U Conference Asks: Is Sexual Expression Human Right?

This year’s Tanner Human Rights Center Conference at the University of Utah will tackle a topic with which, sadly, many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are familiar: the use of violence to control sexual behavior and expression.

The three-day conference will be held at various locations across campus and will feature several discussions and speeches by scholars, authors and lawyers who will attempt to address the ways in which individuals, governments and other social institutions employ shaming, harassment and legal discrimination to enforce rigid rules about sexuality and gender identity.

“The forms of violence and harassment used to regulate sexuality have become increasingly diverse in recent years, as cultural and technological developments have made it easier to identify, scrutinize, expose, and modify private sexual expression,” the conference description reads. “As a result, society faces new and important practical and ethical questions, such as: Is sexual self-expression a fundamental human right? Should we treat harassment and victimization against sexual minorities the same as that committed against racial and ethnic minorities? What are the most effective strategies to prevent the violence that is used to regulate sexuality?”

These questions will be tackled in two keynote speeches and four panels over Feb. 24–26 which will pay special attention to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and the ways that policing this population effects straight cisgender (non-transgender) people whose sexual behavior society also deems to be deviant.

The conference, which bears the impressive title “Controlling Sexuality through Violence, Shame and Cultural Oppression: Implications for Human Rights”, will open on Feb. 24 with a keynote speech by Shannon Minter, the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ legal director, titled “Marriage Equality for Same-Sex Couples.” The speech will be given at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts Dumke Auditorium at 7 p.m.

Three panels will be held on Feb. 25. The first, at the Officers Club in Fort Douglas at 9 a.m., is titled “Mechanisms of Violence: Harassment, Assault and Fear.” This 135 minute panel will focus on the many socially approved forms of violence used against those who are or who are perceived to be gay, lesbian or bisexual, how they are enacted in ways from social norms and workplace harassment to internalized homophobia, and the consequences such violence pose to individuals’ mental and physical health. The panel will be moderated by Kathryn Stockton, a U of U professor specializing in queer theory, and will feature U of U psychologist and author Lisa Diamond, Leann Jones of SLC Body Mind Fitness and Ron Stall from the University of Pittsburgh.

At 11:30 a.m., Lisa Duggan, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University and a noted author and queer issues scholar, will offer the second of the conference’s keynote lectures titled  “Freak Flags and Freedom Fighters: Love, Hate, and the Limits of Law Reform.” Her speech will be followed promptly at 2:30 p.m. by another discussion at the Officer’s Club: “Breaking the cycle: Prevention and the Next Generation.” Moderated by U professor Don Strassberg and featuring Utah Pride Center Youth Programs Director Rose Ellen Epstein, U professor David Huebner and City University of New York professor Margaret Rosario, this panel will focus on the threats anti-gay and anti-trans violence poses to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth. These include an increased risk of self-injury, suicide attempts and drug use. The four panelists will discuss how to best protect the upcoming generation of queer youth from the violence that puts them at risk, including “zero-tolerance” anti-bullying policies.

At 8:30 a.m. on Feb. 26, Minter will join U professors Erika George and Elizabeth Clement and U law professor Clif Rosky for the panel “State Tolerance of Violence and Discrimination,” which will examine the policies of various world governments on sexuality and sexual minorities, including anti-gay marriage laws. The conference’s last panel will be held at 11 a.m. Titled “Public Shaming” and featuring The University of Utah’s Terry Kogan, Carlos Decena of Rutgers University, June Tangeney of George Mason University and Salt lake City Prosecutor Sim Gill, this session will examine how society uses the threat of shame and scandal to regulate sexuality, particularly in spaces such as public park, restrooms and the internet. Both sessions will be held at the Officers Club.

The conference is free and open to the public, said Kogan, who served as one of its principal organizers.

“The most important thing is to encourage as many people in the community to attend as possible,” he said.

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