Karen Ocamb

The "Global Arc of Justice" Bobs and Weaves Toward Justice

Filed By Karen Ocamb | March 14, 2009 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: AIDS Healthcare Foundation, West Hollywood, Williams Institute

Every now and then there are international events that startle me sufficiently to look beyond our national borders: the death of Princess Diana, "shock and awe" in Iraq, Sir Elton John performing in Russia.

So how cool was it to have the world come to me - as The Williams Institute opened its four-day "Global Arc of Justice Conference on LGBT Rights Law Around the World" at the Pacific Design Center here in West Hollywood.


The conference got me thinking. If not for Doug Ireland's persistent coverage of death squads hunting gays in the Middle East, I don't know if I'd stop naval-gazing long enough to know about the gay teens hung in Iran and those seeking asylum. And if not for performance artist Tim Miller, blogger Chris Crain and Love Exiles - I wouldn't know about the heart-wrenching plight of bi-national couples. And, well, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission has perhaps been at this the longest - now focusing on the intense homophobia in Uganda.

The conference runs from Wednesday, March 11 to Saturday, March 14th - mostly on the UCLA campus where the Williams Institute is headquartered at their School of Law. IMG_1979.JPGThere are over 300 attendees with 120 speakers from 40 countries - including Supreme Court Justices from Argentina, Australia and Nepal.

Williams Institute Executive Director Brad Sears and USC Professor and International Lesbian and Gay Law Association President David Cruz opened the conference Wednesday night after welcoming remarks from West Hollywood City Councilmembers John Heilman and John Duran, who co-sponsored the event as part of the city's Human Rights Speakers series. West Hollywood, Heilman noted, was the first city in the country to divest from South Africa during apartheid and "is proud to always be on the side of human rights."

Actress Jackie Guerra ("Selena") also welcomed the crowd, saying she appreciates her LGBT fans and linked homophobia to racism. She told a story of how she IMG_1982.JPGwould talk to her father about racist comments directed at her in school and her father would say, "your job isn't to get mad. Your job is to educate them." She remembered that lesson when she discovered people she knew voted for Prop 8.

The opening plenary focused on LGBT Rights in Latin America. It was moderated by Javier Corrales, associate professor of Political Science at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts who is a Visiting Scholar at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University. He has also been a consultant for the World Bank, the United Nations, and the Center for Global Development.

Sears set the stage:

"In the past several years, countries in Latin America have been leaping ahead in recognizing LGBT rights...Given that California and the U.S. already share so much with Latin America in terms of history, culture and population, we now have the opportunity to share a growing recognition of LGBT rights."

IMG_1984.JPGThen Sears brought it home:

"There is a crisis of courage right here in California and apparently with our judges last week [referring to the attitudes of the California Supreme Court Justices during oral arguments on whether to invalidate Prop 8]. They seem to have forgotten wheat judges and courts are for..."

Cruz also elbowed the US a bit:

"Mexico's efforts to combat HIV/AIDS, homophobia and heterosexism under Dr. Saavedra's leadership offer just one example of the many ways Latin American countries can serve as a model for the U.S. and other countries that aspire to justice for all, irrespective of sexual orientation or gender identity and expression."

Dr. Jorge Saavedra was Director of CENSIDA, Mexico's national AIDS Program. He developed government-funded anti-homophobia and anti-AIDS phobia radio and television campaigns in Mexico - which he discussed at the opening night plenary.

IMG_1983.JPGSaavedra, you may remember, caused considerable buzz at the 2008 International AIDS Conference in Mexico City - which was devoted to discussing the stigma of HIV/AIDS and the link between HIV and homophobia - with his plenary lecture about men who have sex with men. He also proved that "the personal is political" isn't just a feminist thing speaking about being an openly gay and married public official and LGBT rights as a public health issue. AIDS Healthcare Foundation subsequently hired him to be their Chief of Global Affairs.

After the opening plenary, Tom Coates, Director of UCLA AIDS Institute, and Oscar de la O, President of BIENESTAR Human Services presented Saavedra with an award thanking him for his service on behalf of LGBT rights and people living with HIV/AIDS.

IMG_1993.JPGAccepting it, Saavedra said:

"I will accept this award on behalf of the LGBT men and women of Mexico who have been fighting for their rights and to be treated with dignity. It has been an honor to serve them and to stand alongside them in their fight for justice."

The plenary presentations were moving - marred only by my inability to fully understand the translators at times.

But here's the gist of what they said.

Tatiana Cordero - who helped draft Ecuador's new constitution that includes explicit protections for LGBT people - spoke from a feminist perspective about how gender stereotypes in the culture of machismo lead to societal prejudices. "Anything that was not heterosexual was homosexual...and punished because it did not fit into the parameters of masculine and feminine." IMG_2002.JPGThat's how they wound up with a constitution and a judicial system "full of tensions and contradictions." She said the constitution must be "transformed" to eliminate the "patriarchy of the family" and bring about a "new biological assumption of race - which is liberty, dignity and equality."

Germán H. Rincón Perfetti successfully litigated LGBT rights cases before the Colombia Constitutional Court. But most of his apparently unscripted presentation focused on an often humorous story of how he helped a closeted gay man he called "Mr. X" to secure his dead partner's pension since the partner worked for Congress. "How do you say - crazy?" Though he claimed to not really know what he was doing - Perfetti took the case all the way to the International High Court in Geneva because Columbia violated an equal rights provision in an international treaty they signed by refusing to give Mr. X the pension. IMG_1981.JPGHe described stalling opening the envelop with the High Court's ruling - and then once he did, saying "I don't understand - but I think I won the case." But Mr. X refused to identify himself to the inquisitive media. "Mr. X - from his closet - was seeking justice."

Karen Atala Riffo - a lesbian judge from Chile - told a very moving story about having her children taken away and fighting for them before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Riffo said:

"I think I am a good citizen. But I am stigmatized as a lesbian mother...
[Losing her children was] painful...but this is no longer a personal case....People are living with discrimination because of their gender identity and expression. What happened to me and my daughters should never happen to other people."

During a question and answer period, there was discussion of youth, hate crimes, and transgender issues.

Cordero said that transgender people are still being "detained arbitrarily for going against morality."

Riffo said it is important to become allies with the transgender community, which is growing stronger because of the struggles transgenders face. IMG_1989.JPG"It is my perception that the transgender community is the one pushing the fight."

Later Monica Trasandes from GLAAD told me about a terrible attack on a transwoman in Peru - she has the story and video on her blog.

That was just the first night! The conference also featured speakers from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Jamaica, Mexico, Peru and Nicaragua to discuss what's going on in their countries as they make progress advancing - as the Williams Institute puts it - "in legal recognition and protection for same sex couples; HIV/AIDS and LGBT human rights; the repeal of sodomy laws; efforts by national governments to end homophobia and advance LGBT equality; and advancement of rights for transgendered people."

The Williams Institute has info from all four days - plus links to video events.

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I laughed out loud at your praise of Doug Ireland, a deeply misogynistic gay man who does not hesitate to attempt to shame queer women of colour like myself for their sex lives while pretending to care about queer lives elsewhere. You can read my account here:


For next time, I'd suggest you and others research your sources before heaping praise on them.

On another note: Always good to know about and connect with LGBTQ rights activists across the world. I've had the opportunity to do the same recently and the experience has been eye-opening. Yet: I'm sceptical about such "across-the-oceans" queer diplomacy since it's usually embedded in the worst kind of U.S.-based imperialism (see Alex Blaze's "International Gay Tunnel Vision

I'm leery of the connections between Prop 8 and marriage and international rights activism as made, possibly, by Sears. You only provide partial quotes so I won't assume he actually made the connection but, certainly, your strategic use of quotes implies the same.

Sorry, but these issues are just not the same and gay rights marriage activists need to stop running around and appropriating other struggles in order to fuel their own cause. And the "heart-wrenching plight of bi-national couples" frequently subsumes a larger and more complex understanding of comprehensive immigration reform.

I found the rest of the material an interesting resource in terms of naming activists elsewhere.

It's a vexing conundrum for those of who engage with questions of LGBT rights in other countries: How do we do it without replicating U.S-based notions of gay mainstream entitlement, and without assuming that ALL "gay struggles" are exactly the same?

I laughed out loud when I saw your praise of Doug Ireland. Ireland is a misogynistic gay man who does not hesitate to attempt to shame queer women of colour like myself for their sex lives. While, at the same time, pretending to care about the lives of women and queers in other parts of the world. You can read my account of his particular kind of activism here:


For next time, I’d suggest that you research your sources a little more before heaping praise on them.

As for the rest: As I’ve noted here and elsewhere, it’s always necessary that U.S-based LGBTQs get a clue about queer struggles and lives in other parts of the world, but it’s shocking how often that business of getting a clue involves replicating U.S cultural and political imperialism. The connection between marriage, Prop 8, and struggles elsewhere is tenuous at best, and discredits the specificity and intensity of movements abroad. Yet Sears, judging by your judiciously chosen quotes, is making that connection exactly. Sorry, but marriage pales in comparison to the issues facing activists in other countries. I’ve recently been in contact with a few and the experience has been eye-opening. And the “heart-wrenching plight of bi-national couples” usually subsumes the fight for comprehensive immigration reform. About which most in the gay community are clueless and give not a damn.

Those of us who are genuinely engaged with questions about how to forge alliances with other struggles are constantly faced with the conundrum: How do we do that without replicating U.S imperialism? And, as queers, how do we avoid the blatant forms of gay entitlement that the mainstream gay community insists on forcing upon every movement that it claims as nothing more than a mere mirror image of itself?

Heavens. Well, I'm glad I made you laugh. That's something positive, at least.

Actually, reading your comment was an interesting glimpse into how two people can look at something and see things totally differently. For instance - I didn't "praise" Doug Ireland - I was simply pointing out a fact in my life, which is that if I didn't receive information via different listservs from Doug (and Andy at UK Gay News, for another), I might simply read the headline and the first paragraph of some international news story and pass it along to the World News writer for my magazine. Hence the reference to "naval-gazing."

As far as Brad Sears' comments about Prop 8 and gay marriage - they were made in two contexts: 1) we were in West Hollywood, ground zero for the LA Protests which everyone in the audience knew about and referred to; and 2) he was saying that in comparison to the International Court and courts in other countries that seem to have made more progress that we have in this country on equal rights based on sexual orientation. Perhaps I didn't make that clear - for which I apologize.

But the larger issue about Prop 8 is that by allowing a simple majority to take away an existing fundamental right of a "suspect class" - us - has other minorities worried about what and who the majority will come for next. What then becomes of the Equal Protection Clause - which is ironic when compared to the story of Mr. X.

And while marriage may pale in comparison with what LGBT people are experiencing in other countries - marriage is one of the issues we're dealing with here, and it turns out, in other countries, too. But marriage and other international issues are not mutually exclusive - which I pointed out in the piece - Including in the note re the attack on a transwoman in Peru. I have since been following up on that for another story.

As far as the plight of bi-national couples "subsuming" the issue of comprehensive immigration reform - I always find it helpful when personal stories illustrate the larger point. I live in WeHo/LA and immigration is a huge issue here, touching almost every other issue - and I've written about this too. For instance, LAPD Chief Bill Bratton has repeatedly said the LAPD will not act like or in concert with the INS when it comes to undocumented people. He has stressed this to transgender Latinas in particular, who are often victims of hate crimes and fear reporting them because they don't want to be deported.

As to your last point about "gay entitlement" - well, you just lost me there. I'm white and I live in WeHo - but not a day goes by when I do not think about how I am an official second class citizen in my own country - despite its mighty promises. But then again, it's my job to think about these things.

The point of this blog - in addition to telling a bit about the Williams Institute event - was to essentially note that I generally concentrate on what happens locally - and how much I'm missing by doing that. Just a personal observation.


Your citing of Doug Ireland amounts to an endorsement of his crappy politics. Are you, a practised media professional, seriously going to pretend that citing a certain source is not tantamount to an endorsement which is in turn something that amounts to, ah, praise? All of us cite particular sources and particular people because we want to further their visibility - because we like and endorse their perspectives. Otherwise, I'd be citing David Brooks, who actually makes some kind of sense about 10% of the time.

This kind of slippery rhetoric might fly during a quick television interview, but it falls flat in print. And, of course, you conveniently have nothing to say about the contradictions inherent in a misogynist claiming to be arguing for the rights of women and queers - elsewhere.

The rest of your response is just as slippery, and I'll only write this: the inability not to marry is not the same as the issues facing queers elsewhere. The Equal Protection Clause argument re: Prop 8 is one that's being widely touted, especially by groups like Lambda Legal. While I'm no legal expert, I'm suspicious of any argument that attempts to scare other minorities into solidarity with the logic that "this could happen to you too." Really? And I won't go into the issue of groups of disenfranchised who can't really argue for equal protection under the law any more.

I will dwell for a bit on the issue of binational couples where, again, you say a lot without confronting points.

When I wrote "frequently subsumes" I was referring to the conversation about immigration within the gay community. Which does not give a damn about anyone else except binational couples and completely ignores the fact that something like partner sponsorship does nothing for undocumented immigrants and is often pretty useless for straight couples as well. The fact that you personally can refer to an issue concerning trans and undocumented people does nothing to address the point I'm making about the larger gay movement and how we discuss these issues.

Wanting to turn everything into a personal narrative so that we can forget the importance of critical analysis is a classic stand-by of the gay movement these days. Too much thought spent on the fact that marriage rights don't do a thing to alleviate the lack of health care and poverty that millions of gays and straights are facing? Quick, let's give them a personal story about two gays who suffer because they can't get married and maybe we'll all forget about the larger issues at stake for most people. Confronted with the fact that all this talk about binational couples doesn't say anything about undocumented immigrants? Quick, come up with a factoid to show how much I personally do know about the issue.

The point of this is: your response is short on specifics but long on obfuscation. And as for the point about being a second class citizen - well, ahem, perhaps a personal story would clarify what exactly you mean by that? Do you mean by class, gender, degree of able-bodiedness, or what? I'll assume you mean that your inability to marry is what classifies you as a second class citizen. If so, thanks for giving me one more example for my ever-expanding file on the issue of gay entitlement. If not, well, I stand corrected. Your second-class citizenship trumps that of everyone else. The floor is yours.

Seriously: I didn't write my response to initiate some pointless back and forth about whose marginalization matters more. I was making a point about the gay movement which, today, is dementedly focused on marriage to the exclusion of everything else.

As I pointed out, I was actually interested in some of the issues of activists. And my responding the way I did to your post is not, as you put it, a simple example of "how two people can look at something and see things totally differently." If you're going to blog about these issues in any way, you have to be prepared to engage with people about the politics of the same. You don't have to be an expert (I certainly am not one), but you do have a responsibility to engage politically with political issues. You can't simply avoid discussing the politics of the very stark issues you raised by conveniently reducing everything to a subjective response and then backing into a lame statement like "Just a personal observation."

Thanks for taking the time and being there. As Brad Sears brought Prop 8 up, is the investigation sponsored by the David Bohnett Foundation uncovering any red flags? Any information will be appreciated and will help me in a decision to donate again to Equality California or the Williams Institute. You do a great job uncovering the truth.

I called the Bohnett Foundation office the other day and Michael Fleming was traveling. He's heading up the team at UCLA for the post analysis - and I'll let everyone know what's up and/or the timeline after I speak with Michael.

The post-election analysis from EQCA of their role is supposed to be released this month.

As you probably know, EQCA hired Marc Solomon from MassEquality and Andrea Shorter to work on marriage. Meanwhile EQCA is still lobbying - particularly the Harvey Milk Day bill.

And the Williams Institute continues to gain in stature - especially after this mega-four day international conference.

But you should call Geoff Kors and Brad Sears yourself to see what they're doing and get your questions answered. Meanwhile when the different reports come up, I'll write about them.


The US can definitely learn something from other countries. Although since I've never seen it happen, I might be wrong.

For instance, when I was reading the part about Rincón Perfetti's story, what stood out to me was "Citizens of another country can sue under that country's acknowledged treaty obligations?" The US tortures in violation of its treaty obligations, and refuses to investigate and prosecute in violation of those treaty obligations, and I very much doubt a court is going to force the US to do so.

But I doubt the US will take any opportunity to actually learn from other countries, at least not in the immediate future.