Why the struggle for LGBTI rights must be my struggle and yours

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Every generation has its iconic struggle for equality, from the civil rights movement to the push towards gender parity. Today, that struggle is for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights. For our generation, this debate sits at the vanguard of society’s efforts to achieve greater equality and inclusivity. But it is a struggle that divides us, perhaps more deeply than those that have come before. It strikes at the heart of religious and social norms, exposing deep rifts even within our most progressive societies.

Thanks largely to the efforts of civil society, the last 20 years have brought remarkable gains in LGBTI equality. Most recently, the legislation of same sex marriage across the US has shown what can be achieved with consistent advocacy and campaigning. In just 16 years, the number of countries around the world allowing same-sex marriage has grown from zero to 23. Many countries have repealed sodomy laws and decriminalised homosexuality, and a handful have passed laws making it easier to amend legal documents in accordance with self-determined gender identity.

At the end of June, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to appoint a new independent expert to help protect against violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Even in regions of the world where LGBTI individuals continue to face severe persecution, the levels of public dialogue and visibility around issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity are unprecedented. Until recently, there was no LGBTI movement in Africa. Now, a growing number of civil society organisations are lobbying at national and regional levels, engaging with the African regional human rights system, using national courts to win important rights victories, and engaging with faith leaders. These are the activists who urgently need our support. For there is still a long way to go.

Last month in Orlando, Florida, we witnessed the worst targeted mass killing of LGBTI people in the west since the Holocaust. Despite being a savage reminder of ongoing persecution, these deaths are – tragically – only the latest in an appalling catalogue of documented abuses and killings of LGBTI individuals globally. The fact remains that there is no place in the world where LGBTI people are free from discrimination and violence.

Homosexual acts remain illegal in 75 countries; in six, they are punishable by death. In countries such as Belize and India, homosexuality has recently been recriminalised and, in the last few years alone, extreme anti-LGBTI laws were passed in Russia, Nigeria and Uganda. In 2015, Amnesty International said legal rights for LGBTI people had diminished across Africa. Even in countries with progressive legal frameworks, most notably South Africa, social acceptance is low and levels of violence remain high.

Even in contexts where the legal environment should offer protection, LGBTI people continue to face significant discrimination in the workplace. Transgender individuals in particular are far more susceptible to being fired, harassed and demoted. More likely to receive lower wages, LGBTI people face higher levels of unemployment, poverty and homelessness, all of which feeds into a cycle of social, economic and political exclusion.


“A classic fight for basic human rights”

For those civil society organisations and citizen movements seeking to fight back, the ongoing global clampdown on civic space has had a severe effect. Since 2013, Algeria, Lithuania, Nigeria and Russia have all passed laws prohibiting ‘homosexual propaganda’, making it difficult – if not impossible – for LGBTI civil society organisations to operate without interference from the state. Activists, often portrayed as agents of foreign or neo-colonial forces, are attacked as a threat to national identity and morality. And, in the run-up to elections, LGBTI citizens are increasingly being used as scapegoats to distract voters from the true source of a country’s political and economic ills.

The LGBTI struggle is a classic fight to access basic human rights. Yet, in my experience talking to civil society leaders, we are far from winning hearts and minds. Back in 2011 – and again in 2014 – when my CIVICUS colleagues wrote to the Ugandan parliament and to President Yoweri Museveni urging them to reject Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill [editor’s note: the bill was later struck down by the courts], many of our network partners in the global south refused to sign our open letter. I doubt whether we would have had the same difficulty convincing activists to sign a letter on gender equality 30 years ago. But a broad-based, progressive consensus on LGBTI rights continues to elude us.

It’s time for this to change. In our most recent State of Civil Society Report, the message from more than 30 civil society experts is clear: we cannot tackle exclusion in our societies by cherry picking the issues and rights we agree with. The rights of LGBTI citizens across the world are intrinsically bound up with my rights and yours. Recognising the commonality of all human struggles for freedom, dignity and bodily autonomy, we must stand united in our defence of the right to equality, the right to speak out and the right to access justice – irrespective of whether we personally agree with or believe in the LGBTI agenda.

Apartheid was ended by a united front of progressives who stood together to denounce a repugnant and unjust system. This kind of solidarity is absolutely central to the struggle against discrimination in all its forms. In signing up to the Sustainable Development Goals, we pledged to “leave no-one behind”. If we perpetuate exclusion by refusing to take up the struggles of certain communities, we will fail in this venture. We need to build a broad-based, progressive alliance on LGBTI rights. This is our generation’s struggle, and it must be our contribution towards a more equitable future.