Written by
Jack Parsons

Many people in the UK believe that substantial progress has been made on the issue of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex (LGBTQI+) rights in recent decades. However, for most Commonwealth citizens, this statement is untrue.

Fundamental rights to live free and open lives remain elusive for so many of the world’s LGBTQI+ individuals: a stark reality of oppression which jars with the notion of 21st century ‘progress’.

Considering these dark truths, and as part of the ongoing series exploring freedom, Cumberland Lodge recently hosted a two-day residential conference entitled ‘Freedom and Sexuality: LGBTQI+ rights in the Commonwealth’ in partnership with the Kaleidoscope Trust (the UK’s leading LGBT rights charity).


Clockwise from left to right: Crispin Blunt MP, Ibtisam Ahmed, Reverend Jide Macaulay, Canon Dr Edmund Newell, Sir Stephen Wall, Jesse Sperling, Alexander Leon, Paul Dillane, Anna from the Kaleidoscope Trust, Lodia, Jonah Chinga, and Donnya Piggott

The Executive Director of the Kaleidoscope Trust provided sobering statistics. As of July 2017, it is a crime to be a gay man in 72 countries around the world. In 45 of these, same sex relationships between women are also outlawed. In 8 countries, homosexuality can be punished with the death penalty.  Homosexuality is criminalised in 37 of the 53 Commonwealth nations, meaning 90% of the Commonwealth population live in a criminalising environment for homosexuality.

Further to this, most Commonwealth nations criminalising homosexuality do so using British Empire-era law. Section 377 of the imperial penal code, broadly criminalising non-heterosexuality, remains part of the legal system in many Commonwealth nations. At worst, these laws enable legalised discrimination through the judicial system. At best, they provide a stigmatising environment in which to quash the freedom of LGBTQI+ individuals to live their lives openly. The horrors of courtroom-mediated vilification of LGBTQI+ individuals are clear enough, but even outside the courtroom the emotional toll of being unable to express one’s true self cannot be understated, and this is the daily crushing grind under which many LGBTQI+ individuals must live.

However, in rectifying colonial wrongs, how can the UK justify interfering, once again, in the affairs of nation states? To recreate the spectre of ‘white-saviourism’ risks backlash and the decrying of homosexuality as a ‘Western import’. Instead, solutions more likely lie in encouraging criminalising nations to acknowledge the broad stance of international bodies such as the UN, where the majority of nations represented have supported diversity in sexual orientation and gender identity. Principles such as those developed in Yogyakarta (now followed up with the ‘Yogyakarta Principles Plus 10’ document) also represent powerful tools, presenting state obligations (as defined by international human rights groups) on the application of human rights law in relation to sexual orientation, gender expression and sex characteristics. However, such principles have never been formally accepted at the UN. As astutely pointed out by one conference speaker, perhaps the most powerful tool in the emancipation of LGBTQI+ individuals is the acknowledgement of the intrinsic nature of queerness in all societies.

Baroness Liz Barker

Running parallel to the human rights dialogue surrounding LGBTQI+ individuals is a powerful economic narrative. Condensing this narrative essentially brings us to one conclusion: discrimination is a costly business. By excluding, whether by legal mandate or otherwise, LGBTQI+ individuals, how much damage are economies inflicting upon themselves, and how much opportunity are they losing? A 2014 working paper for the World Bank, using India as a case study, estimated that the cost of stigma and exclusion of LGBT people could be up to $32 billion annually in lost economic output. Leveraging the extraordinary financial metrics around discrimination may help capture the attention of those less moved by the human side of the argument.

A further nuance in the toolkit of LGBTQI+ advocacy is found in faith groups which can be leveraged as safe spaces from which to drive positive change. The conference heard how the ‘House of Rainbow' church initiative in Nigeria provides an affirming religious community, validating theological authenticity and creating a visible institution to represent marginalised persons. In religiously conservative countries like Nigeria, initiatives like this hope to turn the tide of opinions to create a safer, more inclusive and diverse society. At the very least, House of Rainbow is providing the powerful message that, whilst faith can be used to love, it can never be justifiably leveraged to perpetuate hate.

Astute readers will have noticed that there remains a disparity in the attention (and in some cases legal protection) afforded to those represented by the letters ‘L’, ‘G’, or ‘B’, and those who identify with ‘T’ or ‘I’. In illustrating this point, conference delegates were addressed by an extraordinary woman, whose story is as inspiring as it is harrowing. Born and raised in the Arabian Peninsula, life became extremely difficult for the speaker when she realised she was a trans woman. Having been imprisoned for owning women’s clothing, upon release she fled to the UK. Things did not immediately improve. Afforded little support, unable to work and on her own in a new country, she was forced to resort to homeless shelters for accommodation (when her £5 daily government allowance could no longer cover the cost of shared accommodation) and her mental health suffered severely due to a lack of adequate support during her transition. Fortunately, she has now been granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK, and has found employment and accommodation. This story highlights several issues. Firstly, LGBTQI+ people face a crucible of persecution, particularly in refugee scenarios. Secondly, transgender individual’s rights are particularly precarious even in the UK, where legal protections afforded to transgender individuals lag decades behind those afforded to LGB individuals. Thirdly, if we are to move forwards with rights-based issues around sexuality and gender, developments must be made holistically encompassing all those on the LGBTQI+ spectrum.

Several take home messages emerged from the conference. It is easy to hate ideas, harder to hate people. Where safe to do so, visibility and the presence of role models is of huge importance to the LGBTQI+ community. LGBTQI+ rights are human rights. There should be no discrimination based on gender or sexuality, and nations implementing such ideals can look forward to happier, healthier, more productive and more inclusive societies.

Considering all the issues touched on at the conference, a conference statement has been produced aimed at the governments of Commonwealth nations, which can be viewed here.

It is the sincere hope of the conference delegates that it will be made clear to all Commonwealth countries that discrimination of LGBTQI+ individuals is harmful to society.

As Sir Elton John wrote in a letter of support to the conference‘My belief is that people should not be discriminated against on the grounds of who they love’.If one line could sum up the overwhelming sentiment of the conference, this is it.

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