#TurnOffTheHate - Tackling Hate Speech Against LGBTIQ People

On September 24, 2019, during the UN General Assembly week, OutRight Action International, as a member of the secretariat of the UN LGBTI Core Group, hosted an annual event drawing attention to ongoing violence and discrimination against LGBTIQ people worldwide. This year’s focus was specifically on hate speech.

A debate about the boundaries between freedom of expression and license to hate has been raging in recent months, with LGBTIQ people caught in the middle. Legislation in Russia and Nigeria restricts free speech on LGBTIQ topics. China has closed the biggest lesbian website. High ranking officials of the current US administration openly advocate for hate speech under the guise of protecting freedom of expression.

But hate speech is not freedom of expression. Hate speech goes beyond the mere expression of opinion; it incites hatred, violence, harassment, and persecution. Remember the article in Uganda’s Rolling Stone which published the photos, names, and addresses of people suspected to be LGBTIQ under the title “hang them”? David Kato was one of the people on that list, and he was beaten to death with a hammer a year after that article was published. Homophobic attacks in the UK rose 147% in the three months after the Brexit vote. Hate crimes against black transgender women in the US have spiked this year, as anti-gender rhetoric from the White House has grown. These are only a few examples of hate speech leading to hate crime.

Xavier Bettel, Prime Minister of Luxembourg, stated in his opening remarks of the event: “Being gay was not my choice. But not to accept it is a choice. Homophobia [and transphobia] is a personal choice, and we have to fight against it. Freedom of speech only goes as far as not harming other people. Everything cannot be said. Accepting everything makes everything possible.” He went on to remind the several hundred in the audience of the rhetoric which dominated the Western world a mere 75 years ago: “being Jewish, being disabled, being gay, or Roma, meant a death sentence. Seeing political forces openly campaigning on the same platforms today is frightening and unacceptable.”

Tackling hate speech is one of the key challenges which the LGBTIQ movement has to take on. The panel consisting of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet, Editorial Director at NBC Out Brooke Sopelsa, executive director of the Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Equality and Diversity based in St Lucia Kenita Placide, and head of Advocacy at the Trevor Project Sam Brinton, discussed how that can be done.

The High Commissioner highlighted the importance of classifying what constitutes hate speech in order to draw a clear line between freedom of expression and license to hate. Brooke Sopelsa emphasized that hate speech is rooted in ignorance and misinformation; dispelling it, raising awareness and sharing stories of the everyday lives of LGBTIQ people, beyond their identities, is key to changing hearts and minds and tackling hate speech. Sam Brinton focused on the importance of a counter response – “if how to #TurnOffTheHate is the question, then #TurnOnTheLove is the answer”. Information sharing, peer-to-peer learning, amplification of queer voices, were also all mentioned as key elements of fighting hate speech.

Meanwhile, Kenita Placide reminded those present that the people who feel the effects of hate the most, are not activists, who generally have strong support networks, access to lawyers and security measures. Rather it is LGBTIQ people who are taking the bus, walking the streets, just trying to live their lives, who are at most risk from the effects of hate speech.

Crucially for an event hosted at the UN, a number of state representatives were present, a long line of whom wished to make statements and outlining their ideas and commitments to tackling hate speech. Spokespeople from countries ranging from Norway to Uruguay and Argentina, the UK and El Salvador all pledged their support and dedication to fighting hate speech.

As one spokesperson rightly pointed out – words themselves may not cause immediate physical harm, but they can most certainly be a powerful weapon for both progress and regress. We must make sure to tackle hate speech in order to safeguard the progress made in the recognition of the human rights of LGBTIQ people, and to ensure that access to our full human rights is, one day, achieved.

OutRight welcomes the commitments expressed by a number of states to combating hate speech against LGBTIQ people, and looks forward to working with the LGBTI Core Group, and others, to continue combatting it at local, national and international levels.

Photo credits: bradhamilton.com