Seth Walsh was 13 years old when he walked into the garden of the home he shared with his family in Tehachapi, California last month and hanged himself. Before taking the tragic decision to end his life, he had endured years of homophobic taunting and abuse from his peers at school and in the neighbourhood. He is one of six teenage boys in the United States known to have committed suicide in September alone after suffering at the hands of homophobic bullies.
In the past few weeks we have seen a spate of attacks directed against people perceived as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. In Belgrade on Oct. 10, a group of protesters shouting abuse hurled Molotov cocktails and stun grenades into a peaceful gay pride parade, injuring 150 people. In New York on Oct. 3, three young men, believed to be gay, were kidnapped, taken to a vacant apartment in the Bronx and subjected to appalling torture and physical abuse. In South Africa, a large-scale march in Soweto brought attention to the widespread rape of lesbians in the townships, which perpetrators often try to justify as an attempt to “correct” the victims’ sexuality.
Homophobia, like racism and xenophobia, exists to varying degrees in all societies. Everyday, in every country, individuals are persecuted, vilified or violently assaulted, and even killed, because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Covert or overt, homophobic violence causes enormous suffering which is often shrouded in a veil of silence and endured in isolation.
It is time we all spoke up. For while responsibility for hate crimes rests with the perpetrators themselves, we all share a duty to counter intolerance and prejudice and demand that attackers be held to account.
The first priority is to press for decriminalization of homosexuality worldwide. In more than 70 countries, individuals still face criminal sanctions on the basis of their sexual orientation. The existence of such laws exposes those concerned to the constant risk of arrest, detention and, in some cases, torture or even execution. It also perpetuates stigma and contributes to a climate of intolerance and violence.
But as important as decriminalization is, it is only a first step. We know from experience in those countries that have already removed criminal sanctions that greater, concerted efforts are needed to counter discrimination and homophobia, including both legislative and educational initiatives. Here again, we all have a role to play, particularly those in positions of authority and influence—including politicians, community leaders, teachers and journalists.
Sadly, too often those who should be exercising restraint or using their influence to promote tolerance do just the opposite, reinforcing popular prejudice. In Uganda, for example, where violence against people based on their sexual orientation is commonplace and human rights activists defending the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people face harassment and the threat of arrest, a newspaper on Oct. 2 published a front page story “outing” 100 Ugandans who the newspaper identified as gay or lesbian and whose photographs were carried alongside the headline “hang them.” It is time we recognized such journalism for what it is: incitement to hatred and violence.
Political leaders and those who aspire to public office have a particularly important duty to use their words wisely. The candidate for public office who, rather than appealing for tolerance, makes casual remarks denigrating people on the basis of their sexuality may do so in the belief that he or she is indulging in harmless populism, but the effect is to legitimize homophobia.
Last month in Geneva I spoke at a panel discussion on decriminalizing homosexuality, sponsored by a diverse group of 14 countries from Europe, North America, South America and Asia. In a video message, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu lent his support and spoke with passion about the lessons of apartheid and the challenge of securing equal rights for all. “Whenever one group of human beings is treated as inferior to another, hatred and intolerance will triumph,” he said. It should not take hundreds more deaths and beatings to convince us of this truth. It is up to all of us to demand equality for all our fellow human beings, regardless of their sexual orientation or their gender identity.
Navanethem Pillay is the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. This commentary was first published in the Washington Post, Oct. 23.