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.

Submission to Scottish Marriage Equality Consultation

Today I made a submission to the Scottish Government’s consultation on their Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill. Submissions close 5pm Wednesday 20 March 2013(Scottish time). Below is the text of comments which I made in addition to the model response to the Bill provided on the Equal Marriage UK website: I encourage other people to make a submission if you have time.

Scotland flag

I am writing this submission in support of marriage equality as an Australian of Scottish descent, and therefore someone who wishes to see Scotland leading on a key progressive issue. I am also a gay man, engaged to be married to a wonderful partner, but currently prohibited from doing so by my own government. As a result, I am keenly aware of the negative consequences of the imposition of inequality in relationship recognition on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

I do not propose to detail the general arguments in favour marriage equality here because I am confident that LGBTI people in Scotland, and their families and friends, will be able to do so far more eloquently than I could. However, from my vantage point on the other side of the world, I do wish to highlight the potential symbolic importance of a move by the government of Scotland to finally accept lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people as equal citizens.

I sincerely believe that the introduction of marriage equality by the Scottish parliament would have precedent value for other members of the Commonwealth of Nations. As one of the first countries colonised by the English, and one of the last to adopt any form of self-government, Scotland embracing LGBTI human rights in this way would demonstrate that it is possible to overcome the history of homophobia which often accompanied imperialism.

Together with the expected passage of marriage equality in England and Wales in the near future, and on top of earlier moves by Canada and South Africa, Scotland would be sending a signal to other members of the Commonwealth that LGBTI people deserve equal treatment under the law. This is especially important because 41 Commonwealth countries continue to impose criminal penalties for homosexuality, and with homosexuality attracting life imprisonment in six of these.

There are also two upcoming events of symbolic significance within Scotland which, I believe, would be enhanced by the passage of marriage equality. The first is the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in July and August 2014. I think it would be a wonderful achievement if these were to be the first games held on soil where LGBTI people were full and equal citizens. This would deliver a message of acceptance of different sexual orientations, gender identities and of intersex people to those Commonwealth countries who attend.

The second event with symbolic significance is the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence, which is currently expected to be held in the autumn of 2014. I submit that it is important to remove the blemish of legislated discrimination against LGBTI people ahead of this referendum: if the Scottish people are to embrace independence, then surely all of its citizens should be able to celebrate this achievement as equals. This newly-independent country, if that is the outcome of the referendum, should be able to start its life with a clean slate, and not one that has been tarnished by homophobia, bi-phobia, trans-phobia and anti-intersex prejudice.

Of course, I am not writing this submission completely unmotivated by self-interest. If Scotland were to adopt marriage equality, it would add another name to the long list of countries which have left Australia behind on this issue. Our near neighbours New Zealand look likely to do the same in the next few months. Hopefully, as the marriage equality movement continues to sweep the world, my own government will finally be embarrassed into action on this issue.

Leaving self-interest aside, and irrespective of the symbolic arguments which I have outlined above, the most powerful argument in favour of marriage equality must always be the thousands of LGBTI-inclusive couples in Scotland who would be able to take advantage of this Bill if and when it is eventually passed. The happiness of these couples would be immeasurably increased by a law which does not deny anyone else their rights, but simply extends the rights which one group already has to other communities.

I know how important and affirming it would be to have legal recognition of my relationship with my fiancé. The LGBTI people of Scotland are no different in terms of their hopes and aspirations for full legal equality. I hope that Scottish parliamentarians listen to these voices before deciding whether to say “Yes” or “No” to the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill. Ultimately, any person should be able to determine for themselves whether to say “I do”.