Expanding the Definition of Human Rights

Expanding the Definition of Human Rights

Journalists often are accused by media critics of failing to provide context for the news of the day. There is a degree of truth to this. For example, for all of the news we have been seeing about the conflict in the Ukraine, rarely do we get a glimpse into the ethnic history of the region (and why, thanks to Stalin’s abuse of the Ukrainian people, there are so many people of Russian descent in the Eastern Ukraine, or why the Ukraine as a nation understandably rocks uncomfortably between its most powerful neighbors, both of which savaged the land and the people in the last century). Knowing the history can help us understand the conflicts and challenges we face.

Given this common criticism, I have been struck by the extent to which historical context is being introduced in stories related to government actions related to nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

When the City of Tampa approved a domestic partnership registry in 2012, without much of a political storm, Richard Danielson’s story in the Tampa Bay Times reflected back on a raucous public hearing in 1991. Back then, on a 4-3 vote, the City Council expanded the classifications protected from discrimination to include “sexual orientation.” That little addition (and some other changes meant to address various concerns about the addition of that phrase) would establish one of the defining dimensions of city politics for years after. As one of the more outspoken advocates for extending this protection, it would dog my political career throughout the decade.

But a domestic partnership registry in 2012? Almost (but not quite) routine business.

Similarly, when the Hillsborough County Commission voted on Wednesday this week to direct the county attorney to draft an ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, the substantial crowd was respectful and largely accepting, even as some raised objections. Former Commissioner Joe Chillura, who had voted to remove the “sexual orientation” clause from the county’s ordinance in 1995 (after the county, too, had adopted such language in 1991), was quoted by Mike Salinero of the Tampa Tribune as saying “Not discriminating against anybody is a good thing for the community.”

The City of Tampa is a Democratic city; rarely is a Republican elected mayor, and the majority of the council is always Democratic (of course, it’s all nonpartisan, but folks generally know). Hillsborough County, on the other hand, is Republican, and has been for many years in this post-Reagan Revolution, post-Gingrich Congress era. A solid majority of the commission is, and has been, Republican . . . and everybody knows that, too, because these races are very partisan.

But on the issue of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and, now, gender identity, I guess we’re all just human beings.

Also in the news yesterday was a story by Anthony Man of the Sun Sentinel about Anita Mitchell, chairwoman of the Palm Beach Republican Party, reaching out to prominent activists in the gay, lesbian and transgendered community. A pragmatist in a heavily Democratic county, Ms. Mitchell simply explains, “We’re about getting Republicans elected, and we’re not about their ideology.”

That’s probably going too far for some of her members, but it’s an interesting assertion.

My own assertion, from 1991 to now, has been that the question before us, when we deal with these sorts of issues, isn’t what we think of a particular style of dress, or of particular intimate activities in which consenting and responsible adults engage in private. The question is what is owed to a human being, and whether or not a particular way of classifying human beings justifies treating them differently, denying to some what we acknowledge is owed to others.

I don’t have to agree with someone’s self-understanding. I don’t have to approve of what I imagine to be their intimate activities (because, if they truly are kept intimate and private, I won’t know anything). I am free to think what I think, believe what I believe, about such matters (just as that someone is free to do the same about themselves and about me).

But I . . . we . . . owe each human being we encounter the respect due a human being, rather than to classify each human being and then treat them according to the class to which we (or they) have assigned them.

The implications of this approach are complicated, contrary to the assertions of some on both sides of this element of the culture wars. Respect is not the same as agreement, nor does it compel us to treat as identical things which are not. But it does compel us, in conscience, to consider why we make distinctions between people, and to decide whether such distinctions are consistent with that requirement of respect.

I’m not sure what the sea change means for our community, our state, or our nation. Some of what I see unfolding gives me great hope; some can lead me to despair.


But it has to be a good thing when communities look at their contributing members and say, “You are welcome here.”

One Response to Expanding the Definition of Human Rights

  • David L,