Gay Rights are Human Rights

by Melody Perkins

credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Image

Laura A. Belmonte is the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech and is a specialist in US Foreign Relations, having authored a number of articles on cultural diplomacy. “The International LGBT Rights Movement: An Introductory history,” asks readers to imagine whether or not LGBT equality is possible, and what that might entail in terms of actions. While some nations have made strides in LGBT equality such as simply decriminalizing same-sex relationships or legally recognizing same-sex marriage, others continue to enforce laws that brutally repress LGBT peoples and continue to halt international efforts to prove safety and protection for LGBT people around the world. 

Belmonte describes that attitudes on homosexuality have changed drastically since ancient times. Where once ancient societies accepted same-sex acts, the rise of Christianity and Islam introduced to the world a condemnation of same-sex acts that were punishable by death or castration. With the expansion of these religions, thus, also came the spread of anti-gay views across the world. Centuries later, this vacilitating view of homosexuality has become a part of various national histories. The eighteenth century saw the rise of the Enlightenment, and with it, a belief in individual rights, which saw revolutionary France become the first country in modern Europe to decriminalize same-sex activities between consenting adults. Whereas, the Victorian era was an age of resurging conservatism, which began the myth that people with same-sex attractions was a sign of degeneracy, and saw British colonial authorities enforce strict legal codes against indigenous peoples who participated in same-sex activities. Although efforts were made toward the protection of gay rights by the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the 20th century, it wouldn’t be until the end of the Second World War that transnational efforts could truly thrive.

Belmonte’s article demonstrates that the rise of the gay rights movement coincided with discussions on international human rights beginning in the 1940s. The human rights movement provided minority groups seeking recognition and protection, with a legal language they could use to state their claims and be heard by an international body. This language allowed for the proliferation of homophile organizations and networks all over the world such as the International Committee of Sexual Equality (ICSE), which functioned as a network in which local organizations could interact with one another and was able to live on even after the ICSE disbanded. Even though the ICSE came to an end, communication could still be observed, as American homophile publications contained ads for foreign gay books, foreigners subscribed to US homophile publications, and more.

Gay activists made further strides when Amnesty International expanded the definition of “prisoenrs of conscience” to include those imprisoned solely on the basis of sexual orientiation or consensual same-sex behavior between adults. Moreover, in 1981, a new precedent was set when the European Court of Human Rights sided with gay rights when it foudn that the criminalization of male homosexual acts in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland violated the European Convention on Human Rights. This decision also engendered gay rights activists to employ litigation as a critical element in their strategies.

Additionally, more strides were made in the decades following the close of the war, opening up international congresses on gay rights, the stonewall riots, the International Lesbian and Gay Association became the first LGBT group to gain consultancy status at the UN in 1993, and much more.

In the case of the United States, Belmonte argues that, although American citizens have played a leading role in the establishment of global LGBT advocacy organizations, the US government has been slow to come to the support of LGBT rights efforts. In fact, despite legalizing same-sex marriage in 2015, it was still legal to fire someone based on their sexuality in 29 states. The Clinton administration made some steps toward LGBT issues such as enabling asylum-seekers to make a claim on the basis of being persecuted in their home country simply because of their sexuality. President Clinton also nominated James Horeml, an openly gay philanthropist, as the US Ambassador to Luxembourg, though faced great resistance among the Republicans, who refused to let the nomination pass through congress, but the approval of Luxembourg allowed him to be re-nominated and appointed in early 1999. 

With the Bush administration’s lack of eagerness to support LGBT rights, human rights activists continued to champion the cause. Recognizing the need for a legal framework to stop human rights abuses of LGBT people worldwide, a meeting of the International Commission of Jurists was held in November 2006 in Yogyakarta, Java, and attended by human rights experts. Thus meeting resulted in the creation of the Yogyakarta Principles, which were a set of 29 principles that identified patterns of discrimination and violence against LGBT people, and made recommendations for how organizations and governments could take action to ensure the equality and protection of LGBT people. These principles inspired a French-sponsored UN declaration calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality, which was supported by mostly European and Latin American countries, but opposed by the China, Russia, the Roman Catholoic Church, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, as well as the United States.

Comparatively, Obama would become the first, and so far, the only US president to offer unequivocal support for LGBT equality, and even became a priority in US foreign policy. In further divergence from the previous administration, an American envoy joined 85 other nations in passing a South African-sponsored resolution condemning anti-LGBT violence and discrimination, thus going an entirely different direction from the Bush era in 2011.

Furthermore, after a report found thousands of people to have been horribly injured or killed worldwide because of their sexuality or gender identity was published in 2015, the United States and Chile co-hosted a Security Council meeting, which saw the testimonies of a gay Iraqi refugee and a Syrian LGBT activist who’d both fled their nations due to persecution from Islamist extremists. As Belmonte highlights, these testimonies represented a great political move from Chile and the US, who sought to sway nations who were strongly opposed to Islamist extremist terrorism, but were ambivalent or hostile to gay rights.

However, despite the best of efforts, LGBT rights are still not equal in every part of the world. Even as recently as 2014, Nigeria’s president signed into law a legislation which would criminalize same-sex relations and marriage and pro-LGBT advocacy. A month later, Uganda’s president also followed suit, thwarting four years of international efforts to stop the anti-gay bill. In response, the United States cut off US aid for Uganda, which had some Africans question why anti-LGBT activities prompted a reaction, while other human rights abuses in the region have gone ignored.

Similar to the case of human rights as a whole, the issue in passing measures for LGBT rights is the inability on the part of the UN to enforce these measures, especially due to the reluctance of violating the national sovereignty of another nation. However, Belmonte suggests that major powers like the United States do possess the ability to put political pressure on nations violating both human rights and LGBT rights like withdrawing foreign aid and suspending visa privileges for officials responsible for those legislations, and much more. 


  1. Belmonte asks the loaded question: is global LGBT equality possible? If so, what would it look like? What actions would have to be taken to get there?
  2. In response to the President of Uganda signing anti-gay legislation, the Obama administration cut aid to Uganda. However, some Africans questioned why anti-LGBT activities took greater importance over a host of other human rights abuses happening in the region. How much does politics plays into this decision? And if so, do you believe this was to further demonstrate their support for LGBT rights? Or was this new law an excuse to pull aid from Uganda in the face of these human rights violations? 
  3. Despite political motivations, should the United States and Chile, the fellow co-host of the meeting of the UN Security Council, have exploited opposition to Islamist terrorism in order to gain support for LGBT rights? 
  4. If organized religion wasn’t a factor of one’s views on homosexuality, do you think we might have already achieved LGBT equality? 

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