As news of the United States Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage spread across America, reactions around the world were both celebratory and cautious — cautious because in 76 countries gay relationships are criminal relationships, and fear of arrest, violence and even death at the hands of adversaries haunts many lives.
According to a report in May 2015 by the office of the United Nations human-rights commissioner, hundreds of people have been killed, imprisoned or attacked physically in recent years for their sexual orientation or gender identity, many in “grotesque homicides perpetrated with broad impunity, allegedly at times with the complicity of investigative authorities.” Gay marriage is an impossible dream.
“The Supreme Court’s decision will have a ripple effect around the world,” said Jessica Stern, the executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, an advocacy group working to support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people everywhere. “It will be seen favorably in some places, and in other place it will be a symbol to justify backlash against LGBTI people locally.” Their adversaries will see it as another threat from the depraved West, she added.
“What people everywhere are responding to fundamentally is the way the US Supreme Court upheld the rule of law, equal protection and the fundamental dignity of every person,” Stern said. “That does not mean that LGBTI communities around the world necessarily want gay marriage for themselves. But they can still celebrate this as a tactic, and they can still celebrate almost on behalf of the American LGBT movement because it has been a priority here for decades.”
Internationally, the advocacy group led by Stern supports grass-roots organizing, but it always lets local people take the lead, she said. “The first principle of dialoging with our colleagues from other countries around the world who are trying to create their own version of success and recognition for LGBTI people is that Americans don’t have all the answers. We still have a lot of work to do.”
The US under President Barack Obama has been outspoken in the UN on gay rights and has directed American diplomats abroad to promote these causes in countries where they are stationed. “This administration has gone farther than any other in US history in its commitment to LGBT rights in US foreign policy,” Stern said, adding, “It wouldn’t take much to be the record holder because President Obama’s predecessors did almost nothing.”
Hyung Hak Nam, president of UN-Globe, which represents LGBTI staff members in the UN system and its peacekeeping operations, welcomed the US Supreme Court ruling from his international perspective. But he was also guarded.
“UN Globe welcomes today’s decision from the United States Supreme Court on same-sex marriage,” he said in an email. “This is a huge step forward for LGBTI people in the United States. However, married LGBTI couples working for the UN have often experienced denials of visas for spouses when posted to countries opposed to gay marriage. This is likely to continue.
“Countries like the United States should expend all diplomatic efforts to ensure that their married LGBTI diplomats can serve in equality to their married heterosexual counterparts,” Nam said. “In doing so, they can set an example to other nations and to international organizations like the United Nations.”
With the decision on June 26, the US aligns with 20 other countries where same-sex marriage is legal — all of them in Europe except for Argentina, Brazil, New Zealand, South Africa, Uruguay and the Pitcairn Islands. (Slovenia is expected to join the list when the president signs legislation passed in March.) In Asia, democracies friendly to the US are notably absent from this group. India is a case in point.
Siddharth Dube, a writer who has advocated for gay rights in India and the UN, where he worked for many years, greeted the Supreme Court decision with joy.
“For almost all my life, I’ve been criminalized in both the countries that I call home, the US and India, for being gay — and there is no more dispiriting and terrifying burden to bear than this, to face the threat of prosecution, of years in jail, and to know that you don’t have the legitimacy to fight back,” he wrote in an email. “So I still remember, as if it were yesterday, how my self-loathing and terror worsened when I first came to the U.S. in 1982, as a 20-year-old undergraduate.
“The most terrifying realization was to learn that American authorities could bar me from immigrating solely because of my orientation,” he said. “Nearly 35 years later, I’m still criminalized in India because of a retrograde recent ruling by the country’s Supreme Court, a ruling that is absolutely out of synch with popular sentiment as well as the course of democratic progress.
“But here in the US, I finally feel utterly, blessedly, wonderfully free for the very first time in my life — that my orientation in matters of love is respected equally in law in every aspect of my life, now including the right to celebrate my love in marriage. I am overjoyed to have lived long enough to see this come true in the US. And I would give anything to see all this come true in India too in my lifetime.”
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.