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Opinion: To struggle for gay rights is to struggle for all rights

Basic rights and freedoms are for all people.

Around the world, sexuality has become a battleground.

“Fundamentalism” is a word both over-used and ill-defined. If it means anything, though, it describes movements that try to capture the state, to enforce social norms that society, community and family used to impose. Fundamentalisms feed on fear, on the sense of social breakdown, on the intuition that old values need new policing to prop them up.

Governments thus use their nightsticks and their surveillance systems to control people’s bodies, to intrude in areas of private life that in many cases used to be irrelevant to them or off-limits. Ambitious politicians exploit fears of women’s and men’s sexual freedom for their own ends. Preachers and reporters alike stoke the atmosphere of prejudice, invoking desperate measures needed to combat what they call decadence.

One example: in Iraq in 2009, media and mosques spread fears that Iraqi manhood was somehow threatened with being “feminized” after years of occupation. Headlines and sermons warned that Western habits and an insidious “softness” were eating away at masculinity. Militias seized the chance to pose as protectors of morality, and started hunting victims — not just gay men, but any men who seemed “unmanly.” Tight jeans or gelled hair could spell death.

Hundreds may have been murdered, kidnapped from homes or killed on the streets. In some cases the killers shot glue up their victims’ anuses: a brutal reminder that their bodies were the abject property of others’ beliefs, a reminder of what happens if you break unwritten laws of gender.

As human rights activists, we try to change practices, not sentiments. Yet LGBT rights defenders always know that the real terrain of our struggles lies in hearts and minds, in consciences scarred by hatred or open to acceptance.

There have been signs of hope this year. In June 2009, an Indian court overturned that country’s 149-year-old sodomy law — the first such law that Britain ever imposed on its colonial possessions. It freed countless citizens of the world’s largest democracy from the threat of blackmail or police harassment.

Yet the court saw its decision as extending beyond a single bad law. It affirmed this was not just about privacy or the citizen’s right to safety behind closed doors, but about Indian democracy itself. It explicitly rejected a vision of the state as protective parent or as divisive judge. It cited Nehru, the nation’s founder, declaring that “Where society can display inclusiveness and understanding,” everyone can lead a life of dignity.

That is the real truth which voices too long shrouded in silence have been saying to us all. The struggle for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people’s human rights is not just a campaign for a minority or a battle for gradual law reform. It is about what kind of societies we want to live in — and what kinds of people we want to be. It is about rejecting hatred and irrational fear; it is about the freedom to live an autonomous life. Ultimately, the struggle is about all of us, for all of us.

Scott Long is the director of Human Rights Watch’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender rights program