John Bercow: This isn't just about sexuality. It's about basic humanity

It's not as simple as saying that equality follows democracy as night follows day
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The Independent Online

Let us remember what we are talking about here. Prejudice, intolerance and persecution on the basis of sexuality are a denial of humanity. Such treatment is sentencing people to a life of fear, self-doubt and self-loathing. It is the theft of one of our most fundamental instincts: to love and to be loved. This issue is so much more than politics or diplomacy. It is about the subjugation of a fellow human being's freedom. It is painful. It is demeaning. It is dehumanising.

There have been numerous positive developments in the past year, but also some far less welcome activities. These are not dry facts or cold entries in an index of injustice. They are human hurts which strike at the very being of millions of our fellow citizens across the world.

Earlier this year the UN Human Rights Council panel reaffirmed its commitment to fighting discrimination and persecution of LGBT people, sending a strong signal to countries still criminalising homosexuality.

The Council of Europe has held its first conference on the status of LGBT rights among its members. In Latin America, the Inter-American Human Rights Court has decided in favour of a Chilean woman who had lost custody of her children because of her sexuality. This signalled an increasing acceptance globally that whether or not a parent is gay is irrelevant in determining the best interests of a child.

In the same country, following the horrific homophobic murder of Daniel Zamudio in Santiago, the Chilean Congress has approved an anti-discrimination bill, which cleared its final hurdle with a 25-3 vote in the Senate just last week.

In Jamaica, sometimes described as the most homophobic nation on earth, the new Prime Minister, Portia Simpson-Miller, took on conventional political wisdom during the election campaign, saying she would review the criminalisation of homosexuality and allow lesbian or gay people to serve in her Cabinet.

If all of this is cause for cheer, which it is, there is also great cause for concern. At the most basic level, it remains illegal to engage in same-sex conduct in 78 countries. In five nations the death penalty can be invoked for homosexual activity. And examples of hostile legislative activity are not confined to what might be called the usual suspects.

In Russia, the St Petersburg City Assembly recently passed a "homosexual propaganda" law effectively banning public events by LGBT people and organisations under the pretext of protecting minors. An extremist party in Hungary has sought to ban television programmes that portray being gay as acceptable.

In Nigeria, the "Same Gender Marriage Prohibition Bill" has been amended to punish those in a same-sex union with 14 years imprisonment. In Uganda a backbench bill, which originally included the death penalty for some "offences" of homosexuality, has been reintroduced in Parliament. And in Malaysia, the Information Department wants to ban television shows which feature gay characters.

So the global picture is complex. The relationship between democracy and full equality is uncertain. While countries that hold free elections and respect the rule of law are more likely to take a consistent approach to human rights it is not as simple as saying that equality follows democracy as day follows night. Culture matters as least as much as constitutional arrangements. And culture is much harder to change than constitutions.

The Kaleidoscope Trust, of which I am proud to be president, looks forward to the day when we can all live in societies where there is absolute and mutual respect for human beings no matter how they live, how they look and how they love. This is not a cause that can rely on some irresistible tide of history to secure its ends. It will not happen automatically. It requires people willing to bear the burden of being activists, and those activists require resources and our backing.

This Trust takes its lead from those heroic individuals. We do not pretend to know how best to effect change in their countries and it would be arrogant in the extreme to suggest that there is one single blueprint which all may borrow. The Trust instead asks what it can do to help and shapes its agenda accordingly.

Together we hope that by the next IDAHO day there will be more progress to report and fewer lives will be blighted by injustice, fear and persecution.

John Bercow is Speaker of the House of Commons.