May 24, 2022
Remarks by Jessica Stern
United States Special Envoy to Advance the Human Rights of LGBTQI+ Persons
Department of State
at a Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF) Conference on
Ending Gender-based Violence
May 24, 2022
(As Prepared for Delivery)
The energy is so palpable, even in this virtual format. I wish I was here today.
Warm greetings to everyone, and thank you for inviting me to join you today.
I want to especially thank Premier Su for his leadership in initiating this vibrant space for regional and international dialogue. I also extend my appreciation to his team for making this conference happen. Australian Representative Bloomfield, American Institute in Taiwan Director Oudkirk, and Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association Deputy Representative Akira Yokochi: thank you for convening this important Global Cooperation and Training Framework conference about ending gender-based violence. Also, a warm welcome to Ambassador Stella Ronner-Grubacic for joining me in delivering opening remarks on such a critical issue. I also want to recognize the Taiwan Equality Campaign’s partnership and support from the U.S. National Democratic Institute for bringing civil society voices to the forefront of this event.
For those of you I don’t know, I will introduce myself to try to make this virtual platform more accessible. I joined the U.S. Department of State in December 2021 as special envoy for the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons and to lead policy related to the promotion of those human rights worldwide. I spent twenty-five years as a human rights defender before being named as Special Envoy by President Biden last year.
I am both the first person in the role who spent a career as a human rights defender and the first lesbian in the role. We know how rare it is to see queer women in positions of leadership. We also know how rare it is for human rights activists to be recognized as experts.
I emphasize these ‘firsts’ because they represent a positive trend in the U.S. government. They represent inclusive democracy, which is a priority for President Biden and many of us here today. Our leaders are more effective when they are more diverse and knowledgeable about policy design and implementation where no one is left behind.
I was asked to speak about the relationship between efforts to prevent and respond to gender-based violence and the struggle for the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons. I’m pleased to address the connection, because understanding the relationship between the two is of paramount importance.
The evolution of recognition of LGBTQI+ abuses at the United Nations is a useful historical illustration for this discussion. When we examine the concept of inclusion at the UN, we find that the movements against gender-based violence and for women’s rights helped pave the way for recognition of the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons.
For instance, consider the work of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, its Causes, and Consequences. That mechanism was one of the earliest UN mechanisms to address the protection gaps for LGBTQI+ persons. The mandate holder provided infrequent but significant references to LGBTQI+ persons at a time when much of the international system was silent. For instance:
In 2005, the Special Rapporteur addressed a police attack on three metis, a Nepali term that might be translated as ‘transgender persons.’
In 2007, the Special Rapporteur addressed an attack in South Africa on two lesbian women by a 20-person mob, one of whom died after being beaten, stoned, and stabbed. The Special Rapporteur noted that this was not an isolated incident and that “lesbian women face an increased risk of becoming victims of violence, especially rape.”
In a May 2012 report, the Special Rapporteur wrote, “Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, intersex and queer persons, and also activists working in this sector, are targeted because they do not conform to stereotypes of gender, sexuality and/or identity, thus becoming victims of homophobic crimes.”
Moving from there into a more recent context and a different mechanism, in May 2020, the Human Rights Council discussed a report by the Independent Expert on Protection against Violence and Discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. The Independent Expert called for “a global ban on conversion therapy” because these practices are “inherently degrading and discriminatory” and “are rooted in the belief that LGBT persons are somehow inferior, and that they must at any cost modify their orientation or identity to remedy that supposed inferiority.”
Along with the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, these mechanisms tackled stereotypes based on sex, harmful traditional practices, bodily autonomy, and the importance of gender equality. Clearly, the LGBTQI+ movement owes a debt of gratitude to the women’s rights movement and the movement against gender-based violence, and these movements contribute to the advancement of human rights for all.
The United States National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality, and the forthcoming update of our Global Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence (GBV) take an intersectional, inclusive, and human-rights based approach to gender equality. They aim to tackle gender-based violence and strengthen responses to the forms of GBV for which LGBTQI+ persons are particularly at risk. We recognize that GBV remains a persistent human rights abuse both at home and around the world that is intrinsically linked to all gender equity outcomes.
In my mind, it’s clear just how much these movements have in common and how much they need each other, but, unfortunately, there are still detractors. Let’s consider their arguments. And we’ll consider four.
First, some claim that transwomen aren’t women, but that’s false. Trans women are women, trans men are men, and persons of any gender can experience gender-based violence. Anyone committed to ending gender-based violence must work to prevent and respond to GBV in all its forms, and to meet the needs of survivors of all genders.
Some claim that any reference to gender in law or policy is code, code for LGBTQI+ rights, but that is false. Every person has a gender identity and is impacted by socially constructed gender norms and roles, not just women and not just LGBTQI+ persons.
Third, some claim that including LGBTQI+ persons in gender-responsive budgeting or policy-making detracts from women’s rights, but that’s false. Ensuring inclusive gender equity programs make gender equity programs more effective, and will advance our shared goals of gender equality and safety and security for all.
Fourth, some claim that cisgender, heterosexual women have more power than LGBTQI+ persons while others claim that LGBTQI+ persons have more power than women. Both are false. Oppression is unacceptable in any form. Violence against women and girls is persistent, severe, and harrowing. So is violence against LGBTQI+ persons, many of whom are women and girls. LGBTQI+ persons are often targeted on the basis of their actual or perceived deviation from gender norms, just as cisgender women and girls are. Debating whether women or LGBTQI+ persons are more oppressed is illogical, erases LGBTQI women, and divides and conquers people who are already marginalized and vulnerable.
Since I joined the Biden-Harris Administration seven months ago, I’ve spoken with hundreds of LGBTQI+ persons from around the world and countless officials from governments around the world. I sometimes feel whiplash from the contrast in the conversations.
In one conversation, I’ll hear about sorrow such as violent attacks on LGBTQI+ persons, like Sheila Lumumba in Kenya who passed away in April after a heinous attack. Or about LGBTQI+ organizations who cannot legally register, like many of those I just spoke with in Malaysia. Or about the growing legal trend that seeks to ban information about the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons or censor LGBTQI+ characters on film or TV, as though by denying people relatable information, LGBTQI+ persons will simply disappear. The United States doesn’t always get it right, either. We still struggle against homophobia, transphobia, interphobia, and related intolerance. Even me, growing up as a lesbian in the suburbs of New York City, I was so isolated I could hardly imagine how to survive.
But thankfully, the world is also changing. I spent Sunday morning meeting with activists supporting the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons, and every organization at that meeting was established within the past three years, which is an indication of a booming movement and growing courage. The issues these activists are tackling are broad and ambitious – working on economic empowerment, wills and trusts to protect LGBTQI+ families who don’t have access to legal relationship recognition, impact litigation to tackle sodomy and cross-dressing laws, a queer youth shelter, and a new network of referrals for LGBTQI+ persons to trained, respectful therapists.
This is the good news: change is coming.
This brings me to Taiwan. At dinner on Saturday, I told a gay friend in Malaysia that I would speak at this conference, and his eyes lit up and he reached across the table and grabbed my hand and said, “Taiwan is our beacon of hope.”
Not a beacon of hope, but “our” beacon of hope. It was as though he was speaking on behalf of LGBTQI+ persons across Asia. This is a region that has yet to fulfill its potential for LGBTQI+ legal and substantive equality. But this is also a region bursting with activism, momentum, innovation, and opportunity. Taiwan raising the bar for supporting the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons raises hopes and dreams across all of Asia.
And so, it gives me great pleasure to congratulate Taiwan on this week’s three-year anniversary of achieving marriage equality. Legal recognition for LGBTQI+ relationships is one absolutely crucial aspect of the fight for equality and against gender-based discrimination and violence. Taiwan’s achievement of marriage equality, the very first in Asia, is an inspiration to LGBTQI+ persons and allies around the world. This is why I hope that soon Taiwan will amend its law to ensure that that all LGBTQI+ couples in Taiwan, regardless of their nationality, can enjoy equal protection for their relationships.
And on another point, Taiwan ranks near the top of indicators for gender equality whether on women’s participation in politics (notably including Taiwan’s President), social tolerance for transgender individuals, or on shrinking the pay gap between women and men. I heard about the Legislative Yuan’s recent efforts to address gaps in adoption laws to protect LGBTQI+ families and the Executive Yuan’s pledge to draft a comprehensive anti-discrimination law inclusive of women, girls and LGBTQI+ persons.
These are exciting steps and I am glad that Taiwan continues to make strides for gender equality. With these commitments in mind, I hope that in the coming months, Taiwan will also consider ensuring equal access to assisted reproductive technology for LGBTQI+ families.
And I also hope that the Taiwan authorities will act soon to ensure that procedures for changing gender markers are compliant with best practices globally and recent court decisions that have struck down requirements for surgery and other medical interventions.
Finally, I hope that Taiwan follows through on its pledge to offer an option for a third gender marker on legal identity documents.
And I just want to applaud Taiwanese health authorities’ recognition that so-called “conversion therapy” is not a legitimate medical treatment.
In conclusion, I want to say again that the conversation we’ll have throughout this conference is of the utmost importance. I’m so pleased to be speaking with governments and civil society about how to protect and advance human rights for LGBTQI+ persons everywhere, and I so look forward to learning from all of you. Thank you very much.