"History happened yesterday. It is the first time that the [ United Nations ] General Assembly has actually debated gay and lesbian issues. And they will never go back, they are not going to silence us again," said Scott Long with the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission ( IGLHRC ) . He was speaking at a June 26 news conference across the street from UN headquarters.
The debate arose in the context of the UN special session on HIV/AIDS ( UNGASS ) , June 25-27, when a block of delegates, chiefly from Muslim nations, tried to ban IGLHRC from speaking at a conference roundtable discussion. They initially exercised a procedure similar to a fraternity "blackball" to veto the group.
That prompted a vigorous response led by Canada and the Nordic countries and a debate on the floor of the meeting. The Norwegian Ambassador called it "a battle for the soul of the United Nation."
The controversy occupied several hours of General Assembly debate and for a time threatened to disrupt the entire conference. It resulted in a highly unusual series of three votes in which the UN decided that IGLHRC would be allowed to participate. The vote was largely along the lines of true democracies favoring inclusion while authoritarian governments opposed it.
"We are appalled that a third of the members of the General Assembly were willing to stop the process to the whole meeting on HIV/AIDS because they didn't want to hear the words gay and lesbian spoken in their presence," said Long.
"If you look at the statistics of who is affected by HIV, it is a map of inequality and prejudice," he said. "If the UN isn't willing to look at that map realistically, then this process is going to go nowhere."
Karyn Kaplan, HIV program officer at IGLHRC, finally read that organization's statement at a UNGASS roundtable on June 26. It called for a "rights-based approach to HIV/AIDS ... . It means that States must name, condemn—and take all measures to eliminate—racism, gender-based discrimination, and homophobia" and other forms of discrimination.
Norwegian delegate Adam Powell called this "a victory for all vulnerable people. If you are not recognized, you do not have any rights," which in turn will lead to not being included in prevention and treatment plans. He said this debate has "started the process of breaking the silence" over gays and HIV in much of the world.
South African lesbian and HIV activist Phumi Mtetwa said that homophobic statements, whether in her own country or the UN, need to be challenged immediately. She called the principle of participation of non-governmental organizations such as IGLHRC in the UNGASS "the most important achievement" of the meeting.
Mtetwa hoped that the delegates would "move away from the rhetoric" she had heard so far and move on to the practical. "I haven't heard anything that is going to take us from where we are."
"We are not waiting for this piece of paper to come out," said Kaplan referring to the final document from the conference. "We are grassroots activists" who will continue their work regardless of the outcome of the conference.
The draft report contained language that specifically mentioned gays, sex workers, and injections drug users. But even before the session began, delegates from Muslim nations had begun to attack the wording as controversial. They were successful in having reference to those groups stripped from the draft. The final language approved by the UNGASS referred only to the generic term of groups at risk.
Kaplan had mixed feelings about that. "By naming some [ groups ] , you are sure to leaving others out." She didn't want to put human rights into a box but rather integrate it into the entire UN document. On the other hand, "If you can't even say the name [ of a vulnerable group ] , let alone provide services and support for their needs, then [ the document ] is not worth the paper it is printed on."
There were rumors that the United States encouraged the Muslim nations in their efforts, though that could not be confirmed.
The U.S. did not lead the fight to specifically include groups at risk, though it did vote the "right way" on those issues, said Long. He attributed it to the delayed transition of the Bush administration.
"I think that homophobia has been used as a cover for the deeper fears" of women's rights and sexuality in general at a series of UN conferences, he continued. "One reason that they lost this time is a coalition of countries from every continent finally said, 'enough is enough,' we are not going to stand for a steady assault by repressive governments using a false rhetoric of principle to cover up their own political needs."
He said the most important thing about this process is "a new sense of common purpose" from the grassroots organizations that have always led the fight against AIDS, even when local and national governments refused to do so.