Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Everyone has a sexual orientation and a gender identity.  When someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity does not conform to the majority, they are often seen as a legitimate target for discrimination or abuse.

All people should be able to enjoy all the human rights described in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet millions of people across the globe face execution, imprisonment, torture, violence and discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The range of abuses is limitless:

  • women raped to “cure” their lesbianism, sometimes at the behest of their parents;
  • individuals prosecuted because their private and consensual relationship is deemed to be a social danger;
  • loss of custody of their children;
  • individuals beaten by police;
  • attacked, sometimes killed, on the street – a victim of a “hate crime”;
  • regular subjection to verbal abuse;
  • bullying at school;
  • denial of employment, housing or health services;
  • denial of asylum when they do manage to flee abuse;
  • raped and otherwise tortured in detention;
  • threatened for campaigning for their human rights;
  • driven to suicide;
  • executed by the state.

Human rights abuses based on sexual orientation or gender identity include the violation of the rights of the child; the infliction of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; arbitrary detention on grounds of identity or beliefs; the restriction of freedom of association and basic rights of due process.

These are violations which have for decades formed the core of the agenda of international human rights law and the United Nations’ (UN) human rights machinery.

Key facts

Sexual orientation covers sexual desires, feelings, practices and identification. Sexual orientation can be towards people of the same or different sexes (same-sex, heterosexual or bisexual orientation).

Gender identity refers to the complex relationship between sex and gender referring to a person’s experience of self expression in relation to social categories of masculinity or femininity (gender). A person’s subjectively felt gender identity may be at variance with their sex or physiological characteristics.

The specific terms people use and identify with in matters of sexuality and gender identity vary widely from culture to culture.

Amnesty International considers people detained or imprisoned solely because of their homosexuality – including those individuals prosecuted for having sex in circumstances which would not be criminal for heterosexuals, or for their gender identity – to be prisoners of conscience and calls for their immediate and unconditional release.

The “Yogyakarta Principles on the Application of International Human Rights Law in Relation to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity” were released in March 2007.

Developed by a group of human rights experts, including several UN experts (Special Rapporteurs), members of national, regional and international human rights commissions and the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, these principles apply international human rights law to violations experienced by lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgender people to ensure the universal reach of human rights protections.

What is Amnesty International calling for?

The decriminalisation of homosexuality where such legislation remains. This entails reviewing all legislation which could result in the discrimination, prosecution and punishment of people solely for their sexual orientation or gender identity.

This includes “sodomy” laws or similar provisions outlawing sexual conduct between people of same-sex or transgender individuals; discriminatory age-of-consent legislation; public order legislation used as a pretext for prosecuting and punishing people solely for their sexual orientation or gender identity; and laws banning the “promotion” of homosexuality which can be used to imprison lesbian, gay, bisexual, same-sex practicing and transgender individuals and human rights defenders. All such laws should be repealed or amended.

A review of all legislation under which a person may be killed by the state, with the immediate aim of progressively restricting the scope of the death penalty so that it is not applied on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, and with a view to the eventual abolition of the death penalty, and flogging, all other corporal punishments and all other cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments should be abolished in law.

The immediate and unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience held solely on the basis of their actual or imputed sexual orientation or gender identity.

In addition, Amnesty International is calling on states to:

  • ensure that all allegations and reports of human rights violations based on sexual orientation or gender identity are promptly and impartially investigated and perpetrators held accountable and brought to justice;
  • take all necessary legislative, administrative and other measures to prohibit and eliminate prejudicial treatment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity at every stage of the administration of justice;
  • end discrimination in civil marriage laws on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity and recognise families of choice, across borders where necessary;
  • ensure adequate protection of human rights defenders at risk because of their work on human rights and sexual orientation and gender identity.

This work is part of Amnesty International's Demand Dignity campaign, which aims to end the human rights violations that drive and deepen global poverty. The campaign will mobilize people all over the world to demand that governments, corporations and others who have power listen to the voices of those living in poverty and recognise and protect their rights. For more information visit the Demand Dignity section.

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