Edging closer to equality

Momentous progress was seen during 2018 in many countries on rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. Here we recognise this success and look ahead to further potential changes in 2019.

For millions of LGBT people around the world, 2018 was an historic year. Thanks to the courage of LGBT activists who have fought for their rights publicly, knowing that it would likely mean rejection by their families and communities, possible incarceration or even death, four countries have seen significant legislative changes that positively affect LGBT communities. In 2019, activists in a further two countries are waiting to hear about similar changes.

On the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexism and Transphobia, we recognise the achievements of individuals and groups who took on the very systems that marginalised them – and won.

Jason Jones versus Trinidad and Tobago

Jason Jones, a prominent LGBT activist, fled Trinidad and Tobago in fear of his life following a spate of attacks. Despite his initial reservations and concerns not only for his livelihood, but also for his health, Jones showed unwavering determination to challenge the ‘buggery’ law that he believes led to the violence. In a damning legacy of British colonial-era rule, under sections 13 and 16 of Trinidad and Tobago’s Sexual Offences Act 1986, same sex activity was prohibited and carried a 25 year prison sentence.

With invaluable pro-bono legal support he pursued a case that many believed was impossible to win. However, in April 2018, the High Court of Trinidad and Tobago delivered a landmark victory and turning point for LGBT rights in the Caribbean when it deemed the law unconstitutional.

Commenting on the case, Jones said: “Why did I do it? Because I am a product of homophobia. I have lost so much – family, friends and even my boyfriend could not take being second fiddle to my work. I am a man possessed. I don’t want anyone else to have to go through the difficulties that I faced in Trinidad simply for being myself and loving someone of the same sex.”

India repeals section 377

India took the first step to securing LGBT rights when in 2009 the Delhi High Court struck down the 150-year old anti-homosexuality law, previously penal code section 377, which criminalised same sex behaviour described as “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. For more than 15 years, activists have tirelessly petitioned India’s Supreme Court to confirm the High Court’s ruling. It took until September 2018 for the Supreme Court to finally strike down the unjust law, constitutionalising LGBT rights and enshrine it in law for good. For a country with a population of over 1.3 billion people, the ruling will bring about great improvements in the lives of so many LGBT people and their loved ones.

Speaking after the announcement, Ashok Row Kavi, Founder Chairperson of Humsafar Trust, said: “18 years of hard work has finally paid off but this is just the beginning of a long journey for equal rights in society. There is so much more to do, so many dreams have to come true, but today I look forward to a good night’s sleep for I am no longer a criminal!”

Ending forced anal examinations in Kenya

The practice of forced anal testing is a degrading violation of human rights used by law enforcement agencies in many parts of Africa to criminalise people suspected of being gay. In a landmark victory in Kenya, secured by the National Gay and Lesbian and Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC), the courts ruled against the practice. The leading human rights organisation, committed to upholding rights of sexual minority groups in Kenya, had twice mounted legal challenges to the practice and, in March 2018, eventually won its case to end forced anal examinations on people who are accused of having same-sex relations. A spokesperson from the charity said: “The NGLHRC has long argued that the tests are a violation of rights to privacy and dignity and amount to torture.”

Guyana strikes down colonial-era cross-dressing law

Nine years ago, four transgender women in Guyana were arrested and convicted under section 153(1)(xvlvii) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act from 1893 for ‘cross-dressing’, this led them to lodge a case to challenge the constitutionality of the British colonial-era law, which was used to target the transgender community. In November 2018, the Caribbean Court of Justice upheld their appeal, paving the way for the further advancement of LGBT rights in the country.

Joel Simpson, Managing Director of Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), hailed the decision as “…a clarion call to engage state actors on how the law engenders social and economic exclusion of disadvantaged groups. Trans persons remain vulnerable to arrests for small crimes like loitering in Guyana’s colonial-era vagrancy laws which are still on the statute books.” He also added “This is a victory for human rights and justice in the Caribbean.”

Progress today, challenges ahead

Despite these significant victories, violations continue around the world.

Tanzanian politician calls for gay citizens to be outed

In November, the regional governor of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania made a public announcement for residents to reveal the names of gay Tanzanians, which sent many LGBT people into hiding through fear for their safety with potentially little or no access to services for HIV testing and treatment. Christine Stegling, Executive Director of Frontline AIDS, shared her concerns on the situation in Tanzania with CNN International and called for more conversations around sexuality and HIV to tackle the epidemic among those most affected.

Kenya awaits the repeal of section 162

Following months of delays, the Kenyan LGBT community is looking to 24 May to hear whether the country’s High Court will overturn sections of the Kenyan Penal Code that make consensual same sex acts between adults punishable with up to 14 years imprisonment. This case, which was also brought forward by NGLHRC, follows a successful campaign that led to Kenyan courts ending laws that enabled forced anal examinations.

Botswana to end criminalisation of same sex relations?

In March 2019, the Botswanan LGBT community challenged laws that criminalise same sex sexual relations.. This change is needed to end the violence that the community faces because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. LEGABIBO, the Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana, was influential in bringing the proceedings and now awaits ruling High Court ruling, scheduled for 11 June.

The victories of 2018 were won in courtrooms and yet overturning laws and changing practices is just one step towards greater equality. As Gulliver McEwan, executive director of Guyana Trans United points out we need a double approach: “We strongly believe that changing hearts and minds is core in our advocacy strategies, when hearts and minds are changed laws and policies will follow.”

Jason Jones’s reflection on his legal victory encapsulates the spirit of 2018’s successes and its potential to create tangible and meaningful change.

“This victory is much more than just the legal challenge and constitutional reforms. It is a rallying cry for the LGBT community and our allies to stand up and be counted! Yes, there was pushback but we are pushing forward in ways never seen before. This is the Rosa Parks moment for LGBT people of the Caribbean and we shall NEVER sit in the back of the bus again.”

Jason Jones, Guyana Trans United, NGLHRC and SASOD all received funds from the Rapid Response Fund to support their legal cases; Humsafar Trust is a Frontline AIDS partner; and NGLHRC is also a partner under the PITCH programme.

This article was updated on 15 May 2019. The original version was published on 13 December 2018.

This article was written as the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, before we changed our name to Frontline AIDS.


GuyanaIndiaKenyaLGBTRapid Response FundTanzaniaTrinidad and TobagoUganda