In an apartment in India, two women commit suicide rather than allow their relationship with one another to be broken up by their families.
In a house in Zimbabwe, a woman is raped repeatedly with the consent of her family in their hopes that she will become pregnant, get married and cease having relationships with women.
In a psychiatric institution in the United States, a teenager is subjected to coercive "treatment" to "cure" her lesbianism.
In a courtroom in Germany, a woman loses custody of her child because the court finds that her lesbianism disqualifies her as a fit parent.
In a prison in Uruguay, a woman is isolated in a cell because her captors know that she is a lesbian.
For women-loving women, human rights violations almost seem par for the course, no matter where they live. While lesbian and bisexual women often understand the risks they are taking simply by being true to themselves, others remain ignorant about the persecutiongovernment-sanctioned or otherwisethese women may be forced to endure.
Decreasing that ignoranceand hopefully altering this harsh realitywas one of the primary reasons lesbian and bisexual women from across the globe including several from Oregon gathered with tens of thousands of women and men in China for the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women and the accompanying Non-Governmental Organizations Forum on Women.
"I went because I felt it was critical there be a voice representing lesbian families," says 47-year-old Bonnie Tinker, executive director of the Portland-based Love Makes a Family Inc. The group promotes visibility of lesbian and gay families. "When I heard that [the anti-gay] Focus on the Family was planning to send six of their own representatives, I knew I had to be there, too."
Despite persistent rumors that Chinese officials might search luggage, confiscate materials, or ultimately deny entry into the country to women who were clearly affiliated with lesbian causes, Tinker brought with her a stack of Love Makes a Family newsletters, leaflets, buttons and business cards to distribute to activists during the conference.
"I had heard those rumors and it did make me a little nervous, but I'm happy to report that I was never searched," says Tinker, a lesbian mother and grand mother who attended both the non-governmental organizations forum, held Aug. 30 - September 8 in Huairou, and the official U.N. conference, held September 4 - 15 several miles away in Beijing.
The forum attempts to influence the conference and its Platform for Action. While the platform is nonbinding on the 189 nations that are party to it, the United Nations hopes that the document will become the blueprint for women's advancement in the coming decade.
An estimated 4,000 observers from the NGO forumincluding Tinker participated in the conference in an effort to shape the final platform. She and lesbian activists from several countries were part of a Lesbian Caucus, including representatives from 30 accredited organizations, that weighed in with a list of demands. The cardinal tenet of the caucus' list was that all women regardless of sexual orientationhave an inalienable claim to human rights guarantees and protections.
Lesbian and bisexual women were speaking out in a variety of ways. For instance, for the first time at an NGO forum an official Lesbian Tent was included among several diversity tents. The tent served as a center for lesbian networking, information and activities.
"It was incredible to see lesbians from around the world who gathered at the tent," says Godfrey. "How many times do we get an opportunity like that?"
Lesbians also held a march through the forum site that included 500 participants from 30 countries. According to wire reports, marchers chanted "Lesbian rights are human rights" and "Liberté, égalité, homosexualité." They also read their list of conference demands.
Rachel Rosenbloom of the San Francisco-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission took her group's concerns directly to José Ayala Lasso, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, when she presented him with IGLHRC's newly published report, entitled "Unspoken Rules: Sexual Orientation and Women's Human Rights."
The document, which highlights human rights violations against lesbians in 31 countries (including the scenarios detailed at the beginning of this article), was released during the conference as part of IGLHRC's campaign to increase the visibility of lesbian concerns.
"This is the beginning of dialogue with the high commissioner," said Rosenbloom, who pinned a "Lesbian Rights Are Human Rights!" button on Ayala Lasso's lapel during an NGO workshop. (According to IGLHRC, 11 lesbian and gay organizations were accredited to the official conference, and representatives from more than 30 accredited organizations were active in the Lesbian Caucus, which met daily.)
In another high-profile moment, Palesa Beverley Ditsie, a South African lesbian, addressed the U.N. conference, telling delegates: "Every day in countries around the world, lesbians suffer violence, harassment and discrimination because of their sexual orientation. Their basic human rightssuch as the right to life, to bodily integrity, to freedom of association and expressionare vio lated."
She continued: "Women who love women are fired from their jobs, forced into marriages, beaten and murdered in their homes and on the streets, and have their children taken away by hostile courts."
During a Lesbian Caucus press briefing, Rebeca Sevilla of Peru told reporters: "[I]n my region, Nicaragua, Chile, [and] Ecuador have laws that criminalize homosexuality. There is still a high incidence of physical and psychological violence in public as well as in private life. We know women-loving women [are] everywhereany social, economic or political condition. And now we are speaking out internationally about lesbian life, our lesbian love."
The speaking out about "lesbian life, our lesbian love" made some parties uncomfortable, to say the least. IGLHRC brochures that were printed in Chinese were confiscated by Chinese security officials, and there were reports that guards were using telephoto lenses to film women in the Lesbian Tent.
"I had met some women who had their rooms searched," says Godfrey. "These women were associated with lesbian concerns."
Many also felt the Chinese government had purposely created a logistical nightmare for forum and conference participants.
The forum, which was initially set to be held alongside the U.N. conference in Beijing, was later moved many miles away to Huairou, making communication between the camps extremely difficult. The switch has widely been viewed as the government's attempt to shelter the greater population from the forum's goings-on. (The Chinese government regards homosexuality as nonexistent in that country and prohibits the official media from mentioning it.)
According to The Washington Post, one Chinese work unit had even been instructed to wear bug spray "because the flies might transmit AIDS carried by lesbian attendees."
Continual rainfall created muddy conditions, which made mobility more difficult. "The tents [at the forum] were placed far away. You had to walk a lot," says Godfrey. "It was hard enough if you were able-bodied, and it was virtually impossible for women with disabilities."
Villar says she was on her way to a meeting when she came upon a demon stration which included women in wheelchairs. The group was protesting the fact that disabled people could not attend some NGO workshops because the gatherings were held above ground level and many buildings did not have elevators. (Villar says even those workshops held at ground level posed hardship in some cases because some floors were muddy due to the rain.)
"A blind woman from Ghana was talking for the group. She spoke with full lung and from her heart about being disabled and what it meant," Villar says. "To hear her, you knew how powerful these women were in spite of the situation."
Although a last-minute decision by conference delegates dropped all mention of sexual orientation in the final Platform for Action, some lesbian rights backers are hailing the conference as a success.
"At the last World Conference on Women 10 years ago, only one countryThe Netherlandsspoke out in favor of lesbians, and at this conference more than 30 countries have done so," says IGLHRC's Rosen-bloom. "The debate that occurred gives some indication of the battles that lesbians must keep fighting all over the world to gain recognition of their rights, but this conference lays a firm groundwork for future action at the local, national and international levels."
One of the paragraphs in question states in its final form that many women face particular barriers because of such factors as "their race, age, language, ethnicity, culture, religion, disability or other status or because they are indigenous people." While sexual orientation was removed from this list, several countries went on record as saying they interpreted "other status" to include sexual orientation.
Those countries voicing support for lesbians' human rights include: Australia, Barbados, Brazil, Canada, Cuba, Israel, New Zealand, Spain (on behalf of the 25 European Union countries), Slovenia, South Africa, Switzerland and the United States.
Cook Islands, Jamaica, Latvia and Norway expressed support for sexual orientation protections through their interpretive statements. Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Columbia and Venezuela said they did not support discrimination.
The countries that actively opposed language protecting lesbians against discrimination included: Algeria, Bangladesh, Benin, Egypt, Ghana, Guatemala, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Senegal, Syria, Sudan and Uganda.
Also among the contentious issues aired in Beijing was the question of whether the family unit should be referred to in the singular, which would refer to married heterosexuals and their children, or the plural, which would imply approval for many types of familiesincluding those headed up by lesbians and gay men.
Delegates ultimately adopted the plural form, a move Tinker applauds and says "clearly leaves room for inclusion of lesbian-headed families in all of the provisions of the document."
"The [Platform for Action] is a lot of compromise, so it's not surprising sexual orientation was not included," adds Godfrey. "What I think is perhaps most important is that women walked away from the forum and the conference feeling empowered. They'll take that strength home with them."
Condensed version of an article reprinted with permission from "Just Out" Oregon's lesbian and gay newsmagazine.
A related article, Community Grieves from "Just Out"
Return to the Index of Synapse 34, Winter Solstice 1995