Human Rights Watch on women’s sexuality: Nice women don’t have one (1)

lesbian invisibility

Still hazy after all these years

This is Part 1 of a three-part post

Missed connections; or, how not to find lesbians

Here’s some of what a friend of mine, an Egyptian lesbian, 33 and butch, told me about days and nights during the Revolution in Midan Tahrir, where she put her life on the line.

We felt the presence of women, very strongly — and the presence of queer people very, very strongly, on the front lines, at essential moments. How amazing it was when people were just dealing, without judging. On February 2, the Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood] were there, and in a couple of hours they organized an assembly line to break the stones, to carry them to the front lines, with water and food supplies — they organized a hospital. I was with the shock troops, in the front line.   … We needed to frighten the other side, so they would think that we were stronger than they’d thought. They had guns, Molotov cocktails. We were fighting them with sand and rocks.  I was up there wearing a hood, to protect me, and you couldn’t tell if I was male or female. There was this Salafi near me, and he kept eye contact. He came down to me, to give me water. He said, I’ll take you further up, to the real front, the most dangerous zone. Just keep me in your line of vision, we can support each other.

I stayed there for hours, with eye contact with this man, on the line—and in the end I was positive that he realized I was a female. And he helped me stay there. …

It was moving for me, later, when I got to know about other protests in the global North inspired by Egypt. I’m not into this kind of petty nationalism—I believe in human rights.   But I am tired of being told: you are a second class individual, because you’re from the global South. You’re third class, because you are female. You are fourth class, because you are lesbian.   Suddenly we are at the center of the world. And suddenly we know that we can do it.

After the Revolution, Human Rights Watch, like other rights groups, sent hordes of workers to Cairo to interview Important People and figure out what had happened. One was Minky Worden, a colleague of mine, who’s editor of HRW’s spanking new anthology, “The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights.” I doubt they found my friend, a grassroots activist, Important enough to spend time on; zero of her passion or vision animates the book.  The volume claims to be a comprehensive picture of “the recent history of legal and political battles to secure basic rights for women and girls”; it banners a rah-rah quote from Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee: “Women are not free anywhere in the world until all women in the world are free.” Well: some women. In 332 pages, the book doesn’t contain even one substantive mention of lesbian or bisexual women, their struggles, or their human rights.* Talk about being fourth class.

Ugandan demonstrator in New York, 2011

It’s 2012, and this should not happen. It’s shocking on many grounds. You can’t describe the international women’s movement in the 20th and 21st centuries without describing lesbian and bisexual women. They’ve been there at every juncture — as Charlotte Bunch and Claudia Hinojosa, for instance, have shown in documenting just one part of this rich history, lesbians’ activism at the UN. (Even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights owes a lioness’ share in its creation to Eleanor Roosevelt, who was, by modern biographers’ estimation, bisexual.) These fighters, like my friend, have stayed on the front lines: they’ve helped keep feminist movements conscious of difference and honest about the raw realities of sexuality. If they’ve been a target for violent attacks on feminism — more reason for HRW to acknowledge their importance! — they’ve also been among its boldest thinkers as well as bravest defenders.

I won’t even obsess here over the volume’s complete silence about the massive rights violations against transgender women and men — or its indifference to trans activists’ amazing successes at encoding progressive conceptions of gender in national laws. Some things no longer surprise me. But as a former Watcher, I do wonder what HRW was thinking, or failing to think. There are only a few possible interpretations of its perspective:

  • There are no serious human rights violations against lesbian or bisexual women.
  • Lesbians are not women.
  • Lesbians are not human.

It would be interesting to know which of these reflects HRW’s current official position.

Lesbians are real women, and sometimes it bears repeating: Dyke March in Soweto, 2007, © Behind the Mask

Of course, I started the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, almost nine years ago. We did a slew of reporting on lesbian, and bisexual, and transgender women, and trans men. We hired the first-ever researcher at a a major human rights organization to work primarily on lesbian issues. One therefore feels particular disillusion that all this hasn’t filtered into the organization’s understanding of women’s rights. It’s tempting to mutter, with the grandpaternal gruffness of encroaching senility, that this omission wouldn’t happen if were around. Non ego hoc ferrem calidus juventa consule Planco: feed that to your Babelfish. But that’s absurd. The silence speaks to deeper structural problems as pressing during my tenure as they are today. It illuminates at least three things:

  • how a large organization like Human Rights Watch fails to foster conceptual or practical connections within its work;
  • how lingering insecurities about sex (especially visible around sex workkeep it from accepting sexual autonomy as a fundamental value;
  • and how human autonomy itself remains a problematic principle for institutions across the rights-defending business.

Let’s start with the first.

I’ve pretty much spent twenty years trying to mainstream sexuality within the work of human rights. We rolled back many prejudices at Human RIghts Watch; but barriers in attitude persist. Three, hardly confined to the organization, remain relevant here:

Demonstrator in Windhoek, Namibia, 2001

Sexuality is not respectable. You may have a right to exercise it, but don’t expect me to bring it up in decent conversation. One sees this in the diehard reluctance of human rights researchers to raise the matter in their colloquies with “mainstream” partner organizations. I can easily imagine Minky thinking you can’t really promote the positions of lesbians (or, God forbid, pr-st-t-tes!) in a volume with a contribution by one Nobel winner (Shirin Ebadi) and a blurb by another (Gbowee). Never mind recent events in Liberia, which suggest Gbowee may not need a reminder that sexuality is always politically central. Sometimes they grasp these things better in Freetown than in New York.

Sexuality isn’t that important. Here what I’ve often called the “humanitarianization of human rights” kicks in: in an era of massive humanitarian catastrophes, cases seemingly on the scale of individuals shrivel in significance next to the gargantuan, aggregate anonymity of a Rwanda, a Darfur, a Sri Lanka. Without a queue of zeroes trailing the numbered victims, a situation can’t merit the diligence of crisis. Of course, if you tabulate the women and men jailed every day under (for example) anti-prostitution laws, many tortured or raped as a direct result, the zeroes start to accumulate, and the crisis becomes real. More below. But it’s still hard to persuade rights institutions of the simple, obvious fact that asserting one’s sexual autonomy is one of the major triggers for abuses worldwide.

Sexuality is private. It’s something you only do (legally) behind closed doors, and it can’t possibly be implicated in grand public events like revolutions. This is a delusion sustained by never talking to revolutionaries about why they were really there. Suffice it to remember Audre Lorde, who wrote that

In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. For women, this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information within our lives. …

During World War II, we bought sealed plastic packets of white, uncolored margarine, with a tiny, intense pellet of yellow coloring perched like a topaz just inside the clear skin of the bag. We would leave the margarine out for a while to soften, and then we would pinch the little pellet to break it inside the bag … Then taking it carefully between our fingers, we would knead it gently back and forth, over and over, until the color had spread throughout the whole pound bag of margarine, thoroughly coloring it.

I find the erotic such a kernel within myself. When released from its intense and constrained pellet, it flows through and colors my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens all my experience.

This goes without saying

All three presumptions, however diminished at Human RIghts Watch, still haven’t gone away. Moreover, the organization’s structure reinforces them.  For the uninitiated, the group (typical of large rights institutions) is proudly centered on its regional divisions, dealing mainly with “mainstream” issues on the several continents. Then there are a range of thematic divisions — LGBT, women, health, business, and others. The latter are small, generally underfunded (during the seven years I was there, the LGBT program never got access to Human RIghts Watch’s general support money), and distinctly understaffed.  In order to do the work they need to do, they must depend on other divisions’ cooperation: not only to propose press releases or take on reporting on their own, but to assume the yeoman labor of talking to groups that represent thematic interests, not just “mainstream” ones, in their areas.

Connections: sign from a lesbian feminist march, June 30, 2011, Aguascalientes, Mexico

My staff worked extremely hard to sell sexuality issues to other divisions as, well, sexy. Yet overcoming the three attitudes above was a challenge. Ordinary practice and accumulated prejudices whispered to an ambitious researcher that an interest in LGBT issues would not, in the long run, embellish one’s career. What was needed and not forthcoming was a clear mandate from the group’s governance: a message that thematic issues were not poor stepkids, a child among the ashes doing work ancillary to the great stream of human rights, but were intrinsic to its current and core — and the organization’s “mainstream” sectors had to take them up.

Habit is a great deadener: so Beckett said. In 2009, someone in the organization’s program office analyzed which thematic division’s concerns were most or least taken up by other parts of the organization in their work. Not surprisingly, LGBT issues came out near the bottom. The program office (responsible for overseeing all the programmatic work) attended on me with a guilty hangdog-Hamlet look, saying This was an organizational failing and was there anything they could do? I had plenty of suggestions, starting with a general instruction from the leadership that each relevant division propose at least one project on LGBT rights. But the conversation faded at the crowing of the cock, as Shakespeare wrote in a famous play about a Denmark where nothing quite gets done.

The wrong kind of activists: LGBT rights demo in Beirut, 2009 (Photo: Alexandra Sandels)

This anthology is the result. Minky — the book’s editor, and, as I say, a colleague whose work I generally respect — writes how in April 2011 she spent her time in Egypt “interviewing human rights activists, women’s rights activists, and organizers of the Tahrir Square protests.” Now, I don’t know all the questions she asked, but I’m 99% sure some never occurred to her: “Do you know any lesbians? Were there any lesbian women in Tahrir? What were sexuality’s roles in the revolution?” The third would have gotten plenty of interesting responses. The other two, asked of most people, would have led ultimately to my friend, and to quite a few other women whose stories would have been compelling. But moral hesitation, or a monolithic category of “women” that foreclosed any subdivisions, or some other internal censorship kept the idea, I’m betting, from transiting her mind. And as a result, she never learned. The problem at Human Rights Watch is that the information to establish the urgency of the issues doesn’t arrive in sufficient quantities, because the questions don’t get asked across the organization. So the organization still doesn’t learn.

Part 2 continues below.

*The word “lesbian” occurs exactly twice in the book, both in an article by Gara Lamarche, HRW’s former Associate Director. One instance refers to his efforts in 1994 to expand “Human Rights Watch’s mandate to include lesbian and gay issues” — which the rest of the book might leave you supposing hadn’t succeeded. The other mentions Atlantic Philanthropies’ funding in South Africa “to address gender-based abuse and hate crimes against lesbians.”

CORRECTION: I’m reliably told the demonstration against Ugandan legislation shown above was in London, not New York.

Four convicted in Zoliswa Nkonyana’s murder

A mob murdered Zoliswa Nkonyana, a 19-year-old lesbian in Khayelitsha, South Africa, in February 2006. After a group of straight women taunted her as a “tomboy” in a shebeen, a gang of young men chased her, stoned her with bricks, and beat her with a golf club.  Yesterday, almost six years later, and after more than 40 trial postponements, a court convicted four members of the mob of her murder.

At several points, the Magistrate made reference to Zoliswa’s sexual orientation as being the motivation for her murder. … The Magistrate concluded … that those participating in the assault acted with “common purpose.” All had been involved in the altercation outside the bathrooms at the shebeen, all had been chased her, and all had participated in the assault. Further, Zoliswa was “tiny girl” and it was reasonable to conclude that such an assault on her would lead to her death.

A month ago, a coalition of civil society organizations condemned the justice system’s multiple failings in the investigation and trial:

The manner in which Nkonyana’s case has progressed illustrates severe failures in our criminal justice system, particualy in poor under developed areas such as Khayelitsha where crime is at its worst, and where the Court and Police services are heavily under-resourced. Some of these include:

  • In the five and a half years since the case began, there have been upwards of 40 postponements. A case of this nature should never take this long in a functional, healthy justice system.
  • The main state witness was attacked on the day of the murder and was threatened during the trial. She left the province fearing for her life, and was not given the necessary protection and support.
  • Initial investigations were slow and poorly carried out.
  • In 2008 the State was found to have committed gross negligence for failing to ensure that witnesses were present in court.
  • There has been poor case management as defence attorneys routinely missed court dates without any repercussions.
  • In 2010, four of the accused managed to escape from their holding cells, causing great panic and fear. They were later recaptured but a police sergeant was arrested for aiding them in their escape and defeating the ends of justice.

For one case to be affected by so many failures is unacceptable but not unusual. It illustrates much of what is wrong with the our Criminal Justice System. All of these problems occurred, in spite of constant public pressure, media coverage and repeated calls from a number of civil society organisations for it to be prioritised. … Many other victims of crimes and their families will never receive the same level of support. It has become clear that in many cases, justice is a privlidge dispensed only to those who can afford to pay for it. For the marginalised and the poor there is little substantive assistance to be found from the State. Without prohibitively expensive legal representation, many victims and their families, have little hope of having their cases dealt with in a timeous and professional manner.

This case also shines a spotlight on the intolerance, intimidation and dangerous environment that lesbian and gay people living in informal settlements are facing, including related issues such as corrective rape. It has also illustrated how our Police are failing to protect society’s most vulnerable.