< Back to Features page
Speech by the RT. Hon. John Bercow, MP, Speaker of the House of Commons and President of The Kaleidoscope Trust
THE INTERNATIONAL LGBT AGENDA
COMMONWEALTH CLUB, LONDON - 16 MAY 2012
It is an enormous pleasure to be here tonight to address such a distinguished audience. Having the opportunity to speak to a diverse range of organisations is one of the delights of the office I am privileged to hold. As Speaker, I must remain impartial in the Chair and on any legislation that comes before Parliament which means I am unable to make speeches or to vote unless there is a tie. Before I became Speaker, however, I voted in 2000 for the equalisation of the age of consent; in 2002 for the right of gay couples jointly to adopt; in 2003 for the repeal of section 28; in 2004 for the Civil Partnership legislation and for the Equality Acts of 2005 and 2009. The Kaleidoscope Trust, with its focus away from these shores, has helpfully enabled me to continue my advocacy of, and support for, LGBT rights without compromising my domestic impartiality. I am tremendously proud to be associated with the Kaleidoscope Trust. It is to the enduring credit of Lance Price that he had the vision to see the need for the Trust and the drive, with a team of dedicated colleagues, to establish it within months as a strong voice on LGBT issues. Its values and virtues will be vindicated time and again in the months and years ahead.
I want to use this platform tonight to stress the international character of the struggle for true equality and human rights in which we are engaged, to reflect on the progress we are making, to flag up the challenges we have yet to overcome (which we will) and to highlight the special significance of the work of this Trust. This is an especially appropriate time for such a tour d’horizon in a year when international attention will be directed at this country and we have the chance to show our commitment and our leadership in this field.
My focus this evening, however, will be on developments across the planet rather than at home. There have been numerous positive deeds which I would like to set out for you before, inevitably if somewhat unfortunately, I have to report far less welcome activities. I hope you will forgive me if these observations are comprehensive in nature but I think it is valuable for us all to register and reflect on what might be described as the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
I want to start with the United Nations. In December 2011 at the UN in Geneva to mark International Human Rights Day, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a landmark and inspiring speech. As she eloquently said: “Some have suggested that gay rights and human rights are separate and distinct; but, in fact, they are one and the same... Like being a woman, like being a racial, religious, tribal or ethnic minority, being LGBT does not make you less human. And that is why gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights.”
There then followed in March 2012 the first ever UN plenary session on LGBT human rights, sexual orientation and gender identification took place at the United Nations in Geneva in March. Despite opposition from some quarters, 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 debate affirmed that states have a duty under international law to protect the human rights of all persons. It was truly a defining moment.
Europe has, I am pleased to say, moved in lock-step with the United Nations. The Council of Europe has held its first ever conference on the status of LGBT rights among its members. The UK Government declared that it would fund a LGBT Unit which would oversee the implementation of the Council's recommendations. This Trust was present at the conference.
In Latin America, the Inter-American Human Rights Court has decided in favour of a Chilean woman who had lost custody of her children due to her sexuality. This is a historic ruling for the region because it clarified for the first time that sexual orientation and gender identity are categories protected against discrimination under the 1969 American Convention on Human Rights. It signalled an increasing acceptance globally that whether or not a parent is gay is utterly irrelevant in determining the best interests of a child. The brief also argued that denying lesbian and gay people custody of their children violates the rights of both children and parents to live freely without discrimination.
In the same country, the homophobic murder of Daniel Zamudio in Santiago sparked calls for the Chilean Government to introduce anti-discrimination and hate crimes legislation. The Chilean Congress has approved an anti-discrimination bill that outlaws discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, gender and/or sexual orientation. The bill had languished in Congress for over seven years, but was finally fast-tracked to approval by the President, Sebastian Pinera, and it cleared its final hurdle with a 25-3 vote in the Senate last week (10 May).
In Australia, a Senate inquiry into legalising gay marriage in that nation has revealed unprecedented support for the change. Figures released last month showed a leap in support for gay marriage with almost six in ten Australians wanting to allow same-sex couples to marry, a stand backed in an open letter signed by more than 50 members of the clergy. My final two examples of the past six months carry in what would traditionally be regarded as extremely difficult territory for advocates of true equality.
The first concerns Jamaica. The Prime Minister there, Portia Simpson-Miller, took on conventional political wisdom about what could be said and done amongst her electorate by stating that she would review the criminalisation of homosexuality in the country and would not forbid lesbian or gay people from serving in her Cabinet. This was remarkable in the context of a close political contest in which the incentives to "play safe" would have been considerable. If her words can be translated into deeds then the impact in this region could be really seismic.
The second relates to Uganda. In a ground-breaking move, Ugandan gay rights group SMUG filed a lawsuit against maverick American evangelist Scott Lively in a federal court in Massachusetts accusing him of violating international law by inciting the persecution of gay men and lesbians in their country. The Centre for Constitutional Rights took on Lively, who rejoices in the title of President of the Abiding Truth Ministries, on behalf of LGBT activist Frank Mugisha from Sexual Minorities Uganda, a non-profit umbrella body for LGBT advocacy organisations in that country. The suit alleges that Lively's involvement in openly whipping up anti-gay hysteria in Uganda, including his active participation in the formulation of anti-gay legislation and policies aimed at revoking fundamental rights from LGBT people, constitutes persecution. This is the first known Alien Tort Statute case seeking accountability for persecution on the basis of sexual orientation and gender. Its implications may be seminal.
If all of this is cause for cheer, which it is, I also need to set out the causes for concern. Before I do, however, I think this is an appropriate time to remind ourselves what it is we are actually 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. The examples which follow 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.
At the most basic level, it still remains illegal to engage in same-sex conduct in 78 countries. In five nations - Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen - the death penalty can be invoked for homosexual activity. And examples of hostile legislative activity are by no means confined to what might be called the usual suspects.
In Russia, for instance, the St Petersburg City Assembly passed the controversial "homosexual propaganda" law which came into effect in March. The bill effectively bans public events by LGBT people and organisations under the pretext of protecting minors. Fines can be imposed on individuals and institutions for "public actions aimed at propaganda of sodomy, lesbianism, bi-sexuality and transgenderism among minors". Needless to say, the definition of all this lies very much in the hands of the would-be prosecutor. Local LGBT rights advocates have assailed the legislation, arguing that it will provide legal cover for banning almost anything. Russian activists have pressed for a travel ban on those responsible for it.
These are not the only alarming signs from within our own continent. With St Petersburg as the clear inspiration, an extremist party in Hungary has sought to ban television programmes that portray being gay as acceptable. The proposal would make such so-called promotion of homosexuality punishable by up to eight years imprisonment. In parallel, the Budapest police had rejected a request to hold the annual LGBT pride march there this summer. A court in Budapest reportedly overruled the police’s decision not to grant a licence in April. It appears that Budapest should now be able to host a Pride parade this year, but how the police will react if it does go ahead is another question. Meanwhile in Slovenia, citizens voted to reject a law that would have allowed gay couples to adopt the biological children of their parents. This is a surprising setback as this is a country in which homosexuality has been comparatively uncontroversial with a form of civil partnership registration in place for some six years now.
These negative developments, themselves disturbing enough, are outdone by evidence of legislative and judicial reaction elsewhere.
In Nigeria, the "Same Gender Marriage Prohibition Bill" was proposed in 2011, and has since been amended by the Nigerian Senate to punish those in a same-sex union with 14 years imprisonment and anyone "aiding and abetting" such unions with 10 years’ incarceration. The European Parliament has called on the Nigerian Parliament to throw out the bill which, if enacted, would put LGBT people at serious risk of violence and arrest. Existing legislation already punishes homosexual acts with up to 14 years' imprisonment or, unofficially, death by stoning in certain northern regions.
This campaign has echoes of what has been seen and heard more vividly, as I referred to earlier, in Uganda. The backbench bill which had included the death penalty for some 'offences' of homosexuality has been reintroduced in Parliament. Although the “death penalty” clause has now been dropped, it remains a pernicious piece of legislation that would introduce the penalty of life imprisonment for a person convicted of a gay act more than once. Another proposal from 2010 that blocks gay people from access to HIV prevention and treatment has also resurfaced in Kampala. These are very testing times.
Finally, in Malaysia, activists seeking to reverse the ban on the Sexual Rights festival failed in their court action. In a state-inspired homophobic innovation, the Malaysian Information Department has sparked additional controversy by announcing an intention to ban television shows which feature gay characters. Exactly how this will be determined is a mystery but this is an unapologetic attempt to curb the so-called influence of LGBT activists in Malaysia.
What can we learn from this evidence both positive and negative? Quite a lot in my opinion.
The first lesson is the exceptional geographical diversity in both directions. It is not simply a case of large sections of the world being sympathetic to the equality agenda and comparably large and predictable segments of the planet being antipathetic to similar initiatives. It is a much, much more complicated picture than that. As I have outlined, Jamaica, which has not been easy terrain for LGBT supporters, has found itself with a bold advocate for change while countries within the heart of the EU and the Council of Europe contain reactionary elements. At a minimum, the events of the past few months illustrate the importance of acquiring detailed information internally, even from locations that one might assume did not need observation. I am pleased that this remains at the core of the Trust's mission. It must not be forgotten, but followed for the foreseeable future.
The second element worthy of note is the uncertain relationship between democracy and full equality. While, as a broad rule, countries which hold free elections and which respect the rule of law are more likely to take a consistent and full approach to human rights than is seen in dictatorships, it is not, regrettably, as simple as saying that equality follows democracy as day follows night. There are a number of nations, which hold what are correctly considered free and fair elections on a regular basis but which are not free and fair societies as far as their LGBT citizens are concerned. Cultural alignment matters as least as much as constitutional arrangements. And culture is much harder to change than constitutions. We need to be aware of this in all of our activities.
We meet here tonight, in the Commonwealth Club. The Commonwealth is a most valuable asset in today’s world. It is described as a voluntary association of sovereign states, consulting and cooperating in the common interests of their peoples and in the promotion of international understanding and world peace. But worryingly, 41 of the 78 countries where same sex activity is illegal are Commonwealth countries. This is clearly a violation of the rights of their citizens and as the Commonwealth Secretary General, Kamalesh Sharma, said in July last year, “...the vilification and targeting of people on grounds of sexual orientation are at odds with the values of the Commonwealth”. The framework of engagement amongst Commonwealth nations provides us with a great opportunity to work with those 41 countries with such unjust legislative prohibitions on homosexuality. The Commonwealth is often called a family, and we all know that families have different views, and sometimes fall out. But the strength of families is that there is a strong base upon which to settle our differences – let’s use it!
Finally, I think what I have described so far highlights the importance of individual and institutional leadership and the pivotal part played by personal determination and, to an extent, personal sacrifice. 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.
All of which brings me logically to the Kaleidoscope Leadership Forum and what it can achieve in future.
The Kaleidoscope Leadership Forum is designed primarily as an on-line resource for existing LGBT leaders and leaders yet to be found as well as supporters of LGBT rights in public life. In addition to providing on-line advice and a space for exchanging ideas and best practice, the Leadership Forum will be a gateway to practical support including media training, lectures and reciprocal visits.
One of the key objectives of the Forum is to encourage the emerging new cadre of leaders to examine how best they could advance the cause of diversity and respect for LGBT rights in their future careers. The Forum would build up an online library of resources including model press releases, letters, research materials, speeches and so forth. It would incorporate videos or links to YouTube with first person contributions from around the world sharing advice and best practice, for example on connecting with the media, public speaking or engaging with policy makers. Technology can be our precious friend.
Forum leaders would be people who already hold high-profile leadership positions. This can be built upon so that each month, one of the leaders delivers an extended Forum lecture on his or her chosen topic. The Forum is open to anybody to take part, no matter in which country they live. It will aim to offer advice and experience from openly gay elected representatives. Many of these will come from long-established democracies but there will be exceptions such as Sunil Pant in Nepal or David Kuria in Kenya. Those aspiring to, or thinking about, leadership positions can register on-line. The Leadership Forum will have, therefore, a distinct and quantifiable membership.
The Forum is about people aspiring to leadership positions in government, local politics, the civil service and the media. It is not about indoctrination or training people to be LGBT activists. The programme does not yet have any “course” that people can join and there are no plans to recognise ‘achievement’ as such. It aims to be less an exercise in formal distance learning and more an informal global exchange of expertise and experience. It will, for example, aim to stage Leadership Academies at least once or twice a year. Subject to securing adequate funding and sponsorship, it should be an objective to identify key up-and-coming individuals who would be asked to attend and lead an Academy session. These might be held in different cities and continents to ensure that the initiative is truly international and able to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and skills throughout the world. I endorse it wholeheartedly.
As I have mentioned previously, the eyes of the world will be focused on Britain this year with unusual intensity. Alongside the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympic Games, World Pride will descend upon our capital city. The Kaleidoscope Trust has been selected as the official charity partner for Pride London who will host World Pride this year. The theme of the 2012 pride events, which run from June 23rd to July 8th, is the international decriminalisation of homosexuality. World Pride’s stated ambition is to raise awareness of those suffering persecution because of their sexuality.
As a consequence, people will be coming from all over the world to London including some very brave local activists who risk a huge amount to campaign publicly in countries where their sexuality is still illegal. This Trust takes its lead from those heroic individuals. We do not pretend to know how best to effect change in their countries which, as I have said, is often more about cultures than constitutions. 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. Schemes such as the Leadership Forum have evolved as a consequence of that debate, discussion and dialogue. That said, we must never forget, that it is individual courage that will ultimately advance this cause.
In this respect, I want to say a few words about a person who, tragically, will not be in London this summer. I mentioned him a little earlier but I want to refer to him once more as I conclude. Daniel Zamudio, aged 24, was an openly gay Chilean man, who was tortured and beaten to death by suspected neo-Nazis in his homeland a few months ago. He was finally pronounced dead after 25 days in hospital following a savage beating by his attackers, who struck him over the head, burnt him with cigarettes and carved swastikas into his chest. Thousands of complete strangers attended his funeral. Chile has been through a period of very considerable soul-searching as a consequence. Legislation has been introduced which, as I have indicated, may secure its rightful space in the statute book. It should not take an incident such as this to act as a catalyst for change but history is full of such examples. Tragically, all too often, it is the commission of a terrible human wrong that prompts others to act to protect the human right which most of us have come to take for granted.
This Trust exists to support those like Daniel Zamudio and to work for a world where no one like him has to suffer as he did. It will carry on until we 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. I know that everyone in this room is united in commitment to that most noble of objectives. Let me impress on you to finish that there is no better means to that end than the type of work undertaken and envisaged by the Kaleidoscope Trust. Through education, through campaigning and through the sheer force of moral suasion, we must strive to deliver equality for LGBT people that others have so long enjoyed and they have too long been denied. Thank you very much indeed.
Watch our new campaign commercial on YouTube.
Anything you can give would be hugely appreciated.
Have a question? Or something to tell us? We'd love to hear from you.
FOLLOW OUR WORK
Sign up to our newsletter today and receive regular updates.