Aike Jansen discusses the work of GU Amnesty International campaigning for LGBT+ rights this semester
After 28 days worth of LGBT History Month events flooding my Facebook timeline, rainbow flags waving in the wind and queer people and allies coming together, a celebratory atmosphere is certainly enduring. And this is a good thing: celebrating achievements, learning more about queer history and watching as many queer stories as possible in cinemas around Glasgow has been incredibly positive. Especially as an activist, focusing on the positive rather than on the negative can be really conducive to one’s mental health and ability to continue fighting for change. I might be biased, but my favourite day of last month must have been Valentines Day, with a number of posts on social media and actions in real life underlining that love is a human right. To love whoever and in whatever way, to be free to show that love and to be accepted. With the first UN resolution focusing on LGBTQ+ issues passed in 2011, there is confirmation that it is the duty of international human rights law to ensure that sexual and gender equality becomes a reality. Because, while we have come very far, there is still a lot of work to be done. One of the organisations working tirelessly to ensure this becomes a reality is Amnesty International: from demanding marriage equality in Northern Ireland and supporting the reform of the Gender Recognition Act to campaigning with Finnish trans rights activist Sakris Kupila and LGBTQ+ activist Vitalina Koval from Ukraine.
I’m writing this as an individual, but also in my role as Press & Publicity Officer at Glasgow University Amnesty International. We are a student society affiliated with Amnesty International UK: they support us with materials and content, while we support them through fundraising. But we are independent in the sense that the society itself decides what to focus on in terms of campaigning, events and fundraising. After drawing attention to homelessness as a violation of human rights last year, we decided to campaign on LGBTQ+ issues this semester. Partly because the committee has a personal connection to this (read: we are queer or our friends are, and usually both), and because of the work that still needs to be done. Not long after the semester started, news came from Chechnya in Russia: after the 2017 reports on the torture and abduction of gay men, there were new reports of around 40 men and women being abducted and detained in a government building, based on their sexuality. Two people have died due to torture. It is shocking to hear things like this, especially since Chechen authorities completely deny that LGBTQ+ people exist. An Amnesty International UK petition is calling upon Putin to immediately stop this persecution and bring those responsible to justice.
There are many other countries where consensual same-sex relationships are illegal: 78 around the world, with some having a death sentence for being gay or lesbian. In the media and politics, there is often a narrative that portrays countries with these laws as backwards and underdeveloped in comparison to the West. Discrimination against LGBTQ+ people abroad can then be mobilised to serve as false justification for military imperialism. When she was Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton made a speech in which she declared that the U.S. Government had put in place a strategy dedicated to combating human rights abuse against LGBTQ+ persons abroad. While this may sound positive, where a nation had discriminatory laws in place this would actually become a justification for military interference. However, especially when speaking in a British context, there should be an acknowledgement that many of these laws stem from British colonialism: almost half of the countries that have anti-homosexuality laws are former British colonies. Colonial administrators specifically established anti-gay legislation or sodomy acts when they were in power. After independence, countries have retained these laws, and they are sometimes seen as indigenous. Donnya Piggot, founder of Barbados Gays and Lesbians Against Discrimination, says that systemic homophobia in the Caribbean and West Africa forms part of a “cultural resistance” against Western values. “Caribbean people want to stamp their sovereignty so much that we resist anything that’s western or forced upon us.” The same can be observed in Uganda, where Dr Frank Mugisha, executive director of the largest LGBT+ rights organisation, believes that the vast majority of Ugandans are not aware that the “African” laws and values they fiercely defend, including laws criminalizing homosexuality, are actually British.
Raising awareness about Britain’s colonial legacy when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights around the world is one of the topics GU Amnesty International has focused on this semester. When we hosted the first open lesbian to be ordained to priesthood in the American Episcopal Church, Sister Helena Barrett, she concluded that “Jesus never said anything about sodomy, don’t be silly”. Diverse representation within the LGBTQ+ community is so important: an elderly religious woman, while still coming across as very young, will not be the first person coming to mind when thinking of a queer person, but they exist and have the right to be represented just as much as young university students. Being joined by Sister Helena certainly put time in perspective: she was living in the US during segregation, and was present at the protests at Stonewall. She faced discrimination as a result of her gender as well as her sexuality, but persevered. “There will always be people who take offence with you,” she said, but that did not stop her: her ordination in 1977 and her candour when talking about her identity has opened up widespread discussion in the church about both the full participation of women and people identifying with minority sexual identities.
When trying to effect change surrounding LGBTQ+ issues, it is important to provide a space where people feel able to speak freely: about their personal experience, but also about any questions they have or things they don’t understand. Our social secretary Joyce Choong pointed out why she appreciates this space so much: “I will say that I am ignorant to so many things, and have grown up in a conservative family as well as country so I was ingrained with a certain set of beliefs, one that has, in one way or another, stuck with me. Amnesty is a conducive place for understanding the issue rather than yelling it down – especially LGBTQ+ issues. The discourse surrounding it is always growing and I would like to understand it from all sides.” A workshop which looked at the intersectional marginalisation experienced by the LGBTQ+ community helped with this, as well as inviting people to talk about their own specific experience, such as speakers from LGBT Unity discussing being queer in their home country versus in the UK.
As a final remark, I would like to note that it is sometimes easy to feel lost and without a sense of community when you’re at university. When identifying as LGBTQ+, sharing experiences or being with others identifying the same way can be really powerful, and a way to counter experiences in oppressive spaces. The most glorious occasion of this has often been Pride marches, although this is increasingly threatened due to the commercialisation of Pride – many of which were originally started as grassroots riots or demonstrations against police brutality or discriminatory practices. More and more, Pride marches are turning into a “corporate masquerade of forgetting”, in the words of Rio Rodriguez – one of the activists and community organisers followed in the documentary Pride Denied. It has therefore been extra special to witness how coming together weekly with people with a common interest or common goal to effect some change or raise awareness, in an inclusive space, has engendered a huge sense of community.
If you would like to support the work of GU Amnesty International, make sure to join our ceilidh on Tuesday 26 March.