Putting the ‘International’ Back into IDAHOBIT: Supporting International LGBTI Rights

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.

 

As the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) confirms in its recently-published State-Sponsored Homophobia Report 2019 (p15):

 

As of March 2019, there are 70 Member States (35%) that criminalise consensual same-sex sexual acts: 68 of them have laws that explicitly criminalise consensual same-sex sexual acts and 2 more criminalise such acts de facto. In addition, other jurisdictions which are not UN Member States also criminalise such acts (Gaza, the Cook Islands and certain provinces in Indonesia).

 

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.

 

ilga_sexual_orientation_laws_map_2019

Source: ILGA

 

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:

 

ILGA Criminalisation by Population Graph copy

 

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:

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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).

 

  1. 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 guaranteeing 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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Submission re Foreign Policy White Paper

Update:

 

The Foreign Policy White Paper was released in November 2017 (under then Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, and then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull).

 

While in all four areas raised in my submission there were improvements from the call for submissions, in each the final outcome remains unsatisfactory.

 

First, after having not even mentioned climate change in the original call for submissions, the White Paper at least discusses climate change and some of the implications it raises for Australia, both here and internationally. This includes from page 33 and again from page 84.

 

However, there is little indication that climate change will be THE international policy challenge facing Australia in the 21st century, and very little discussion about what we will do to avoid it (although perhaps that has more do to with the complete lack of domestic commitment to combatting climate change).

 

Second, and again after not mentioning refugees, people seeking asylum and displaced persons as an issue in the call for submissions, the White Paper does at least discuss the challenge posed by more than 60 million displaced people around the world – albeit in a somewhat cursory fashion on pages 92 and 93 (and with little indication how we will play our role in helping to stop that number from growing even further).

 

Third, there is now some discussion of Australian aid, and the role that it can (and should) play, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region (including a commitment on page 97 that: “Australia will continue to work with international institutions such as the World Health Organization to help prevent, detect and respond to health emergencies and to combat antimicrobial resistance. Australia will invest a further $220 million in the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which as saved more than 20 million lives since 2002.”)

 

Although, perhaps unsurprisingly, there is no discussion of how Australia intends to restore our foreign aid budget to at least the 0.50% of GDP target which used to have bi-partisan support, let alone reach the 0.70% United Nations target.

 

Fourth, and finally, the term human rights also makes a belated and welcome appearance in the Foreign Policy White Paper. In particular, there is a pleasing focus on gender equality, and improving the situation for women and girls, both in our region and around the world.

 

However, despite the fact that up to 72 countries continue to criminalise homosexuality (source: ILGA 2017 State-Sponsored Homophobia Report), including our nearest neighbour Papua New Guinea, there is exactly zero reference to support for LGBTI rights around the world.

 

In contrast, there are multiple references of support for freedom of religion (reflecting the same disproportionate attention given to that right, over and above the rights of LGBTI people, that has dominated the Liberal-National Government during the Abbott, Turnbull and now Morrison leaderships).

 

Original Post:

 

 

Below is my personal submission regarding the development of the Australian Government’s Foreign Policy White Paper. Submissions close Tuesday 28 February 2017. For more details, please see the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade’s website.

**********

Foreign Policy White Paper Submission

c/- whitepaper@dfat.gov.au

 

To whom it may concern,

 

Submission re Foreign Policy White Paper

 

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission to inform the Australian Government’s development of its Foreign Policy White Paper.

 

This is a personal submission, prompted by the four-page Call for Submissions, published on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website.

 

In this submission, I will address four main issues that I believe must be addressed in any responsible Foreign Policy White Paper: climate change; refugees; foreign aid; and human rights.

 

Which is why it was so disappointing to note that three of these four issues were not mentioned, at all, in that four-page document.

 

There was not even a single mention of the threat posed by global warming, the humanitarian challenge of the growth in displaced persons and people seeking asylum, or the need to promote the human rights of all people, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people, around the world.

 

Admittedly, there was at least one cursory reference to “our overseas development assistance program”, although, as we shall see below, even that was inadequate.

 

In any event, please see below my explanation of why each of these four policy areas must form a central part of the Foreign Policy White Paper that is expected to be released in late 2017.

 

  1. Climate Change & Global Warming

 

I find it extraordinary that the White Paper call for submissions completely failed to mention[i] what must be the most important challenge facing the world in the 21st century: climate change, and specifically accelerating global warming.

 

In 2017, there is no doubt that the actions of humans have contributed to a rapidly warming planet. Indeed, the Government’s own Bureau of Meteorology confirmed, in its most recent Annual Climate Statement[ii], that:

 

  • 2016 was Australia’s fourth warmest year on record, 0.87 degrees above the long-term average
  • It was also the warmest year on record for ocean temperatures in the Australian region, with an annual mean sea surface temperature 0.73 degrees above average, and
  • Our three most populous states, NSW, Victoria and Queensland, also had the highest average minimum temperatures on record during the past 12 months.

 

Globally, the news is even more confronting. The same report confirmed that:

 

  • 2016 was the warmest year on record around the world, 0.83 degrees above the long-term average
  • “This surpasses the previous record set in 2015, and is the third year running that the new record has been set” [emphasis added]
  • January, February, March, April, July, August and December 2016 were all the warmest respective months on record, and
  • “The global ocean surface temperature for the calendar year was also the warmest on record in 2016, surpassing the record set in 2015.”

 

This is nothing short of a climate emergency. And it is a situation that will directly affect Australia, and its people, just as it affects every other country and people in the world (after all, if the planet cooks, we will all cook with it).

 

The threat of climate change is an international problem – consequently, the response to it must be international in nature too. That includes a response from Australia, both through domestic policy (with the introduction of an effective price on carbon), but also in its foreign policy settings.

 

Climate change generally, and global warming specifically, may well be the most significant challenge we, as a species, have ever faced. I believe responding to this threat must be the number one priority of any new Foreign Policy White Paper that the Australian Government produces.

 

170227-climate-change-final

Climate change is real, and it cannot be ignored (source: Bureau of Meteorology).

 

  1. Refugees and People Seeking Asylum

 

A second issue that, almost as bizarrely, is not even mentioned in the Foreign Policy White Paper call for submissions is the growing number of displaced people around the world, including refugees and people seeking asylum.

 

This is despite the fact that the most recent Global Trends: Forced Displacement report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)[iii] noted that “[g]lobal forced displacement has increased in 2015, with record-high numbers.”

 

Indeed, that same report revealed there were:

 

  • 65.3 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide, including
    • 21.3 million refugees
    • 40.8 million internally displaced persons, and
    • 3.2 million asylum seekers
  • 12.4 million people newly displaced due to conflict or persecution in 2015 alone, and
  • 2.0 million asylum applications submitted (a new record-high) with 441,900 asylum claims just in Germany as a result of the war in Syria.

 

It should not have taken widely-shared, tragic photographs of Alan Kurdi in September 2015 to make us realise this is truly a global humanitarian crisis.

 

The numbers alone confirm that this is an international issue of the highest order, and addressing its causes, while responding to the consequences, must be a foreign policy priority for all countries, including Australia.

 

One of the many depressing statistics found in the UNHRC’s report confirms that it currently is not: “[d]uring 2015, the total number of refugees admitted for resettlement stood at 107,100”[iv]. That’s 107,100 out of a total of 21.3 million.

 

Of course, the Australian Government may claim that, given 9,400 of those refugees were resettled here (the third-highest of any country), we do not need to do more.

 

But that ignores the fact we benefit from our location, and isolation, and therefore do not have the same number of in-country applications for asylum as other places. And it also overlooks the wealth and privilege we currently enjoy.

 

As a country we can, and must, do more in response to the growing number of displaced persons around the world, and that should be reflected in our new Foreign Policy White Paper.

 

170227-unhcr-forced-displacement-2015-final

Source: UNHCR

 

  1. Foreign Aid

 

The one issue, out of the four priority areas highlighted above, that is at least touched on in the call for submissions is foreign aid. Topic 5: Australia confronts a range of strategic, security and transnational challenges on page 3 includes the following question:

 

“How can our foreign policy, including our overseas development assistance program, support a more prosperous, peaceful and stable region?”

 

However, while this question at least acknowledges the importance of foreign aid (or in this case ‘overseas development assistance’), it does so largely within the framework of Australia’s national interest, rather than in the context of our common humanity.

 

Irrespective of this broader ‘framing’, one of the main answers to this question is actually to increase our foreign aid spending.

 

Drastic budget cuts to Australia’s foreign aid budget in recent years – with $1 billion, or 20%, cut in 2015-16, and a further $224 million reduction in 2016-17 – have seen foreign aid as a share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) fall to an estimated 0.23%[v].

 

Indeed, “[b]etween 2012 and 2016, Australia’s foreign aid as a share of national income has fallen steeply from 0.36% to 0.23%.”[vi]

 

This leaves our foreign aid allocation at less than half the previous bipartisan goal of reaching 0.5% of GDP by 2015.

 

And, significantly, it is less than one third of the United Nations target that countries provide at least 0.7% of their national income as foreign aid.

 

The cuts to foreign aid have the potential to cause real and lasting damage across our region, and around the world, to countries and people that can least afford it.

 

As a result, I believe that the Foreign Policy White Paper should feature both a recommitment to the United Nations target, as well as a de-coupling of our foreign aid budget from an almost-exclusive focus on Australia’s national interest.

 

If we fail to do either, then we are at grave risk of changing from the land of ‘the fair go’ to the country of ‘what’s in it for us?’

 

170227-foreign-aid-gdp

Foreign aid as a share of GDP is plummeting, according to the Government’s own figures (source: The Conversation).

 

  1. Human rights, including LGBTI rights

 

There is one final issue that is completely omitted from the four-page Call for Submissions regarding the Foreign Policy White Paper: international human rights.

 

As a long-term LGBTI advocate and activist, I would like to focus on one specific sub-set of international human rights – the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people around the world.

 

In June 2016, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) estimated that same-sex sexual acts were illegal in 72 states, or a full 37% of United Nations members[vii]. This includes 13 States (or part thereof) where same-sex sexual acts attract the death penalty.

 

The criminalisation of homosexuality is also a particular problem in our own region of Oceania, with prohibitions in our nearest neighbour Papua New Guinea, as well as Kiribati, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Tuvalu (plus Cook Islands who are associates to New Zealand).

 

There are an additional four countries in South-East Asia where same-sex acts remain illegal (Brunei Darussalam, parts of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore).

 

Long-standing LGBTI advocate Peter Tatchell last week actually stated that “[t]here remain 75 countries and dependent territories that still criminalise same-sex relations – with nearly half of these jurisdictions outlawing both male and female homosexuality”.[viii]

 

And, in a specific challenge to countries like the United Kingdom and Australia, he observed that “[h]omosexuality remains criminalised in 36 out of the 52 Commonwealth member states” where “[m]ost of these anti-gay laws were imposed by Britain during the colonial era.”[ix]

 

The ongoing criminalisation of people on the basis of their sexual orientation, as well as other anti-LGBTI human rights abuses such as the involuntary sterilisation of intersex infants and the failure to recognise and accept trans and gender diverse people, is a major problem in the early 21st century.

 

I believe Australia should adopt a pro-active role in supporting groups that are working to address these human rights violations, both in our region (where, as we have seen above, there is plenty of work still to do) and around the world.

 

We should also seek, wherever possible, to progress the positive recognition and acceptance of LGBTI human rights in international forums, including the United Nations as well as other groups such as the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

 

Finally, both of these activities – support for the work of LGBTI rights organisations in our region and globally, as well as the pursuit of LGBTI human rights internationally – should be reflected in the Foreign Policy White Paper.

 

170227-ilga-sexual-orientation-criminalisation-map

Same-sex sexual activity remains criminalised in far too many countries around the world (source: ILGA).

 

**********

 

Obviously, in each of the four issues outlined in this submission – climate change, refugees, foreign aid and LGBTI rights – the Australian Government can be legitimately criticised for not doing enough to achieve progress domestically.

 

We can and must do better in terms of reducing our own carbon emissions, of adopting a more humane approach to refugees and people seeking asylum, of increasing our foreign aid budget and of respecting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

 

But, at the same time as addressing these ourselves, I believe we can – and above all must – help to achieve progress on these issues globally, because the rise of global warming, the growth in the number of displace persons, the unmet need for foreign aid, and discrimination against LGBTI people, are problems that transcend state borders.

 

Which means the solutions cross state borders too – and that therefore Australia has a role to play in fixing them.

 

Thank you in advance for taking this submission into account as the Australian Government develops its Foreign Policy White Paper.

 

Please do not hesitate to contact me, at the details provided, should you require additional information.

 

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

 

Footnotes:

[i] Question 2, on page 3 of the call for submissions, refers to ‘environmental degradation’, a phrase that is so vague it can be interpreted in multiple ways, and does not begin to capture the urgency of the climate emergency we currently face.

[ii] Bureau of Meteorology Annual Climate Statement 2016.

[iii] UNHRC, Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2015.

[iv] Ibid, page 26.

[v] The Conversation, Savage budget cuts pull Australia down in foreign aid rankings, May 4, 2016.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] See ILGA, State-Sponsored Homophobia 2016 report here.

[viii] Guardian, There are reasons to be cheerful… LGBTI rights gains in unlikely countries, February 20, 2017.

[ix] Ibid.

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.