CUNY Law School Hosts Summit on LGBTI+ Rights
by Robin Happel
OutSummit is the annual gathering of OutRight Action International, one of just a handful of LGBTI advocacy groups with U.N. consulting status. The group addresses a kaleidoscopic range of issues, from trans rights in Germany, to eco-feminism in Fiji, to the criminalization of gay men in East Africa and elsewhere around the world. Founded in 1990 as the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, OutRight is also one of the oldest LGBTI advocacy groups in the United States, serving as an underwriter to countless crucial human rights rulings, and carries its clout with pride.
The summit opened with two panel discussions, ranging in topics from marriage equality in Taiwan to American media representation of LGBTI people. Karamo Brown, co-founder of 6in10.org, gave a poignant speech on censorship of LGBTI stories in much of the American South. In the United States currently, only California explicitly seeks to include LGBTI people in its public school curriculum, and many other states explicitly censor history and health classes with “Don’t Say Gay” laws. Brown is also a passionate advocate for HIV awareness among black gay and bi men, a demographic still disproportionately at risk of the virus, due in large part to systemic healthcare discrimination.
OutRight’s emphasis on healthcare discrimination is particularly poignant given the Trump administration’s steady rolling back of LGBTI healthcare access with, among other things, the creation of the HHS Department of Conscience and Religious Freedom within just the past two weeks. Such laws are similar to laws in my home state of Tennessee allowing psychiatrists to turn away LGBTI patients at will. Such a department sends a clear signal that hospitals can, if they so choose, turn away LGBTI people for almost any reason.
Like the former listing of homosexuality in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, such laws show how the healthcare system may at times be weaponized against gay men, intersex people, and others on society’s margins. In Kenya and other parts of East Africa, for instance, intersex children sometimes lack birth certificates, barring them from citizenship, and men suspected of being gay are often subjected to humiliating medical exams, with the price of failure being over a decade in prison. While homosexuality has been decriminalized in the United States since the landmark Lawrence v. Texas ruling in 2003, American evangelicals form the backbone of much of Africa’s most virulent homophobia, bankrolling extremists both at home and abroad. Pat Robertson, perhaps most famously, is very active in East Africa especially, and American pastor Scott Lively was recently charged with crimes against humanity for his role in inciting possible genocide of gay men in Uganda. The Alliance Defending Freedom, most famed in the states for its role in the infamous Masterpiece Cakeshop Case, has both supported and celebrated efforts to criminalize gay people in Russia, Belize, India, and elsewhere. (ADF claims to support artistic freedom, in short, yet believes Oscar Wilde belonged in prison.) In this way, far from stemming from an innate fear of LGBTI people, many laws criminalizing their existence are simply an outgrowth of imperialism, of conservative American and colonial British values exported abroad.
OutSummit includes two break-out sessions, the first of which covers the basics of SOGIE, or ‘sexual orientation and gender identity/expression,’ the international legal term for LGBT. As Australian activist Siri May explains, LGBT is largely a Western term, and thus excludes two-spirit people, for instance, or the brother boys and sister girls of Australia. While SOGIE causes form some of the U.N.’s most controversial, clamorous floor debates, OutRight’s team has won some notable victories. Such progress is necessarily piecemeal in a populist age, however. Recently, for example, the U.S. failed to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child because it could be construed to outlaw so-called ‘conversion therapy,’ the physically abusive practice condemned by almost every leading global health organization, yet still legal in roughly 41 states. (Somalia was the only other member state to turn down the treaty.)
In an age in which the Overton window is moving so rapidly to the right, it seems almost easier to give up, to go gentle into that good night. Yet OutRight still struggles against the dying of the light. From the Yogyakarta Principles, to fighting over footnotes in the Rome Statute, to arguing that the right to sanitation in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should block future bathroom bills, OutRight mounts a tireless defense of LGBTI lives and dignity in an age when such a shield is sorely needed. While such struggles seem ceaseless, in short, OutRight seldom falters in its spirited attempt to “write ourselves into the script,” quoting Ms. May. In the words of another activist from Egypt whose name is withheld for her safety, “until the lion learns to write, every story will glorify the hunter.” The activists of OutRight seek simply to write their own story, for as long as the world will let them.