Sitting with Sam Cook in a café in downtown Manhattan, in the financial district no less, to speak about human rights seems downright ironic. Formerly the Project Director of PeaceWomen, a project of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Sam is now Director of Communications and Research at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). IGLHRC’s mission is to “advance human rights for everyone, everywhere and to end discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.”
A woman of peace and fairness, Sam has dedicated her life to human rights advocacy. She reflects on the evolution of the process. “I didn’t have a plan to get either this or that type of job. It was just as my life unfolded, the choices came. I had always been attracted to law as a way to bring justice and a system that everybody was accountable to. So I went to the University of Cape Town law school, not because I wanted to practice, but because I wanted the skills—things like learning how to draft a good contract. Also, I had always been drawn to doing work around gender equality. While getting my law degree, I was interested in writing papers around sexual violence and/or around socio-economic rights. It was like an instinct thing, not really planned.”
Although she may not have had a specific plan in mind, Sam’s perspective naturally lends to giving to others while remaining aware she also has much to gain. “Basically, I wanted to do something that felt like a positive contribution to human beings,” she says, “all the while never being under any kind of illusion that I was going to make any great difference. My approach was more like ‘we all put in something, but we take a lot out.’ Still, I wanted the thing that I put in to be a positive thing.”
Growing up during apartheid in South Africa had its own effects. “On the one hand, of course, being born white, I was privileged in apartheid South Africa. But I grew up with a father who made me aware of the injustices of apartheid and of the privilege that I had because of my race. I cannot pinpoint what parts of my work or my life’s approach are a result of what. I have a low tolerance for injustice in the world, but is that a result of exploring aspects of what it means to be human, or is it a result of seeing massive injustice? Perhaps seeing racial discrimination so blatantly manifested and up close—although not as close as those who lived the discrimination—made me more acutely aware of what discrimination was about. Maybe experiencing the emergence from apartheid and grappling with its effects, both in terms of suffering and privilege, made it easier for me to talk about race more explicitly—something many in the U.S. seem afraid to do. I’m not sure, but overall I believe it is impossible to grow up in such a situation without being profoundly affected at some level.”
With respect to the impact apartheid had on African women in particular, Sam is distinct in stating, “I cannot nor do I want to speak for black women in South Africa. [As a side note, Sam adds that that the term African is not necessarily a helpful one outside of the U.S., and African is also an identity claimed by some beyond those who were racially discriminated against for being black.] But, there are certainly clear examples of how being black and a woman meant a compounded experience of discrimination. As I’m sure many women in the United States who are of African descent or who are black would say, experiencing the intertwined systems of racism and patriarchy is to experience double discrimination and injustice.”
Currently that level of discrimination exists for the LGBT community as well, and shedding light on the difficulties so the public is aware is always a concern. Supporting LGBT equality and empowering those individuals who are working as advocates, Sam explains her role at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission as “trying to find the best way to communicate our work to others, not just to the media.”
Sometimes the venue for that is reflected through how IGLHRC works with advocacy groups around the world. The commission looks at each group’s concerns and really follows the agenda of local activists. “One of the simplest thing we do,” Sam enumerates, “is give a voice to the situation. If activists are working on a particular issue in X or Y part of the world, as a Human Rights organization based in the U.S. and because we’re also near the U.N., we have a voice that policymakers look upon as one of pressure which local activists might not have. We also have more of a voice in the sense that we have a website, we have a mailing list that goes out to thousands of people that can then spread the message of these local activists. So we’re like a megaphone. But at the same time, we’re not a megaphone that will just project any message.”
Sam explains that besides listening to activists’ concerns, IGLHRC makes a real attempt to let people know what’s occurring at the ground level while still trying to follow some strategic global vision. “I think that’s part of the difficulty we face regarding our strategy. Do you come up with a strategic vision that you determine is the best one and then identify the work of local activists which supports that vision, or rather do you listen to all the local voices and then say, ‘Okay, listening to all of this, it seems that the common thread is X or Y, and so how do we do bigger projects that meet those issues?’ I think that figuring out the best way to be a partner and respect the work of local activists while operating under a particular theory of how change happens is something that the organization grapples with very seriously. It’s just a continual process, especially since for a long time the work has centered around the emergency response aspect—like providing limited grants and emergency funds to assist people when they need to get out of a town and get to a safe house, for example. Also, in cases like when gay men are being arrested in Senegal, or there are laws on the books in Malawi where a couple celebrating an engagement ceremony is put in jail, or when a lesbian/gay political party in the Philippines is refused registration, we then assist in responding to that.”
Letter-writing campaigns are another effective but more traditional measure used to create public support. “Basically, we utilize our larger constituency to act as a voice,” Sam explains. “These days a lot goes by e-mail. People get to send a letter to the Human Rights Commission of Philippines or wherever to create some sort of pressure for the decision makers to change the policies. That’s good, of course, but the campaigns do other things. They creates a sense that there is a movement out there as well as generate a sense of support for those who are sitting in jail, like in the AMNESTY model. There’s a consciousness created that you’ve got people on your side. So we are helping people to be more protected. The more people who know about somebody sitting in jail, the less likely that person’s going to disappear or be tortured or abused.”
As far as educating the public about human rights violations or about the discrimination of persons due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, the easiest place to reach an audience is in the United States, but it’s not necessarily the place that needs it the most. “Although there are violations everywhere, including in the U.S.,” Sam emphasizes, “many of the really serious violations are actually happening outside the United States. Torture, sitting in jail, massive killings. These are mostly happening in other countries.”
Clanking coffee cups underscore Sam’s remark. Sitting around us in the café, male and female corporate execs sip their lattes and espressos—the environment acting as a reminder of how much we as westerners take for granted in our corner of the world. Even gay and lesbian issues in America can, for those who have seen far more serious consequences, take on a note of frivolity. Whereas, internationally, there are those who are losing their lives merely by the fact that they are gay, here in the U.S., issues such as allowing gays and lesbians to marry and have families, although serious, are nowhere as lethal as the violations occuring in certain areas of Africa and the Middle East. As Sam indicates, “difficulties like losing your job, or not being able to get married because of your gender identity or orientation may be seen more as concentrating on ‘luxuries’ to activists in other parts of the world.”
It does appear, though, that no matter what the particular contention is surrounding the sexual orientation debate, religious posturing has definitely fueled the fire. Although some religious leaders have diffused prejudice, many have helped create the difficulties and have encouraged human rights violations.
“The immediate thing I noticed,” Sam states, “is that a lot of the work against the human rights of the LGBT community is very much linked to conservative religious forces—religious fundamentalists.”
The Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009, introduced last October 2009 is an example. The bill targets lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgenders, as well as those who support them in any way. Not only does it uphold criminalizing homosexuality, it calls for imprisonment for life for anyone convicted of the “offense,” proposing the death penalty for those who repeatedly engage in same-sex relations. The bill is a human rights nightmare, allowing for the annihilation of those of non-mainstream sexual orientation, as well as wedging another discriminatory block for HIV patients in dire need of proper care.
On the U.S. front, Senators Russ Feingold (D-WI), Tom Coburn (R-OK), Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Susan Collins (R-ME) introduced a resolution (H. RES. 1064) calling on members of the Ugandan Parliament to reject the Bill as well as any standing or newly presented laws that criminalize homosexuality. The resolution was passed in the Senate and is now moving through the House of Representatives.
The Ugandan Bill, Sam notes, has been driven by U.S. Christian Fundamentalists. “They have gone there and cultivated relationships with leaders, getting people to promote their conservative Christian agenda. It’s not only in Uganda. They have cultivated relationships with leaders around the world. Conservatives, in general, have pumped their ideas into the human rights field, including women’s rights and LGBT rights.”
Yet, there are also religious leaders who are fighting against this. “There are still many wonderful people,” Sam says. “Even most religious entities who are against recognizing the rights of lesbians and gays to have families or to get married will not sanction people’s lives being criminalized and will not sanction torture of human beings on the basis of their sexuality. The Vatican coming out during an event at the U.N. last December (2009) and saying that they did not condone torture or criminalizing people’s lives was really, really powerful. While they are still negative in a number of other ways, that was really positive. In general, this event helped to bring to the surface and show the support at this basic level.”
Sam’s statement appears true. When the atrocities are exposed, the sheer horror of them can activate people’s compassion and sense of decency. How far are you willing to go to condemn another? Those previously lending their voice to judgment may find themselves speaking out against governments that torture their citizens based on sexual orientation discrimination.
But shouldn’t this all be falling under the umbrella of human rights? The concept emphasizes that fundamental rights and freedoms belong to every human being merely by reason of being born. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, sets the assertion in writing.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
—Article 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission utilizes the declaration as a cornerstone for their activity. “I think the Universal Declaration and basic human rights laws are very foundational in this kind of work and are used all the time,” Sam asserts. “For example, when we do a letter to a government that has violated certain rights we can say, ‘Everybody has the right to X or Y, and you are actually discriminating against your citizens by denying them these rights.’ So the declaration is deployed often.”
Putting the rights in a document form gives people something solid they can refer to. “Many people don’t believe in doing things unless they are obliged by something that they see as a legal document,” Sam states. “Sometimes even people who are activists don’t believe they have the right to stand up unless they have the form there—not just because they know that governments won’t respond without it, but because they mistrust their own sense of justice and their own sense of what it is to be human. They are insecure about their own claims.”
So being human is the starting point and, as Sam indicates, IGLHRC begins there as well. “Rather than saying ‘I have a certain kind of right because I am a gay man or a lesbian, our tagline is HUMAN RIGHTS FOR EVERYONE. EVERYWHERE. And that is where we begin. It is so much more powerful because we do have many governments that signed the Charter and accepted the various covenants. We can show that what we’re asking for is an obligation that arises from accepting the document.”
Still, how do you make the concerns of people who are being subjected to sexual identity and sexual orientation discrimination the concerns of the majority?
“Looking at the discrimination of women and how it is detrimental may be easier to do,” Sam says. “When we point things out to men regarding this issue, they may be able to see how it will affect their home and families. But bringing out the discrimination against gays and lesbians or those who are transsexual or bisexual is harder since the majority, not only men, don’t feel personally affected by it as much.”
Could any of this be tied to another aspect of the power structure—the role of women in human rights advocacy? Could more women in leadership roles make a difference including within the arena of LGBT rights?.
“I believe that just being a woman is not enough to balance anything,” Sam states. “I think their have been too many Golda Meirs and Margaret Thatchers who have been militant. Yet, I do feel that women for the most part tend to have an approach to things that will more likely result in social justice. At the same time, qualities that are considered feminine which may be seen as powerful and positive by some people, might be regarded as weak by others. So I think the difficulty with regard to presenting the concept of more women in leadership as actually being an asset in human rights issues throughout the world is in how we talk about it. What are the actual qualities that women may have in more abundance that can help?”
All in all, Sam does say she believes that women in more leadership roles would be helpful. “What I struggle with is how to figure this into the power structures that exist—how to shift what people think of as powerful and impactful and what might be able to bring about human flourishing, without turning it into a competition between the genders, which is what many men have succeeded in doing. It doesn’t have to be that way. I know it would be difficult to talk to a man about women being perhaps more in tune with their nurturing side. So how do I talk about it without forsaking my beliefs, because I don’t want to model that old form of power.”
Yet, by her own example, Sam proves she’s already cast aside the mold. Thoughtful and conscientious, her approach to her own advocacy work is a far cry from the patriarchal model. “I don’t require for my own satisfaction that I be the personal author of things,” Sam states. “I don’t need to see my name on change. I think you have to be that way in order to do work in big political arenas because no individual is responsible for the changes.”
That may be the case, but as Sam reflects, the larger picture still takes its personal toll. “If you do human rights work and you find yourself not crying every now and then or not get angry every once in a while, you need to take a break because letting things touch your soul is part of what drives you.”
Maybe detachment and cynicism are the diseases infecting most of us. Human rights issues are wearisome. We would rather find an escape from the daily grind of suffering, something that entertainment venues like American Idol or Cash Cab offer us. Certainly nothing wrong with that, as long as we pinch ourselves every once in a while and, like Sam, realize we “need a reality check here.”
You know . . . let human suffering touch our souls. Perhaps even let it drive us toward inclusion.
HUMAN RIGHTS FOR EVERYONE. EVERYWHERE.