For the global LGBT movement – 2013 was a year of extremes.
Major battles were won as the U.S, U.K, and France signed major bills legalising gay marriage. It was a major tipping point for activists: after years of losing battles, they had won the debate that LGBT citizens were entitled to the same human rights as their straight counterparts. (It is worth nothing here however that while trans activists have had some success’s in California and the Netherlands, the same levels of support has not been galvanised for the fight for their rights).
This helps to explain why the introduction of Russia’s “anti-gay propaganda” law – which prohibits the promotion of “non traditional sexual relationships to minors” – cut so deep with Western activists. Musician Melissa Etheridge represented many American homosexuals when she spoke at a recent fundraiser for Russian LGBT organisations: “All of us [in America] who have gone that journey [towards equality], when we see what’s happening in Russia [we say], ‘no no no no, we are never, ever, ever going back there’”
But as 2013 drew to a close, it was bad news for the international LGBT community. The Indian Supreme Court reinstated a sodomy law, re-criminalising same-sex relationships. The Ugandan government passed a “Kill the Gays” bill (although this has since been revised down to life imprisonment for those found guilty); all while Nigeria – the world’s seventh largest country- is on the cusp of passing the world’s broadest laws targeting gay rights.
“Australia, India, Uganda, Russia, and now this,” says Ken Mero-Metz, a foreign policy fellow with the U.S congressional LGBT Equality Caucus. “Great year in the U.S, but globally? Turn[ed] out to be one of the worst.”
While the global human rights report is not as simple as a scoresheet, this statistic is illuminating: although 18 countries, home to 10% of the global population, now recognise marriage equality, sodomy is still outlawed in 77 counties.
In some cases – Russia being the most obvious example – the attack on LGBT rights was a calculated political move to frame their nation as opposite to the West. However in other places, like Zimbabwe, India and Singapore, internal problems much better describe the crackdown on gay rights. Yet the discourse in which the debate is shaped reflects the fact that the stubble has been globalised.
Gay rights activists use the language of universal human rights, and their opponents respond by asserting that they are fighting for traditional preservation and religious integrity against a foreign attack. Looking back at the year that was demonstrates the dichotomous nature of this global movement.
Wedding Bells in France, Britain, the US, Mexico and Columbia
France and Britain’s enactment of marriage equality, side by side with the U.S Supreme Court ruling ordering federal recognition of same sex marriage preformed under state law, were the brightest signs that the movement was entering into a new era. Less publicised was the news that the Brazilian National Council of Justice established marriage equality in May. Judges in Mexico also granted the marriage of same-sex couples following a ruling from the Mexican High Court.
A 2011 Constitutional Court ruling in Columbia that came into effect in June 2013 has seen the commencement of same-sex weddings. While these marriages are at risk of being annulled following a string of top court challenges, the Columbian Constitutional Court has actively endorsed LGBT couples’ rights to adopt in several high profile cases.
Australia, Croatia and Zimbabwe However?
On the flip side, the hope for marriage equality in Australia was dampened when marriage equality endorser Kevin Rudd lost the prime ministership to Tony Abbott in September. The Australian Capital Territory passed a marriage equality bill of its own, but following four days of weddings, the High Court overturned the law, stating that federal law trumped the ACT’s provisions.
Croatian voters chose to amend their constitution to ban same-sex marriage on December 1st. This was an international embarrassment for the country, as the country’s human rights record has ben under close scrutiny following its inclusion into the European Union a few months earlier.
Voters in Zimbabwe also opted to ban same-sex marriage when it formalised a new constitution in March. President Mugabe vexed the issue of same-sex marriage against his opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai during negotiations. (Tsvangirai had a less hostile stance towards homosexuality, although he never actively endorsed marriage equality). Mugabe successfully ratified an anti-gay sentiment in the lead up to the election. In June, men armed with hammers, believed to associated with the government youth wing, trashed the offices of known homosexuals in Zimbabwe.
A Colonial Legacy
Although the United Kingdom has bought in marriage equality, several of the empire’s former colonies have held onto the sodomy laws that they inherited from their former ruler. It appears the Queen Victoria continues to rule the private lives of her subjects over a century after her death.
The Indian Supreme Court successfully re-criminalised same-sex relationships in December. The court ruled to uphold the constitutionality of the sodomy provision, known as Section 377. This section had been suspended since 2009 following a Delhi High Court ruling.
Two months earlier, a Singaporean Judge ruled to uphold the country’s own version of the colonial law – Section 377a. The ruling claimed that sexuality was something that could be changed, based on a single study where researchers conducted a survey of Singaporeans’ attitude towards homosexuality.
Uganda passed it’s long awaited extreme sodomy law – colloquially known as the “Kill the Gays” bill. Parliamentary speaker Rebecca Kadaga had called the passing of the law as “a Christmas gift” to the Ugandan people – a gift she delivered, even if it meant infringing on proper parliamentary procedure.
The bill now heads to President Yowari Musereni. The final version is expected to reduce the maximum sentence from death to life imprisonment. The Ugandan bill was seen as so extreme that an American Judge ruled that an American supporter of the legislation, Scott Lively, could be tried for crimes against humanity under the American system.
And another former British colony, Nigeria, is expected to adopt a harsh anti-gay law. While the proposed law is not as extreme as its Ugandan counterpart, its broad language targets every aspect of same-sex relationships.
The proposed bill – known as the “Anti Same-Sex Marriage” bill, would see same-sex couples imprisoned for performing a marriage ceremony, and also criminalise support for gay rights in any way.
The Anti Same-Sex Marriage bill has been in the works since 2006. The bill has been passed in both parliamentary houses and is headed to the desk of President Goodluck Jonathan in the very near future.
And of course, Russia
The unveiling of the Russian law prohibiting the “promotion of non-traditional sexual relationships to minors” had consequences that stretched far beyond it’s borders, and President Putin probably wanted it that way.
The law allowed Putin to re-enforce his power by marshalling opposition to the West and provoking fear at home. Adopted just months before the Sochi Olympics, it was a sure-fire way to ensure months of confrontation on the issue, in which Putin could appear to be standing up against the West. The administration was enthusiastically inflamed fears of a “homosexual invasion,” warning of the dire consequences that would follow.
As the environment became more hostile for gays and lesbians inside the country – with the state cracking down of their political rights, often resulting in violent clashes – several Russian allies have also used this tactic to spark a cultural war with the West. States like Ukraine, Moldova and Armenia that have been courted by the European Union, forces who favour Russian alignment, have used opposition to LGBT rights to sway public opinion away from closer ties with the West.
The story of Russia is far from over. With the winter olympics fast approaching, the story will continue to dominate discourse surrounding gay rights as we dive into 2014. And when the international spotlight inevitably fades after the games, many human rights and LGBT activists who fuelled the international outrage will find themselves in jail.
But the news isn’t all bad. Civil union proposals are said to be under serious consideration in Vietnam and Thailand. Chile recently elected a pro-marriage equality president, and organised pressure for civil unions is mounting in Peru, one of South America’s most conservative states.
Nonetheless, it is evident that the world is pulling at opposite ends on the issue of LGBT rights. The movement is becoming evermore globalised as the issue becomes more centralised in the international area.
Here’s to 2014 being a gayer year.