Statement by Rebeca Grynspan on International day against homophobia

15 May 2009

I have dedicated much of my career to fighting against entrenched poverty and for gender equality and women’s rights.  I am well aware of how social discrimination becomes entrenched, transmit from one generation to the next, and undermines development and justice.   Nevertheless,  it was not until recently that I really began to learn in detail about homophobia and transphobia and how pervasively these attitudes undermine  human rights, reinforce harmful gender norms for both women and men, and contribute – like many other – to underdevelopment and injustice more broadly. 

In August last year, I had the honor of participating in the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City.  I saw and heard firsthand about the links between homophobia and transphobia and vulnerability to HIV.  But I also learned of tremendous resilience, resistance and positive social change in response to systematic discrimination. On one discussion panel that I moderated, I had the  opportunity of hearing from a male-to-female transgender person from an indigenous community in southern Mexico.  And although she told a tale of multiple disadvantages and systematic discrimination, what was most compelling was her story of overcoming these challenges to become a leader in her community, responding to HIV, fighting for the rights of indigenous communities, and linking the broad struggles for public health, human rights, economic development and social justice.

I am speaking to you today May 17th, declared the International Day against Homophobia by Civil Society Organizations. Eighteen years ago, on this same day, the General Assembly of the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that "sexual orientation (heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual) by itself is not to be regarded as a disorder."  Before this date, homosexuality had been classified as a "sexual disorder."
A generation has passed since WHO made that decision, and on this anniversary I have three main messages that I wish to share with you:

  • First, that despite international progress in both public health and human rights discourse, homophobia remains a far too common reality across Latin America and the Caribbean, as in many other parts of the world.
  • Second, in addition to the direct adverse effects of homophobia, it drives the HIV epidemic both among sexual and gender-identity minorities, and more broadly in society.
  • And third, that homophobia is not inevitable, and that social movements and States can and must address homophobia.

Let me begin by reflecting on homophobia itself.

Homophobia comes from fear and it causes fear. People who do not conform to socially prescribe sexual and gender codes are still the targets of stigma, discrimination and violence.
Denial, fear, stigma, discrimination and violence are a daily reality for homosexuals and other people who have same-sex relations and trans people. They are frequently insulted, fired from jobs, expelled from clubs, and barred from community activities.

Physical violence is also a reality. In countries as diverse as El Salvador, Argentina and Colombia, gay and transgender activists have sometimes received death threats. In 2007, in Jamaica, a crowd of about 100 men gathered outside a church where 150 people were attending the funeral of a gay man - the crowd broke the windows with bottles and threatened to kill the mourners. 

UNDP and UNAIDS, along with other UN agencies, have called for countries to decriminalize consensual sex among adults, but several countries in this region have still punitive legal frameworks.  And regardless of the legal status of homosexual behavior, police everywhere have an obligation to protect citizens from violence and intimidation. Tragically, in many countries, police and other State actors instead harass and persecute these populations and many times they experience violence at the hands of the police themselves – the very people with a legal obligation to protect them.
Homophobia is a severe problem that damages human relations, fractures families and communities, and inflicts pain and suffering. It is an obstacle to the fulfillment of fundamental freedoms and rights.

Sadly, homophobia does not just inflict direct damage on society; it also drives the HIV epidemic, amongst sexual minorities and indeed amongst society at large.

In Latin American and much of the Caribbean, HIV epidemics are concentrated in men who have sex with men and trans people - groups that are already marginalized by society. There is evidence that HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men and trans people in Latin America and the Caribbean is 20 to 30 times higher than in the rest of general population.

Sadly, this picture is not at all surprising. We know from over twenty five years of experience with AIDS, that people who are denied access to basic health, education and social services are driven underground – far out of the reach of essential HIV prevention, treatment, care and support programs.

In order to prevent and control the spread of the epidemic, we must protect the rights of most at risk and marginalized populations

Heterosexual women are also increasingly affected by HIV in many countries in this region.  This is not a separate epidemic or a separate phenomenon than HIV among sexual minorities. A large proportion of these heterosexual women are infected in long-term relationships with men who are themselves bisexual, so addressing HIV transmission among sexual minorities is a crucial step in protecting women as well. And the same gender norms that underpin homophobia undermine the ability of women to protect themselves.

Finally, it is important to celebrate success and progress, and to call for progress to continue.

Homosexuals and other people that have same-sex relations and trans people are part of the society, but prejudices and repression have impeded recognition of their rights. Stigma, discrimination and violence against these population will only stop if society works against it.

It is imperative to develop a supportive environment where all people – regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity - are treated with dignity and respect.

There are many positive examples from the region: in 2006,  Brazil,  launched “Brazil Without Homophobia”; Argentina and El Salvador have established that health services should no longer tolerate discrimination based on sexual orientation. In 2008, Nicaragua and Panama, the last two countries in Latin America where sex between men was criminalized, revoked such legislation.

In the Caribbean, the theme of the decriminalization of homosexuality was addressed in the 8th Annual General Meeting of the Pan Caribbean Partnership Against HIV/AIDS (PANCAP), which took place in Jamaica last November, but there are still six countries in the Caribbean where homosexuality is persecuted.

This situation is improving, but not fast enough to achieve MDG 6 - to halt and reverse the HIV epidemic by 2015, as committed by the governments.

Despite positive examples of law reform, rights based legislation and policy dialogue, much remains to be done to change society’s attitudes. Only if social attitudes are addressed hand in hand with law reform and improving access to justice, can the law truly realize its potential as an instrument for social change.

Countries should use May 17 to examine their national legal frameworks, policies and programmes, to protect the rights of sexual minorities.  They must also examine their own investments in HIV prevention and make sure that groups working with sexual minorities are properly supported – and that social drivers of the epidemic like homophobia and gender inequality are also addressed. 

As the key global standard setter, the United Nations must lead in its response to the situation of men who have sex with men and trans people. On May 17th, the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS will officially launch the “UNAIDS Action Framework: Universal Access for Men Who Have Sex with Men and Transgender People”. The framework calls for a coordinated and expanded UN response from UNAIDS Secretariat and its ten Co-Sponsoring UN agencies to:

  • First,  improve the human rights situation of men who have sex with men and trans people;
  • Second, strengthen and promote the evidence base related to HIV,  men who have sex with men, and trans people; and,
  • Third, ensure better and broader programmatic responses for men who have sex with men, transgender people and HIV.

UNDP is committed to helping countries to respond to the HIV epidemic.  As the lead agency in the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS on issues of human rights, gender, and sexual diversity, UNDP support initiatives that help countries to better understanding the situation of homophobia and transphobia, reduce the violation of the human rights at all levels, and to help improving the delivery of essential services in order to make universal access to HIV prevention, care, treatment and support a meaningful reality for each and every human being.

Let me conclude by reflecting once again on my experience at the AIDS Conference in Mexico City last year.

I mentioned in my opening remarks how inspired I was by the grassroots activists, who have shown so much courage and who have built such important bridges to other social movements.  But I must also mention the courage of governments who were there.  Ministers of Health and Education from across the region pledged their support to stop discrimination, assure their rights and give access to sexual minorities and a comprehensive education for young people – including explicit attention to sexual diversity and to the links between machismo and homophobia. This is a crucial next step, and must go hand in hand with stronger health programmes, stronger human rights protection, and broader efforts to challenge homophobia and machismo in popular culture.  We have a long way to go, but we know what we need to do, we have momentum, and we have leadership from both activists and governments.  There has never been a better moment to commit to eliminating homophobia from our societies.

Rebeca Grynspan, UNDP Assistant Administrator and Regional Director  - Regional Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean