Gay rights: a world of inequality

Published: September 13, 2011

Last Thursday, three men were hanged in Iran for the crime of lavat, sexual intercourse between two men. The case is considered extreme even by Iranian standards, because while the death penalty is in place for homosexuality, it is usually enforced only when there is a charge of assault or rape alongside it; the accusations in these three cases were of consensual sex.

In Uganda, politicians have been seeking since 2009 to institute a strikingly nasty piece of legislation: the death penalty for "aggravated homosexuality" (being homosexual more than once) and, in a totalitarian touch, penalties for teachers, doctors and even parents who suspected that someone in their care was gay but didn’t report them. In Belize, there is a law on the statute books that criminalises homosexuality; a gay rights group in the country, Unibam, has brought a motion challenging the law, and had this reply from the minister of works, Anthony "Boots" Martinez: "My position is that God never placed anything on me for me to look at a man and jump on a man. I’ll be clear on it … How would you decriminalise that, I am sorry, but that is law. Not only is the law made by man, that is a law made from the Bible. Why you think God made a man and a woman, man has what woman wants, and woman has what man wants, it’s as simple as that. I’ll fight tooth and nail to keep that law."

For lesbian and gay people who live in one of the 82 countries where homosexuality is criminalised, the world is not getting better: it is getting significantly, demonstrably worse. The irony – it’s actually not an irony, it’s a source of great shame, but it is also an unhappy coincidence – is that 40 of these countries are members of the Commonwealth, and this is a British export. Homosexuality was criminalised here in the 1880s, and was therefore part of our legislative package in the age of empire. By the time it was decriminalised in England and Wales in the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 (Scotland followed in 1980 and Northern Ireland in 1982), we no longer had any control over Commonwealth jurisdictions. The repeal came after a report by Lord Wolfenden in 1957; if its findings had only been enacted more swiftly, today unnumbered people across the Commonwealth – at an estimate, more than a million – would be living entirely different lives. Jonathan Cooper, CEO of the Human Dignity Trust, says: "The human misery that criminalisation causes can never be overestimated. The impact on lesbian and gay people growing up, you cannot overestimate what it does to people living under those laws, even if they’re not being prosecuted. Just the fact that the rest of society is denied to them, they have no access to it."

That’s the bad news. Incredibly, for a story like this, there is also good news. Apart from specific campaigning bodies such as Stonewall and more general human rights agencies such as Amnesty, there is a new crop of organisations trying to tackle this in a different way. This isn’t another story about new media taking on old battles, though an awe-inspiring Facebook campaign, We Are Everywhere, has gained ground since the hangings last week. But two groups in particular are taking the old-fashioned routes of top-level pressure and the rule of law. Kaleidoscope is described by its director, Lance Price, thus: "First, we’re being driven by the experience of the people in the countries we’re talking about. If you look at any country in the world where there has been progress, it started with a small group of people who had the courage to stand up. It’s their struggle, these are their countries. Second, the people involved have been active in politics at a very high level [Price is a former adviser to Tony Blair], or active in the civil service at a very high level. I’m not bragging. But we’re working all the time on behalf of people who struggle to have a voice, and we can bring them to the attention of powerful people who do make decisions, in their own countries and here."

It’s not lobbying, exactly; it’s not diplomacy, but it is characterised by "quiet conversations with people who can make a difference. We’re going to have to engage with people, quietly, rather than shouting at them."

The other group, the Human Dignity Trust, is not a campaigning organisation either. It is not there to raise awareness and is not even there to put pressure on governments. It is setting out to change the law, in the Commonwealth and beyond, on the basis that it is a breach of international human rights to criminalise someone’s sexual identity.

With a few exceptions – Saudi Arabia being one – all the countries that criminalise homosexuality are signed up to either the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or they are bound by test case rulings in their respective courts. "This is a matter of law," Cooper says. "Once you’re not following the law, you’re undermining the rule of law." This is reflected in the list of the trust’s patrons – the former attorney general of India; the former secretary general of the Commonwealth; Lord Woolf, former lord chief justice of England and Wales; and a former judge at the Intra-American court of human rights. "They are not pursuing this as part of a lesbian and gay agenda. It’s an international rights law agenda," says Cooper.

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