As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Sahar Moazami, OutRight Action International’s United Nations Program Officer. Sahar is trained as a lawyer specialising in international human rights law. Primarily based in the USA, OutRight has staff in six countries and works alongside LGBTQI people across four continents to defend and advance the human rights of LGBTQI people around the world. Founded in 1990 as the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, it changed its name in 2015 to reflect its commitment to advancing the human rights of all LGBTQI people. It is the only LGBTQI civil society organisation with a permanent advocacy presence at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.
OutRight is unique in that it has a permanent presence at the United Nations (UN). Can you tell us what kind of work you do at the UN, and how this work helps advance the human rights of LGBTQI people around the world?
OutRight is indeed uniquely placed. We are the only LGBTQI-focused and LGBTQI-led organisation with UN ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council accreditation) status focusing on the UN in New York. Prior to 2015, when we formalised the programme as it exists today, we would do UN work, but with a focus on human rights mechanisms in Geneva and a more ad-hoc participation in New York, such as making submissions on LGBTQI issues to human rights treaty bodies with civil society partners in specific countries or bringing speakers to sessions and interactive dialogues.
In 2015 we reviewed our strategic plan and realised that we were uniquely placed: we are based in New York, we are the only LGBTQI organisation here with ECOSOC status, there are a number of UN bodies here in New York, and there is a bit of a gap in LGTBQI presence. So we decided to shift our focus, also taking into consideration that we work with a lot of great colleagues overseas, like ILGA (the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association), which is permanently based and has staff in Geneva, or COC Netherlands, which has easier access than us to Geneva mechanisms. So it made sense, given that we had great colleagues working in Geneva and we were the only ones based here, to try and make sure we were using our resources constructively and thus covering all spaces. As a result, we now focus specifically on the UN in New York, which is quite an interesting landscape.
While there are 47 states at a time that are actively engaged with the Human Rights Council in Geneva, all states that are UN members have a permanent presence in New York, throughout the year. This creates an opportunity for continuous engagement. We are part of an informal working group, the UN LGBTI Core Group, which includes 28 UN member states, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Human Rights Watch, alongside OutRight Action International. This group provides the space to do LGBTQI advocacy throughout the year and gives us direct access to the 28 member states involved. We work in the UN LGBTI Core Group to identity and take advantage of opportunities for promoting LGBTQI inclusivity and convene events to increase visibility. While we also engage with other states, the Core Group provides a specific space for the work that we do.
In addition to year-round engagement with member states, there are a number of sessions that are of particular interest: the UN General Assembly, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in March and the High-Level Political Forum on the Sustainable Developments Goals in July. In all of these forums we provide technical guidance to UN member states on using inclusive language in resolutions and outcome documents and we host events with Core Group and non-Core Group member states relevant to topics and themes discussed in these forums, with the aim of increasing LGBTQI visibility and inclusion. Throughout the year we also work on the Security Council, as members of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security.
Every December we hold our own flagship programme, in which we support between 30 and 40 activists from all around the world to come and undergo training on UN mechanisms in New York, and take part in numerous meetings with UN officials and bodies, and member states.
The impact that our work has on people’s lives depends on our ability to leverage the status that we have to open doors. We use the access we have via our ECOSOC status to get our partners into spaces otherwise not available to them and to support them in their advocacy once they are there. So many things happen at the UN that have an impact on our lives, yet it is a system that is difficult to explain. It is easier to show activists the various UN mechanisms, how they work and how activists can use them to further their work.
Being able to open spaces, bringing information and perspectives into the conversation and then getting the information that we are able to gather back to our partners on the ground so they can use it in their advocacy – that is what I am most proud of in terms of the real impact of our work on people’s lives.
Over the past decade there have been sizeable advances in recognition of the human rights of LGBTQI people. Have you experienced backlash from anti-rights groups that oppose these gains?
I think we are seeing significant progress. Over the past year, a number of countries passed or began to implement laws that recognise diverse gender identities and expand the rights of transgender people, remove bans against same-sex relations and recognise equal marriage rights to all people regardless of gender or sexual orientation. At the same time, and maybe in reaction to these gains, we are experiencing backlash. We are witnessing the rise of right-wing nationalism and anti-gender movements targeting gender equality and advocating for the exclusion of LGBTQI people and extreme restrictions on sexual and reproductive health and rights. This has led to a rise in queerphobic, and especially transphobic, rhetoric coming from political actors and, in some cases, attempts to roll back progress made to recognise the diversity of gender identities.
The CSW is a good example of a space that has undergone regression, particularly regarding the rights of LGBTQI people. What we saw during its latest session, in March 2019, was a very vocal and targeted attack against trans individuals. The anti-gender narrative was present in side events that were hosted by states and civil society groups both at the UN and outside the UN.
Do you think these groups are part of a new, more aggressive generation of anti-rights groups? Are they different in any way from the conservative groups of the past?
I wouldn’t say they are so new, and they certainly did not come out of nowhere. Such narratives have been around in national discourse for quite a while. What seems new is the degree to which the right-wing groups promoting them have become emboldened. What has emboldened them the most is that powerful states are using their arguments. This anti-gender narrative has penetrated deeply and is reflected in negotiations and official statements. During the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly, for example, representatives of the USA attempted to remove the word ‘gender’ from numerous draft resolutions, requesting to replace it with the term ‘woman’. And at the 63rd Session of the CSW, a number of delegations negotiating the official outcome document, including from Bahrain, Malaysia, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the USA, attempted to remove or limit references to gender throughout the document, proposing instead narrow terms reinforcing a gender binary, excluding LGBTQI – and especially trans persons – from the CSW's guidance to states on their gender equality efforts.
So clearly the anti-rights discourse is not coming from fringe right-wing CSOs or individuals anymore, but from heads of state, government officials and national media platforms, which give it not just airtime, but also credibility. As a result, anti-rights groups feel increasingly free to be more upfront and upright. I don’t know if they are really increasing in popularity or if people who have always held these views are also emboldened by leaders of nations who are using the same rhetoric. Maybe these right-wing populist leaders just opened the door to something that was always there.
But I think there is one change underway in terms of the kind of groups that promote anti-rights narratives. In the past it was clear that these were all religion-based organisations, but now we are seeing secular and non-secular groups coming together around the narrative of biology. Some of them even identify as feminists and as human rights defenders but are particularly hostile toward trans individuals. Of course, there are some groups that are clearly hijacking feminist concepts and language, attaching them to new interpretations that are clearly forced, but there are also groups that actually consider themselves to be feminists and believe that trans individuals should be expelled from feminist spaces.
Either hypocritically or out of some sort of conviction, these groups are using feminist language to further their goals. And they are using the same rhetoric against abortion rights and the rights of LGBTQI people. They are well-funded. They have plenty of resources and supporters. Of course, plenty of people stand vocally in support of abortion rights, sexual health and education, and the human rights of LGBTQI people, but what I am trying to emphasise is that the anti-rights forces are mobilising people differently and are able to amplify their message in a way that makes them very dangerous.
From our perspective, they are mobilising against the rights of certain people – but that is not the way they frame it. They are not explicit in using the human rights framework against certain categories of people. Rather they claim to be upholding principles around, say, the freedom of religion, the rights of children, or women’s rights. They depict the situation as though the rights of some groups would necessarily be sacrificed when the rights of other groups are realised; but this is a false dichotomy. Human rights are universal as well as indivisible.
How can progressive rights-oriented civil society respond to help resist these advances?
I think there are different tactics that we could use, and we are already using. There is an argument to be made against responding to things that are said by anti-gender and anti-rights groups. Faced with this challenge, different people would have different responses, and I can only speak from my personal background and for my organisation. I think that these are false narratives and we shouldn’t engage with them. We need to be more proactive. Rather than engaging, we should focus on ensuring that all the work we do is truly collaborative and intersectional, and that we acknowledge each other and support one another in all of our diversity.
People who really uphold feminist values agree that the root of gender inequality is the social construction of gender roles and norms, and that these constructions produce personal and systemic experiences of stigma, discrimination and violence. Those of us who believe this need to continue mobilising our narratives to fight against structural barriers to equality. The fact that some anti-rights groups are using a bogus feminist rhetoric is no reason to abandon feminism, but rather the opposite – we need to embody the version of feminism that is most inclusive, the one that is truer to its principles. We cannot accept their claim that they speak for all of us. We need to reclaim feminism as our own space and reject the terms of the debate as they are presented to us.