An Interactive Session with Hans Ytterberg, HomO, Sweden

The South and Southeast Asia Resource Centre on Sexuality hosted an informal interactive session on 4 June 2007, 11:00 am - 12:30 pm, at TARSHI, 11 Mathura Road, First Floor, Jangpura - B, New Delhi.

Sumit Baudh, of the Resource Centre, introduced Mr. Hans Ytterberg as the Ombudsman against Discrimination on grounds of Sexual Orientation, which is a government position in Sweden. Interestingly, he said, Mr. Ytterberg’s official title is HomO. The capital ‘O’ at the end is a well known symbol in Sweden of an Ombudsman’s office. He added that Mr. Ytterberg is in Delhi as a resource person for a training programme jointly organised by an Indian NGO, Mamta and the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education, RFSU.

Mr. Ytterberg is the Ombudsmannen mot diskriminering på grund av sexuell läggning (HomO) since 1999. Prior to this, Mr. Ytterberg served as legal advisor to the Swedish Ministry of Justice (1997-99). He has served as a Judge in Sweden (1994-96).

Mr. Ytterberg visited the Resource Centre and addressed the interactive session with 10 participants from local NGOs: Naz Foundation International, Lawyers Collective, and Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action (CREA).

Mr Ytterberg began the session, speaking about his office. As HomO, his focus is two-fold: one, to counter-act homophobia in all walks of life; and second, to represent individual cases of sexual orientation discrimination. Initially his office was mandated only to deal with cases of discrimination in employment. This led to an anomaly. For example: while it enabled an intervention for a school teacher facing discrimination, it would not allow a similar intervention in the case of a student in the same school (because it would not be related to employment as such). The concerned Ministry decided to expand the powers of HomO beyond employment issues. It now extends to most areas, except for litigation of individual cases against State actors in some areas, e.g. the armed forces and law enforcement agencies. There is however ample interaction with the armed forces, especially around training and sensitisation on sexual orientation issues.

Mr. Ytterberg sees definite advantages of being in a government office as compared to an NGO. The role of HomO is complementary to activists and NGOs.

A few questions were posed around the issues of sex work. In Sweden, it is not criminal to sell sex but it is criminal to buy sex. Mr. Ytterberg himself is not very supportive of such laws. He added, however, that there is not much public opposition to the laws.

The concept of treating sex work as work and the dignity of labour was discussed. Mr. Ytterberg said that there is not much street-based sex work in Sweden but that there are differences in opinion as to whether the legislation has had a role in decreasing sex work or not. There are no collectives or organisations of sex workers either. However, sex workers often operate through cell phones and the Internet.

A participant commented that although sex-work as such is legal in many countries, some aspects of it are always criminalised, which makes it possible for the government to regulate and intervene when it deems fit.

A participant mentioned the ironical relationship between the State and the civil society. On some issues, civil society actively invites State interference; on some others, it resists State interference. For example, in domestic violence cases it is deemed necessary for the State to intervene in the zone of privacy; but when the State intervenes in private relationships in the context of sex-work or consensual sodomy, it is seen as a human rights violation.

The discussion then steered towards the rights of the individual versus the ideology of a welfare-State. Mr. Ytterberg said that many governments have a weak perspective on rights. Welfare-States often disregard individual rights for the welfare of the majority. Mr Ytterberg warned against following a majoritarian approach as this may sometimes be detrimental to the personal liberty of individuals. Individual rights need to be strengthened and protected.

There was a discussion on the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA). A participant gave an example of his experience. His organisation could not get SIDA support for a project on men who have sex with men (MSM) because of SIDA’s preference for working across the entire spectrum of sexual diversity (rather than a selective group like MSM). Another participant however endorsed the approach of SIDA. He said there are close linkages within the sexual diversity field, and there are also many intersections beyond it. Indeed, gay-male centred politics has its limitations. The articulation of women’s desire is easily compromised, neglected or ignored.

Another participant pointed out that most discussions on sexual minorities in India are overly dominated by the law, in particular the penalisation of sodomy. It hinders discussion on other equally pressing issues. For example, the question of gender, and the lack of visibility of lesbians.

Mr Ytterberg pointed out a possible advantage in the penalisation of same sex sexual activity, at least in comparison with the situation that many lesbian women find themselves in. He said the penalisation is a critical point for people to protest and to mobilise a movement. For lesbian women, the main problem is often total invisibility, which makes resistance and work for change more difficult.

A participant was critical about the near absence of a lesbian movement in India. He said that most lesbians ‘use feminist movement as a façade’ and rarely ever come out. All other participants strongly disagreed with this, saying that the visibility of lesbians (or the lack of it) has to be contextualised within oppressive patriarchal structures.

A participant said he and his same-sex partner are planning to go to Canada to get married there. They would then return to India and use their married status as a point of activism with the Government of India. Other participants reminded him of the recent case of a Canadian diplomat in India who had sought criminal immunity for his same-sex spouse. While it got some media attention, it did very little about the Government of India recognising their same-sex marriage. Mr Ytterberg added that one should select legal battles carefully.

With this, the allotted time came to an end. Sumit thanked Mr. Ytterberg and all the participants for their visit to the Resource Centre.

Please visit for more information about Mr. Ytterberg, his work and his office.