This post is part of a series looking at the unfinished business of LGBTI equality in Australia. You can see the rest of the posts here.
Today we celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Transphobia and Intersexphobia (variously abbreviated as IDAHO, IDAHOT, IDAHOTB or IDAHOBIT).
In Australia, we do a relatively good job of focusing on what the day means in terms of the challenges that remain in order to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights – domestically anyway.
However, we are much less successful in remembering the first word in the day’s title, and highlighting the even greater barriers left in addressing and overcoming homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia globally.
According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), as of December 2019 there were 68 UN Members States in which consensual same-sex sexual acts remained criminalised, plus Palestine (Gaza), the Cook Islands, and some provinces in Indonesia (from pp47 State-Sponsored Homophobia Report: Global Legislation Overview Update December 2019).
A significant number of these countries are within our region. In Oceania, that includes:
|Country||Maximum Penalty for Homosexuality|
|Cook Islands||14 years imprisonment|
|Kiribati||14 years imprisonment|
|Papua New Guinea||14 years imprisonment|
|Samoa||5 years imprisonment|
|Solomon Islands||14 years imprisonment|
|Tonga||10 years imprisonment|
|Tuvalu||14 years imprisonment|
There are a number of other countries that criminalise same-sex sexual activity in South-East Asia, too:
|Country||Maximum Penalty for Homosexuality|
|Brunei||10 years imprisonment|
|Malaysia||20 years imprisonment|
|Myanmar||10 years imprisonment|
|Singapore||2 years imprisonment|
*As well as some provinces within Indonesia, including Aceh.
And Australia has another important connection with a large number of countries that still criminalise homosexuality around the world, with half being members of the Commonwealth (including more than half of countries within the Commonwealth itself).
Therefore, while Australia might have fully decriminalised homosexuality in 2016 (when Queensland finally equalised the age of consent for anal intercourse), there is still a long way to go on this issue internationally.
Of course, there is even further to go – both domestically and internationally – for trans and gender diverse people to have the right for their identity documentation to reflect their gender identity based on self-declaration, and to be able to live their lives free from discrimination, violence and in some countries criminalisation. For more, see ILGA’s 2017 Trans Legal Mapping Report.
And, as on so many issues, progress on intersex rights has lagged even further behind, with very few countries following Malta’s 2015 lead in banning coercive surgeries and other involuntary medical treatments on intersex people. That includes Australia, too, with governments at all levels failing to implement the recommendations of the 2013 Senate Inquiry on this subject in the intervening six years. [Unfortunately, I am note aware of an equivalent State-Sponsored Intersexphobia/Intersex Legal Mapping Report].
Thankfully, it’s not all bad news. There has been some significant progress in recent years on at least some of these issues, not least of which was the historic September 2018 decision by the Supreme Court of India to declare section 377 of the Indian Penal Code unconstitutional, thereby legalising homosexuality in the second most-populous country on earth.
That case, after years of amazing advocacy by Indian activists, helps make the following graph look much more encouraging:
Nevertheless, there are still far too many countries where people are not free to love who they love, not able to identify with their gender and be protected against discrimination, violence and criminalisation, and not subject to coercive surgeries and other involuntary medical treatments because of their sex characteristics.
So, what can Australia do? There are a range of ways in which Australia can better support progress on LGBTI rights internationally, including the following:
- Support decriminalisation as a key priority of foreign policy
Australia should support decriminalisation for all LGBTI people around the world as a key human rights objective of our foreign policy. This should include a primary focus on decriminalisation within our region, as well as within the Commonwealth.
Unfortunately, the most recent Foreign Policy White Paper makes exactly zero references to supporting LGBTI human rights (despite my submission calling for their inclusion).
Of course, achieving this goal depends on partnership with communities within these countries, not only because they are best placed to know how to advocate for decriminalisation, but also because Australia acting unilaterally would risk entrenching anti-LGBTI policies and laws.
- Support LGBTI rights through international human rights architecture
This includes using our current term on the United Nations Human Rights Council to prioritise LGBTI rights, as well as actively supporting the reappointment of the UN Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. And it also includes regularly raising LGBTI rights issues within the Commonwealth Heads of Government framework (with the next CHOGM meeting in Rwanda next year).
Australia could also consider appointing an Ambassador for LGBTI Rights in the same way that we have appointed an Ambassador for Women and Girls.
- Support LGBTI rights through foreign aid
Another way in which Australia can better support LGBTI rights internationally is by supporting LGBTI human rights through our foreign aid policies (and of course by ensuring our foreign aid Budget is increased overall, after a series of mean-spirited and unjustified cuts under the Liberal-National Government have reduced it to 0.19-0.21% of GDP, far short of the UN target of 0.70% and far short of our capacity, and responsibility, as one of the richest countries on the planet).
This could include funding for international LGBTI associations, such as the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), OutRight International and Kaleidoscope Trust, as well as other human rights organisations that include a focus on LGBTI rights (such as Human Rights Watch). It also means actively supporting the Commonwealth Equality Network, and LGBTI organisations working towards decriminalisation within our region.
- Accept LGBTI refugees and people seeking asylum
We should acknowledge that, while the aim is to ensure lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people are safe everywhere, this is not currently the case and will not be possible in some places for some time. Australia should therefore ensure its refugee framework helps to protect LGBTI people fleeing persecution, including through appropriate assessment processes, and providing improved support services post-resettlement. Oh, and that obviously means not detaining, processing and settling LGBTI refugees offshore, including in countries that criminalise them (for more, see Australia’s (Mis)Treatment of LGBTI Refugees).
- Set a better example on LGBTI rights domestically
Australia’s ongoing (mis)treatment of refugees, including LGBTI people seeking asylum, raises another key challenge – in order to better support human rights internationally, we must be seen to respect human rights domestically. That is obviously not currently occurring when it comes to our refugee policy.
It is also not the case in terms of our own treatment of trans and gender diverse people. We must make sure all states and territories follow Tasmania’s recent lead in best practice access to identity documentation on the basis of identity not surgery. And we must finally make long overdue progress on intersex human rights, including protecting the bodily autonomy and integrity of intersex children against coercive surgeries and other involuntary medical treatments.
As we commemorate International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Transphobia and Intersexphobia (IDAHOBIT) today, we should by all means celebrate how far we have come within Australia, as well as highlighting those challenges that remain domestically. But we must not forget the ‘International’ focus of the day, and the important role Australia can play in making progress on LGBTI rights everywhere, for everyone.
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