Like in the diagram showing man’s ascent from ape to Homo sapiens, human rights can usually be traced chronologically, from primitive to modern. Whether a particular area of the world is at the thick-browed Neanderthal stage or the slightly prettier Homo erectus one, progress would seem to be inevitable. In many places, women, for example, have risen from sad, caged monkeys to proud rulers. But what happens when the progress narrative is shucked?
All over the planet, something unnatural is happening. In Russia, India and, most recently, Uganda, gay rights are moving backwards. While Russia and India have criminalised homosexuality (or its “propaganda”), Uganda, where it was already illegal, has made same-sex love a bigger crime, punishable by life imprisonment. And in a gesture strikingly similar to the anti-communist hysteria of McCarthy-era America, a Ugandan tabloid recently ran a garish front-page article on the country’s “200 top homosexuals”.
This isn’t the first time that human rights have un-evolved. The Islamic Revolution of the 1970s undid much of Iran’s extant social liberalism. The powerful religious right lobby in the US poses an ongoing threat to civil liberties. The common factor in these regressions (and many others) is religious fundamentalism. Wherever rights are granted, there’s always someone ready to stamp them out in the name of God.
In both India and Uganda, the latest anti-gay legislation is an ugly colonial throwback. In India, “unnatural” sex was criminalised during British rule in the 19th century. In Uganda, the same breed of US evangelical right-wingers who are doing their utmost to un-evolve their own country have, over many years, turned the east African nation into a fundamentalist Christian hate hub. While Obama has fervently condemned Uganda’s abuse of its gay population, it seems ironic that those largely responsible for it are American missionaries.
Here in the west, it’s easy for us to look at human rights abuses in faraway places and shake our heads. Maybe we’ll suggest cutting financial aid to those countries or something. Yet when LGBT people are persecuted abroad, our own gay rights record is diminished. Every piece of homophobic legislation enacted by a foreign government has a knock-on effect on ours. We’re the ones deporting LGBT asylum seekers to countries that will imprison or execute them. We’re the ones who let the Home Office degrade these immigrants by demanding that they “prove” their sexuality, as if such a thing were possible (I imagine a lot of porn films start that way). Perhaps none of us are Homo sapiens yet.