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GT exclusive: Nick Clegg confronts Commonwealth homophobia

Deputy PM confronts gay rights as games start


Last night saw the launch of the 20th Commonwealth Games, this time round in Glasgow. The launch was a pretty gay affair, as it happened – from John Barrowman snogging a fella, to an opening intro by lesbian comic Karen Dunbar and shouts of "here's to equality!" Take that, the 42 Commonwealth countries who still criminalise homosexuality.

It's that issue that Nick Clegg wanted to chat about. Shortly before he took his place in the stalls for the opening ceremony, the Deputy PM gave GT Towers a ring. "This is the Downing Street switchboard. We have the Deputy Prime Minister on the line for you," came the call. Well, that was rather more notable than the usual mix of drag queens and old women we get calling in.

"Sport means so much to so many people around the world," Clegg began, "it invokes devotion in so many people, so it’s especially important that LGBT rights are properly secured in sports as much as in any other walk of life."

He's right, of course. Yet 42 of the Commonwealth nations still criminalise homosexuality in some way – from the extremes of life imprisonment and death in places like Uganda and Barbados, to prison sentences in the likes of Singapore, the Seychelles and India.

But what can he do about it? "The Commonwealth isn’t one organisation which can rewrite the laws of its members. So, I don’t think we can somehow ask the Commonwealth to do things that it is not empowered to do." A fact that's true, if not highly frustrating. We are meant to hold great influence with such countries, after all. "What I do think is important is just as we come together as a Commonwealth to celebrate sporting excellence, we mustn’t forget that we do so as a group of countries who are united, not just by history and affinity but by shared values.

"There is a commitment to non-discrimination and to to tackle discrimination of all kinds, yet the fact of course is not remotely conforming to the promise, and that is why it is right that people like me politely but firmly, respectfully but consistently point out that if the Commonwealth is going to live up to its values, it must call a spade a spade and say that where there is discrimination taking place – and in some countries it is taking place on a greater scale against LGBT communities – and we as representatives of these Commonwealth countries want that changed."

One Commonwealth champion who recently came out is Ian Thorpe. Someone the Lib Dem leader was only too keen to praise. "Ian Thorpe is a hero to many many young people around the world who have followed his extraordinary feats as an athlete. When he [Ian Thorpe] said 'I’ve been living a lie, I felt so intimidated and ashamed to come out to people and wrote a biography about myself I didn’t really be honest about myself and now I must' I just think that’s a really powerful example of searing honesty from someone who is a role model to many people around the world.

"Nicola Adams and Tom Daley, these are people who many many youngsters look up to so when they say ‘Look we are gay and we are comfortable about it now' that really helps moralise young people around the world."

The Commonwealth charter exists to prevent discrimination in its lands. But while it mentions gender and race, it omits to mention sexual orientation – one of the most severe forms of discrimination in said countries.

"The British Government have always felt that a more generic language on non-discrimination always must include LGBT rights and sexuality. It doesn’t specifically but we have always chosen to say that you cannot sign up to generic language on non-discrimination then somehow pretend that that doesn’t apply to issues of sexuality."

Getting fair legal representation isn't the only issue that faces gay men across the Commonwealth. AIDS is a major issue, and the shooting down of flight MH17 saw the loss of great life, including that of more than 100 on their way to an AIDS conference.
 
"It’s just heartbreaking obviously for every single friend and family of those people who were lost in that terrible incident. Not only have they lost loved ones but they are also unsure if their loved ones’ remains have been treated with the respect that they need to be treated with."

Nick Clegg also reveals that a man he knew had been killed. "I know of one person who lost their life on that flight, I know that there were many international but also many European activists who were on their way to that AIDS conference and they will be very sorely missed. I know him as someone who was a Dutch activist in the Liberal party, I don’t personally know him but I was very touched by the grief of other people who knew him better than I did."

Clegg's words are clearly welcome. He has also undertaken a policy review within his party on LGBT issues, which is due to feed back over the summer.
 
Words: Benjamin Butterworth @benjaminbutter

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