Clinton’s speech on rights for gays and lesbians

Sometimes you just have to give credit where credit is due.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could have given some boiler plate remarks about the importance of human rights on International Human Rights Day in Geneva. She could have taken the opportunity to take some swipes at Iran or the Taliban.

But instead she gave a speech that made everyone sit up and notice.

Today, I want to talk about the work we have left to do to protect one group of people whose human rights are still denied in too many parts of the world today.  In many ways, they are an invisible minority.

She was talking about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

It was landmark because it made the very simple point that gay rights are part of human rights — an argument that sounds obvious but which has been repeatedly denied by countries around the world.

But the most interesting (and un-American ) part of the speech was that she didn’t use her speech to set up the United States as any kind of  beacon for human rights or get on a moral high horse. She acknowledged that the American record was “far from perfect.” She didn’t use her bully pulpit to just trumpet the Obama administration’s own record — for example, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Gay activists here might bask in the sunshine of that unexpected plaudit. But they should also take a moment to learn something from her speech.AP
She actually looked abroad for inspiration. To South Africa. Colombia. Mongolia. And India.

To highlight one example, the Delhi High Court decriminalised homosexuality in India two years ago, writing, and I quote, “If there is one tenet that can be said to be an underlying theme of the Indian constitution, it is inclusiveness.”

That’s noteworthy. When foreign leaders decide they need to acknowledge inspiration from India in a speech, they don’t usually look to the Delhi High Court. Their speechwriters do a quick search on Famous Quotes from Mahatma Gandhi instead.

By singling out the Delhi High Court judgement at a time when it is being challenged in our Supreme Court, the United States just raised its stature. Gay activists here might bask in the sunshine of that unexpected plaudit. But they should also take a moment to learn something from her speech.

Too often the fight for equal rights for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender gets bogged down in the same arguments.

We don’t need the West dictating its values to us.  No homosex please, we are Indian. This is against our Indian values. It’s illegal, immoral and against the Indian ethos said the BJP’s BP Singhal. Baba Ramdev claimed it offended the “structure of Indian value system, Indian culture and traditions.”

Clinton took that issue head on.

Being gay is not a Western invention; it is a human reality.  And protecting the human rights of all people, gay or straight, is not something that only Western governments do.

But then she went further. She said gay rights are human rights and you cannot do to gay people, what you would not do to other humans. You cannot just hide behind the veil of culture, value system or tradition. There cannot be the women exception or the Dalit exception or the gay exception to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Then it’s not universal at all.

Take women’s rights. Terrible things have been done to women in the name of cultural tradition.

This is not unlike the justification offered for violent practices towards women like honour killings, widow burning, or female genital mutilation.  Some people still defend those practices as part of a cultural tradition.  But violence toward women isn’t cultural; it’s criminal.

It’s not that honour killings do not happen. But it’s harder to excuse them as just part of culture. But homosexuals still exist outside that circle of protection. A gay man can be hanged in Iran for being gay. 52 men can be picked up in a boat party in Cairo and thrown into jail. Robert Mugabe can call homosexuals in his country “pigs and dogs” with impunity. We are much more ready to hold homosexuals to a different standard because we regard homosexuality is unnatural, not part of our culture.

Therefore activists expend a lot of energy to make gay rights make sense in their cultural context. That makes sense. It’s important for us to argue for something that looks like it’s homegrown and not imported from New York or Amsterdam.  It’s vital for us to research and reclaim our own gay and lesbian history as Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai did in Same Sex Love in India. But while the fight for equal rights can and should be local, the issue is universal. As the declaration states:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

Clinton showed in her speech that ultimately there must be a line in the sand before it turns into the quicksand of cultural relativism. Some things are just not negotiable. Otherwise you slowly strip the “universal” out of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the detriment of us all. She reminded us in Geneva that whether you are fighting for gay rights in Washington DC or at the Supreme Court in Delhi, it’s actually not about gay rights at all. Because as long as you are fighting for gay rights, you are fighting for special rights.

This fight is actually about human rights. Period.

Source: Sandip Roy Dec  2011

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