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One of the remaining areas of discrimination which is yet to receive serious and detailed attention within the United Nations is that of sexual orientation. Australia recognises that discussion of the issue is bound to be difficult given the diversity of political, cultural and religious traditions which the international community is required to address. Nevertheless, consideration of this issue is long overdue. 2

The first openly homosexual person spoke in a UN human rights forum in August 1992, “amidst some open hostility to his remarks.” 3 The speaker noted that lesbian women and gay men were totally unrepresented in UN work and had no organizations with consultative status.

Organizations of lesbian women and gay men were first accredited to a UN meeting in 1993, the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, where three organizations participated. The first lesbian and gay organization to gain consultative status with the Economic and Social Council was the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA), approved by a roll-call vote in July 1993. Approval required that ECOSOC abandon its tradition of making such decisions by consensus. In September 1993, the [End Page 67] consultative status of ILGA was questioned by the United States. The problems seemed resolved in June 1994, but emerged again. At the initiative of the United States an ECOSOC meeting was hastily called in September 1994. ILGA was suspended, pending a review of its member organizations. In the history of the United Nations no other nongovernmental organization has been treated similarly.

At the time of this writing no initiatives to consider issues of discrimination against lesbian women and gay men are under consideration in the human rights organs of the United Nations. The suspension of the International Lesbian and Gay Association, which should prove temporary, supports the continuing avoidance of sexual orientation issues in the human rights work of the United Nations.

A. The Obstacles

What are the characteristics of lesbian women and gay men, collectively, which have kept them outside most international human rights work? There are related factors of (1) continuing stigma; (2) poor organization; and (3) the understanding that many states will block initiatives in this area.

  1. 1. In almost all parts of the world, lesbians and gay men remain highly stigmatized minorities. Criminal laws against homosexual acts are still common, though declining in number. While homophobia is increasingly compared to racism and sexism, discrimination against lesbian women and gay men is much more widely accepted than other forms of discrimination. 4 Religious objections continue to be cited to justify state sanctioned discrimination. While lesbian women and gay men are often perceived quite differently from each other, both groups are highly stigmatized. 5

  2. 2. Lesbian women and gay men lack effective organizations at the local, national, regional, and international levels. Of all minorities, lesbian women and gay men are perhaps the least likely to have effective organizations despite the large numbers of individuals involved.

  1. a. The minority is dispersed among the larger population. In the west, in the postwar years, gay men and, to a lesser degree, lesbian women have achieved a visible societal presence in particular neighborhoods in the larger cities. [End Page 68]

  2. b. Unlike cultural minorities and many racial minorities, lesbian women and gay men have no natural institutions such as churches or schools which could give an institutional base for minority leadership.

  3. c. Support for lesbian and gay rights organizations runs counter to the dominant strategy employed by the majority of lesbian women and gay men, the strategy of passing as heterosexual in almost all social and work situations. No equivalent avoidance strategy is open to members of other minorities. 6

  4. d. Well-placed lesbian and gay individuals, who could counter negative stereotypes, generally do not disclose their sexual orientation. Western media does not identify them as lesbian or gay, even when their sexual orientation is known. Nor does the media report public statements identifying them as lesbian or gay. 7

  5. e. Heterosexually identified individuals are effectively discouraged from raising lesbian and gay issues because their own sexuality might be put in question. No similar problem exists for supporters of...

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