It would be ludicrous to suggest that we live in a society where homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are things of the past. Transphobia in particular, is still incredibly prevalent, and does a great deal of damage in this country and elsewhere.
It is important to sometimes pause and remember the plights of LGBT people around the world, many of whom live in societies where the state actively works against the interests of LGBT people. Too often our attention to these issues is fleeting and even when we are paying attention, we fail to really listen to the LGBT people in those countries, to what they want us to do to help them.
In 2013, Russia outlawed the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships”. This effectively means that LGBT issues cannot be discussed publicly, and also has implications for large groups of LGBT people gathering. A number of LGBT rights protestors have been arrested because of the law, which has been condemned by a number of human rights groups. This situation gained a great deal of attention in this country during the Winter Olympics and many called for us to boycott the games.
I think that this is a pretty good example of why we need to listen to what LGBT people want, not just make assumptions ourselves. Often blanket calls for boycotts and sanctions from people in Western countries ignore the lived realities of many LGBT people around the world. In this case, LGBT groups and campaigners in Russia did not call for a boycott, because they feared it would lead to the situation for LGBT people in Russia getting worse.
What LGBT rights advocates in Russia did call for was attention, and for a while. they got it. The eyes of the world knew what was happening in Russia and through protests, media coverage and international political pressure, we let them know we didn’t agree with it. But then the games ended and we stopped paying attention. Unsurprisingly, the situation in Russia hasn’t changed. International pressure can be a powerful thing and when LGBT individuals who are being persecuted and asking for our help we should be listening to them and sustaining that international pressure.
Just one other example of a country where the legal rights (or rather, the lack of legal rights) for LGBT people has not received the response it deserved from the international community is Uganda. Here, homosexuality, bisexuality and being transgender are illegal, and in 2012 the speaker of their Parliament promised a bill which would bring in harsher penalties for LGBT people and those who fail to report them.
It does not do us justice as a society to forget about these people, nor does it do us justice to presume to know what is best for them without really listening
Again, our response to this should be careful and it would involve listening to LGBT people in the country, who, like in Russia, have not called for boycotts because of a concern about their situation being made worse, as people would blame them for the boycotts and punish them for them.
We should be paying attention to what is happening to LGBT people in Uganda, Russia and elsewhere not momentarily, when the laws are passed, but in a sustained and long-term way. These are just two countries where LGBT people are suffering from persecution: there are many more. It does not do us justice as a society to forget about these people, nor does it do us justice to presume to know what is best for them without really listening. Let’s listen to these people, do what they ask and sustain that attention.
Rachel Megan Barker