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2016: The Year in Queer Rights

27 Dec 2016
By Professor Dennis Altman AM FASSA
Taiwan_March. Photo Credit: glassquarter (Flickr) Creative Commons

2016 has not been a great year for queer rights. There has been an increase in discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Southeast Asia and in some parts of Africa. The world will also lose a champion of queer rights when Obama departs the presidency next month. The new Trump administration is unlikely to take up the cause, and it will be up to global grassroots organisations to continue the fight—while battling the odds.

Earlier this year the UN Human Rights Council announced the appointment of Vitit Muntabhorn from Thailand as the first independent expert on the “protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI)”. This followed a bitter debate on the council, where a number of nations opposed the creation of the position; and a group of African states, supported by Russia and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, appealed to the General Assembly to overrule its establishment.

The appointment was upheld, but by a margin of only seven votes. It is possible that if the new US administration ceases to support international pressure to recognise LGBTI rights as human rights, a principle upheld by President Obama, the vote could be reversed in 2017. The protection of sexual and gender diversity has become a major site of international polarisation, as Jon Symons and I discussed in our book Queer Wars.

Despite the successful vote in the General Assembly, it’s not been a great year for SOGI rights. There has been growing acceptance of same-sex couples and trans rights in some European and Latin American countries, where Mexico’s Supreme Court has followed the United States in finding in favour of same-sex marriage, leaving Australia yet further isolated amongst its traditional allies. Taiwan also looks possible to become the first state in Asia to acknowledge equal marriage. However, one should note that Australia has far greater protection against discrimination than do a number of countries which allow same-sex marriage, including the United States.

But there have been equal if not greater moves towards increased persecution of people on the basis of their sexuality and gender identity across much of the developing world. In our region, Malaysia has been clamping down on trans people; last year Brunei introduced sharia law which proscribes death for homosexual behaviour.

Furthermore, in Indonesia there has been a concerted attack from both religious and political leaders on people perceived as being LGBT. In January, the minister of higher education said he wanted to ban LGBT student organisations from university campuses, while the minister of defence labelled LGBT rights activism a proxy war on the nation led by outsiders, more dangerous than a nuclear bomb. The minister said: “It’s dangerous as we can’t see who our foes are, but out of the blue everyone is brainwashed—now the [LGBT] community is demanding more freedom, it really is a threat…. In a nuclear war, if a bomb is dropped over Jakarta, Semarang will not be affected—but in a proxy war, everything we know could disappear in an instant—it’s dangerous.”

This sort of rhetoric has become common in the Middle East, across Africa and in the former Soviet Union. In all these cases national identity is depicted as under threat from forces of sexual deviance, an echo of the ‘Asian values’ language of several decades ago. At the same time a number of states in Western Europe and Latin America have made the defence of sexual diversity a keystone of their statements on human rights, and Australia has joined groupings in the United Nations aimed at establishing such recognition as part of universal norms.

As always there is a mix of altruism and self-interest in the positions states adopt in international fora. The appeal to traditional religious and cultural values fits well with the authoritarianism of a Putin or a Mugabe; the stress on individual rights is consistent with the Western liberal tradition and is sometimes deployed as part of a general hostility to Islam—the Dutch and French right are surprisingly pro-gay.

If there are reasons for optimism it lies in the development of grassroots organisations of people who identify as sexually and gender diverse, often against appalling odds. This year a gay pride week in Uganda and a gay film festival in Kenya led to harassment; activists routinely face violence and intimidation across much of the world.

During the second Obama administration, the US has led a global movement to support SOGI groups, sometimes, as in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic, through the appointment of openly gay ambassadors. Various UN agencies have been active in supporting local community groups, and through its funding mechanisms, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has been able to ensure the inclusion of some queer community organisations in its programs.

Australia has lagged in public support for SOGI, although voting in favour of UN resolutions and providing limited support to some initiatives through local embassies and multilateral funds. Presumably the current government feels constrained given the extent to which some of its right wing are so vocally opposed to equality.

The Australian Council for International Development has recently committed itself to supporting moves to oppose discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. There is a crucial role for large development NGOs who often seem quite unaware that they are frequently in contact with people who fall outside conventional assumptions about sex and gender.

Yet there is much Australia could do, even without using SOGI issues for domestic purposes, which has sometimes seemed the motive behind US activism. There is already a commitment to gender equality in the minister’s priorities for overseas development assistance; to add respect for SOGI rights would bring Australia into line with other donor nations, and send an important signal of our commitment to inclusion.

Small grants to community organisation are often vital, and some Australian missions already do this. But the single most significant step that the government could take would be to declare that it understands people often seek asylum because of their sexual or gender identity, and that Australia will work proactively with the UNHCR to help resettle those seeking asylum. As is true more broadly, Australia’s attitude to asylum seekers is the real test of our claim that a commitment to human rights is integral to our foreign policy.

Dennis Altman is a professorial fellow in human security at La Trobe University and the director of the Institute for Human Security at La Trobe.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.