June marks the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots, when resistance to a police raid on a gay bar sparked the emergence of the New York Gay Liberation Front. In Australia there is little awareness of the history of queer advocacy.
Pride month, rather like Mothers’ and Fathers’ Day, is a product of American commercialism. In the Western world, businesses and politicians are quick to use the celebration to proclaim their support for what is now called the LGBTIQ community. Again, this is a term based on Western assumptions, and I prefer the acronym SOGI, referring to sexual orientation and gender expression, which is used by the United Nations Human Right Council and better captures the range of diversity that is involved.
President Joe Biden, in recognising the month, declared that he “will not rest until full equality for LGBTQ+ Americans is finally achieved and codified into law.” Hard to imagine Prime Minister Scott Morrison making the same pledge – this is the man who walked out of the House of Representatives to avoid voting for same-sex marriage after a majority of his constituents supported it. But local universities, law firms, and state governments will undoubtedly use the opportunity to announce their support for the queer community.
Although there are still areas of discrimination, most notably around trans* people, very considerable steps have been made over the past few decades to protect the rights of queer people in Australia. The situation in most parts of the world is very different.
The last decade has seen both an assertion of queer rights in international fora and a corresponding backlash from countries including Russia and most African and Muslim states. Unfortunately, defence of sexual and gender diversity, which exists in most societies of which we are aware, has become scapegoated as Western imperialism. In many former British colonies, political and religious leaders defend laws against homosexual behaviour in the name of traditional values, even though these laws were actually introduced by the colonisers.
In parts of the world, global attention to SOGI issues has resulted in increased persecution. This is particularly evident in Indonesia, where politicians have claimed “LGBT” represents attacks on national and family values. The head of Indonesia’s population and family planning agency Nofrijal labelled LGBT citizens the “main enemy of national development.” While there is a large and visible queer community in countries such as Thailand and the Philippines, even rich countries in Asia, such as South Korea and Singapore, remain hostile to queer rights. Singapore, like Malaysia, retains the British-era laws criminalising homosexual behaviour.
There are ongoing campaigns to overturn these laws, most notably in some Caribbean and African states, but the reaction is often harsh. Earlier this year, 21 people were arrested in Ghana after police stormed a workshop for LGBT+ people and held them in custody for almost two weeks. In much of the Middle East, there has been increasing persecution of people seen as gay or trans*.
Legal changes are not themselves sufficient. As Mark Gevisser wrote, “South Africa was famously the first country in the world to explicitly outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in its constitution (in 1996), and one of the first to permit same-sex marriage (2006). Women, too, have full equality and protection under the law. Yet we have one of the highest rates of gender-based violence in the world, a subset of which is the abuse of gender-nonconforming people: butch lesbians who are subject to what is termed ‘punitive rape,’ and femme men or trans women who are beaten, raped, or murdered at horrifying rates.”
As a member of the United Nations Human Rights Commission between 2018 and 2020, Australia was a consistent supporter of moves to include SOGI issues as core business of human rights. Australia is a member of the United Nations LGBTI core group, co-chaired by Argentina and the Netherlands, which includes 33 member states, primarily from Europe and Latin America. In Asia, only Japan and Nepal have been willing to sign on.
There are real limits to what outsiders can do to support queer activists and communities in countries where political and religious pressures make any assertion of rights very dangerous. The American practice, discontinued during the Trump administration, of flying rainbow flags at embassies to mark Pride Month risks just reinforcing ideas that this is neo-colonial pressure. At a local level, Australian embassies have often been very supportive of queer groups, but the issue has been secondary in most discussions of human rights globally. The exception is in policies around HIV, where Australia has been a significant player.
Australian development NGOs have been slow to recognise SOGI issues, even though they often work in countries where persecution is greatest. In part this is due to remarkably little interest in the outside world in the established queer community organisations in Australia who have failed to lobby politicians and media to respond to global concerns. Holding World Pride in Sydney in 2023 should lead to a greater awareness.
That people who are—or are thought to be—homosexual or trans* face persecution, sometimes death, has real implications for whom we recognise as deserving political asylum. Refugee advocacy groups in Australia have actively supported a number of applications for asylum, but Australia’s record in granting asylum is slow and unpredictable. It is my hunch that other countries, notably Canada and Sweden, have been more willing to acknowledge sexuality and gender expression as grounds for asylum. In the aftermath of COVID-19, which has led to yet further reductions in Australia’s refugee intake, the needs of people fleeing persecution simply for their identities can only increase.
Dennis Altman AM FASSA 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.