I’m used to pasting in a list of professional achievements for speech introductions or conference programs, but let me try something else here.
I was born in southwestern Virginia in the U.S., to parents who started as Midwestern liberals (from Ohio, specifically), but moved South at the beck of their professions at the Fifties’ sagging end. (My father was an extension agent at Virginia Tech, my mother an elementary school teacher and principal.) My childhood happened during the turmoil of desegregation and the civil rights movement. These impinged on me only distantly, through the convex moon of the TV screen, but also through my parents’ quiet reaction. Their moral refusal, especially my mother’s, to submit to the racial and cultural attitudes of the region where they found themselves living was a retrospective example, and gave me a sense of displacement that has lasted ever since. I felt at home on my great aunt’s beautiful, disused, decaying farm in Ohio, where I spent every childhood summer in a tangle of green. I had a home in Virginia, and the society would have welcomed me to belong, except I instinctively sensed myself, and was raised to be, at a slight, dislocating angle (to paraphrase E.M. Forster on Cavafy) to its world.
Most of the work of raising me was done by my mother, Ernestine Long, and her aunt, Leila Wilson. What good I’ve done in this messy life is generally a legacy from them.
I rushed through school hastily for various reasons, graduating from high school at 12, from college at 18. This was much better than going through a Southern school system at the normal age would have been, as a gay kid in the 70s. At least nobody expected me to drug the cheerleaders’ Cokes or play football. As I departed childhood, three great transitions happened. My mother died, far too young, when I was seventeen, my great aunt two years later.
In between, I left for graduate study at Harvard. Over the years I came out, made friends, and finished a dissertation on Vladimir Nabokov. I found had no particular desire to become an English professor in an American university, at least at that juncture. William James, drugged on laughing gas once, called for pen and foolscap and wrote down, with the belief he was committing to paper thoughts of Hegelian profundity: “Harvard medical school; law school; divinity school, school! SCHOOL! Oh my God, oh God; oh God!” That was about how I felt by the time I staggered up to join (as the President of Harvard tells the new-minted Ph.D.s at every graduation) the ancient and honorable company of scholars.
This raised, however, the question of what else to do. I also found that I had no discernible qualifications for any other employment, aside from reading books fast and having a jet-powered typing speed. I thus became an English professor outside America; this seemed the most promising way of putting my residue of skill to use in an unexpected context. I wanted something different . (As William James also scrawled while on laughing gas, “There are no differences but differences of degree between different degrees of difference and no difference.”)
For almost seven years after the revolutions of ’89, I lived in Eastern Europe — for more than four years in Hungary, where I taught literature at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. For two years in the middle, I was a senior Fulbright professor at Babeş-Bolyai University in Cluj, Romania.
In devastated Romania, I started doing human rights work. It happened quite unexpectedly, almost without my knowing that was what it was. Together with a few Romanian friends, in the weeks after I first moved there I started visiting prisons, documenting and defending people imprisoned under the country’s Ceaușescu-era sodomy law. We had very little idea of human rights law, norms, precedents, or standards; we were, in a sense, making it up as we went along. We produced some of the first human rights information ever about abuses based on sexual orientation. We were responsible for Amnesty International taking up one of its first gay cases as a prisoner of conscience, and helped bring about Human Rights Watch’s policy change to act against such violations. We also saw appalling conditions in overpacked, filthy prison cells, and for the first time in my bourgeois life I talked to survivors of torture. We started a process that, nine years later, in 2001, led to the repeal of the Romanian law.
Midway through Gone with the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara, scrabbling in a barren field, holds up a turnip and swears, “As God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again.” I often call my Turnip Moment the time a Romanian official, at a public panel in Bucharest, responded to evidence of arrests under the sodomy law by saying, “I don’t have to listen to such fairy stories.” Governments routinely claim that rights violations based on sexuality or gender identity or expression simply don’t happen, because such people simply don’t exist. My particular oath, invisible turnip in hand, was that no one would call these fairy stories again. My commitment was to do what justice I could to the survivors and those who didn’t survive — the people whose stories I heard — by making their stories live: documented, proven, and felt.
I stayed involved with grassroots social movements in Hungary, Bulgaria, and other countries in the region; I visited Albania early in its democratic transition and produced information that helped get its sodomy law scrapped even before a backlash could begin.
I helped found LGBT groups in both Romania and Hungary. In 1997, I finally moved back to the United States, and joined the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), first as advocacy director, later as program director.
This part goes more quickly (see Things I Wrote for the visible spoor). At IGLHRC, I spent five years lobbying the United Nations on sexual rights issues, together with grassroots LGBT activists from the global South. That work led to U.N. human rights mechanisms agreeing publicly, for the first time ever, to take up lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people’s concerns.
In 2003, I joined Human Rights Watch, and in the following year I became founding director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program, which I created. During my time there our budget quadrupled, and our staff quintupled. Our work led to the end of a massive crackdown on gay men in Egypt. I helped develop the Yogyakarta Principles, a groundbreaking summation of how international human rights law protected sexual orientation and gender identity. Our documentation and advocacy supported causes from Honduras to Iraq, from the United States to Cameroon.
I left Human Rights Watch in 2010, for a number of reasons. One was a pulmonary embolism, which served as harbinger and emblem that it was time for another uprooting. Another was that I realized, first slowly and then more rapidly, that while Human Rights Watch drew voraciously and often parasitically on the work of activists around the world, as an institution it was not, and had no interest in, supporting activism. At the moment, I am a visiting fellow at the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School, where I am trying to write a book, on sexual rights advocacy, and on the transition of the global human rights movement and its leadership from North to South. My office is a hundred yards from the dorm room where I settled as a scared eighteen-year-old, come to Harvard for graduate school and to the big city, on my own for the first time ever. Things return full circle, yet with a slight shift, a deflection that carries a twinge of Hegelian plangency, or perhaps of laughing gas.
My grandparents, dirt farmers all, never traveled further from their Ohio home than Texas. My parents were the first ever in their families to go to college; my father visited Chile, Indonesia, Russia, and China before he died, and my mother flew to Puerto Rico once. I went to Harvard, and I’ve worked in some forty countries so far. It has been a privileged life, product and exemplar of the last century’s vast changes. It all feels like exponentially more freedom than anything my ancestors were offered, and at the same time, the final grace note is one of displacement. As I grow older, a farm in Ohio and a remembered skein of green leaves seem an appealing prospect.
All the opinions on these pages (except for the comments, or any guest contributors) are my own, and you shouldn’t blame any of my employers, parents, teachers, landlords, dogs, or lovers for them. The same is true of whatever mistakes turn up. If you find the latter, or disagree with the former, please let me know. (Also let me know if you would like to become my employer, parent, teacher, landlord, dog, or lover. Probably something can be worked out.)