How to spread gay rights beyond the West

How to spread gay rights beyond the West

HIV Australia | Vol. 12 No. 2 | July 2014

By Dennis Altman

While the march of gay rights continues across the West, in parts of the world they are going backwards, with states hardening their repression of people on the basis of their sexuality, writes DENNIS ALTMAN.

Currently Ethiopia is tightening its laws against homosexual behaviour, already punishable by up to 15 years imprisonment.

It appears the government is following the lead of Uganda and Nigeria, both of which have recently introduced laws increasing the penalties for both homosexual behaviour and support for any “advocacy” of recognition of same-sex identities or behaviour.

Similar hardening of repression of people for homosexual and transgender identities appears to be increasing across Africa.

A recent documentary about Cameroon, Born this Way, highlights the violence and persecution against anyone perceived as not conforming to sexual or gender norms.

Lest we think the repression is confined to men, that documentary highlights the fear of imprisonment and “corrective rape” faced by women assumed to be lesbian.

Recent laws in Russia, supported by President Vladimir Putin, which seek to penalise “propaganda” of homosexuality, generally with the intent of “protecting” minors, have been used as the excuse for right-wing thugs to engage in vigilante actions against homosexuals, depicted in a recent Foreign Correspondent program.

These laws became the focus of international attention because of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, and Russia’s increasingly belligerent attacks on “Western values”, using the language of “traditional values” and the “traditional family” to rally international support.

Similar arguments remain central in the rhetoric of governments across the Islamic world, including countries in our region.

Indeed, Pakistan and Malaysia are among the most vigorous opponents of any recognition of “sexual rights”, and the recurring prosecution of Anwar Ibrahim for alleged sodomy is a reminder that such attacks are often politically motivated.

Let us be clear: these are not arguments about whether or not homosexuals can adopt children or have the right to be married.

In Nigeria men have been publicly whipped for homosexuality while crowds called for their execution.

In Iran it is known that homosexuals have been executed, although ironically gender transitions are legal.

Violence against transgender people is widespread through much of the world.

At the same time there is a remarkable shift in attitudes in most of the Western world, symbolised by the growing number of jurisdictions that recognise same-sex marriage (including several conservative American states), and strong official statements against homophobia in a number of Latin American countries.

Both the United Nations Human Rights Council and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon have asserted that human rights should apply without distinction on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Central to the rhetoric of countries as seemingly dissimilar as Russia, Pakistan and Zimbabwe is the claim that homosexuality is a western import, designed to weaken traditional cultures and religions.

Thus the ironic situation arises that most of Britain’s former colonies retain anti-sodomy laws in the name of their cultural heritage, ignoring the fact that these laws are in fact the legacy of the colonial era.

The growth of state-sanctioned homophobia is related both to religious fundamentalism and nationalist assertion.

When the Indian Supreme Court recently upheld British-era sodomy laws it was noted that this was the only issue on which leaders from all religions could agree.

The support of leaders such as US president Barack Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron for gay rights has ironically reinforced those political leaders who use the issue to mobilise nationalist fervour by scapegoating people who can be linked to foreign influence.

Both the current and previous Australian governments have worked quietly to make clear their disapproval of persecution on grounds of sexuality.

In this they are unfortunately ahead of most of Australia’s NGOs, who have been largely disinterested in the issue.

Other than specific gay community organisations, only Amnesty has given much prominence to this issue.

Yet sexual rights, and the debate around protection of people vulnerable because of their sexuality or gender identity, apply to a number of countries in our region, including Papua New Guinea.

The Senate inquiry into asylum seeker policies established that some people seeking asylum because of fears of persecution for their sexuality now fear further persecution when they are sent to Manus Island.

It is tempting to express outrage at abuses done in the name of protecting morality, but indignation is not the basis for good policy.

The recent decision of the US administration to cut aid to Uganda’s health sector will mean some people will lose access to vital therapies; it will do nothing to weaken President Yoweri Museveni’s government.

Some European governments have been more strategic, redirecting the funds to NGOs working in the country.

Sexuality has become a polarising issue in the international arena, and both sides are tempted to play to their domestic audiences rather than consider the human costs.

In the lead up to AIDS 2014, Oxfam and La Trobe University’s Institute for Human Security and Social Change hosted a pre-conference panel discussion on 17 July 2014 entitled: ‘Let’s Talk: Sexual Rights, HIV and Development’.

The purpose of the evening was to encourage discussion between the HIV and development sectors about the growing global polarisation around sexual rights, in particular the growing persecution of people in many parts of the world on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity.

We need further opportunities such as this for strategic reflection on the best way to promote greater acceptance of sexual diversity in a world where too often sexuality has become a touchstone for fear, prejudice and hatred.

Dennis Altman is a Professorial Fellow in the Institute for Human Security at La Trobe University.

This article was originally published on ABC’s The Drum