On Human Rights Day
December 10 is a special day for queer folks. Oh, wait, you didn’t know? No, it’s not the day where everything at Diesel is 80% off, nor does it signify three-for-one margaritas at Truck Stop. It’s not Madonna’s birthday, or Ellen’s or Shane’s or Anderson Cooper’s. Are you stumped?
It’s Human Rights Day!
Yep. Turns out Human Rights Day has been celebrated every year, on this day, since 1948, when the Universal Declaration on Human Rights was created. According to the United Nations website, December 10 is a day on which “we pay tribute to all human rights defenders and ask you to get involved in the global human rights movement.” Sounds nice, right? Really nice. Sounds like one of those flyers they send you in the mail to try to guilt-trip you into donating money to Amnesty International.
In the context of recent events, I’d like to take this opportunity, on this day, to offer a new perspective on human rights.
As odd as it might seem when you really think about it, “human rights” is kind of passé. Who thinks about human rights in America? We’re past that sort of conversation. We think of civil rights, naturally, although we’re starting to forget about that too. We think of gay rights, definitely, that “last civil rights frontier” that has gained a great deal of airtime and momentum in the years since Proposition 8 catapulted our issues to national attention. Indeed, as a good friend of mine, the editor of a Latino/a-interest newsmagazine, said to me recently, “Gay rights are in. It’s cool to be pro-gay in America.” She implied that the LGBTQ community in the United States is experiencing a privileged position in the national conversation, and I think she’s right. For the first time, a majority of Americans support gay marriage. Discussion of the issues faced by queer teens and trans individuals are being given prime TV time on major networks. Indeed, it does seem as though LGBT rights are, if not “in,” at least being given an increasing amount of attention, as people realize that they cannot ignore this blight on the American conscience.
So why should we queer folks celebrate Human Rights Day?
Because whether we think about it or not, millions around the world, including countless queer people, are denied the basic fundamental rights granted to all human beings on the planet in 1948. Millions of people who are less privileged than even the worst-off among us, who spend more time worrying that they will arrested for being who they are than they do about gay marriage.
I’ll stop there, at the risk of verging too far into non-profit-NGO-propaganda territory. Luckily, Hillary Clinton said it much better than me a couple of days ago.
In a speech to commemorate Human Rights Day, and to promote the President’s new plan to fight for LGBT rights around the world with a new Global Equality Fund, Clinton took the opportunity to honor the LGBTQ community, “to really invite a conversation,” according to a State department aide. She explained to the world, in breathtakingly simple language, a fundamental truth that even we sometimes forget: that LGBTQ individuals are human beings. In front of the world, Clinton said, “Like being a woman, like being a racial, religious, tribal, or ethnic minority, being LGBT does not make you less human. And that is why gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”
With these words, of course, Clinton meant to remind the world’s powerful that it is no more acceptable to degrade an individual on the basis of sexual orientation than on the basis of race or gender. But in her sentiment we must look for another message – that no matter how easy it might be for us to feel isolated in a world full of oppression, we must remember that we are human, and thus that we have a fundamental duty to look out for our fellow humans. Apathy is not an option; neither is ignorance. We are human, in the most basic and meaningful sense of that word. If the world is to treat us as such, to grant us the respect we are due as members of this community of humanity, we must prove that we are worthy of the distinction. If the human rights conversation in our community really does stop at marriage equality, we are essentially denying our connection to those who are different from us. We are making the same mistake as the oppressive regimes, societies and individuals that were the targets of Clinton’s words. By setting ourselves apart from the struggles of others, at home and around the world, people of color and the elderly and trans individuals and the handicapped, we are making a statement that is not only untrue, but irresponsible and immoral. We are saying that we are different, that we don’t owe them anything, that we can’t help them, won’t help them, that they don’t deserve our help.
For me, December 10 is a special day. Not because it forces us to “pay tribute to human rights defenders,” not because it draws attention to the struggles we face every day. It doesn’t really do any of that. It’s special because in a small, often overlooked way, it challenges us to really think about what it means to be queer, to be oppressed, but more than anything, what it means to be human.
To read the full transcript of Clinton’s speech, click here. Or watch the video below: