The great tragedy is that as thousands freely take to the streets on Saturday celebrating Pride parades around Britain, the position has never been worse for gay men, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people in so many other countries around the world.
Twelve months ago in Russia – 20 years after the abolition of the Stalinist laws that punished homosexuality with up to five years imprisonment – the Duma passed new anti-gay laws by a majority of 436 votes to nil. We may be in post-Soviet Russia but glasnost has made precious little difference. The persecution continues.
Nor in attitude is Russia remotely alone amongst its neighbours. Even the hero of the Polish uprising Lech Walesa is on record as saying that gays have no right to sit on the front benches in Parliament and should sit at the back – “even behind a wall “.
And in many African countries prejudice and repression is increasing. Transgender communities and gay men in Uganda live under constant threat of exposure, prosecution and violence. One of the best known activists, David Kato, was murdered in 2011 and in recent months we have seen more severe anti-gay laws introduced, with the public required to report anyone they know or suspect of being a homosexual, and fears that health clinics will not serve minorities.
Today, same-sex relations are criminal in the majority of African countries. Uganda stands apart simply because of the severity of the repression – although even in that they are run close by Nigeria. African men loving men is genuinely today’s love that dare not speak its name.
In almost 80 countries around the world, homosexuality remains a criminal offence, including India, the largest democracy in the world. In 2009 there was great hope with the repeal of their pernicious “sodomy” laws – which date back to 1860 and the British colonial period. Late last year ,these gains were reversed and there seems to be little promise the newly elected BJP government will repeal the laws again.
What makes this repression even worse is the wide public support and the backing of the church. Too often the churches play a discreditable part. Rather than staying on the sidelines, they actively support intolerance. Blame is often laid at the feet of American evangelicals – but however objectionable some may find them, even they cannot be held responsible for all the anti-gay hatred. The Russian Orthodox church supports the Russian government; the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches in Uganda support the new laws.
So what can be done to counter the increasing tide of prejudice? One point is certain. We in the West will achieve nothing by appearing to lecture. Historically our own position has been intolerant, and even today it is hardly perfect.
In Britain, by far one of the most significant milestones in the past 12 months has been the introduction of equal marriage, with massive Parliamentary majorities. It has been a truly historic reform. Yet even now there is resistance to the change.
In April Canon Jeremy Pemberton was the first gay clergyman to marry, defying the guidance of the bishops. The result: last week he was banned from working as a priest in his former diocese. Can the bishops really want headlines like “Church bans priest for his gay marriage”? Surely priests are likely to take the marriage vows more seriously than any other group of newlyweds?
We cannot preach that we have everything right in Britain, and yet we still hold a massive responsibility and opportunity to resist the waves of prejudice and intolerance wrecking the lives of minorities throughout Africa and many other countries, often living under the damaged legacy of Britain’s colonial laws. Bad laws and societal intolerance fuel fear and hatred. They drive individuals into hiding, and take them far from the support and care they deserve, including the support of medical care and advice.
Throughout these 80 countries, rates of HIV infection among men who have sex with men, and transgendered people, are growing fast. Advice, information, resources – including condoms and HIV treatments – are not reaching them at anything like the rate they are reaching the “general population”. Brave groups and individuals exist, are fighting for change – on the streets and through quiet diplomacy – and quietly, carefully getting the advice and services to the people who need them.
We have a powerful and vital role, to support their efforts, to stand in solidarity with those who are oppressed and discriminated to claim their rights, perhaps through a new international convention to protect the rights of gay people; at the very least by making the Human Rights conventions we have work for all. As we celebrate the remarkable gains of the past decades, and enjoy Pride, let us not lose sight of our responsibility to lead a new vision throughout the world. A vision founded on love and compassion, not fear and prejudice that leaves the most vulnerable behind.
Norman Fowler is the author of “AIDS: Don’t Die of Prejudice”, and former UK Secretary of State for Health; Sir Elton John is author of “Love is the Cure: on life, loss and the end of AIDS” and Founder of the Elton John AIDS Foundation