February was LGBT History Month and this year is also the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales. That seems as good a time as any to remember our struggle for equality and acceptance and to take stock of where we are now. The LGBT+ community has made tremendous progress towards equality over the past 50 years. 21 sovereign countries currently allow same-sex marriage in all or most of their territories, with Finland set to join them from March 1st. A further 20 countries have in all or part of their territories some form of recognised civil unions for same-sex couples as an alternative instead of marriage. Furthermore, LGBT people are protected under law from discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity in much of the developed world.
However we cannot rest on our laurels, there is still a very long way to go towards true equality, both globally and in the developed world. It is a sad fact that in 75 nations and territories worldwide, mostly in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, same-sex sexual activity is illegal, with punishments ranging from imprisonment, corporal punishment and, in ten countries, the death penalty either instantly or on repeat offence. This is to say nothing of the countries where, though legal, LGBT people still suffer routine harassment, persecution and violence against them.
A Colonial Legacy
In some countries these attitudes are, at least in part, a legacy of colonialism. This is particularly true in Africa, the Caribbean and Southern Asia where colonial era legislation and attitudes to LGBTs have persisted into modern times.
For example, in India the present legislation outlawing homosexual activity, Section 377, was a law imposed by the British in 1860 and hasn’t been significantly updated since then. Though very rarely enforced in modern India, attempts to repeal the law have been fraught with challenges from conservatives and though it was repealed by the High Court in Delhi in 2009, the Supreme Court overruled their verdict in 2013. As of February 2016 the Supreme Court has been reviewing its previous ruling on the law and we are still awaiting a new verdict. Attempts to repeal the law through the Indian parliament have been met by stiff opposition from conservatives and Hindu nationalists with the last attempt in 2015 defeated by 71-24. Interestingly, though still often persecuted in conservative India, Transgender people have actually achieved more success at gaining legal recognition than their LGB fellows in large part thanks to the recognition of a “third gender” in many traditional Indian cultures, with the Supreme Court recognising them as a “third gender” nationally in 2014.
The ban on same-sex relations in Uganda has similar origins, being illegal since 1894 when it was under British rule. Unfortunately, the situation for gay people in Uganda is far worse than in India and similar nations. In Uganda anti-LGBT hysteria has been whipped up over the past decade by conservatives and religious fanatics both within Uganda itself but also quite often by wealthy evangelical groups from the United States who, not content with spreading hatred in their own country, have looked to vulnerable Africa to dispense their ideology. Chief among these is the so-called Pastor Scott Lively who in 2009 held a series of talks in Uganda proclaiming the evils of the “gay movement” and how homosexuals sought to steal and “convert” Ugandan children to homosexuality. Not long after this the infamous anti-Gay law that caused international outcry and would have seen even people holding hands in public arrested and the death penalty introduced for ‘serial offenders’ was introduced for the first time in the Ugandan parliament. Lively isn’t alone, many American evangelical groups have done similar in both Uganda and many other African countries, transforming the lives of LGBTs living across the continent into a hellish existence of constant paranoia, persecution and violence.
Religion: The Old Enemy
This demonstrates the pernicious influence traditional, conservative religion has had on our society and it is not an exaggeration to say that it is religion, particularly the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths, that have historically been the root of much of society’s homophobia worldwide. In India for instance there is historical evidence to suggest that the present taboo against same-sex relationships was largely absent until the introduction of Islam and Christianity to the sub-continent. Indeed, in some East Asian countries laws against homosexuality were only introduced in an attempt to seem ‘western’ and ‘civilised’ to Christian Europeans.
It is perhaps therefore no surprise that the countries where LGBTs suffer the worst abuse in the modern world are all Islamic theocracies ruled under a strict fundamentalist interpretation of Sharia law. In Iran for example LGBs face the death penalty if caught with an estimated 4,000-5,000 executed, sometimes publicly, by the Iranian government since the 1979 revolution. It is difficult to assess the exact number because the Iranian government does not publicise all executions, only those that catch the public attention. Many of these executions will have been under 18 since prior to 2012 the Iranian government defined an adult as a boy over 15 Islamic years old (approx. 14.5 Gregorian years) or a girl 9 Islamic years old (approx. 8.7 Gregorian years) and thus permitted execution for under-18s. Since 2012 someone under 18 will now receive 74 lashes instead for such a ‘crime’. It is very similar in eight other Islamic countries where the death penalty is issued for same-sex sexual activity. To be gay in these countries is to be constantly in fear for your life, constantly fearing exposure.
Violence in the East
Of course religiously inspired anti-gay laws and violence are not confined to countries where it is illegal. Russia and Ukraine have both seen tremendous surges in anti-LGBT violence and sentiment largely backed by the Orthodox Churches and in Russia’s case the government as well. Since the passing of the anti-gay propaganda law in 2013, which prohibits the public “promotion” of non-traditional sexual relations and gender identities as acceptable and thus gags LGBT activism, there has been a huge surge in anti-gay violence in Russia. There have been many murders, kidnappings and assaults on LGBT people over the past several years often by far-right vigilante groups operating with impunity –the government often denies they are even hate crimes and according to Human Rights Watch systemically fails to effectively investigate or prosecute perpetrators or support victims. Many of the victims in these attacks have been young men, often lured in by their attackers using LGBT dating apps and social media.
The Russian government’s support for Anti-LGBT legislation and attitudes is part of a general lurch to the far right in Russian politics under Vladimir Putin. Putin, like the Tsars before him, seeks the support of the Russian Orthodox Church in keeping popular support for him high. As such, through his party agenda, he has pursued and tacitly supported an increasingly right wing socially conservative agenda. It is this same interest that has led to Russia’s recent law effectively legalising domestic violence against women in marriage.
Despite their hostility to one another at the moment, a very similar situation for LGBTs is present in neighbouring Ukraine. Whilst an attempt to implement a similar anti-LGBT propaganda law in Ukraine was dropped by the government in 2015, general social attitudes are little better than in Russia. Since the Euromaidan protests that toppled the pro-Russian government in 2014, the country has seen a major increase in far-right nationalist activity. Like all such groups the world over they are highly masculinist and demand sexual and gender conformity from society and thus have come to attack LGBTs across Ukraine. As with their Russian counterparts when they cannot find any ‘obviously’ LGBT people in public they have taken to infiltrating LGBT dating apps and social media to lure targets out into the open to attack them.
However there may be a ray of light at the end of the tunnel for Ukrainian LGBTs. Despite five years of constant harassment and opposition from local government and police, in June 2016, Ukrainian LGBT activists managed to hold their first LGBT pride in Kiev without significant opposition from city hall and, thanks to police protection, it all went off peacefully without the bloodbath promised by the Ukrainian far right group ‘Right Sector’. Thus there is hope that perhaps in Ukraine at least progress can be made, albeit slowly.
The Never Ending Fight for LGBT Rights
Looking at the enormous persecution and violence faced by the LGBT community worldwide, western LGBT+ people may feel a sigh of relief at living in the more tolerant developed world. However they should be wary of such complacency. As openly gay American screenwriter Dustin Lance Black said in a recent interview with Attitude magazine“…the fight is never over; as a minority you always have to be vigilant and times right now are showing us that loud and clear”. He is quite right, the LGBT+ community are always going to be a minority and thus our rights will never be truly secure, not so long as sections of our society want to see those rights repealed and not until we achieve full acceptance across all spectra of society –something we are a long way from achieving.
As I’m sure we’re all aware, progressivism and social liberalism are under global siege and if they fall many of the rights we hold will fall too. We have already seen a spike of homophobic hate crimes in the UK since the Brexit vote last year. Most recently a gay couple were beaten by a gang of 5 men on a train near Reading on Valentine’s Day after one of them fell asleep on the other’s shoulder. So long as this kind of violence is happening then the battle is not over.
It must also not be overlooked the different experience faced by other members of the wider LGBT+ community. Bisexual, Transgendered, Intersex and other groups in the wider spectrum face different prejudices in society. For example there is the common myth, even amongst fellow LGBTs who should know better, that bisexuals don’t exist or are just homosexuals who don’t want to admit it or that they somehow switch off being bisexual once they chose a partner. Transgendered people meanwhile still face terrible stigma just for wanting to be themselves, for daring to challenge the traditional gender roles assigned to us at birth.
This is particularly coming to a head in the culture wars playing out in the United States at the moment. The current target of most of the hard right’s hatred in the United States is the more vulnerable Trans community. The right of transgendered people to use the bathroom they are most comfortable with is but the first to come under attack by the religious right. As they did with homosexuals before, they are now demonising Trans people as sexual predators and perverts, denying them their rights under the banner of protecting children. We have seen this tactic before elsewhere with the loathsome Section 28 in the United Kingdom that was imposed by the Thatcher government in the 1980s to ‘protect’ children from gay people. It is also shockingly similar to the strategies employed by the far right in Russia and Uganda to conflate homosexuality with paedophilia.
Given the huge presence of the Christian right in the new Trump administration and its general disdain for anything progressive it can only be a matter of time before further assaults on all LGBT+ people begin. The attack will likely come veiled under the cover of protecting religious freedom or rather protecting the self-righteous right of evangelical Christians to hate anyone who is different from them. The so-called First Amendment Defence Act (FADA) is already well on its way to becoming law. FADA, once law, will make it illegal for the federal government to take action against those who hold the ‘moral conviction’ that marriage is between one man and one woman and that sexual relations should be exclusive to such a union. In other words it shall give a free pass for anyone wanting to discriminate against same-sex couples since they are the primary group who by definition cannot fit this antiquated notion of human relationships. It seems that in Trump’s America it is okay to discriminate against people so long as your hatred is based on religious conviction.
In the west then the battle for rights is perhaps not as settled as we thought it was and the battle for society’s acceptance continues. Whilst we may live in the most enlightened time in Human history when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity there is still so much more work to do. If we are to win these culture wars and ensure continued social progress we must win the battle of education, ensuring that future generations grow up with an enlightened attitude to sexuality and gender and not stuck with the regressive conformity of the past. Here there is hope, polls often show that the younger generations born in the 80s, 90s and 00s are among the most sexually fluid and enlightened ever seen, indeed some polls suggest that there may actually be more teenagers today who don’t identify as purely heterosexual than those who do. If we can win these culture wars both here and around the globe then perhaps we can one day have a world where all can love and live without fear of violence or hatred against them.