The Commonwealth is a bastion of homophobia. Thirty-six of the 53 member states criminalise same-sex relationships, with penalties ranging up to life imprisonment in in nine countries and the risk of execution in parts of two, Pakistan and Nigeria.
Despite this outrageous persecution, the biennial Commonwealth summit has for six decades refused to debate, let alone support, LGBT+ equality. This year is no different. As the summit convened in London, once again LGBT+ rights were excluded from the leader’s agenda.
In response, LGBT+ people are saying to the Commonwealth: Time’s up on blocking debate. Time’s up on homophobic criminalisation, discrimination and violence.
So why are the majority of Commonwealth leaders so bigoted and intransigent? It’s a combination of ignorance, prejudice, machismo, religion and political opportunism: they calculate that votes can be won from homophobic electors.
But none of this is an excuse for anti-LGBT+ laws.
In accordance with many of their own constitutions and with the human rights principles of the Commonwealth Charter, governments have an obligation to end the state-sanctioned persecution of more than 100 million LGBT+ people who live in 36 Commonwealth countries where being gay is a crime – and where there is no legal protection against discrimination in employment, housing, education and health care.
This persecution makes a mockery of the human rights values that all member states have signed and pledged to uphold.
Despite most Commonwealth leaders being determined to keep LGBT+ rights off the official agenda of their summit in London this week, campaigners made sure the issue has not been ignored or silenced. It has been the background buzz issue for days.
In the Commonwealth Forums, the civil society side events running parallel to the leader’s summit, LGBT+ equality had a high profile. And there’s been masses of media coverage too, with Tom Daley’s public appeal for the decriminalisation of homosexuality across the whole Commonwealth making a major splash.
The week before the summit began, a petition signed by a staggering 104,115 people, was delivered to Commonwealth HQ.
It urged all Commonwealth nations to:
- Decriminalise same-sex relations
- Prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity
- Enforce laws against threats and violence, to protect LGBT+ people from hate crimes
- Consult and dialogue with national LGBT+ organisations
Then, in response to intensive lobbying by myself and others, the Prime Minister, Theresa May, expressed her ‘deep regret’ at Britain having imposed anti-gay laws on dozens of colonies in the 19th century – laws that remain on the statute books of most Commonwealth countries today and continue to wreck the lives of millions of LGBT+ people.
This statement of regret was a historic, landmark acknowledgement of a grave injustice. It helpfully highlighted that current homophobic laws in the Commonwealth are mostly not indigenous national laws. They were exported by Britain and imposed on countries. This re-framed the LGBT+ issue in a way that it is likely to provoke less hostility, and win more sympathy, from Commonwealth governments and peoples.
Thursday’s rally outside Commonwealth headquarters in London, involving LGBT+ campaigners from across the member states, ramped up the pressure on the heads of government and, and through media reporting, gave a big boost to public awareness of the scale and viciousness of Commonwealth homophobia.
The rally was backed by gay Olympian and recent Commonwealth Games gold medallist, Tom Daley. He sent a message of support:
“Shockingly, half the countries in the world that criminalise homosexuality are in the Commonwealth, which is why I am fully supportive of the Peter Tatchell Foundation and others who are trying to correct this terrible injustice. As I compete around the world, it’s important that I can focus on my sport and not worry about the reaction to my sexuality. I believe the Commonwealth should be a forum that protects the rights of all its citizens and not support governments that make criminals out of at least 100 million people.”
The rally heard from Commonwealth LGBT+ people who have been driven from their home countries after often violent victimisation because of their sexuality or gender identity. One of the speakers was Hope Espoir, from Cameroon. She recounted a horror story of arrest detention, rape and murder:
“When I was 18 I was caught with my girlfriend, beaten by neighbours and then arrested by police. My nightmare got worse as I was raped in prison. Upon being released I was forced into marriage with a violent man I did not and could not love, as I couldn’t suppress my sexuality. Life got better when I fell in love with a local girl but the police came to arrest us one evening. Fortunately, I escaped with my life, but my girlfriend died after being beaten in police custody.”
Edwin Sesange, a gay Ugandan refugee who heads the African Equality Foundation, was at the protest. He summed up the feelings of many who were there:
“It is time Commonwealth countries accepted their LGBT+ citizens. Homophobia should be expunged from the Commonwealth. Anti-gay laws in Commonwealth countries are mostly the result of colonialism. They should be scrapped.”