This used to be her town: Elizabeth greets the Commonwealth Secretary-General

Every two years, the heads of government of the Commonwealth of Nations –– formerly known, back when there was a single head of government, as the British Empire — meet.   The leaders of Britain’s former colonies (plus, for reasons not quite clear, Rwanda and Mozambique) discuss issues of general moment, from apartheid in the old days to Tony Blairesque generalities like “Building National Resilience, Building Global Resilience.” The next summit will be in Perth, Australia, in two weeks.

Contingents of LGBT activists from the global South lobbied at the last two CHOGMs (that’s Commonwealth Head of Government Meetings), in Uganda in 2007 and Trinidad in 2009. Their aspiration, since the Commonwealth claims human rights as part of its reason for existence, was to draw attention to surviving sodomy laws in the former colonies. They did this at great expense of money and effort, and with some danger. In Kampala they faced angry government officials and an inflamed, homophobic public, and in Trinidad they met in the shadow of a colonial-era law punishing homosexual conduct with up to a quarter century in prison. Nonetheless, because they were voices and faces from the communities actually affected, their presence meant something. Both times, they succeeded in getting LGBT people’s human rights included in the official statements of the Commonwealth People’s Forum, the NGO conference that accompanies the summit.

This year, CHOGM organizers have set up structural barriers to activists from the South attending.   A letter to Commonwealth officials from 15 LGBT and human rights organizations in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean explains:

We understand that under the rules of participation, with only 250 slots available, two of every five have been reserved for Australian participants, leaving the rest of the world to compete for the remaining three. We have not fared well in that competition and, although a number of us who faced recognizable challenges in doing so have finally secured travel support, we have found registration for CPF closed. We are asking you to ensure at least five LGBTI activists from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands from our group, who have secured travel funding, are admitted as official delegates at the Commonwealth People’s Forum and CHOGM 2011, and provided due assistance with obtaining visas. [emphasis added]

They add:

Being left out of CHOGM 2011 is symptomatic of a larger issue. Since our work at CHOGM 2009, we have been noting with keen interest the flourishing of dialogue, interest and specific initiatives in relationship to questions of sexual orientation and gender expression in the Commonwealth, and specifically at this year’s CHOGM. We have also noted with considerable concern that virtually none of the South-based activists who participated in CHOGM 2007 and 2009 have been invited to share our experiences, strategise or guide this London-centred work and advocacy.

It could be pinker: the Commonwealth (and its slices of Antarctica)

This is the interesting part. All year long, activists in the United Kingdom — the onetime colonial conqueror — have been shouting up a storm about their own plans to force the CHOGM to place LGBT issues on the government leaders’ formal agenda. The inimitable Peter Tatchell has taken the lead, with multiple action alerts warning that “we” want “this to be the breakthrough summit,” and taking full credit for recent positive murmurs from Commonwealth leaders. A new British organization, the “Kaleidoscope Trust” which bills itself as “a major new initiative in the global campaign for diversity,” has signalled it will “fight homophobia in the Commonwealth.” It will do this from its easy chair in London, where of course all the homophobic laws in the British colonies had their origin. What goes around, comes around.

Some of their plans and methods show themselves in this document, circulated today.  It purports to be a “Civil Society Statement of Action on the Decriminalisation of Adult Same Sex Conduct in the Commonwealth,” but what does it mean by “civil society?” Well, of the 26 organizations that signed it, fully 10 are based in London. (Tatchell managed to coax his own group, the “Peter Tatchell Foundation,” seemingly created to fund Peter Tatchell, right to the top of the list.) Two are from Australia, one from Malta; another five are from European countries that aren’t Commonwealth states at all — Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands. Only 8 of the 26 signatories are from countries in the global South, or from countries that have or recently had a sodomy law. These represent just four countries (Jamaica, Zimbabwe, Ghana, and Cameroon).   No one from Kenya, Uganda, or other African countries; no one from the rest of the Caribbean; no domestic group from India or elsewhere in South Asia.

Apparently this statement came from a “roundtable conference” for  “LGBTI Rights Activists working across the Commonwealth” that a London NGO organized in August. (Notably, a lot of the signatories aren’t LGBTI groups at all: there are teacher’s unions, mainstream rights NGOs, and others.)  “Across the Commonwealth!” Right. More like: across town.

In other words, the task of lobbying the Commonwealth about the lives and freedoms of people in countries with sodomy laws has been taken over, not by activists from those countries, but by people in the United Kingdom.   The folks who led the fight in 2007 and 2009 have been crowded out.

What could the organizers of this statement have been thinking? What could possibly be the case for excluding from their deliberations the lawyers and activists who got India’s Section 377 eliminated two years ago — a transformative victory in the Commonwealth’s biggest state?  Isn’t it conceivable they might have some strategic wisdom about decriminalization in other Commonwealth countries? Treating them as irrelevant is not just disrespectful, it’s self-defeating. Instead, the folks in the U.K. have decided they know what the goal is, and they know how to get the former Empire there.

The whole project of “ensuring that LGBT human rights are on the agenda of the heads of government when they meet in Perth” seems to me to deserve a little further discussion. Might it not be better to wait till a few government leaders from the global South are primed to speak sympathetically on the issue — till Manmohan Singh, for instance, is ready to defend his country’s legal reform? Otherwise, the “debate” will consist of David Cameron and Julia Gillard berating Uganda and Jamaica, and the latter bemoaning “imperialism.”  How much progress can be expected from that? The fact is, though, that these strategic and tactical questions should be for activists from the countries most concerned to decide. And, token exceptions aside, they haven’t been asked.

It is only natural that activists in London should have easier entry to the Commonwealth’s institutions, which are also based there. But can’t they use that access to open access in turn for activists in the South? Tatchell and the “Kaleidoscope Trust,” moreover, have considerably more resources, and political clout in the UK, than their Southern counterparts can possibly muster — and more power to them.   But how will they use these benefits? Kaleidoscope’s glossy launch last month elicited glowing encomia from everybody from Ed Miliband to Elton John — all without the new organization giving even the slightest hint of what it planned to do.  Great!  But the Kaleidoscopers never reached out to activists in the South to announce their vaunted coming, or ask what they might want or need.  This left little doubt about where their priorities were. Elton John, yes; brave Ugandans, no.

The “Civil Society Statement” from London says: “Since the declaration of the Commonwealth Principles adopted by Heads of Government in 1971, the organization has defined itself by its values.” Well, more or less. The Commonwealth began as a more acceptable mask for empire; it evolved, very imperfectly, toward a vague ideal of power parceled out among equal states and held in common, rather than monopolized by the colonial metropole. What this episode reveals, though, is that the international LGBT movement isn’t evolving in the same direction.  It is still defined by inequalities of money and voice, through which activists in the former colonial capital feel at liberty to speak for their former subjects.

The successes achieved at the past two Commonwealth summits came because LGBT advocates from the countries targeted and affected were there, proving they existed and their lives counted. If they disappear and this initiative turns simply into a ventriloquists’ display, it’s doomed to fail.  I challenge the London signatories of the “Civil Society Statement,” and the Kaleidoscope Trust, to spend the next two weeks lobbying for the Southern activists’ demand: five seats for them at the Australia meeting.  It is the least they can do. Am I holding my breath, though? No.