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celebrate british lgbtq+ history, but remember those still fighting for their rights

36 out of 52 Commonwealth nations still criminalise homosexuality. Ahead of the group’s largest ever LGBTQ+ gathering, i-D meets activists fighting for their rights in Cameroon, Barbados, Uganda and Belize.

by Louis Staples
|
09 February 2018, 10:02am

Image via Alamy

2017 saw a multitude of cultural events to mark 50 years since male homosexuality was partially decriminalised in England and Wales. From the first Queer British Art retrospective at Tate Britain to the BBC’s Gay Britannia season, queer stories unfolded on platforms that had once seemed out of reach. With a record of 45 LGBTQ+ MPs elected in July 2017’s General Election, the UK now has the gayest parliament in the world, giving hope that the days where queer voices were rejected and ignored are behind us.

As last year fades into memory and becomes woven into the rich tapestry of queer resistance and advancement, LGBTQ+ history month is a time to celebrate the freedoms that we enjoy and remember those who fought for them. Yet we mustn’t forget that life is still extremely difficult for queer people in other parts of the world. 72 nations continue to criminalise male same-sex activity, with 45 also criminalising female homosexuality. Although this number is slowly decreasing -- with the Seychelles and Belize becoming the most recent nations to decriminalise -- persecution and stigmatization persist in many places, with fewer than 25% of countries legally protecting LGBTQ+ people. Last year marked a particularly challenging one for the global queer community. Reports of a systemic and violent police campaign against gay and bisexual men emerged from Chechnya. In Brazil, the murder of 387 LGBTQ+ people saw the most deadly year of queer persecution yet in the country. In America, anti-gay hate crime surged following the inauguration of President Trump. In a fifth of cases, which included beatings, stabbings and shootings, the perpetrator referenced Trump directly.

In the Commonwealth, the challenges facing queer people are, unsurprisingly, extremely varied. On one hand there’s Canada, which became just the fourth country to legalise gay marriage in 2005, but on the other are some of the world’s most difficult places to be LGBTQ+. This week, the British Territory of Bermuda became the first country in the world to legalise and then repeal same-sex marriage. 36 out of 52 Commonwealth nations, such as Jamaica, Uganda and Cameroon, continue to criminalise male homosexuality, with Sri Lanka and Barbados among the nations that also criminalise lesbian and bisexual women. Overall, 90% of Commonwealth citizens live in countries that criminalise same-sex activity. In the majority of cases, these homophobic laws are a legacy of British colonisation.

"90% of Commonwealth citizens live in countries that criminalise same-sex activity. In the majority of cases, these homophobic laws are a legacy of British colonisation."

In 2017 the Commonwealth Equality Network (TCEN) became the first LGBTQ+ organisation to receive Commonwealth accreditation. This provides activists with vital opportunities to forge international links and work together. During TCEN advocacy week in London, we met with activists who continue to risk their lives to resist oppression and persecution, writing new chapters of LGBTQ+ history in the process.

In Cameroon, where gay sex carries a potential penalty of five years in jail, the police regularly use fake meet ups as a tactic to trick suspected gay men. Bill Brandon, founder of the Cameroon Empowerment Association for Outreach Programs (CAMEF), claims that it is common for arrests to be made on “hearsay”. According to evidence collected by CAMEF, most convictions are not actually supported by proof. Charges can be triggered by the slightest suspicion that someone is gay and confessions are often obtained through torture. Still, things get even worse when the public take matters into their own hands. “LGBTQ+ people have been stoned to death in parts of the country. Trans people are particularly vulnerable,” Brandon explains. “The perpetrators rarely face justice, because being gay or trans is considered worse than being a murderer.” Trans people in Cameroon often face double-discrimination, as it is harder for them to appear invisible, but Brandon is determined to change this. In 2016 he created Hunt Mii, an app that helps trans, bisexual and bi-curious people to chat, connect and date. Proceeds from the app will go towards funding CAMEF’s humanitarian activities, creating a fund to serve the LGBTQ+ community and increase awareness of the organisation’s services.

"In Cameroon, most convictions are not actually supported by proof. Charges can be triggered by the slightest suspicion that someone is gay and confessions are often obtained through torture."

Life for LGBTQ+ people can also be extremely challenging in the Caribbean. “Within the Caribbean and west Africa there is the resistance of western imposition that creates a different kind of experience of homophobia,” says Donnya Piggott, an LGBTQ+ activist from Barbados. Like many Commonwealth nations, Barbados’ homophobic laws are a legacy of British occupation. Yet the post-colonial experience of imposed values and oppression has created a situation where Barbadians fiercely defend these laws as their own. “The media are constantly pushing one image of what love looks like, so anything that is foreign will be rejected,” she says. After igniting her passion for advocacy at university, Piggott founded Barbados Gays and Lesbians Against Discrimination (B-GLAD) in 2012. B-GLAD works on behalf of the community to create a dialogue with institutions such as schools and the church, consequently increasing understanding of the LGBTQ+ experience.

As a prominent female activist, Piggott has experienced firsthand how, even within the queer community, patriarchy silences female voices. “For women in general, our sexuality is never taken seriously, which certainly translates into the queer community,” she explains. “It’s important that, just like in a workplace with women employees, we advance the roles of women and lesbians within LGBTQ+ circles.” Moving forward, Piggott plans to work with businesses to bring economic empowerment to queer Caribbeans. “People need to know that we’re just as qualified and it’s okay to hire someone who is LGBTQ+, or a young woman who doesn’t dress the way society tells her to dress,” she says. “This will help people to understand that they should embrace the LGBTQ+ community.”

“It’s important that, just like in a workplace with women employees, we advance the roles of women and lesbians within LGBTQ+ circles.”

Ugandan activist Frank Mugisha also acknowledges the complex and contradictory dynamic between homophobia and the resistance to western values. “The only information people have about LGBTQ+ people is what they read in the media, which is extremely negative,” he explains. “The rhetoric that has been peddled suggests that LGBTQ+ people abuse children or that we are here to take away African values.” Mugisha is the Executive Director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), an NGO that advocates for the protection and promotion of human rights for LGBTQ+ Ugandans. SMUG was founded by Mugisha’s close friend David Kato, who was murdered in 2011 after becoming the face of Uganda’s gay rights movement. Mugisha believes that poverty and unemployment create fertile ground for homophobia to spread. “Being underdeveloped makes people less educated and less able to think about what they want or believe,” he explains. Because of unemployment, the biggest weekly activity is church, which often provides services such as clean water and schooling. “Politicians and faith leaders use this as a way to promote their own ideologies,” he says. “We are fighting against the biggest force of all: closed minds.” Mugisha has played a central role in organising Pride Uganda, which in 2016 and 2017 was raided by police. Although he and his colleagues were beaten and arrested, Mugisha remains determined to continue planning these events. “If they don’t see the gay people, then they remain ignorant,” he says. “We give a lot of hope and individual acceptance to so many closeted LGBTQ+ people in Uganda.”

“When you are respectful of the system, the system will push you aside. When you’re demanding rights, the state will not simply give it to you, you have to fight for it.”

In 2016, male homosexuality was decriminalised in Belize after a 6 year legal battle between the government and United Belize Advocacy Movement (UNIBAM), the only NGO in Belize working to advance the health and human rights of LGBTQ+ people. Caleb Orozco, executive director of UNIBAM, became so well known throughout the case that ‘Orozco’ replaced ‘batiman’ (meaning, literally, “butt man”) as the anti-gay slur of choice in Belize. Hostility from faith leaders, the media and the public led Orozco to adapt his lifestyle after having a bottle thrown at him and losing two of his teeth in a violent attack. “That shook my confidence and knocked my resolve,” he explains. “I used to like riding my bicycle, but learning to drive was a part of feeling safer. I also hired security for my house.” Although frightening, Orozco cited this backlash as evidence of the problem, which encouraged him to pursue the legal challenge. “When you are respectful of the system, the system will push you aside, ” he says. “When you’re demanding rights, the state will not simply give it to you, you have to fight for it.” Orozco believes that long-term political change will require the voices of activists telling stories about their humanity. His story, along with so many others, is not one of misery, but of resistance. In Belize, Orozco sees similar acts of defiance on a daily basis. “A trans person knowing they will experience abuse as soon as they walk out the door, but still doing it anyway -- that is resistance. Or a feminine gay man who is used to being yelled at, but develops a sharp tongue and yells back -- that is resistance,” he explains, concluding: “We will die along the way, we will stand our ground with the desire and the expectation that we know better will come.”

In April 2018, TCEN activists and world leaders will meet at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). This year’s event will be the largest gathering of international LGBTQ+ activists yet, with the most ambitious plan to address the challenges that still exist for LGBTQ+ people worldwide. These gatherings serve as a reminder that, although it is important to reflect on and celebrate our freedoms, the global struggle for equality continues. LGBTQ+ history is far from over. With each act of resistance, a new chapter is written.

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