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Comment: 2015 was a tale of two lives for LGBT people

Jonathan Cooper December 31, 2015
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Jonathan Cooper of the Human Dignity Trust reflects on the advancements of LGBT rights in 2015.

2015 was the year that changed everything. For the first time by popular mandate the people embraced equal marriage for all as Ireland voted yes to same sex marriage.

On a level the vote was about enabling same sex couples to marry, but it was much more profound than that.

It was a recognition of LGBT equality by the people, and, therefore, it symbolises a huge milestone, something that was inconceivable a few years earlier.

The US Supreme Court also upheld a right to equal marriage, and the law and Constitution were understood to guarantee that right.

But before we delude ourselves over the state of the world, the year ended with the people of Slovenia via a referendum rejecting same-sex marriage.

Earlier in 2015 anti-equality Slovaks had also tried to scupper same sex marriage, but due to the low turn out, the vote was invalid. The Vatican, led by the Pope, had called to reject these moves towards equality.

At the same time, in 2015 the European Court of Human Rights in a case against Italy upheld a private life right to the recognition of same sex civil partnerships, but rejected arguments for equal marriage.

Reflecting back on 2015 leaves us asking the question, does LGBT equality inevitably end up with marriage? The answer would appear to be no, although for many the simplest affirmation of LGBT equality is marriage.

However, as long as LGBT couples are not discriminated against in relation to the benefits of marriage, the momentous developments of 2015 do not alter the status quo.

Equal marriage remains in the gift of a benign and compassionate state, even if we are moving towards a point where some LGBT people can feel confident in our entitlement to equality.

These are very distant, meaningless discussions for the 2.9 billion people who live in jurisdictions that continue to criminalise homosexuality. For the LGBT people amongst them, aspirations of equality are a distant dream. Ending their persecution is the priority.

2015 saw the number of states that criminalise homosexuality drop from 79 to 78. Mozambique updated its criminal law and made it fit for the 21st century, and by doing so removed all references to criminalising intimacy between consenting adults of the same sex.

2015 also witnessed legal activism in Botswana and Kenya where local LGBT NGOs established the right to be registered. The importance of these two cases cannot be overestimated and they fundamentally acknowledge that the constitutions of both Botswana and Kenya apply equally to everyone.

The year ended with Malawi dismissing criminal charges against a gay couple and introducing a moritorium on future prosecutions. Such moritoria don’t end LGBT persecution but they are a step in the right direction.

There were no major shocks in 2015. No new laws were passed targeting and tormenting the LGBT community, but a new NGO Act reached the statute book in Uganda which will significantly undermine the work of LGBT organisations there.
Comment: 2015 was a tale of two lives for LGBT people
Pernicious anti-gay laws still hover in Central Asia and parts of Eastern Europe. Nigeria still maintains its cruel law, and Putin’s Russia remains resolute in its shaming of LGBT people.

And, of course, across the globe LGBT people are still subject to violence, hostility, hatred and discrimination. The trans community continues to be subjected to extraordinary levels of violence, including murder. Impunity still flourishes.

Just a few weeks ago there was a momentary glimmer of hope of leadership from India, when a private members bill to decriminalise homosexuality was proposed, albeit that it was rejected. However, it suggests the start of a process that could transform the world.

In 2015 the UN continued to provide leadership which engaged on a number of levels, including UN institutions themselves firmly rejecting homophobia. At that global level, from the Secretary General to the High Commissioner for Human Rights, we can be certain that our voices are heard and heeded.

And what of the British government?

The British Prime Minister remains committed to LGBT equality. He continues to be appalled by the criminalisation of LGBT people across the globe, and we anticipate that his government will in part measure its success on addressing this issue.

That said, Commonwealth leaders met just last month, and, despite the fact that 40 of the 53 members of the Commonwealth continue to criminalise, which in turn means that the Commonwealth is disproportionately affected by the AIDS pandemic, there is no evidence that progress towards ending LGBT persecution was made.

We look to Cameron and his government, and the Foreign Office in particular, to do all they can to end this misery, whilst at the same time supporting those who have sought protection from persecution. More does need to be done for LGBT asylum seekers, including those who are caught up in other conflicts and catastrophes.

The one British institution that continues to stand out in 2015 in the way in which it relentlessly supports LGBT people is the UK House of Lords.

Additionally, the newly formed All Party Parliamentary Group on global LGBT rights will make a significant difference. Westminster has a lot to answer for in relation to LGBT persecution, but all the main political parties of this current Parliament are resolute in their determination to do what they can to set right the errors of the past.

Foreign governments play a delicate role, but it must be balanced and coherent. That said, inevitably, the outcome of the US election in 2016 will have an impact on the lives of LGBT people around the world.

As the New Year approaches there is reason for hope. With support, more governments might follow the example of Mozambique, and activists can take heart from the victories in Kenya and Botswana.

The vibrancy of the LGBT civil society movement in countries where people are criminalised is extraordinary. These groups and individuals should be celebrated.

Outstanding work is being carried out in the Caribbean, across Africa and in Asia where individual activists do their best to join together and battle against all the odds. The movement needs to remain led by those who are directly affected.

It is worthwhile reflecting that barely 30 years ago the Irish tyrannised their LGBT community. And now for all of us everywhere what we have learned from the Irish referendum is that we are loved, valued and cherished.

Jonathan Cooper is Chief Executive of the Human Dignity Trust.

More: Africa, Equality, Gay, LGBT, Pride, Rights, Sexuality

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