Last Friday night I went to an interesting talk by Lord Goldsmith on decriminalising homosexuality in the Caribbean. This region, known for its picture postcard images of sun, sea and sand, has a far less positive reputation amongst gay people worldwide. Sexual activity between two consenting same sex adults is illegal in many countries in the Caribbean. Vulnerable from the absence of legal protection, gay people often face open, violent and – far too frequently – deadly discrimination reflected in the disturbing lyrics sung by some modern reggae artists.
But the recent court appearance of two men who engaged in same-sex activity in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyrprus (TRNC) – the last place in the Council of Europe where homosexuality is illegal – brought the issue much closer to home. The men were arrested under a law the prohibits “sexual intercourse against the order of nature”. This law is completely absurd. It reminded me of a quote which circulates on social media every time homophobia rears its ugly head in public debate – “homosexuality is well documented in over 500 species, but homophobia is only found in one.” But the amount of time I have spent arguing with bigots about these issues has convinced me that changing deeply held and irrational prejudices can be incredibly difficult. So what can be done?
For our client, the Human Dignity Trust – an organisation of leading human rights lawyers – the issue is not about changing minds, but rather changing, and upholding, laws. International human rights laws specifically protects the right to a sexual identity. It is not just morally wrong, but also illegal, for a gay person to be criminalised because of who they are. This is not about gay rights, but human rights, which do not deserve their name unless they apply to all of us, equally.
As Jonathan Cooper, Co-Director of the Trust explained on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme the TRNC is clearly violating these rights and laws. Last week the Trust helped lodge a case at the European Court of Human Rights to decriminalise homosexuality in the country. Alongside Radio Four, the case was also reported in The Evening Standard, The Lawyer and Pink News. This is incredibly exciting – a big step towards erasing a large stain on Europe’s human rights map. But we must not be complacent. Worldwide there are around seventy countries which still criminalise homosexuality, each one denying gay people the human rights they should enjoy.