From torturing and murder-ing men suspected of homosexual conduct in Iraq to the proposed Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill, to the arrest and abuse of crossdressers in Guyana, to the recent arrest of a same-sex couple now facing up to 14 years in prison in Malawi, to the gang-rape and murder of well-known lesbian football player Eudy Simelane in South Africa, gender and sexuality are currently at the forefront of the international debate about human rights.
Or are they?
As part of an international movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer human rights, I have grown increasingly concerned about the lack of self-reflection regarding what this so-called international movement stands for and represents.
I’d like to see a re-examination of the lens through which we engage in these debates in the first place.
In November, Trinidad and Tobago hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. This seemed the perfect setting for a debate about human rights and sexuality since of the 53 Commonwealth member states, 40 still have anti-sodomy laws. President Museveni of Uganda was chairing the summit at a time when that country was being fiercely attacked in the international press because of the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill.
Homosexual activity is already criminalized in Uganda, and the proposed legislation further violates LGBTQ human rights by setting out provisions regarding so-called aggravated homosexuality, which would incur the death penalty.
The draft bill also calls for the imprisonment of those people, including heterosexuals, who fail to report the identities of those who they know are LGBTQ, or who support their human rights. Reports must be made within 24 hours. This is obviously a seriously problematic bill for Ugandans and for anyone who cares at all about human rights.
Canada seems to have come out punching first. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, AIDS-Free World co-director Stephen Lewis, the minister of foreign affairs and even the minister of transportation took swipes at the Ugandan punching bag.
Challenging and opposing this bill is indeed critical. But the ways in which the objections are being put forward is deeply troubling.
The framing of Canada’s opposition resonates with colonialism and imperialism. The words being used are the same words that have historically been — and unfortunately still are today — used to describe racialized people. That is, anyone with black or brown skin or who has any other visibly cultural or ethnic identifiers, or stereotyping markers.
Terms like “malice,” “menacing,” “lunatic,” “backward,” “dark ages,” “vile,” and “twisted” have been used by Canadian politicians to describe the draft bill and its proponents. Demonizing words oversimplify a complex situation and exacerbate the stereotype of the East (or South) as underdeveloped and failing to catch up to the West (or North). Such language draws binary lines, and false distinctions, between what is evil and what is good, what is black and what is white, what is developing and what is already developed, and what is inhumane and what is human.
Any political movement using such language unreflectively does harm by not considering those environments in which people are born, live, work, age, love, die and change.
Within the various contexts of racialized queers in Canada, life in the West is not necessarily better or easier than life in the East. Faced with multiple and intersecting forms of oppression, racialized queers face not only racism, but also over-the-top eroticization within predominantly white queer communities, and exclusion where lesbians lack spaces of their own within predominantly male-centred queer communities. This is in addition to issues of stigma, discrimination, poverty, homelessness, heterosexism, homophobia, lesbophobia, biphobia and transphobia within the wider Canadian contexts.
In Canada today, people with nonconforming gender identities or expressions have very few legal protections against violations of their basic human rights. Health Canada’s guidelines and policies exclude men who have sex with men from donating organs, blood and semen. Canada’s own immigration and refugee system has been questioned because cases of bias and stereotypes regarding sexual orientation and gender identity have been appealed within our federal court system.
Egale Canada’s First National School Climate Survey demonstrates that youth who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, two-spirited, queer and questioning face high levels of homophobia and transphobia in school, which are linked with poor performance, high drop-out rates and teen suicide.
In Canada today, we do not have equality for all people. And until it examines its own human rights abuses and reflects upon how it frames the situation in other places, Canada cannot claim to be a beacon for international human rights.