Gay rights – a global perspective

“Ultimately, I think the Equal Protection Clause does guarantee same-sex marriage in all fifty states.” These were the words spoken by President Obama to the New Yorker in late October. His statement coincided with the Supreme Court rejection of a number of appeals, resulting in the legalisation of gay marriage in Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, North Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming. The addition of these six states means that, to date, thirty-two US states have now made same-sex marriage a legal act. “As far as I am concerned, LGBT can only stand for leprosy, gonorrhoea, bacteria and tuberculosis.” These were the words spoken by President Yahya Jammeh of Gambia in a televised speech this February. This August, Gambia’s national assembly passed a bill calling for life sentences for those found guilty of ‘aggravated homosexuality’. This term has not been clearly defined by anyone in the Gambian government, leading Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to express concern over the ambiguity of this legislation. 2014 has so far been a year of disappointments as well as victories for the gay rights campaign, and the problem is one the international community must tackle together.

In recent months there has been a worrying trend of anti-gay legislation spreading across the African continent. This January, President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria signed into law a bill punishing those who ‘promote’ homosexuality with 10 year prison sentences and those who engage in it with 14 years. The UN human-rights chief consequently stated that she had rarely seen a law that “in so few paragraphs directly violates so many basic, universal human rights.” Furthermore, in March of this year there were reports that four men were publically whipped for allegedly participating in homosexual activity. Following this, a Ugandan anti-gay bill, which had previously been rejected in 2009 after furious international response, resurfaced at the beginning of the year. Although the bill no longer called for the death penalty in cases of ‘aggravated homosexuality’ it still proposed long prison sentences and, as with Gambia, left lines over what could be considered ‘aggravated’ worryingly blurry. In February this bill was signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni and, although it was overturned on a technicality by Uganda’s constitutional court in August, is once again being redrafted. Chadian lawmakers have since proposed legislation calling for 15 to 20 year prison sentences for those found guilty of homosexual behaviour.

The gay rights controversy to have attracted most attention from British media in recent times, however, involves a British man in another African country, Morocco. British citizen, Ray Cole, is a 69 year old homosexual who was arrested alongside Moroccan national Jamal Jam Wald Nass on September 18 and given a prison sentence of four months. His son Adrian spoke in early October of how Ray’s living quarters saw him, “sharing with murderers, rapists, paedophiles,” for the ‘crime’ of his sexuality. Ray was released less than a month later thanks to the work of his family and lawyers, with some help from Moroccan authorities. This case drew public and media attention to the plight of gay individuals living and holidaying in Africa, yet in reality it had a happy ending in comparison to a vast majority of homosexuality sentences in a number of African countries.

A Human Rights Campaign Foundation and Human Rights First report from July serves to highlight this. The report found that in 37 out of 54 African countries same-sex relationships are still criminalised. Furthermore, in the four countries of Mauritania, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan the death penalty is in place for ‘crimes’ committed by LGBT people in all or parts of the country. Additionally, the report unearthed more shocking statistics about individual African countries. For example, in Cameroon more people are arrested based on sexual orientation than any other country in the world. The report found that only in one African country, South Africa, was marriage equality available to LGBT citizens. Following this report, the US Government faced calls from Amnesty International to promote an international agenda of LGBT rights at the US-Africa Leaders Summit that week. Despite these efforts, the summit seems to have made little impact.

It is not only in Africa that homophobic feeling has resulted in anti-gay legislation and the recent trend in harsher anti-gay bills is not limited to this region. It was announced as recently as 29 October that Singapore’s high court had chosen to uphold section 377(a) of penal code. Thus, men convicted of committing “or abet[ting] the commission of…any act of gross indecency” with another man can be reprimanded with up to two years in prison. While the Singaporean government has spoken to the UN of its acceptance of homosexuals and allows national gay-pride events such as the famous Pink Dot to continue, this is a setback for the rights of all gay men living in and visiting the country. In recent years, Russia has also been a source of homophobic legislation. Controversy surrounded the decision not to establish a Pride House at the Sochi Winter Olympic Games. In 2013 a law was passed banning the distribution of homosexual “propaganda” to minors.

Elsewhere, gay rights have had some victories in recent times. In India, homosexuality is becoming gradually more acceptable and the first national magazine for gay people, Pink Pages, was launched in 2009. Gay-pride parades have been growing in popularity in Vietnam since their inception in 2012, while bills legalising same-sex marriage nearly passed in both Vietnam and Thailand this year. Along with the legalisation of same-sex marriage in a number of US states, these victories bring some small comfort, and yet it is clear there is still much progress to be made before LGBT people can expect the equal rights they deserve.

In late October, former British Foreign Secretary William Hague called for Great Britain to use its influence in Commonwealth countries to help tackle anti-gay laws put in place there. He stated, “While we are making progress in Britain and elsewhere, the situation in many countries in the world is not only difficult, it is actually worsening.” Meanwhile, President Obama’s administration continues to face calls to promote gay rights on the international stage. Whether, in reality, Western dialogue on this matter would actually be welcome in states with anti-gay laws remains to be seen and appears unlikely. Indeed, President Yoweri Museveni accused critics of Uganda’s legislation of a form of colonialism and signed the bill in part to distance himself from Western values. Yet LGBT citizens around the world are still suffering as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identification. Homosexual acts remain illegal in a total of 80 countries worldwide. There needs to begin a more constructive dialogue in which anti-gay legislation is discouraged without states feeling dictated to or threatened. The international community cannot stay silent when thousands are being denied their fundamental rights.

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