On Losing Lesbian Rights

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While the Fourth World Conference of Women held in Beijing in 1995 fell short of formally recognising the rights of lesbians and gay men, many United Nations bodies and programs – such as the UN Commission on Human Rights, the Human Rights Committee, the High Commission for Refugees, the ILO, UNESCO – have since addressed sexual orientation in a number of forums and mechanisms. In Canada, we have also seen a series of important legal victories recognizing the equality rights of lesbians and gays in the Supreme Court of Canada and in federal and provincial legislation (albeit, far from satisfying).

It is in this context that the Canadian delegation sent by the Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA), of which NAWL was part, traveled to the Special Session of the U.N. General Assembly entitled “Women 2000: gender equality, development and peace for the twenty-first century”, more commonly referred to as the “Beijing+ 5” meeting. Some of us were hopeful of winning some form of recognition for lesbians’ human rights. Indeed, the proposed “Outcomes Document”, the final version of which is entitled “Further actions and initiatives to implement the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action”, that had been submitted by the Commission on the Status of Women (acting as the Preparatory Committee for the Beijing + 5 UN Special Assembly) contained several references to sexual orientation. Specific proposed articles recognized the human rights of lesbians through anti-discrimination legislation, would have prohibited the criminalization of homosexuality and ensured protection against homophobic violence. One article also provided for a recognition of women’s diversity as well as the additional barriers faced by lesbians. Finally, the “Outcomes” document proposed to ensure that “women of all ages can fully realize their sexuality, free of coercion, discrimination and violence” (article 108a). We went to New York united behind a strong Canadian consensus in favour of defending lesbian rights, and throughout the week, we actively pressured Canadian government delegates and officials to take a firm stand on the inclusion of sexual orientation in the “Outcomes Document”.

The U.N. small working group meetings were marked by delegates often trying to justify their lack of respect for women’s human rights by invoking national “sovereignty”. Sexual orientation was not discussed until the twelfth hour, literally at midnight on June 8, when the Special Assembly was due to end on June 9. The debate lasted all of 45 minutes, was highly emotional, almost hysterical, and focussed exclusively on a preliminary statement in the section on the “achievements and obstacles” in the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action (PFA) that read as follows: “in a growing number of countries legal measures have been taken to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation”. The oral debate was dominated by opinions of countries who chose to speak as individuals rather than aligning with other countries. Canada, the USA, and European countries, many Latin American and African countries formed “blocs” which were represented by one spokesperson. This had the effect of distorting the debate by giving far more public attention to opinions advanced by individual countries and obscuring the range of opinions of countries whose individual voices were subsumed by a “bloc” position. Religious fundamentalists of all stripes prevailed, supported by the intimidating presence in the halls of right-wing Christian fundamentalists and the “pro-family” lobby.

The Further Actions document that was finally adopted has excised all reference to sexual orientation and in this sense, we were not able to win an explicit universal recognition of the human rights of lesbians. Many of us left New York with a deep sense of having lost an important battle. However, Further Actions does promote the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and several member states, including Canada, have declared to the General Assembly that they would interpret Further Actions and the Beijing Platform for Action as applying equally to lesbians. Unfortunately, this offers little help to the millions of lesbians around the world who continue to face discrimination, violence and oppression because they dare to love women, and live independently of men.

Andrée Côté is the Director of Legislation and Law Reform for the National Association of Women and the Law.

Andrée Côté