Photo: UNA Georgetown Leaders with Randy Berry, U.S. Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Persons
Last month, members of UNA-Georgetown joined other college students and professionals from throughout Washington at the United Nations Foundation to engage in conversation surrounding the state of human rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) persons around the world. Representatives from the UN Free & Equal Campaign and the Human Rights Campaign discussed their efforts to promote the recognition of LGBT rights amongst members of the international community and Randy Berry, newly appointed Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Persons at the US Department of State, emphasized the US government’s commitment to the issue. In his keynote address, he articulated his role as a voice for American ideals, ensuring that democratic principles like freedom of expression and rule of law are maintained by America’s allies, especially for those who identify as LGBT.
Through the work of these various organizations, many victories have been won. Just recently, the Universal Period Review of Human Rights as published by the UN Human Rights Council included provisions supporting LGBT communities in the US and around the world. Also discussed at the event, however, were the harrowing statistics of the violence and injustice still committed toward the LGBT community. People are still harassed, imprisoned and even killed for engaging in that most fundamental of human ideals: love. To what degree, then, can the work touted by the UN and its partner organizations claim success? What good is an agreement to honor these rights if that promise isn’t always honored or enforced? Is the LGBT community really any better off than it was before? Charles Radcliffe, Senior Adviser on Sexual Identity and Gender Orientation at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, recognizes these difficulties but argued that the work of his organization and those of his partners is crucial both now and for future generations. The promotion of human rights is much like planting a tree, he noted. Once planted, it grows slowly, taking years to reach full size. This delay is frustrating and is certainly not ideal; he chided that, because of this delayed gratification, the best time to plant a tree is twenty-five years ago. Of course, that retroactivity is impossible. Instead, he suggested more practical advice: that the second best time to plant a tree is today. That is, although important change takes time, it can only be achieved if we are willing to take the first step. It may be frustrating to see surviving evidence of intolerance toward the LGBT community in our world today, but the best thing we can do is to plant the proverbial trees of tolerance, acceptance, support and celebration in order that future generations might have it better off than we do today.
Those trees are what Free & Equal and the Human Rights Campaign are working toward. They engage with bodies like the United Nations, the United States government and governments overseas to see wrongs righted and justice upheld. Perhaps the most important tree, however, is not that planted in a government, but rather that planted in the minds and hearts of its citizens.
After all, the mindset and prejudices of a nation are nothing more than the aggregate of the thoughts of its people. It is for this reason that organizations like the United Nations Association, both my chapter at Georgetown and those across the world, as well as campaigns like GenUN occupy such a crucial role. They have the power to bring ideas and goals from the United Nations in New York or Geneva, into a classroom or a community center; what’s more, they elevate the thoughts of the individual to a national and even international stage. They have the power to shape the next generation for whom, perhaps, the debate over LGBT rights will no longer be necessary: it may very well have already been won. LGBT rights are human rights; if that fact can be communicated effectively, twenty-five years from now, I have no doubt that the trees of tolerance will have grown strong.