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International Gay Rights - A Distant Dream?

08/09/2016 16:48
Andrejs Zemdega via Getty Images

Fear doesn't often show itself in the way we think it should. The teeth don't rattle, the eyes don't bulge and hair rarely stands on end. You can be sat opposite a person who is fractured by fear but their smile and humour would never betray it. It would cost too much if it did. Perched at the edge of a faded sofa, the slim man who was laughing with me as we sat in gay safe-house in Kampala, Uganda, was the picture of gentle, elegant calm. It wasn't until I asked, 'so, how bad does it get?' did the smile falter. He fell silent. I then watched a solitary tear well in the corner of his eye, and once full, course over his cheek and then drop to the floor. It got bad. With only the scratchy hum of the reality music show on the television in the back of the room for noise, I just watched tear after tear queue up and then take sorrow's path to the smeared tiles below. After a few minutes he looked up and stared at me had through fierce eyes. Once he knew he could trust me he spoke uninterrupted for almost half an hour. His story was one of beatings, harassment, abandonment, forced marriage, daily threats and soul-piercing terror.

After an hour I got up, shook his hand and left the building. I stood in the front garden, still. My mind was too congested to think straight, so I just glared at the roses who looked exhausted as they struggled to survive in their dried, muddy beds.

I was there in my capacity as the deputy director of a UK based international gay rights charity. I couldn't match his mountainous bravery, but I could try and do something. It was 2012 and our cause was the cause of the day. It suddenly became an accepted truth that to be denied the right to live the way you were born was a bad thing. The collective conscience (of the west, at least) had an 'oh yeah' moment - decades late, but it happened. Uganda is one of the seventy-six countries in the world where being gay is illegal. Five execute for it. We shouted from the rooftops and people listened; the media were ravenous for any stories we had. We had gentle words with people in the corridors of power in London, Paris, Berlin and Washington and policies started to change - or be formed. We held events and they queued out of the door to get in. I thought that maybe, just maybe we could be at the start of something - I could be doing something to help the man in Kampala with his tears.

But I didn't. I know that his fear - and the fear of millions - remains, and it may have grown stronger. He probably is still no closer to being able to love the way he was born to and remains a victim of abuse. His basic right to live a life free from fear, under the protection of the law, does not exist. A few countries have softened, but more have hardened: Brunei has instituted the death penalty; India has recriminalized homosexuality; Russia and its ideological brethren continue to use the gay community as whipping boys.

Four years on, the editors have moved on to other things. The politicians have serious in-trays. But I feel that something has changed within those organisations based in the west, self-tasked to fight on behalf of the silent. A gentrification has set in and tack has changed from confrontation to conversation. Talking is always good, but the cause is so new, the suffering so raw, that if we stop shouting its horrors, and searing our message upon the popular consciousness, the governments will feel little pressure to act. We must take part of the blame. I feel as though we have set down our loud-speaker and picked up our neck-tie.

But if we do we do start wailing again, will we just be shouting into the wind? Post-Iraq, post-Brexit and mid-ISIS it seems that our old audience has become weary, sceptical even, of these issues and people outside of the circle of things that directly affect their daily lives. The major politicians (and those hoping to be so) no longer speak of internationalism as a good thing. Are we entering an insular age when we accept the horrors of others as 'something those types do?' We seem to have flung a wall around our version of the world, and we have built it high. Without tacit support from our own countries, our fight becomes almost impossible: we were hardly received with open arms and bear-hugs by the governments (and at times, civil society groups) in countries we were trying to encourage to change - I was called a 'damned Imperialist' several times. I don't think Britain will ever be able to shake the neo-colonialist suspicion. And what can we really do? When Obama is publicly snubbed in Kenya on the issue, the futility of our moral force is laid bare.

My fear is that the international gay rights campaign will ultimately stall and fail. We may have to face the desperate reality that we can do nothing to stop the moral outrage and carnage. Change will eventually come - of that I am sure. Change, however, always has to come from within and there may be little positive we can do to influence it.

Not a day goes by when I don't think about that dusty afternoon in Kampala. I feel guilt for the way I live, the peace I go to sleep with every night and for the fear I will never have to endure. But most of all I feel shame that I or we can't really help.

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