On Friday, September 29th, the United States cast a vote against a UN Human Rights Council resolution to ban the death penalty against LGBTI people, effectively jeopardizing LGBTI people’s lives around the world to preserve the death penalty at all costs. Though the US joined Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and China in voting against condemning the death penalty to punish blasphemy, adultery - and consensual same-sex relations, the ban thankfully passed.
It is no secret that since the Trump Administration’s rise to power, the US has seen a rise of anti-LGBTI legislation and cultural expression. Yet these effects are felt internationally, with religious leaders often playing the role of transmitters of such expression - culminating in a human rights crisis. Take the Nashville Statement for instance, a consolidating blueprint for isolating LGBTI people of Christian faith that was released this August.
It is no coincidence that several of the major religious groups who signed onto the statement also engage in international advocacy at the UN. For decades, conservative religious actors have lobbied against human rights protections for LGBTI people. These efforts are aimed at securing a home in the cradle of human rights - sanctioning the persecution of LGBTI people - and are even more more life-threatening as the US cast our vote against banning the death penalty for LGBTI people.
Take the Christian conservative group better known as C-fam, or the Center for Family and Human Rights. C-Fam regularly lobbies at the UN, and was a major signer of the Nashville Statement. Just last month, Twitter had to suspend C-Fam’s account as their president tweeted that Catholic priest and author Father James Martin should be beaten for his book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. Citing their foray into speech that incited violence, their account was suspended for twelve hours.
Unfortunately, much of the lobbying at the UN has recently been dominated by faith-based groups whose agendas directly translate into lethal legislation in Uganda, Nigeria, broad-based violence against transgender women in Brazil, bullying and anti-transgender bathroom legislation in the US, and brutality and violence in Jamaica, Russia, Chechyna, Egypt, and Tanzania. Groups like the World Congress of Families, C-Fam, Family Research Council, and dozens of others are using the UN as a global pipeline for homophobia. This is why in September, the call came from the United Nations LGBTI Core Group of Member States for a dialogue between opposing sides of LGBTI human rights.
LGBTI faith leaders from Uganda, Malawi, Tajikistan, Hong Kong, Australia, Samoa, South Africa, Ghana, Brazil, have responded to the call by traveling to the UN to speak to both sides of the faith community, to share stories that illustrate how telling anyone who to love or who they are can be tantamount to genocide. Their message is clear: The UN is an international body for peace, human rights, and development. To use the UN as a tool of violence and criminalization is unacceptable.
In the 76 countries where being LGBTI is criminalized, penalties range from death to discrimination. As the UN Representative of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, as well as priest in the Episcopal Church, I believe that now is the time for religious leaders engaged in international advocacy at the UN to affirm that no human being should be persecuted or harmed for their sexual orientation, gender identity, expression or sex characteristics. The UN is an international beacon, and LGBTI people are deserving of lives without fear of violence, sexual assault, and murder.
The Office of the High Commissioner’s Born Free and Equal Campaign and the UN LGBTI Core Group of member states has worked with an Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression (SOGIE) appointed by the UN to address this crisis. Despite the Independent Expert’s recent departure, these nations are in sync with the call for religious dialogue as a key step to international solutions that uphold the basic safety, civility and the right to being born free and equal under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
On October 26th, with the support of the Core Group of Member States, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Free and Equal Campaign, religious leaders from around the world are coming together at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City for a historic reconciliation between faith-based groups engaged in international advocacy around the ability of LGBTI people to live free from criminalization, violence, and murder around the world.
We know that all of the religious leaders and representatives in the United Nations community are interested in truthful and compassionate sharing of experience, knowledge, questions, and hope. We all share concern over the divisiveness and rancor that has constituted much of the discourse at the UN on the subject of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, and we are equally invested in developing a more positive path forward.
Religious leaders and advocates of all backgrounds are invited to this historic opportunity for education, discussion, discernment and deep listening to reflect on this dialogue, called the Ethics of Reciprocity.
The Ethics of Reciprocity dialogue seeks to overcome this destructive impasse at the UN by inviting radical, conservative, and progressive religious leaders involved in international advocacy efforts at the UN a seat at the table for a historic luncheon later this month to witness and dialogue with LGBTI-identified religious leaders from around the world from various Christian, African Indigenous, Muslim, and Jewish faith traditions. These leaders are courageously traveling to speak out publicly about their daily work to bring life and healing to a community fraught with violence, criminalization, and loss, despite the rejection, and violence they have personally faced.
On our last call, when I asked this fearless group about why they are risking their safety and coming together to speak out, the answer was that they wish to “create an environment of mutual respect and engagement so that together we can support the lives and work of our global family.” They, and I, see the UN as a natural place to begin a more harmonious discourse that can transform the world.
We are hopeful that Friday’s UN resolution against the death penalty for consensual same-sex relations will save lives. And if we are serious about all having a place a place at the international table to improve the lives of all God’s children, we must all come together within a diversity of beliefs, opinions, and understandings. We all share an ethic of reciprocity under our common Golden Rule - to do unto others as we would have them do unto us - and together, we can bring lasting peace.