In the form of Human Rights Day, agreement to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is celebrated each December. Adopted in 1948, the declaration begins by asserting that all human persons are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
Dignity and rights are not conferred by governing bodies. Rather, to quote a recent speech by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, because we "are human we therefore have rights, and because we have rights (our) governments are bound to protect them." Clinton noted that while much progress has been made in making human rights a human reality, a great deal of work remains.
Gay and lesbian persons, in too many places, continue to be arrested, beaten, terrorized and even executed. In too many places, authorities empowered to protect gay and lesbian persons do not do so and even, sometimes, join in the abuse.
Gay and lesbian persons, in too many places, continue to be denied opportunities to work and learn and, in too many places, are forced to suppress or deny who they are in order to protect themselves from harm.
The rights and dignity of human persons are violated when these things happen. Treatment of gay and lesbian persons remains one of the great human rights challenges of our time.
It is not just an African problem (even if homosexual activity is illegal in 37 African countries and is, again, being proposed as a capital offence in Uganda). It is not just a problem for gay and lesbian persons living in countries heavily Islamic (although homosexual activity is a capital offence in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, and is a criminal offence in the post-Taliban Afghanistan).
It is not just in other parts of the world that gay and lesbian persons, on account of being gay or lesbian, are still denied dignity and rights. Progress in the United States, for example, has been slow. It was not until Sept. 20, that full implementation of the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell was achieved. Don't Ask Don't Tell, although prohibiting military personnel from discriminating against homosexual service members or applicants, nonetheless specifically prohibited gay and lesbian persons from disclosing details which might indicate their own sexual orientation.
Timothy Broglio, archbishop for the Military Services USA, had opportunity to identify his solidarity with gay and lesbian service persons, and instead urged Congress not to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell.
He should have stated his expectation that homosexual behaviour interpreted as disruptive be treated in the same way that heterosexually disruptive behaviour was already being treated. So long as legislation like Don't Ask Don't Tell assumed that the problem lay in homosexual identity, and not in disruptive behaviour, we had evidence (in my opinion) of what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls "unjust discrimination" (n. 2358).
Only in 2003 did the ruling Lawrence v. Texas invalidate the laws of 14 American states on the grounds that it was a violation of the Constitution to criminalize persons of the same sex from engaging in intimate sexual contact.
Human beings – not as homosexuals or heterosexuals, conservatives or liberals, rich or poor – are owed dignity on account of their being human beings. Therefore, the language of "gay rights," I suppose, is best understood in terms of human rights that gay and lesbians seek but are not afforded on account of their sexuality.
Gay and lesbian persons are humans beings born free. Not only are they owed dignity, but they have the right to claim such dignity.
As a university student in a faculty of education, it always surprised me when my practical training would take me into schools and I would hear younger persons say things like "that is so gay" in order to express their disapproval of something. It was as if no stronger word existed in their vocabulary to convey something so negative.
I don't know why this surprised me. Gay students, in disproportionate numbers, are committing suicide, and many such acts result from the inability of gay students to deal with the negative treatment they experience from their peers.
In the 2002 adaptation of Graham Greene's The Quiet American, Mr. Heng attempts to draw the detached Mr. Fowler from his indifference: "Sooner or later, Mr. Fowler, one has to take sides if one is to remain human." I've chosen my side.
(Kelly Wilson is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Winnipeg. He is a student of Newman Theological College.)