With Queer North Americans giddy about their newfound ability to get married, in many countries it's still the sad fact that being out means losing your friends, your job - or your life. This explains why next month's meeting of the 53-member UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, with gay rights on the agenda, promises to be such a firestorm.
The commission is the foremost international body in the human rights field, but as a body of the UN it includes a revolving cross-section of countries, some gay-supportive, some decidedly not. So among the diplomats taking their chairs in the Palais des Nations overlooking Lake Geneva will be arch-enemies of queer rights such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Zimbabwe, who'll no doubt be strategizing on how to sideline a groundbreaking resolution banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
But it will be an uphill battle. Arrayed on the other side are a multilateral coalition of human rights groups and supportive countries determined to pass a resolution enshrining gay rights in covenants such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
"This would be the first time that the commission has acknowledged that the principles enshrined in human rights instruments apply equally to lesbian, gay, bi and transgendered people," says John Fisher of the Ottawa-based NGO Arc International.
To get an idea of how bitter the meeting might get, you just have to look at what happened a year ago, when a similar resolution came to the floor on the last day of the meeting. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, Libya and Malaysia put forward amendments calling for the removal of the phrase "sexual orientation" each time it appeared in the text. When that didn't work they stalled, talking out the clock until the 6 pm adjournment time - and avoiding a vote.
"Opponents couldn't defeat the resolution, but they were able to keep it from being voted on," says Ottawa-based Suki Beavers of Action Canada for Population and Development, who was part of the Canadian delegation.
One of the reasons it was difficult to sink the measure altogether was that its sponsor was not a rich liberal northern country, but Brazil. The southern country has become a leader in the human rights field despite powerful Catholic and evangelical forces who have opposed many of the positions that Brazil has taken internationally.
Sonia Correa, a leader in the women's and gender rights movements, explains on the phone from Rio de Janeiro that the religious opposition has been no match for civil society, which has played an ever larger role in the democratization of the country over the last decade. "Brazil has positioned itself as a player in the human rights global debate with very progressive positions," Correa says, pointing out Brazil's participation at other politically charged gatherings such as the Beijing and Cairo conferences on women's rights.
"Brazilian foreign policy was the monopoly of the foreign office for many years," Correa says. "But now, before an important conference, the foreign office consults civil society and academic institutions as to what the Brazilian position should be," she says. The foreign office sent representatives to a consultation of activists organized by the Canadian NGO Arc International in Brazil in December to plot strategy for the upcoming meeting.
A poignant counterpoint to Brazil is Nigeria, Africa's most populous country and a fellow member of the commission this year. If civil-society support for gay rights in Brazil explains that country's progressive positions, the lack of support in Nigeria explains why that country will almost certainly side with the opposition in Geneva.
It's not that Nigeria doesn't have a human rights movement - it does. But as professor Obiora Okafor of Osgoode Hall Law School explains, sexual orientation is not part of the language of human rights in Nigeria.
Okafor, who has just completed an anthology on the Nigerian human rights movement, recalls raising the subject of gay rights with one of his authors, only to be met with hostility. "This activist, who was almost killed by the military, said, 'Listen, this is not something that we're even going to talk about. This is a matter for the international human rights movement and not for us. '" With the country's human rights activists treating the subject like a dangerous contagion, Nigeria's anti-gay fundamentalist religious forces, in particular Islamic groups in the north and Christian in the south, have the ear of the government.
But as well as hopeless cases, there are the pleasant surprises. In Croatia, for example, only a few years ago, being openly gay would likely get you fired from your job and scorned by your neighbours. But the strongly Catholic country, anxious to get membership in the European Union, has now become a human rights model citizen that supports the resolution.
Though Canada is not on the commission this year, it will have a delegation in Geneva and will be talking up the resolution in the "informals," those spontaneous discussions that take place in hallways and over drinks. A Canadian government rep says they're expecting stiff resistance from Islamic countries. And there are hopes that the U.S. might even support the measure now that its own embarrassing sodomy law has been struck down by the courts as unconstitutional.
Of course, even if the resolution passes - as activists are increasingly hopeful it will - it will be a largely symbolic measure that will not immediately turn gay gulags into queer meccas. But Correa recalls what seemed to be mild additions to the declaration calling on countries to "consider" reviewing punitive anti-abortion legislation adopted at the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women.
"It's not very strong language, but it has been consistently used by women's organizations," she says, and the same strategy can be grafted onto the resolution on sexual orientation. "It can be used at the ground level, and that's why conservative factions are afraid. They know it can become a very important instrument."