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As 2018 draws to a close, it is an opportunity to reflect on the momentous progress seen this year in many countries on rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
We are nearing the end of a historic year for millions of LGBT people around the world. Thanks to the courage of LGBT activists who have fought for their rights publicly, knowing that it would likely mean rejection by their families and communities, possible incarceration or even death, four countries have seen significant legislative changes that positively affect LGBT communities.
Today, we recognise the achievements of individuals and groups who took on the very systems that marginalised them – and won.
Jason Jones versus Trinidad and Tobago
Jason Jones, a prominent LGBT activist, fled Trinidad and Tobago in fear of his life following a spate of attacks. Despite his initial reservations and concerns not only for his livelihood, but also for his health, Jones showed unwavering determination to challenge the ‘buggery’ law that he believes led to the violence. In a damning legacy of British colonial-era rule, under sections 13 and 16 of Trinidad and Tobago’s Sexual Offences Act 1986, same sex activity was prohibited and carried a 25 year prison sentence.
With invaluable pro-bono legal support he pursued a case that many believed was impossible to win. However, in April 2018, the High Court of Trinidad and Tobago delivered a landmark victory and turning point for LGBT rights in the Caribbean when it deemed the law unconstitutional.
Commenting on the case, Jones said: “Why did I do it? Because I am a product of homophobia. I have lost so much – family, friends and even my boyfriend could not take being second fiddle to my work. I am a man possessed. I don’t want anyone else to have to go through the difficulties that I faced in Trinidad simply for being myself and loving someone of the same sex.”
India repeals section 377
India took the first step to securing LGBT rights when in 2009 the Delhi High Court struck down the 150-year old anti-homosexuality law, previously penal code section 377, which criminalised same sex behaviour described as “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. For more than 15 years, activists have tirelessly petitioned India’s Supreme Court to confirm the High Court’s ruling. It took until September 2018 for the Supreme Court to finally strike down the unjust law, constitutionalising LGBT rights and enshrine it in law for good. For a country with a population of over 1.3 billion people, the ruling will bring about great improvements in the lives of so many LGBT people and their loved ones.
Speaking after the announcement, Ashok Row Kavi, Founder Chairperson of Humsafar Trust, said: “18 years of hard work has finally paid off but this is just the beginning of a long journey for equal rights in society. There is so much more to do, so many dreams have to come true, but today I look forward to a good night's sleep for I am no longer a criminal!”
Ending forced anal examinations in Kenya
The practice of forced anal testing is a degrading violation of human rights used by law enforcement agencies in many parts of Africa to criminalise people suspected of being gay. In a landmark victory in Kenya, secured by the National Gay and Lesbian and Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC), the courts ruled against the practice. The leading human rights organisation, committed to upholding rights of sexual minority groups in Kenya, had twice mounted legal challenges to the practice and, in March 2018, eventually won its case to end forced anal examinations on people who are accused of having same-sex relations. A spokesperson from the charity said: “The NGLHRC has long argued that the tests are a violation of rights to privacy and dignity and amount to torture.”
Guyana strikes down colonial-era cross-dressing law
Nine years ago, four transgender women in Guyana were arrested and convicted under section 153(1)(xvlvii) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act from 1893 for ‘cross-dressing’, this led them to lodge a case to challenge the constitutionality of the British colonial-era law, which was used to target the transgender community. In November 2018, the Caribbean Court of Justice upheld their appeal, paving the way for the further advancement of LGBT rights in the country.
Joel Simpson, Managing Director of Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), hailed the decision as “…a clarion call to engage state actors on how the law engenders social and economic exclusion of disadvantaged groups. Trans persons remain vulnerable to arrests for small crimes like loitering in Guyana’s colonial-era vagrancy laws which are still on the statute books.” He also added “This is a victory for human rights and justice in the Caribbean.”
Progress today, challenges ahead
Despite these significant victories, violations continue around the world. In November, the regional governor of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania made a public announcement for residents to reveal the names of gay Tanzanians, which sent many LGBT people into hiding through fear for their safety with potentially little or no access to services for HIV testing and treatment. Christine Stegling, Executive Director of the Alliance, shared her concerns on the situation in Tanzania with CNN International and called for more conversations around sexuality and HIV to tackle the epidemic amongst those most affected.
On the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, LGBT activists in Uganda had their commemorations disrupted and forcibly closed under the orders of the Minister of Ethics and the local police.
The year’s victories have been won in courtrooms and yet overturning laws and changing practices is just one step towards greater equality. As Gulliver McEwan, executive director of Guyana Trans United points out we need a double approach: “We strongly believe that changing hearts and minds is core in our advocacy strategies, when hearts and minds are changed laws and policies will follow.”
As we say goodbye to 2018, Jason Jones’s reflection on his legal victory encapsulates the spirit of this year’s successes and its potential to create tangible and meaningful change.
“This victory is much more than just the legal challenge and constitutional reforms. It is a rallying cry for the LGBT community and our allies to stand up and be counted! Yes, there was pushback but we are pushing forward in ways never seen before. This is the Rosa Parks moment for LGBT people of the Caribbean and we shall NEVER sit in the back of the bus again.”
Jason Jones, Guyana Trans United, NGLHRC and SASOD all received funds from the Alliance’s Rapid Response Fund to support their legal cases; Humsafar Trust is an Alliance linking organisation; and NGLHRC is also a partner under the Alliance’s PITCH programme.