Column: The unexpected advocates

By Ken Mai and Oliver Wenner

Harvard Political Review, Harvard U. via UWIRE

On Dec. 6, 2011, at a Human Rights Day convention in Geneva, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that “being LGBT does not make you less human. And that is why gay rights are human rights.” The United States and many other Western democracies pride themselves upon being progressive leaders, yet with respect to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, they have significant improvements to make. However, a handful of surprising countries with conservative traditions and historical hostility to LGBT individuals have expanded LGBT rights. Exploring their discrepancy with the West on gay marriage, blood donations by LGBT individuals, and transsexuality provides a deeper insight into the current state of global gay rights, revealing paths the West should pursue.

Tying the Knot: Gay Marriage

Marriage equality continues to dominate the gay rights debate, both in the United States and abroad. Yet, only 10 countries and 11 U.S. states currently recognize same-sex marriages. Even in the United Kingdom, which has shown strong leadership in international affairs and equal rights movements, gay marriage remains a contentious subject, with many politicians opposing its legalization. The continued controversy over gay marriage in Northern Europe, a bastion of LGBT toleration, is indicative of the movement’s struggles. Meanwhile, Spain and Argentina, with strong Catholic influences, are unexpected countries that legalized gay marriage.

Even more surprising, with the African continent’s historical hostility to gay rights, South Africa legalized gay marriage in 2006. Timothy McCarthy, a Harvard Kennedy School Professor and founding member of President Obama’s National LGBT Leadership Council, told the HPR that, “in the aftermath of the fall of apartheid, there was a nearly unprecedented commitment to reconstructing the country in such a way that no one would become the victim of the kind of repression, violence, prejudice, and discrimination that black South Africans had been subjected to.” Indeed, the horrors of apartheid led to strong demand for protecting all individuals.

Infected: Blood Donations

These advances are evidence that universal marriage equality is a closer possibility than expected, despite the challenges faced. However, less glamorous elements of the gay rights struggle remain unresolved, among them blood donations from gay men. Since the outbreak of the HIV epidemic, most nations have prohibited gay men from donating blood. Chris Viveiros from Fenway Health, a Boston-based health provider for the LGBT community, tells the HPR that this occurs because, “men who have sex with men have higher rates of HIV infection than the general population.” In fact, the Centers for Disease Control reports that gay and bisexual men comprise a majority of new infections, accounting for 61 percent of new HIV transmissions in 2009.

However, many countries have relaxed their policies regarding gay male blood donations. France and Italy, for example, no longer question their donors about their sexual history, and with great struggle activists in Britain reduced the lifelong donor ban on gay men to one year for only those that are sexually active. One important factor in this trend is the realization that other demographic groups are also at increased risk. Thus, singling out all homosexual men for life-long bans imposes an unjust stigma, especially when heterosexuals with HIV-positive partners are not subjected to the same standards. But even though this issue is arguably more scientific than social, some countries have adopted relatively liberal policies: Russia, with its general restrictions on liberty, nevertheless lifted all blood donor restrictions in 2008.

Homosexuality and Transsexuality: A False Dichotomy?         

The area of transsexuality precisely highlights the inconsistency that pervades LGBT policies around the world. In the otherwise liberal country of Sweden, legislation related to gender reassignment surgery has sparked controversy and international attention. Dating back to 1972, Sweden imposes sterilization and divorce upon individuals undertaking gender reassignment surgery. Despite the outdated nature of this policy and clear support from many in government for repealing it, the process has been delayed due to the opposition of a small conservative party in the governing coalition.

Conversely, in Iran, where homosexuality is legally punishable by death, transsexuals enjoy relatively positive treatment. Gender reassignment surgery is preferred over having transgender individuals retain their birth sex. Afsaneh Najmabadi, Harvard Professor of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, tells the HPR that a, “sex change [operation] is explicitly framed as the cure for a diseased abnormality, and on occasion it is proposed as a religio-legally sanctioned option for hetero-normalizing people with same-sex desires and practices.” There, transsexuality is viewed as a condition that can be remedied through surgery. While this justification is founded on discriminatory assumptions, it has allowed transsexuals to live safer and more fulfilling lives.

The Future of Gay Rights

The road ahead for international gay rights is characterized by the difficult need to prioritize goals. Marcelo Ferreyra, a program coordinator for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, tells the HPR that, “the pace of progress around civil and human rights throughout the world is frequently slow [and] uneven… The right to marriage seems to be in the foreground these days: it is one that affords recognition, dignity and parity to openly love your partner of choice.”

Nevertheless, international trends hint at movement toward a more open dialogue about LGBT rights. Waqas Jawaid, a second year graduate student and an LGBT freshman proctor at Harvard University, spoke to the HPR about the policies in his home country of Pakistan. He notes that, “especially in the cities, there’s a lot of conversation, activism, and support. It has to do with the globalization that has allowed the conversations happening here [in the West] to percolate within the global community, and the cities in Pakistan are part of this global community that has become very accepting.”

Overall, the belief that Uganda and many other countries need fundamental change in their treatment of LGBT individuals is uncontested by many. However, too often advocates forget to fight for closing the gaps in liberal states where other human conditions are satisfactory. By drawing attention to these cases and commending progressive policies wherever they might be found, equality can finally be realized throughout the world.

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