Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Rights aren't gifts, even on Human Rights Day

It's encouraging to see Human Rights Day this year become something of a celebration of the freedom of sexual minorities. The United Nations General Assembly will soon consider a resolution calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality -- an important move in a world where many gays and lesbians still face the prospect of prison time or even death as a legal penalty for just being who they are. In the U.S., many people are taking the day off from work for today's "Day Without a Gay" to remind people just how many of their co-workers and employees are affected by anti-gay discrimination. While the UN resolution might seem like the more momentous of the two developments, it's actually less impressive -- and a bit perilous -- when compared to the grassroots boycott effort.

When politicians join together to celebrate your rights, get ready for your freedom to be treated as a gift from on high. They debate a bit, they enjoy a few photo-ops with one another, and then, in front of television cameras, they tell us all why we should thank them for tweaking a few laws or, more likely, just issuing a few finely crafted words. Any small victories won come with a wink and a reminder to vote "the right way" at the next election.

Is Saudi Arabia going to cease being a lousy place for gays and lesbians to live because Nicolas Sarkozy and Jimmy Carter enjoyed a few glasses of taxpayer-purchased wine in front of a UN logo? Don't count on it.

Real change comes from the bottom up, when the people affected by bad laws don't just insist that the law should change -- they force it to happen, usually over the protests of politicians. The Americans behind "Day Without a Gay" haven't faced the threat of legal penalties for their sexual orientation since the Supreme Court decided Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 (and far longer than that, in most places), but that's because of their own efforts -- not a General Assembly resolution handed down from above. They fought back against arrest, changed the culture by being open and worked together to force the government to back off.

Beating the crap out of a few gay-bashing cops during the Stonewall riots accomplished more for the rights of gays and lesbians than the UN General assembly ever will.

That's not to say we shouldn't celebrate human rights on December 10. We absolutely should. But always be aware that the real protector of your liberty is you and your like-minded allies -- not some politician on a podium.

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