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.”
A few months later, I returned to visit my former college classmates for the first Pride march through the streets of downtown San José, California. This experience was vastly different from the open atmosphere in Manhattan, as 28 of us walked very tentatively down the main street, while bystanders hurled vicious epithets and pelted us with garbage and rocks.
When I sometime begin to take the annual Pride events for granted, I think back to those early marches in New York City and San José, and as I do, I refocus on the importance of continuing the struggle for the rights and dignity of expression for LGBTQI people and our allies, and for all minoritized people whom dominant groups attempt to construct as “other” in this country and throughout the globe.
In 2012, I traveled to Ukraine to meet with LGBT activists to compare and contrast organizing strategies between our two countries. A few weeks prior to my arrival, I learned that on Sunday, May 20 of that year, organizers of the first scheduled Pride march planned for Ukraine in the capital city of Kiev were forced to cancel the event over safety concerns as an estimated 500 neo-Nazi nationalists threatened to disrupt the proceedings. This came shortly following the seventh consecutive prohibition by Russian authorities of Moscow Pride.
In Ukraine, a group of masked thugs savagely attacked activist and organizer Svyatoslav Sheremet of the group Gay Forum of Ukraine, following a media briefing regarding the march’s cancellation, just before it was due to start. Also, the previous day, vandals destroyed a photo exhibit that showcased the lives of LGBT families in Ukraine under the former Soviet Republic. Elected officials in Ukraine, and in several areas of the current Russian Federation, attempted to pass through the legislative pipelines a number of bills that would further restrict human rights from LGBT people and ban informational efforts to educate and raise visibility and awareness.
Among other organizations, Amnesty International and the European Union denounced the violent events transpiring in Ukraine and Russia. In reference to Ukraine, Catherine Ashton, European Union Policy Chief, expressed in a formal statement her “solidarity with the victims of these acts,” and urged the Ukrainian authorities to investigate the violent incidents “thoroughly and to bring the perpetrators to justice.” Ashton also asked Ukrainian authorities “to protect and to enforce the rights of all Ukrainians, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, to peaceful assembly and to freedom of expression.”
In this current era as the political and theocratic Right attempts to reverse progressive human and civil rights initiatives won over the past decades and to prevent such measures from taking root where they have not grown previously, I am extremely encouraged by the leaders from the highest levels and from the grassroots showing courage in the face of resistance and backlash.
And I remain hopeful. The increasing visibility and recognition of trans people today has shaken traditionally dichotomous notions of gender, and in turn, other stifling kinds of binaries, which are the very cornerstones for the entrenchment keeping our society from moving forward. Their stories and experiences have great potential to bring us into the future — a future in which anyone on the gender spectrum everywhere will live freely, unencumbered by social taboos and cultural norms of gender.
It is a future in which the “feminine” and “masculine”— as well as all the qualities on the continuum in between — can live and prosper in us all.
During her speech at the United Nation, Secretary Clinton committed herself to and spoke for people of goodwill everywhere when she said: “To LGBT men and women worldwide: Wherever you live and whatever your circumstances…please know that you are not alone.”
As the truism advises, “Think globally, and act locally.” My hope is that we can join together to create the world as a place where everyone will celebrate their Pride safely and with integrity in ways that express their truest joys while showing their full humanity, freedom, and liberty.
During this Pride season and throughout the year, let us join to make this a reality.