“All we are saying is ‘don’t treat us like criminals’. We might not conform to some people’s morality, but that should not make us criminals.” A Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) and HIV Activist in Uganda.
The passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill in the UK represents a major step to dismantle all legal discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity in Britain, and a testimony of an unequivocal cross-party commitment to upholding equality. It is simply historic.
The Bill is also bound to set precedent across Commonwealth countries sharing British Common Law. It defends the universal value of non-discrimination, enshrined in the brand new Charter of the Commonwealth.
The new UK Law contrasts starkly with the passing of the Sexual Marriage (Prohibition) Bill by the House of Representatives of another Commonwealth country, Nigeria just a few weeks ago.
How to compare both texts without falling into colonial/post-colonial stereotypes? Hard, controversial, but a necessary exercise of realism.
Let’s try to leave aside West-South politics, human rights and cultural specificities. Let’s focus on the differences in context for say, a couple of men sharing their lives in the UK or in Nigeria.
For the couple in the UK, the new provision extends the concept of marriage where there already was civil partnership. It doesn’t guarantee a discrimination-free life for our couple, but it gives an unequivocal signal of State recognition of equality in marriage.
The Nigeria Bill is a different ball game altogether. Prohibition of same sex marriage is not really what the Bill is about. The Bill in fact criminalises “any arrangement between persons of the same sex to live together as same sex partners”. The prohibition carries up to 14 years’ imprisonment.
And where is HIV in all this?
Nigeria has the second largest population of people living with HIV in the world. 10% of new infections occur among the LGBT community, even when it represents less than 1% of the entire population.
The Bill potentially criminalises our couple and every other member of the LGBT population, and makes it virtually impossible for members of this population living with or affected by HIV to freely seek essential health services.
The text also provides up to 10 years’ imprisonment for any person who “supports the registration on gay clubs, societies, organisations, processions or meetings”. This poses a threat to any HIV organisation providing services to the LGBT population.
The conclusion of this brief comparison exercise should of course be optimistic as the UK has achieved a major milestone today.
But the question is whether the UK government will translate this commitment to equality into a more active foreign policy around this matter.
Over 80 countries currently criminalise homosexuality, and Nigeria, Uganda, Russia, Ukraine, Zimbabwe, and others are taking further steps towards criminalising same sex practices.
This reminds us that in most parts of the world, the battle for equality based on sexual orientation and gender identity is not just of recognition, but still a matter of human dignity, a universal principle the UK has pledged to defend internationally.