Commission on the Status of Women Segment Discusses LBTI Stereotypes and Discrimination

At a United Nations discussion about stereotypes and discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics, Ivan Šimonović, Assistant UN Secretary General for Human Rights, was asked pointedly: What gives UN leadership the right to tell other countries what to do when it comes to LGBTIQ rights?

In his response, Šimonović, the former Justice Minister of Croatia, said:

“Discrimination against LGBT people – along with homophobic violence –  represent human rights violations. So when we stand with frightened and discriminated [against] LGBTI anywhere in the world, we are standing up for human nights. We simply have to do it. The UN was founded to uphold human rights- for all humans. This means everyone. No qualifiers.”

Later in the conversation Šimonović spoke about the harm done by stereotypes of any kind, whether based on gender, sexual orientation or gender identity:

“What are stereotypes? They are straight jackets- part of a cultural imperialism to make you fit in a certain way. They hurt everyone. Hurt women. Hurt men. But they hurt women more because they perpetuate the power structure of society.”

The discussion was part of a series focused on lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex women in which OutRight participated during the UN Commission on the Status of Women annual meeting.

Šimonović described what he said was a pattern of discrimination that has been consistently reported by researchers across the globe. He said girls, if they are gender non-conforming, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, are frequently harassed in their homes by their own families and sometimes forced into marriages or kicked out into the street. At school, they are bullied. And at the next step, employment, he said, “lesbian, bisexual or trans women also have difficulty getting and holding jobs because of discrimination.”

Šimonović said the situation is most difficult for transgender individuals. In the European Union countries, one third of trans people faced violence or the threat of violence, he said. “It’s devastating and makes trans people ten times more likely to commit suicide.”

In addition to Šimonović, participants in the discussion included Marja Ruotanen, director of Human Dignity and Equality for the Council on Europe; Gaylaine Demers, professor at Laval University in Quebec; and María Mercedes Gómez, OutRight’s program coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean.  Helena Dalli, Malta’s Minister for Social Dialogue, Consumer Affairs and Civil Liberties, sent a taped message, as Malta was a joint sponsor of the discussion. Michelle Nichols, a Reuters UN correspondent, was the moderator. About 150 people attended the event at UN headquarters.

Professor Demers talked about her research on homophobia in athletics.  Her work was motivated by her own experiences, she said, as a closeted athlete herself 35 years ago.

“Homophobia in sports is still there on a daily basis. ” said Demers. “We have to deal with this.”

She said she found that coaches simply prefer to pretend that their whole team is heterosexual. “They prefer not to talk about homosexuality. They don’t want to deal with it.” As a result, slurs that are commonly used against LGBTIQ athletes are brushed aside, when coaches could be the front guard against the use of demeaning language in athletics, she said.

Demers said: “As soon as we stop using this hurting language, the culture will change eventually. If coaches would put a stop to the [homophobic] language, they would send a message about the value of being inclusive in sports.”

She noted the pressure to stay in the closet has a huge downside on athletes performance and for women, there is a double burden. Women athletes, she said, are pressured to show their “feminity,” when society is still not comfortable with female prowess in athletics.

Demers said coaches and other sports leaders must be educated about inclusiveness. “People judge what they don’t know,” she said noting that her research showed 80 % of lesbian and gay athletes hear slurs all the time on a daily basis.

OutRight’s María Mercedes Gómez spoke about progress for LGBTIQ people in Latin America, which she said included a landmark child custody case for a Chilean lesbian in 2012; approval of same-sex marriage in Mexico, gender identity legislation in Argentina and Colombia and Chile’s recent executive decree to end mutilation of intersex children.

Gómez said: “Just the affirmation of our [LGBTIQ] rights as human rights is extremely important.”

She said the push for change was being driven by civil society organizations across the region who are winning commitments from political elites to change laws and policies that impact LGBTIQ people.

But she noted serious challenges remain and progress is being held back by an unjust distribution of power that keeps social justice in check overall.

Gómez also noted the “horrific situation” transgender people face in the region in terms of violence. Already this year, 77 trans people worldwide have been killed mostly in Latin America.

Ruotanen provided data that showed the need for continued education and awareness to protect the human rights of LGBTIQ people.

She said a 2015 public opinion survey showed 50 percent of Europeans were “comfortable” seeing a lesbian couple showing affection for each other. She said this ranged from a high of 70 percent in Scandinavian countries to a low of 20 percent in Latvia. “Obviously, there is much work to be done.”

And she noted the need for more data to help explore details on reports that 55 percent of lesbians in Europe report discrimination vs. about 45 percent of gay men.

Šimonović, in response to a question, raised the importance of the UN “Free and Equal” LGBT Equality project. He said in three years, the project’s messages of dignity and equality for LGBT people (the project was started by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon) have been viewed and heard by over one billion people. “The whole idea is to fight against stereotypes,” he said, while noting that a recently issued Free and Equal postage stamp has been contested by some UN member states.  “We should be prohibiting hate, not love. These stamps are sending that message.”

Listen to the full panel: