Freedom to discriminate

The following is a guest column addressing LGBT rights in light of recent public statements:

20131109for de recordTwo weeks ago, the Vice-Chairman of the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO), Pastor Ronald McGarrell, went on the radio and shared his view that homosexuals should live on island by themselves in order to spare heterosexuals God’s wrath. His comments have spurred a “debate,” albeit an informal one, which has brought back some old and overused arguments to the fore, including the disingenuous hijacking of the language of universal human rights to deliver some run-of-the-mill bigotry.

As a result, much has been said about freedom of speech or the right of influential persons to air their preference for segregating persons based on their sexual orientation on public radio at a time when there is supposed to be a critical national conversation being held on whether these persons deserve to be treated as fellow human beings, as equal citizens before the law. However, little has been said of freedom of belief–but then, some persons are used to cherry picking the mores they like to follow and disregarding ones they don’t, even when they come as a package deal.

According to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.’ Under what contortion of logic do we, from this statement, draw the conclusion that any person has the authority to tell us what or how to believe? If you believe that persons of a certain sexual orientation are “sinning” and that, somehow, sinfulness spreads like the flu – by mere proximity to those sinning, regardless of one’s character or values, then I pity you but under no circumstances do you have the authority to coerce me or anyone else into believing the same, much less coercing the state to act on such beliefs.

I happen to believe that no one has the authority to police anyone else’s sexual preferences. Why then are my beliefs more likely than the Pastor’s to be (loudly) ridiculed by all and sundry? Where is my freedom of speech, my freedom of belief? Do I have the freedom to practice respect for the dignity of persons from the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community by speaking up when persons seek to undermine and dehumanise this community?

We all know the answer to this. It seems the right to call out bigotry and prejudice when it proudly and unapologetically asserts itself does not exist when the flavour of prejudice stems from a particular religious perspective.

Indeed, it seems to be taken for granted by a good number of people that some perspectives deserve more respect than others and that, consequently, some persons’ rights trump others. In this particular case, it seems the right of one party to express himself is infinitely more important than the right of the other party to be himself. This cannot be understood except under the lens of inequality and deeply rooted prejudice.

I cannot even imagine what day-to-day life is like for LGBT persons in Guyana who suffer far worse than having their ideas ridiculed or silenced. What must it be like to have your basic right to be denied? To be degraded repeatedly with the language of ‘sin’, ‘evil’ or ‘Devil’? To suffer the presumptuousness of persons who think they have the right to tell you whom you may or may not be interested in, who you may or may not love, what you may or may not do with your own body? To be patronised by persons telling you that they “hate the sin but love the sinner”?

How many rights are LGBT persons denied in Guyana? Yet, if you speak out against homophobia, persons will cry foul quicker than a footballer during the World Cup – and demand respect to boot. So, what exactly is going on here?

The truth is some people are trying to limit the rights of others while fully exercising their own rights – and playing the victim along the way. In big picture terms, these people are trying to curtail the right to be treated equally before the law. In smaller, petty terms, these people are trying to silence the opposition to their bigotry by using the language of “rights.” In doing so, they deflect attention away from the persons who suffer the most debilitating rights violations by turning the question of tolerance on its head: How dare we not tolerate their intolerance?

I must admit that it is true. I do not tolerate their intolerance. But not tolerating bigotry does not trample on anyone’s rights. To imply this is disingenuous and dishonest. First of all, disapproval of your opinions is not a denial of your rights. Secondly, as the saying goes, “your right to swing your arm ends where my nose begins.” In other words, you may do as you please – up until your actions begin to harm others. Not tolerating bigotry is actually an exercise in affirming human rights – not the other way around.

Freedom of speech does not infer insurance against consequences. If you want to say racist, classist, sexist or homophobic things, by all means, go ahead. You cannot, however, expect to say such things and not suffer the ire of persons within hearing. At least, this is how a society works if it places a premium on the inherent dignity and rights of all its members. Freedom of speech works all around–you and I both have this right. And the cornerstone appeal of rights is that they have to be enjoyed equally to work. In other words, your rights do not take precedence over mine.

Public figures of considerable influence who are beneficiaries of the status quo need to recognise and accept that their actions play an integral role in facilitating the capacity of minority, underprivileged and vulnerable populations to exercise their basic human rights. The LGBT community is already a minority, legally disenfranchised population so when one makes comments of separation and alienation, it enables the further violation of their rights.

And no, Pastor McGarrell, being a member of a particular religion or creed does not exempt you from having to observe and respect universal human rights – unless, of course, you live on a deserted island. a

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