Despite evolving community attitudes, the realities of prejudice, bias and violence against members of the LGBTIQ community continue to pervade our society. Other countries around the world have made great strides toward the attainment of all rights for the LGBTIQ community. But the United States seems to be lagging behind. It makes one wonder what thoughts the authors of the Declaration of Independence or other historians who focused so much on the attainment of freedom would have on the freedoms of all people?
Regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, everyone should have access to all rights described in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Everyone has a sexual orientation and a gender identity. When someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity does not conform to the majority ideal, they are often seen as a legitimate target for discrimination or abuse. Even today millions of people across the globe face execution, imprisonment, torture, violence and discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. But the very consideration of this issue is seen by many U.S. states as a threat to the core principle of the universality of human rights.
Laws criminalizing homosexuality encourage the dehumanization of lesbians, gay men, bisexual people and transgender people, as well as those who are intersexed and questioning their gender. Amnesty International considers the use of "sodomy" laws to imprison (usually) men for same-sex relations in private to be a grave violation of human rights, including the rights to privacy, freedom from discrimination, and freedom of expression and association – all protected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Amnesty International includes in its definition of prisoners of conscience those who have been detained or imprisoned solely because of their sexual orientation.
Paul Hunt, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, notes in his report to the 60th session of the Commission of Human Rights: "…sexuality is a characteristic of all human beings. It is a fundamental aspect of an individual’s identity. It helps to define who a person is. The Special Rapporteur notes the abiding principles that have shaped international human rights law since 1945, including privacy, equality, and the integrity, autonomy, dignity and well-being of the individual. In these circumstances, the Special Rapporteur has no doubt that the correct understanding of fundamental human rights principles, as well as existing human rights norms, leads ineluctably to the recognition of sexual rights as
human rights. Sexual rights include the right of all persons to express their sexual orientation, with due regard for the well-being and rights of others, without fear of persecution, denial of liberty or social interference."
The oppression of LGBTIQ people – as well as the stigma often attributed to LGBTIQ people – is such that homophobia often motivates other allegations. Politically motivated allegations of homosexuality can be used to suppress criticism, shut down organizations, and silence political opponents.
Though they are different concepts, gender identity is closely linked to sexual orientation as a category of experience and as a reason for abuse. Non-governmental organizations, including Amnesty International, have documented how law enforcement officers or members of the public who target LGBTIQ people do not make distinctions between whether their victims are (or are perceived to be) lesbian, gay, bisexual or any part of being transgender. They aim their violence not so much at categories, but more at conduct.
People are targeted if they do not appear to conform to gender "norms" – they are marked as different by their behavior, dress, or appearance. Transgender people may be targeted because their abusers infer sexual conduct from their gender nonconformity. Understanding how certain terms are used is essential to understanding LGBTIQ individuals. It is important to recognize the difference between sexual orientation and sexual behavior, as well as the differences among sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender roles.
Heterosexuality is the attraction to persons of the opposite sex; homosexuality, to persons of the same sex; and bisexuality, to both sexes. Sexual orientation can be seen as part of a continuum ranging from same-sex attraction only (at one end of the continuum) to opposite-sex attraction only (at the other end of the continuum). Someone identified as a gay man has significant sexual and/or romantic attractions to other men, or identifies as a member of the gay community. At times, "gay" is used to refer to all people, regardless of sex, who have their primary sexual and or romantic attractions to people of the same sex. Someone identified as a lesbian is a woman who has significant sexual and/or romantic attractions to other women, or who identifies as a member of the lesbian community.
A person (male or female) who has significant sexual and or romantic attractions primarily to members of the opposite sex is heterosexual. A bisexual person (male or female) is someone who has significant sexual and or romantic attractions to both males and females or is someone who identifies as a member of the bisexual community.
Different sexual orientations and gender identities have existed throughout history in every culture. Some famous lesbian women and gay men include Aristotle, Michelangelo, Virginia Woolf, Rudolf Nureyev, Yukio Mishima, and Martina Navratilova. There are LGBT people of every age, race, religion, education level, and socioeconomic class. But neither of the previously mentioned categories has a strong connection to the idea of gender identity and gender expression.
Sexual behavior alone does not define orientation. A personal awareness of having a sexual orientation that is not exclusively heterosexual is only one way a person identifies herself or himself as an LGBTIQ person. Or a person may have a gender identity that differs from his or her biological sex – that is, a person may have been born a male but identifies and feels more comfortable identifying as a female. Sexual orientation and gender identity are two independent variables in an individual’s definition of himself or herself. Sexual identity is the personal and unique way that a person perceives his or her own gender expressions.
Biological sex is the biological distinction between men and women, but it can vary among the gender norms. Gender is the concept of maleness and masculinity or femaleness and femininity. One’s gender identity is the sense of one’s self as male or female and does not refer to one’s sexual orientation or gender role. Gender thus is that which is between the ears and has been described as mind sex, which can differ from biological characteristics of a person at birth.
Identifying as transgender involves the concept of one’s gender role – this refers to the behaviors and desires to act in certain ways that are viewed as masculine or feminine by a particular culture. Transgender is a general term that is used by individuals that do not conform to the gender role expectations of their biological sex. It is also used by persons who may clearly identify their gender as the opposite of their biological sex. Transgender can also be used as a general term to include transsexual people.
Transsexuals are those with the biological characteristics of one who identifies himself or herself as the opposite gender and have also had some type of surgical alteration and/or hormone treatments that change their bodies’ appearance in alignment with their identity. Cross-dressers or transvestites, whether full or part time, wear clothes usually worn by people of the opposite biological sex. They do not, however, completely identify themselves as having a gender identity different from their biological sex or gender role. The vast majority of transvestites are heterosexual.
Intersexed people are born with aspects of both female and male genitalia, often referred to as “ambiguous biological sex characteristics.” Intersexed people may later grow up to have gender identities that are the opposite of their biological sex at birth and have feelings similar to transgender or transsexual individuals.
Some progress has been made on these gender issues in the U.S., but they still remain a controversial avenue for some. Rights regarding these complex issues are, for the most part, overlooked, even in areas where rights have been restored by specific laws. The struggle seems to be never ending – some steps toward attaining rights are being taken, while at the same time setbacks and reversals occur everyday. Such is the case even today for the entire LGBTIQ community.