LGBTI activists in many parts of the world will look back on 2013 as one of the worst years in memory for the cause of equal rights. In countries as far apart as Uganda and India, Russia and Australia, organizations and human rights defenders have been trying to assess the damage and work out new strategies to make 2014 a year of progress rather than retreat.
Many of the worst blows came in the closing weeks of 2013. In a long-awaited decision, the Indian Supreme Court effectively re-criminalized homosexuality, overturning an earlier ruling in Delhi.
Hot on its heels, the Australian Capital Territory’s brief experiment with equal marriage came to an abrupt halt after just four days. An unfavorable court ruling found in favor of federal laws that continue to ban same-sex marriage.
Nigeria came a step closer to enacting the ‘Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Bill’. Its real target appears to be to outlaw LGBTI groups and organizations.
And the Ugandan parliament passed a modified version of the so-called ‘Kill the Gays’ Bill. Although the death penalty was removed, life imprisonment would still apply in cases of so-called ‘aggravated homosexuality’ and the prohibitions on ‘promoting homosexuality’ will make the work of human rights defenders and health professionals considerably more difficult if the president signs the act into law.
These setbacks followed the passing of Russian anti-propaganda laws earlier in the year and together cast a long shadow over the successes enjoyed by LGBTI people elsewhere in 2013.
Some hard thinking is required on how best to fight for the rights of LGBTI people in 2014. But we shouldn’t be disheartened. From every defeat the community has learned lessons and there is plenty of reason for hope that the coming year will see LGBTI activists moving forward with renewed strength and determination.
At the Kaleidoscope Trust we continue to believe the core of any strategy for 2014 is the need to listen to and support the work of local activists.
In many places opponents of LGBTI rights have far more resources than pro-LGBTI campaigners. We can begin to address that through directly supporting local organizations, their international counterparts and through lobbying our governments to do more to support the work of LGBT rights activists in countries where they face criminalization and social discrimination.
While aid conditionality remains a blunt and highly contentious tool, there remain numerous intelligent, targeted funding options for progressive governments to use in supporting LGBT rights. The Kaleidoscope Trust continues to advocate for greater UK support of domestic LGBT organizations and in 2014 will be doing so renewed vigor.
It is also important to remember that things that appear to be failures often also contain in them the kernel of success.
While the Supreme Court ruling in India is undoubtedly a blow, the long fight to overturn Section 377 – the colonial era law criminalizing ‘unnatural sex’ – has built a robust, sophisticated and vibrant civil society.
The prominence of the ruling has allowed a public debate on the rights of LGBT people that in itself is valuable and is working to change hearts and minds. The ruling has been contested by not only by LGBT people and organizations, but also by high profile Indian politicians and celebrities, while the Indian government itself is petitioning the court to review the ruling.
The implementation of Russia’s ‘anti-propaganda’ laws undoubtedly acted to propel the issue of LGBTI rights onto the international stage as never before, marking the battle for rights of LGBTI as a mainstream international human rights concern and acting to mobilize support from ever widening quarters.
Although the fight to have the laws repealed will almost certainly be a long one, President Putin’s recent pardons for the members of Pussy Riot, the Greenpeace 30 and for former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky shows the Russian government is not as immune to international opinion as we might have feared. Whether his sensitivity will last beyond the Sochi Winter Olympics is another matter, however.
In resisting the implementation of the laws in Nigeria and Uganda, there remains a role for international pressure, that is intelligent, targeted and well thought out.
While public condemnation by pro-LGBT governments may act to entrench opposition to LGBT rights, there is a role for continued private diplomacy and for continued pressure on supportive governments to exercise what levers of influence they can to resist the signing of these bills and to support LGBT communities should they become law. Individuals can join this struggle by contacting their own political representatives and urging them to support LGBT rights internationally.
Amidst this we also perhaps need a renewed focus on shifting public opinion – and finding ways to support local activists in engaging their fellow citizens and building a broader base of support.
While strategies that focus on challenging laws through court challenges and encouraging legislators to pass LGBTI-friendly laws remain key tools in defending our communities, these need to be supported by campaigns aimed at engaging public opinion and making the case for LGBTi equality.
There is of course, already much work being done on the ground by LGBT activists, but the work of changing hearts and minds is long and arduous and perhaps requires more international support than it is receiving. That is why the Kaleidoscope Trust continues to work on the ground with activists to support them to find effective ways to have their voices heard domestically and internationally.
Australia is a key example however, showing that popular opinion is not always enough to force legislative change – for the moment in any case.
Polls of the Australian public regularly return majority support for equalizing access to marriage – currently somewhere between 64 and 68% of Australians support equal marriage, a figure that is not replicated in the federal parliament where factional interests and lobbies have held sway. The fight for equal marriage is far from over in Australia, and it is perhaps only a matter of time until political sentiment catches up with public opinion.
Leading on from this is the continuing need to link the struggles of gay, bi, trans and intersex people to wider human rights challenges. In Russia, for example, laws that act to silence LGBTI people are part of a wider assault on the public sphere aimed at suppressing opposition to the government. The more often the case can be made that the rights of LGBTI people are not ‘special rights’ and that they are inextricably linked to the rights of every one, the more can we build broad-based support for LGBT communities.
Looking ahead to 2014 there are several key cases where we can be hopeful of positive change. Legal challenges to anti-LGBTI laws continue to be a vital tool in the fight for social change and 2014 will see several cases that, if successful, will go a long way to overcome the setbacks of 2013.
The Belize Supreme Court is due to return a ruling on the constitutionality of its anti-sodomy laws, which if positive could have ramifications for the entire Caribbean.
Meanwhile, Trinidad and Tobago join Belize in facing a legal challenge by Jamaican LGBT activist Maurice Tomlinson, who is contesting those countries’ absurd travel restrictions for homosexuals. Tomlinson is also at the center of the first ever domestic challenge to Jamaica’s sodomy laws, in a case that is due to be heard later in 2014.
Meanwhile, the High Court of Malawi is currently reviewing the country’s anti-sodomy laws, opening the possibility the country, which has already made overtures in this direction, may move to overturn its anti-LGBTI laws.
Each of these cases offers the opportunity not only of positive legal change, but ongoing public debate over the rights of LGBTI people.
Beyond the world of legal challenges, the Sochi Olympics in February will provide an almost unparalleled global platform to promote the rights of LGBTI people in Russia and to highlight the iniquity of the Russian anti-propaganda laws.
The focus on the Russian government’s attack on the rights of LGBTI people, and on human rights in general, will massively increase in the run up to the Olympics. The challenge will be to retain the initiative once the games move on and to find ways to ensure that our Russian counterparts continue to be supported in their struggle.
Glasgow’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games in July will be another opportunity to shine a light on the challenges faced by LGBTI people globally.
While Scotland is expected to pass equal marriage laws early in 2014, the Commonwealth contains some of the most homophobic countries in the world – 42 of its 53 member states have laws that ban gay sex and act to criminalize LGBTI people. Some 92% of Commonwealth citizens live in countries that criminalize LGBT people. The 2014 Commonwealth Games gives activists – and the British public – a chance to engage with the Commonwealth and its members over this.
So while the passing of the old year leaves us feeling bruised, we should not lose our determination. There continues to be an important role for the international community in this fight, though it is a role that needs to be tempered with respect for local specificity and expertise.
The struggle for equality is a long one, but 2014 offers plenty of opportunity for substantial wins.
Alistair Stewart is the Assistant Director of the Kaleidoscope Trust, a UK based charity working internationally to uphold the rights of LGBT people. He will be speaking at the Gay Star Beach Party and LGBTI Travel Show panel event Global LGBTI activism: Are we doing good or harm? on 18 January at 3pm. Download free tickets for the event on 18 and 19 January in central London, including the panel debate, here.