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Op-Ed: No Man is an Island…or should be sent to one

US Ambassador Brent Hardt

by US Ambassador Brent Hardt.

GEORGETOWN – As my tenure in Guyana draws to an end, I was saddened to hear the recent outburst from a prominent religious leader suggesting that his fellow citizens with different sexual orientations should be sent to live on an island.

It was of course John Donne who famously observed that “No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” And it is precisely because of our connections with our fellow man that we are called upon to love others as we love ourselves – the core message of Christianity and many other religious traditions.

The United States understands that the issue of LGBT rights is considered sensitive for many people and many governments. We know that the obstacles people seek to place in the way of protecting the human rights of fellow citizens who are LGBT are often said to arise from deeply held personal, political, cultural, and religious beliefs.

In citing religious or cultural norms and practices as a reason to violate or not to protect the human rights of LGBT citizens, it is easy to see parallels in justifications historically offered for some allegedly traditional violent practices towards women, such as honor killings, widow burning, or female genital mutilation. Some people still defend those practices as part of cultural or religious traditions. But such violence isn’t cultural; it’s criminal.

The example and history of slavery are also instructive. Slavery was once justified as sanctioned by God, and St. Paul called on slaves to obey their masters. Despite such religious precedents, however, slavery is now rightly reviled as an unconscionable violation of human rights. Likewise, racial discrimination was once widely accepted as justified on the basis of alleged genetic superiority or inferiority of different ethnic groups, but this has long been recognized for the gross fallacy it was.

In each of these cases, we have come to recognize that no practice, tradition, or custom trumps the universal human rights with which, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, we are “endowed by our Creator.” The same is now is happening to the antiquated beliefs that inflicting or accepting violence or even murder on LGBT people, criminalizing their status or behavior, expelling them from their families and communities, or denying them the right to legal partnerships or marriage is acceptable.

Abraham Lincoln offered perhaps the best retort to such discrimination when he remarked in 1865: “When I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”

In contrast to the hateful and intolerant sentiments recently expressed, it is important to recall that most religious traditions and teachings are not in conflict with the protection of human rights for all human beings. Indeed, our religions and our cultures are more typically sources of compassion and inspiration toward our fellow human beings. Our various religions teach that caring for others and loving others are reflections of our faith and the embodiment of what it means to be fully human. That is one reason why human rights are universal across all religions and cultures.

Some seek to suggest that gay rights and human rights are separate and distinct. In fact, they are one and the same. Sixty years ago, the governments that drafted and passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were not thinking about how the Declaration applied to the LGBT community, but they also weren’t thinking specifically about how it applied to indigenous peoples or children or people with disabilities or other marginalized groups. Yet in the past sixty years, we have come to recognize that these “groups” are entitled to the full measure of dignity and rights, not because they are a member of a distinct group, but because they are people with whom we share the common bonds of humanity.

In the United States and in countries throughout the world including Guyana, it is long past time to put our shared belief in the universality of human rights into action — into new laws and a new spirit of respect and solidarity for our fellow citizens, our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and family.

In 1776, the United States Declaration of Independence boldly proclaimed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” There were no qualifications or fine print that said one’s rights depend on who you love or what you believe. Human rights, as we have discovered often painfully in our own history, are for all human beings, or they are not rights at all.

Indeed, the story of the United States is the story of a nation that has repeatedly grappled with intolerance and inequality. But people from coast to coast joined in campaigns to recognize the rights of women, indigenous peoples, racial minorities, children, people with disabilities, immigrants, migrant workers, and many more. Throughout all of these ups and downs, dark chapters and brighter days of our history, the march toward equality and justice has continued. That is why in the United States, we have an expression: “Be on the right side of history.” Those who advocate for expanding the circle of human rights have been and remain on the right side of history, and history honors them. Those who have sought to restrict human rights were on the wrong side, and history reflects that as well.

The lives of our fellow citizens, our gay brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, are shaped not only by laws, but also by the way they are treated and accepted every day by families, friends, business colleagues and neighbors. Indeed, a famous American pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr. once observed that “laws can restrain the heartless, but they cannot restrain the heart.”

That is why respect for rights must begin in the small places close to home – the streets where people live, the schools they attend, the factories, farms, and offices where they work, and the churches, mosques, and temples where they worship. Our actions in these daily human interactions, the words we express, and the ideals we embody, will determine whether we can ensure that human rights for all people, regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation, will flourish, for we are, as Donne said, “involved in mankind.”

No matter what we look like, where we come from, or who we love, all people are equally entitled to enjoy their fundamental human rights and human dignity. So let us be on the right side of history, for our people, our nations, and for future generations, and recognize together that no man or woman is an island — or should be sent to live on one.