We must step up the struggle for LGBTI rights

Every generation has its iconic struggle for equality, from the civil rights movement to the push towards gender parity. Today, that struggle is for LGBTI rights. For our generation, this debate sits at the vanguard of society’s efforts to achieve greater equality and inclusivity.

Every generation has its iconic struggle for equality, from the civil rights movement to the push towards gender parity. Today, that struggle is for LGBTI rights. For our generation, this debate sits at the vanguard of society’s efforts to achieve greater equality and inclusivity. But it is a struggle that divides us, perhaps more deeply than those that have come before.

It strikes at the heart of religious and social norms, exposing deep rifts even within our most progressive societies. However, thanks largely to the efforts of civil society, the last 20 years have brought remarkable gains in LGBTI equality.

Most recently, the legislation of same sex marriage across the US has shown what can be achieved with consistent advocacy and campaigning. In just 16 years, the number of countries around the world allowing same-sex marriage has grown from zero to 23.

Many countries have repealed sodomy laws and decriminalised homosexuality, and a handful have passed laws making it easier to amend legal documents in accordance with self-determined gender identity.

In 2008, for the first time, a declaration on LGBTI rights – condemning discrimination and violence on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity – was introduced in the UN general assembly. Ninety-six member states signed up.

Even in regions of the world where LGBTI individuals continue to face severe persecution, the levels of public dialogue and visibility around issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity are unprecedented. Until a few years ago, there was no LGBTI movement in Africa . Now, a growing number of civil society organisations are lobbying at national and regional levels, engaging with the African regional human rights system, using national courts to win important rights victories, and engaging with faith leaders. But there is still a long way to go.

In Orlando , we witnessed the worst targeted mass killing of LGBTI people in the west since the Holocaust. And homosexual acts remain illegal in 75 countries; in six, they are punishable by death. In countries such as Belize and India, homosexuality has recently been recriminalised and, in the last year alone, extreme anti-LGBTI laws were passed in Russia, Nigeria and Uganda.

Indeed, in 2015, Amnesty International said legal rights for LGBTI people had diminished across Africa . Even in countries with progressive legal frameworks, most notably South Africa, social acceptance is low and levels of violence remain high. And the ongoing global clampdown on civic space has had a severe effect on LGBTI communities and civil society organisations.

Since 2013, Algeria, Lithuania, Nigeria and Russia have passed laws prohibiting “homosexual propaganda”, making it difficult – if not impossible – for LGBTI civil society organisations to operate without interference from the state. Stigmatisation and stereotyping by political and cultural leaders seeks to contrast LGBTI narratives with traditional narratives of national identity, religion and culture. Activists, often portrayed as agents of foreign or colonial forces, are attacked as a threat to national identity and morality.

And, in the runup to elections, LGBTI citizens are increasingly being used as scapegoats to distract voters from the true source of a country’s political and economic ills.

The LGBTI struggle is a classic fight to access basic human rights. Yet, in my experience talking to civil society leaders, we are far from winning hearts and minds. Back in 2011 and again in 2014 – when my Civicus colleagues wrote to the Ugandan parliament and to President Yoweri Museveni urging them to reject Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill, many of our network partners in the global south refused to sign our open letter.

I doubt whether we would have had the same difficulty convincing activists to sign a letter on gender equality 30 years ago. But a broad-based, progressive consensus on LGBTI rights continues to elude us.

It’s time for this to change. In our newly published State of Civil Society Report , the message from more than 30 civil society experts is clear: we cannot tackle exclusion in our societies by cherry picking the issues and rights we agree with.

The rights of LGBTI citizens across the world are intrinsically bound up with my rights and yours. Recognising the commonality of all human struggles for freedom, dignity and bodily autonomy, we must stand united in our defence of the right to equality, the right to speak out, the right to access justice – irrespective of whether we personally agree with or believe in the LGBTI agenda.

Apartheid was ended by a united front of progressives who stood together to denounce a repugnant and unjust system. This kind of solidarity is absolutely central to the struggle against discrimination in all its forms.

In signing up to the sustainable development goals , we pledged to “leave no-one behind”. If we perpetuate exclusion by refusing to take up the struggles of certain communities, we will fail in this venture. We need to build a broad-based, progressive alliance on LGBTI rights. This is our generation’s struggle, and it must be our contribution towards a more equitable future.

Dr Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah is secretary general of Civicus, the global civil society alliance