As the Commonwealth Games start today amid much fanfare in Glasgow, Scotland, 42 of the 53 countries competing still criminalize homosexuality.
That’s not just awkward or embarrassing. It’s shameful.
The collection of former British Empire countries, under the titular leadership of Queen Elizabeth II, is supposed to be held together by friendship, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
But their anti-gay laws, mostly introduced by the British in its colonial era, demonstrate a complete abuse of human rights and international law. With friends like these, who needs enemies?
Should Scotland be ‘proud’ of hosting these 42 nations in the Commonwealth Games, the so-called ‘Friendly Games’? Or should modern nations like Scotland and Britain rather be ashamed of their association with these countries?
Just to be clear, this isn’t about abstract ‘laws’. The legislation wrecks LGBTI people’s lives, even leaving some of them dead.
Millions of our gay, bi and trans brothers and sisters risk police harassment and possible imprisonment, which may come with beatings and torture.
They are discriminated against at work, refused basic services and shunned at home. They suffer entrapment, blackmail and extortion.
They are targets of ‘honor’ killings, forced marriages, and ‘corrective’ rapes, alongside a range of other methods to ‘cure’ them of their sexuality or gender identity.
And when mob justice isn’t visited on them by their family, it is by the community. Homophobic and transphobic hate attacks are all too common.
Some are forced to flee, leaving them homeless with all the risks associated with that or even seeking asylum, where the countries they hope to find shelter often reject them, sending them back to potential death.
All this tells on their physical and mental health. Organizations are stopped from sharing information about sexual health, worsening HIV transmission rates, which hurts gay and straight people alike.
Remember that just yesterday the Jamaican LGBTI community, one of the Commonwealth’s most homophobic countries, marked one year since the brutal murder of trans teenager Dwayne Jones.
The Commonwealth Games are a catalyst in keeping the member countries together and are supposed to be founded on sporting values like respect, competition and non-discrimination.
Despite this, the games’ charter, although it bans discrimination at the games, fails to explicitly state homophobic discrimination is forbidden.
There are so many LGBTI athletes who might not feel comfortable to fully express themselves fearing this discrimination. Many might have been left out of the competition already by their respective countries
Gay sportspeople have started to come out, gradually changing the poisonously homophobic culture that has dominated professional competition for so long.
But there are so many LGBTI sport personalities in the Commonwealth who would like to come out fear they just wouldn’t be safe in their own countries if they did.
It is up to the UK, as host nation, the gay-friendly countries of the Commonwealth, the games organizers and the Commonwealth organization itself to step forward and support them as their own governments betray them.
And the gay-friendly Commonwealth nations and their athletes have a duty to stand up for LGBTI human rights.
Sport has long been used to advance rights, often very effectively: The black power salute given by sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Olympics in Mexico in 1968 helped change the organization’s attitudes to discrimination and focused global attention on racial hate.
We need athletes at these games, both gay and straight, to follow this brave and noble example – to serve LGBTI people who are unable to defend themselves.
And the Commonwealth as an institution needs to realize it can only stay relevant in the modern world if it addresses the issues that affect its own LGBTI citizens.
I am not calling for a boycott of the games, but for engagement and awareness building.
The Queen as the head of the Commonwealth must also help. She should in visit the Pride House in Glasgow, the LGBTI center for the games. She and her family should back charities fighting for equality for LGBTI people around the Commonwealth.
And the Queen should talk openly and positively about lesbians, gays, bisexual, transgender and intersex people and our contribution to society. This alone would make a huge difference to public attitudes around the Commonwealth.
Likewise, those celebrities performing at, attending and watching the games must also speak out, clearly and loudly. They too can make a difference.
The UK, Scotland in particular, will be bathing in the glory of hosting the games. I hope they are a success. But with that spotlight comes a responsibility.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron vowed to help defend LGBTI rights around the world. His promises have not, however, been backed with sufficient action. This is his chance to make amends.
Far from moving towards equality, we have seen many Commonwealth countries witch-hunt their LGBTI citizens and even tougher anti-gay laws have been recently legislated in countries like Uganda, Brunei and Nigeria.
It is time for us all to unite – we can’t allow our LGBTI brothers and sisters in the Commonwealth to suffer any longer.
Edwin Sesange is director of the African LGBTI Out and Proud Diamond Group.