Human Rights Program Kicks off with a Bang

Sam Pickett ‘21
News Editor

            Costa Rican attorney Victor Madrigal-Borloz began his legal career making copies at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights; now he is a senior visiting researcher at Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program and the United Nations (“U.N.”) independent expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In this capacity, he works to assess the implementation of international human rights and engages in dialogue with relevant stakeholders. Madrigal-Borloz also provides advisory services, technical assistance and capacity-building to help address violence and discrimination against people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender activity. Last Thursday, when he spoke at Human Rights Program Kickoff,[1] he was unconcerned with his own rise to (what I call) international superstardom[2] and focused principally on describing the problems and progressions of the LGTBQ+ movement over the last fifty years.

            Madrigal-Borloz began by describing the various stages of the legal battle for LGBTQ+ rights. The first stage focused on the decriminalization of homosexuality, where activists fought to keep government out of the bedroom—a development that Madrigal-Borloz contrasted with the work of women’s rights groups who were trying to combat domestic violence by demanding the government provide more protections for women by entering the perceived private, family sphere. The second stage emphasized the fundamental roles LGBTQ+ rights and protections hold in the development of personal autonomy and dignity, a legal argument that found support from the U.N. Human Rights Council. Madrigal-Borloz now believes we are in a third stage, where more attention is being given to intersectionality within the LGBTQ+ community and to how various sociocultural factors combine to weave “the fabric of our lived experience.” He identified the varying conditions LGBTQ+ individuals face in different areas in space and time—in cities versus in the country, as a young man versus an older woman. This tension, remarked Madrigal-Borloz, holds great promise: the better we understand people’s identities, the better we understand how they cope and how they thrive in different environments.

            Even as the legal battle for LGBTQ+ rights progresses, Madrigal-Borloz emphasized that violence and discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals persists throughout the world. He described how governments weaponize LGBTQ+ issues, portraying LGBTQ+ individuals as bad citizens who threaten social cohesion, particularly during periods of societal unrest and instability. Madrigal-Borloz discussed the systemic discrimination faced by members of the LGBTQ+ community in employment, housing, schooling, and healthcare. In particular, he discussed the need to combat the deeply-engrained medical practice of  “diagnosing” homosexuality and gender dysphoria rather than simply accepting an individual’s stated identity.

            In addition to the difficulties still faced by LGBTQ+ individuals, Madrigal-Borloz addressed the progress the movement has achieved. Efforts to increase the acceptance and happiness of the LGBTQ+ community has resulted in increased openness and pride—a phenomenon Madrigal-Borloz identified as the exercise of people’s human rights, which is the key to contributing to society. He also finds solace in the steps taken by governments to eliminate formal discrimination.

Looking forward, Madrigal-Borloz called on governments to strengthen legal protections and frameworks for the LGBTQ+ community in education, employment, healthcare, and housing, among other areas. He encouraged partnerships with civil society organizations and businesses and remarked on the importance of celebrations like Pride, where LGBTQ+ individuals can proudly embrace their identities and exist openly in the public space that so often represses who they are. He concluded with the importance of solidarity and the need for action throughout society.

            Madrigal-Borloz’s talk is a reminder of what makes UVA so special. Law school often leaves students feeling suffocated by doctrine as they try to figure out what consideration is and the difference between a §1404 and §1406 motion in Civil Procedure. But impactful speakers like this can break through the law school bubble and remind students of the world beyond Withers-Brown. While just being a measly law student can make us feel helpless before all of the injustice in the world, UVA’s wealth of speakers and experts provide an outlet for students to learn more about these issues and learn how they can give back to their community, starting now.

            I left Madrigal-Borloz’s talk thankful to have learned more about a fundamental issue in human rights and eager to see what other programming the Human Rights Program will have this year. Most importantly, I came out with a renewed sense of what it means to be a lawyer. As law students, we are imbued with significant power and the ability to help those around us—be it by performing pro bono work as a law student or shaping the legal strategy for the continuing recognition and protection of LGBTQ+ student rights.


[1] Sponsored by the Human Rights Program, Lambda Law Alliance, and the Latin American Law Organization.

[2] He refuted such a label but I don’t care. He is a superstar to me.