The global struggle for queer freedom

Despite repression, LGBT people are making progress worldwide

By Peter Tatchell

London – 8 November 2012 – Global magazine

Homophobic persecution and discrimination is rife in large parts of the world, and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are still not recognised or protected by international law. Nonetheless, progress towards equality is being made thanks to the defiance and bravery of activists.

Over the last two decades, the impoverished South Asian nation of Nepal has made an extraordinary transition from monarchical tyranny to a secular democratic republic. This progress has included significant advances for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. Thanks to the campaigns of the LGBT organisation, the Blue Diamond Society (BDS), there is cross-party consensus on LGBT equality in parliament, and the Supreme Court of Nepal ruled in 2007 that the government must repeal all laws that discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.

As a consequence, citizenship and ID documents now include the option of ‘third gender’ to address the demands of people who do not identify themselves as either male or female; Nepal has opened South Asia’s first LGBT community centre; MPs are considering the legalisation of same-sex marriage; and the openly gay leader of the BDS, Sunil Pant, was elected to the Constituent Assembly in 2008 and now hosts one of Nepal’s most popular TV talk shows. Progress indeed.

However, in large parts of the world, homophobic and transphobic oppression remains rife. It is estimated that the global LGBT population is somewhere between 250 million and 500 million people (5-10 percent of the world population aged over 16). Most of these people – hundreds of millions of them – are forced to hide their sexuality, fearing ostracism, harassment, discrimination, imprisonment, torture and even murder.

Some of this violence is perpetrated by vigilantes, including right-wing death squads in certain regions of countries like Mexico and Brazil. They justify the killing of queers as ‘social cleansing’. Other homophobic persecution is officially encouraged and enforced by governments, police, courts, media and religious leaders. MPs in Latvia, Ukraine, Lithuania, some Moldovan cities and several Russian regions have proposed or passed laws banning so-called homosexual propaganda and promotion.

In Russia, religious leaders have united to denounce the LGBT community. The Orthodox Church has called homosexuality a “sin which destroys human beings and condemns them to a spiritual death”. The Supreme Mufti of Russia’s Muslims, Talgat Tajuddin, says gay campaigners “should be bashed…Sexual minorities have no rights, because they have crossed the line. Alternative sexuality is a crime against God.” Russia’s Chief Rabbi, Berel Lazar, has condemned Gay Pride parades as “a blow for morality”, adding that there is no right to “sexual perversions”. Successive Moscow mayors have repeatedly banned Gay Pride marches. This violates Russia’s constitution and law, which guarantee freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest. LGBT people who have attempted to march have been beaten and arrested.

Meanwhile, the total criminalisation of homosexuality continues in nearly 80 countries – including most of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Middle East – with penalties ranging from a one-year jail sentence to life imprisonment. Half of these countries are former British colonies and current members of the Commonwealth – an association of nations that is supposedly committed to uphold democracy and human rights. The anti-gay laws in these Commonwealth nations were originally legislated by the British government in the 19th century during the period of colonial rule. They were never repealed when these nations won their independence from Britain.

As well as homophobic laws, British imperialism imposed homophobic prejudice by means of the fire-and-brimstone Christian fundamentalist missionaries who sought to ‘civilise’ the so-called ‘heathen’ peoples of the colonies. They instilled in these countries an intolerance of homosexuality that continues to this day. As a result, in part at least, homophobia is rampant in much of Africa.

In the last year, more than 20 men have been arrested in Cameroon on suspicion of homosexuality, often without any clear evi­dence that they had same-sex relations. Roger Jean-Claude Mbédé has spent a year in prison for sending an SMS text message to an­other man: “I’m very much in love w/u.” He is facing another two years behind bars in a filthy, insanitary prison where he suffers daily abuse from guards and inmates. In Nigeria, in 2005, six teenage lesbians, one only 12 years old, were ordered to be punished with an agonising 90 lashes for consensual same-sex relations. More recently, a Nigerian gay pastor from the House of Rainbow church and another Christian gay activist were forced to flee the country after receiving death threats. They were given no police protection. Government ministers in Namibia, echoing the hatred of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, have denounced lesbians and gays as “un-African”, as traitors and as spreaders of HIV/AIDS.

However, homophobic oppression is most extreme in the Islamist states that impose the death penalty for same-sex relations, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Mauritania, Sudan and Yemen. In some regions of other countries – such as Nigeria, Pakistan and Somalia – shariah law is enforced and LGBT people can be stoned to death. The Iranian persecution of LGBTs continues unabated. Twenty-two-year-old Amir was entrapped via a gay dating website. The person he arranged to meet turned out to be a member of the morality police. Amir was jailed, tortured and sentenced to 100 lashes, which caused him to lose consciousness and left his whole back covered in huge bloody welts. He is just one of many Iranian LGBTs who have been subjected to lashings, torture and imprisonment – and who are at risk of execution. In early 2006, Iran’s Gulf neighbour, the United Arab Emirates, imposed a six-year jail sentence on 11 gay men arrested at a private party. They were not imprisoned for sexual acts, but merely for being gay and attending a gay social gathering.

Iraq is an example of extreme persecution – LGBT Iraqis suffer even more today than they did under the dictator Saddam Hussein. A BBC investigation in 2012 revealed that the police have colluded with the targeted murder of up to 1,000 LGBT people by Islamist militias and death squads who seek the total extermination of ‘sexual deviants’. Gang rape, torture and detention without trial are also commonplace. The Iraqi government is denying or ignoring this homophobic terror campaign. Francesco Motta, the representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Iraq, says the Iraqi government is in violation of international law and its failure to take action against the killings makes the state an accomplice to the crime.

Amid this gloom, in 2008 something truly remarkable and historic happened: 66 countries signed a UN statement calling for the universal decriminalisation of homosexuality and condemning homophobic discrimination and violence. Although the statement fell short of majority support and is not binding on UN member states, this was the first time the UN General Assembly had addressed the issue of LGBT human rights. Previous attempts had been blocked by an unholy alliance of the Vatican and Islamist states.

In March 2011, a new version of the statement was signed by 85 countries. Three months later, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution condemning anti-LGBT discrimination and hate crimes, urging a UN report on the issue. The report, authored by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, was published in December 2011, and noted with concern: “Homophobic and transphobic violence has been recorded in all regions. Such violence may be physical (including murder, beatings, kidnappings, rape and sexual assault) or psychological (including threats, coercion and arbitrary deprivations of liberty).”

Despite these breakthroughs, even today no international hu­man rights convention specifically acknowledges love and sexual rights as human rights. None explicitly guarantees equality and non-discrimination to LGBT people. The right to love a person of one’s choice is absent from global humanitarian statutes. Relationships between partners of the same sex are not officially recognised in any international law. There is nothing in the many UN conventions that specifically upholds LGBT equality and prohibits homophobic discrimination. Some UN members and bodies have merely chosen to interpret the general commitments to equal rights and non-discrimination in the existing conventions as applying to LGBT people.

Likewise with regard to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). It is only in the last decade or so that the ECHR’s equality and privacy clauses have been interpreted to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. In the late 1990s, British LGBT citizens filed appeals at the European Court of Human Rights against the UK’s then discriminatory, homophobic laws. They cited the ECHR’s right to privacy and anti-discrimination clauses to successfully challenge anti-gay UK legislation dating back centuries. These victories in Strasbourg forced the British government to repeal the unequal age of consent for gay men, discriminatory sexual offences laws and the ban on lesbians and gays serving in the armed forces. ECHR judgements also successfully pressured other countries, such as Romania and Cyprus, to decriminalise homosexuality. The convention has thus played an important role in challenging and overturning homophobic legislation.

Of the 193 member states of the UN, only a handful have repealed nearly all major legal inequalities against LGBT people: the Netherlands, South Africa, Belgium, Spain, France, Brazil, Germany, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Portugal, Canada, New Zealand and, more recently, the UK.

Britain’s record was not always so positive. Until 1999, when legislative reform began, the UK had the largest number of homophobic laws of any country on earth – some of them dating back centuries. Thanks to an astute 20-year twin-track campaign of direct action protest and parliamentary lobbying, today the UK is one of the world’s most progressive countries on LGBT rights.

Some supposedly liberal democracies have been slow to grant LGBT equality. The USA maintains a federal ban on same-sex marriage and not all states have full anti-discrimination protection. The Australian parliament recently voted down a bill to allow same-sex couples to marry, even though such legislation has overwhelming public support. Most of the emergent post-communist Central and Eastern European democracies maintain varying degrees of legal discrimination – and harbour public attitudes that are extremely homophobic.

Despite this discrimination, LGBT people have made huge strides forward in many parts of the world. A mere four decades ago, ‘queers’ were almost universally seen as mad, bad and sad. Same-sex relations were deemed a sin, a crime and a sickness. It was only in the early 1990s that the World Health Organization declassified homosexuality as an illness, and that Amnesty International agreed to campaign for LGBT human rights and to adopt jailed LGBTs as prisoners of conscience.

Nowadays, the global tide is shifting in favour of LGBT emancipation. In 1999, in New Zealand, Georgina Beyer became the world’s first openly transgender MP. Uruguay, once a military dictatorship, has lifted its prohibition on gay servicemen and women. History has been made in Lebanon – the first Arab Middle East nation to allow the open, legal establishment of an LGBT welfare and human rights group, Helem.

While fundamentalist religion is still a major threat to LGBT equality, campaigners also have allies in many faiths. The anti-apartheid hero Archbishop Desmond Tutu has compared homophobia to racism, and described the battle for LGBT freedom as the moral equivalent of the fight against apartheid. Eight countries now outlaw sexual orientation discrimination in their constitutions: South Africa (1996), Ecuador (1998), Switzerland (2000), Sweden (2003), Portugal (2004), the British Virgin Islands (2007), Kosovo (2008) and Bolivia (2009).

In almost every country on earth, there are LGBT freedom movements – some open, others clandestine. For the first time ever, countries like the Philippines, Estonia, Columbia, Russia, Sri Lanka and China are hosting LGBT conferences and Gay Pride celebrations. Via the internet and pop culture, LGBT people in small towns in Ghana, Peru, Uzbekistan, Kuwait, Vietnam, St Lucia, Palestine, Fiji and Kenya are connecting with the worldwide LGBT community. The struggle for LGBT liberation has gone global. We’ve begun to roll back the homophobia of centuries. Bravo!

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About the author:

Peter Tatchell has campaigned for human rights and LGBT freedom since 1967. In 1999, he made a citizen’s arrest of the Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe, for human rights abuses.