“Queer Wars” by Dennis Altman and Jonathan Symons

Today, May 17, is IDAHOBIT (the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia[i] – previously known as IDAHO, and IDAHOT). Described as a “worldwide celebration of sexual and gender diversities”, it was started in 2004, with the date chosen to commemorate the World Health Organisation’s 1990 decision to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder.

 

To mark this occasion I thought it would be useful to focus on the issue of LGBTI rights around the globe. In my view, given the relatively advanced state of LGB rights in places like Australia[ii], it is time we devoted more attention to considering how we can effectively contribute to the international struggle for LGBTI rights.

 

Fortunately, a recent book, Queer Wars, written by Dennis Altman and Jonathan Symons, concentrates on exactly this issue, so I will use this post to look at the many interesting ideas and debates that they have raised.

 

Specifically, Queer Wars sets out to answer two questions:

  • “[F]irst, why, as homosexuality has become more visible globally, have reactions to sexual and gender diversity become so polarised?”[iii] and
  • Second, “what is to be done? As writers who believe passionately in the right of people to choose how they love and how they present themselves, we are equally concerned to think through how we can best achieve these rights globally.”

 

In answering the first question, the book takes a fascinating look at how, and how far, LGBTI rights have progressed in six extremely varied countries: Australia, Spain, Cuba, India, South Africa and South Korea[iv], including the factors that have aided, or hindered, change in these places respectively (the need to address HIV, and prevent its spread among men who have sex with men, being a frequent, although not universal, motivator for reform among this group).

 

It then spends some time considering the specific factors that may have held back change, especially in other parts of Africa and in much of the Middle East, as well as possible explanations for recent attacks on LGBTI rights from Russia to Uganda and elsewhere.

 

Without wishing to over-simplify what is a complex discussion of often inter-related influences, these include:

 

  • An almost inevitable reactionary backlash to the progress that has been made. This can be triggered when the rights of LGBTI people are recognised more quickly than their acceptance by the community. But it also derives from the well-resourced and highly organised efforts, of people like Scott Lively and groups like the World Congress of Families, to oppose LGBTI rights across the world. As noted on page 105:

 

“International organising to oppose gay rights – and, more broadly, anything that suggests the blurring of gender lines or acceptance of gender diversity – has paralleled the growth of international gay organising. American-based organisations defending ‘family values’ have been particularly active in promoting an anti-homosexual line both in international fora and within a number of overseas countries.”

 

  • The scapegoating of LGBTI communities by authoritarian regimes when they need a distraction from other problems, a tactic perfected by Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe[v], and later emulated, to some extent, by Russian Leader Vladimir Putin.

 

  • The role of organised religion – including the Catholic Church, the virulently-homophobic Anglican Church in parts of Africa, as well as fundamentalist Islam and Hinduism – also cannot be ignored in this context. As Altman and Symons note on page 24:

 

“One of the few issues on which religious fundamentalists of all faiths can agree is opposition to homosexuality, and much contemporary anti-homosexual rhetoric is justified through particular interpretations of religious texts, even where it is driven by other factors.”

 

  • Finally, one of the more interesting recurring topics of Queer Wars is the role of ‘masculinity’, or at least particular conceptions of it, in contributing to attacks on LGBTI rights. From pages 108-109:

 

“RW Connell’s concept of ‘hegemonic masculinity’, aimed at preserving the dominance of men over women, is important; as Connell writes: ‘the contempt for homosexuality and homosexual men… is part of the ideological package of hegemonic masculinity’. Opposition to sexual diversity combines both consciously political and unconscious fears and desires, which makes countering it particularly difficult.”

 

The relative local strength of these four factors goes a long way to explaining why, “[d]epending on where in the world one stands there is huge progress towards greater acceptance, or increased intolerance.”[vi]

 

The more pertinent, and challenging, question is what to do about it, and in this respect Queer Wars presents a thoughtful analysis of the opportunities, and pitfalls, of ‘global gay activism’.

 

Starting first with the limits of what those in the developed or ‘Western’ world can do to assist their global queer comrades, Altman and Symons present a stark warning of the risks of campaigns for LGBTI rights being externally imposed on countries (rather than developed in partnership with or, ideally led by local groups, with support where necessary – and only where invited – from outside organisations). As noted on page 34:

 

“Is speaking out strongly for gay rights, as is now the practice of the US and other governments, helpful – or does it, in practice, help fuel, even create, more political homophobia? What to western eyes might seem a basic assertion of human rights can easily be portrayed in much of the world as echoing a colonial language of a paternalistic civilising mission.”

 

Even more damning is the description on page 144, which is perhaps one of the strongest passages in the entire book:

 

“Rahul Rao describes the plight of third world queers, trapped between homophobic nationalist governments and the frequently misguided interventions of the ‘gay international’, with a phrase that he borrows from Hannah Arendt’s account of Jews in World War II choosing between ‘malevolent enemies and condescending friends’. Since the relationship between western and third world activists will often be one of inequality, it is easy for activists to participate accidentally in a ‘discursive colonisation’, which presumes that western concerns will be universal and so ignores the wishes of intended allies.”

 

Given this, what then can ‘we’ effectively contribute? On this, Queer Wars seems to make two main arguments:

 

  • First, that – as frustrating, slow-moving (some might say glacial) and occasionally opaque as its processes are – we should primarily concentrate on using international and regional human rights[vii] instruments, bodies and, where they exist, courts, to push the LGBTI agenda. This includes:

 

“The ‘Universal Periodic Review’ of each [UN] state’s human rights records, conducted every four years by the United Nations Human Rights Council, [which] creates an opportunity for other governments and civil society actors (both domestic and international) to discuss issues of concern, [and] which frequently include sexuality.”[viii]

 

  • Second, that this agenda should be relatively narrowly conceived, focusing on the right to be free from criminalisation, and the right to be free from violence. This argument is best encapsulated on page 135:

 

“If the international system were able to protect people from violence and persecution, this would create space for local activists to push for a deeper acceptance of diverse sexualities, kinships and families. The forms of liberation they pursue may be unfamiliar to us; indeed, some western activists may regard them as ‘liberation-lite’. Since international campaigners are likely to misunderstand the kinds of changes that will gain local acceptance, the international effort should focus on universal protection against criminalisation and violations of personal safety. If international consensus can be built around these minimal protections, this will support more transformative local changes without dictating them.”

 

This is not to completely rule out other types of activity. At multiple points, the book describes the inter-connectedness between this decriminalisation agenda and global efforts to combat the HIV epidemic (with men who have sex with men recognised as a priority population by most international organisations)[ix].

 

After a long discussion of ‘aid conditionality’[x], and the major risks involved in this approach, the authors also do not exclude the possibility of ‘Western’ Governments providing specific aid “to expand support for local community-based and –led LGBTI programmes”[xi], although even here care must be taken to avoid perceptions of the external imposition of a pro-LGBTI agenda.

 

And, of particular relevance for a country like Australia, which detains LGBTI people seeking asylum in countries where they are at risk of criminal prosecution, Queer Wars highlights the importance of the acceptance of refugees fleeing persecution on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status[xii].

 

Nevertheless, Altman and Symons’ main focus remains on working towards an international consensus in favour of decriminalisation, and personal safety, thereby helping to allow the conditions for local activists to push the issues, and agenda, that are most relevant to them. In this way, we, as privileged activists in ‘Western’ countries can best avoid what they describe, perhaps accurately, as the “traps of well-meaning egoism”[xiii].

 

**********

 

Outside of these two main arguments, Queer Wars touches on a range of other pertinent topics concerning international LGBTI issues across its 158 pages, including:

 

  • A necessary reminder that one of the key historical forces that has contributed to the fact that, in 2016, 77[xiv] countries continue to have criminal laws against homosexuality, was the British Empire (later known as the Commonwealth of Nations, or just ‘the Commonwealth’). As noted on page 113 “[t]he majority of countries that retain criminal sanctions against homosexual behaviour are members of either the Commonwealth or the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), or both”.

 

Altman and Symons also note that “Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Section 28’ laws in the UK in 1988, which was aimed at preventing ‘the promotion of homosexuality’, were in some ways forerunners of what is now occurring globally”[xv], including recent laws against ‘gay propaganda’ passed by Russia.

 

  • We should also remember that, just because LGBTI rights might be reflected in a country’s laws, does not automatically mean the ‘real-life’ situation for LGBTI people in that country is especially ‘rosy’. Examples of this include the contrast between Singapore, where homosexuality remains illegal, and Russia, where sexual acts are lawful[xvi], as well as variations within South Africa, with it Constitutional protections around sexual orientation – and recognition of marriage equality – but which also gave the world the term ‘corrective rape’[xvii] for the sexual assault of women perceived as lesbian.

 

  • Highlighting that the rate of ‘advancement’ on LGBTI issues can vary within countries between sexual orientation and gender identity. Some places are more likely to recognise diversity in gender identity – such as India, through the hijra identity[xviii], and fa’fanine in some Polynesian cultures[xix] – while in others transgender rights lag far behind those of lesbian, gay and bisexual people (with few countries explicitly acknowledging, and therefore protecting, intersex status).

 

  • Above all, that even the use of ‘Western’ terms like LGBTI can be problematic, because it assumes that all countries, and all cultures, will adopt the same approach to, and definitions of, differences in sexual orientations (or even that a person’s sexual practice should form the basis of an ‘identity’ in the first place), gender identities and intersex characteristics.

 

Overall, then, Queer Wars was a pretty appropriate book to read in the lead-up to, and then explore via this post on, IDAHOBIT. In my view, it asks the right questions that ‘we’, as LGBTI activists in the ‘Western’ world should be considering about the contemporary global situation, and how we can best assist our ‘queer comrades’ in other countries.

 

Better still, it provides thoughtful answers, even if Altman and Symons’ conclusions can be somewhat frustrating because of their limited scope (although the reasons for that narrow focus are well-argued). And it wraps it all together in an accessible and engaging package.

 

Finally, if I did have one criticism, it would be that the book doesn’t answer some of the more detailed or specific questions that I have, as an Australian cis gay man, about how I can contribute to campaigns for the recognition of LGBTI rights of people in the countries in our region, and especially Papua New Guinea and South Pacific nations.

 

However, given Queer Wars is explicitly global in focus, that’s an entirely unfair criticism to make – instead, it’s a conversation that I’ll need to have elsewhere, albeit one that will be better-informed for having read Altman and Symons’ book.

 

Queer Wars

 

Footnotes

[i] Taken from the official website: http://dayagainsthomophobia.org Personally, I prefer to describe it as the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexphobia and Transphobia, although that terminology is not yet in widespread use.

[ii] Noting that some discrimination against lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians remains, not just marriage equality but also barriers to inclusive education and limits on anti-discrimination protections, and of course acknowledging that the rights of transgender and intersex Australians remain poorly protected in many more areas.

[iii] Page 3.

[iv] Pages 47-70.

[v] From pages 28-29: “As president Mugabe tightened his hold over Zimbabwe he scapegoated the small homosexual organisations as un-African and responsible for many of the economic troubles of the country, paving the way for increasing homophobic rhetoric from a number of African leaders.”

[vi] Page 32.

[vii] Altman and Symons take a nuanced view of ‘human rights’, including defining it by how they fit within the political systems within which they are recognized – from page 141: “The ‘political conception’ of human rights offers a persuasive explanation of how human rights are formulated in the international system, but it is also inherently conservative: a claim will only become a human right when a preponderance of international opinion (as expressed by states) accepts it” (emphasis in original). As they readily acknowledge, this conception “makes more modest claims for human rights” (p140), which may help to explain their focus on campaigns against criminalization, and for personal safety, to the exclusion of other issues.

[viii] Page 154.

[ix] “The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria was founded in 2002 as a partnership between governments, civil society, the private sector and people affected by the diseases, and has sought to link funding to governments’ demonstrating that they are willing to work effectively with marginalized populations most vulnerable to HIV, usually identified as MSM [men who have sex with men]” pages 127-128.

[x] Defined on page 124 as “[c]onditionality refers to linking conditions to the provision of benefits such as loans or aid.” This is a practice that has been emerging in recent years as the Governments of the US and UK have sought to require greater acceptance of different sexual orientations as a pre-cursor to receiving, or continuing to receive, aid.

[xi] Page 130.

[xii] Discussion on pages 88-89.

[xiii] Page 144.

[xiv] The exact number is different according to different sources – this is based on the website of Australian Professor Paula Gerber: https://antigaylaws.org

[xv] Page 98.

[xvi] Page 112.

[xvii] Discussion of South Africa from page 62 onwards.

[xviii] Page 59.

[xix] Page 16.

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10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #9: Because sometimes I feel guilty for having #firstworldproblems

Have you ever felt that pang of guilt that we in Australia spend so much time campaigning for marriage equality when so many of our LGBTI comrades around the world are fighting for things that are even more fundamental, like the right to simply be who they are without fear of criminal prosecution?

I must admit I have – sometimes, when I am writing my umpteenth submission calling for the right to simply marry my fiancé, or attending my 20th or even 30th rally supporting marriage equality, I do feel slightly guilty for having what on twitter might be referred to as #firstworldproblems (albeit of a far less trivial nature than complaints like ‘my raisin bran had too many raisins in it this morning’).

When you look at this recently released map from ILGA (the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association):

ILGA 2016

ILGA, June 2016.

and see large sections of the globe coloured orange (where being gay is a criminal offence) and even dark red (countries which have the death penalty for homosexuality) – and they are at least as large as, and include many more people, than the sections which are dark green (ie countries and states that have full marriage equality) – then experiencing such guilt might seem understandable.

Now, before I get roundly slammed for expressing this view, I acknowledge that this perhaps says more about me than about the Australian marriage equality movement per se. I also recognise that these thoughts are likely the products of internalising a couple of the arguments which have been used against LGBTI equality for some time.

The first, that people elsewhere have it worse off than us (undoubtedly true), and that we should be grateful for what we have (also true – although from my perspective I am grateful to the activists who have brought that situation about), is essentially an attempt to say that we already have ‘enough’ rights, and therefore should stop campaigning for more.

This argument is easy to reject – just because we have already achieved some rights (decriminalisation, anti-discrimination protections etc), doesn’t mean we should accept anything less than full equality – and that includes exactly the same legal recognition of our relationships as already enjoyed by cisgender heterosexual couples.

However, the second, related argument is a little more difficult to dismiss out of hand, and that is that there are bigger and more important issues in the world, and consequently we should be concentrating our efforts on those instead.

In the domestic context, this type of argument is used by marriage equality opponents to say that jobs, the economy, health, education – indeed, all manner of things – are more important than marriage equality, and that we should just ‘drop it’ and put those other issues first.

Of course, our straightforward response to that argument is that Parliament is capable of dealing with more than one issue at a time, and therefore there is no need to put things like marriage equality on the backburner until somehow all of those other issues are magically ‘fixed’ first.

In the international context, the argument would go something like: given there are still roughly 75 countries where being gay is a crime, achieving decriminalisation globally is far more important than campaigning for marriage equality in countries like Australia where we already enjoy most substantive rights, and therefore that is where we should exert all our energies.

Based on the domestic example (above), the most logical response is to say that we are capable of doing both – that there is absolutely no reason why we cannot simultaneously campaign for marriage equality within Australia (and similar countries), while also supporting movements for decriminalisation elsewhere.

But, and here’s the important thing, the strength of that argument is based on us actually DOING both. If we only look at improving our own (already quite privileged) lot, and effectively ignore the struggle for more basic equality from lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people in other countries then, at the very least, we expose ourselves to the potential criticism that we are being indulgent (even if most would see such criticism as unfair).

That is not to say that anyone should feel guilty for campaigning for their own individual equality or rights – and not just because, as I have discovered perhaps a little late in life, guilt is not an especially productive emotion. To me, one of life’s great joys lies in finding the strength to stand up against the discrimination or prejudice that we encounter.

But I guess I am saying that, if we are interested in campaigning for full equality for ourselves, by securing marriage equality domestically, we should also see that struggle in its appropriate context, and also devote some of our time and effort to helping the fight for equality by our LGBTI comrades in other countries.

NB If, after reading this, you agree with me and want to do more (or even if you disagree vehemently with what I’ve written but still want to help international LGBTI equality), here are five groups which you might consider joining/supporting:

Thoughts – and Actions – on IDAHOBIT

Updated May 2017:

On 17 May 1990, the World Health Organisation agreed to declassify homosexuality as a mental health disorder. Long overdue, this move helped give weight to campaigns around the world to decriminalise homosexuality, and calls for equal rights irrespective of sexual orientation.

In 2005, the first ever International Day Against Homophobia was held on May 17, to mark the significance of the WHO’s decision, as well as bring together groups from all over the globe to campaign for equality.

In the 12 years since, IDAHO has expanded, both in the size of the event, and in its inclusiveness, with many countries now referring to it as the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT). Globally, the ‘tag-line’ for the event has also expanded to become the ‘Global Day to Celebrate Sexual and Gender Diversities’.

I absolutely support moves for this day to be as inclusive as possible – which is why I personally prefer to refer to it as IDAHOBIT: the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexphobia and Transphobia. In this way all parts of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) communities are acknowledged.

But enough of nomenclature. What does this day mean to me?

Well, given I spend most of my time as an LGBTI activist on issues within Australia, today I choose to reflect on the wider struggle for LGBTI equality all over the globe.

In terms of homosexuality and bisexuality, that means remembering that engaging in same-sex intercourse remains a criminal offence in at least 72 different countries. In at least four countries, being convicted for being gay or bisexual can result in the death penalty (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Sudan), as well as in parts of Nigeria, Somalia, Iraq and Syria.

It must be pointed out that this is more than three-and-a-half times the number of countries where there is full marriage equality (20 countries in total, with parts of the UK and Mexico also recognising same-sex marriage).

So, no matter how far we think we’ve come in the 16 years since the first same-sex marriage in the Netherlands (and the rate of change has indeed been astonishing) there are many, many more countries where the battle is a much more fundamental one, where it is a fight for the right to even exist.

From an Australian perspective, we should remember that of the 53 members of the ‘Commonwealth of Nations’ (aka our colleagues among the former British Empire), approximately 40 still criminalise homosexuality and bisexuality. In other words, more than half of the countries in the world where being gay or bisexual is a crime are found within a group that accounts for just over a quarter over the total number of countries.

It is fair to say that homophobia and biphobia is one of the most awful, and enduring, legacies of the British Empire (and especially of Victorian-era Britain). It is equally fair to suggest that it is the responsibility of the United Kingdom, and other countries within the Commonwealth where LGBTI rights have progressed, such as Australia, to assist moves towards decriminalisation in these countries.

But Australia also has special responsibilities with respect of at least one country in our own neighbourhood, which still criminalises homosexuality and bisexuality, and which Australia exerted some form of control over for extended periods of the 20th century: Papua New Guinea.

It just so happens that Australia continues to use PNG for the indefinite detention of (or, what the Government calls, ‘offshore processing and resettlement’ of) refugees, including LGBTI refugees. Even if what our Government is doing on our behalf is immoral, we as Australian citizens have a moral responsibility to support, as best we can, movements within PNG to decriminalise same-sex activity (which can attract punishments of up to 14 years imprisonment).

Of course, as the name suggests, IDAHOBIT is a day to reflect on more than just lesbian, gay and bisexual rights – we must also consider the lack of recognition of and support for transgender people right around the globe.

Trans people are all too frequently denied the right to be who they are, with some countries criminalising simply being trans, while many more deny individuals the medical support that they determine is necessary for themselves, and above all the identity documentation and legal status they deserve.

But, even where being trans is recognised by law, there remains a disturbing and enduring global epidemic of transphobic violence and hate crimes. We must continue to fight to ensure that no person is physically unsafe simply because of their gender identity.

The battle for intersex rights is, to some extent, an even more fundamental one – and that is the fight to be recognised in the first place. Ignored for many years, even it must be said by other parts of the LGBTI community, intersex advocates have done amazing work in recent decades in increasing their visibility and, in turn, visibility of the discrimination which affects them.

Part of these efforts has been shining a spotlight on the absolutely horrific things which are done (and continue to be done) to intersex infants, including sterilisation and other unnecessary and harmful medical interventions. The 2013 Senate Report on Involuntary or Coerced Sterilisation of Intersex People in Australia is a good place to start to read up about these injustices.

Intersex people are also affected by some similar issues to trans people in terms of ensuring that diversity, in gender identity and sex/intersex status, is able to be recognised where it is necessary (and, where it is not relevant to be known or collected, that sex/intersex status is able to be ignored).

So, now that we’ve used IDAHOBIT to think about some of the issues affecting LGBTI people around the world, that’s our job done, isn’t it? After all, these global days of acknowledgement or recognition are usually opportunities for sombre reflection about injustices perpetrated against different individuals or groups, before we move on to the next ‘day of remembrance’ in a week or a month’s time.

Well, no. Because much more important than our thoughts about the human rights violations suffered by LGBTI people elsewhere, are the actions that we take to remedy them. It is not good enough to simply get outraged about the latest anti-LGBTI developments in Chechnya without actually doing something about it.

Of course, speaking as someone from a privileged background in a ‘Western’ country where many (but not all, especially re trans and intersex) of these rights have already been won, deciding exactly what that ‘something’ is can be difficult. It is also complicated by the worse than chequered history of ‘Western’ interventions in the affairs of other countries – including the historical legacy of anti-LGBTI laws and attitudes of European imperialism, and the modern crusades of christian evangelism.

Above all, it is our job to support the role of groups and movements within other countries who are seeking change, working with them (and certainly not dictating to them).

Which leaves what, exactly? For me, this means that on days like IDAHOBIT I consider how I can support those groups in Australia and internationally who either represent the global LGBTI cause, or who have demonstrated the ability to work effectively with LGBTI groups in other countries to achieve progress. This list includes (but is definitely not limited to):

Today, as we celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexphobia and Transphobia, please consider supporting one or more of these groups so that together we can improve the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people everywhere.

ILGA 2017

The ILGA May 2017 map showing the criminalisation of same-sex activity.

No 5 Homosexuality Still Criminal in 77 Countries

The past four posts have looked at one issue (marriage equality, both domestically and around the world) and gay rights in two specific countries, Russia and India.

The subject matter of each of these four posts has received significant media coverage – for some pretty obvious reasons. Same-sex couples seeking the right to marry provide both a ‘human interest’ story, and usually some compelling images to accompany it. Putin’s crackdown on LGBTI Russians has inevitably received widespread attention, particularly in the lead-up to the Winter Olympics. And it is pretty hard to ignore the re-criminalisation of homosexuality in a country with more than 1.2 billion people.

But, comparatively, it has been much easier for the media to ignore the ongoing criminalisation of homosexuality in 77 countries across the world (including India after the recent Supreme Court decision, but excluding Russia where, despite the anti-propaganda law homosexuality itself remains legal).

To put that figure into perspective, that is five times the number of countries that have full marriage equality (or more than four times the number of countries including those where some parts have adopted marriage equality, like the United States). So, while some parts of Europe and North and South America (together with South Africa and New Zealand), push forwards towards full equality, more than a third of countries around the world still treat homosexuality as a criminal offence.

This includes 38 countries in Africa, while 41 countries come from the Commonwealth (which is pretty extraordinary when you consider there are only 53 member states in total).

Tragically, the are five countries – Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen – where homosexuality attracts the death penalty, while capital punishment also applies in parts of Nigeria and Somalia.

Which is a scandalous state of affairs, and something that the media – including but not limited to the LGBTI media – should report, and reflect, more on.

There have been some encouraging recent signs – in terms of coverage, if not subject matter. Over the past week, moves to increase criminal penalties in Uganda and Nigeria have attracted attention globally. The murder of Eric Ohena Lembembe in Cameroon mid-year was also covered, as have, periodically, anti-gay developments in Zimbabwe, Iran and elsewhere.

What has also been encouraging during 2013 has been the debate, within the Australian LGBTI community, about the need for advocacy for global LGBTI rights. Sparked in part by the situation in Russia, there has finally been a discussion about the relative priority we give something like marriage equality, compared to decriminalisation around the globe.

After all, while we are fighting for the right to walk down the aisle, our LGBTI comrades elsewhere are fighting simply for the right to exist. I’m not suggesting that we have those priorities right – in fact far from it. But I get the feeling that we are closer to achieving a better balance at the end of 2013 than at the beginning.

Some of the organisations that have helped to promote the global push for decriminalisation include the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA: http://ilga.org), AllOut (https://www.allout.org), the Kaleidoscope Trust (http://kaleidoscopetrust.com), and of course Amnesty International (a link to the NSW LGBTQI Network here: http://www.amnesty.org.au/nsw/group/12065/). I would encourage you to support any or all of them.

One final point I would like to make is that there are things that the Australian Government can and should be doing with respect to this issue, not just raising it (diplomatically, in all senses of the word) through international forums and bilaterally, but also by providing aid to global campaigns for sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status equality.

One special burden which falls upon Australia is its own responsibility for the criminal laws which still exist in our former ‘colony’, Papua New Guinea, which were in place before Independence in September 1975. Because of that fact, it is imperative that the Australian Government – and the Australian LGBTI population generally – helps to encourage moves in our closest neighbour to decriminalise homosexuality. Hopefully that day, not just in PNG but right across the South Pacific, is not too far away.

No 6 India’s Supreme Court Re-criminalises Homosexuality

One of the more disappointing developments of the year was also one of the last in terms of LGBTI rights. On 11 December, India’s Supreme Court effectively re-criminalised homosexuality in the world’s second most-populous nation.

They did so by overturning the Delhi High Court’s July 2 2009 decision in Naz Foundation v Govt of NCT of Delhi, which had found that section 377 of India’s penal code was unconstitutional in so far as it applied to sex, including gay sex, between consenting adults.

While the Supreme Court did find that section 377 was discriminatory and that gay sex between consenting adults should not be criminal, it nonetheless decided that the matter is one for Parliament to resolve, rather than the Courts, and consequently ‘revived’ the application of section 377 to homosexuality.

For its part, the Indian Government has expressed its disappointment with the Supreme Court’s decision. Sonia Gandhi, president of the ruling Congress Party, described section 377 as “an archaic, unjust law”, while Finance Minister P Chidambaram is reported as saying that the ruling had taken India “back to 1860” (the year the law was first introduced).

In the past 24 hours, the Indian Government has filed a petition in the Supreme Court asking it to review its decision to reinstate section 377, on the basis that it “violate[s] the principle of equality.”

The Law Minister, Kapil Sibal, has tweeted that “[t]he government has filed the review petition on Section 377 in the Supreme Court today. Let’s hope the right to personal choices is preserved”.

What they haven’t done is commit to introducing legislation to overturn section 377 themselves, instead preferring to hand it back to the judicial branch of government to resolve. Which means that, for however long the petition takes to resolve, consensual sex between same-sex attracted adults will remain a crime in India (after the all-too-brief 4 and a half year era of decriminalisation).

The decision not to legislate at this stage is obviously a tactical one. A national election is due before 31 May 2014, and with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) adopting a more hard-line conservative position in response to the decision, there is the potential for them to use the issue as a pre-election wedge.

However, if the BJP and its Coalition parties do form government next year then, as well as making it unlikely that legislation to decriminalise homosexuality will be passed by parliament, it will also throw the status of the current Government’s petition to the Supreme Court (assuming it hasn’t been heard) into doubt.

In short, the situation is a bit of a mess.

But, before we judge too harshly the efforts to date of India’s Parliament on this issue, including those of the Congress Party-led Government, it is important to remember where the original blame for section 377 lies.

After all, we are expecting the current Indian political (and judicial) system to clean up the mess left by the British imperial Government of the 19th century. Just like other European ‘colonial’ powers, the British left a legacy of legal – and cultural – homophobia in its wake.

In fact, the British were especially talented at spreading homophobia around the world. More than half of all countries where homosexuality is illegal in 2013 are current members of the Commonwealth of Nations (more on that topic in the next post).

Indeed, the actions of the British Empire during the 19th and 20th centuries place a special burden on the United Kingdom (as well as Canada, Australia and New Zealand) to do whatever they can to assist fellow Commonwealth countries along the path towards decriminalisation.

Nevertheless, despite the original blame for section 377 lying elsewhere, the people with the power to finally abolish it are in India – either on the judicial, or parliamentary, benches. Here’s hoping they find the courage to do so shortly, and allow millions of LGBTI people to return to living their lives free from the threat of prosecution, or police intimidation.

No 7 Russia’s Anti-Gay Crackdown

What is happening in Russia is horrible. The introduction of Putin’s laws, making so-called ‘gay propaganda’ illegal, is obviously a significant blow to both the country’s LGBTI population and to any concept of Russian democracy.

It is made worse because the laws are not some idle threat – they are being actively enforced against brave protesters who have the temerity to stand up and say that “To be gay and to love gays is normal. To beat gays and kill gays is criminal” as Dmitry Isakov did (just this week Dmitry was fined 4000 roubles for doing so, the third Russian to be prosecuted under the laws after Nikolai Alexeyev and Yaroslav Yevtushenko).

But, if it were ‘just’ these laws (and yes, I know that it is almost impossible to use the word ‘just’ in this context), then what is going on in Russia would probably not stand out in a world where homosexuality remains criminal in 77 countries (and where, despite these laws, Russia still does not technically criminalise homosexuality).

However, the sad reality is that the laws criminalising gay propaganda seem to be just the start. They have been accompanied by a wave of homophobia affecting many aspects of Russian society.

Legally, a threat hangs over rainbow families that their children will be taken away from them (as an Australian, the idea of children being stolen because of their parents’ social group is especially poignant).

There have also been widespread acts of physical violence and intimidation against LGBTI Russians, including numerous hate crimes and, tragically, murders. Gay clubs have been attacked, with bullets and with fire.

And the cultural debate has degenerated to the point that a Russian actor, Ivan Okhlobystin, can say that “I would have them [gays] all stuffed alive inside an oven. This is Sodom and Gomorrah, as a believer, I can not remain indifferent to this, it is a living danger to my children!” – and be applauded.

It is not just that last comment which has made many people think back 80 years to political developments to the West of Russia, in Italy and, especially, Germany. While I do not throw the word fascist around lightly (and we are, thankfully, still some distance away from the worst of Hitler’s regime), the scapegoating of a minority group in the way Russia is doing now certainly brings fascism to mind.

Part of what makes this a difficult subject to write about is that, as an Australian LGBTI activist, it is hard to work out what the best response is. So hard, in fact, that it is almost tempting to forgive the initial ‘kneejerk’ reaction of some people who indicated their disgust at the actions of Putin & co by boycotting Russian vodka (‘vodka revolution’ anyone?).

Others have concentrated their advocacy around the upcoming Winter Olympics, to be held in Sochi from February 7 to 23. While most calls to boycott seem to have died down (it was always going to be an unlikely outcome, especially in the apparent absence of a united position from Russian LGBTI groups calling on us to do so), there will be other ways to draw attention to the state-sponsored homophobia of Putin’s Russia during that fortnight.

In particular, the campaign by @allout and Athlete Ally, focusing on Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter (which states that any form of discrimination is incompatible with the Olympics), seems like a sensible way to go about it (especially because it allows athletes to take a political stand without falling foul of the Olympics rules against ‘politicising’ sports).

But the problem, with this and other campaigns, will come in the days and weeks after the closing ceremony, when the spotlight of the world’s media turns elsewhere. Because it will be very easy for the Russian Government to ensure that nothing negative happens for a couple of weeks, especially to the athletes, tourists and reporters converging on Sochi.

It is far more important to focus on what is happening to Russia’s LGBTI population now, in the days leading up Sochi, what happens elsewhere in Russia during the Games, and what will happen in the months and years that follow.

We must make sure that we don’t avert our gaze just because the global media caravan moves on. We must continue to pressure our own Governments to take action on this issue, raising it with their Russian counterparts. And, above all, we must continue to communicate with Russian LGBTI groups to learn from them what we can do to help them in their fight.