An Equality March held in Windhoek, Namibia, to defend human rights in the face of President Sam Nujoma's verbal attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, April 28 2001. © The Rainbow Project, Namibia.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in Englandand Wales. In 1967 the passing of the Sexual Offences Act by the then Labour Government, allowed men over the age of 21 in England and Wales to have sex with each other in private.
The Act was the legislative domino whose fall would eventually lead to the adoption of a wide range of initiatives over the proceeding 40 years in an effort to secure legal equality for gay men and lesbians. These eventually included legal protection from sexuality discrimination, the extension of the right to adopt and foster children to gay men and lesbians and the legal recognition of same sex relationships with the creation of civil unions.
Unfortunately in many parts of the world the decriminalisation domino hasn’t fallen. In fact, in more than 70 countries homosexuality remains illegal. This consigns the vast majority of the world’s gay men and lesbians to a life of criminality over which the have no choice. In twelve of these countries homosexuality is punishable by death.
The temptation to believe that such laws are relics of a bygone past and aren’t enforced was sadly dispelled with the public hanging in 2005 of two Iranian teenagers sentenced under Sharia law for the ‘crime’ of homosexuality.
Elsewhere the use of anti-gay laws to intimidate and silence lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is alive and well.
Earlier this month in Nigeriaand Cameroonlarge scale arrests of gay men took place and in Ugandasexuality rights activists went into hiding after senior government ministers called for their arrest.
On August 21, Uganda’s Radio One announced that Deputy Attorney General Fred Ruhindi had called for the criminal law to be used against lesbians and gays in Uganda. He was reported as saying, “I call upon the relevant agencies to take appropriate action because homosexuality is an offence under the laws of Uganda. The penal code in no uncertain terms punishes homosexuality and other unnatural offences.”
Earlier in the month Uganda’s Ethics and Integrity Minister James Nsaba Buturo, told the BBC that homosexuality was "unnatural.” Although he denied charges of police harassment of LGBT people, he also said, “We know them, we have details of who they are.”
Ending state sanctioned harassment, imprisonment, corporal punishment and execution of gay men and lesbians around the world is urgent and demands our attention.
The human rights case is clear: illegality renders gay invisible and robs them of the opportunity to exercise their basic rights.
But there is also a compelling practical case: laws which criminalise homosexuality deprive people of their right to information about their sexuality, including accurate information about HIV and AIDS and how to prevent its transmission.
Although we aren’t often aware of it, gay and other men who have sex with men are disproportionately affected by HIV all around the world. What’s worse is that the UN estimates that only one in every ten gay men in the developing world has access to even the most basic HIV information and prevention services.
I’ve seen first hand how illegality forces gay men underground and requires organisations providing sexual health services to them to operate in the shadows. Effectively responding to HIV requires honesty and openness neither of which are possible when being open and honest can lead to prison.
A transgender sex worker is tended to by friends after being beaten by clients whilst working. © Ashok/HIV/AIDS Alliance/Photovoice.
The continued criminalisation of gay men and the fear and prejudice that this engenders threatens more than just freedom—it threatens life. State sanctioned homophobia undermines efforts to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS and denies already marginalised people their right to non-discriminatory health and social care.
Over the course of the HIV/AIDS epidemic we’ve come to know that human rights violations fuel the epidemic and exacerbate its impact and that’s certainly true of laws that criminalise sexual minorities.
Our collective failure to tackle these laws continues to put individuals at risk of infection and disease and impedes access to HIV information and services for those who need it most. Changing them is not only a moral imperative, but is also key to the sustained success of prevention, testing, and treatment programs.
Over the last 40 years the UKhas developed a solid track record of tackling sexuality discrimination at home. It’s now time for it to play a larger part in efforts to protect the rights of gay and lesbian people abroad.
To begin, the appointment of a Special Ambassador to build international support for the universal decriminalisation of homosexuality and for measures to end discrimination would be a concrete first step and an excellent way of celebrating 40 years of law reform here at home.