Why the Commonwealth Needs to Listen to its LGBTI Citizens
12th June 2014
The Commonwealth Games is one of the world’s largest and greatest sporting events, bringing together athletes from every corner of the world. It is by far the best-known face of the Commonwealth and in comparison to its more competitive sister the Olympics, is often referred to as the friendly games. If the Commonwealth refers to itself as a family of nations, this is one of its better known and more convivial family gatherings.
In that light it is disappointing, if not shocking, that of the 53 member nations of the Commonwealth, 42 continue to criminalise consensual same-sex activities between adults. Ninety per cent of Commonwealth citizens live in a country that criminalises homosexuality. Over half the countries in the world that have laws banning homosexuality are in the Commonwealth. Across the Commonwealth lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) people are denied equal access to rights, education, employment, housing and healthcare.
Some of the most disappointing setbacks to LGBTI rights of the past year have occurred in Commonwealth countries. In December the Indian Supreme Court issued a ruling that effectively re-criminalised sodomy, making literally millions of people criminals. Repressive new laws increasing the penalties for homosexuality and criminalising the protection of LGBTI rights were passed in Nigeria and Uganda. The Commonwealth’s response to these attacks on fundamental freedoms has been, at best, muted.
Despite these setbacks there are some rays of light in the Commonwealth. In 2013 the Commonwealth Charter was formally adopted by all member nations. The Charter states that the Commonwealth is “implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds.” Although the term “other grounds” is a disappointing fudge, what else can be considered “other grounds” if not sexual orientation and gender identity?
In fact this reading of ‘other grounds’ is supported by the Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Kamalesh Sharma. He told the UN Human Rights Council:
“With regard to sexual orientation and gender identity our position remains that, based on shared Commonwealth principles, we oppose discrimination or stigmatisation on any ground.”
This language of anti-discrimination is reiterated by the Games themselves, stating, “there shall be no discrimination against any country or person on any grounds whatsoever.”
Despite these cautious moves towards the language of inclusion and anti-discrimination, the voices of LGBTI people continue to be ignored in many Commonwealth spaces – political, diplomatic, sporting and otherwise. Commonwealth leaders regularly deny that LGBTI people exist in their countries, or where they do accept our existence they paint us as immoral, disordered and in many cases as not being part of national cultures. Despite the words of the Secretary General, the Commonwealth as an institution is reluctant to even talk about the rights of LGBTI people, let alone act to uphold the fine words of the Charter.
This cannot go on. Rightly lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex people are demanding that we be recognised and that our rights – which are exactly the same rights to which every other Commonwealth citizen is or should be afforded – are protected under the law. Our demands, which are as diverse as the nations we come from, are not going to go away just because Presidents and Prime Ministers try to close their ears to them. Sooner rather than later the Commonwealth is going to have to tackle the justice deficit that leaves some of its citizens without the rights to which all are entitled.
The Commonwealth Games offers us the opportunity to voice these demands, and give visibility to the amazing diversity of our lives, struggles and successes around the Commonwealth. The incredible diversity of the lives of LGBTI people is part and parcel of the incredible diversity of the Commonwealth. Using this opportunity to draw attention to this diversity and, in many cases, the appalling treatment of LGBTI people in the Commonwealth, is not done to embarrass or spoil the Games. Giving LGBTI people from all over the Commonwealth a platform to make our voices heard is about making sure that the Games and the Commonwealth live up to their own best selves. By raising the voices of LGBTI people during the Games we can hold the Commonwealth to account when it claims to be an organisation that believes in universal human rights applicable to everyone.
The voices of LGBTI people may be ignored but they won’t be silenced. Governments must heed us, must meet with us and must embrace us as full and equal members of society. Anything less will render the fine sounding words opposing ‘all forms of discrimination’ meaningless, condemn the Commonwealth as impotent in the face of injustice and render the Games’ fine commitment to inclusion for all, all but meaningless.
Alistair Stewart is the Assistant Director of the Kaleidoscope Trust, a UK based charity that works to uphold the rights of LGBT people globally. The Trust works with activists and organisations in countries where the rights of LGBT people are threatened, and works to communicate their voices to politicians, diplomats and policy-makers in the UK, the Commonwealth and international forums.