published Friday, April 11th, 2014

U.N. conference provokes heated gay rights debate

UNITED NATIONS — Many countries at this week's U.N. population conference are objecting to the idea of enshrining the right of women to make their own sexual decisions, fearing it would tacitly condone same-sex relationships, the U.N. population chief said.

Gay rights emerged as an incendiary issue at the meeting of the U.N. Commission on Population and Development, where country delegates are reviewing progress made since the adoption of a breakthrough action plan at the 1994 U.N. population conference in Cairo, Babatunde Osotimehin, head of the U.N. Population Fund, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

At the Cairo conference, 179 countries recognized for the first time that women have the right to control their reproductive and sexual health and to choose whether to become pregnant. While the conference broke a taboo on discussing sexuality, it stopped short of recognizing that women have the right to control decisions about when they have sex and when they get married.

Many states are trying to include such language in the final document of this week's population conference, which ends Friday. But Osotimehin said socially conservative countries are resisting the idea, arguing it would implicitly give people the right to enter in same-sex relationships.

Osotimehin is arguing such an interpretation is wrong. He said establishing the right of women to control their sexuality is crucial to fighting practices such as child marriage.

"It's about the conservatives saying that there is language there that is nuanced," he said. "We're saying there is no language nuanced. If we want to talk about it, we'll talk about it, but why do you think that every time we're talking about rights we're talking about LGBT rights?"

The resistance comes even though sexual rights for women — not just reproductive rights — was approved at another major world gathering back in 1995, the U.N. women's conference in Beijing. The platform adopted in Beijing will be reviewed on the 20th anniversary of that conference next year.

At both the Cairo and Beijing conferences, the Vatican and many predominantly Catholic and Muslim countries blocked any mention of lesbian and gay rights in the final documents.

Osotimehin said many of those same countries are now objecting to language protecting the sexual rights of women.

There is "a pushback" from delegates because "they conflate it with the issues of sexual orientation and gender identity," he said.

The debate comes at a turning point for gay rights in many countries.

In the United States, the push for gay marriage has swiftly gained momentum in recent years, with 17 states and the District of Columbia legalizing it and judges striking down voter-approved bans in conservative states. With opinion polls showing a majority of Americans approve allowing same-sex couples to marry, activists on both sides of the issue say pressure is building on the Supreme Court to take it up and decide whether to legalize gay marriage nationwide.

Other countries have intensified a crackdown on gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered people. Uganda recently passed a new law that allows up to life imprisonment for those convicted of engaging in gay sex. Nigeria also strengthened its anti-gay laws this year, making it illegal for gay people even to hold meetings and criminalizing people working in HIV-AIDS programs for gays.

Two new laws in Russia — one seeking to prevent gays and lesbians from adopting children and other banning so-called gay "propaganda" accessible by minors — also sparked worldwide debate, especially during the Winter Olympic games in Sochi.

The United States, Russia and Uganda are among the 47 members of the U.N. Commission on Population and Development. However, many more countries participated in this week's conference.

Osotimehin said the issue of gay rights also came up in discussions of families.

A report prepared for the meeting discusses "new family formations," including the growing number of single parents, and calls for new thinking around parenting. That has stirred heated debates about addressing gay rights in the definition of families, he said.

"It's still creating the fireworks it created 20 years ago," he said. "In fact, all of the fight that is going on in that room is about LGBT, nothing more, nothing less."

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