Stop Homophobic Bullying – LGBTQIA Rights as Human Rights

by | November 30, 2013
filed under LGBT

Photo of 6 hands touching, each painted a different rainbow colourby Nina Verfaillie

Over the past few years media outlets from around the world have covered the ongoing harassment of the LGBTQIA community through homophobic and transphobic bullying. The stories of homophobic and transphobic bullying appear nearly every day publicizing the stories of different victims and their individual and collective experiences of harassment and disenfranchisement.

Transphobic and homophobic bullying are clear examples of how discriminatory acts of harassment and violence speak to the base vulnerabilities of us all, and violate an individual’s basic rights.

The effects of bullying are well documented. We hear about the obvious suffering and torture of individuals bullied because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. We hear documented struggles of families to find recourse and justice in their communities, schools, places of employment and courts of law. These narratives demonstrate how often bullying is documented and reported and also how consistently it is ignored, ill-handled and in some cases supported or even committed by our community leaders.

In a 2011 study by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, an overwhelming majority of LGBT students reported being harassed for their gender identity or sexual orientation. The study revealed that 81.9% of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender students reported being verbally harassed, 38.3% reported being physically harassed and 18.3% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.

That means that 9 out of 10 LGBT students have experienced harassment at school. LGBT students are 2 to 3 times more bullied than straight hetero-normative students and LGBT teens are four times more likely to attempt suicide. That figure doubles for LGBT youth who have been rejected by their families.

The effects of bullying are damaging enough without taking into consideration what it’s like to identify with and be part of a group where being bullied because of your specific identity is a dominant experience. LGBT bullying is frequently linked with suicide and depression. There are increased reports of victims engaging in risky sexual and drug-related activities as well as experiencing social adjustment issues and other long-term health concerns. In a school environment being bullied interferes with a student’s ability to learn and perform well and can impact the ability to graduate, find a job or have a career.

Without legal protections enforced through legislative mechanisms and support and participation from academic institutions, homophobic and transphobic bullying will persist and continue to threaten human rights as a whole. Bullying and harassment that specifically targets the LGBTQIA community is a human rights issue and failure to effectively combat and prevent discriminatory bullying based on gender and sexual identities threatens all of us. The absence of justice and victims’ rights cultivates an acceptance of gender and sexual violence and the selective and therefore ineffectual enforcement of human rights and civil protections.

Human rights are the universal fundamental rights of all human beings, inalienable from the human condition. These rights are the expressed embodiments of our shared dignity as people which are to be protected, guaranteed and enjoyed.

Human rights are understood to be the same for everyone. They are intertwined in both conception and practice. Individual human rights are dependent upon each other in order to be fully protected or accessed, and no one right is fully enjoyed without the same protections and guarantees afforded to provide the enjoyment of all rights. They are held through their universality and each individual right is an expression of a larger notion of the rights of us all and the explicit dignities of personhood.

When any one aspect of human rights is threatened for any group or individual, all of our rights are threatened. That is how human rights work. Whenever individuals or groups are not truly protected, we are all more vulnerable and disenfranchised. The strength of human rights lies in their enforcement as universal truths of our existence, and cannot truly be enjoyed unless we all enjoy them.

Poster of a line taken from the UN International Declaration of Human Rights

Poster of a line taken from the UN International Declaration of Human Rights

LGBTQIA rights are one of the simplest aspects of human rights to understand. Autonomy of one’s own body and the protected expression of such intimately held and perceived aspects of person like sexuality and gender are so intrinsic to the notion of ourselves that their guarantee is as much and issue of rights as it is an aspect of being. We all have a sexual orientation and a gender identity. Without protections we are all vulnerable and can all be harassed, abused, or disenfranchised on this premise.

One’s gender or sexual identity should never be a barrier to the enjoyment of rights and should never be a justification for bullying, discrimination or acts of violence. We all deserve to be free in our expressions of ourselves, our bodies and our love for other people. We deserve to experience the full enjoyment of all of our human rights and to have that truth reflected in law.

Seeing LGBTQIA rights truly affirmed as human rights is a goal we have yet to reach, even in North America. Until there is enough education and supportive policy implementation we cannot effectively combat homophobic and transphobic bullying.

Recent anti-bullying policies and laws affording protections specifically to LGBT persons have started to establish a legal culture that recognizes LGBTQIA rights as essential rights. But there is still a long way to go in the pursuit of justice and equality.

The United States Senate recently voted to ensure that LGBT persons are protected in the workplace from employment discrimination and enjoy the same protections that are guaranteed based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, and disability. This is a great step in ensuring a more equitable and safe workplace, but provides too many unspecified exemptions for religious employers as well as the military and small businesses and leaves room for abuse and legitimized discrimination.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) does not provide domestic partner benefits and still allows for employer-mandated dress codes that can reinforce gender-normative roles. That is if it is even enacted. House Republicans are adamantly against it and Speaker of the House John Boehner refuses to support it.

Inadequate legislation and legal exemptions that allow for discrimination do little to address their stated concerns. And when courts inconsistently support and uphold rights, it limits what justice can happen through institutions and educational policies. Yet omissions of inclusion continue.

A recent anti-bullying report by the government of Saskatchewan completely left transgender youth out of consideration, and a proposed change to anti-bullying policies in Tennessee would make it okay to engage in anti-gay bullying if done so for religious reasons. In order to create a safe space for LGBTQIA individuals to enjoy rights and be free from discrimination we need the law to guarantee and enforce rights and protections.

Effectively combating bullying and protecting human rights means demanding laws that reflect the principles they are supposed to uphold. The language we use to define ourselves and our rights through legal instruments is the letter of the law that governs us. We must adopt and promote educational methods to ensure that LGBTQIA rights are inherently defined as human rights.

Training and empowering educators by making LGBTQIA rights a priority will not only ensure that students have a safe place to learn and be free from harassment, but it will also benefit instructors by guaranteeing their rights in the workplace. Upholding the universal principal of human rights means equipping schools, administrators and children with the tools and agency to confront homophobia and transphobia and not let any more potential victims be robbed of their security and their education.

Schools that are too afraid to actively discuss issues of gender and sexual rights or homophobic and transphobic bullying not only provide the sad jester of professional educators being too afraid to discuss a topic in an educational setting and format, but their silence continues the cycle of disenfranchisement by allowing bullying and discrimination to thrive.

On the international level, LGBT rights have been declared by the UN and signed by a handful of states as well as taken up as part of the human rights canon by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. However, without universally protected access and guarantees of rights, inconsistent application of justice and inadequate definitions of rights and protected persons results in more bullying and more suffering.

In the meantime, actively supporting and helping pass laws on the local level to protect the LGBTQIA community and to prevent bullying can help to build the precedent for global acceptance. Combining broad protections that reaffirm a universality of rights with specific local ordinances to combat discrimination where people are vulnerable to it can help.

We need National, international and regional organizations to enforce rights on their level but we also need to local laws that can protect access to housing, freedom from discrimination in the workplace and public spaces. Laws can be used to strengthen alliances of support and punish crimes effectively. Educational ordinances can help protect rights and educate both potential bullies and potential victims or their shared rights and dignities.

Homophobic and transphobic bullying is “a moral outrage, a grave violation of human rights, and a public health crisis,” according to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. Human rights encompass actions both required by government as well as those prohibited by government. Failure to address transphobic and homophobic bullying is a failure to offer a basic affordance of guaranteed rights to the LGBTQIA community and leaves us all exposed and unprotected.

Protecting our own rights means upholding those of others. Making LGBTQIA rights a priority and reaffirming them as essential human rights strengthens all of our rights by upholding the very premise in which human rights are guaranteed and afforded in the first place – their universality and the equality of all people. In protecting the rights of other we are able to reaffirm not only their rights, but our own, and the shared dignity implied in that connection.

(photo credit: Kurt Lowenstein Educational Centre)

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