By Matthew S. Bajko
The call came out of the blue in January to his desk in New York City. On the line was a lawyer with the legal team behind the federal lawsuit seeking to strike down Proposition 8, the California ban against same-sex marriage.
A witness in support of the anti-gay, voter-approved measure had just testified that because the Netherlands adopted marriage rights for gays and lesbians in 2000 that incest and polygamy were also now legal in the European Country. With only 30 minutes before plaintiffs' attorney David Boies was to cross-examine the witness, an associate of his was scrambling to find out if the man's claims on the stand were true.
"I was very pleased I could explain what is going on. It appeared the witness had read something on the Internet and it was something made up. It is shocking how rumors and vague notions of things end up as arguments in American discourse on same-sex marriage," said Boris O. Dittrich, advocacy director of the LGBT program at Human Rights Watch.
It is just one example of the behind-the-scenes role Dittrich has played since taking his job with the international organization three years ago when he left the Dutch Parliament. In 1994 Dittrich, 54, became his country's first openly gay member of Parliament and his first act was to introduce a measure extending legal protections to married same-sex couples.
It took the Netherlands six years to pass Dittrich's law, and the world's first legal same-sex weddings took place April 1, 2001. The politician's doggedness – he maneuvered himself into the leadership of his party and used same-sex marriage and other progressive issues as bargaining chips to form a government with two opposition parties – set into motion the first domino to fall in the fight for marriage equality.
"In the next 10 years a lot of other countries will follow," said Dittrich, who spent several days in the Bay Area this week and spoke Tuesday at a Commonwealth Club LGBT member-led forum.
Having accomplished his goals in government, Dittrich opted to end his political career. He took the position with Human Rights Watch to continue to influence public policy on the world stage but with a less visible role to play.
"I asked myself, do I want to be a politician the rest of my life or do something else? I love the U.S. and wanted to live here," said Dittrich.
Since 2008 he has worked with a pro-gay Ugandan group and used his political connections to meet with government ministers in the African country to press them to respect LGBT people. So the introduction of a virulently homophobic law in Uganda came as no surprise to Dittrich.
During one meeting with a Ugandan minister, Dittrich handed the man a book that explained how protecting sexual minorities was required because Uganda had signed on to several United Nations treaties in support of human rights.
"He took the book and threw it on the table and said, 'That is what we do with human rights in Uganda. We have different problems to work on in Uganda,'" recalled Dittrich.
Outside of government offices, however, Dittrich defers to Ugandans to be the public voice on LGBT rights issues.
"Otherwise it is easy for the government to say a Western organization wants to impose its views on us," he explained.
Another voice Dittrich was instrumental in convincing to speak out against such harsh laws is the Holy See and the pope. At the request of Human Rights Watch, the Vatican issued a statement in December in favor of decriminalization of homosexuality. Dittrich, in turn, has been pressing Catholic bishops in Uganda and other countries to speak out against sodomy laws.
Next week, at the invitation of Pope Benedict XVI, Dittrich will be meeting with Vatican officials. He has requested a private conversation with his holiness.
Influence in U.S.
The United States has also felt Dittrich's influence. Through his involvement with the U.S. Council for Global Equality, he pushed the State Department to require all American ambassadors to include reports on LGBT issues in the countries where they are stationed.
"This year was the first time it was substantially documented. Now we will push to see them go from a reporting agenda to a pushing enforcement agenda," said Dittrich, who met this month with Michael Posner, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, to discuss seeing American diplomats work more closely with LGBT groups overseas. "We have high hopes that will happen in the near future."
Starting in April groups will submit reports on human rights within the U.S. as part of the United Nations' Universal Periodic Review of the country this year. Dittrich intends to ask pointed questions about the lack of marriage rights for same-sex couples, anti-gay immigration policies and the restriction against gays serving openly in the military.
He is also working with transgender rights groups around the globe to create a report looking at how different countries treat transgender people. There will be a conference in June in Barcelona and the plan is to issue findings in 2011.
Back in his home country he has seen the arguments over LGBT rights come full circle. Now Dutch conservatives use support of gays and lesbians as a litmus test against Islamic immigrants to the Netherlands and a reason to close their borders to Muslims.
Supporting gay rights, said Dittrich, is "now considered to be belonging to Dutch values." And immigrants with Muslim or Islamic backgrounds are seen as "not integrated into Dutch society because their religion is homophobic. It is interesting to see how that played out."
Surprisingly, Dittrich waited five years to marry his husband, acclaimed Dutch sculptor Jehoshua Rozenman, after fighting so hard to win marriage rights. Together for 30 years now, the couple exchanged vows in 2006 mainly because Dittrich feared if the death threats he received came true Rozenman would not be legally entitled to his benefits.
"When I introduced the same-sex marriage bill I never thought of my own situation. I was working for other people's right to marry," he said. "One day I walked out on the street and thought if someone did shoot me down, my partner would not have anything. That was the impetus to get married. Sometimes we both forget we are married."
He said most people haven't changed how they perceive the couple because they wed.
"People don't behave differently because we are married," said Dittrich. "It serves the purpose of creating a good legal structure. It doesn't play a romantic role in our lives."