Last year, the Baring Foundation decided to focus our international programme on empowering locally-based civil society organisations to address discrimination and disadvantage based on gender, sexual orientation or gender identity in sub-Saharan Africa.
Last week, CIVICUS (where I work) published our latest State of Civil Society Report. In it, the message from more than 30 civil society experts is clear: we cannot tackle exclusion in our societies by cherry picking the issues and rights we agree with. For me, the report’s findings also underline why the Baring Foundation’s new focus area is also important and timely.
Every generation has its iconic struggle for equality, from the civil rights movement to the push towards gender parity. Today, that struggle is for LGBTI rights. For our generation, this debate sits at the vanguard of society’s efforts to achieve greater equality and inclusivity. But it is a struggle that divides us, perhaps more deeply than those that have come before.
It strikes at the heart of religious and social norms, exposing deep rifts even within our most progressive societies. However, thanks largely to the efforts of civil society, the last 20 years have brought remarkable gains in LGBTI equality. For example, the number of countries around the world allowing same-sex marriage has grown from zero to 23 in less than two decades. Just last week, a majority of members of the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to appoint a new independent expert to help protect against violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Even in regions of the world where LGBTI individuals continue to face severe persecution, the levels of public dialogue and visibility around issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity are unprecedented. In Africa, the LGBTI movement is relatively new. Now, a growing number of civil society organisations are lobbying at national and regional levels, engaging with the African regional human rights system, using national courts to win important rights victories, and engaging with faith leaders. These are the activists who we need to support urgently.
The LGBTI struggle is a classic fight to access basic human rights. Yet, in my experience talking to civil society leaders, we are far from winning hearts and minds. Back in 2011 – and again in 2014 – when my CIVICUS colleagues wrote to the Ugandan parliament and to President Yoweri Museveni urging them to reject Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill, many of our network partners in the global south refused to sign our open letter.
I doubt whether we would have had the same difficulty convincing activists to sign a letter on gender equality 30 years ago. But a broad-based, progressive consensus on LGBTI rights continues to elude us.
The rights of LGBTI citizens across the world are intrinsically bound up with my rights and yours. Recognising the commonality of all human struggles for freedom, dignity and bodily autonomy, we must stand united in our defence of the right to equality, the right to speak out, the right to access justice – irrespective of whether we personally agree with or believe in the LGBTI agenda.
Apartheid was ended by a united front of progressives who stood together to denounce a repugnant and unjust system. This kind of solidarity is absolutely central to the struggle against discrimination in all its forms.
In signing up to the sustainable development goals, we pledged to “leave no-one behind”. If we perpetuate exclusion by refusing to take up the struggles of certain communities, we will fail in this venture. We need to build a broad-based, progressive alliance on LGBTI rights. This is our generation’s struggle, and it must be our contribution towards a more equitable future.
Danny Sriskandarajah, Civicus Secretary General and former trustee of the Baring Foundation
Views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect those of the Baring Foundation.