At the outset, let me say that I am nervous. This event is highly personal for me. I am a gay man and to talk about the human rights of the LGBTI community is also to talk about my personal human rights.
The discussion on the developments of 50 years since the 1969 Stonewall riots has deep echoes in my own life:
For the first 25 years of my life, I did not even realise I was gay, just somehow different. I was living in the west of Ireland. My world was so profoundly heteronormative, that I had no references by which I could get my bearings.
For the next few years, I now realised I was gay, but in large part those few years were sad and wasted. I was deep in the closet, desperately afraid of being discovered. Contact with other gay men – usually as afraid as I was – was furtive, brief and shallow. No friendships were achieved.
Things got better after that. I left Ireland and I came out. Over the years since then I have to say that I have been lucky, experiencing little hostility or discrimination. Just once I was spat at on the street. With just one workplace supervisor did I feel discriminated against. I was lucky in love and made wonderful friends.
All of that said, I remained cautious, for instance I am one of those who avoid showing affection in public.
I also had to contend with well-meaning advice from colleagues to tone down my writing and talking on LGBTI issues.
Then came 2015 and the momentous marriage equality referendum in Ireland. By then, again living there, I recall casting my vote with pride. The next day my partner and I were in the crowd in the courtyard of Dublin Castle – where the votes were being counted - and we laughed and cried until late in the evening. That day we felt accepted and equal. That night no-one in Dublin was afraid to hold hands on the streets of Dublin.
And then, two years later - in a small Irish town – my partner and I finally married, after 28 years together.
These landmark moments of my life recall how much has been achieved – at least in some parts of the world – since Stonewall. Since the riots were the impetus for so much of what followed it is good to briefly revisit the event.
The Stonewall Inn was a grubby mafia-controlled bar in downtown Manhattan, New York. It had a mixed clientele of drag queens, trans people, homeless youngsters and people new to the city.
Early in the morning of Sunday 29 June 1969, the police raided it. So far, so common an occurrence. However on this occasion things did not go as normal. Instead of dispersing quietly, the clients refused to leave and fought back. A standoff between them and the police lasted nearly two days, drawing hundreds of people across neighbouring streets.
Stonewall was by no means the first show of resistance against police intimidation by gay, lesbian and trans people. There had been at least two similar riots in the U.S. in the 1960s. Nor was it globally unique – many European countries had their own – frankly sometimes even earlier – stories of struggle and liberation.
However, it is widely agreed that Stonewall was different. This is how the writer Edmund White puts it:
“The uprising was decisive… Before Stonewall the prevailing theories of homosexuality – even among queers – were that we were sinners, criminals or mentally ill. The Stonewall uprising changed attitudes, first among lesbian and gay people. Gay political groups were formed. Pride marches were held on the Stonewall anniversary. Because of Stonewall people came to see homosexuals as something like members of a minority group. […] It was an oceanic change of thinking.”
Stonewall, in other words, started a movement. It is thanks to that movement and its brave activists – including many of you - that we have what we must never take for granted.
For instance, for now just focussing on Europe:
- We have achieved decriminalisation in all European Union Member States;
- We have eradicated different ages of consent for homosexual and heterosexual persons;
- We have made progress in addressing homophobic acts in hate crime legislation;
- We have the option of forms of civil union in most EU States and marriage equality in a few;
- With regard to trans people there have been some legal and policy developments in at least some places;
- Finally, promotion and protection of the rights of LGBTI persons is explicit in EU policy.
Of course there is not the slightest reason for complacency; there is still a long way to go.
Again, just looking at the EU:
According to ILGA Europe’s recent 10th Rainbow Map, only 13 EU States score at more than 50% in terms of the quality of the legal and policy human rights situation of LGBTI people – with Malta in the strong lead scoring 90%.
Scoring at 25% or below are Lithuania, Cyprus, Italy, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and Latvia.
What are the main issues? In its map, ILGA Europe highlights key issues. For instance:
- Regarding protection against discrimination considerable progress is needed to ensure equality for people in full respect for their sex characteristics;
- Turning to the family, we have a long way to go to ensure marriage and family equality. I would add that in recent years 7 EU countries have actually banned same-sex marriage.
- In the combat of hate crimes, the map shows the more or less invisibility in law and policy of attention to the protection of intersex persons.
Life of course is more than about law and policy - it is about what people actually experience.
Here in the EU we know more about the LGBTI experience than elsewhere in the world on the basis of a 2012 FRA survey on the topic. The findings drew from responses of over 93,000 people across the EU Member States.
The results were sobering:
- 67% hid their sexual orientation while at school.
- 66% would not show affection in public.
- 80% said anti-LGBT jokes were commonplace and normalised.
My predecessor as FRA Director, Morten Kjaerum, summed up the findings as follows:
“[the survey] paints a picture of fear, isolation and discrimination common in the LGBT community in Europe. Many suffer regularly from not being able to be themselves at school, at work, in public and in their private life. Many feel the need to hide their identity.”
Turning our gaze from just Europe to the global horizon the situation is dreadful in many places.
In some 11 countries the law allows for the execution of people for engaging in forms of same-sex sexual activity.
At least 70 countries still criminalise homosexual acts.
A 2017 UN report listed rape, mutilation, torture, arbitrary detention, abduction, harassments, physical and mental assaults such as lashings and forced surgical procedures, as well as bullying sometimes leading to suicide. To that list, we should add, among other practices, forced ‘conversion’ therapy and multi-sector discrimination.
The UN report highlighed the issue of intersectionality: in other words the relationship between sexual orientation/gender identity and other such issues as gender, age, health-status, race and ethnicity and migration status. The particular situation of children was focusses on, especially the urgent challenge of protecting trans and gender-diverse children.
So, what is needed? What can we do? What should we do?
As you can imagine, I could put any number of suggestions to you. I am also aware that there is so much experience in this room.
So, instead I will confine myself to just two suggestions for action and two suggestions for attitude.
The first action, which I consider imperative, is to frame the issues and our demands as about human rights.
All that LGBTI people ask is to be treated like everyone else – to have their basic human rights acknowledged and respected; to be protected by the human rights treaties – just like everyone else in society. They – we – ask to be respected as who we are.
The legitimacy of such human rights claims might seem straightforward, but in the history of the human rights movement that has been far from the case. For years, the human rights treaties were read in a way that rendered the lived experiences of LGBTI people to be barely visible – and many of the outrages they experienced were rarely, if ever, labelled as human rights violations.
For much of my own career as a human rights lawyer this troubled me. I saw how much suffering was going unchecked. For instance, in one of my former roles as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, I was often unsuccessful in getting my fellow committee members to take up issues of abuse of LGBTI people that were brought to our attention.
In order to do something about that I got together with a number of other human rights lawyers and activists to map out in as detailed a way as possible how the human rights commitments of governments across the world applied to the lived experience of LGBTI persons. The outcome of that exercise, of which I was honoured to be the main drafter, called the Yogyakarta Principles, was finalised in 2007. An updated version was recently published to coincide with the 10th anniversary.
The Yogyakarta Principles are not perfect. Indeed, the update was needed to have them better address the lives of intersex and trans persons. Nevertheless, they have had considerable impact. They have been cited by courts in striking down criminalisation laws. They have been cited in parliaments to justify new anti-discrimination statutes. They have been embraced by many of the UN and regional human rights monitoring bodies.
They played no small part in the ground-breaking appointment by the UN of a sort of watchdog on the issue – known formally as the UN Independent Expert on Protection against Violence and Discrimination based on Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity. This post is currently filled by Victor Madrigal-Borloz from Costa Rica. He is playing an important role in demanding attention to abuses worldwide.
To sum up on my point about human rights. Framing the issues in this way is to make clear that all we ask is to be allowed to live with dignity as ourselves and it is also to clarify that our demands are legal entitlements. That status amplifies their force.
Turning to my second suggested action – and here I can be briefer – that is the need for us to keep investing in gathering data; of generating the evidence base to back up our stories and our claims. After all, we can only get the attention of law and policy makers when the hard and irrefutable facts and figures are put before them.
That is why FRA did its 2012 survey. It is why we are doing it again – but this time of the LGBTI communities. The evidence gained will show us how patterns of discrimination and harassment may have shifted over time and the data will inform EU policy.
The survey is online now. I strongly encourage those of you who self-identify as LGBTI to take it and all of you to spread awareness of it. The more people that do the survey the more powerful the findings.
Now – and by way of conclusion – allow me to turn to those two attitudes that I mentioned. And I should add that I have been speaking of both in many different contexts in recent months and on multiple human rights issues.
The first attitude that I would call for, for all of us, is anger: righteous, rational anger.
Those of us who care about human rights, including of LGBTI persons, need to be outraged and cry out in defence of what has been achieved so far. There are those who would dismantle the human rights protection system – what has been called modernity’s greatest achievement. Wake up to that, wake up to the threat, wake up to the risk. As the late Stephane Hessel put it, it is time to ‘Indignez vous’, in the original French, which means ‘get indignant’. And let’s marshal that indignation into smart campaigns that cannot be ignored.
My second and final attitude is hope.
We must be hopeful in this struggle; confident that we can make a difference. And despite what I said just now about threats and risks; and taking due account of how achievements seem always to be matched by set-backs; nevertheless I see solid evidence to justify our hope – changes over time that are irreversible and that inspire change elsewhere.
Even Pride is a source of hope. Who could ever have imagined that that small run-in with the police on a hot June night, 50 years ago, could have triggered this global phenomenon - a glorious annual celebration of our human diversity; a coming together in solidarity of people of good will regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
It is the energy of Pride that keeps my hope alive.