Not Speaking, But Amplifying

by Evan Hahn

A message from Douglas Pretsell & Doug Pollard, Directors, Kaleidoscope Human Rights Foundation: this op-ed first appeared on the SBS website 

At CHOGM in Perth in 2011, well-meaning words from the rich “white” countries of the Commonwealth in support of LGBTI rights drew a storm of protest. Accusations were made that speaking on behalf of others in this way was a form of neocolonialism.

Reaction was particularly strong in Africa, where sensitivities to the abuses of the colonial period are acute. There was a noticeable backlash, with an increase in reports of arrests and intimidation of activists, new antigay laws introduced in Nigeria, and Cameroon, and The Gambia actually recently leaving the Commonwealth, in part, it is alleged, because of pressure over its woeful LGBTI rights record.

That does not mean we should stay silent over the fact that 80% of Commonwealth countries criminalise and brutalise people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity (in stark contrast to the 25% of non-commonwealth countries that do so). We cannot just sit on our hands, silently, helplessly watching the persecution. Instead, we can listen to the voices of LGBTI Commonwealth citizens suffering under these unjust laws, and amplify them across the world.

Last time, the criticisms were made by “white” nations from the global “West” without first listening to, consulting with or giving voice to the many brave LGBTI men and women across the Commonwealth struggling for law reform and their rights. That allowed the global “South” and “East” to paint homosexuality as a “Western import”, unheard of in their own nations.

This time round we in the West have listened and learned, working together with the superb activists advancing LGBTI rights in Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Caribbean to amplify their voices. The result is the Speaking Out – LGBTI Rights in the Commonwealth report, which we hope will be a clarion call to tackle state sponsored homophobia in the Commonwealth of Nations in 2013.

Through assessments of the legal status quo, reviews of recent developments, but most importantly, through the fascinating, poignant and sometimes downright horrifying accounts of the real lives of LGBTI people in Commonwealth countries, a picture emerges of the dreadful impact of these anti-LGBTI laws. Even where they are not enforced, their very existence legitimizes blackmail, prejudice, suppression and violence.

As damning as the reports conclusions are, there are some positive signs. India, Vanuatu and Fiji have in recent years repealed their anti-sodomy laws. Others, like Malawi, Jamaica, Nauru and Trinidad & Tobago have said they will look to reform theirs in coming years. In Singapore and in Belize, judicial reviews are currently being undertaken by the courts.

This is not the time to stay silent, or retreat. We owe it to the staggering bravery of LGBTI activists in countries such as Uganda, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia and Cameroon to broadcast their struggle for justice as widely, and amplify their voices as loudly as we can.

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)