USA: Homophobic Human Rights Professor Withdraws Due to Student Pressure

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) commends student and other community activists at New York University (NYU) for successfully challenging the school administration and Dr. Thio Li-Ann in support of the human rights of people with diverse sexual orientations. Thio, a Singaporean academic and politician, had been invited to teach human rights as a Global Visiting Professor at New York University School of Law, despite her public vilification of homosexuality and her strong advocacy for its continued criminalization in Singapore.

On July 22, 2009, Professor Thio withdrew her acceptance of the offer to teach at NYU, citing pressure from the university community. Individual students, student groups, LGBT organizations, and other activists had signed a petition and written letters condemning Thio's hiring.

In a memorandum to the law school community announcing Professor Thio's withdrawal, Dean Revesz expressed his view that the core principles of academic freedom and intellectual diversity on the one hand, and non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation on the other, were in conflict. IGLHRC believes that in an environment where there is advocacy in support of active discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation—such as Professor Thio has contributed to in Singapore—there cannot be true intellectual diversity and neither can supporters of sexual rights have the academic freedom that should be ensured for all.

“It’s like having a pro-apartheid professor teach human rights,” says Anurag Gupta, a member of the board of NYU School of Law's Coalition of Legal Recruitment (COLR) and the National Lawyer's Guild. “Thio is a leading figure in Singapore who prevented LGBT people from gaining equality. She can say whatever she wants to say but she should not be teaching human rights law at NYU. How can she advocate for human rights when she takes a fundamental anti-human rights position? Her views encourage discrimination and scare people, compelling them to stay silent in Singapore and in her classroom. It leaves LGBT people vulnerable.”

During the 2007 parliamentary debates in Singapore about the repeal of Section 377A, which prohibits sex between men, Thio stated: “Demands for homosexual rights are political claims of a narrow interest group masquerading as legal entitlements…Homosexual activists try to infiltrate and hijack the noble cause of human rights. You cannot make a human wrong a human right.”

Student groups have demanded a town hall meeting with the university to discuss the events surrounding Thio’s hire and Dean Richard Revesz has agreed. IGLRHC hopes that the ensuing dialogue will be pursued with transparency and respect for all those involved and will result in the implementation of a process to ensure that future faculty appointments are properly vetted.

To read the full transcript of Thio’s parliamentary speech, click here. To read Dean Revesz’s memorandum announcing Thio’s decision to withdraw from NYU, click here.