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11 March 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 1:27pm

When governments curtail our freedoms, LGBT people are first in the firing line

Worldwide, repression begins in the LGBT community.

By Jonathan Cooper

There have been three instances of late of government censorship across the world: the Kenyan government wrestling with Google as it tries to ban a music video, Indonesia grappling with social media companies to try and remove certain emoticons, and most recently, the Chinese state editing out certain storylines from television programs. These developments all have something vital in common: they are all attempts to erase LGBT people from the public eye.

The justifications given by these states are similar enough. The Kenyan Classification and Film Board refused to license the video for Same-Love Remix by Art Attack because it “does not adhere to the morals of the country”. Indonesia banned emojis showing couples of the same gender holding hands claiming that “social media must respect the culture and local wisdom of the country”. And the Chinese government has banned television storylines featuring same-sex couples as part of its crackdown on “vulgar, immoral and unhealthy content”. The message is the same: LGBT people offend the majority, and so their existence should not be recognised.

These actions are troubling in and of themselves. Homosexuality is a crime in Kenya and provinces of Indonesia, and although it was decriminalised in China in 1997, there is still little societal acceptance there. In these countries, where LGBT people are already marginalised, this erasure serves to further shame and demean them. It classifies them as deviant, something other people need to be shielded from. However, it is also concerning on a deeper level, as it highlights the well-established link between LGBT persecution and authoritarianism.

We can see this link through other tendencies than censorship. After democracy becomes fully realised, homosexuality tends to be decriminalised soon after; as happened in Spain after the fall of Franco’s fascism, and in South Africa after the apartheid era finally came to an end. Today, we are beginning to see positive democratic developments in Kenya and Botswana where, in both countries, independent courts have ruled that LGBT rights organisations cannot have their freedom of association limited by government-controlled NGO boards. Conversely, LGBT rights are the first on the chopping block in countries where democracy is being eroded, as we can currently see in Russia and the Gambia.

Democracy is not supposed to be the rule of the majority; it is meant to be the result of a collective embodiment of everyone’s voices. It rests on the fundamental idea that everyone has a right to have a say in the governance of where they live, and that everyone’s voice is of equal weight. But how can you participate in a society which views you as lesser on the basis of your identity? How can you speak up when you are made an unapprehended felon purely on the basis of who you love? The simple answer is you cannot.

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Human rights have always served as a litmus test for whether societies are truly democratic because as a concept they rest on the same fundamental premise: that every person is born with equal dignity.  They demand that we treat everyone with the fundamental respect they deserve purely by virtue of their humanity. Moreover, the fact that a regime is allowed to continue committing human rights atrocities is usually an indication that the public is either kept in the dark, or prevented from speaking out.

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How a government treats LGBT people is perhaps one of the most telling ways to assess its commitment to democracy, purely because of how small, and often invisible, the LGBT community is. There is often no political cost, or in fact governments may be politically incentivised, to act homophobically. Governments which criminalise and persecute LGBT people are exercising tyranny of the majority in the purest form imaginable.

This recent spate of censorship will surely not be the last whilst criminalisation endures in 78 jurisdictions worldwide – nearly half the globe. It is merely a symptom of criminalisation and state-sanctioned homophobia, of the fact that these regimes are trying to pretend that their LGBT citizens do not exist. They must attempt to silence their voices if they are to maintain the laws which enshrine their persecution. But democracy must be based on the inclusion of everyone, and if these states continue to marginalise LGBT people, everyone will lose out as a result.

Jonathan Cooper is head of the Human Dignity Trust.