The Games are nearly upon us. Much has been written about the impact the event has and will have on our city but there’s something we’ve all chosen not to focus on, the alleged reason for the whole affair. It doesn’t really suit the image of bright, trendy, cupcake baking, pulled pork eating “regeneration” (that automatically happens when you bulldoze everything to make way for some running for a few days) to highlight the fact this is a sporting event in honour of Britain’s brutal and horrendous crimes against humanity and our planet.
While the words “Commonwealth Legacy” may send shivers down the spines of Glaswegians, who are only too familiar with the concept of meaningless cooncil pish, they have a much greater meaning for those in parts of the world which Britain used to formally own and operate.
If we completely ignore the World Cup (which I successfully managed to), the last sporting event of any consequence was the Sochi Winter Games. Those Olympics were the moment when the entire population decided to permanently join the struggle for LGBT* liberation and devote all their energy to raising queer issues, at every possible opportunity but particularly at sporting events. I must say, we seem to have dismounted from Gay Mountain pretty quickly, with interest peaking at exactly the point when the Russian Police sang that Daft Punk song. Seemingly content in the knowledge that singing “Get Lucky” proved they were definitely really gay, we’d now all done our bit and could get on with watching the curling and not feeling too guilty about the gays or the dolphins or whatever it was we were better at than Russia.
Look how gay they are. What are we’re supposed to be against again?
One thing we were definitely sure about was that Glasgow Games wouldn’t be tainted by such frivolities. Why would it be? It’s been a long, slow march but we should be in no doubt that we have achieved a tremendous amount and it would be a discredit both to those who fought to get us here and to those who are fighting just to exist to deny that.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s entirely correct that we celebrate Glasgow and Scotland as a place where LGBTQ people have made a massive impact. I’m glad we have initiatives like Pride House, which aims to provide a space for LGBT athletes and visitors. We should celebrate equal marriage – I hope all the gay idiots who want to get married are just as happy as all the straight ones. The problem is that in the rush to show off how far we’ve come, we might forget – forget what’s left to do and forget those who aren’t in the position we are.
When I say this, like when I say anything, I’m aware of the fact that as a gay man, I sit atop the LGBTree, and conscious that the rights and indeed the existence of other people who’re queer and/or trans* are called into question on a daily basis.
While I’m dishing out warnings on context, here’s one on content: there’s going to be a lot of discussion of homophobia and transphobia, including of violence.
The “Commonwealth Legacy” for LGBTQ people is that in 42 of the 53 Commonwealth Countries, homosexuality remains a criminal offence. While exact figures for other forms of sexual and gender identity are more difficult to ascertain, being not straight and not cis-gendered is against the law in the majority of states. While countries like Uganda and Nigeria have actively worsened their laws in recent years, many are still burdened with the laws or variations of law imposed on them by the colonialists.
So it’s really a bit of a cheek to have made all that fuss about how Russia didn’t deserve to host the Winter Olympics while welcoming a sporting event to celebrate an entity like the Commonwealth which has acted to undermine LGBT* rights since its inception.
I’m incredibly wary of human rights iniatives which are led and championed by Western Governments, whose legitimacy in these areas is questionable at best. In a perfect world, I’d welcome states taking action against Uganda but when Obama drones weans in Pakistan and refuses to condemn his Israeli allies committing war crimes in plain sight, it’s fair to say we don’t live in a perfect world. In Iraq, the US Army stood idly by as Iranian funded militias launched a campaign to entrap and execute queer Iraqis, purely because the militias were prepared to tolerate the occupation. Many Africans are cynical of what seems like little more Republican vs. Democrat posturing, with their continent serving as a platform to reach voters back in the states and I’d been inclined to share that sentiment. The idea that the West should GET OUT OF AFRICA seems to have stalled more than slightly since we claimed we did it, all those decades ago.
While I don’t consider it’s generally beneficial for Britain of all nations to stomp about, lecturing the world about how bad homophobia is when its prevalence is a direct result of our imperialist adventures, I do fully support the demands of African LGBTI Out & Proud Diamond Group, who protested at Downing Street this week. The issue of asylum is of particular importance – having exported homophobia, we have to be prepared to offer a safe haven to those fleeing persecution on the basis of the sexual or gender identity throughout the Commonwealth. The disgusting treatment of Margret Nazziwa, a Ugandan who fled persecution in 2012 and was only saved from deportation at the 11th hour, is further evidence that the mistreatment of LGBTQ people doesn’t end when they escape their countries of origin. The UK (and indeed the Scottish) Government must make clear that athletes, officials and visitors who come to Glasgow from countries where being who they are is criminalised are welcome in our city – and not just for 10 days.
If the UK had any desire to create a positive change and give power back to the ordinary citizens of the states we once governed, they would do so. Instead, Western governments use thinly veiled fronts like the IMF and the World Bank to ensure they retain political and economic control over huge chunks of the planet. If LGBT citizens (née subjects) in Commonwealth nations are to win power for themselves, there must be power there to be won.
I’ve spent the better part of a year trying to figure out what “the answer” to all this was, until I realised that the idea I might have one is ridiculous. Those with the power to change the conditions of queer people in our former colonies aren’t sitting in flats in Glasgow trying to make themselves look clever, they’re out fighting day and daily for their survival. All across the world and against all the odds, LGBTQ people are resisting and our job isn’t to dictate “the answer” to them but to give them the support to begin to ask the questions and to listen to what they have to say. I don’t know whether having the support of the US state department is a help or a hindrance to a gay Ugandan (although I can probably guess), so I don’t think it’s our job to be opposing or supporting tactics on other people’s behalf, but our responsibility to listen to those who understand the power structures in their own societies and give them the solidarity they demand to begin to change their societies, for themselves.
LGBTQ advocacy in countries where sexual minorities are criminalised is incredibly difficult. Organisations like J-Flag in Jamaica have done amazing work in fighting for equality against the odds and the law (although it‘s sexual acts and not sexuality which is technically the criminal offence), similarly, India is another former colony where criminalisation and visible activism have existed simultaneously – gay sex was decriminalised in 2009 with the colonial area ban being reinstated earlier this year. Where specific laws exist against promotion, members of organisations like Sexual Minorities Uganda are regularly arrested, imprisoned and worse. The situation in Nigeria continues to deteriorate, with more arrested this week for alleged “homosexual activism.“
What’s clear is that we can’t impose changes on other countries by asking Governments to interfere “on our behalf” because Governments are incapable of doing anything even vaguely like that. Our anti-promotion laws, public decency laws and discriminatory marriage policies were abolished in 2000, 2004 & 2014 respectively. Sometimes you have to examine your own history before you start dishing out judgement.
At the moment, there is a danger that the “Commonwealth Legacy” for LGBTQ people in Glasgow will be a commercialised Pride. The excuse for charging an entry fee to the previously free event was lack of available venues and funding from GCC & the Scottish Government due to, you guessed it, the Commonwealth Games. Just as residents in Dalmarnock are being shut off and shut away, so are LGBTQ people, on the day of the year dedicated to the right to solidarity and visibility in relative safety. If you don’t understand why this matters, it’s worth noting that reports of homophobic violence are up 22% in the past year and Stonewall estimates 3 in 4 incidents remain unreported. The brutal attack against two young women in St Enoch Square last week will weigh heavy on the minds of many of us marching on Saturday. Not being straight or not gender identifying in a specific way remains dangerous, straight power is still violently enforced on our streets. Making Pride in Glasgow more exclusive, this year of all years, sends out exactly the wrong message.
There remains no strategy to tackle transphobic bullying in schools and a recent Stonewall report showed that just 45% of Scottish primary schools and 41% of secondary schools have a strategy to deal with homophobia in the classroom, lagging behind England by some way. The majority of lesbian, gay and bisexual students in Scotland said they did not feel part of their school community. We have a responsibility to ensure we don’t train another generation of children to be homophobes and transphobes.
Austerity is used as an excuse to deny LGBTQ people rights and services a trend which runs from the very top right down to local level. In the last few weeks, David Cameron deciding that pension equality was just too expensive and NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde stopped funding Gay Mens Health despite the clear public health benefit that organisations which provide targeting support bring. The political class may consider us an expensive inconvenience but we can’t afford to let this narrative go unchallenged.
There’s going to be a clamour to claim a wee chunk of “Commonwealth Legacy” over the next few weeks, as the council, the Governemnt(s) and everyone who’s anyone tells us it’s all pure dead brilliant and basically their idea. This comes with a political risk – at the precise moment Scots are pondering the two competing visions of our future, the camera pans to reveal David Cameron, Gordon Matheson, Alex Salmond & HRH Betty & Co. eating strawberries in the VIP box.
I can’t really fathom why colonialism, violence, repression, racial supremacy and homophobia were so amazing, they still warrant a big sporting event in their honour. One thing I’m sure about is that if 2014 is going to create any kind of legacy for Scotland, it won’t be because of what happens on a race track. The sprint to get away from being governed from Palaces in London before we end up for the high jump, is something I can’t go a whole post without at least a passing reference to…
The Commonwealth Legacy, of a world governed by fundamentally unequal relationships, has been a disaster for LGBTQ people across the globe. We must force the political class to accept some responsibility for the role the British state has played in shaping the politics of the nations we used to govern and provide whatever support and solidarity we can to those across the world fighting for their survival – although we certainly can’t rely on the political class to act in our interests or on our behalf.
The Commonwealth Shame can be overcome, we can begin rebuilding a world where relationships between states and between citizens are governed by respect and equality, not by violently enforced patronage. Since we‘ll probably not get there before the Opening Ceremony next Wednesday, the least we can do is to use these Games to shine a light on what‘s happening to queer people throughout the Commonwealth. So as we head to Pride tomorrow and as the Games unfold, no amount of fireworks, X-Factor rejects, car-park based gaiety or evil plant monster mascots can diminish the memory of those who went before us nor the need to keep striving for a better future.
The party and the struggle must go on.