By Pieter Cranenbroek – International Politics Blogger
It has been an eventful year for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community (LGBT).
Germany recently became the first European country to add an extra gender box on forms, which gives recognition and expression to intersex and transgender people, whereas same-sex marriage laws have entered into force in four countries this year. However, in the week that the UK announced the official date for same-sex marriage to be allowed in England and Wales, gay rights took a considerable blow in Indian and Australian courts. The road to equality has proved to be long and bumpy, but reaching the destination is imperative.
LGBT rights advocates the world over are fighting a frustrating but equally important battle for equal treatment. It is frustrating because, as Stephen Fry recently said, “it is like meeting someone who absolutely spent all their life trying to get rid of red telephones. You would not understand it. Why would someone bother to attack a group of people who mean to do them no harm?” It is important because LGBT people have right on their side. Like Ghandi’s non-violent disobedience against colonialism, it is with absolute certainty that humanity will one day look back and see a clear ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ side in this struggle.
Fortunately, the hard work of these activists has been paying off. From 29th March 2014, lesbian and gay couples will have equal access to civil marriage in England and Wales while the Scottish Marriage Bill legalising civil marriage for gay couples by 2015 has passed the first stage. In Ireland the Taoiseach has voiced his support for equal access to civil marriage for lesbian and gay couples with a referendum on the matter to be held before mid-2015. Even the pope made an unlikely contribution, saying “if a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”
Judges have regrettably shown that their judicial power can not only be used to move progress along but also to reverse it. The Supreme Court in India reinstated a law making gay sex a criminal offence, reversing a 2009 court order that decriminalised same-sex relationships. The court pointed its finger to the parliament’s responsibility to legislate on the issue, a convenient and weak excuse that only shows India’s Supreme Court judges are less courageous than their colleagues at the Delhi High Court.
A day later, Australia’s High Court overturned the country’s first gay marriage law declaring it inconsistent with federal laws. Like the Indian Supreme Court, the High Court in Australia cowered behind a statement shifting responsibility to the political realm saying it is parliament that needs to amend existing marriage laws to overcome the violation of present laws. However, the thought that these federal laws violate basic human rights does not seem to have come up.
Worse still are the countries in which the right to legally marry their loved ones is the least of the problems of LGBT people. Quite a bit of attention has focused on Russia’s anti-gay law, justified by Putin in his state of the nation speech last Thursday as Russia’s defence against “genderless and fruitless so-called tolerance”. But Russia is not an exception.
In 76 countries it is still against the law to be gay, bisexual or transgender, effectively making being born a criminal offence for some people. The punishments for same-sex sexual activity in many African and Asian countries include lengthy prison sentences, life imprisonment and even the death penalty. Additionally, LGBT people in these regions often suffer other forms of abuse such as psychological and physical violence. Just like people do not choose to be straight, no one has ever ‘decided’ to be gay and it is sad that in the 21st century people this non-decision is still considered a ground to be persecuted.
Granted, a lot of progress has been made in the past decades. Homosexuality has been decriminalised in virtually every European country and in the vast majority of the Americas while UN and EU charters have been drawn up to protect the rights of LGBT people. Moreover, same-sex marriage is now legal in 15 countries, 15 American states, two Mexican states and as of next year in England and Wales as well.
I look forward to the day when people aren’t treated differently for being gay or lesbian. But before that can happen, LGBT role models in our society need to be supported and admired. Tom Daley and numerous other gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender public figures before him opening up about their sexual orientation and gender identity send a really positive message to LGBT young people. Owen Jones’ description of a society where “equality will be total and ‘coming out’ is no longer a thing” is one we should be striving to achieve.
Last Thursday, Putin described Russia as “the world’s last bastion of global conservatism,” and he may be right. For love and hate are struggling for dominance and there is no question which side will come out on top. A quintessential part of the problem is ignorance. People are blind to righteousness because they are taught to hate from an early age. If society were a tunnel, conservatism is the rock blocking the exit.
Still, it is only a matter of time before LGBT people will acquire the same status as their heterosexual counterparts. Rays of light are becoming increasingly visible, and with patience and perseverance, we will be out into the sun.