who worked for eight years at the leading international human rights advocacy group, Human Rights Watch, was founding director of its LGBT Rights Program, and drew the ire of Peter Tatchell and others, as well as threats of libel suits, for his sustained, blunt criticisms of how Western gay activists and journalists engage with questions of sexual rights elsewhere, has announced his resignation in a witty and thought-provoking note:
As some of you know, in mid-July I suffered a pulmonary embolism of a fairly unpleasant sort. While running to catch a bus on a New York street, I saw a blinding effusion of white light, amid which several spangled and bell-bottomed figures vaguely resembling ABBA beckoned me to an eternal disco complete with spinning ball. Yanked back from their blandishments by a superior fashion sense, I spent a couple of weeks in intensive care.
The LGBT Rights Program was, and to some extent remains, an experiment: the first program of its kind at a so-called “mainstream” human rights organization. Undeniably there have been frustrations. One of the most basic splits in contemporary human rights work – sometimes mapped onto a division between “global South” and “global North,” though not quite reducible to it – is between rights as a set of legal norms, and rights as a complex of human dreams and political aspirations. The split has to do, as well, with the difference between institutions and movements, the former ones formal and developing their own standards and needs, the latter fluid and chaotic and responsible to individuals’ and communities’ desires and drives….
It was never easy. Things need to change. For its efforts in this sphere to succeed in future, Human Rights Watch – and other international organizations like it – needs a far deeper understanding of what social movements are, why they are important, how they turn human rights into living values rather than legal abstractions. It also needs a far clearer comprehension of the political contexts in which it works every day; the impotence of artificial categories to explain the experiences of suffering or joy; the intersections that are the real geography of LGBT people’s, and everybody’s, lives.
Racism, neocolonialism, Islamophobia, patriarchy, anti-Semitism, and sectarian hatred, to name only a few, are as real as homophobia for LGBT people. They are real facts within LGBT movements as well. A “mainstream” intervention that willfully elides this complexity is doomed to make almost everything worse.
Likewise, though, our movements need to compare their histories more closely and examine their actions more exactingly. They must reject the temptation to be parochial, simply because others are. They must be alert for the foreshadowings of real rather than simply rhetorical universals that glimmer through the challenges they have overcome. Every intersection is a meeting place, as well as a divergence.
I intend to rest a bit…and write a book: based on my own experience, about what’s moral and what’s immoral about “international solidarity,” and what’s worked and what hasn’t in campaigns for sexual rights.