Phyllis Opoku-Gyimah reflects on the reaction against LGBT advances around the world ahead of Sunday’s ninth UK Black Pride festival
IT IS 13 years since the Netherlands first legalised gay marriage. The passage of similar legislation in Britain and France has reignited deep vitriol and homophobic sentiments in the public arena.
The tone of the debate now is reminiscent of the late 1980s when Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher introduced homophobic Section 28 legislation. This pernicious policy prevented schools from teaching youngsters that homosexual relationships could lead to people forming an “acceptable family.”
It led to a generational ignorance about the value of same-sex love and relationships, all the while undermining LGBT peoples’ self-esteem in relation to their personal identities.
With the hard work of grass-roots equality campaign groups like Stonewall and progressive movements like the trade unions, attitudes and practices have evolved. Public opinion is increasingly sensitised to the plurality of human love. Opinion polls increasingly show the population supporting the right of people to self-determine the nature and substance of their personal relations, from civil partnerships to marriage.
LGBT people have developed an increased visibility, voice and self-confidence in asserting that their human rights cannot be traded like market goods.
What campaigners and communities have learned from struggles against racism and gender inequality — which hold greater political and public support as irreversible human rights issues — is that life-destroying discrimination continues when strong legislation is not in place, when policy is not effectively implemented, and when education is not reinforced.
It is also important to distinguish the causes of homophobic bigotry. Some of it is certainly based on a lack of knowledge and ignorance, some of it is based on fear, however irrational, but other currents of homophobia are squarely rooted in hatred of LGBT people and our right to be who we were born to be.
What is clear to UK Black Pride, which supports African, Asian, Caribbean and Arab heritage people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans from all corners of Europe and beyond, is that when LGBT people become more visible it can lead to an increase in homo-, bi-, and transphobia being expressed in the public sphere.
What is unfortunate about what we have seen in places like Britain and France, which recently debated marriage equality, is that often political leaders and opinion formers, including figures within faith communities, make use of the public debate about marriage equality and other types of laws to fuel homophobia for social and political gains. That has also been observed in other European countries and in places like Colombia, Ghana, India, Jamaica, Nigeria and Uruguay.
Must we then be cowed by the kickback against equality? Is it right to take our foot off the gas pedal and slow down our calls for equality before the law and for enforcement of legal gains? The simple answer is “no” since the path to legal equality has always involved overcoming resistance from vested interests, privileged constructs and social conventions that have been built up over centuries.
Winning human rights is rarely a smooth process. Even the Dutch parliament had to consider legalising gay marriage for five years before it did so. The country’s LGBT groups had been lobbying for it since the 1980s. However, when the Netherlands did lower the marriage barrier in 2001 other countries soon followed, most recently New Zealand, Uruguay, France and Britain in 2013.
However lawmakers have often faced strong resistance, notably from organised faith communities like the church.
But even in a largely Catholic country like Spain, where more than 25,000 gay marriages have been celebrated there since 2005 as testimony to the fact that faith need not be a barrier to equality. Indeed, Catholics in Canada, Italy, Spain and Britain recently marked May 17, International Day Against Homophobia, by connecting churches in a prayer vigil.
For the first time, Catholic churches hosted events with LGBT Christians and supporters lighting candles and joining in prayer to remember LGBT people who have died or live in fear because of their sexuality. These small steps are an integral part of challenging homophobia within institutions of both church and state.
UK Black Pride retains its core as a not-for-profit entity that is community-led by unpaid volunteers to encourage better understanding of the nature of challenges faced by Britain’s black LGBT communities in order to raise awareness of these groups’ needs and aspirations, as well as the challenges that are likely to surface inside and out of the communities to which black LGBT people belong.
We believe that collective and binding commitments to equality are worth arguing for and winning, with few collective commitments serving as a better model to celebrate unity and strength than community-led Pride events.
UK Black Pride is holding its festival as part of the Big Pride Picnic in the Park in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, London SE11, tomorrow.
Phyllis Opoku-Gyimah is UK Black Pride’s executive director.