The histories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and intersex people are replete with incredible pain and immense pride, of overwhelming repression and victorious rejoicing, of stifling invisibility and dazzling illumination. Throughout the ages, dominant groups have labeled LGBT people using many terms: from “sinners,” “sick,” and “criminal,” to having a “preference, “orientation,” “identity,” and even being given “a gift from God.”
Though same-sex attractions and sexuality and gender nonconformity and expression have probably always existed in human and most non-human species, the concept of “homosexuality,” “bisexuality,” “transgender,” “heterosexuality,” and “gender conformity,” in fact, sexual and gender identities in general – and the construction of identities and sense of community based on these identities – is a relatively modern concept.
It is only within the last 160 or so years that there has been an organized and sustained political effort to protect the rights of people with same-sex attractions, and those who cross traditional constructions of gender identities and expression.
As we enter the momentous month of June, a time set aside in countries throughout the world to commemorate and celebrate our annual LGBT Pride events, we can take stock and reflect back on our victories great and small as well as the setbacks over the decades within the personal, interpersonal, institutional, social, political, and religious realms.
A fairly recent high point came from United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who presented a historic address to the United Nations delivered on International Human Rights Day, December 6, 2011 in Geneva, Switzerland. The majority of her speech centered on the assertion that LGBT rights are, indeed, human rights. That same day, President Barack Obama issued a memorandum directing all federal agencies to “promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons.”
While I too felt pride for our President “coming out” for marriage equality on May 9, 2012 during a televised interview with Robin Roberts, I was particularly impressed by Hillary’s courage and forthrightness in bringing to the highest level of world attention a simple truth that many of us understand on a deep level and have been working towards for most of our lives. Her entire speech deeply moved me, and in particular when she said:
“It is a violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave. It is a violation of human rights when governments declare it illegal to be gay, or allow those who harm gay people to go unpunished. 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.”