The International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia is commemorated on 17th May every year. It marks the anniversary of the World Health Organisation declassifying homosexuality as a mental disorder, which it did in 1990. This year the international theme is 'Love makes a family'.
Across the Commonwealth, LGBT people are going through the same challenges, joys, disagreements, love and loss with their families as everyone does. But for many, the complexity of human relationships is made harder when family becomes the flash-point for facing the discrimination borne in wider society. For some this is struggling with the acceptance of family members; for others it is far more serious with family members playing a direct role in persecution against them. At a recent workshop hosted for Commonwealth Secretariat staff, two speakers gave their own personal stories of families. One, a UK politician, talked about his family’s support but the struggle of coming to accept who he was throughout much of his life. The second speaker described her biological family’s rejection of her – they even reported her to the police just because of her sexual orientation. However, after being recognised for asylum in the UK, she built herself a new family who brought her the care that we all hope for.
The ‘Commonwealth family’ itself is far from harmonious all of the time. 36 of the Commonwealth’s 52 members still criminalise consensual sex between same-sex adults. Many more do not have adequate laws to recognise and protect trans people within their societies. The recent murder and rape of a young lesbian woman in Soweto, South Africa, shows just how far, even countries with strong legal frameworks, have to go in making their societies inclusive.
The dialogue convened by the Commonwealth Secretariat for its staff is one example of how the Commonwealth family can come together and build understanding of LGBT people’s lived experiences and progress towards equality. The RCS has played its part in this by convening Pretoria-based Commonwealth diplomats and several former Heads of State to engage in dialogue on leaving no one behind. These dialogues allow for respectful exchange of opinions, the understanding of people’s lived experiences and the sharing of how governments are changing laws and policies to benefit all of their citizens. Recently, Mozambique, Seychelles, Nauru and Belize have seen their criminalisation of same-sex relations (inherited from colonial-era statute books) repealed. They join numerous other governments making change to protect the rights of LGBT people and their families.
It is important to remember that the Commonwealth is not just a group of nations but peoples as well. The Commonwealth Equality Network epitomises the spirit of this diverse family, bringing together LGBT civil society across the Commonwealth. Bringing the Commonwealth family together is no easy feat but its long history of dialogue and technical support bring opportunities to do so. IDAHOT Day 2017 is a moment for all to consider how we can work more closely to ensure everyone, in all their diversity, is included.