ILGA meets… Cynthia Rothschild, activist and consultant

The second UN human rights report about discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity will be presented during the 29th session of the Human Rights Council: we have met Cynthia Rothschild, one of the activists who has followed the development of the document to discuss it. Our interview

It is a very important day for the whole LGBTI community and their allies: today the second UN report about discrimination and violence based on people’s sexual orientation and gender identity will presented during the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Issued by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the document paints an overall picture of, to put it in its own words, “pervasive, violent abuse, harassment and discrimination affecting LGBT and intersex persons in all regions”.

ILGA has discussed the implications of this report with one of the people who followed the development of the document: Cynthia Rothschild, activist and consultant with a focus on sexual rights, and United Nations advocacy and policy.

How would you describe this report to someone who has never heard about it before? 

It is the second report to come out of the entire United Nations system on violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It means that after twenty years of work within the UN on this issue, although sporadic and not consistent enough, the human rights system within the United Nations is finally starting to produce more consistent reporting and documentation on these human rights concerns.  The first related treaty body decision on sexual orientation was made literally over 20 years ago! Although this is only the second report, it is still something historic, even if both this document and its 2011 predecessor - to which this one is closely related – should have come out at least ten years ago. It’s remarkable that it’s taken so long for governments to acknowledge the killings, torture, rape, arrests and various forms of discrimination people face in both the global North and South.

For what reasons, in your opinion, these reports have not been issued earlier?

It is a combination of factors: the broadest is that states had no political will to demand that kind of product. On a more specific level, then, we have to consider that the report is rooted in the body of decisions and reports from treaty bodies, of special rapporteurs, to some extent on national legislation and regional decisions: there is now critical mass of material to use for UN reporting. It has taken a long time to build this body of material. . But really this is about activists making claims on governments for decades, and increasingly within the UN system.  So governments are finally responding to social justice movements and the realities of uncontestable human rights atrocities. Activists have been demanding  this kind of documentation  for a long time, but delays are really a product of geopolitics and state decision making.

What is the main difference between this report and the one released in 2011?

It is certainly an update, based on newer case material to prove the same human rights points. The report rests on new treaty bodies decisions and special rapporteurs’reports and recommendations to governments , but also on new political trends that have appeared in the last few years. For example, there is a strengthened critique of propaganda laws in response to their rise in many areas; there is also newer material on housing concerns; there is a strong call to ban conversion therapies and there’s also a continued but stronger reference on issues about development and poverty. Human rights concerns related to people who are intersex are addressed in more depth, as well. There are also updated calls for addressing violations within family and community settings, and challenging crackdowns on activist organizations.

The report contains new analyses, but still argues that states have an undeniable obligation to address concerns about human rights and sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.   The demands remain basic: killings, torture, arrests, criminalization and discrimination must be prevented and punished.


The report will be presented during the Human Rights Council: what reactions do you expect?

Cynthia Rothschild (1)(without hesitation) You and I could sit here and write the script: some states will welcome it; others will continue to make the completely ironic and ridiculous argument that violations based on SOGI are not real human rights issues; some states will say that the report is not relevant to their cultures and communities, as if to say that torture, killing, arbitrary arrest and a whole series of violations are not worth the attention of the human rights system. So what will happen is that these issues, these very real human rights concerns, and the lives, dignity and safety of people will become a political football.

However, truth is on our side and sadly the violations are devastating and real: the arguments about a so called irrelevance are, in fact, irrelevant and baseless.

Isn’t it frustrating to see such a report being dismissed like that, after all the work it took to produce it?
The point is that we are in a good place: UN agencies are starting to produce material and to do deeper programmatic work about SOGIE and LGBTI issues, and now governments in opposition have less to rest on. It’s frustrating that we still have to fight these battles but the trend is in our favour, also because we have more allies within the United Nations system who are willing to acknowledge and fight against the abuses and the silences. And the report is just another tool in our hands, a document that – like any other work brought on at the United Nations level – rests on activism, on social movements, on courageous acts of resistance, on communities saying “We won’t accept this anymore, our governments must do better”.

Will the report have a real impact on the daily lives of activists?
Surely the document allows louder resistance and demands and could be a quite useful tool for advocacy, but it needs to be used in creative and strategic ways. It could be used in political lobbying or in media campaigns, or to challenge professional associations that seek to have better health, anti-discrimination or education policies, or to demand the ending of criminal laws that target us… But in the end any UN report is as strong as what people will make of it.  So the responsibility is for both governments and civil society groups to implement – and even go further than -  the recommendations in the report.

How can the LGBTI community improve the way it analyses and portrays itself?  

We all need to get better in seeing LGBTI people for the richness of their lives: stronger analyses about intersectionality and multiple forms of discriminations are necessary.

We are not one thing, we are not one identity.  And we don’t face only one kind of oppression at a time.  We also carry different kinds of privilege simultaneously.
Our gender expression and behaviour puts many of us at risk even if we may not identify ourselves as lesbian, gay, bi or trans* but, nevertheless, we tend to flatten our experiences, especially when we use the term LGBT: I think it reduces us to a monolithic identity, even if our lives are much richer than that.

For example, there is an absence of lesbian-specific data in relation to violence  national policies in terms of health and education. That is not surprising, given the vast amount of sexism, gender inequality and patriarchy that we have to face everyday; the result, though, is that we get often folded in the LGBT acronym, even if our experiences are different.

And cross culturally, the term LGBT is not used -  there are so many rich histories of same sex relationships and “non heteronormative” gender expression that we make invisible when we use the shorthand of LGBT.

Another piece of the puzzle is the violations intersex people face: we are now using the term LGBTI much more, but for people dealing with struggles about forced treatments or medical interventions based on intersex status, there is a specificity that can’t be entirely melded under lesbian, gay or bisexual experiences, and the same can be also said  about the trans* community. Some of the struggles are different, and deserve specific attention.

We need to be better about seeing our struggles in relation to gender expression, bodily autonomy and autonomous decision making: to me, those are the things that should bond the community and connect us across every difference.

(interview by Daniele Paletta)

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