Gay marriage does not end discrimination

As a member of the Dutch parliament that first introduced equal marriage, I've seen how far we've come. As an LGBT rights advocate, I know there's still a long way to go

Share
Related Topics

My last visit to the House of Lords was in 2006. At the time I was still a member of the Dutch parliament and I was invited to be on a panel about Afghanistan. What I remember most of that brief visit to the House of Lords was not the discussion about war and development in Afghanistan, but a remark about marriage equality. Five years earlier, the new Dutch marriage law had come into force and allowed gay and lesbian couples to have the same marriage rights as different-sex couples. One of the British MPs approached me after the panel discussion and said: “What you’ve done in the Netherlands could never be achieved in the United Kingdom. Not in a hundred years!” 

Seven years have passed and look where we are now. This week the debate in the House of Lords on marriage equality reached its final stage. Already this year, New Zealand, Uruguay and France beat the UK into legalising same-sex marriage, bringing the total number of countries where gays can legally marry to fourteen. Furthermore in Brazil, parts of Mexico, and fourteen states in the US, gay and lesbian couples can marry, although these marriages are not recognised in nationwide law. In all, some 607 million people now live in a country with same-sex marriage – that’s eight per cent of the world’s population. The legalisation of marriage equality seems unstoppable.

Some years ago I was taking the streetcar in Amsterdam. Opposite me two old friends, who’d not seen each other in a long time, shared their stories. “I got married last year,” the woman said, and she proudly showed the ring on her finger. “To a man or a woman?” the man asked casually. “A man, Peter is his name,” and she continued with how she had met him. It all sounded so natural, so matter-of-fact, that for a moment I had a vision that marriage equality had removed every form of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

But of course, that is wishful thinking. Introducing marriage equality does not mean an end to discrimination. Not in the countries themselves, nor elsewhere in the world.

In Britain, the media still regularly report incidents where gay, lesbian and transgender people are beaten up on the street. Lesbian and gay couples are forced to move home when people in their neighbourhood harass them. Schoolchildren are bullied because they are perceived as being different. And the suicide rate, among especially young lesbian and gay people, is much higher than that of their peers. Even after twelve years of same-sex marriage, the Netherlands still faces the same kinds of problems.

But this is nothing compared to issues that LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) people in other parts of the world face. 

In some 76 countries around the world, homosexual conduct is illegal. Cameroon spearheads the list of countries where gays and lesbians are arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to years in prison simply because they love someone of the same sex. In at least five countries, the death penalty still exists for homosexual conduct. Although South Africa has a marriage law for gay couples, in many other sub-Saharan states politicians use same-sex marriage as a pretext to continue violating the human rights of LGBTI people.

A few years ago in Kampala, I met a Ugandan government minister who had been promoting anti-homosexual legislation. When I discussed the universality of human rights with him, he exclaimed: “Imagine if we decriminalise homosexual conduct! Before you know it, the homosexuals would want to marry each other. That would be the end of African civilisation. No human rights for homosexuals!” But this hysteria around same-sex marriage is a red herring, calculated to mobilise public hostility. Few African LGBTI activists are advocating for marriage; they are focused instead on urgent issues such as murder, rape and arbitrary arrest on the grounds of gender identity or sexual orientation, and attempts to deny LGBTI people the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association.

Of course legalised homophobia is not limited to the African continent. It’s shameful to remember that the current sodomy laws in former British colonies were introduced by the Brits. This poisonous legacy should prompt the British government to push for an end to the criminalisation of homosexual conduct within the Commonwealth of Nations. However, with gay marriage about to be legalised in the UK, the call for decriminalisation of homosexual conduct overseas needs to be pursued with diplomacy and an understanding of how delicate the issue of marriage equality is in those countries. Britain has to avoid the impression that it seeks to force marriage equality legislation on Commonwealth countries, just like it imposed its sodomy law all those years ago.

It’s a sad fact that the advance of same sex marriage legislation does not, on its own, lead to a decrease in homophobia. In fact, in Commonwealth countries, it might even create a fresh backlash. In Britain and around the world, the march towards equality and non-discrimination is often fraught with danger and disappointment.

Boris Dittrich is advocacy director for the LGBT rights programme at Human Rights Watch

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The handling of the tragic deaths of Bobby and Christi Shepherd in 2006 by Thomas Cook was appalling  

Thomas Cook case was a failure of heart

Danny Rogers
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine