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Gay rights are not in competition with religious freedom

Gay Rights
Human Rights
Gay rights - Pride march in the US

At Washington DC's Captial Pride Parade ep_jhu under a Creative Commons Licence

A common thread runs through nearly every argument advanced by homophobic groups against extending equality to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) citizens – namely, that giving them increased rights and protections is somehow a direct attack on their own freedom of religion and conscience.

Claims that LGBTI equality is a ‘Western phenomenon that goes against local cultural practices’ is employed in African countries in particular, but by far the most regular assaults on our community’s desire for equal treatment are couched in selective and fundamentalist religious beliefs. Indeed, the use of religious belief and values as a battering ram against gay rights is often even legitimized by those generally sympathetic to our cause, who buy into the utterly false narrative that there are competing rights at stake here – gay rights versus religious rights – and that a sensible ‘balance’ needs to be struck between the two.

That fundamentally flawed argument found varying degrees of support during the recent debate in Britain concerning equal marriage, with senior members of both governing coalition parties either voting against the reform or, just as wrongly, supporting the ‘right’ of public servants to ‘opt out’ of dealing with same-sex couples. Thankfully they were firmly in the minority, but their behaviour was instructive in how opponents of gay rights seek to use religion to deny us equality before the law.

Freedom of religion (in addition to the equally important freedom from religion) is a fundamental tenet of any liberal democracy, but that freedom does not give one the power to infringe on the rights of others. It is fundamentally undemocratic to seek to enforce religious dogma of any hue through the civil laws of any state – in fact, it is the opposite of democracy and is rooted instead in theocratic thinking. Yet that is exactly what opponents of gay rights are seeking to do. The time has come to call them out on it, rather than having their anti-gay beliefs humoured on religious grounds in a way that other forms of prejudice would never be.

We have reached a point, however, where religious fundamentalists are claiming that equal treatment for gay couples amounts to state persecution of themselves. Leaving aside how incredibly mean-spirited and narrow-minded it is to define your way of life through the denial of rights to others, it is also gravely insulting to those who genuinely suffer persecution – LGBTI people in 76 countries are labelled as criminals simply because of their sexuality; in Russia, freedom of expression and assembly for the LGBTI community and its allies is now illegal. And even in countries that no longer subject gay people to state-sanctioned persecution, homophobic beatings and attacks remain all too common.

These are the real victims of persecution – not those who seek to disguise and dress up their anti-gay prejudices as religious conscience and expect the state to sanction such beliefs through the law of the land. Simply put, a selective interpretation of certain religious texts does not give anyone the right to seek to deny LGBTI people legal equality.

So as the LGBTI community and our allies continue to battle against outstanding inequalities, let us be confident and assured in our message. Our right to equal treatment is not a qualified one, nor is it subject to competing rights, as some so disingenuously seek to claim.  

This blog is part of New Internationalist's series on human rights for Blog Action Day 2013

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