As a party, we should be extremely proud of our record on furthering the rights of LGBT people in the UK – having equalised the age of consent, ripped up the deeply oppressive Section 28 prohibition, introduced civil partnerships, and been instrumental in the introduction of equal marriage.
And, while the fight for equality continues, in our schools, on our football pitches, and on our streets, the UK must continue to be a country that champions equality for LGBT citizens everywhere. In over 80 countries, adults of the same sex who engage in private, consensual, sexual conduct are seen to be living a life of crime.
There are clear and obvious reasons why homosexuality should be decriminalised.
First, the punishments are abhorrent, degrading, and sometimes deadly. In Malaysia and Qatar, homosexual activity can be punished with lashes. In Iran and Saudi Arabia, the death penalty can be invoked; not to mention extensive prison sentences in other countries (Tanzania, Zambia, the list goes on …).
This, of course, has an intensely negative impact on the quality of life of LGBT people living in those countries. Many fear disclosing their identity, are put at permanent risk of being ostracised by their local community, and are forced to live lives that can ruin their mental and physical health.
Such suffering is accentuated by homophobic violence. This was highlighted once again this summer by the horrendous murder of prominent Cameroonian gay rights activist and journalist, Eric Lembembe, who is believed to have been killed on account of his homosexuality, in socially conservative Cameroon where homosexual acts are illegal.
Further, the 2013 UN AIDS Global Report has stressed the need for member nations to decriminalise homosexuality if they plan to reach their 2015 goals to contain the HIV virus. The report states that ‘Stigma, discrimination and oppressive legal environments in many settings discourage men who have sex with men from seeking HIV testing and appropriate, high-quality prevention, care and treatment services.’ The report recommends that national programmes should endeavour to remove legal obstacles to practising homosexuality.
So what should the UK be doing?
The UK should step up the work with our international partners to influence the debate on the decriminalisation of homosexuality, in forums such as the UN (including via reviews of the UN Millennium Development Goals), EU, Council of Europe, and Commonwealth. This is key to building the political will to establish rights for LGBT people, including in the majority of Commonwealth countries where homosexual acts are prohibited, based on outdated, Victorian, legal concepts of ‘unnatural acts’ and other opaque references. We can then hold countries and organisations to account for their lack of progress on LGBT rights, against defined, international standards.
We must ensure that LGBT rights remain on the agenda when decisions are being taken to hold international events. This brings to mind the outrage people feel in relation to the International Olympic Committee holding the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia (where recent laws have targeted the freedom of the LGBT community), and FIFA’s decision to hold the 2020 World Cup in Qatar (where homosexual acts are simply prohibited by law).
As a party, we can also show our support for the excellent work of organisations such as the Human Dignity Trust, which assists in the decriminalisation of homosexuality through supporting challenges to countries’ criminal laws.
If, like me, you are passionate about this issue, or just want to find out more, please join LGBT Labour’s event on 21 October, from 6.30pm, at Doughty Street Chambers, where we will be discussing Labour’s role in the decriminalisation of homosexuality around the world with our speakers Ray Collins, LGBT Labour patron and shadow Department for International Development spokesperson in the House of Lord, Purna Sen, PPC for Brighton Pavilion, and Jonathan Cooper of the Human Dignity Trust.
Charles Smith is a lawyer and is also LGBT Labour’s International Officer. He tweets @charlie_rsmith
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