Homophobia is alive across the Commonwealth – but our colonialist past makes it difficult to solve

More than 90 per cent of the Commonwealth’s citizens live in jurisdictions that criminalise LGBT+ people – that's across 37 Commonwealth countries

Bishop from Trinidad says any pressure from UK to legalise homosexuality is 'neo-Colonialism'

Anyone who tuned in to Radio 4 this morning will quite possibly have been confronted by a certain Bishop Victor Gill of Trinidad, who hails from a country where anti-sodomy laws were recently declared as unconstitutional.

Without a hint of irony, the “bishop” expressed his view that the “gay agenda is being forced on us”, and warned that “homosexual rights must not trample on the rights of heterosexuals or Christians”.

Goodness me. The “gay agenda” – to hear that phrase uttered without irony is flooring in itself, but the idea that somehow decriminalisation of homosexuality (the subject of the interview) somehow infringes the rights of heterosexual people, well that’s just transparently nonsensical. I feel also obliged to mention here that LGBT+ Christians do exist – they are so often erased when people make wildly bigoted and absolutist assertions like this. Many of them do such important work within various religious communities.

From our position of incredible privilege in the UK, it would be easy to dismiss Gill’s views as the last vestiges of a dying hard core of bigotry that will ultimately eat itself. After all, Bishop Gill is speaking directly in contrary to the position of the Primates Meeting in 2016 where they “reaffirmed their rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people”. Within these religious communities, progress is undeniable.

However, the reality for millions of LGBT+ people living in the Commonwealth is that this bigotry is very real, and it is enshrined in law. More than 90 per cent of the Commonwealth’s citizens live in jurisdictions that criminalise LGBT+ people – that’s across 37 Commonwealth countries.

This week, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2018 is taking place in London. With the theme of “towards a common future”, the literature around this event makes reference to addressing “the shared global challenges we face” and agreeing “actions on how to create a better future for all”. More than ever, this year should be about making sure that LGBT+ people are allowed to be a part of that future, and Bishop Gill’s remarks remind us just how much work there is to do.

Last year marked the anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality here in the UK, and Theresa May acknowledged then that Britain – with its legacy of colonial rule – has a “special responsibility” to help change hearts and minds when it comes to anti-gay laws, going further than any of her predecessors. Theresa May has this very morning reiterated her commitment to equality and her “deep regret” at the UK’s legacy of discriminatory colonial laws, speaking in quite unequivocal terms to the gathered leaders on “our common value of equality”. It will be interesting to see how much this message continues throughout the week, and whether it results in any real outcomes.

The government’s position on this has drawn considerable criticism. Among other things, they promised to publish a guide on international best practice on sexual orientation and gender identity – but this is, so far, nowhere to be seen. A sceptic’s interpretation of this could be that the government is back-peddling on their promise. Given their approach to LGBT+ rights at home – take the brazen outing of Shahmir Sanni by the prime minister’s aide only a few weeks ago – it wouldn’t be particularly surprising.

Theresa May calls on Commonwealth countries to change 'outdated homosexuality laws'

As Bishop Gill reminds us though, there are powerful voices within the Commonwealth who believe that – in his words – things are being “forced” upon them in a framework of “neocolonialism”.

I can understand the latter, and believe that this meeting should not just be about governments making statements, and it certainly shouldn’t be treated as a platform for the UK to begin lecturing or bullying other countries. In that context, May’s words this morning are at least encouraging and maybe they do mark a step-change in the approach we as a country take within the Commonwealth.

The meeting isn’t just a selection of photogenic panel discussions, round-tables and receptions. With the introduction of the Women’s Forum at Malta in 2015, and its return this time round, the Commonwealth has already demonstrated that it can be a facilitator of real social change for the better. I confess I don’t anticipate a brand new “LGBT+ Forum” to appear overnight, but as LGBT+ activists from across the Commonwealth come to London and make their voices heard, it feels to me that things are moving slowly towards real change. For each Commonwealth country, that change will be unique, and the challenges they face are different. However, the goal is a common goal: a “common future” with laws that serve to support, respect and protect LGBT+ citizens.

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