It could have been me

It's been 40 years since homosexuality was decriminalised in Britain, yet around the world gay peopl

On 21 December 2005 I was legally bound to the man I love, on the first day that civil partnerships were possible. It's my legal right and my human right and I wanted everyone to know - I wanted to shout about it but I still felt nervous about the public's reaction. I was, therefore, delighted and relieved on leaving the register office in Windsor to find the crowd outside cheering and supporting our union as I had feared that abusive, banner-waving bigots would try to spoil the occasion. I felt so proud that day to be British.

There has been substantial progress on gay rights in Britain, but we can't be complacent, not when homophobia still exists here and not when people around the world live in fear solely because of their sexuality. In some countries, my voice would have been drowned out - maybe even stamped out. For many, basic rights are still a matter of life and death.

There are individuals suffering because of their sexuality every day. Last year, William Hernández had a gun pressed against his neck outside the San Salvador offices of his gay rights organisation, the Asociación Entre Amigos. William and his colleagues who speak out for gay rights in El Salvador had been protesting against moves to amend the constitution formally to prevent gay marriage.

"We will kill you before you can get married," said his attacker.

The offices of Entre Amigos had been broken into and ransacked two nights before. Nothing of value had been stolen, but details of planned events were taken and written homophobic threats were left in the offices. It was the seventh such break-in in five years. These are not isolated incidents in El Salvador - attacks on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are commonplace. And those responsible are seldom brought to justice.

Men and women are persecuted and attacked every day all over the world, just because of whom they love and whom they make love to. Gay sex is criminalised in more than 80 countries.

Homophobia impacts on health education. Information that could help prevent the spread of HIV and Aids (a subject close to my heart as founder of the Elton John Aids Foundation) is suppressed, or those providing it or seeking it out are persecuted. Indeed, William and his colleagues are targeted partly because they provide sex education for gay people in El Salvador. In Uganda, a radio station was fined when one of its programmes discussed the need for HIV/Aids services for gay men. In India, people have been arrested, beaten and charged under anti-sodomy laws for giving out information on safe sex. Gay people in many African countries are at greater risk of HIV/Aids because they are less likely to receive information and treatment.

In some European countries, the bigots have a loud voice and they're not being shouted down. Pride marches are still banned in some cities in eastern Europe (including Moscow, whose mayor recently described gay parades as "satanic"); gay people in Latvia were attacked and spat at when they tried to march last year.

In September 2006, on stage in Warsaw, I decided to use a concert to make a statement about homophobia in Poland: "Twenty-two years ago I came to Gdansk and went to the home of Lech Walesa who . . . fought for freedom and his own human rights . . . and I will never ever forget that moment and to see him again tonight makes my heart full of warmth and love.

"I am just a musician. I come and I play and I hopefully make everyone's troubles disappear for a couple of hours . . . and I am also a gay man . . . and I know that in Poland recently there has been a lot of violence towards gay people . . . and I urge you . . . this is a time for compassion.

"There is enough hatred in the world. Leave gay people alone. We are just trying to be ourselves. We do not mean any harm.

"Love is what it's all about . . . and the Polish people have always been full of love."

This month I celebrate my 60th birthday. It is 40 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, and yet it is still sadly outlawed in many parts of the world. I want to shine a spotlight on William Hernández, his colleagues and the many, many individuals who stand up for human rights around the world, at great risk to their personal safety. People like William are a lot braver than me, because when the bigots shout abuse, he shouts back at them. And the more visible he and others are, the louder their voices become. Eventually, with support, they'll shout the bigots down.

So, today, I shout out to William, a brave guy doing a dangerous and vital job. My voice has served me pretty well over the years; I hope maybe it can do him some good, too. But we need more voices. Whether the bigot is in our local pub or a thousand miles away, we should all stand up and speak out for basic human rights. I want to ask you, today, to add your voice.

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This article first appeared in the 26 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: Time to break free?