This blog post is first in a series written by our summer LGBT Project legal interns. The other posts are "The Roots of Homophobia", "Calling It 'Marriage' Isn’t the End of the Story", and "Changing the Culture of Bullying".
Although I had traveled 6,000 miles to attend the conference, I was informed of the conference venue’s address just three days before it started. The organizers of “Justice In The Balkans: Equality For Sexual Minorities (.pdf)” were so concerned with the safety of those attending that they kept the conference location secret until the last minute. The disconnect between public and private was reinforced even in our conference swag. We were provided with two different canvas bags: The bag meant for use in public had conference sponsors printed discreetly in black. The other bag, emblazoned in purple with “Equality For Sexual Minorities”, was to be used only within the confines of the conference space.
While laws of several Balkan countries, including Serbia, prohibit sexual-orientation and gender-identity-based discrimination, the laws are not enforced. Pride parades are disrupted and obstructed, LGBT civic spaces are nonexistent, and LGBT individuals remain closeted. Although laws provide protections for LGBT individuals in many countries, activists play a vital role in changing people’s attitudes. The conference provided a space for activists with a variety of backgrounds to share ideas and experiences about effecting legal and attitudinal change in favor of LGBT individuals in the region. Of course, homophobia is not limited to Serbia. One of my assignments as a summer law clerk at the ACLU of Southern California has been to research the dismal LGBT legal protections in Guyana. Cross-dressing and sodomy are crimes, while harassment, sexual assault, employment discrimination, and police discrimination of LGBT individuals are pervasive. As in Serbia, LGBT rights in Guyana are pushed into the “private” canvas bag. Despite that depressing state of affairs, LGBT rights are increasingly recognized on an international scale. The United Nations Human Rights Council recently passed a resolution endorsing human rights for LGBT individuals. Another historic moment occurred in 2006, when a group of international human rights law experts authored the Yogyakarta Principles, “a universal guide to [LGBT] human rights,” and the supplemental Activist’s Guide to the Yogyakarta Principles.
Organizers ended the conference early because violently homophobic Serbian nationalists were demonstrating against General Mladić’s arrest near the venue. So the other participants and I took our canvas bags and returned to our hotel. But that experience, as well as more recent experiences at the ACLU, affirmed several lessons for me.
First, to effect social change, a variety of tactics (such as a combination of community education, coalition building, political lobbying, and litigation) is essential. Second, sometimes it takes only one person, one passionate individual, to raise a voice – in any language – in protest of injustice and pursuit of fairness support a movement. Finally, we in the U.S. must be mutually supportive of LGBT rights advocates in other countries and internationally by sharing our information, resources, and love.
David Perkiss is a rising 3L at UCLA Law School and a summer legal intern at the LGBT Project of the ACLU of Southern California. This fall, David will serve as Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law, and served as Co-chair of OUTLaw, the LGBT law student organization at UCLA, and as Southwest Regional Chairperson for the National LGBT Bar Association Law Student Congress. Last summer, David worked as a judicial extern in the chambers of The Honorable Suzanne H. Segal in the United States District Court for the Central District of California.