Sexuality, gender and social justice: What’s law got to do with it?

Mural of scales and books on a law building

On Tuesday, 1 March 2016, we mark a significant moment in a journey that has been walked by over 100 activists, academics and legal practitioners from every continent in the world, over more than two years. Starting with the collective development of the Sexuality and Social Justice Toolkit in 2014, and the International Symposium in 2015, we are launching the next iteration in this set of evolving  of conversations. On Tuesday, 1 March 2016, we launch the Gender, Sexuality and Social Justice Edited Collection. It features over 30 articles, photo-essays, interviews and thought pieces on gender and sexuality from over twenty countries around the world, and it reveals the startling complexity of the deceptively simple question held in the Collection’s title:  What’s law got to do with it?

In this blog, we share an excerpt from our introduction to the Collection, and we invite you to join us in an ongoing conversation, to share your reflections, your expertise, your challenges as we work together to ensure that ‘no one is left behind’ in the struggle for sexuality and gender justice. You can read the full Edited Collection online, join us and support the launch of the collection on twitter #sexsocjustice, and if you’re in the neighbourhood, come participate at the Institute of Development Studies from 1:00 – 14.30 in room 221, to mark this moment in a journey that, we hope, will continue in years to come.

Excerpt from ‘Starting Conversations: A Cross-Continental Dialogue on Avenues to Advance Sexuality and Gender Justice’

The Sexuality, Gender and Social Justice Edited Collection offers ‘other ways of thinking’ about the rapidly changing nature of sexuality and gender politics and the need to interrogate the way in which law and legal processes translate into lived experience in different socioeconomic, political and legal contexts. We started this journey with a shared belief that dialogue, where both talking and listening are given equal importance, matters and is an important starting point for fostering meaningful social transformation.

Law and the changing nature of sexuality and gender politics

Our interest in exploring sexual and gender justice reflects an ongoing tension in the way in which law and rights feature in current debates on sexuality and gender politics. Appeals to law are an increasingly common feature of movements that pursue different forms of sexual and/or gender justice and as some contributions in this Collection demonstrate, these appeals can be successful. However, as other contributors highlight, the tension of this ‘turn to law’ manifests itself in the way in which the diverse forms that sexual and gender justice might take are increasingly translated into legal language and frameworks – including the language of rights. This Collection seeks to recognise and acknowledge rather than resolve this tension, through a wide ranging and nuanced examination of contexts in which it has manifested. Thus, the pursuit of sexual and gender justice recounted in this Collection encompasses, among other topics, transgender advocacy, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights struggles capacity building among young people, women’s health and security, religion, movements across borders and questions of resource allocation and socioeconomic exclusion. The law may play a greater or lesser role in any of these struggles.

The aim in this Collection, therefore, is not to bring all discourses together under one label, movement or form of activism – legal or otherwise – but to listen carefully to diverse and often unheard voices. Sexual and gender justice may refer to the law, or to sexual rights, but this is not all that it encompasses, or all this Collection seeks to explore. Key to the ground-breaking nature of this work is the interrogation of changing dynamics of sexuality and gender politics by asking how law and legal processes translate into people’s lived experience in different socioeconomic, political and legal contexts. The multiple different legal pathways through which sexual rights or sexual and gender justice can be approached demand that we assess both the scope and the limitations of the legal processes upon which we are often reliant.

The contributions to the Edited Collection coalesce around two main questions:

  1. How useful is the law for attaining sexual and gender justice?
  2. What is the scope for joint working to advance sexual and gender rights?

Unsurprisingly, the responses to these questions are complex, multifaceted and often openended. There is not a simple, single solution – legal or otherwise – to the question of sexual and gender justice. Instead, the contributions that follow offer a series of interventions, dialogues and reflections on what works and what has not worked, what remains to be explored and the scope to work together in the process of this exploration. The answers to these two core questions encourage substantive engagement with the messiness of social justice for sexuality and gender equality.

New ways of thinking through an unruly publication

Offering new ways of thinking about the gender, sexuality and law, the contributors to the Edited Collection:

  • Interrogate existing assumptions about the capacity of law and legal processes to affect change, particularly for marginalised communities, by exploring practical experiences from the perspective of lawyers, activists and scholars;
  • Advance thinking about the relationship between law and sexual rights advocacy by reassessing contemporary legal expressions of sexual orientation, gender identity and other aspects of sexuality;
  • Document evidence of the impact of legal processes on social and economic marginalisation, including people’s ability to access basic services, contribute to their communities and build advocacy efforts;
  • Broaden traditional academic platforms of engagement by facilitating dialogue between a wide range of practitioners – lawyers, activists, artists and others – to map out opportunities for collaboration and practical options for policy influencing.

This therefore is an ‘unruly’ publication. It grows from a shared sense of injustice and it builds on a shared commitment to ensuring that the sexual rights movement is a space for unity. In doing so, it recognises that unity does not mean uniformity: for this movement to flourish, we need to foster its different manifestations, iterations and priorities at both global and local levels.

By Elizabeth Mills (IDS), Kay Laylor (Manchester Metropolitan University) and Arturo Sánchez García (Kent Law School). 

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