The Orlando Attacks and LGBTI Rights

Photo credit: Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG). Paying tribute to the victims of the Orlando attacks.

Photo credit: Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG). Paying tribute to the victims of the Orlando attacks.


Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) communities and their allies around the world are rallying together to express their solidarity and sadness following the shootings in Orlando, Florida. In the early morning of June 12, a gun man opened fire in a night club popular in the LGBTI community, leaving at least 49 people dead and over 50 wounded. A large proportion of the victims were people of color, particularly those from the Latino community.

The brutal reality is that these deaths are only the most recent in a long list of documented abuses and killings of LGBTI individuals globally. Many studies have reported incidences of murder, physical abuse, including sexual assault, beatings, stabbings, kidnappings, and psychological harm, such as coercion or threats inflicted on account of a person’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression. (See for example the 2011 report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, ‘Discriminatory Laws and Practices and Acts of Violence against Individuals Based on their Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity’ and the 2014 ‘Overview of Violence Against LGBT Persons’ of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Rapporteur on the Rights of LGBTI Persons.)

A common thread involving many attacks against LGBTI individuals is their particular brutality in comparison with other bias-motivated violence, more often demonstrating severe cruelty, such as mutilation. This conduct is perpetrated by private actors, including members of the family and community, but also by state agents.

The attacks in Orlando are a stark reminder that there is no place in the world where LGBTI people are free from discrimination and violence. Human rights violations against LGBTI people occur in a host of settings, including detention facilities, medical institutions, the home, the community and other public places. Spaces claimed as LGBTI-friendly continue to be especially vulnerable targets of hatred, harassment and violence.

Entrenched laws and policies, many rooted in British colonial legislation and maintained by post-colonial regimes, reinforce the stigmatization, discrimination and violence against members of this community. Intimate, consensual same-gender relations between adults are still criminalized in over 70 countries, with penal sanctions that include the death penalty in several countries.  A host of laws prescribe acceptable gender identity and/or gender expression by prohibiting behaviour, including imitating the appearance of the opposite sex. In some instances, laws of general application, such as prostitution or indecency, are used to sanction people solely on the basis of their perceived sexual orientation and/or gender identity. The intolerance and prejudice perpetuated by such provisions may be bolstered by prevailing social, cultural and religious norms debasing those who fail to comply with hetero-normative behaviours and societal-imposed binary perceptions of male and female. The stigmatizing legacy can endure long after anti-LGBTI laws have been repealed.  

LGBTI people continue to face a range of violations of their human rights, including the rights to: life; security of the person; privacy; freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly; freedom from discrimination; freedom from arbitrary search, arrest and detention; freedom from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; and the full array of social and economic rights such as housing, employment and the highest attainable standard of health. Marginalization, discrimination and violence may be magnified based on a person’s nationality, race, religion, ethnicity, class, ability, HIV status, migrant status, drug use, incarceration and sex work. (The human rights situations of LGBTI communities in various regions were considered in further detail at a recent panel entitled ‘New Frontiers in LGBTI Rights’, one of the first ever at the American Society of International Law 2016 annual meeting.)

While significant gains have been made in certain places in the world for some segments of the LGBTI population, we are witnessing continued or intensifying abuses in others. Even though some hard-fought battles for legal reform and attitudinal change have been won in a number of countries, the protection of rights remains uneven across the globe and within the LGBTI community, with particular marginalization of bisexual, transgender and intersex people and those affected by intersecting and multiple forms of discrimination. A significant number of governments challenge even the mere assertion that LGBTI people are protected at all by international, regional and national human rights protections.

In the aftermath of the attacks in Orlando, communities were rapidly galvanized and memorial events were held in many countries, while global landmarks displayed rainbow colors. That same weekend, Pride events took place peacefully in a number of countries, but in some instances, they were shrouded by threats of violence against marchers.

Those taking action to address and prevent human rights violations against LGBTI people will be working hard to stand in solidarity with other marginalized communities in their pursuit of ongoing-movement building. They will no doubt respond to hate and violence with continued courage and determination to ensure respect for the full range of rights to which LGBTI people are entitled, by virtue of their human dignity.

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