U.N.’s First Report on LGBT Rights

Atrocities documented around the world

Photo by Think Stock

This week, the first-ever report of the state of LGBT rights around the world has been released by the United Nations. And the outcome is grim for many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people worldwide who face violence, torture, detention and discrimination for their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Living in the fifth-largest city in the United States can sometimes make you forget what it must be like being gay or transgender in a culture that criminalizes it (even if sodomy laws have only recently been repealed in our own country). But government-sanctioned torture? Death sentences? It’s almost unfathomable. But according to the U.N., the worldwide LGBT community continues to suffer “a pattern of human rights violations.”

In every region of the world, homophobic and transphobic violence has been reported. The U.N. estimates that the situations could be much worse as many crimes go unreported for fear of retaliation within communities that do not offer LGBT protections and by governments that consider it a crime to be gay or transgender.

This should be a wake-up call for everyone.

“Violence against LGBT persons tends to be especially vicious compared to other bias-motivated crimes,” says the report. The crimes – which are characters by “a high degree of cruelty and brutality” – create a fearful atmosphere for anyone who may be working toward equal rights. In Uganda, for example, the murder of LGBT rights crusader David Kato made headlines around the world and shed light on a country that sought the death penalty for its LGBT citizens.

In almost 80 countries, homosexual behavior is still considered a crime, punishable by imprisonment or worse. And in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Sudan and Yemen, it’s punishable by death.

“One of the things we found is if the law essentially reflects homophobic sentiment, then it legalizes homophobia in society at large,” explains Charles Radcliffe, a chief at the U.N. Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. “If the state treats people as second class or second rate or, worse, as criminals, then it’s inviting people to do the same thing.”

Thanks to ground-breaking human rights work, as many as 30 countries have decriminalized homosexuality in the last 20 years. And recently, President Obama issued a history-making statement along with leaders in the U.K., saying that a country’s human rights policies for LGBT people will dictate whether the U.S. will offer foreign aid. And given that the U.S. is still the largest subsidizer of aid in the world, the promise will – and should – have repercussions. The official memorandum directs “all agencies engaged abroad to ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also reiterated in a speech this month that “gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights.”

Interestingly, in the U.S., DOMA still prevents legal same-sex marriages from being recognized on the federal level – and in most states same-sex couples still do not enjoy the same rights as heterosexuals.

This begs the important question: If we expect to set a precedent for the rest of the world, how can we not be progressive in our own backyard?