Disability Laws: The Power of Policy

Gavel
gavel, cckrt, Creative Commons

Laws and policies not only reflect policy-makers’ knowledge about cultural norms but laws and policies also actively shape our cultural norms as well (Benabou & Tirole, 2011). Inclusive laws and policies may negate the reinforcement of discrimination of marginalized groups by changing attitudes towards said groups over time. This is especially true of the disability community. Prior to the enactment of inclusive policies, persons with disabilities could be legally and explicitly discriminated against in the fields of education, medicine, and employment. Persons with disabilities still face discrimination, but the following laws make strides toward shaping the United States into a more inclusive for persons with disabilities, and these laws have played a key role in shaping cultural norms regarding these issues.

Civil and political rights are protected by many different laws for all Americans; however, key pieces of legislation pertain specifically to persons with disabilities. Currently, three major federal laws protect persons with disabilities in the United States: the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1975, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. Additionally, the United Nations also has implemented the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), an international commitment to promote accessibility on the global scale.

 

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973

The Rehabilitation Act was the first piece of civil rights legislation to explicitly identify the rights of persons with disabilities and outlaws the discrimination on the basis of disability in Federally-funded programs. This includes barring programs conducted by Federal agencies, programs receiving Federal financial assistance, and Federal employment from discriminating against persons with disabilities.

The Rehabilitation Act also:

  • Defines persons with disabilities as those who have a physical or mental impairment that limits a major life activity, such as walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, learning, or working.
  • Gives students with disabilities the right to appropriate education.
    • ‘appropriate education’ is defined in this context as education that meets the unique educational needs of a student.
  • Requires parents must be notified if their children are tested for learning difficulties, are identified as having a disability, or placed into special education programs. Parents are also given the option to object to their child’s evaluation results through a formal, impartial hearing.
  • Mandates students with disabilities should be educated with their non-disabled peers when appropriate.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

The IDEA requires children with disabilities receive a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment appropriate to their individual needs and provides financial incentives for public education institutions complying with federal disability laws. IDEA also requires the implementation of Individualized Education Programs (IEP’s) for each child. These programs are developed by a team of individuals knowledgeable about the child’s situation (typically the child’s teacher, the parents, the child, and oftentimes an agency representative who is qualified to provide special education) and are required to be reviewed annually.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act also:

  • Protects children (up to age 21) deemed eligible for special education services.
  • Allocates funds assisting states and other education agencies to meet special education requirements.
  • Requires children in special education programs have a written IEP.
Statue holding the scales of justice
Scales of Justice, Creative Commons

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications and also applies to the United States Congress.

The Americans with Disabilities Act also:

  • Prohibits explicit discrimination in recruitment, hiring, promotions, training, pay, social activities, and other privileges of employment and restricts questions that can be asked about an applicant’s disability before a job offer is made for employers who possess more than 15 employees.
  • Requires employers “make reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities, unless it results in undue hardship”(29 CFR Parts 1630, 1602 (Title I, EEOC)).
  • Requires state and local governments follow specific architectural guidelines in the new construction and alteration of their buildings.
  • Provides a telephone hotline if disability-related complaints need to be filed. These complaints are filed with the Department of Justice, who may provide mediation programs if necessary.
  • Requires all public transportation services (such as city buses and public rail transit) are fully accessible.
  • Requires common carriers establish interstate and intrastate telecommunication relay services 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • Requires closed captioning of federally-funded public service announcements.

 

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)

The CRPD and its Optional Protocol were adopted by the United Nations in 2006. With 82 signatories to the Convention, 44 signatories to the Optional Protocol, and 1 ratification to the Convention, the CRPD has the highest number of signatories in history to a United Nations Convention. It is also the first legally binding, international treaty protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. The CRPD is the first human rights treaty of the 21st century and is the first to allow both regional economic integration organizations and civil society are parties to negotiations of a Convention. The UN defines the CRPD as “a human rights instrument with an explicit, social development“. This document reaffirms persons with disabilities (not restricted to physical and/or visible disabilities) must enjoy all fundamental freedoms and human rights.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities also:

  • Is the fastest growing treaty in the history of the UN.
  • Embraces a human rights-based approach (HRBA) of disability. HRBA shifted the approach to disability from “objects” of charity, social protection, and medical treatment towards a doctrine of human rights, envisioning persons with disabilities should make their own decisions about life, the future, and claim rights on their own behalf.
  • Defines disability as an evolving and open concept.
  • Encourages the participation of civil society, particularly persons with disabilities and their related organizations. This follows the Convention’s slogan, “Nothing about us without us.”
  • Protects persons with disabilities from direct and indirect discrimination and provides reporting mechanisms if a person’s rights are violated within the context of the CRPD.
Graphic featuring the globe, United Nations logo, Scales of Justice, and disability logo
Disability laws connect, Mathew Hobbs, Creative Commons

Why Disability Laws and Policies are Needed

There are more than 1 billion people in the world are currently living with a disability; about 59.7 million of them live within the United States. Batavia (2001) asserts civil rights legislation, such as those aforementioned, open doors for persons with disabilities that were otherwise sealed shut while also normalizing persons with disabilities in the workplace and beyond. It is apparent that such legislation has moved the United States and the world toward a more inclusive and accessible world, but there is still work to be done. Batavia (2001) points out less than 20% of complaints filed under the ADA end up ruling in favor of the defendant. This is the typical average for complaints filed under anti-discrimination laws in the United States; however, Batavia also argues the percentage for the ADA specifically should be much higher due to the uniqueness of each individual disability and necessary accommodations for them. Society oftentimes reinforces views of persons with disabilities as a ‘burden’ or ‘incapable’; one way to break these negative stigmatizations is via policy and respecting those policies as citizens.

If laws are changed, then public opinion toward a particular subject may change along with it. However, this change takes time; when sodomy was decriminalized in the United States in the 1950s, public opinion on same-sex and other queer couples began to shift. The shift over time pressured the Supreme Court to rule in favor of Queer Rights when same-sex couples gained the right to marry in 2015. The LGBTQ+ community still faces many obstacles today, but they are substantially less than those faced before favorable legislation was passed. Without a tireless effort, laws such as the ADA or the CRPD may have taken a much longer time to manifest. These efforts must continue in order to eradicate the stigma surrounding persons with disabilities.

 

References:

Batavia, Andrew I., and Kay Schriner. “The Americans with Disabilities Act as Engine of Social

Change: Models of Disability and the Potential of a Civil Rights Approach.” Policy

Studies Journal 29.4 (2001): 690-702.

Benabou, Roland, and Jean Tirole. Laws and Norms. No. w17579. National Bureau of

Economic Research, 2011.

 

Keep up with the latest announcements related to the upcoming Symposium on Disability Rights by following the IHR on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Digital Citizenship: The Good, The Bad, & The Role of the Internet

Picture of hand in a web of technological devices
Communication Internet, by Pixabay, Creative Commons

In the early history of democracies, political voting was inherently simple: it was the communication of approval or disapproval of policies, platforms, and so on. Dissention was normal, but the partisan politics we are familiar with today were almost nonexistent. Issues that one politician had with another’s proposal were addressed in a direct, timely manner. In terms of the general public, everyone was essentially getting the same information via the same means – the printed press. This meant everyone was getting the same information at the same time; there may have been differences in interpretations, but everyone was reading the same headline as their neighbor. Today, we have thousands of media vying for our attention on many topics, especially politics. Whether from CNN, MSNBC, NPR, or Fox News, we are bombarded with information on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media.

So, how did we abruptly shift from getting news from the same medium to getting news from every angle? The answer is simple: The Internet. The Internet completely transformed how we receive and access all media of information, including political information; politicians can directly speak to voters who then participate in the political arena without leaving their home. Technological advancements in communication play an important role in influencing electoral behavior, easing the accessibility of political information. The Internet makes it easier to find out a candidate’s platform, what they want to work for, and their history. By using the internet in this way, people are engaging in what is now known as “digital citizenship.” A “digital citizen” is one who engages in democratic affairs in conventional ways by using an unconventional medium such as their laptop or smartphone.

The media’s role in elections and politics has grown exponentially since the 1960s. Prior to television, presidential candidates relied on the radio, think of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats, and other interpersonal means to communicate with voters: caucuses, party conventions, town halls, and so on. As technology progressed and television became widely accessible, reliance on interpersonal connections diminished and reliance upon the media grew. Power transitioned from party leaders and bosses to the candidates – as they were able to take control of their campaign, so long as their actions were worthy enough to make headlines. This transfer of power once benefitted only the candidates; however, now the power resides with the media: for they decide what suits their audiences, and who America sees.

This transfer of power greatly impacts our political processes. When politicians are their own bosses, they are able to disregard societal “norms” and use populist rhetoric to enhance their performance in the political realm. Kellener asserts President Trump is the “master of media spectacle”; using populism to make headlines and instill fear into voters more susceptible to fear- and anger-based messaging, he was able to “use the disturbing underside of American politics to mobilize his supporters”.

Picture of various social media icons
Online Internet Icon, Pixaby, Creative Commons

The Good

ISTE.org layers the ‘digital’ components onto the definition of a conventional good citizen:

A good citizen… A good digital citizen…
Advocates for equal human rights for all Advocates for equal digital rights for all
Treats others with respect Seeks to understand all perspectives

Does not steal or damage others’ property

Respects digital privacy, intellectual property, and other rights of people online
Communicates clearly, respectfully, and with empathy Communicates and acts with empathy for others’ humanity via digital channels
Speaks honestly and does not repeat unsubstantiated rumors Applies critical thinking to all online sources, including fake news or advertisements
Works to make the world a better place Leverages technology to advocate for and advance social causes
Protects self and others from harm Is mindful of physical, emotional, and mental health while using digital tools
Teams up with others on community projects Leverages digital tools to collaborate with others
Projects a positive self-image Understands the permanence of the digital world and proactively manages digital identity

All of the characteristics of a “good digital citizen” may be applied to participating in democracy via the Internet. If everyone had access to the internet, more people would be able to register to vote as well as discussing and engaging in the political arena. If we seek to understand more perspectives, we could combat the political “bubbles” that we either choose to live in or are placed into by Facebook filtering your newsfeed depending on your online habits. If we used technology to advocate for social causes such as voter disenfranchisement, we could get more people engaged with our democracy.

Being a “good” digital citizen transcends holding personal values – it includes the pursuit of equality for all. We are lucky enough to live in a country where digital citizenship is accessible for most, but we are doing no justice by those who cannot access it by not utilizing this new form of citizenship.

 

The Bad

The era of digital citizenship is a result of the rapid spread in access to the Internet. If you have access to the Internet in America, you have the opportunity to register to vote (given that you meet the proper requirements set by your state), to research political platforms and to engage with others to discuss politics. Political participation (not exclusive to voting) has increased – people are engaging more in more discussions on every form of media; however, these discussions may not always be beneficial or productive. Kurst says, due to our emotionally charged atmosphere in the US, it is very easy (and very typical) for conversations surrounding politics escalate to attacks on opposing values. It is easy to rely strictly on what you are told from your favorite news source or directly from a politician and regurgitate the rhetoric, but it is vital to our unity as a society to fact check your information, and respectfully listen to the “other side.”

In today’s political climate, virtually everything is politicized – including our social media. We live in our “red bubbles” or “blue bubbles” and disassociate from anyone who may be on the other side. Thompson argues this is normal; we seek homogeneity in our marriages, workplaces, neighborhoods, and peer groups. However, when it comes to politics and the Internet, we are allowed to pretend like those without similar interests do not exist. When we ostracize a group of people and those people feel as though they are not being represented, we see members of the Republican party proclaiming they are the “silent majority,” which was a galvanizing force behind their voter turnout in 2016. By devaluing another side’s beliefs, we are dehumanizing those who hold them. This causes anger, frustration, and retaliation – all of which that may take place in the digital or physical realms. We cannot abandon our fellow Americans simply because we disagree; we have to realize the differences we have are much less than the commonalities we share.

The polarization of the two parties in America today discredits many media outlets. 47% of conservatives said they get their news exclusively from Fox News; while liberals get theirs from a more diverse set of news. Conservatives and liberals alike see anything that does not reflect their values as “biased”, in fact, members of society gravitate to information that reaffirms their beliefs and intentionally avoid information that contradicts said beliefs, according to Drs. Rouhana and Bar-Tal. This creates a biased interpretation of the news – information that is consistent with already-held beliefs are interpreted as fact and support for whichever side of the argument the reader/viewer ascribes to. As a result, Americans question the validity of news sources that contradict that of their personal beliefs. The crossroads of political polarization and declining trust in our media outlets is where fake news exists. Truth has become a relative term and is often manipulated by an ideology, not fact.

How can we fix the political polarization tearing at the social fabric of American society? Establishing trust “across the aisle” seems like a hopeless cause in today’s America. When asked how to “pop” the political bubbles we live in, Gerson claims, “[the] cause is not hopeless, because the power of words to shape the human spirit is undeniable. These can be words that belittle, diminish and deceive. Or they can ring down the ages about human dignity. They can also allow us, for a moment, to enter the experiences of others and widen, just a bit, the aperture of our understanding. On the success of this calling much else depends.”  The solution to diminishing this polarization is to listen – listen and realize the other person you are disagreeing with possess the same humanity you do, and this humanity should be respected.

@ symbol with American symbols
News Internet, by Max Pixel, Creative Commons

Digital Citizenship and Human Rights

Marginalized populations have always struggled to get their voices heard. Without active engagement in democracy, minorities struggle to achieve full citizenship. The Internet and digital citizenship have worked together to diminish this obstacle faced by minorities. Social movements such as Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and even the Arab Spring began and spread with the assistance of the Internet. Digital citizenship is linked to creating online communities to which people who struggle “fitting in” with their physical environment can find a home.

Using the Internet, citizens are easily mobilized on issues that concern them, whether domestic or international. They are able to pressure politicians to take actions against human rights violations and assist organizations doing field work where an injustice is present. For example, we are able to donate financially to the organizations making an effort to abolish the attacks on the LGBTQ+ community currently taking place in Chechnya, Russia. By being aware of it and all the other injustices taking place, we are able to assist in the resistance and make a difference in a way we could not have 10 years ago thanks to the Internet.

There are those who choose to not engage in politics in any shape or form, and there are those who use the Internet exclusively for political reasons. Wherever you fall within that spectrum, it is easy to agree that the polarization we have in America today is an issue that needs proper attention. It starts at the individual level: listening to what others who are different have to say, diversifying your news sources, and being open to disagreement. We must break out of our “bubbles” and not allow the influence of the Internet to shape our values for us.

The History of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

UN Flag
Flag of the United Nations, paixland, Creative Commons

The conception of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) gave birth to human rights as they are known today. Adopted by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly on December 10, 1948, the UDHR was a response to the atrocities that took place during World War II. As half the globe laid in ruin and millions of lives were taken, a dormant side of humanity seemed to reawaken within the world powers, and an international prioritization of human rights emerged. The UDHR, comprised of 30 Articles defining human rights, was an expression of humanity’s resurgence, as well as an international commitment to never allow such monstrous acts to take place again.

Those tasked with composing the UDHR were members of the Commission on Human Rights, chaired by the dynamic Eleanor Roosevelt, who served as First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945. Roosevelt transformed the role of the First Lady by using her position as a platform for social activism in women’s rights, African-American rights, and Depression-era workers’ rights. After her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, died in 1945, she was appointed to be the US Delegate to the UN and served in this role for 7 years. It was her experience and passion for social activism that prepared the widow Roosevelt to Chair the commission responsible for creating the UDHR. Roosevelt asserted the Declaration would reflect more than Western ideas; to accomplish this, the Human Rights Commission was made up of members from various cultural and legal backgrounds from all around the world, showing respect for differing cultures and their customs while also ensuring each region had a hand in creating the document. Under Roosevelt’s leadership, the diverse commission was able to craft the UDHR in a unique and culturally-competent way.

Statue of Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt, Kevin Borland, Creative Commons

The UDHR was the first document in history to explicitly define what individual rights are and how they must be protected. The Preamble of the document outlines the rights of all human beings:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people…

Thus, for the first time in history, human rights were assembled and codified into a single document. The Member States, or sovereign states that are members of the United Nations, came together in agreement to protect and promote these rights. As consequence, the rights have shaped constitutional laws and democratic norms around the world, such as the Human Rights Act of 1998 in Britain and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the United States.

Silhouette of a dove holding an olive branch
Dove Silhouette, Creative Commons

The Commission on Human Rights defined human rights with the conception of the UDHR. By fusing dignity, fairness, equality, respect, and independence, the UN defines human rights as:

rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more.  Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination.

Human rights are the cross-cutting theme within every UN agency. They have inspired the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are goals to “provide peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.” These planet-, urbanization-, and group-focused goals substantially contribute to the realization of human rights, as the human rights-based approach to development stipulates development is conducive to the promotion of human rights.  In the ideal sense, human rights are a guiding force toward living in global harmony, and through the promotion of the basic rights bestowed by the UDHR, the world has made strides toward achieving that harmony.

 

Get to the Polls – the Battle Against Barriers

In light of our midterm elections coming up here in the United States, I have decided to do a series of blog posts relating to voting and its importance in our society. This is the first in the series.

Photo of the White House from a low perspective.
White House by Angela N., Creative Commons

The Facade of a Democracy

When becoming a naturalized citizen of the United States of America, you are asked, “What is the most important right granted to an American citizen?” According to the American Government, the correct answer to that question is, “the right to vote.” However, the Constitution upon which our nation was founded does not explicitly grant the right to vote. It provides penalties and punishments against states that do not explicitly allow minorities to vote, but the Constitution does not fulfill the promise of democracy we associate it with. As a result, voter disenfranchisement is possible. It is possible so long as there are “opportunities” to vote, no matter how difficult it is for citizens to actually do it.

Voter disenfranchisement assumes many different forms, ranging from intimidation to falsifying information to suppression, and so on. Disenfranchisement goes back to the founding of our nation. Initially, white, male landowners were the only demographic allowed to participate in this civic privilege. Notice I defined it as a civic privilege, not a civic duty. It is our privilege to manifest our desires in the form of a ballot. We are not required by our government to vote, but we should be required to do so by our morals. The brutality of the Civil War technically gave racial minorities the right to vote, though they continue to be turned away at the polls without consequence. Later came the Jim Crow laws disbanding all voting rights African Americans barely had to begin with. To this day, voter suppression continues to be an issue rooted deep in American soil.

The hardest aspects of this phenomena to grasp are these: 1) the main avenue used to suppress minorities are institutionally mandated and 2) they are ignored by a majority of Americans.

Registering to Vote

The most common form of disenfranchisement involves creating barriers to register to vote, making it harder for many Americans to participate in our democracy. In 2011, thirteen states introduced bills that ended Election Day and same-day voter registration, limited voter registration drives, and reduced opportunities for voters to register. These states were Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maine, New Hampshire, Colorado, Maine, Ohio, Florida, Texas, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Mississippi.

Let’s unpack this. By ending same-day voter registration, people who have to work long hours during the week to support their families have to plan out and likely take off work to register to vote before the deadline. With limited voter registration drives, less and less people are able to easily register to vote – African American and Hispanic people are twice as likely to register to vote at a drive than their white counterparts. Finally, without ample opportunities to register to vote, you can imagine how it impacts voter registration numbers (hint: they did not go up. At all).

Since 2011, the number of states with voter suppression laws has increased to twenty-five – half of the entire country. In addition, there is presently talk of creating federal mandates that would enact voter suppression laws nationwide.

Photo graphic of a ballot box
vote obey by Erin Williamson, Creative Commons

Early Voting

Early voting, sometimes referred to as in-person absentee voting, allows people to vote prior to Election Day. These people typically participate in early voting because they are unable to get to their polling place on Election Day for several possible reasons: they need to work during the week but can vote early on the weekend, they do not have reliable transportation and may only be able to go to their polling place on a specific day, and/or many other plausible reasons. As of this year, 34 states and the District of Columbia allow no-excuse early voting – meaning they do not have to provide an excuse to vote early, it is just possible for everyone. Oregon, Washington, and Colorado have enacted all-mail voting, which eliminates the need for early voting.

So, why are we not all enacting early voting? The main argument against it is the level of political knowledge early voters have as compared to those who vote later. There are developments that come out closer to Election Day (think of the Kennedy-Nixon debates which happened until October). If people vote 46 days in advance (like they now can in Minnesota), their information is skewed compared to those who waited to hear candidates speak at town halls, debates, etc. While this is a valid point, only 36% of voting Americans utilized early voting in the 2016 Presidential Election. Yes, that is a lot of people, but a majority of Americans are still using the traditional form of voting.

Low-Income Voters Lose

Those who suffer the most at the hands of voter disenfranchisement are poor people. Right before the 2016 Presidential election, 31 DMVs were closed in Alabama as ordered by then-Governor Robert Bentley. The counties affected were Camden, Eutaw, Greensboro, and other counties in the state that is characterized as majority poor and African American people. Alabama also passed a law burdening citizens by requiring them to have photo identification to exercise their right to vote. The most typical form of voter identification is the driver’s license, and where do people get a driver’s license from? The local DMV. But what do you do when your local DMV is closed down and you do not have the proper transportation to get to the nearest, open DMV?

Because of the excessive DMV closures, people within those counties now have difficulties getting proper voter identification, getting registered to vote, and, ultimately, voting on Election Day. Democracy means participation from the people; without the participation of the people, we are not in a functioning democracy. Instead of creating barriers to voting, we should be dismantling barriers to voting.

Voting as a Human Right

Though it may not be an explicit Constitutional right, it certainly can be argued that voting is a human right, given the potential outcomes from high voter participation. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), “The right to take part in the conduct of public affairs, including the right to vote and to stand for election, is at the core of democratic governments based on the will of the people. Genuine elections are thus a necessary and fundamental component of an environment that protects and promotes human rights.” We are lucky enough to have the “prerequisite human rights” that allow us to vote and participate in our democracy: the right to freedom from discrimination, the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the right to freedom of association and of peaceful assembly, and the right to freedom of movement, so we must take advantage of these rights.

The will of the people takes corporeal form in a vote, giving the people power over those who govern them; however, that does not go to say power is a human right. It means voting grants the possibility to have our wants and needs met and that we have a greater chance in the pursuit of meeting our human rights.

If the will of the people is ignored, unmet, and/or barred, democracy is not functioning. If one cannot vote due to systematic and intentional barriers, this individual is denied her or his human rights by proxy of their government. In the United States, our solution is persistence. No matter how many DMVs are closed down and no matter how many barriers are placed by whoever or whatever, we must persist to shape our reality how we wish.

Anyone can be a public servant and make a difference in this world and you are never too young or too old to do so. Here are potential solutions to circumvent voter disenfranchisement:

  • First, make sure you are registered to vote. If you are not, visit TurboVote and do it as soon as possible to make sure you register on time to vote in your state.
  • Register others to vote. It is very simple! All you need is the national voter registration form, clipboards for convenience, pens, and rubber bands. Don’t forget to check if your family is registered!
  • If you are able to drive to a DMV or polling place, take others.
  • Simply talk to others about voting. Voter education is something we, as a society, lack. Encourage others to look at politicians’ campaign promises and what they are wanting to do to combat voter suppression.
  • Organize. Being with others who have the same goal as you will push you to do more and get more done.
Photo graphic reading "It's your future, how hard is that?"
vote by erheyward, Creative Commons

Voting in any democracy is a reminder to governments that they work for us, not the other way around. We must use our vote as our echoing voice. We owe it to our children, our underrepresented neighbor, and ourselves to exercise our privilege to vote. If you are reading from somewhere in the United States, remember to get to the polls and vote on November 6th.

A LGBTQ+ Perspective on Today’s World

picture of a gay pride rally in Leeds, England
Leeds Pride. Source: Bryan Ledgard, Creative Commons,

LGBTQ+ youth today may look at the world around them and think all hope is lost. It is understandable because the possibility of an entire community losing their civil rights at any moment is creating a looming fear. As human beings, we all come to terms with ourselves in our own ways; whether it is simply growing into yourself in order to find out who you are, or growing into someone you never imagined. The process of coming to terms with identity is completely different when your sexuality is not the “social norm.” Growing up, I felt scared of myself, and fearful of what the future might hold for people like me. However in 2015, when marriage equality became law, I thought to myself, “We are finally getting to a place where children will not have to grow up like I did.”

My story is not the same as every LGBTQ+ individual around the country, and certainly not across the globe. Every day, I wake up hoping that I do not hear of another story about a Matthew Shepard or Pulse Nightclub tragedy. To live as an open member of the LGBTQ+ community is to live in a constant state of worry. You may not always feel it, but the hum of it, however quiet it may be, still echoes through the back of your mind. It is a worry for your brothers, sisters, others of your community, and for yourself. This infringes upon our right to security, as we are afraid to be ourselves in public spaces. This fear even extends to private places because for many, our families are the main aggressors. For youths who suffer through the pain of oppression at the hands their family, there is never a true sense of peace.

I have faced discrimination throughout the course of my life. Based on my rumored sexuality, I experienced exclusion from many of things. It is a pivotal moment in one’s life when they choose to come out. It is a time that you accept all the ridicule, the torment, and the imminent threat of attack. I have emotional scars from peers and family that still haunt me to this day. Yet, what hurts me most is the look in another person’s eyes when they become aware of my sexuality; it is that look—from people whom I have never met—which is devastating. How can someone who knows nothing about me, judge me?

While the future for American LGBTQ+ youth seems frightening and uncertain, it is nothing compared to those of the LGBTQ+ community across the globe. A LGBTQ+ youth in the Middle East and Northern Africa has a different perspective based upon cultural experience and a belief that there is no hope and fear that there never will be–an upbringing filled with trials comparatively different to those I suffered as a youth. Living as an open member of the LGBTQ+ community in a Muslim country can potentially turn into a life threatening choice. Imagine that: telling your friends and family who you are, and then fearing that your life could end at that exact moment. That fear, no matter how far from home, affects us all.

Turkey is one of the few Middle Eastern countries where homosexuality is legal. Unfortunately, homophobia is still very prevalent so when a group of members from the community tried to initiate their own Pride festival, local authorities shot them with water cannons, rubber bullets, and sprayed them with tear gas. Across the Middle East, there are standing laws to persecute those of the LGBTQ+ community, including imprisonment for up to 10 years. In Ancient Egypt, being gay or lesbian was a godlike quality; however, in modern times, homosexuality is viewed as sin and punishable by death. When the White House went up in rainbow colored lights in 2015, the authorities in Saudi Arabia went on the hunt. Children face death around the country for “deviant” behavior by their own governments. A privately run school in Riyadh was fined $26,500 (in U.S. dollars) for painting the rooftop in rainbow stripes, and one of the administrators for the school was jailed for allowing such a “monstrosity”. Afghanistan banned the decorating of cars with rainbow stickers because it “may be misinterpreted.” In Iran, Yemen, and other Middle Eastern countries, many face execution for engaging in sodomy.

 

a picture of a city hall building, lighted with rainbow colored lights in honor of gay pride
City Hall. Source: Tom Hilton, Creative Commons.

An assembly was called on in 2015 by the United States and Chile to bring light to the attacks on the LGBTQ+ community that are prominent in the Middle East, specifically by the Islamic State. Syrian refugees who fled their war-torn homeland spoke to the United Nations about what their life and the suffering they endured. One man admitted to hiding his sexuality his entire life, saying, “In my society, being gay means death.” Another man told of his witnessing of an al-Qaeda affiliated group taking control of his hometown and began torturing and murdering men that others thought to be gay. Cheering audiences attended the executions of gay men. Some men, tossed from building ledges, meet their death; however, for those who do not die upon impact, the hateful crowd stoned them to death.

Institutionalized discrimination is a prominent threat no matter where one may look across the globe.

In the south and in the US, we feel criminalized; in the Middle East, we are criminalized. 

Being a part of a marginalized community has affected me in many negative ways, but also in positive ways. I feel a commonality with people I have never met and will likely never have the luxury of doing. As a part of the community, I am “branded in rainbow”, which is the most fulfilling feeling that I had experienced. I chose to take all of the negativity that surrounded me and channel it into positivity. This community and a shared experience has made me stronger, more confident, and allowed me to channel my anger by turning it into passion. As a member of this community, I implore you to become more accepting of the people around you, no matter where you may be from or what you may practice. It is powerful to feel human, and it is a feeling we all deserve.

 

 

The History of Pride

Pride Flag flying
Rainbow Pride Flag. Source: Benson Kua, Creative Commons.

The month of June is known as Pride Month for the LGBTQ community. Pride means more than its dictionary definition to the LGBTQ community and has a long history.

The fight for marriage equality began in 2010 with United States v. Windsor. This case challenged the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). This Act stated that only marriages between a man and a woman were recognized by the federal government, but allowed for state governments to recognize them. Edith Windsor was widowed after her spouse, Thea Clara Spyer, who passed away in 2009. She was the sole survivor of their estate. Windsor and Spyer were legally married in Canada in 2007, and their marriage was recognized by their home state of New York. Spyer left in her will that the estate would be left to Windsor, but because their marriage was not recognized by federal law, over $350,000 in estate taxes was issued to Windsor. If their marriage would have been recognized by the federal government, no taxes would have been issued.

Windsor filed a lawsuit against DOMA and its constitutionality in 2010. At that time, DOMA was upheld by the government; however, in 2011 President Obama and Attorney General Holder announced that they would no longer defend DOMA. The House of Representatives then created a provisionary group to defend DOMA but the district court found the group to be unconstitutional. Windsor was given a refund for the estate taxes she was forced to pay and DOMA was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). States were then allowed to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples if their governments chose to allow such.

Efforts for marriage equality continued with James Obergefell and John Arthur James, who were residents of Ohio. They decided to go to Maryland to get legally married after years of being together when James was diagnosed as terminally ill. The couple wanted to designate Obergefell as the surviving spouse on the death certificate, but Ohio’s laws allowed for refusal of same-sex marriages and their recognition even if the couple was legally married in another state. Obergefell v. Hodges was brought to the South District Court of Ohio to challenge the state’s discrimination against same-sex couples. The Ohio Registrar agreed that the law was unconstitutional but the Ohio Attorney General decided to uphold the state’s same-sex marriage and recognition ban. The case continued through the fourth, sixth, seventh, ninth, and tenth circuit courts of Ohio. All but the sixth circuit court agreed that the state-level ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. Because all of the courts did not rule the same, a Supreme Court intervention was inevitable. While the case was going through the circuit courts, James passed away.

During two years of appeals, Obergefell v. Hodges became larger. Plaintiffs of Bourke v. Beshear from Kentucky, DeBoer v. Snyder from Michigan, and Tanco v. Haslam from Tennessee were added. The plaintiffs in each of these cases had been denied marriage rights from their home state, even if their marriages happened in another, just as Obergefell had. It was in April of 2015 when Obergefell v. Hodges, which now consolidated the cases from all four states, presented oral arguments to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) to challenge the states’ same-sex marriage bans constitutionality. Two months later on June 25th,  SCOTUS ruled that marriage is a constitutional right and ruled in favor of marriage equality. This allowed for same-sex marriages to be legalized by the government.

While the historic ruling by SCOTUS happened in 2015, June has been Pride Month for decades before marriage equality. We know Pride Month today as a month-long celebration full of parades, events, and parties. It did not begin that way. The first Pride Parade was a riot at the Stonewall Inn, which is known as “the place that Pride began.”

The Stonewall Inn. Photo by Tyler Goodwin

Stonewall Inn, New York City, 1969

It was illegal to engage in homosexual behavior, giving the police the “right” to attack anyone thought to be gay and arrest them. A majority of the gay bars and clubs had been raided and shut down by the New York City Police Department (NYPD). On the evening of June 28th, a group of people gathered at one of the few gay bars that remained open, The Stonewall Inn. The police barged in shouting, “We’re taking the place!” The patrons then began to resist. As those who were at the Stonewall Inn were arrested, a large crowd formed outside of Stonewall. Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender woman of color and LGBTQ activist was outside. She threw the first brick in protest and ignited the Stonewall Riots. The riots were eventually doused that evening by police reinforcements but protesters returned the next night with over 1,000 people filling the streets. The people of Stonewall emerged victorious by fighting back. As a result of the riots, the police ceased to interfere with LGBTQ safe spaces and no longer attacked them on the streets; and by making headlines across the country, LGBTQ issues were brought to the forefront, organizations were started, and the community began to fight for their rights. The Stonewall Riots began the LGBTQ movement.

Marches, today known as Pride marches, sparked across the US when news spread of the riots. The Stonewall Riots were violent; however, they ignited a nonviolent movement across the nation and world. June has been deemed Pride Month in honor of the riots.

A Symbol of Unity, Hope, and Safety

The first Pride Flag was designed by Gilbert Baker in 1978, in San Francisco. It was in honor of Harvey Milk, who was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Milk tasked Baker with drafting up a design for his campaign. His platform was hope for the young gay people, saying, “The only thing they have to look forward to is hope, and you have to give them hope.” Thus, the Pride Flag was born. Milk was the first openly gay person to hold public office in a major US city and was later assassinated for that same reason. After his death, the Pride Flag production increased. Businesses all over San Francisco were flying them proudly in remembrance of Milk. “The flag is an action – it is more than just a cloth and the stripes. When a person puts the Rainbow Flag on his car or his house, they’re not just flying a flag. They’re taking action,” Baker said, “I am astounded that people just got it…that this was their flag. It belonged to all of us.”

The original Pride Flag had seven colors, with fuchsia, which represented sexuality, at the top. However, due to a shortage of fuchsia in the factory where it was reproduced, it was condensed to the six-color flag that flies today. The remaining six colors also represent something powerful and meaningful to the LGBTQ+ community. Red stands for life. To some people, coming out as LGBTQ can mean life or death. In a lot of scenarios, when one comes out their family shuns them, kicks them out, and/or verbally abuses them. This pushes a lot of youths to suicide. Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among young people, and LGBT youth are four times likelier to attempt than straight youths, according to the Trevor Project. Red represents the importance of life, and how giving up on it is never the answer. Orange represents healing powers of love in the community. Yellow is for sunlight. It is a metaphor for being yourself rather than hiding in the shadows. Green stands for nature and everyone’s ties to it. Blue represents serenity, which is defined as a state of being calm, peaceful, and untroubled. Finally, violet stands for spirit, which is the most important of all the colors, as the spirit unique and inalienable.

Other symbols of Pride and safe-spaces have also emerged in the past few years. Organizations like the Human Rights Campaign have trademarked the yellow equal sign with a blue background. This symbol is known in the United States but the Pride Flag remains the prominent international symbol.

Human Rights Campaign. Source: Ron Cogswell, Creative Commons

Progress has been made for the LGBTQ community, but there have been large setbacks as well. During Pride Month last year, 49 lives were taken at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub in the deadliest mass shooting in modern-US history that took place during Orlando’s Pride celebrations. Sean Kennedy was another hate-crime victim. In 2007, he was leaving a bar in South Carolina when he was attacked for his sexuality and died as a result of it. In 1998, Matthew Shepard made headlines across the nation when he was found beaten, tortured, and left to die while tied to a fence in Wyoming.

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) sets fundamental human rights to be universally protected. During Stonewall, the Pulse Shooting, and the individual murders, many rights declared by the UHDR were violated:

  • Article 3: Right to life, liberty, and security of person. The Stonewall Riots happened because queer folk had been attacked by the police without cause, violating their security of person. The Pulse Shooting and the Kennedy and Shepard murders were violations of the right to life.
  • Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman punishment. Shepard was tortured and brutally beaten before he died.
  • Article 7: All are entitled without any discrimination and equal protection to of the law. In the case of Stonewall, NYPD had not only been attacking the LGBTQ community, they were being denied justice by not having their attackers persecuted.
  • Article 9: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest. The LGBTQ folk were being arrested for being LGBTQ in New York.
  • Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Throughout history and in modern times, the LGBTQ community is targeted simply for existing.

There were many countries that gave same-sex couples the right to marry before the US. The Netherlands, in 2001, became the first country in the world to allow same-sex marriages. Many countries joined the Netherlands, including Canada, Belgium, France, and Ireland to name a few (You can see the timeline of when countries allowed same-sex marriage here). Today, June 30, German Parliament voted to legalize same-sex marriage. That makes 22 countries in the last 16 years allowing same-sex marriages, which is important as it shows that the world is growing to be more accepting of the LGBTQ community. Countries that allow same-sex marriage gives validity to its citizens that identify as LGBTQ and promotes a more accepting environment. According to Forbes, when same-sex marriage is legal, LGBTQ youths are less likely to commit suicide and hate-crimes decrease.

In contrast to the 22 countries that allow and support same-sex marriage, there are 76 countries that have anti-LGBTQ laws in effect today. Last week, Turkish police shot rubber bullets at Pride Parade attendees and proceeded to detain who they could. In Chechnya, reports of a concentration camp for those who identify as homosexual made headlines as more than 100 men were abducted, tortured, and few were killed in a systematic purge of the LGBTQ community. 

The world can be a scary place for someone who identifies as LGBTQ. It is imperative that those of us who can remain resilient and visible by not being afraid to show who you are. Showing up at Pride celebrations are easy ways to let the world know that the LGBTQ community exists, and gives comfort to those who cannot “come out”.  That is exactly what Pride Month stands for. It is a time for us to unite and show our pride. Pride means strength, unity, and acceptance.

Keeping the Memory Alive: A Conversation on Confusion and Suffering

On Thursday and Friday, February 22nd and 23rd, the UAB Institute for Human Rights co-hosted a two-day symposium entitled “Bystanders and Complicity in Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South” alongside the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center.

The Symposium was intended to demonstrate the importance of civil society leaders galvanizing the general population to rebuff state-sanctioned racism, antisemitism, and violence. Dialogue brought forth by the symposium showed how, when, and why people supported, complied with, ignored, or resisted racist policies and violent practices in systems of intentional discrimination, oppression, and attacks on the basis of race and ethnicity.

On Thursday night, a panel entitled “Keeping the Memory Alive: Personal reflections on the Legacies of Racial Violence and Genocide” featured two speakers: Riva Hirsch, a Holocaust survivor, and Josephine Bolling McCall, who lost her father during an Alabaman lynching in 1947. This blog post focuses on my personal reflection of the panel and the conversation between the two powerful speakers.

I felt an immediate connection to Riva; she reminded me so much of my grandmother. Riva began by telling the story of how her family went on the run from the Nazis (she was seven years old at the time). It was not difficult to create vivid mental images, as Riva illustrated her story with extreme details. Rita’s horrors of that night continued to progress with the separation from her family and the beating of her mother when she fought to keep the family together.

 

Panelists kicking off the discussion, courtesy of Nicholas Sherwood

I tried to think of what my life was like at seven year’s old, and I could not pinpoint a memorable moment of comparable fear and horror. The stark contrast in my and Riva’s experiences as children was upsetting and confusing. It was more difficult to think of what my life would be like if I were forcibly separated from my family at such a young age and painful to think of seeing my mother get beaten.

When Josephine spoke of her father – his characteristics such as being hardworking and selfless – I thought of my grandfather who is the same way. Josephine’s father was murdered when she was five years old. The terrible story of Josephine running to the end of their driveway with her mother and seeing the corpse of her father was heartbreaking. Josephine’s story continued with how her mother reported the murder to the local sheriff, only to have him reply that no justice will be served.

The loss of a loved one can be painfully impactful, and the loss of a parent can be devastating. I was never met with the loss of a loved one until my early teens and it certainly was not at the hands of a murderer. If I had lost a parent when I was younger, the fact that it would be handled effectively and efficiently is a light comfort, but that was not the case for Josephine or her family simply due to the color of their skin. It was incredibly difficult to hear first-hand about the failure of our police force in the pursuit of justice. How easy it was for the sheriff to shrug off the murder of one of his citizens made my skin crawl.

Josephine (right) giving her testimony, photo courtesy of Nicholas Sherwood

Each story was authentic and emotionally impactful in their own ways. It was a dialogue about suffering, not a comparison on who suffered the most. The stories built off of one another and showed the importance of personal stories when it comes to educating on dense topics.

The final message conveyed by the two speakers was, “Keep talking about it so that love will prosper and hate will lose.” It is important for us to continue the conversations about atrocities that have plagued our societies so that we can gain the necessary means to prevent them from happening again. We are destined to repeat our mistakes if we do not recognize and learn from them. It is our job to confront the denial that these events ever took place, to ensure that they never happen again, and denounce the hate that stems from it.

To see what other events we have coming up, visit our events page here.

 

Where Do We Go From Here? An Event Recap

On Wednesday, February 28, the UAB Institute for Human Rights hosted Dr. Samantha Nutt, founder of War Child, to talk about her experiences working in war zones. During her conversation entitled “Where Do We Go from Here? Stories from the Frontlines of the World’s Major Crises”, Dr. Nutt covered topics from ranging from personal stories from her time in Somalia to gun violence statistics in the United States. You can read more about her background here.

The illicit and licit automatic weapons market is incredibly saturated in Somalia and the United States. In this post, I argue that this oversaturation and easy access creates a gateway for violence.

Dr. Samantha Nutt at the UAB Hill Student Center Ballroom
Dr. Samantha Nutt. Source: Tyler Goodwin, author.

Recap

The talk began with Dr. Nutt explaining how she began working in warzones – she was a volunteer doctor assigned to work in one of the world’s most dangerous countries, Somalia. She was contracted by an organization who was unable to pay her more than one dollar for her services, yet she decided to go anyway. To this day, Dr. Nutt carries with her the four quarters she received as payment.

Living in Somalia, Dr. Nutt met many people who considered this crisis area as their home. She told the story of a woman named Edith, who was a single mother who came to Dr. Nutt for medical assistance. The first time Dr. Nutt met with Edith, she was told of when Edith attempted to take her newborn child to the medical facility that was down the road. On the way there, she was ambushed by a group of boys armed with firearms who would not let her pass until she paid them a toll even though she possessed no money. As a result of being denied access to the medical facility, Edith’s child died due to malnutrition.

After suffering the loss of her child, Edith asked, “Do people where you are from know what is happening? Do they know what we go through?” Dr. Nutt replied with “I am afraid not.” On the international black market, an AR-15 can be purchased for ten dollars or less apiece; this happens in Somalia and many other states, according to Dr. Nutt. The AR-15s found in Somalia are commonly made in the United States. Upon further research, Dr. Nutt revealed that other women in surrounding villages were blockaded from accessing medical facilities by young men wielding guns as well.

Dr. Samantha Nutt giving her lecture with gun violence statistics in the background
Dr. Samantha Nutt with gun violence statistics. Source: Tyler Goodwin, author.

“Globally, we are currently spending about $249 per person on war; that is twelve times more than what we spend on humanitarian assistance across the world.”

Glancing at the statistics, one may assume that, globally, we prioritize the sale of guns and military weapons over the safety and welfare of humans. At home and abroad, we are quick to sell a rifle but question whether or not humanitarian action is necessary at every turn.

Dr. Nutt told of another visit by Edith, immediately after Edith was subjected to an act of violence. Dr. Nutt was in her office with her phone, laptop, water, and other items an average American would consider a necessity. Edith pointed Dr. Nutt’s possessions and said, “all of this is for you. We die for nothing.”

Addressing the faults of a failed state is necessary. Ignoring these issues perpetuates cycles of violence we see in war-torn Somalia, which causes Edith and countless other people to lose their families and threatens their very existence. Education provides the tools to combat issues that threaten peace. With knowledge of what is happening in Somalia, we are indirectly fighting for Edith and the other Somali citizens that say they “die for nothing.”

“We begin to tip the balance in favor of peace when we question the institutions that infringe upon it.”

Dr. Nutt also presented on the massacre in Parkland, Florida, where seventeen high school students were murdered. She mentioned the gun used in the Parkland shooting was the same grade as the ones commonly used in Somalia to block access to health facilities. Bangalore and Messerli of the American Journal of Medicine argue that the easier it is to access firearms, the higher the chances of violence are. With the average price of an AR-15 being about ten dollars on the black market, it is safe to say that these firearms are easily accessible.

In Dr. Nutt’s recent post on the Parkland shooting titled “The Kids are not Alright,” she calls for legislative action within the United States by citing other nations’ gun control legislation:

“…every developed nation that has imposed stricter gun control in the wake of mass shootings saw a precipitous decline in mass shootings and other gun related deaths. In Australia mass shootings dropped by 93% percent after a successful government gun ‘buy-back’ program following the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, which saw 35 people slaughtered. In the United Kingdom, after strict gun control measures were introduced in the wake of the Dunblane massacre of 15 kindergartners, there has not been another mass shooting in the 22 years since. Gun homicides have dropped to one third of their former levels. In Canada, a country with looser gun laws than the UK but tighter controls relative to the United States, gun related homicides are 8 times less per capita than the country’s southern neighbours.”

We have seen the Parkland shooting survivors gather support across the nation and assemble at our nation’s capital. By calling for change, they are calling for their form of peace. This is not to say that all gun owners disrupt that peace, but a military grade assault rifle should not be available for purchase on the black market for ten dollars and should not be available to purchase at your local Wal-Mart.

Dr. Nutt concludes by stating, “It does not matter how much you give, it matters how you give.” In her post mentioned above, she says, “Political candidates who openly advocate for gun control need financial and volunteer support. And those who resist gun control measures should be actively and consistently opposed, until NRA endorsements and contributions are seen as politically toxic.”

Human rights education gives us the tools to prevent acts of violence and teaches us how to fight against it when we see it. Like the students of Parkland, it is our duty to fight for our peace both at home and abroad. By fighting against the oversaturation of guns and regulating the market here in the United States, we can hope that the number of guns circulating through the black market, and ultimately Somalia, will decrease. As human rights activists, it is our duty to fight for peace. So, where do we go from here? We go toward peace.

Peace sign
peace. Source: Ken Swinson, Creative Commons

“Invest in peace, not war.”

To see more upcoming events hosted by the UAB Institute for Human Rights, please visit our events page here.

 

Disclaimer: emboldened quotations were provided by Dr. Samantha Nutt on the February 28, 2018 IHR Event.

The Unprecedented 2016 Presidential Election Event Recap

Photo of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in front of American flag
Trump vs. Clinton. Source: Galya Gubchenko. Creative Commons.

On Thursday, November 9, one year after the 2016 presidential election, the UAB Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored the event, “The Unprecedented 2016 Presidential Election,” at the Edge of Chaos located in UAB’s Lister Hill Library. Other sponsors of the event were UAB’s Department of Government and the Edge of Chaos.

The event featured special guest, Dr. Rachel Bitecofer, the Assistant Director of the Wason Center for Public Policy, a professor at Christopher Newport University, and an academic pollster. The event was on her new book, which has the same title: The Unprecedented 2016 Presidential Election.

Large amounts of data are presented in Bitecofer’s book. She states it “brings an empirical, political science approach that answers the question of why Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election, and it focuses on the strategical elements that campaigns are going through because the public is not really aware of what they see in campaign politics.”

 

Dr. Rachel Bitecofer standing in the Edge of Chaos at UAB
Dr. Rachel Bitecofer kicking off her lecture. Source: Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter

Bitecofer began by announcing that her approach to looking at the election results is holistic and systematic, and argues that the entire campaign was framed by an electoral strategy, meaning that there were two problems the candidates faced: reaching out to moderates and independents to vote one way rather than the other and then to get the partisan voters to show up. “If they show up, they’re a guaranteed voted,” Bitecofer said, “but that is a big if.”

The lecture was broken down into chapters. The first was titled: “Pitchforks and Torches.” This was when Bitecofer “put the 2016 election into context,” and looked at the patterns that put Donald Trump in the White House. She examined patriarchal behaviors that were prevalent in the 1950s and 60s that still persist today. She examined the effect of the media’s influence and how the US entered an era of polarization; the media has opened “partisan vacuums,” which are areas where it is possible to only get news from a partisan source like Breitbart or HuffPost.

In the next chapter of the lecture, “Making of the Media Event,” Bitecofer showed how Trump dominated the media until snagging the GOP nomination. Bitecofer’s research was presented with graphs that showed how Trump’s popularity in the news peaked when he did things like “picking a fight with the Pope on Twitter,” or “saying he wanted to ban all Muslims from the country.” Bitecofer then showed that even while Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were battling it out for the Democrat Nomination, the news continued to focus more on Donald Trump. She said that this came from Donald Trump’s knowledge of “how to capitalize on both his celebrity and the media’s thirst for scandal.” The Trump campaign ran a base-centered campaign. They appealed to the base voters, a voter who votes for the party rather than the candidate, rather than the establishment.

Bitecofer debunked the myth that “if the Clinton campaign had done ‘x, y, or z’ they would have been more successful,” by saying that, using the metrics one usually does to measure campaign success, they ran an almost perfect campaign. The Clinton campaigned out-fundraised the Trump campaign and the Clinton campaigned got the SuperPACs, which is unusual for a Democrat’s campaign. Despite the almost perfect campaign, there were mistakes. The Clinton campaign made the mistake of hiding the fact that Hillary had pneumonia, and during the debate when she was sick, she made the claim about “deplorables.” Bitecofer said this was a mistake as Clinton has always had so much control over her emotions and demeanor that this came as a shock to many people because “she let that control down.”

Continuing the observation of the media, Bitecofer presented the evidence of news sources’ endorsements of Hillary Clinton. All but two major news sources endorsed Clinton, which was unlike any election in history. Usually, according to Bitecofer, there are sources that only endorse Democrats, and some that only endorse Republicans. Some who never endorsed a Democrat before endorsed Clinton. Not only was this strange but, “not even sitting Republicans endorsed Donald Trump until after the Iowa caucus. No one in the party wanted him,” Bitecofer asserted.

Third-party voting, referred to as “defecting” in presidential elections, was a large issue in this election; defection rates were higher than any in modern history – higher than the 2000 elections. “In Wisconsin, for example, a state that Clinton lost by 1%, the defection rate for third party candidates is normally about 1.5%. [It was] 6.32% in 2016,” Bitecofer found. “The problem is that all of the defectors who wrote in Bernie Sanders’ name or voted for Jill Stein because they just could not bear to vote for Hillary Clinton, cost her the election. I am not saying it is their fault, but I am saying that the campaign that they ran did nothing to prevent it.” She also found that defection only mattered in Hillary versus Bernie. There was almost no defection from Republicans to a third-party candidate. “Democrats fall in love; Republicans fall in line.”

Bitecofer then told of an experiment that she conducted. She went to the adamant Bernie supporters and asked, “What if instead of Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton brought on Elizabeth Warren as her Vice President candidate? Would you have voted for her then?” This tactic suggested Hillary empowered the more progressive Democrats and attempted to bring in those who were in the #BernieorBust movement. About half of them said it would have made them more likely to vote for Clinton. From this experiment, Bitecofer concluded that had the Clinton campaign ran a base-focused campaign like the Republicans had, “we would likely have the first female president sitting in office now.”

Ultimately, it was concluded that “Clinton ran the perfect strategy for the wrong electoral campaign in an extremely polarized era. In such an era, it is all about firing up your base; you better give them candidates that get them ‘up’!”

The UAB Institute for Human Rights is proud to have such knowledgeable lecturers for our events and programs. For a list of our upcoming events, please visit our events page.

The Caged Voices of Azerbaijan

“Every gay and lesbian person who has been lucky enough to survive the turmoil of growing up is a survivor. Survivors always have an obligation to those who will face the same challenges.”

-Writer/actor Bob Paris

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), beginning in September, the Azerbaijani police force began a violent campaign against civilians presumed to be gay, bisexual, and transgender women.

The campaign began in mid-September when police in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, arrested members of the LGBTQ+ community when other citizens of Azerbaijan filed a complaint that “non-heterosexual people were engaging in prostitution.” However, according to human rights activists, detainees were not prostitutes, and the “accusations were used as a pretext for persecution.” In an interview with Samed Rahimli, a lawyer assisting detainees, “the police targeted homosexuals in general, not the prostitutes as they have claimed.”

Interviews conducted by HRW reveal those arrested were subject to beatings and electric shocks in an attempt to arrest other members of the LGBTQ+ community. Lawyers representing the detainees report 83 men and transgender women were confirmed to be arrested. However, the lawyers also said, “the overwhelming volume of arrests means there are many other cases they are unable to address or document,” and the media has reported up to 100 accounts of unconfirmed arrests.

protestors holding anti-hate signs
LGBT love is stronger than anti-gay hate. Source: Allsdare Hickson, Creative Commons

Most of the victims were publicly arrested at work, on the streets, or even at home, thereby exposing their sexuality to their co-workers, family members, and other community members. A majority were falsely charged with prostitution resulting in 30 days of detainment.

Azerbaijan decriminalized same-sex relations in 2000, but discrimination and violence against the community continue to be dire. Azerbaijan was also labeled as the worst European country to be gay in, according to a survey conducted by the Guardian. There are currently no active LGBTQ+-friendly organizations in all of Azerbaijan, and the government is known to manifest false charges to detain openly gay men. The Minority, an anonymous magazine in Azerbaijan that reports on gay and transgender issues, cited those who were arrested were forced to ‘out’ other gay men. Another method utilized by the police to track down members of the community is the tracking of gay-dating apps. The police would create profiles and lure gay men to meet with them, at which point the app-user would be arrested.

Members of the Azerbaijan government shifted their stance from attempting to control prostitution to cracking down on public health issues; this indicates the government knowingly switched tactics to target an already marginalized group. Ekhsan Zakhidov, of the Azer Interior Ministry, announced the arrests were justified. He claims 16 of the 80+ arrested were infected with AIDS, but only six have been found to be infected. He also claims the mass detainment was to protect children, as “anyone infected with AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases were a threat to children or people who come into contact with them.”

By making these claims, the government perpetuated two derogatory narratives surrounding the LGBTQ+ community. The first is: “all gay men have AIDS”. While proven to be statistically untrue, this is a stigma that has stood the test of time and facts. Gay men are still not allowed to give blood in America on the grounds of being “more susceptible” to HIV and AIDS. The second stigma is: homosexuality is rooted in pedophilia. Because AIDS is a sexually transmitted disease, by saying “it is for the safety of our children,” the Azerbaijan government is spreading the false rumor that gay men are child-rapists.

Protestors holding anti-hate signs
LGBTs and Muslims unite – oppose all hate. Source: Allsdare Hickson, Creative Commons

Unfortunately, the Azerbaijan government is not alone in the tracking of LGBTQ+ folk. Reports of the Egyptian police force also creating fake profiles on gay-dating apps and websites surfaced in 2016. At a concert earlier this month, a rainbow flag, which represents pride for the LGBTQ+ community, was flown. When photos of the flag spread across social media, the Egyptian government began tracking down those who were responsible to arrest them on charges of “promoting prostitution” and “immorality.” The Egyptian government designated waving the flag as an “incident,” and used gay-dating apps to track down those involved in said “incident.” Once arrested, anal examinations were reported to have followed, which is protocol in Egypt for such claims. Those arrested for waving the flag at the concert face trial on October 29th.

Like Azerbaijan, homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt, but acts of marginalization and repression continue to happen. Both of these instances bear similarity to the mass incarceration of LGBTQ+ folk in Chechnya that took place earlier this year, which was compared to the concentration camps in the Holocaust. Violence against the LGBTQ+ community is a trend that is repeated throughout history, even to the present day. While it is not easy to pinpoint when it officially surfaced, homophobia is seen even in B.C. times. The West still has its share of homophobia, but we see the most concentrated and severe acts of homophobia in the Middle East. This is likely due to the fact religion has a more prominent role in Middle Eastern society and government.

Azerbaijan was once a part of the Soviet Union, just as Chechnya was. That colonial legacy of oppressing the LGBTQ+ community, the religion, and the government all play into the modern-day culture and how their respective societies view the LGBTQ+ folk. The topic of homosexuality is taboo in Azerbaijan’s society, and the unacceptance of the gay community is shown by the aggravated reports made by citizens that prompted the arrests by the police.

What makes oppression in Azerbaijan, Chechnya, and Egypt different from LGBTQ+ oppression in the world? Dignity. While oppressed in other regions, the LGBTQ+ community in Western cultures has freedom of expression. In the aforementioned countries, freedom of expression is a myth for LGBTQ+ folk. Based on available data, these three countries are the most dangerous places in the world to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender. Based on anecdotal accounts, other countries, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, also present obstacles for LGBTQ+ persons. The voices we hear are not the only voices who matter.

“Life would be much easier if we were all just less horrible to each other.”

– Ellen Page, actor and activist

Rainbow heart with "love" spelled out in the middle
LGBT Rainbow Heart with Love Inscription. Source: b_earth_photos, Creative Commons

Article 3 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) declares that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person. When people are arrested for being the person that they are, this article is violated. Without the security of being able to express the person one is, flourishing is nearly impossible. How can one expect another to live their life to the fullest without being able to live comfortably? We all have a right to live our life as loud as we want; how we need and want to express is not up for dictation.

Article 5 of the UDHR sets forth that “no one shall be subjected to torture…” This has obviously been violated by the Azerbaijan government. When trying to get the names of other gay men, the police resulted to using electric shocks to coerce the victims to give them information. This is inhumane and is an unfounded violation of human rights.

Article 7 reads: “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.” When the government allows discrimination against an individual or a community, this article is violated, as it has been in all cases mentioned in this post. The police have been allowed to arrest citizens based on their sexual orientation. No laws were violated, but human rights definitely were.

Without these laws being enforced by a governing legal entity, Azerbaijan, Egypt, and Chechnya show no sign of following the UDHR for the safety and security of their LGBTQ+ citizens. Organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign and Human Rights Watch have given a megaphone to the tortured voices of Azerbaijan. Now the job falls upon us as informed citizens to continue to spread awareness. It is also our job to make our companions feel comfortable in the world that we live in. We all want to be accepted, to prosper, and to love. Each of us is human; each of us deserves the same rights.