With the eighth annual UK Black Pride festival taking place on 29 June 2013, Director for Public Affairs, Pav Akhtar, reflects on how the equality deficit in the realm of public debate can be addressed through Pride events that confront bigotry with irrepressible compassion and legislation…
It is 12 years since the Netherlands first legalised gay marriage. The passage of similar legislation in Britain and France has reignited deep vitriol and homophobic sentiments in the public arena. The tone of the debate now is reminiscent of the late 1980s when the Conservative Party leader, Margaret Thatcher, introduced the deeply damaging and homophobic Section 28 legislation. This pernicious policy prevented schools from teaching youngsters that homosexual relationships could lead to people forming an ‘acceptable…family’. It led to a generational ignorance about the value of same sex love and relationships, all the while undermining many LGBT peoples’ self-esteem in relation to crystallising their personal identities with confidence.
With the hard work of grass-roots equality campaigners and progressive movements like the trade unions, attitudes and practices have evolved since those wretched days. Public opinion is increasingly cognisant and sensitised to the plurality of human love. Opinion polls increasingly show larger sections of the populous supporting the right of people to self-determine the nature and substance of their personal relations, from civil partnerships to marriage, and LGBT people have developed an increased visibility, voice and self confidence in asserting that their human rights cannot be traded like market goods.
Despite this progress the challenge of securing a world in which everyone can love without borders continues to be characterised by a spike in pro- and anti- LGBT equality actions. Of course, homo-, bi- and transphobia exist everywhere and will almost certainly, though regrettably, continue to do so. What campaigners and communities have learned from struggles against racism and gender inequality – which can be viewed as holding greater political and public support as irreversible human rights issues – is that they still fail to curb life-destroying discrimination when strong legislation is not in place, when policy is not effectively implemented, and when education is not reinforced.
In his seminal essay, The Education of a British-Protected Child, the Nigerian author and academic, Chinua Achebe writes that to answer oppression with appropriate resistance requires knowledge of two types: in the first place, self-knowledge by the victim, which is to say that one must be aware that oppression exists, and secondly that the victim must know who the enemy is – the oppressor’s real name. Not an alias, pseudonym, or nom de plume. Therefore, it is useful to distinguish some of the causes of homophobic bigotry. Some of it is certainly based on a lack of knowledge and ignorance; some of it is based on fear, however irrational; but other currents of homophobia are squarely rooted in hatred of LGBT people and our right to be ourselves.
What is clear to UK Black Pride, which supports African, Asian, Caribbean and Arab heritage (Black) people, who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT), and come from all corners of Europe and beyond, is that when LGBT people become more visible it can lead to an increase in homo-, bi-, and transphobia as expressed in the public sphere.
What is unfortunate about what we have seen in places like the UK and France, which recently debated marriage equality, is that very often some political leaders and opinion formers, including key figures within faith communities, make use of the public debate about marriage equality and other types of laws to fuel homophobia for social and political gains. That is really what has happened in France and Britain. Of course, it has also been observed in other European countries, from Greece, Portugal, Russia, Sweden to the Ukraine and beyond, in places like Chile, Colombia, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Uganda and Uruguay. It is fair to say that homo-, bi- and transphobia are truly global phenomena.
Must we then be cowed by the kickback against equality? Is it right to take our foot off the gas pedal and slow down calls for equality before the law? The simple answer must be ‘no’ since the path to legal equality has always involved overcoming resistance from vested interests, privileged constructs and social conventions that have been built up over decades and centuries.
Winning human rights is rarely a smooth process. Even the Dutch parliament had to consider legalising gay marriage for five years before it did so. The country’s LGBT groups had been lobbying for it since the 1980s. However, when the Netherlands did lower the marriage barrier in 2001 other countries soon followed. In 2003 it was Belgium. The next year Massachusetts led the way for eight states in the US. Canada and Spain took the step in 2005, South Africa in 2006. Norway and Sweden made it legal in 2009, then in 2010 Iceland, Portugal and Argentina did likewise, Mexico City followed suit in 2011, then some parts of Brazil in 2012, and Denmark. New Zealand, Uruguay and France came on board most recently in 2013.
While lawmakers have almost certainly based their moves on a principle of non-discrimination, they have often faced strong resistance, notably from organised faith communities, like the Catholic Church.
However, despite its religious influence in largely Catholic countries, like Spain, more than 25,000 gay marriages have been celebrated there since 2005 in testimony to the fact that faith need not be a barrier to equality. Indeed, religious Catholics in Canada, Italy, Malta, Spain and the UK recently marked 17 May, International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO), by connecting churches in a prayer vigil. For the first time, Catholic churches hosted events with LGBT Christians and supporters lighting candles and joining in prayer as they walked from church to church in their communities to remember LGBT people who have died or live in fear because of their sexuality.
The organisers of these progressive activities used the Biblical verse: ‘There is no fear in love’ (I John 4:18) to justify the activity as ‘a meeting place for new paths’ to express ‘voices of so many religious people who oppose the use of religion to justify hate, refusal and even violence or crimes against homosexual and trans people’.
These baby steps are an integral part of challenging homophobia within institutions of both church and state. It prompts a further test for politicians about how to get the issue of LGBT equality addressed at the European Union level where it is not, unfortunately, challenged adequately enough at all.
Indeed, far from LGBT people being given full rights as equal citizens, what exists at the EU level is limited protection against discrimination in the sphere of employment. This means that the discrimination LGBT people face in schools and colleges, in accessing healthcare, or being protected against violence they can experience on the street is not something the EU has yet agreed to protect. Equally, EU policy currently fails to provide protection to LGBT people and their partners who seek to move around Europe even when they are in a civil partnership or married. Chief among the reasons for this situation is the UK government and others’ refusal to sign up to and abide by Europe’s Charter of Fundamental Rights Article 21 of which states: ‘Any discrimination based on any ground… such as sexual orientation shall be prohibited’.
Since UK Black Pride encourages a better understanding of the nature and scale of challenges faced by Britain’s Black LGBT communities – in order to raise awareness of these groups’ needs and aspirations, as well as the challenges that are likely to surface inside and out of the communities to which Black LGBT people belong – UK Black Pride continues to support the EU-wide campaign to extend equality protection to all groups, including LGBT people, because we believe that collective and binding commitments to equality are worth arguing for and winning.
Indeed, few collective commitments can serve as a better model to celebrate unity and strength than community-led Pride events.
From its inception in 2005, UK Black Pride has sought to work from inside the Black and LGBT community to reach out, engage and inspire other Black and LGBT groups to be bigger, better and more inclusive in their activities and ambitions. Eight years on, UK Black Pride has grown exponentially yet retains its core as a not-for-profit activity which is community-led by unpaid volunteers with the support of a wider pool of individuals and community groups.
UK Black Pride’s raison d’être is also to actively reach out and support Pride events in other parts of the country because it sees its own existence as an inter-dependent part of the national and international family of Pride events which serve increasingly visible, proud and diverse LGBT communities.
This year, UK Black Pride is holding its independent festival as an integral part of Pride London’s Community+ series of events on 29 June 2013 and we intend to build love without borders, country by country, pride by pride…