In 1948, the 56 members of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Recognized as one of the most influential and inspirational statements of human rights, the UDHR proclaims that recognizing the ěinherent dignity and . . . the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.î

Human rights are the rights a person has simply because he or she is a human being. Human rights are inalienable: you cannot lose these rights any more than you can cease being human. Human rights are indivisible: you cannot be denied a right because it is ěless importantî than another right. Human rights are interdependent: all human rights are part of a complementary framework. For example, the right to participate in government is directly affected by the right to free expression, to get an education, and even to obtain the necessities of life.

Human rights are also defined as those basic standards people need to live in dignity. To violate someoneís human rights is to treat that person as less than a human being. To advocate for human rights is to demand that the human dignity of all people be respected. In claiming these rights, everyone also accepts the responsibility not to infringe on the rights of others and to support those whose rights are abused or denied.1

Since the adoption of the UDHR, the concept of human rights has entered international law and popular consciousness in much of the world. At the same time, many governments around the world continue to violate the human rights of their citizens. Consider the following news items from 1998, the year of the UDHRís fiftieth anniversary:

ď In Afghanistan, at least five men convicted of homosexuality were placed next to walls and then buried as the walls were toppled on top of them.2

ď In Mexico, the Citizenís Commission Against Homophobic Hate Crimes documented 125 murders of homosexuals, many including extreme violence. Many of the murders were dismissed by police who refused to investigate them.

ď In the United States, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was brutally beaten in an attack motivated in part by his homosexuality. His skull was smashed, his face and head mutilated, and his body tied to a wooden ranch fence in freezing weather. He died several days after being found by bicyclists who, at first, mistook his body for a scarecrow.

1 This definition is taken from Nancy Flowers (ed.), Human Rights Here and Now: Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Minneapolis: Human Rights Resource Center, 1998. This curriculum guide contains more information on the history of human rights and lessons introducing human rights to K-12 students.

2 The bullet points in this and the following two sections are taken from ěThe International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission Celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.î Press release, December 1998.

As these cases highlight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons are subject to human rights abuse in countries in every region of the world. The violations they face include killing as well as imprisonment, torture, and abuses aimed specifically at sexual minorities, such as practices aimed at forcibly ěchangingî their sexual orientation. These violations of UDHR Article 3, ěthe right to life, liberty, and security of person,î are only the most extreme examples of violations of the rights of sexual minorities.

Also during 1998:

ď In Argentina, Buenos Aires police raided gay bars during October detaining over 100 persons. (Article 20 of the UDHR states that everyone has the ěright to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.î)

ď In Sweden, authorities deported a gay asylum seeker from Iran. Repatriated Iranian gays face possible imprisonment or death in Iran. (Article 14 of the UDHR declares the ěright to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.î)

ď In India, theaters showing Fire, are attacked because of the movieís lesbian story line. Many theaters subsequently refuse to screen the film. (Article 27 of the UDHR holds that all have the ěright freely to participate in the cultural life of the community.î)

ď In the United States, two adult men are arrested in Houston under Texasí sodomy law for consensual homosexual conduct in private. Though rarely enforced, about half of all U.S. states have similar laws. (Article 7 of the UDHR states that ěAll are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.î In addition, Article 12 maintains, ěNo one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation.î)

These cases demonstrate how human rights violations of LGBT persons extend beyond their rights to life and liberty and include the full spectrum of rights accorded in the UDHR.

Not all the news fifty years after passage of the UDHR is so bleak, however.

ď In South Africa and Ecuador, newly adopted constitutions pledge equality before the law (Article 7 of the UDHR) regardless of sexual orientation. Also in South Africa, the highest constitutional court struck down laws criminalizing homosexuality as a violation of the right to privacy (Article 12 of the UDHR) and because they affected the ědignity, personhood, and identity of lesbian and gay people.î

ď In Canada, that nationís Supreme Court ruled that when the Alberta legislature omitted ěsexual orientationî from the provinceís anti-discrimination laws, it was violating the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The court ruled that such protection should be read into the law. (Article 8 of the UDHR describes the ěright to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental human rights granted by the constitution or the law.î)

ď In Colombia, the Constitutional Court decreed that private religious schools cannot ban gay students and that firing gay teachers is unconstitutional. (Article 26 of the UDHR says everyone has the ěright to education.î)

These last three snapshots from 1998 illustrate that the rights of sexual minorities are increasingly being seen as human rights. Many of those who drafted the UDHR probably would not have considered the rights of sexual minorities in 1948, given the homophobia and general lack of consciousness about LGBT issues at that time.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted in reaction to the inhumanity committed during World War II. Like Jews, gypsies, and the disabled, gay men and lesbians were singled out by the Nazis for slave labor and extermination. As many as 100,000 gay men were sent to the concentration camps where they were killed or worked to death. They were required to wear pink triangles, a symbol that has since come to stand for the international gay rights movement. Several thousand lesbians, considered ěanti-social elementsî and forced to wear black triangles, met similar fates. Despite these atrocities, the UDHR contains no specific guarantees of fundamental human rights regardless of sexual orientation.

While subsequent human rights documents have addressed discrimination of other specific groups based on age, race, or sex, no international human rights document explicitly mentions sexual orientation or gender identity. As the examples describing abuses against sexual minorities at the beginning of this introduction suggest, such protection is needed and deserved. For this reason, evolving conceptions of human rights that come to include sexual orientation, such as those in South Africa, Ecuador, Canada, and Colombia, are especially significant.

In theory, general human rights documents protecting the rights of all should also protect the rights of sexual minorities. In fact, many persons opposing specific protections of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons often argue that sexual minorities are already covered by existing law and thus no further mention is needed. In some cases, general human rights laws have been used specifically to secure rights for lesbians and gays. For example, based on the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, laws against homosexual acts between consenting adults were struck down in Ireland and Cyprus.

While lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons are winning victories based on general human rights law, just as often these laws fail to provide sexual minorities with necessary protection from human rights abuses for a number of reasons. Sexual minorities often fail to report violence against them. They may fear their sexual orientation will be made public, making them or their families targets for further violence. They may fear that their complaints will not be taken seriously or that such complaints will be used as reprisals against them. For good reason, they may lack trust in the authorities who are supposed to protect them. In many countries, police are some of the worst violators of sexual minoritiesí human rights. For example, as this is being written, Amnesty International reports that Entre Amigos, an organization in El Salvador that provides sex education to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans gender persons, as well as the general public, is the target of intimidation and violence, including killings and death threats from members of the National Civilian Police.3

3 Amnesty International Urgent Action, Extra 159/99, Fear for Safety/Death threats, El Salvador, 12 November 1999.

In many countries, sexual minorities are so marginalized, they lack the most basic resources to defend themselves, publicize abuses, or rally support. For example, such an environment made it easier for the President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, to compare lesbians and gays to pigs. In 1996 his government prevented a gay and lesbian organization from participating in an international book fair in Harare, the capital. He said, ěI find it extremely outrageous and repugnant to my human conscience that such repulsive organizations, like those of homosexuals, who offend both against the laws of nature and the morals and religious beliefs espoused by our society, should have any advocate in our midst and even elsewhere in the world.î4

Governments also hide their persecution of sexual minorities using the cover of other legal charges. Men and women who are imprisoned, tortured, and even executed for no reason other than their sexual orientation or gender identity are often falsely charged with other crimes such as ěvagrancy,î ěhooliganism,î and ěcausing a public disturbance.î In some countries, declaring oneself gay is seen as ěcausing a public disturbance.î Once arrested, sexual minorities are sometimes subjected to cruel and unusual forms of punishment, including bogus ěmedical treatmentsî to ěcureî them of their ědisease.î

As a result of cultural and religious taboos, some governments are reluctant even to admit the existence of gays and lesbians. Not surprisingly, these same governments are even less willing to protect their human rights. They claim that abuses against sexual minorities are carried out by individuals and that the government cannot control such actions, ignoring that most countries have laws that do protect individuals from persecution based on religion or race by other individuals.

In some countries, protection for gays and lesbians may be labeled a foreign, ěwesternî concept being forced upon them. In other countries, governments maintain the right to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons based on religious authority and criminal law. Such laws, however, are vulnerable to challenge under international law. In 1994, the UN Human Rights Committee ruled that laws criminalizing homosexual acts in the Australian state of Tasmania violated Australiaís obligations under Articles 2 (non-discrimination) and 17 (right to privacy) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In 1997, Tasmania repealed its anti-gay law.

One of the most powerful ways to promote the continued evolution of LGBT rights as human rights and to interrupt the cycle of abuses against sexual minorities is through human rights education. Such education includes learning about human rights (for example, violations of rights and international laws protecting rights) and learning how to respect others and support and defend their human rights. Obviously, schools can play a key role in creating a culture that supports the human rights of all, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons. Ironically, schools are sometimes among the least safe environments for LGBT youth.

Human Rights Watch, the largest U.S.-based human rights organization, is currently investi gating whether the treatment of LGBT youth in schools constitutes a violation of fundamental

4 Quoted in Amnesty International, Breaking the Silence: Human Rights Violations Based on Sexual Orientation. London, 1997: 38.

human rights. Their investigation was initiated after a conversation with represen tatives from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. Lambda and GLSEN argued that youth under the age of 16 are legally required to attend school and that parents turn over their responsibility for the safety and well-being of their children to teachers and administrators. Schools, therefore, become custodial settings, responsible for the well-being of those placed in their charge. While human rights organizations have paid careful attention to the treatment of those placed in custodial institutions such as prisons and psychiatric hospitals, no human rights organization has looked at schools in the same way using a human rights perspective.

Such attention is needed in schools. GLSEN has collected compelling evidence that homophobia in schools is destructive to the education of all students, not only LGBT students who are direct targets. Straight students have been abused after being mistaken for gay, and all straight students are shortchanged a lesson in respect when school culture routinely marginalizes some students because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In addition to the right to an education (Article 26 of the UDHR), all students in school have the right to be free from violence (Article 3), the right to freedom of expression (Article 19), and the right to freedom of assembly (Article 20). Statistics compiled by GLSEN suggest that violence against LGBT youth is pervasive. Recent school board decisions in Salt Lake City, Utah and Orange County, California to ban gay-straight alliances from meeting at public schools demonstrate threats to the rights to assembly and free expression.

In addition to the unsafe environment for LBGT youth, school curriculum routinely ignores sexual minorities. Writersí sexual orientation is rarely mentioned, even when such information is crucial to understanding their work. LGBT persons are left out of almost every history textbook. Few teachers ask students to consider sexual minorities in the context of lessons about civil or human rights.

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights: A Human Rights Perspective is intended to help teachers introduce thoughtful examination and responsible action among high school students about the rights of sexual minorities. Unlike other curricula, however, this discussion is not set in the context of civil or political rights but in the broader context of human rights at the international level as well as at the most local levelóschool. By learning to examine thoughtfully the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons and by gaining practice in the skills needed to prevent abuses and secure human rights, we can face the fear and shatter the silence that allows sexual minorities to be killed, tortured, and arbitrarily detained in countries throughout the world. We can also create schools where the human rights of all are respected.


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