In the group psychotherapy course that I took in the second year of the Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) program at Adler University, members of my cohort and I regularly engaged in group discussions regarding topics at the intersection of social justice and clinical practice. In one such discussion, several female members of the class talked about their social experiences as women, in particular their feeling that they cannot comfortably express their true selves, but must tailor their behaviour to the expectations of their partners, families, and the larger society. This discussion prompted me to think more deeply about how one’s gender—via the mediation of others’ unfair and discriminatory behaviour—can negatively affect one’s psychosocial well-being. I consequently conducted research into this topic, and came across empirical evidence indicating that one of the most pressing issues pertaining to gender identity and sexuality is that a large number of human beings worldwide are treated unfairly and oppressively due to their gender and/or sexual orientation. The oppressive treatment of human beings with gender identities and sexual orientations different from our own is obviously a social justice issue, and, as I will argue in this essay, an issue the proper resolution of which would substantially benefit from the human rights-driven expansion of what I call the moral circle. I will firstly present some of the empirical evidence showing that many people worldwide are oppressed due to their membership in different gender and sexuality categories, then introduce my concept of the moral circle and discuss how the circle’s human rights-driven expansion can aid the process of abolishing gender identity- and sexuality-based oppression on a global scale.
Empirical work conducted in a Western as well as a non-Western societal context points to the operation of gender discrimination at both the familial (specifically parental) and societal levels, and reveals an association between exposure to gender discrimination and experiencing psychosocial difficulties (e.g., poor self-esteem) (Kira, Shuwiekh, Kucharska, Abu-Ras, & Bujold-Bugeaud, 2017). Research conducted in the United States demonstrates a connection between gender discrimination and gender inequality at the workplace, as manifested, for example, in a male-favouring wage gap between men and women, women representing fewer than 20% of technical positions in top tech companies, as well as significantly fewer females than males in tenured academic positions in the field of engineering (Heilman & Caleo, 2018). A study examining the school experience of transgender youth living in various regions of the U.S. found that substantial numbers of these youth report exposure to trans-prejudice-driven verbal and physical bullying, as well as physical assault in school settings (Singh, 2013). Furthermore, analysis of contemporary Russian society reveals that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals face sexuality- and gender-based discrimination and rights violations (Buyantueva, 2018).
I will now switch the focus of this essay to a concept I refer to as the moral circle. Historically, human beings the world over have struggled against systems of power and oppression to secure certain rights and freedoms for both themselves and their fellow humans. In so doing, they can be seen as having created and expanded a moral circle within which the individual can be reasonably sure that their rights, liberty, and dignity will be protected by other members of society. Examples of attempts at expanding the moral circle abound, from the historical and global anti-slavery movement to the women’s suffrage movement, from the international struggle for workers’ rights to the global anti-racism effort, and from the movement for Indigenous peoples’ rights to anti-sexism advocacy.
In my view, which I believe most observers of the modern world will agree with, the moral circle is still and should be undergoing expansion. I am particularly concerned with the manner in which this expansion occurs, as I think the approach that human beings attempting to build a more fair and just world take determines the relative success of their efforts. The idea that I wish to voice my support for in this essay is that, in order for the expansion of the moral circle to have substantial moral effects, it should be human rights-driven. A moral document enshrining a variety of fundamental rights it describes as belonging equally to all members of humankind, the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights addresses moral concerns in the social, cultural, legal, political, and economic domains (UN General Assembly, 1948). The human rights-driven expansion of the moral circle can thus arguably be seen as capable of securing oppressed individuals’ rights and freedoms in a substantial way, that is, in all societal spheres.
Returning to the matter of sexuality- and gender-based oppression now, it is possible to see that the previously described oppression that women and LGBT individuals experience in various social realms requires the kind of powerful social justice-based response that the human rights-driven enlargement of the moral circle affords. In order to ensure that the rights and freedoms of individuals of different gender identities and sexual orientations are protected in all spheres of society, social justice advocates around the globe should strive to contribute to a human rights-driven expansion of the moral circle. Efforts in this regard can consist of educating the public about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights via public lectures and workshops, encouraging our family members, friends, and community members to familiarize themselves with the Universal Declaration and to share what they have learned with others in their lives, and initiating phone call-based or letter-writing campaigns intended to persuade our political representatives to vote in favour of legislation that helps advance universal human rights, among many other conceivable actions.
Buyantueva, R. (2018). LGBT rights activism and homophobia in Russia. Journal of Homosexuality, 65(4), 456-483. https://doi.org/10.1080/00918369.2017.1320167
Heilman, M. E. & Caleo, S. (2018). Combatting gender discrimination: A lack of fit framework. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 21(5), 725-744. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1368430218761587
Kira, I. A., Shuwiekh, H., Kucharska, J., Abu-Ras, W. & Bujold-Bugeaud, M. (2017). The dynamics underlying the negative mental health effects of gender discrimination in two samples: Poland and Egypt. Current Psychology, 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-017-9730-5
Singh, A. A. (2013). Transgender youth of color and resilience: Negotiating oppression and finding support. Sex Roles, 68(11-12), 690-702. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-012-0149-z
UN General Assembly. (1948). “Universal declaration of human rights” (217 [III] A). Paris. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/