Religious Conservatives Denounce International GLBT Group’s Efforts

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Aug 7, 2009

Religious conservatives have targeted a new document from a respected international GLBT rights organization intended to empower equality advocates seeking justice for women, gays, and the transgendered.

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), founded in 1990, initially sought to address social and legal issues faced by sexual minorities and women in Russia.

Since then, however, the group has taken on a more global focus. The group has also attempted to make the tools for advocacy available to a wider swath of individuals worldwide.

In a new document titled "Equal and Indivisible: Crafting Inclusive Shadow Reports for CEDAW [the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women]," the international rights group seeks to empower social justice and GLBT equality leaders with "A handbook for writing shadow/alternative reports for CEDAW incorporating issues related to sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression."

The handbook addresses sexuality and gender identity in terms not strictly associated with cultural understandings of gender, pointing out that in some societies, women are characterized according to preconceived notions of femininity such as "passivity, weakness, docility, and domesticity," social concepts of gender that "constricted the options available to women in all aspects of life."

The handbook noted that, "Scholars acknowledged that gender should be understood as constructing a system of unequal power relations between men and women.

"By positing that sex and gender were conceptually distinct, scholars were able to argue that not only that gender was malleable, but that also that inequalities associated with gender roles and gender stereotyping could legitimately be challenged."

The handbook also points out that gender is not always a cut and dried matter of strictly binary male-female identity; indeed, the handbook noted, physical and psychological factors such as external genitalia, chromosomes, and gender identity could challenge any such concrete ideas of gender.

For all of those reasons, the authors of the handbook wrote that, "effective advocacy requires identifying the most viable ways to reach common ground and build a foundation for creating meaningful social chance.

"In the case of CEDAW, we believe that we will be most likely to reach such a common ground and help precipitate change that benefits all women [emphasis is that of the original authors] by recommending that the Committee distinguishes between sex and gender."

The authors also caution that, "Readers should... consider this handbook to be the product of a particular historical moment--one that demands a particular strategic approach to working with CEDAW on discrimination related to sexual orientation and gender identity."

The handbook sketched out a history of beneficial effects that CEDAW has had for women the world over, including "migrant women, trafficked women, indigenous women, and women with disabilities" that "have... articulated their claims form for equality and for protection under international human rights law," along with "lesbian, bisexual, and transgender groups" that have also been able to stand up for their needs and rights.

However, the handbook acknowledges that difficulties have stood in the way and that they still persist.

"One of the greatest challenges in the human rights arena in recent times has been the demands for visibility and recognition by groups advocating for sexual orientation and gender identity as bases for discrimination and violence, specifically when sexual or gender identity or expression are outside cultural or religious norms.

"Some extremely negative responses to the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity into mainstream human rights discourse are rationalized by archaic customs and traditional practices that perpetuate discrimination and violence against women," the handbook continues.

The handbook identifies "heteronormativity" as a prime reason for such resistance, given that "heternormativity" seeks to enshrine narrow and specific gender roles and sexualities as the only correct or acceptable ones, often in connection with efforts centered on "consolidating male power."

The handbook observes, "Within the heteronormaitive order, non-conforming social and sexual behaviors are labeled deviant and threatening to morality, public health, and public order." In other words, any departure from strict heterosexuality and assigned gender roles is automatically seen and portrayed as dangerous to society, if not to civilization itself.

However, such rigidity seems to be a modern imposition, or perhaps invention: the handbook notes that a certain "fluidity" of understanding with regards to gender and gender roles is present in many indigenous cultures, with some traditional cultures honoring "third genders" to accommodate individuals who simply do not fit easily into either a strictly defined make or female role.

The handbook seeks to acknowledge the "fluidity of sexual and gender expression" that exists independent of imposed social and religious mores, outlines several key principles for sexual freedoms in the context of human rights (including the individual's right to physical integrity and authority over his or her own body, sexuality, and family connections), and notes that, "Not surprisingly, the idea of securing women's right to sexual autonomy seems incredibly threatening to many governments and religious authorities," as does full legal equality for sexual minorities, given that authoritarian religious and governmental institutions seek to impose and maintain strict and inflexible requirements regarding sexuality and gender roles.

As though to provide an example of the handbook's observations, a conservative Catholic publication denounced the handbook as the work of a "radical homosexual group" looking to promote an "agenda."

The Aug. 6 edition of C-Fam, a publication associated with the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute, opens its article on the document by simplifying it to the point of potential mischaracterization.

Reads the article, "The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) recently released a handbook for activists on how to use the United Nations committee, responsible for overseeing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), to introduce 'fluid' concepts of 'sexual orientation' and 'gender identity' into the established human rights arena.

"The IGLHRC handbook's 'key terms' glossary deems gender and sexuality not to be rooted in biology, but based on 'social constructs,'" the article goes on to claim.

The article goes on to explain the concept and uses of "shadow reports," clarifying that, "When states ratify the CEDAW convention, they commit to presenting a report every four years about their country's progress toward implementing its provisions."

Adds the article, "Non-governmental organizations may submit 'shadow reports' offering their own evaluation of their country's compliance with the CEDAW Convention."

The article then resorts once again to charged political language, reading, "Shadow reports from radical groups generally receive a very favorable reception from their radical counterparts on the CEDAW committee."

The article then proceeds to advertise for a document published through its own organization.

"In the C-FAM paper 'Rights By Stealth,' authors Susan Yoshihara and Douglas Sylva explain that General Recommendations 'are the treaty body members' own interpretations of the articles of the conventions' and that 'once created, they serve as the committees' official interpretations.'"

The article continues on from there to say, "Even though states never agreed to any provisions in the CEDAW treaty on 'sexual orientation' and 'gender identity,' a new general recommendation on the subject signals that the committee will seek to expand the treaty beyond the boundaries set by those who carefully negotiated its language."

The article adds, "Critics point out that 'sexual orientation,' 'gender identity' and 'gender expression' have never been included in any negotiated, binding UN document."

Reaching its apparent key thesis, the article then reads, "Attempts to include 'sexual orientation' as a protected non-discrimination category akin to race, sex or religion have met with staunch resistance by member states who fear that making sexual orientation a non-discrimination category could lead to judicial imposition of special legal rights such as same-sex 'marriage.'"

Conservative religious groups have tended to deny the validity of gender identities that depart from an individual's physiology, dismissing gender as a quality determined solely by genitalia and secondary sexual characteristics of the body and declaring that gender is assigned by God and cannot be "changed" through surgery.

Transgendered individuals say that they have an ineradicable sense of being in the wrong body, a sense of gender at odds with their anatomy that often arises very early in life.

Post-operative transpeople have claimed that only once they have undergone sexual reassignment do they experience a sense of peace and satisfaction with their bodies.

Some conservative religious groups and churches also insist that sexuality is a matter of choice, claiming that gays and lesbians have decided to be attracted to members of their own gender.

Some conservative religions acknowledge that homosexuality is innate, but contend that sexual expression between members of the same gender is "sinful." The Catholic Church, for example, teaches that gays and lesbians have been "called" by God to lead celibate lives denied the comfort and support of intimate family connections of their own such as same-sex spouses and children cared for together with such spouses.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


  • BB, 2009-08-08 11:59:34

    Oh, puleeze. "gender is not always a cut and dried matter of strictly binary male-female identity." Try making a baby without one of each. Retwisting the pretzel - that’s all any of these ridiculous organizations ever do and they get crazier every year.

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