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September 01, 2000

Julie Dorf: A Drive to Change the World

By Harlan A. Loeb

Although it is axiomatic or even cliché to suggest that actions speak louder than words, many times words are the predicate for meaningful progress. But it is the uncommon combination of thoughtful action and inspired lexis that produces heroes. To the casual observer, Julie Dorf blends softly with the mosaic that characterizes San Francisco's citizenry. Resident in this humility, however, is a companion drive to change the world.

More than a decade ago, Julie Dorf founded the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission (Commission). Creation of the Commission was the culmination of Julie's dreams to combat global human rights abuses on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and HIV status. In addition to meeting the basic challenge of creating and building a sustainable and thriving global institution, Dorf's efforts established a clearinghouse of resources to lend legitimacy and momentum in the fight against such human rights abuses and have been instrumental in providing the training and resources necessary to develop young community leaders.

Julie's vision included the mandate to cultivate ambassadors who would work within the larger civil rights and human rights community, to ensure that issues most dear to the Commission would begin to appear on a growing number of agendas of other civil rights and human rights organizations. As a consequence, Julie and the Commission are responsible for community mobilization on gender identity and sexual orientation issues the world over. Formation of the Commission, in many respects, was the first effort to grapple with these issues on a global basis. The relationships created by the Commission with literally thousands of organizations has had, according to Julie, "an unquantifiably empowering impact on worldwide activists to take their struggles seriously and to take them further."

The Commission enjoys a strong relationship with groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, recognizing that meaningful progress on the human rights agenda cannot withstand the fragmentation of several voices speaking at the same time and at cross purposes. These alliances substantially contributed to a growing international recognition that sexual orientation discrimination had a place on that agenda.

Dorf's seat at the international table of human rights leaders was confirmed when she was asked to contribute to a special United Nations publication dedicated to the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In that publication, she wrote:

Over the past fifty years, sexual orientation issues have gone from being a topic discussed in embarrassed whispers in the halls of the United Nations to being recognized as a legitimate agenda item for its human rights mechanisms. . . . The next fifty years do not need to see the rewriting of every covenant and treaty that make up international human rights law. Rather, we must continue to update our interpretations-as has happened in the last decade-and realize that human rights are a living, breathing concept that apply to every individual and every community regardless of sexual orientation. (Julie Dorf, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Fifty Years and Beyond, (1998)).

Dorf's passion for human rights issues traces back to her youth in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, when her parents were significantly involved in issues ranging from the plight of Soviet Jewry to education. Her parents recall that she never accepted the status quo simply on the basis of faith. She questioned everything and was a constant challenge for her parochial school teachers at a local Jewish day school. In fact, Dorf credits these teachers for giving her the foundation to challenge presumptions that were "just matters of faith."

While a Wesleyan University student majoring in Soviet studies, Dorf was an exchange student in Russia in 1984. She was one of the few "out" lesbians in Russia, where gay men are routinely imprisoned and lesbianism is classified as a form of schizophrenia. Dorf began organizing within the nascent dissident underground, working with lesbian filmmakers and smuggling documentation of gay life back and forth across national borders, giving momentum to a significant grass roots organization in the seemingly impenetrable Eastern Bloc. Dorf's feelings about her accomplishments in the Soviet block are typically modest: "while laws against homsosexuality are being dismantled in Kazkhstan and Ireland, gay men are routinely murdered in Iran and Mexico."

Perhaps the crowning jewel of Julie's achievements was the impact that the Commission had at the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women:

One of the best moments for me was the opening of the lesbian tent. We had been planning for this for so long, buying rope and all this crazy stuff for this space, and we had no idea what it would look like. We were trying to create infrastructure for whatever happened. The first day, when we called a general meeting, a representative from South Africa called out: "We're going to start, welcome to the lesbian tent!" Two hundred women cheered. It was so wonderful to have it really work.
. . . it was totally unprecedented-the governments of the world debating sexual orientation. While we did not retain the language we wanted in the document, we got a lot further than we thought we would. We were able to strengthen our support by having our enemies speak out as vehemently as they did. For the first time, many heard the viciousness of the opposition. We left inspired for having been visible and integrated into both conferences. (Julie Dorf, "Good Deeds and Good News," Ms. (1995)).

In February 2000, Dorf resigned her position with the Commission, citing personal reasons, including her desire to spend more time with her two-year-old daughter, Hazel. At the same time, she noted that the Commission's growth during her ten-year tenure made her "unspeakably proud." It goes without saying that the lives of the thousands of people around the world affected by her work on gay and lesbian human rights issues return the sentiment.

Harlan A. Loeb is the managing director of litigation strategy at Hill and Knowlton, Inc., in Chicago. He is also the chair of the Human Rights editorial board.

As published in Human Rights, Fall 2000, Vol. 27, No. 4, p.8-9.