October 7, 2011 – Thirteen years ago this week, Matthew Shepard was attacked and left to die on a deserted road in Laramie, Wyoming. The month of October, in addition to being LGBT history month, is also an appropriate month to remember the tragic legacy of LGBT hate violence. Matthew Shepard was killed in October. Eleven years later, in October 2009, President Obama signed a law named after Matthew Shepard that extends federal authority over LGBT hate crimes. And every October, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) also meets in Warsaw, Poland to discuss a range of human rights issues in Europe and North America, including persistent patterns of hate violence targeting LGBT individuals.
The OSCE is an obscure but influential international organization that focuses on a range of security and human rights issues. Created as a mechanism to engage the Soviet Union and its satellite states, in the messy aftermath of the Cold War, the OSCE has emerged as an important platform for promoting tolerance and non-discrimination. Every October the OSCE holds a human rights conference in Warsaw, and for several years now, the issue of LGBT rights has been an important topic. During the Bush administration, the United States worked with the Vatican to block discussion of LGBT human rights concerns. In the Obama administration, the United States is now one of the leading voices insisting that the OSCE must respond to LGBT concerns in Europe and North America. Indeed, the head of the official U.S. delegation to the meeting, Ambassador David Johnson, addressed a reception on Wednesday that was dedicated to the many LGBT activists who traveled to Warsaw to expose the violence that continues to shatter lives and destabilize communities.
In one of the OSCE meetings this week, LGBT human rights defenders from the Balkans and Russia discussed recent patterns of hate violence. They highlighted a number of brutal assaults, many of which the local authorities have refused to investigate. They also described organized violence at a Pride parade in Split, Croatia, and the recent decision by officials to cancel a Pride parade in Belgrade, Serbia because of similar threats of violence. It is clear that hate violence remains a caustic reality across the entire OSCE region.
As highlighted by the Council, our new hate crime law in the United States provides an important model for other countries in the region, and the United States is now one of the few countries in the OSCE that disaggregates hate crime statistics on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. But in the wake of recent assaults on transgender individuals in Washington, DC, it is clear that we still have far more to do in our own country to protect LGBT Americans.
For the past few years, there have also been a small number of “ex-gay” activists from the United States who have traveled to Warsaw to demand “freedom to receive and to give professional guidance and therapeutic care for unwanted sexual minority concerns.” At least some in the “ex-gay” movement are appropriating human rights claims to personal autonomy and freedom of association to justify what most professionals consider to be a harmful practice. When the “ex-gay” defense is offered alongside shocking reports of LGBT violence, as it is in the OSCE context, it reminds us that despite the many gains we have made, violence continues to shape our very existence. Some seek to document and denounce it, while others try to escape it by denying or trying to change their identity. In either case, violent intolerance of LGBT individuals is the root cause of many of the physical and psychological wounds that continue to lacerate our community.