In April, the Commonwealth summit will be held in London, bringing together the heads of government of the Commonwealth of Nations.
The UK has a responsibility to defend the rights of LGBTQ people. We also retain the status as the largest economy within the Commonwealth, followed by India, Canada and then Australia. Whilst, following the Brexit referendum, the summit will be seen as an opportunity to shore up or revitalise trading links, we must highlight the ongoing issues LGBTQ people face within the Commonwealth and apply pressure to Commonwealth leaders to repeal anti-LGBTQ legislation.
This is an opportunity for the UK to show real leadership in terms of global LGBTQ rights.
Unfortunately, the UK left a framework of homophobic colonial-era legislation. Nearly all of Britain’s former colonies were impacted. This legislation continues to facilitate violence against LGBTQ people and limits access to healthcare today. Of the 53 Commonwealth member states, 37 still have laws which criminalise homosexuality to some extent.
Furthermore, the UK’s footprint, in terms of homophobic legislation, is more marked than that of other former European colonial powers, such as France and Portugal. Britain directly exported homophobic legislation on ‘sodomy’, ‘attempted sodomy’ and ‘gross indecency’ between men. A number of French colonies, in contrast, did not receive criminalisation of homosexuality laws.
At the end of January the Kaleidoscope Trust hosted a conference of 35 activists (including 25 international guests) from The Commonwealth Equality Network (TCEN). TCEN comprises 45 NGOs in 42 countries working collectively to champion equality and human rights for LGBTQ people. It is the only LGBTQ organisation officially accredited by the Commonwealth.
It was interesting listening to the Commonwealth LGBTQ activists. I knew, for example, that in 2014 the Ugandan government attempted to bring in an Anti-Homosexuality Act, overturned only on a technicality. At the conference I learned that the situation around LGBTQ rights within the Commonwealth is more nuanced than I had previously thought.
Frank Mogisha, a well-known Ugandan activist, had experienced violence which would be unimaginable to most LGBTQ people in the UK, but he was keen to emphasise that progress was being made. Uganda has a very liberal constitution, but this is not the lived reality for Ugandan LGBTQ people. There are huge regional variations in the treatment of LGBTQ people. He stressed that he wanted to involve everyone in the conversation around LGBTQ rights, not just allies.
Frank felt that he was part of a process which was slowly affecting change and reported positive conversations with legislators, law enforcers and health practitioners in his own country. His speech left me feeling more optimistic about what could be achieved for LGBTQ people in Africa and also with a sense that there is a shared global LGBTQ commonality of experience.
It is vital that we work with activists on the ground, so that our Liberalism does not appear as another colonial imposition. One activist cited David Cameron’s intervention in 2011, when he threatened to withhold aid from countries persecuting LGBTQ people. Whilst global awareness around the issue was raised, LGBTQ people living in the country were negatively impacted. There is the danger that LGBTQ rights are perceived, or misrepresented by anti-LGBTQ groups, as ‘foreign’ or ‘Western.’ A balance should be maintained when speaking up for global LGBTQ rights, so that we empower rather than weaken local campaigners.
It is important to show solidarity with Commonwealth LGBTQ activists in condemning homophobia and transphobia. We must also ensure that we reflect their voices.
As we get closer to the summit it will be possible to attend pro-LGBTQ rallies. Writing to your MP and expressing your concern is another way in which you can directly impact the views of UK legislators. They are your elected representatives.
The main message that I took away from these inspirational activists is that they are keen for our support, but that we must work with them and alongside them, emphasising the positive change they have already achieved.