No room for complacency in the global battle against homophobia


Human rights must know no borders. under a Creative Commons Licence

The Constitutional Court in Uganda delivered a welcome ruling on 1 August when it struck down the country’s widely condemned Anti-Homosexuality Act, whose draconian provisions mandated life in prison for what it termed ‘repeat offenders’. It also outlawed the ‘promotion’ of and ‘recruitment’ into homosexuality – the latter flying in the face of credible research which makes clear that sexual orientation is not a ‘choice’ nor a ‘lifestyle’ but an innate characteristic and a perfectly normal, natural variant of human sexuality.

The successful challenge to the deeply homophobic law – whose international critics have included President Obama, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and many other world leaders  – was initiated by Ugandan based LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex) activists. The verdict amounted to a rare victory in a part of the world that has seen a worrying rise in officially sanctioned anti-gay prejudice in recent years. This prejudice has been fuelled largely by shadowy US based religious fundamentalist groups exporting their homophobic hatred abroad because they are losing the equality battle at home.

However, lest we cheer too soon – the decision of the court to throw out the homophobic bill rested mainly on a technicality. The judges ruled that the legislation had been passed in the absence of a proper parliamentary quorum being reached and was therefore null-and-void. Within hours of the judges passing their verdict, the architects of the bill, including Parliamentary Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, were threatening to re-enact it at the earliest opportunity and have since succeeded in changing the rules around quorum requirements to re-introduce this measure.  

Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, signed the bill into law last February, having assembled a panel of ‘experts’ who conveniently informed him that homosexuality was something people willingly choose. Since then he has apparently become more circumspect and has advised his party caucus to proceed slowly and carefully on the issue.

Equality rights advocates and activists hope that Museveni’s caution has been influenced by the international outrage that greeted his signing of the homophobic law, and the decision of a number of Western donors to suspend aid to a country heavily reliant on outside assistance. The Obama administration also announced visa restrictions on a number of Ugandan officials linked to the bill.

As we wait for the next developments to emerge from this fraught area, the pressure from world governments and the wider international human rights affirming community needs be maintained and the Ugandan authorities must be left in no doubt as to what a new Anti-Homosexuality Act would mean. It is no time to become complacent in the battle against state-endorsed homophobic persecution, as the glimmer of hope that emerged from that Kampala courtroom on 1 August needs to be seen against the shocking backdrop of a world where over 80 countries continue to criminalize people simply on account of their sexual orientation. Indeed, despite the recent ruling, being LGBTI in Uganda remains a ‘crime’ worthy of imprisonment – making the bravery and determination of the LGBTI community there all the more impressive.

Activist Frank Mugisha is one of the LGBTI activists who, together with nine other petitioners, brought the case to court. Mugisha heads the organization Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG). ‘Changing laws is not hard, but what we really need to do in the long-term is change minds,’ he said, speaking to the Guardian in Uganda’s capital city, Kampala, ahead of the judge’s verdict.

In these debates, there can be a temptation to tread more softly because of what are termed cultural or religious sensitivities. However, human rights – such as the right of LGBTI people to live their lives in the absence of fear and persecution – must know no borders and homophobia or anti-gay bias can never be justified, regardless of what wrapping it comes in. That needs to be a constant mantra, and there must be real consequences for those governments that fail to respect and uphold such basic rights.

Australia’s government is gutting progressive legislation


A legacy to be proud of: Abbott is leading Australia backwards. under a Creative Commons Licence

Australian prime minister Tony Abbott and his stridently right-wing government are pursuing increasingly extremist policies, which range from repealing racial discrimination laws to prejudicial treatment of LGBTI people.

Long before becoming prime minister towards the end of last year, Tony Abbott had established a reputation as a conservative firebrand. Like so many of that ilk, he made the regular denunciations of ‘political correctness’, global warming, women’s rights, gay rights and anything else considered remotely progressive. 

The Racial Discrimination Act and specifically 18C of that Act, which makes it an offence to ‘insult, offend, humiliate or intimidate someone on the basis of their race’, was one of the first pieces of legislation targeted.  

Lawmakers inserted the amendment 18C in 1995 to strengthen laws against racism following a spate of high profile attacks against people in ethnic minority communities. 

The left and centre of the political spectrum have met the proposed changes with a chorus of condemnation.

The symbolism of this rearguard action has not been lost on Australia’s minority communities, who were already wary of Abbott’s record on these issues before he assumed power. But the government still seems committed to repealing the ‘offending’ provision in the interests of upholding free speech following a review by the Attorney General. 

Abbott also risks damaging Australia’s global reputation when it comes to gay rights. Again, he has form in this area, as a longstanding critic of equal treatment for LGBTI Australians. 

Abbott has insisted that there will be no softening of his party’s opposition to legal equality for same-sex couples. This is despite opinion polls showing that a clear majority of Australians favour marriage equality and the fact that his own sister is gay and has expressed a desire to marry her partner. He has even ruled out a conscience vote, which would allow more enlightened members of his party caucus to support equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation.

Australia now faces being left behind as many other countries move towards greater acceptance of LGBTI equality and specifically marriage equality, which is becoming more common across the western world. This includes neighbouring New Zealand, which passed an Equal Marriage Act in 2013, and whose supporters included conservative Prime-Minister John Key.

Much like other key social reforms such as female suffrage and black civil rights in the US, the right of same-sex couples to marry will eventually be recognized in all civilized societies – including Australia – and history will not be kind to political leaders such as Tony Abbott (and indeed his predecessor Julia Gillard) who frustrated moves towards such a landmark equality outcome. 

Treatment of asylum seekers is another black mark on Abbot’s record. Australia has long faced international criticism for its treatment of asylum seekers, which includes sending refugee applicants to two detention centres outside the country itself, in Papua New Guinea.

A report published recently by Amnesty International highlighted cruel and harsh conditions at the detention centre on Manus Island and pointed specifically to a hostile environment for LGBTI asylum seekers. 

Papua New Guinea punishes same-sex relations with up to 14 years imprisonment and Amnesty has condemned the Australian government for sending people fleeing homophobic persecution to a country whose laws dictate similar abusive and degrading treatment. 

Even more disturbingly, the Amnesty report has documented that Australian immigration officers on the island have told LGBTI asylum seekers that they will be reported to local police if they engage in same-sex sexual activity. Condoms were also said to be prohibited at the facility.

Not only is such behaviour by officials deeply offensive, it also flies in the face of Australian government policy, which opposes criminalization of homosexuality.

Tony Abbott and his government have been in office for less than a year. In that time, their actions have tarnished Australia’s image in the eyes of the international community. Progressives face big challenges ahead in countering their country’s increasingly extremist course.

The Sochi struggle for LGBTI rights

In Russia, a 'gay propaganda' law was passed in mid-2013 which criminalizes any public advocacy or campaigning for LGBTI rights.

There is no question that the LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex) community has seen some great strides towards equality in recent years; the pace of change has been remarkable in many areas. A combination of factors has led to these developments, including strong political leadership from Barack Obama and others, and the campaigning efforts of activist groups. Most significant of all is the increased confidence and visibility of LGBTI people themselves, more and more of whom are refusing to deny who they are to accommodate the prejudices of others. In fact, research shows that the single biggest factor in determining an individual’s support of gay marriage and gay rights is knowing an LGBTI person. As Harvey Milk once said, the greatest political act of a gay person is simply to ‘come out’.

But gains in Western Europe and parts of the US have not been mirrored elsewhere; in many countries they have generated a homophobic backlash. Religious and political leaders are using LGBTI people as pawns in highly cynical ‘moral’ crusades against what is termed Western decadence – a useful way to deflect public attention in these countries away from gross political mismanagement, corruption and the failure to provide their populations with basic essentials such as food and shelter.

The IOC has taken to criticizing world leaders who have spoken out on the issue, while defending the arrests of LGBTI activists during the opening days of the Olympics

In Russia, a so-called ‘gay propaganda’ law was passed in mid-2013 which criminalizes any public advocacy or campaigning for LGBTI rights and effectively drives the community underground . In Nigeria, a truly odious law has just been enacted which increases the already harsh criminal penalties against same-sex activity and, in what is surely designed to encourage a witch-hunt, requires people to ‘turn in’ any gay person they know within 24 hours or face prison themselves.

Russia’s hosting of the Winter Olympic Games, which got underway last weekend in Sochi, has served as a focal point in efforts to campaign against the state-enforced homophobia of the Russian regime. Calls for a boycott of the Games failed, however, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has refused to hold Russia accountable, despite the Olympic Charter stating that there should be human rights and non-discrimination for all. The IOC has even taken to criticizing world leaders who have spoken out on the issue, while defending the arrests of LGBTI activists during the opening days of the Olympics.

‘In many other countries that decriminalized homosexuality, there was much campaigning around the issue leading up to the change, but this was not so in Russia,’ says Vladimir Dotsenko, a Russian LGBTI campaigner now living and working in Ireland. ‘Instead, decriminalization came about in 1993 to facilitate Russia’s membership of the Council of Europe. But there was no attempt to educate or explain to the Russian public what it was about.’

Dotsenko describes a ‘systematic attack on what is seen in Russia as the Western system of human rights values, with homophobia and xenophobia used to invoke nationalistic, imperialist sentiments’. In this broader context of seeking to reassert a strong and powerful Russia against Western ideas and influence, demonizing LGBTI people has proved an easy and popular tool.

For those on the outside wishing to offer constructive help to Russia’s beleaguered LGBTI community, Dotsenko is a firm believer in political pressure and lobbying.

Holland became the first country in the world to allow same-sex couples to marry in 2001

‘Concerned citizens in the West need to keep the pressure up at a political level. The issue needs to be raised with members of parliament, and politicians of the highest rank should be constantly raising the topic with their Russian counterparts at meetings of the Council of Europe, of which Russia is still a member. The story continues after the Olympics.’

Boris Dittrich of Human Rights Watch, who serves as the Advocacy Director of their LGBTI programme, was leader of the Democrats 66 (D66) party in Holland in the 1990s and negotiated the marriage equality commitment in what was known as the ‘Purple Coalition’. As a result, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to allow same-sex couples to marry in 2001.

‘As a Dutchman, I feel embarrassed that the Dutch King and Queen and the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, [attended] the opening ceremony of the Winter Games,’ says Dittrich. ‘Clearly, trade relations are deemed more important than human rights.’

Dittrich also sees the homophobic crackdown in Russia as a political ploy by Vladimir Putin. ‘He uses his anti-gay stand to distinguish himself from Obama and the rest of the West. The Russian Orthodox Church is very influential and Putin relies on this conservative base to cling to power.’

And with the battle for marriage equality becoming a central issue in so many nations, what are the lessons from a country that has had the reform in place for nearly 13 years?

‘In the Dutch case, it proved to be important to find allies outside the LGBTI community [parents, other human rights groups] to speak out. I also mobilized many Dutch celebrities who supported the proposal publicly. We briefed the media and focused on the separation between Church and State, and always highlighted the freedom of religion,’ explains Dittrich.

But even in what are considered progressive societies, cultural and societal homophobia persists. For many, an Irish drag queen named Panti Bliss summed up perfectly the oppressive effects of this continuing prejudice in our culture in a speech that has now been seen by over 250,000 people and which has earned the praise of celebrities such as Madonna and Stephen Fry.

The world is now watching Russia, thanks to the Sochi games, but the indifference of the Olympic Committee and the homophobia of many of the world’s politicians and societies mean that the struggle for full equality must and will continue.

Has this been the decade of gay rights in Britain?

Equal marriage

Legal rights are a step towards greater LGBTI equality in Britain. under a Creative Commons Licence

Ten years ago that infamous piece of legislation known as Section 28 – which banned schools from teaching about what was scathingly referred to as the ‘pretended family relationship’ of homosexuality – was finally consigned to the dustbin of history by the then Labour government.

Introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1988, Section 28 was the first explicitly anti-gay piece of legislation seen in Britain in over a century. It came at the end of a truly horrendous decade for LGBTI people, when every pillar of the British state seemed to be engaged in a relentless ‘moral’ war against the gay community. Thatcher herself told a cheering Conservative Conference in 1987 that she wanted a Britain where young people would be taught about traditional moral values and not that they had an ‘inalienable’ right to be gay.

Controversial Chief Constable of Manchester Police James Anderton felt emboldened enough in his anti-gay views to declare that homosexuals were ‘swirling in a human cesspit of their own making.’  The message emanating from Thatcher’s Britain could not have been clearer – if you happened to be gay, you could dispense with any notions of being treated with equality and respect. Section 28, with its harsh and uncompromising language, effectively gave official state approval to such anti-gay prejudice, and in a way that had a damaging effect even beyond the groups it directly targeted.

The passage of such a regressive law did, however, have the positive effect of galvanizing Britain’s gay community, with the formation of such groups as Stonewall and Outrage. Human rights activist Peter Tatchell, who founded Outrage, has remarked how in the 1980s, 20,000 gay men were convicted of consensual adult same-sex ‘offences’. Claims of men being entrapped by agent provocateurs or what were known as ‘pretty police’ were common.

Section 28 would prove to be the final straw for a community under siege.

Progress was made in the 1990s around the age of consent, and a judgment from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) lifted the ban on LGBTI military personnel, which took effect in 2001. That same year the age of consent was finally equalized at 16 for all, regardless of sexual orientation.

Incredibly, the law that sent Oscar Wilde to prison was not struck from the statute books until 2004, along with other discriminatory sexual offences. Laws protecting LGBTI people against discrimination were also passed around this time.

The public and political mood was clearly changing and what had been at best a limited, begrudging tolerance afforded to gay people was gradually being transformed into active support for real equality. The increasing visibility of openly LGBTI people in the streets, workplaces and TV sets of Britain was having a profound effect on social attitudes.

A comprehensive Civil Partnership law was enacted in 2005. But while highly welcome and progressive, officialdom was still unwilling to take that final extra step and grant gay couples full equality through civil marriage.

A clear indication of ongoing progress came at the 2010 general election, when even the Conservatives pledged to look at making marriage equal for all. This came from a party that had been adamantly anti-gay. But after 13 years in the political wilderness, new leader David Cameron correctly identified the need to modernize and ‘de-toxify’ the Tory brand to make them electable again. Indeed, Cameron publicly apologized to the gay community in 2009 for the fact that his party had introduced Section 28, which had belittled and demeaned an entire section of society.

Fast forward to July 2013 and the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, supported by strong majorities in all parties bar a divided Conservative Party (the parliamentary vote was an impressive 400 votes in favour, 175 against). Opinion polls showing that the Act had consistent backing from the British public show that the country has gone from being one of the worst places in western Europe to be LGBTI to being a global leader in LGBTI equality.

But while full legal equality has been achieved, the battle to eradicate homophobia and transphobia at a societal level continues. This must now be the primary focus of the LGBTI rights movement in Britain, along with solidarity for persecuted LGBTI communities abroad. 

Gay rights are not in competition with religious freedom

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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