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A Locked Closet: LGBTI Rights Around the World

26 Apr 2018
By Emeritus Professor Dennis Altman AM FASSA

In the euphoria that greeted the legislation of same sex marriage in Australia last year, it was easy to forget that for most gay people in the world this is an unobtainable dream.

In over 70 countries homosexual behaviour remains illegal; in some of these—and indeed in some countries with apparently progressive legislation—rape, murder and torture are the potential fate of people who appear to flout conventional gender and sex roles.

Over the past decade there has been increased scapegoating by authoritarian states of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) behaviour, often linked to the growth of fundamentalist religiosity. Every now and then such moves attract international attention, as in moves to introduce the death penalty for homosexuality in Uganda; increasing violence against queers in Russia; the apparent murder of homosexuals in Syria and Iran; and draconian persecutions in Chechnya.

Of course, there have been some gains for queer movements, and encouraging signs of activism in very difficult environments, such as Tunisia and Kenya. It seems likely that the Indian Supreme Court will finally strike down Section 377, which would have repercussions across the Commonwealth. The United Nations Human Rights Council has appointed an Independent Expert to report on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender expression. But I can’t endorse Peter Tatchell’s claim that: “Overall, LGBTI rights are mostly powering ahead.”

Perhaps most disheartening are increasing attacks on “LGBT people” in two countries, Turkey and Indonesia, long seen as centres of moderate and tolerant Islam. Over the past few years Indonesian homosexuals have been targeted, with police, vigilantes and government officials attacking them as hostile to national values. Currently there are moves in the Indonesian parliament to criminalise consensual sex outside marriage, which includes any homosexual sex. The backlash against “gay rights” is matched in many other countries, where discussion of sexual rights has become conflated with neo-liberal imperialism.

The rise of populist authoritarianism and the decline of a commitment to human rights as part of universal political discourse threatens to undermine the gains we think we’ve made. In countries such as South Africa and Brazil, which had seemed to lead in their acceptance of diverse sexualities, the growth of fundamentalist religious and nationalist movements is a major factor. The “illiberal democracy” of Viktor Orbán is matched by the decline of democracy in countries such as Poland, the Philippines and Thailand. Even where authoritarian regimes do not invoke homosexuality and/or gender ideology as a threat—it does not seem to be part of the current nationalistic authoritarianism of China—they are very unlikely to be sympathetic to rights claims.

When Jon Symons and I explored some the apparent polarisation around queer rights in our book Queer Wars we anticipated, perhaps too easily, that Clinton would be the next United States (US) President, and that American support for global LGBTI initiatives would continue. Former Secretary of State Tillerson stressed there is a difference between policies and values, and his incoming successor will be even less sympathetic to claims for human rights. US funding for LGBTI organisation is declining, as is active US support for international organisations generally. Maybe there is an advantage in queer rights not being a football in a new Cold War but having Putin and Trump on the same side is worse than having them opposed.

Western queer movements have been largely uninterested in global developments, although there are a number of organisations working to support queer movements in countries with political and religious barriers to greater acceptance. Small groups of queer activists have brought these issues into events like Sydney Mardi Gras, but our attention has tended to be fragmentary and transitory. Where Australian queer groups have developed genuine links with overseas groups, as is true in the HIV sector, these tend to be managed very tightly by small groups of insiders. Sometimes responses seem more motivated by a desire to feel good than any thought through strategy to assist people in desperate situations; one of the organisers of a demonstration last year against horrific abuses of basic rights in Chechnya told me that it made the participants feel good. It is not easy to work out the best way to support people in countries where obvious western support may well boomerang and reinforce attacks on queers as the imposition of western values.

This is not to discount the importance of using international institutions to consistently support measures to protect people from violence and persecution based on sexuality and gender expression. It is heartening that in his statement to the Human Rights Council (HRC) marking Australia’s election to the body, Governor General Peter Cosgrove committed to “strong advocacy for equal human rights, non-discrimination and non violence for LGBTI persons.” But as the Australian government ignores HRC views on offshore detention it can hardly complain if other states ignore our position on queer rights.

Many of the United Nations agencies have been creative in supporting initiatives around these issues, and Australian support is increasingly important as the US withdraws from the field. Such support needs to be supplemented by much stronger links between regional queer groups and their Australian counterparts. In particular, there are two areas where Australia could do more.

First, the flow of people seeking asylum because of their sexuality and gender expression will increase; we need do all we can to increase the rate at which claims for asylum are accepted. No country has a particularly good record on welcoming queer asylum seekers, and Australia has certainly granted asylum to a number of people on these grounds. Given the current asylum regime one can only hope that the Immigration Department—now part of Peter Dutton’s Home affairs Empire—recognises the complexities of establishing asylum claims based on sexual and gender discrimination.

Second, two years ago the Australian Council for International Development adopted a series of measures to ensure acknowledgement of persecution based on sexuality and gender expression amongst its member organisations. Given the number of religious-based NGOs delivering forms of overseas assistance this is a major step forward, although the sector has been slow to fully implement this commitment. There is enormous need to work with the big international development non-governmental organisations—particularly those like World Vision with a religious base—to increase their ability to understand queer issues and incorporate them into their overall development work. Often these are the most significant Australian presence in developing countries.

At the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting there was some focus on the realities for queer people (a majority of Commonwealth countries, including those most adept at anti-colonial rhetoric, still maintain nineteenth century British prohibitions on homosexual behaviour). I doubt if Theresa May’s words will change the minds of any leaders present, but airing the issue gives support to local activists.  As one of the protagonists in the film Mr Gay Syria says, “Out of despair comes hope”

Professor Dennis Altman is a professorial fellow in human security at La Trobe University and the director of the Institute for Human Security at La Trobe.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.