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Taking a stand against homophobia

24 November 2010

A candlelight vigil in support of marriage rights for same sex couples in California © AP Photo/George Nikitin

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay has used a widely published editorial to denounce homophobia and call for concerted action to better protect individuals from violence and discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In the article, which has appeared in newspapers round the world, the High Commissioner refers to recent reports of homophobic bullying and other recent attacks to illustrate the scale and urgency of the problem:

“Seth Walsh walked into the garden of his family's home in Tehachapi, California, last month and hanged himself. He was just 13. Before making the tragic decision to end his life he had endured years of homophobic taunting and abuse from his peers at school and in his neighborhood. He is one of six teenage boys in the United States known to have committed suicide in September after suffering at the hands of homophobic bullies.
“In the past few months there has been a spate of attacks directed against people perceived to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. In New York on October 3, three young men, believed to be gay, were kidnapped, taken to a vacant apartment in the Bronx and subjected to appalling torture and abuse. In Belgrade on October 10, a group of protesters shouting abuse hurled Molotov cocktails and stun grenades into a peaceful gay pride parade, injuring 150 people. In South Africa on September 25, a large-scale march in Soweto brought attention to the widespread rape of lesbians in the townships, assaults that perpetrators often try to justify as an attempt to "correct" the victims' sexuality.

“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.”

“It is time we all spoke up. While responsibility for hate crimes rests with the perpetrators, we all share a duty to counter intolerance and prejudice and demand that attackers be held to account.”

The first priority, according to the High Commissioner, is to press for decriminalization of homosexuality in the more than 70 countries where 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,” she says.
Pillay cautions however that, “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.”
The High Commissioner urged those in positions of authority and influence, such as politicians, community leaders, teachers and journalists to recognize they have a particularly important duty to use their words wisely.  She drew attention to an incident in Uganda, where a newspaper published a front-page story in October "outing" 100 Ugandans it identified as gay or lesbian and printed their photographs alongside the headline "Hang Them."
“We must recognize such "journalism" for what it is: incitement to hatred and violence,” Pillay says.

“The candidate for public office who, rather than appealing for tolerance, makes casual remarks denigrating people on the basis of their sexuality may do so in the belief that he or she is indulging in harmless populism -- but the effect is to legitimize homophobia,” she writes.

The High Commissioner referred in the editorial to a panel discussion at which she spoke, in Geneva, in September, on decriminalizing homosexuality. The event was sponsored by a diverse group of 14 European, North American, South American and Asian countries.

“In a video message, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu lent his support and spoke about the lessons of apartheid and the challenge of securing equal rights for all. ‘Whenever one group of human beings is treated as inferior to another, hatred and intolerance will triumph,’ he said. It should not take hundreds more deaths and beatings to convince us of this truth. It is up to all of us to demand equality for all our fellow human beings, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

A candlelight vigil in support of marriage rights for same sex couples in California © AP Photo/George Nikitin