LGBTI rights: "The change cannot be reverted"

May 17th is the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia. Renato Sabbadini, Executive Director of the international LGBTI-Association ILGA talks about positive and negative developments of LGBTI-rights.

Let's talk about positive and negative trends on LGBTI rights globally. This year ILGA publishes the tenth edition of the State Sponsored Homophobia Report (SSHR), which over the years has become a useful tool for lobby groups but also politicians. In view of this study, what is your general opinion about the development of LGBTI rights?

Renato Sabbadini: My general opinion is that there is an increase in the amount of organizations and activists working on these issues particularly at the UN, but also at the national level. We can see this from the activity of our member organizations – we now have 1.200! We have noted an increase of perception among our members as to the importance of lobbying at the Human Rights Council of the UN particularly when the local national government is not willing to listen. There is a lot of mobilization and many activists come to Geneva.

On the other hand, this mobilization might also be necessary because many countries still rely  on conservative views about sexual orientation and gender identity. What is your assessment regarding positive or negative trends on LGBTI rights last year?

This question is best answered by taking a few steps back and looking at a larger time frame. In the case of the SSHR during the last ten years we could assess a decrease of the number of countries, which punish same sex acts between consenting adults, dropping from 92 countries to 76. This means that 16 countries have abandoned their homophobic legislation, which is a very positive trend. Another positive development happened in terms of positive laws, such as equality marriage or prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity - either limited to the work place or in general.

And there are countries – it might seem a paradox – which still criminalize homosexual acts like Namibia, but at the same time they have adopted a legislation criminalizing discrimination at the workplace. We expect Namibia to follow the same course of Mozambique, which just this year came out from our list of the "bad ones". They adopted a new penal code without mentioning sexual orientation anymore. At times it is easier for a country to introduce anti-discrimination legislation rather than abolish a law criminalizing sexual orientation. It is easier to wait for the adoption of a new, reformed penal code to get rid of the criminalizing part to prevent drawing too much attention from the most conservative sectors on the issue: it’s a tactic that seems to work.

Talking about Africa, there were also several negative developments; I just think about Uganda and Nigeria.

Certainly, but again if we observe it in the short term it looks awful, especially in the case of Uganda. But then our member organization together with other LGBTI groups made an appeal at the Constitutional Court and they won. It is true that the court abandoned the law in Uganda because of an error in the voting procedure, however we note a trend where governments remain in a hostile position but the judiciary is beginning to play a balancing role.

The case of Nigeria is a mix of negative developments worldwide and we are still evaluating what is the best way to go about it. This might look depressing, but these attempts by certain governments, which are so stubborn in acknowledging the fact that LGBTI rights are part of the human rights, are relatively limited. In Kenya, for instance, there were five Members of Parliament that wanted to imitate the case of Uganda but their proposal was rejected. And the other day the court in Kenya ruled that NGOs working on LGBTI rights are entitled to be recognized as such.

This is a very positive example and a great success. Let's look into other regions of the world. What does first come to your mind talking about positive developments on LGBTI rights?

The two positive developments that come to my mind are the increase of equality marriage and the anti-discrimination legislation. Equality marriage is now possible in 16 countries and in the count we now include also the United States of America, since more than half of the states are in favor of it. Soon we will see what the Supreme Court says about it in June. If it decides that marriage is a constitutional right, no state can refuse it anymore. In Mexico for instance, which already had the capital adopting equality marriage, it is now also possible in another state. These are the main positive developments, which are to be found in Europe, North America, Latin America and Oceania - if you include New Zealand.

What about Asia?

In the case of Asia we experienced this temporary setback with the Supreme Court of India ruling last year against the New Delhi High Court and reinstating the paragraph 377. Nevertheless they said that it was the role of the Parliament to change the provisions of the Penal Code, but with the current conservative, “traditional-values” government there is not much to be expected in the near future. The reaction of the Indian civil society, however, was quite lively and our member organizations in India have found allies in civil society, even among Bollywood stars. It is simply a setback and I believe that once India changes it will have effect on all the surrounding countries, since these kinds of laws are a heritage from the common British colonial past.

We haven't talked about Europe yet.

Some countries in Europe are very advanced. The best recent example is Malta with an extraordinary and most advanced legislation on gender identity, gender expression and bodily diversity, which was adopted in April 2015. This so called Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act is covering also for the first time intersex issues. This is really extraordinary and the delay of my country of origin, Italy, in all these issues is a shame in particular in regard of it as a founding member of the European Union.  

You now mentioned inter* rights, how about trans* rights?

There is still a lot to do in whole Europe and the world, but thanks to the umbrella organization Transgender Europe (TGEU) the governments and parliaments are becoming more and more aware that there is an issue to consider. Many thought they had already dealt satisfactorily with the issue after having introduced legislation allowing for a change of gender marker in official documents in the 1970s and 1980s, even if it implied terrible human rights violations as prerequisites like sterilization. Only now they realize - thanks to trans* organizations - that they have to reconsider these procedures.

Is a legislative change then the main objective of ILGA?

It is one step. We certainly should celebrate if a new legislative piece like in Malta or in Spain back then about equality marriage is adopted, but we will only learn in decades to come how this will affect social and cultural change. If I look at Lithuania, for example, it has a similar gay propaganda law like in Russia (and Latvia might adopt a similar one in the future). There is still a lot of work to do. However, legislative change is not the only change, you also need cultural changes. We cannot ignore that in Western European countries movements like the 1968 generation and the women's movement have brought forward progressive ideas. These ideas make it easier for politicians who grew up during these times to take e.g. equality marriage laws into consideration.

You mentioned Russia before, what is ILGA's strategy there?

While we openly criticize the gay propaganda law, there is no doubt that change can come mainly from within Russia rather than from pressure from outside, as this might, on the contrary, reinforce Putin’s narrative of a nation heroically “resisting the West”. We need to find new ways to support our “comrades” in doing their work, especially now that they are hit stronger by another law, the so called NGO law on “foreign agents”, which impedes them to receive funding from abroad and forces them to operate in a clandestine way.

Finally, I'd like to ask about the future: where are we heading to?

We are heading towards a world where LGBTI rights are more and more acknowledged being human rights, to a world where discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity,  gender expression and bodily diversity will be morally untenable. It will not happen quickly, but the increase of young LGBTI activists, who are smart enough to undercut the censorship of their hostile governments gives me hope. They will be able to change the climate by coming out to their families, some even by putting their lives at risk. This change cannot be reverted.

Thank you for the interview.

Interview by Caroline Ausserer