Honour and prejudice

Ray Collins

Ray Collins on tackling discrimination against gay men, lesbians and those with HIV across the Commonwealth

Over the past 20 years the situation for lesbian, gay and bisexual people in Britain has changed significantly and I’m proud that much of that progress was made under the last Labour government. During the same period, remarkable efforts have been made in combating the HIV and AIDS epidemic – no longer a death sentence, HIV is now a long-term chronic condition. Not that we should be complacent about the problems that remain, in particular the level of homophobia in our schools. But Britain can rightly claim to be a beacon to the world of equality for gay people and in the forefront in the fight against HIV and AIDs.

Yet this domestic progress is not enough. In more than 80 jurisdictions in the world same-sex sexual conduct between consenting adults continues to be criminalised. And 42 of the 54 countries of the Commonwealth criminalise same-sex relations for men, women or both. 

Many of these laws are a hangover from British colonial rule, and while they remain on the statute book they have a continuing impact of fear, stigma, rejection, violence and far too often murder. Indeed, such systematic persecution and criminalisation of identity can also decimate efforts to halt the spread of HIV. It often results in gay people not being able to access the healthcare, education and employment they need, preventing access to HIV testing and treatment. A global online survey of 5,000 men who have sex with men found only 36% able to easily access treatment while less than a third had easy access to HIV education materials.

Men who have sex with men have a significantly heightened risk of being infected with HIV –nineteen times that of other adult men. Criminalisation of homosexual activities both causes and boosts those numbers. For example, UNAIDS reports that in the Caribbean countries where homosexuality is criminalised, almost 1 in 4 men who have sex with men are infected with HIV. Elsewhere, where such criminalisation is absent, the prevalence is only 1 in 15.

Commonwealth countries comprise over 60% of people living with HIV globally, despite representing about 30% of the world’s population.

A recent meeting of the Commonwealth Foreign Affairs Ministers adopted a recommendation proposed by the Eminent Persons Group within the Commonwealth to tackle laws undermining effective responses to HIV. The signing of the new Commonwealth Charter is great news too, as it underpins a commitment to human rights, gender equality and democracy. But whether the vague terms of the Charter against discrimination based on ‘other grounds’ do really include sexual orientation and gender identity, drug use, sex work, or HIV status presents a real test for the Commonwealth. It is imperative that this commitment to repeal all discriminatory legislation that hampers the HIV response is honoured.

There is a real opportunity for our government to underpin the steady support it has been giving to reform and modernisation of the Commonwealth, ensuring its secretariat takes a proactive and supportive role in promoting the reform of bad and criminalising laws. The global evidence is clear that public health is best served by removing discrimination and prejudice against LGBT people, thereby ensuring the widest possible information on safe sex practices, health services, and HIV prevention and treatment is accessible to those who need it most.

We cannot pretend this doesn’t affect us here in Britain. Gay men and lesbians around the world look to us to offer them refuge from persecution, and through the UK Borders Agency our government must ensure a safe haven for those fleeing such suffering. 

Lord Ray Collins of Highbury is Shadow Minister for International Development in the Lords, and also a member of the Shadow Health team

Published 13th March 2013


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