When we talk about these abuses around the world, it is best to speak with a sense of humility about the challenges we still face with homophobia in our own country. In the Brighton and Hove area—which I am proud to represent as one of its three MPs—we saw a savage homophobic attack in May last year against two young people, Dain Finney and his partner James. They were visitors to Brighton, but they were savagely attacked that night.
Just this week, we have also seen how somebody who ended up as a Member of Parliament, having been elected this year, used a type of homophobic language before first coming to this place that was really quite extreme and quite offensive.
There are three things about the response to both those cases that set us as a country apart from those countries that we are talking about and that we aim to tackle in this debate. First, in the case of Dain and James—the two men assaulted in Brighton—the men who assaulted them were arrested and convicted, and they are currently serving a five-year custodial sentence. The state was on the victims’ side, but in some other countries—from Russia to Uganda—the police and the judiciary are often the ones carrying out the homophobia in the first place, whether through violence or the use of laws that are homophobic. They are not protecting the citizens they should be protecting.
After the assaults in Brighton that left Dain Finney with both eye sockets broken, both cheekbones broken and his nose broken, he said:
“I hope that what happened to us reminds people that discrimination of any kind isn’t acceptable and we need to be challenging it when it does happen or when we see it. No one should live their lives in fear and I would just urge people to be themselves and walk out the door each day with their heads held high.”
I know that those words, coming from a 22-year-old victim of hate crime, will be inspiring to Members across the House. However, this debate concerns people who live in countries where victims cannot hold their heads high because they suffer the fear of arrest, torture and even execution. Their own states will not protect them, so we as a country have to deliver some of the change that their own states are incapable of delivering themselves.
In the recent instance of the appalling words used by Jared O’Mara to describe gay people, it is noticeable that both Parliament and the media were convulsed with revulsion by his words and the sentiment that lay behind them, even though they were in his distant past. It is right that he has been suspended from the Labour party, while these words and actions are being investigated, but in Parliaments in Tanzania, Chechnya, Russia and too many countries of Africa, offensive homophobic rhetoric is not challenged —it has become the norm.
The excellent report from the APPG on global LGBT rights makes sobering reading. The work put into by parliamentarians and campaigning organisations was intense and immense, but really worth it. I was particularly struck by the legislative assault on same-sex relationships by the state in Uganda and in Nigeria. Legislation was introduced in both countries that strengthened the penalties for same-sex activity and drastically limited the ability of LGBT people to organise in defence of their rights. Nigeria’s Same Sex Marriage (Prohibitions) Act contains provisions that criminalise the formation, operation and support of gay clubs, societies and organisations, with sentences of up to 10 years’ imprisonment. The curtailment of the ability of LGBT communities to organise themselves, to receive funds and to provide services to and advocate on behalf of LGBT people goes beyond mere homophobia—it is a direct assault on civil society itself. In terms of finding ways to deliver change in these countries, the erosion of civil society worries me the most.
In Britain, the transformation from a country with section 28 in statute to one of equal rights and gay marriage was not conceived, led and delivered solely within the four walls of this Parliament. Most of the leadership came from outside—from within our communities and our remarkable voluntary and campaigning sectors. It was one of the best examples of civil society and legislators working together, almost in partnership, to deliver positive social change. It is notable that many of the countries we have talked about today have suffered an erosion or curtailment of wider civil rights first as part of a programme of eroding the rights of gay people. This makes people more vulnerable to abuse, both state-sponsored and from within the institutions of family and community that surround them.
I urge Minsters to act unrelentingly in this area to support lawyers trying to challenge abuse in-country by using the expertise and resources not just of DFID but of the Ministry of Justice, to train our ambassadors appropriately in the issue, to ensure that this is a priority of our whole Government and to use our position in every multinational and multilateral body—from the UN to the Commonwealth, to the monetary and banking organisations—to make sure that in the case of any country that chooses to repress rather than support people who want the basic human right to be gay and to be happy, Britain is always on the side of those people.