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Tomorrow is Human Rights Day – will it be marked by a global decriminalisation of homosexuality?

December 9th, 2008

Dr Petra

As well as being Human Rights Day, it’s also the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights.

On this already historic occasion a first is also happening. The UN are being asked to consider human rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people. Some activists are asking why it’s taken 60 years before the UN took this issue seriously, while others are just glad it’s on the agenda. Peter Tatchell describes the background to this story and explains why tackling human rights for LGBT people and their families and friends is important.

Homosexuality is illegal in 86 countries, although the application of the law varies with some countries only seeing male homosexuality as illegal, some affording equal rights for LGBT folk, and some where homosexuality is punishable by death. You can see a general overview of the laws of the world regarding homosexuality here.

What’s interesting (and depressing) about Peter Tatchell’s coverage (see above) is how few countries have signed up to support the motion to decriminalise homosexuality. It does not bode all that well that major change will happen.

This is a major problem for us in terms of human rights and health. We know from research evidence that countries where homosexuality is ignored, stigmatised or illegal (particularly when it’s punishable with the death penalty) that rates of violence towards gay men and lesbians are very high, but prosecutions of those who carry out homophobic crimes are very low. Discrimination against LGBT people is common leading to problems with employment and poverty. LGBT folk often experience depression or anxiety because of the pressures of living in a homophobic environment – which can lead to relationship problems, drug/alcohol abuse, self harm or suicide.

And if you live in a culture where you cannot be open about your sexuality it is difficult to access healthcare services, get condoms, practice safer sex, or identify who you can come out to. Meaning STI rates are high (particularly for HIV) and stigma over STIs is common.

Even in societies that are supposedly more liberal about sexuality we are still seeing high levels of discrimination in employment, housing and healthcare; homophobic bullying in schools; and support services that don’t always address the needs of LGBT individuals and their partners.

It’s unclear how tomorrow’s meeting will go, although I suspect we won’t see a global sign-up to decriminalising homosexuality (I’d be happy to be proved wrong). However, putting this on the UN’s agenda is a step forward and one that will allow those working in activist and advocate groups, healthcare, education and outreach to keep the pressure on. It may also allow for a greater exposure of the shocking human rights abuses carried out in some countries against LGBT people – which we might not want to think about but certainly should not ignore.

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