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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Statement by Kate Gilmore, Deputy High Commissioner, at the International Ministerial Meeting on Education Sector Response to Violence based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity/Expression

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in Education

17 May 2016

17 May 2016

May I just say thank you! 

Thank you to Your Excellencies - Ministers who have lent us your authority to help give redress of this human rights abuse priority.  There lies hope. 

Thank you to UNESCO for your leadership in addressing this critical life saving knowledge gap – and pointing the way forward to its solutions - there lies wisdom.  

Thank you to those teachers and education professionals around the world who are dismantling ignorance and flourishing instead tolerance - there lies promise. 

Thank you most earnestly to LGBT students who –  from every corner of our world – participated in this report’s preparation – broke the silence – even at risk of further violence – telling their stories so that we might also face up to our own insecurities, our ignorance, our bigotry - there lies knowledge and there lies learning.

“People tell me I do not have the right to live!” - Nikita – a trans man of Russia – tells us here.

“I was told I brought shame to my society, my religion.  I have endless nightmares and depression.” Nora – from the Middle East – tells us here.

And Mia of Sweden tells us here that her “school days were basically spent hiding – hating myself, never really knowing why!”

Violence against - denigration of - young people by virtue of their perceived or actual sexual orientation and gender identity/expression is perpetrated at alarming levels and it is always wrong.  LGBT students report three times higher rates of violence with the threat and reality graver still for trans students.  More than a quarter of LGBT students surveyed reported that - in contravention of their fundamental rights to physical and mental integrity – in breach of their rights to dignity in sexual and reproductive heath and well being – they had experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence.  In some countries, 99 per cent of students report witnessing homophobic abuse.

Your Excellencies, friends,

Two very fundamental human processes accompany the journey from childhood to adulthood – a journey that we all made.  These profoundly human processes – which are self-learning and self-realization – these are integral to human development and they intimately shape how we become as adults.  It is what we learn and how we become ourselves over the course of our adolescence that shapes critical terms and conditions for the adult journey ahead of us. 

We all took that journey – each and very one of us.  An emergence overtime from the chrysalis of our childhood – a journey by which we became ourselves – personalized, individually, gendered, sexual, talented, desirous, hopeful …

Is adult amnesia so deep that we cannot recall the loneliness, uncertainty and embarrassment of that path?  Nor feel yet the tug of its toxic threading of shame with fear and with risk taking? 

So how can we tolerate, for even one more minute – those norms, practices, laws or policies that render our most intimate selves – our innate and intimate identities – into a cause of self loathing, a basis for ostracizing, a reason for exclusion, an excuse for violence, make of consensual love and diverse gender identities a crime? 

And yet, in this we are failing on a global scale.  Across Europe and the Caribbean.  In the Pacific and the Middle East.  In Africa, Asia and in the Americas.

And for this, young people are paying with their lives.

The toll exacted from our failure of young people in this regard is something none of us can afford.  With more young people alive today than ever before in all of human history this matter is now truly urgent!  We can not afford to leave in place unchecked impediments to young people’s rights of access to essential services, to quality and accurate information and to comprehensive sexuality education.  We cannot afford to outlaw love and trans identities and let hate flourish. 

These are matters of human rights – the rights of young people -  and when we fail them in these, it is they who are paying for it with their futures - with their lives.

If, for example, students do not feel safe at school, they are more likely to drop out of school.  If they are subjected to abuse, they will suffer poorer physical and mental health and tragically higher rates of self harm and suicide.  Under the MDGs, specifically – during 2005–2012 - deaths from HIV/AIDS decreased by 32% among all other age groups but increased by about 50% among adolescents.   The fatal price tag of fear, ignorance, bigotry and adult amnesia. Not worrying enough?

Well, multiple surveys across many countries show that homophobic and transphobic violence undermines security and safety for whole communities.  Eroding confidence, eroding the rule of law, eroding justice – sewing in their place the seeds of lawlessness, bigotry and hate.  A toxic chemistry that seeps deep into the fabric of our communities bringing wider implications. 

Homophobia and transphobia, like all other bigotries – create a caustic, fictional account of the world.  Their crude and gauche imprecisions are an element of their cruelty.  For homophobia and transphobia cruelly manufacture vulnerability for any child who does not look like that “fictionally” correct gendered type – any long haired boy and short haired girl, on anyone who can not or will not squeeze themselves fully into one of the narrow small boxes created by gender stereotypes. After all, there are no hard and fast “rules” for diagnosing on sight either your or my sexuality or gender identity.

There are brutal indiscriminate consequences for all our children when, thru our action and inaction, we fail to stand up for all our children.

So it is ironic that to be concerned for the rights of all children - all young people – equally and without discrimination - should be deemed a Western project.  As this report demonstrates, bigotry flourishes so well in the West that by such a measure not even the West is western. 

And sadly, homophobia’s and transphobia’s fictions invite us to deny our even own histories - histories which in every culture are replete with examples of diverse gender identities and both erotic and non-erotic same-sex relationships.

In amnesic adults’ hands, science too has allowed itself to be enculturated with fictitious notions of our intimate selves. On this very day, twenty-six years ago, the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from the international classifications of diseases. And yet as the report we celebrate here today highlights still there are teachers, parents and students consider children to be ill if they are attracted to someone of the same sex. Trans children and adults face an even worse situation -- pathologized by both national and international medical classifications that are linked to the discrimination and violence that they face. We must join the call of regional human rights experts and urgently demand reform of these classifications.

How can it be that we are so quick to pathologize, outlaw and reject diverse gender identities  and love and yet so accepting of the bigotry and so slow to render the human rights abuses that are hated and violence unlawful and so slow to hold their perpetrators fully accountable?

Your Excellencies, friends, there are fundamental principles at stake here: You don’t have to like me to respect my rights.  I don’t have to agree with you to uphold your rights.  You don’t have to be like me, for me to protect your rights.  Rights are not a system of endorsement or appreciation – they are not an award or a test result nor a beauty parade.  Rights are for the best and for the worst of us.  For each of us – to the exclusion of none of us in the interests of all of us.

The incomparable Nelson Mandela reminded us that “hate is learned.”  We are not born to hate.  No prejudice floats in our blood from birth. No instinct for contempt of a particular skin color, race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexuality lurks ready-made in our cerebral cortex.  All of it is learned.  All prejudice and hate can and must be unlearned. 

We can and must learn to abandon hate.  We can and must teach celebration of diverse gender identities and of consensual intimacy – of love – instead, and to love better those who are learning – even as they develop their identities and learn about love.