Constructing “Corrective Rape” for South Africa: An evaluation of a global media discourse around sexual violence in South Africa







Our humanitarian imagination has a new fascination. Since 2010, journalists, government officials, and activists have gained interest in so-called “corrective rape” in South Africa. “Corrective rape” alludes to a belief, allegedly held by black South African men, that non-heteronormative sexuality is a deviation that can be “corrected” through sexual violence. According to this belief, rape is not a crime but a social service. In this paper, I argue that “corrective rape” has a history. The international media’s interest in crimes targeting gender and sexual minorities in South Africa seems to have brought about a quantitative increase in media articles published on the subject globally, as well as a qualitative shift toward generality and hyperbole. Through this epistemology, I hope to reframe and reconsider this media narrative in order to begin a conversation about representing violence against minority sexualities in a circumstance of global unevenness.

Harvard Kennedy School LGBTQ Policy Journal
[PDF] Constructing “Corrective Rape” for South Africa: An evaluation of a global media discourse around sexual violence in South Africa
Miriam Gleckman-Krut

LGBT rights and democracy: What to do when we don’t like thosewho are helping us out?

Mavi Suselwas the first transgender person to receive sex-reassignment surgery in Cuba in 1988. She came to be well-knownthrough the Cuban film “In the Wrong Body” (“en el cuerpo equivocado”), in which she shared her journey of dealing with gender identity. Her story represents great progress for the LGBT movement in Cuba. And yet, as easy as it may be for Mavi to showcase her story as the incontrovertible proof of the progress witnessed in this front in Cuba, it is less clear what the response from LGBT advocates both in Cuba and abroad should be.

In the same film, Mavi states how “Inclusion and struggling against any form of discrimination serves to strengthen socialism. It promotes increased production in industry and agriculture that benefit all the people, and builds unity against imperialist efforts to undermine and destroy socialism,” which underscores how many of the well-advertised breakthroughs in LGBT rights in Cuba go hand-in-hand with strong political support for the current regime, despite the many violations of Cubans’ basic civil liberties.

Such situations pose a pressing dilemma for the LGBT community in these type of countries, and their allies around the world:what stance should LGBT movements around the world take toward countries that advance LGBT rights while using it as a stage to endorse undemocratic practices in their countries?What about totalitarian states, or elected governments with undemocratic practices, that declare support of gay rights in their countries? With these countries, any advancesin gay rights seem to be a startling development to the world; yet, it could also be argued that this group of countries seems to embody a nascent club that is well-versed in the practices of pink-washing.

Even within this peculiar group of states, the degree of support for gay rights or degree of totalitarianism varies phenomenally.In Venezuela, President Chávez consistently made explicit his support for the LGBT population in the early 2000s, even mentioning his regret for not including a special provision for gay rights in the newly-approved 1999 constitution. However, by 2012, during his presidential campaign for reelection against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, Chávez frequently addressed his contender as “fascist,” while the state-owned media accused Capriles of being “gay and Jew” (this even involved publishing a cartoon with Capriles´ face wearing pink underwear and a swastika sign on his arm).

This phenomenon is even more evident in North Korea, where the Korean Friendship Association (an organization sponsored by the DPRK government) stated: “As a country that has embraced science and rationalism, the DPRK recognizes that many individuals are born with homosexuality as a genetic trait and treats them with due respect. Homosexuals in the DPRK have never been subject to repression, as in many capitalist regimes around the world.”

However, I had the chance to discuss this press release with several tour guides in Pyongyang this year, and they stated that there are simply no gays in North Korea, and the whole idea of gay culture represents a foreign concept for their people. Oliver Hotham, in an article on “being gay in the DPRK,” mentions how many defectors only came to cope with the idea of gay people after they left North Korea. Moreover, he mentions how a passage in a state-produced short story called “Snowstorm in Pyongyang” regarding the capture of the USS Pueblo in 1968, shows the captured American sailors begging their North Korean captors to allow them to engage in gay sex (a depiction that seems to have been meant as a form of humiliation).

Such practices are generally repulsive to people across the political spectrum in the western world. However, it is also true that there are many countries that have indeed truly advanced gay rights for their citizens, even as they continue to advance anti-democratic agendas. This is when consensus on how to approach this kind of governments dissolves.

If we take Argentina, President Cristina Kirchner managed to pass through Congress a bill for gay marriage.By the end of 2012,5,839 marriage licenses had been issued for same-sex couples in Argentina. That is unequivocal progress for the LGBT movement in Argentina. However, the government that pushed this bill forward is the same government that has censored media in the countryin clever ways. A paper from Rafel Di Tella, a Harvard Business School Professor,showed a strong negative correlation between the willingness of Argentine media to cover government scandals and how much money these news outlets receive from the government.

Cuba also belongs to this group. While holding the position of least democratic government in the Americas, being ruled by the Castro family for more than 50 years, it is now also becoming well-known for more “gay-friendly” statements and policies, advanced chiefly by Mariela Castro. Mariela, daughter of President Raul Castro, and leader of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education, has become a strong advocate for LGBT rights in Cuba and in the region. Today, sex reassignment surgeries are free of charge for Cubans. But Mariela, for all her effortsto generate awareness on these issues, still embodies the privileges of belonging to the most powerful family in Cuba, whose power and influence derive from the dictatorial practices of the system her uncle and father have put in place in the country.

So, what should the LGBT community’s stance toward these types of regimes and their positionson gay rights be? It is certainly difficult to blindly make afull endorsementof the progress of gay rights in these countries when we are fully aware of how many other human rights are being curtailed every day in these same places. From the activists’ point of view, with these type of governments, your survival as a gay rights movement depends on how compliant and non-threatening you are to the current group in power and the status quo as a whole. This necessarily means a certain degree of blindness toward other human rights transgressions in order to preserve the space they have been permitted within these states. This dynamic is coined as “pragmatic resistance,” and seems to be frequently employed by the gay rights movement in Singapore.

This is certainly not a one-size-fits-all answer to this predicament. It is hard to think of LGBT advocates celebrating advances made in countries where they might not even have the right to vote in competitive elections, or where state-sanctioned racial or religious discrimination is widespread. Turning a blind eye toward the repression of other civil liberties, some might argue, might even undermine the legitimacy of LGBT advocacy groups as activists genuinely concerned with human rights as opposed to a pragmatic interest group looking to advance their own agenda at the expense of the rest.

And yet, history is full of compromises of this sort, where progress on one front comes at the expense of other causes. We see this in how dictatorial regimesfell in Latin America but left behind institutions that preserved the economic interests of those circles being stripped of political power; take, for example, Chile’s Pinochet and Venezuela’s Pérez Jiménez.

This is not to say the gay community should unconditionally embrace offers from these hybrid regimes. Progress on gay rights should never come at the expense of regressing on the rights of others. But that is not to say, however, that progress must come simultaneously from all fronts. It is in these delicate situations where the international LGBT advocacy groups should be more vocal about denouncing human right violations from these sometimes-dubious regimes in ways that domestic LGBT groups probably could not afford to.

Ultimately, the least effective policy is that which is never implemented. No progress on gay–or human rights in general, can be achieved waiting on the sidelines for governments to advance simultaneously on all fronts of civil liberties. This is why every victory in the struggle for civil liberties will help advance issues well beyond the LGBT community, and from a more robust platform than before.We should be glad that stories like Mavi’s exist in Cuba and many other places. After all, these stories may help inspire other successful stories within the broader human rights umbrella in the years to come.

Alfredo Guerra Guevara is an MPA/ID candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School.

When Sex Isn’t About Sex: The Public Policy Implications of Gay Men’s “Straight-Acting” Fetish

Zachary Howe

I am often underwhelmed at people’s reactions to learning I’m gay. I am baffled when straight and straitlaced men take this in stride. I often feel like screaming, “Did you hear me?! I said I put a penis in my butt, on purpose, for fun!”

But to do so would undermine much of the rhetoric that has gotten gays, and especially gay men, to where we are today. As David Valentine points out in Imagining Transgender, gay men have won acceptance into mainstream society precisely by keeping quiet about the sex we have. Valentine explains: “mainstream gay and lesbian activist[s claim] that homosexual people are essentially the same as heterosexual Americans but for the one fact of privately experienced and conducted sexual desire” (63, my emphasis). He goes on to explain how the seminal Lawrence v. Texas case enshrined this ideology into law by claiming that it was the petitioners’ privacy that was invaded (ibid.), instead of claiming, for example, that they deserved special protections. I want to scream about the icky sex I have because I would have preferred the latter ruling: I shouldn’t have to keep quiet about something in order for it to be okay.

In the gay community, the emphasis on privacy was initially conceived of as a weapon against the tendency of doctors and society at large to pathologize homosexuality. Doctors would “diagnose” homosexuality based on outward signs of “inversion.” In response, gays claimed that their sexual desire was internal and not necessarily connected to any outward sign. This ideology has come to dominate mainstream LGBT activism. Stonewall, the UK non-profit, has launched a campaign that exemplifies this trend: a poster will feature two “normal” looking people, with copy that reads, “One is gay. If that bothers people, our work continues.”

The logic of the posters is dangerous: gay people deserve to be free of persecution only because they are indistinguishable from straight people. If one model had limp wrists and eyeliner, the posters wouldn’t work. Similarly, the campaign would not have worked in a time before sexuality was understood as interior and thus invisible. But more importantly, it contributes to the idea that sexuality is invisible: by showing us two “normal” looking people and insisting that one is gay, it teaches us that gayness can’t be seen.

This thinking pervades American culture. Even more than ever, we are obsessed with the gay man who “passes,” as most obviously exemplified by the media fascination surrounding, say, a gay pro athlete or the gay CEO of a tech company. Well-meaning people will now go to great lengths to avoid saying someone looks gay. This is not a good thing or a bad thing—it is only indicative of the new norms surrounding the public conception of what gayness is. We respect the privacy of gays to the point of thinking that it is best to ignore their gayness. That’s a bizarre definition of respect.

Thus, privacy has led to invisibility. What is troubling about the invisibilization of gayness is not that there are some gay people who want to be CEOs and who don’t act flamboyantly. The problem is that the freedom that those people have won to lead those normal lives has been won at the cost of people who want to lead non-normal lives. Because the advocacy teaches us that sexuality cannot be seen, it fails to protect people whose sexuality can be seen. Teaching that safety should be delegated based on “normal appearance” implicitly teaches that those who do not look normal do not deserve safety. Teaching that privacy is the basis for acceptance fails to protect those who choose not to keep their lives sufficiently private.

Even more than gay mannerisms or appearances, though, society has made sure that gay sex cannot be seen. In order to become “normal,” gay men have had to neuter our infamously overflowing sexuality. The new face of the gay movement is one of monogamous, romantic love. Gay men’s famed sexual abundance has been turned against us: while we once cited it as proof of our sexual liberation, now members of our community are citing it as proof that we don’t have the right values. When he was “straight,” Ricky Martin was a sex god. Now, he’s a dad decked out in virginally white and loose-fitting clothing.

Gay sexuality has also been hidden from public view in a more literal sense: Cruising and hustling, once performed in public, have been relegated to online media such as Grindr and Even flirtation happens more frequently online: no dearth of older men have complained to me that no one in gay bars talks to each other any more (never mind that this is manifestly untrue). Gay sex and gay flirting happen on the privacy of your smartphone now. Again, this is neither good nor bad: technology is not a less “legitimate” way of connecting with people. It is just indicative of the evolving values of the gay community—apps let our gayness be more discreet.

And indeed, gay men’s preference for keeping their sex lives private is evident not just in the fact that they are using online apps to look for sex, but also in the kinds of sex they are using these apps to look for. As any casual user of Grindr would know, calls for “straight-acting” and “masculine” men who “aren’t part of the scene” are commonplace. All of these phrases are code for a man who does not present as gay, who keeps his gayness “private.” Considering the men I’ve seen self-describe as “masculine,” it’s clear that the ideal that these terms invoke is not about physical stature (which a “gay-acting” man could possess), but rather about being somewhat reserved, calm, and unemotional—in other words, quite traditionally “masculine.”

These terms are doing the same work as Lawrence v Texas, the Stonewall ad campaign, and Buzzfeed lists of romantic gay couples: they are keeping gay sex private. “Straight-acting,” especially, does this in two important ways. First, it explicitly erases the fact of a man’s sexuality—it fetishizes the fact that his gayness is invisible. And the fact that this term often goes hand-in-hand with “masculine” suggests that, in addition to sexuality, it is also defining the man’s gender. That is, a man is “masculine” insofar as he is “straight.” This erases gay masculinities and shames gay men who are not masculine or not attracted to masculine men. And because this term is functioning within a community of people who often understand themselves to only be attracted to “men,” to have your maleness questioned is to have your space in the community questioned. “Straight-acting,” then, paradoxically excludes from the gay community precisely those men who are “gay.”

But more powerfully, the term teaches us a notion of sexuality that is about everything except sex. If someone who engages in the only really definitively gay act—gay sex—can still be “straight-acting,” then clearly we are talking about definitions of gay and straight that have nothing to do with sex. We’re talking about the way he dresses and what he does with his hands when he talks. “Straight-actingness” depends on extra-sexual definitions of sexuality, but it also foregrounds the importance of them. It takes the “homosexual” out of “gay,” even as these men continue to have homosexual sex. It makes their sex private.

This “privatization” of sex has worked hand-in-hand with gay men’s efforts to gain mainstream acceptance. Last year, the Advocate named Pope Francis the Person of the Year. The authority of the Catholic Church has recently been invoked in an attempt to exempt employers from covering birth control for their employees; for gays to claim legitimacy under the same aegis presupposes a troubling complicity in a violently de-sexualized ideology.

Perhaps this desexualized gayness is most evident in the current discourse around H.I.V. / AIDS. In this arena, our refusal to talk about gay sex has allowed the conversation to veer away from prevention and treatment and into prosecution and punishment. Most mainstream coverage of the ongoing H.I.V. crisis focuses on the risky behavior of young gay men. An article in the New Yorker decries the supposed ignorance of those of us who weren’t around for the initial outbreak. It’s common to claim that we don’t understand the risks we are taking when we have unprotected sex. And the New York Times’ coverage of Truvada, the first FDA-approved H.I.V. prophylactic, centers on the same misplaced anxieties that accompanied the advent of birth control and Gardasil: people will have more and riskier sex.

I would remind the writers of these articles that H.I.V. / AIDS is a virus, not a punishment. It’s something you can get from having unprotected sex, not something you get because you had unprotected sex. It’s as if we now resent AIDS not as a public health threat but rather as a insistent reminder that gay men keep having gay sex. And to silence our sex, society’s treatment of the disease is becoming increasingly punitive. This fact sheet gives a good summary of how H.I.V. has become criminalized in a majority of U.S. states. As the sheet outlines, criminal charges can be pressed even against people who engaged in consensual sexual contact that did not result in transmission and even posed no risk of transmission.

The gay man’s fetish for “straight-acting” men did not cause this mistreatment of H.I.V. in the media and legal systems. And it doesn’t cause the ad campaigns that advocate only for the assimilated gay man. But by valuing and actively contributing to the invisibilization of gay sexuality, it is part of the same trend. It is part of the trend of erasing gay men’s sexuality and thus only protecting them to the extent that they conform to the “normal” standard of the straight man. This is done in the name of “privacy,” but it is clear by now that this is not a privacy being awarded to gays, but rather one being imposed on us.

And so privacy is exactly what I wanted to challenge with my opening anecdote. I want to scream out about the kind of sex I have—about what exactly it involves—because I think that’s a necessary step in society coming to terms with male homosexuality. Our sex is a symbol of the fact that equality is not equity. We can look and act straight all we want, but as long as we keep pretending we have sex like straight men, too, our mode of attack against H.I.V. / AIDS will remain dangerously misguided.

Fetishizing straight-acting men is not, itself, the problem. The problem is that this fetish is not simply a sexual preference: it is part of a larger project of valuing the members of our community who are least accountable to it—those who, owing to their “masculine” mannerisms, can merely choose when to be identified with it. This project has valued and advocated for these men at the expense of others, thus endangering the non-straight-acting among us. The problem is not that some of us are straight-acting, but rather that we have to be straight-acting in order to be safe.

“Zach Howe has written for Slate, Full Stop, and Blunderbuss Magazine, where he was formerly Senior Editor. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram at @proudneoliberal. He lives in Brooklyn.”

[PDF] When Sex Isn’t About Sex: The Public Policy Implications of Gay Men’s “Straight-Acting” Fetish

LGBT Advocacy: What is the Next “Marriage Equality?”

Amanda Wallner

“In 2013, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people gained the right to marry in eight new states, bringing the number of states with marriage equality to 17. Today, 42 percent of LGBT Americans live in states with marriage equality; the obvious question is “What’s next?” “What is the next ‘marriage equality’?” While there is a great deal of speculation about which states are likely to legalize same-sex marriage, I will examine potential trajectories for LGBT advocacy in states where marriage equality has already been achieved…”

Harvard Kennedy School LGBTQ Policy Journal
[PDF] LGBT Advocacy: What is the Next “Marriage Equality?”
By Amanda Wallner

May Update

We’re on track to send the copyedited version of the 2014 LGBTQ Policy Journal to our publisher by the end of the month. As we await the print publication, we’ve also started to post articles accepted for web publication, including Rachel Bergenfield and Hilary O’Connell’s “Family Talk” discussion of LGBT university communities and Pedro Robledo and Juan José Lucci’s discussion of LGBTIQA rights in Argentina (our first Spanish-language article)!

Keep the conversation going via Twitter @TheLGBTQJournal!

Últimos avances en la consolidación de los derechos LGBTIQA en Argentina

La aprobación de la Ley de Matrimonio Igualitario e Identidad de Género convirtió a la Argentina en un país de vanguardia en derechos LGBTIQA. Sin embargo, la discriminación, los estigmas y la desigualdad de oportunidades a este colectivo es un flagelo que persiste. Este artículo procura analizar la coyuntura de cuatro problemáticas donde el Estado ha comenzado a trabajar para erradicar estigmas e implementar políticas de integración y tolerancia. Estas áreas son: acoso escolar (bullying), formularios de pre-donación de sangre, condiciones de vida del colectivo trans y educación sexual.

Harvard Kennedy School LGBTQ Journal
[PDF] Últimos avances en la consolidación de los derechos LGBTIQA en Argentina
Pedro Robledo & Juan José Lucci

Family Talk: Intersectionality and Understanding in LGBTQ University Communities

Family Talk: Intersectionality and Understanding in LGBTQ University Communities


Rachel Bergenfield
V. Oliver Prentice
Hilary O’Connell

The authors are former student-leaders of various LBGTQ organizations and initiatives in Yale College and the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.[1]

Editor: AJ Lee
When Rachel’s grandfather wanted to help his family members resolve familial tension or hurt, he would take off his glasses, tilt his head down slightly, and say in a quiet voice but by no means a whisper, “Okay now, this is family talk. Just between you and me. Family talk.” He knew who the real enemies were – the Nazis who had blown him up and the men who harassed his wife at the park – and they were not in the room. Family talk was meant to forge understanding, togetherness, and growth, not to accuse, vilify, or splinter. Our commentary is family talk, which is why we have chosen this particular publication to share it; the Harvard LGBTQ Policy Journal is run by students (our subject of inquiry), tied to a university (our setting for reflection), and attracts a readership that is deeply interested in queer populations.

With that explanation, here we go. During the past few years as graduate and undergraduate students at Yale, we have witnessed too many incidents of low awareness and lack of critical thinking about the experiences of marginalization and oppression beyond the axis of sexuality that many LGBTQ students face. This limitation in recognizing intersectionality[2] — or the ways in which systems like sexism, racism, ableism, and classism intersect, overlap, and inform one another– in the experiences of classmates has resulted in many students suffering further pain and marginalization through their participation in LGBTQ university life. This reality is cause for concern and critical reflection. While in-group marginalization and misunderstanding is not unique to universities, university life provides a special opportunity for learning and development that risks not fully being realized without a conversation — without family talk.

Over the course of our years at Yale, we noticed that many campus LGBTQ events (sometimes simply billed as “gay”) primarily attracted gay cis male students and not many others. We talked with queer women, lesbian and bisexual women, and trans* and gender non-conforming students and found a cycle at play: the fact that LGBTQ events were being dominated by gay cis men led many lesbian, bisexual, gender non-conforming, and trans* students to feel nervous about attending, which in turn led to even lower attendance from this population. To remedy this, we began to organize dinners that were framed as “LBT” – for lesbian, bisexual, or queer women and gender non-conforming and trans* people via a campus group. The idea was to provide a space where this population felt comfortable socializing and meeting new people so that they could then jointly attend LGBTQ campus events with greater confidence than the space was indeed inclusive of LBTQ students. The dinners took off, and a cross-university community started to bloom. Some gay cis men encouraged us to organize these events and happily attended them as allies. But a surprisingly large number, all of whom were privileged along axes of identity other than sexuality (e.g. race, gender, or class), expressed anger and annoyance to us individually, in LGBTQ campus group meetings, or on various LGBTQ elists. Their comments centered on a mistaken sense that our events were intended to marginalize cis gay men and/or blame them for the challenges that many LBTQ people experienced in accessing LGBTQ community at Yale. Their reactions revealed a disinterest in understanding the experiences of marginalization of other members of the Yale LGBTQ community, in addition to insensitivity.

On the dancefloor at LGBTQ campus parties, other issues arose. Each author has had experiences of gay cis men touching her/their butts, breasts, or otherwise engaging in nonconsensual touching. When we objected, the men agreed that it would have been inappropriate if they were straight, but since they were not we were told to “chill out” or “have a gay old time.”[3] Many LBQ women and gender non-conforming students shared with us that they had similar experiences, noting that this could be hurtful or even triggering given past experiences of sexual assault, which 1 in 4 college women report.[4]

Back in university buildings, we witnessed other forms of low awareness within some campus organizations. In one case, some students vigorously questioned the value of holding guest lectures on topics other than same-sex marriage, such as homelessness among LGBTQ youth or violence against transgender people. In another case, an LGBTQ organization was criticized for the lack of racial diversity on its board, which at the time was almost exclusively white. The Board defended itself in part by claiming that a “comprehensive understanding of the issues” should be prioritized over a board that reflects the diversity of the community that it is charged with representing.

Our suspicion is that many within the LGBTQ graduate, professional, and undergraduate student community at Yale subconsciously feel that because we are marginalized along one axis of identity (sexuality), there is no need to be fully sensitive and awake to our potential for unintentionally marginalizing others simply by being part of mainstream, campus LGBTQ life and culture. These dynamics are not unique; most if not all marginalized communities and their social movements experience in-group misunderstanding that leads to feelings of pain and isolation for some.

However, the university is a special place. Consider the design of a campus quad: it creates an open space that is still part of and informed by the realities of the world but sheltered by university walls to cultivate intellectual risk-taking, community, open exchange, learning, and innovation. After a few years of many types of learning, including how to think outside of our own experiences, we take what we have learned in the university’s shelter and go out into the less-safe world. Admittedly, this beautiful idea often falters; too many people do not have access to higher education, and sometimes universities, like all powerful institutions, reinforce systems of racism, sexism, ableism, and so on.

But because of the special intent of universities — to provide safety to learn boldly — this is an ideal and important moment in life for LGBTQ people fortunate enough to be at such institutions to invest time and thought into better understanding each other’s experiences. Scholarly and activist work around intersectionality puts words to our lived realities of experiencing privilege in some ways and oppression in others.[5] It helps to put clear terms to the truth that being marginalized along one axis of our identity and existence does not automatically make us understand what being marginalized along a different axis is like. An intersectional understanding of our community prompts many of us who experience privilege — whether along axes of race, class, gender, ability, or any other — to be more accountable and conscious of how behaviors that are intended as normal or harmless can actually hurt or silence others. Cultivating this understanding requires safe spaces for dialogue and openness to new ideas and experiences — the ideal cornerstones of university life.

Our concern is that, even as students and former students of the so-called “Gay Ivy,” there is far too little conversation, awareness, and sharing about these issues. We fear that this is a profound yet missed opportunity that may have far-reaching repercussions for LGBTQ justice and community, particularly as many of us enter or return to professional journeys seeking leadership opportunities. We do not deny that these conversations are often difficult and personally charged. However, when we interpret these conversations not as “family talk” but as internecine warfare or personal attacks, as is too often the case, we preclude opportunities for growth as individuals and as a community.

We conclude with questions to the student readership of this publication: How can we shore up safety within LGBTQ university communities to catalyze bold learning from each other? How can we better understand our marginalization and oppression as valid but also distinct from those experienced by our peers? How can we help ourselves and others acknowledge that – even as marginalized people – we are often still complicit in structures that marginalize others, including our peers? In short, how can we cultivate more loving and transformative “family talk” to make our communities and movement more inclusive, open-hearted, and effective than they are today?

[1] The authors are grateful to fellow undergraduate, graduate, and professional students and alumni of the various schools at Yale for sharing their insights and experiences about LGBTQ university life. This helped tremendously toward the development of the commentary.

[2] For a more detailed articulation of intersectionality, see Crenshaw, Kimberle. Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color, Stanford Law Review (43), 1991, 1241-1299.

[3] A recent essay in Jezebel covered well the topic of misogyny and nonconsensual touching of women in some gay cis male cultures. Guha, Rohin. The Myth of the Fag Hag and Dirty Secrets of the Gay Male Subculture, Jezebel, 25 January 2014. (

[4] Know Your Rights: Campus Sexual Assault, American Association of University Women.


[5] In addition to Crenshaw’s work, also see Berger, M. T., & Guidroz, K., eds. The intersectional approach: Transforming the academy, through race, class and gender, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.


The Harvard Kennedy School LGBTQ Policy
[PDF] Bergenfield, Prentice, O’Connell

Op-ed: Political Suicide – The Tragic Dynamics of Politics & LGBT Health

Jillian McLaughlin

In 2010, a gay Rutgers freshman, Tyler Clementi, discovered his roommate had used a webcam to film him having sex with another man, encouraging other students to watch by posting the video online. Humiliated and distraught, Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge a few days later. His suicide confronted the public and policymakers, highlighting the painful connection between a tragic personal decision and the political culture that makes it probable, possible, and even more likely for a gay youth to end his life.

Russia’s recent enactment of anti-gay laws (and implicit endorsement of homophobic violence) underscores the political dimensions of a personal decision, as reports trickle out of increasing suicide rates among LGBT Russians. By stoking a political atmosphere that codifies homophobia and ignores violence against the LGBT community, the suicide of a gay person should be classified as a political suicide.

Intolerance and prejudice profoundly shape their targets—mentally, emotionally, and biologically. In response to a hostile political and social atmosphere, the automated nervous system of the targeted person goes into overdrive, rooting him or her in a constant state of fear. Historically, groups that experienced legal and social discrimination have experienced greater mental distress relative to other privileged groups. As a result, many of these marginalized communities have witnessed suicides in reaction to an oppressive and discriminatory culture (see: African Americans; Hispanics).

In the U.S., a robust body of literature has documented the effects of discrimination on LGBT youth. Compared to students who do not identify as LGBT, these students are twice as likely to try to take their own lives ( This should come as no surprise. LGBT youth exhibit the key risk factors for suicide—substance abuse, depression, anxiety—at a greater rate than their heterosexual counterparts, indicating that even those who do not attempt suicide still suffer from mental distress from society’s intolerance.

Young people that attempt suicide aren’t simply reacting to a passive culture of intolerance. In a large study of LGBT students, a majority experienced verbal harassment at school and felt unsafe on school property. Slightly less than half experienced a physical assault on school grounds. Socially isolated, physically bullied, and insecure students become hopeless and begin to think of suicide as a way to end their pain.

Michael Walker, a journalist that reports on Eurasian politics, eloquently captures the link between homophobia and suicide:

We are looking at a health problem akin to HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s in the United States: under-reported, shoved under the rug, misunderstood even by many doctors, and something simply hoped by many to go away in the night and trouble them no further. But though suicide is not caused by a pathogenic virus, it is no less crucial and certainly no less deadly.

If suicide is a political problem, what steps should be taken to neutralize the conditions that contribute to LGBT suicides? Policy and political leadership can drive cultural change. Politicians have the power to frame issues and they can sanction or challenge the beliefs of the public they represent. They can create hope.

In the U.S., political acceptance of the LGBT community has evolved. President Barack Obama publicly supports marriage equality and his Justice Department refused to defend the Defense of Marriage Act. Historically socially conservative politicians increasingly voice messages of tolerance. Schools have cracked down on bullying. Homophobia has become an electoral liability across the political spectrum. This is quite the cultural sea-change considering that 10 years ago, only a handful of state and federal politicians were courageous enough to support LGBT rights given its public unpopularity at the time. Still, in that decade, the relentless advocacy of organizations pressured politicians to change. And many did.

The next generation of LGBT people will hate themselves less, feel more hope, and be accepted by their families and friends. Fewer will seek to escape stigma through a bottle or a drug. We hope that fewer will take their lives. The political shift will save many of them.

While progress on LGBT issues continues on its inexorable march forward in the US, a muscular homophobia largely fueled by Christian fundamentalists has developed abroad. Politicians in Russia, Uganda, and Nigeria seem to be competing to create a culture of oppression (Spoiler alert: You can’t win). LGBT activists and their allies in other countries must act to protect their communities from violent external threats and the internal trauma that accompanies being the object of hatred.

Political leaders have the moral obligation to pursue policies that combat stigma, criminalize anti-gay violence, and enact anti-discrimination laws in housing, employment, marriage, and public accommodations. In countries like Russia and Uganda, whose feverishly homophobic politicians seem unlikely to pass anti-discriminatory laws, a few courageous politicians must publicly oppose anti-gay laws. A record of dissent against discrimination, even if not politically “successful” communicates the same message that a person would say to comfort a friend in despair: You are not alone. You matter. I care.

Photo from NBC News

Op-ed: Veto or no veto, most businesses still have a “license to discriminate” against LGBT Arizonans

Governor Brewer’s veto of Arizona’s controversial “turn the gay away” bill isn’t as big of a victory as you might think.

As many Americans cheered the demise of Arizona’s controversial “license to discriminate” bill, one thing seemed lost on the media, in progressive circles, and even among many LGBT activists: Even with Governor Jan Brewer’s (R-AZ) veto yesterday, businesses in a majority of Arizona cities still have the legal right to discriminate against LGBT people.

Photo from NBC News
Photo from NBC News

If passed, SB 1062 would have afforded business owners the right to refuse service to patrons that identify as LGBT based on those owners’ religious beliefs. Accordingly, SB 1062 is part of a broader pattern of dangerous “religious freedom” bills being proposed throughout conservative statehouses in the US. In this respect, the defeat of SB 1062 is something to celebrate, as anti-gay legislators in other states will think twice before introducing similar legislation that sanctions LGBT discrimination behind the guise of “religious freedom.”

However, most activists are celebrating yesterday’s veto as if SB 1062 would have stripped all Arizonans of nondiscrimination protections they currently enjoy under state law. This is far from the truth.

Looking broadly, US federal law currently affords no legal protections against discrimination on the basis of either sexual orientation or gender identity. While an alarming nine out of ten Americans believe laws like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act already exist, the cold hard truth is that under the law of the land in the United States, it’s perfectly legal to deny someone employment, refuse someone service, or kick someone out of their apartment simply because they are LGBT.

Where federal policymakers have failed to enact comprehensive LGBT nondiscrimination legislation, a number of states have filled the void with nondiscrimination laws that provide LGBT people protection in employment, housing, and public accommodations. However, fewer than half have done so. Or put another way, in a majority of states—states like Arizona—LGBT people have no protections against discrimination under state or federal law.

It’s true that in Arizona, the Cities of Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe, Tucson, and Gilbert have municipal ordinances that afford their LGB citizens some protections against discrimination (Phoenix, Tucson, and Tempe also afford protections to transgender citizens). Signing SB 1062 into law would have invalidated these cities’ ordinances, which according to US Census data account for 2.6 million people, or 40% of Arizona’s total population. In this light, the defeat of yesterday’s bill was certainly a huge victory in maintaining these important protections.

However, the bill’s defeat legally changes nothing for LGBT people living in the remaining cities accounting for 60% of Arizona’s population. If SB 1062 had been passed into law, businesses could legally turn away LGBT customers. But even today without SB 1062, businesses can still turn away LGBT customers in the 86 Arizona municipalities that do not have any LGBT protections on the books. And doing so is completely legal. Nevertheless, this distinction seems lost in the media and among LGBT activists.

There is a lot to celebrate with SB 1062’s veto. The massive opposition to this bill is one more indicator of the huge cultural shift we have made as a country, a shift away from bigotry and towards fairness and inclusion of LGBT people in our society. Moreover, the groundswell of opposition to the bill included Arizona’s two republican senators, Fortune 500 companies, and even many of the Arizona state legislators that voted for the bill in the first place.

The defeat of this bill is a significant symbolic victory for the LGBT movement.  And as mentioned earlier, it’s a significant legal victory for LGBT Arizonans living in cities like Phoenix where they are afforded some protections against discrimination.

And yet despite these victories, the controversy that was SB 1062 was a missed opportunity. It was a missed opportunity to have an important conversation about the lack of legal protections afforded to LGBT Americans in this country. While marriage equality is on the march both in the courts and in the statehouses, legislation outlawing discrimination against LGBT people has stalled. To change that, we need to acknowledge that those laws don’t even exist in the first place.

So yes, in many ways yesterday’s veto was something to celebrate. But while LGBT Americans today celebrate the defeat of anti-gay bills such as SB 1062, they also await the passage of state and federal laws that would positively provide them the protections they deserve but currently lack. This means, for example, Congress finally passing comprehensive protections for LGBT Americans such that all people are protected against discrimination, regardless of the state where they reside. Now, that would be something to celebrate.

Crosby Burns is a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is currently the Managing Editor of the LGBTQ Policy Journal at the Kennedy School.



Op-ed: The importance of adding figure skating to the gay rights agenda

The public incorrectly assumes all male figure skaters are out and proud. Newsweek published an article last month overviewing homophobia in figure skating titled “The Frozen Closet.” Even Jonny Weir, the flamboyant two-time Olympian, didn’t publicly come out until he stopped competing, and there were no publicly out competitors in this crop of American male figure skaters at the Sochi Olympics.


When one homophobic judge can ruin the career you’ve worked a lifetime to achieve, it’s not surprising that gay male figure skaters follow the same trajectory as any other gay male sportsman: a lifetime career in the closet. As ironic as this might seem, the day that internationally competitive male figure skaters start coming out will mark a major step for the international gay rights movement. In the context of a political and subjective judging system, I would go so far as to predict that internationally competitive figure skaters will be some of the last male sports figures to publicly come out.

It would seem as if the sport itself were on a quest to remove its association from homosexuality. De jure, the US Figure Skating Association (USFSA) rulebook has an anti-discrimination clause that does not include sexual orientation or gender identity. De facto, the men in the sport conduct pervasive self-policing. When I was 15, my coach said to me, “I’ll kill you if you grow up gay.” I remember forcing a laugh to pretend I agreed. As a competitive figure skater for most of my childhood, I grew up with zero gay mentors or idols.

Nor does the mainstream gay rights movement pay much attention to figure skating. The Human Rights Campaign blog has 2 posts on figure skating – both about Brian Boitano, who came out last December at the age of 50 – and 48 posts on football. Recent encouragements and celebrations of gay athletes have focused on the “big four” sports: baseball, basketball, football, and hockey. The Gay City News celebrated NBA player Jason Collins’ coming out with the headline “First Male Athlete from Big Four US Professional Sports Comes Out.” Where Jason Collins and football player Michael Sam have been applauded for coming out and creating spaces for gay men to be masculine, a gay figure skater that comes out only reinforces feminine stereotypes.

Faced with these particular challenges, the fight of gay figure skaters encapsulates the future of the gay rights movement. While we work to add non-discrimination protections to the USFSA rulebook, we are faced with the broader challenge of addressing the more subtle forms of judging discrimination that are so difficult to prove. While we work to help the young gay figure skating boys feel less isolated, we are faced with the broader challenge of keeping stereotypically feminine sports like figure skating involved in the blooming gay sports movement.

Allister Chang is an MPP candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School. He has passed all nine US Figure Skating Association tests, and is on track to becoming a figure skating judge.

Harvard Kennedy School of Government