatory laws, which run against international human rights law, cannot be tolerated.
But beyond changes in laws, tackling violence will also require wider changes in policies and practices – including in the areas of employment, education, healthcare and gender recognition.
We need improved public information, concerted outreach and education, sustained over the long-haul, to really start to eradicate violence and discrimination at its roots.
This is the agenda for change that we are setting before the Human Rights Council next week, but also taking up in our dialogue with Governments next week and every week thereafter.
Our goal is a world free of violence and discrimination against LGBT people, where everyone can enjoy the same rights, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.