What is the history of ILGA?

Liz Highleyman | August 16, 2006

The International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA), a member organization comprising some 400 GLBT groups in more than 90 countries, is a leading advocate for the rights of gay, lesbian bisexual, transgender, and intersex people worldwide.

ILGA (originally known as the International Gay Association) was founded on August 8, 1978, in Coventry, England. In its early years, membership was essentially open to all GLBT groups. Policy decisions were made by delegates from each group at annual world conferences. In 1997, ILGA adopted a semi-autonomous regional structure. Today, the organization has an executive board consisting of a male and a female secretary general and two representatives from each of six regions. It also has a Women's Secretariat, and in 2006 it instituted a Trans Secretariat.

Headquartered in Brussels, many of ILGA's lobbying efforts have focused on international bodies such as the United Nations and the European Union. In 1981, ILGA assisted with the preparation of a European Parliament report that led to the first recommendation that member countries should repeal discriminatory laws concerning age of consent, employment, and custody rights. That same year, ILGA co-founder Jeffrey Dudgeon, challenging Northern Ireland's law criminalizing sex between men, won the first gay rights case before the European Court of Human Rights. ILGA later worked to ensure that new countries joining the European Union must repeal their antigay laws.

Beginning in the early 1980s, ILGA played a key role in supporting GLBT groups in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Working with the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), it convinced Amnesty International to adopt as "prisoners of conscience" individuals incarcerated on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, and helped persuade the World Health Organization to remove homosexuality from its list of diseases.

In 1993, ILGA was the first-ever GLBT group granted consultative status on the UN's Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), joining some 3,000 other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) permitted to participate in UN meetings. But the American religious right soon discovered that ILGA included a few groups that supported pedophilia – notably the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA).

U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) sponsored a bill, which passed unanimously, to slash UN funding unless the UN could certify that no affiliated NGOs condoned pedophilia. At its 1994 world conference, ILGA voted 214-30 to expel NAMBLA and two other organizations, Project Truth and the Dutch group Vereniging Martijn. Nevertheless, ECOSOC's Committee on NGOs suspended ILGA's status the following September.

ECOSOC voted against restoring ILGA's consultative status in 2002 and again in January 2006, despite the organization's repeated avowals that it does not support pedophilia and its new policy requiring that prospective members be approved by the executive board. In 2006, the United States joined Cameroon, China, Cuba, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Senegal, Sudan, and Zimbabwe in voting to summarily dismiss ILGA's request without a hearing.

Today, ILGA faces new challenges related to the worldwide rise of religious fundamentalism, as evidenced by the joint effort of the Vatican and the Organization of the Islamic Conference to defeat a resolution on sexual orientation before the UN Commission on Human Rights. Member groups also face increasing repression in Eastern Europe and Russia.

But the organization remains optimistic. "Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights are human rights," said former ILGA Secretary General Kursad Kahramanoglu after the 2004 Commission on Human Rights vote. "It is just a matter of time before the whole world recognizes this."

For further information:

Chibbaro, Lou. 2006. "U.S. Cites NAMBLA in U.N. Vote Against Gay Groups" (Washington Blade, February 3)

International Gay and Lesbian Organization:

Waaldijk, Kees, and Andrew Clapham. 1993. Homosexuality: A European Community Issue (Nijhoff)

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

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