Equality watch: Sexual & gender minorities

Pictures of lesbian weddings and exuberant gay Mardi Gras parades suggest that equality for sexual minorities has come a long way in the past 20 years. Campaigners have fought for and won rights in Europe, Australasia and the Americas.

But the overall picture is mixed – and extreme. The UN, more than 50 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted, still denies these rights to the world’s estimated 40 million homosexuals. Repeated attempts at inclusion have been derailed by powerful rightwing and religious interests.

In no country in the world today do lesbians, gays and transgender people enjoy full and equal civil rights with heterosexuals – rights, for example, relating to employment, housing, parenting, partnership, inheritance and protection from abuse and discrimination.

However, many states have made significant steps towards equality in recent years. South Africa and Ecuador have written anti-discrimination clauses relating to sexual orientation in their constitutions. In the 43 states of the Council of Europe, discrimination against sexual minorities can be challenged under the European Convention of Human Rights. And in 2003 the US Supreme Court finally overturned an anti-sodomy law which had applied in 12 states.

But steps have been made in the opposite direction too. In the past three years the number of countries where homosexuality is punishable by death has risen from 7 to 10. All are Muslim-majority states, with Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran especially inclined to execute. The number of countries where homosexuality is recorded as illegal has gone up from 70 to 80. Some impose prison sentences of 20 years or more. Gays and lesbians in Uganda and Russia have been tortured and forced into exile.

Street violence towards lesbian, gay and transgender people is alarmingly high. In Brazil some 90 are murdered each year. Police often fail to investigate such killings – or are themselves involved. Some religious fundamentalists in the US preach that it is a Christian duty to kill gays.

We know about these things because the issue of homosexuality is being openly discussed.

For people born with intersex conditions, their struggles remain little known. While there is public outcry over the African practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), Intersex Genital Mutilation is practised in the hospitals of the rich world under the name of ‘corrective surgery’. This is usually medically unnecessary, often carried out on babies of under 18 months, and may continue throughout the patient’s life.

Intersex campaigners are calling for an end to this. The child should be assigned a sex, says the Intersex Society of North America, given a name that corresponds to the sex, and raised with counselling and age-appropriate explanations of their condition.

Awareness is increasing. In 1999 the Constitutional Court of Colombia restricted the ability of parents and doctors to resort to the scalpel when children are born with atypical genitalia. It was the first time a High Court anywhere in the world had considered whether Intersex Genital Mutilation was a violation of human rights.

Colombia’s court also recognizes that intersex people are a minority which enjoys the constitutional protection of the State and that every individual has a right to define his or her own sexual identity.

Sources: Amnesty International 2003; Intersex Society of North America Vanessa Baird, No-Nonsense Guide to Sexual Diversity, New Internationalist/Verso 2001; International Lesbian and Gay Association

New Internationalist issue 364 magazine cover This article is from the February 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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