Western nations have been asked not to “talk down” to governments in the rest of the world on the issue of gay rights.
At a packed meeting hosted by the Kaleidoscope Trust at the House of Commons last night, leading figures from the LGBT movement in Africa, the Caribbean and Asia urged supporters of equal rights to help them change minds as well as laws in countries where it is a crime to be gay.
After the intervention of political leaders including David Cameron and Hillary Clinton, the debate focused on how LGBT people themselves can take the lead in the demand for human rights for all.
Purna Sen, a trustee of the Kaleidoscope Trust and former head of Human Rights at the Commonwealth Secretariat, opened the meeting by stating that although global voices of influence had recently rallied around to call to end to discrimination, governments would act only when the pressure from below becomes inescapable. She said:
“The Arab Spring took many by surprise. Events have proved that repression is a dead end. Police Power is no match for people power seeking dignity and justice”.
Maurice Tomlinson, who is leading the legal campaign to overturn Jamaica’s anti-sodomy laws, said, “Attitudes won’t change until the laws change – and the laws won’t change until attitudes change. We have to get into the minds of the public if we want politicians to change, because they are not leaders they are followers.”
Tomlinson received the first David Kato Vision and Voice award for LGBT leadership in London on Sunday. He stressed that lecturing governments would be counter-productive and asked for humility in dialogue with leaders. “Talking down to our government is not going to work,” he said.
Pang Khee Teik, an LGBT human rights activist from Malaysia, argued that Western governments should not behave as if they were trying to impose superior values on other countries. “We’re all in it together and we can learn from each other,” he said.
Pang is the co-founder of the annual sexuality rights festival Seksualiti Merdeka (Sexuality Independence), which was banned in November 2011. He said there was “a struggle for the imagination of the public – a cultural war”. Malaysia had recently claimed to be a ‘moderate’ nation and yet the country’s Attorney General had said LGBT people did not have rights.
“If a country that calls itself moderate can silence – who needs extremists,” he said.
Frank Mugisha, a leading Ugandan activist, said only by keeping himself very visible could he protect himself from physical attack. David Kato, who was the best-known LGBT leader in the country, was murdered outside Kampala in January 2011.
Mugisha warned that that Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which includes the death penalty for ‘aggravated homosexuality’, was now in its final stages in parliament. “There is little we can do to stop this,” he said. “It can still be passed even if the President refused to sign it.”
Mugisha said the bill went against Uganda’s constitution but because the word ‘bill’ is the same as ‘law’ in several tribal languages “many people in Uganda think the law has already been passed. People are being killed. There is a lot of mob violence.”