World leaders in LGBTI rights debated the biggest LGBTI issues at the Gay Star Travel Expo today (17 January).
Veteran human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, Nigerian activist Bisi Alimi and Ugandan gay rights campaigner Edwin Sesange discussed the question: ‘Are we winning or losing the fight for LGBTI rights worldwide.
National Aids Trust CEO Deborah Gold chaired the debate.
Alimi began by questioning what ‘success’ is, saying 14% of young LGBTI people are homeless in the UK.
‘Nigeria lives in a state of confusion, they think they’ve got homosexuals so they need to do something. This is a success, because it provides a space for us. If it is not written, we can’t challenge it.
‘I’d rather not look at it in the Europe, America ways of “winning or losing”, but in a balanced perspective.
‘Where is it that we have a lot of work to do? Africa has put gay rights on the map, so we can now have a conversation about it.’
Tatchell said if you looked at the news, the impression is we are going backwards on a global scale. But he considered it’s actually a minority of countries in the world that are enacting these homophobic laws. And in those countries where homophobia is written in law, there are people there that are winning small victories, such as the Russian court cases.
‘We are, overall as an international LGBTI movement, is making progress and the backlash, sadly, is to be expected,’ he said.
‘Whenever anything moves forward, there is always backlash. Backlash is vile, we must try and fight it, it is a sign that we are winning. If we weren’t making progress, enemies would leave us alone. We will eventually win.’
Sesange questioned what our goal is as part of the LGBTI community, and said even in Britain that we have not achieved complete success.
‘Who can freely kiss his or her partner in Trafalgar Square without looking around?
‘We know what are in these laws, but what about the stigma that has been created? We’ve forgotten that pro-gay laws does not mean people are going to feel safe.
‘Without addressing that, we’re going to take many years to feel safe in our communities.’
From the audience, where there was standing room only at the room in Heaven in London, a question was asked what dimension – political, financial, religious or social – would most effectively reduce discrimination.
Alimi said: ‘None take priority over another. South Africa has the most amazing law in paper, the most liberal and inclusive laws in the world that protects the rights of LGBTI people. But are LGBTI people protected? No,’ he said.
‘The problem I have with laws is that once you have equality in law, you are forced as an activist to shut up. But once there is that legal challenge, you can also address the social issues.’
Tatchell said organized religion is the single biggest cause of discrimination against women and LGBTI people.
He said we need religious allies as they hold greater weight than LGBTI people in their own countries or indeed LGBTI people in the West.
‘So many of them have a faith, and that faith leads them to homophobia, so when religious leaders speak out against it carries extra power and strength,’ he said.
‘The other issue is tourism. So much of the global south depends on Western tourism. LGBTI people won’t go to anti-gay countries, and neither will straight allies.
‘There is also an argument for the LGBTI brain drain, the fact that when LGBTI people leave countries where there is severe persecution and go to places that are more LGBTI friendly, it weakens the home economy.’
Alimi agreed, saying in his research he has found a country’s GDP could be weakened by 1-2% alone by the exodus of LGBTI people
But if people think Western companies refusing to do business in Africa is the answer, the African activists agreed.
Both Sesange and Alimi said if Western multinationals don’t work in Africa, then China easily will – and they said China doesn’t care if those countries discriminate against LGBTI people.
The activists said we must remember that if we want to help those living in anti-LGBTI countries, then we must support the straight allies.
Alimi said: ‘When I came out on Nigerian national television, the show got cancelled. This was a show that had been running for 15 years.
‘The woman that allowed me to come out, she risked her life in 2004, she lost her job, she lost everything and was forced to move to the UK.
‘What did she get in thanks from us? Nothing. We need to give these straight allies platforms, because they will create an opportunity for 10 other straight allies.
‘We need straight people to stand up, speak, say this is my brother, and I’m comfortable with my sexuality to say that being gay is a natural thing. Those are the role models for positive change in Africa.’
‘We need to look at our strategies as individuals as well as organizations,’ Sesange said.
‘We need more allies. Don’t preach to the converted, we need to go out and bring the unconverted to us.’
When asked about hate crime in the UK, Tatchell said education is the key to breaking down LGBTI discrimination.
‘What we need is Equality and Diversity as a mandatory part of primary and secondary school, so all children develop with an understanding of people who are different from them,’ he said.
‘As we all know, no one is born bigoted. You can only become bigoted because of the negative influences around them. If we win hearts and minds, the law then doesn’t matter.’
The activists were all asked what, as individuals, could people do to help persecuted LGBTI people.
Alimi said: ‘I don’t think a lot of African LBTI people need white people to be in control of their own fate, but what you can do is support with your skills.
‘Any expertise is great. I’ve met many people who can safeguard emails, websites, good with computers.
‘I want to open a queer library in Nigeria, filled with books on the black and African LGBTI movement. Do you have books you’re not reading? Give them to me, I will send them to Nigeria.
‘So the next time someone tells someone homosexuality is un-‘African’, that person can say there was a king from Uganda who was gay.
‘We don’t need you on the front line, just give us the backup.’
Tatchell said: ‘The most important thing to show solidarity with LGBTI people in those countries who are leading the fight within their own culture.
‘They are in the strongest position to make change, they are the ones that really need support.
‘Many organizations are underfunded. If you can provide money for a computer, or a mobile phone or a camera, the cost of running an office, that would make a huge difference.’
Closing the debate, Tatchell added: ‘It does look grim in many countries but in all of them there are heroic, brave LGBTI defenders and straight allies who are fighting back.
‘No matter how bleak it is, they have the guts and determination. That is cause for great hope.
‘Queer liberation is an unstoppable global trend. It may be long delayed, but it can no longer be denied.’
The debate followed an earlier discussion at the Gay Star Travel Expo, which featured Labour’s Lord Cashman, Liberal Democrats’ Baroness Barker and Conservative’s Crispin Blunt MP on the topic of global LGBTI rights.