African Commission Tackles Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity

Written by Wendy Isaack

Researcher, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has taken on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity, topics that some may have considered too “controversial” but that fall squarely within the ambit of human rights.

I represented Human Rights Watch at the commission’s 60th ordinary session in early in May in Niamey, Niger. Human rights defenders and organizations that work to protect the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in some of the most hostile countries in the region have spent many years and resources advocating at the commission.

These efforts have finally paid off, and the commission is mainstreaming sexual orientation and gender identity in its work. This took courage because in 33 African countries, adult same-sex acts are illegal, including 24 that criminalize lesbian acts, and many other countries have recently passed laws that restrict and punish groups that work on sexual orientation and gender identity issues. LGBT people are harassed, threatened, and even killed in some places, including in South Africa, which has better laws in place. That the commission is now actively addressing these issues is an important if largely unheralded step.

The commission had a full agenda in May, as Commissioner Pansy Tlakula, the chairperson, noted in her opening statement, citing: “reports of extra-judicial killings, harassment of human rights defenders, increased restrictions to civil society space and reports of disproportionate use of force and violence to dispel peaceful protests.”

Many of these human rights abuses include the element of discrimination against LGBT people. So, it is especially significant that the commission has been addressing this issue, including in its concluding observations and recommendations to African Charter member countries. Over the past few sessions, the commission has explicitly included sexual orientation and gender identity in its soft law instruments — that is, its general comments, resolutions and guidelines, building on its April 2014 resolution 275 on protection against violence and other human rights violations against persons on the basis of their real or imputed sexual orientation or gender identity. Even if these documents don’t have the force of law, they are influential throughout most of Africa in raising important issues and helping countries set their own agendas for human rights protections for LGBT people.

The commission’s May 8 general comment on torture is a case in point. It notes that anyone, regardless of their gender, may be a victim of sexual and gender-based violence that amounts to torture or ill-treatment. And in this regard, “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons are of equal concern.” So-called “corrective rape” and forced anal testing are expressly listed as acts of sexual and gender-based violence that may amount to torture and ill-treatment under the African Charter.

On May 10, the commission issued guidelines for training law enforcement officials on policing assemblies. It makes clear that African governments need to protect people and groups who are particularly vulnerable to limitations on their right to assemble freely, including because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Commissioner Reine Alapini Gansou, the special rapporteur on human rights defenders in Africa, presented an intersession activity report that highlighted harassment against human rights defenders working on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sexual and reproductive health rights. The report recommends that countries “remove punitive and restrictive laws, policies and practices that undermine the rights to freedom of association and assembly,” including those based on “sexual orientation, identity and expression of gender.” This is especially significant, considering laws passed in Nigeria (and passed but later nullified in Uganda) that criminalize work on sexual orientation and gender identity issues by human rights defenders.

In his intersession activity report, Commissioner Lawrence Mute, chairperson of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture in Africa, notes that the use of forced anal examinations to prove homosexuality may amount to torture under the African Charter, and he urges states to “respect and protect the rights of persons or groups at heightened risk to acts of torture and other ill-treatment, including….lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons.”

The special rapporteur on prisons, conditions of detention and policing in Africa, Commissioner Med Kaggwa, presented Draft Principles on the Declassification and Decriminalization of Petty Offences in Africa, calling on countries to address “the root causes of other marginalisation, including measures which criminalize same-sex conduct, drug use and sex work.”

Tlakula, the chairperson, and Commissioner Reine Alapini-Gansou, both of whom have been instrumental in advancing the human rights of Africans subjected to violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, have completed their terms on the commission. But they have laid the groundwork for further work on human rights issues that may have previously been considered too “controversial” to touch.

Africa-based nongovernmental organizations and human rights defenders involved with the commission’s work should be fully supported in speaking out, pointing to this body of soft law, and encouraging local and regional leaders to apply African human rights standards to sexual orientation and gender identity issues. And the commission should continue to interpret the African Charter in a manner that ensures the protection and promotion of human and peoples’ rights for all Africans.

SOURCE: http://www.hrw.org

Human Rights Watch Calls for Banning of Forced Anal Examinations

Forced anal examinations on men and transgender women accused of consensual same-sex conduct have been reported in at least eight countries in the last five years, Human Rights Watch said in a report released yesterday(12th July 2016). These examinations lack evidentiary value and are a form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment that may in some cases amount to torture.

The 82-page report, “Dignity Debased: Forced Anal Examinations in Homosexuality Prosecutions” is based on interviews with 32 men and transgender women who underwent forced anal examinations in Cameroon, Egypt, Kenya, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uganda and Zambia.  The examinations, which have the purported objective of finding “proof” of homosexual conduct, often involve doctors or other medical personnel forcibly inserting their fingers, and sometimes other objects, into the anus of the accused. Victims of forced anal testing told Human Rights Watch that they found the exams painful and degrading; some experienced them as a form of sexual violence.

“Forced anal exams are invasive, intrusive, and profoundly humiliating, and clearly violate governments’ human rights obligations,” said Neela Ghoshal, senior researcher in the lesbian,gay,bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights program at Human Rights Watch. “No one, in 2016, should be subjected to torturous and degrading examinations that are based on invalidated theories from 150 years ago.”

The exams are rooted in discredited 19th century theories that homosexuals can be identified by the tone of the anal sphincter or the shape of the anus. International forensic medicine experts have found that the exams are useless, in addition to being cruel and degrading. The conclusion was shared even by several medical professionals Human Rights Watch interviewed who themselves had conducted anal exams.

International human rights law prohibits torture as well as cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Those prohibitions are explicitly reflected in the domestic laws of countries that have nonetheless allowed forced anal exams to take place. The United Nations special rapporteur on torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment has found that the exams are “intrusive and degrading” and “medically worthless,” amounting to “torture or ill-treatment.” The International Forensic Expert Group describes them as “a form of sexual assault and rape.” Medical personnel who voluntarily conduct forced anal exams violate international principles of medical ethics, including the prohibition on medical personnel participating in any way in acts of torture or degrading treatment.

“I felt like I was an animal. I felt I wasn’t human,” said “Mehdi,” a Tunisian student subjected to an anal exam in December 2015. “When I got dressed, they put handcuffs on me and I went out, feeling completely in shock. I couldn’t absorb what was going on.”

“Louis,” who underwent a forced anal examination in Cameroon in 2007, at age 18, told Human Rights Watch nine years later: “I still have nightmares about that examination. Sometimes it keeps me up at night when I think about it. I never thought a doctor could do something like that to me.”

Some countries where authorities have used forced anal exams in the past, most notably Lebanon, have taken steps to end the practice. But others, including Egypt and Tunisia rely on them with great frequency in prosecutions for consensual same-sex conduct. The use of forced anal examinations appears to be a recent phenomenon in Kenya, Uganda and Zambia.

In Kenya, a disappointing High Court decision in June 2016 upheld the constitutionality of the exams. The judge found that the petitioners, two men who had been arrested on “unnatural offenses” charges and subjected to anal exams while in police custody, had consented to them. Petitioners said they were not informed about the tests and agreed only under duress while in police custody. The decision has been appealed.

All countries should ban the practice of forced anal examinations, and international and domestic human rights and health institutions should vigorously and vociferously oppose their use, Human Rights Watch said.

“No one should be arrested in the first place because of their private sexual conduct, but where such arrests do occur, forced anal exams add an extra layer of pointless brutality and abuse,” Ghoshal said. “Every country should guarantee basic rights and dignity to people accused of homosexual conduct, and recognize that the prohibition on torture extends to everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Sourced from KuchuTimes

President Donald J Trump Bans Transgender Persons from Serving in US Military

President Trump, on Wednesday 26th July, shocked the world when he announced via his official twitter account that the US was banning transgender people from serving in the military.

“After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail,” read the tweet series.

Mr. Trump made the declaration on Twitter, saying that American forces could not afford the “tremendous medical costs and disruption” of transgender service members. He said he had consulted generals and military experts, but Jim Mattis, the defense secretary, was given only a day’s notice about the decision.

The LGBTI community across the globe has since spoken out strongly against this move which is a great retrogression to the rights of sexual and gender minorities. Below a number of transgender persons that have served in the US military share their views on the recent development.

Ashleigh Buch

At first, Staff Sgt. Ashleigh Buch didn’t know what to make of the flood of sympathy that arrived on her cellphone as she got up Wednesday morning.

The first transgender airman to fully transition at Offutt Air Force Base, she hadn’t heard about President Donald Trump’s tweets announcing plans to bar all transgender troops from serving “in any capacity in the U.S. Military.” She logged onto her computer and read the news.

“It was a rush of emotion, pretty much every kind of emotion,” Buch, 32, said in an interview with The World-Herald. “The tears just kept coming and coming. It seemed so surreal.”

Buch went to work at Offutt — where she conducts classes for linguists who fly aboard the 55th Wing’s fleet of reconnaissance aircraft — still in tears, hoping to avoid talking to people. Buch grew up in Fairfield, Iowa, and earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and secondary education before joining the Air Force in 2009. She began presenting herself as a woman away from work after arriving at Offutt in 2012 and began transitioning at work early last year, before the Pentagon’s policy was in place.

She has been publicly open about her story, giving interviews to Offutt’s base newspaper and The World-Herald. She has also been mentoring at least four other Offutt service members who have been transitioning under the military’s transgender policy, adopted last year. She met with her commander and her first sergeant on Wednesday. They tried to reassure her, despite all the unknowns.

“It’s extremely disappointing. I knew other trans folks when I was in the military. We work really hard, we do our jobs, we have every right to be there. They shouldn’t have the president — who, by the way, dodged the draft — making their lives harder when they’re serving the nation.

“It was my role as a chaplain’s assistant to be a bodyguard for an ordained minister; to transport and move the chaplain from base to base. I was there for soldiers dealing with PTSD or substance abuse issues or divorce, all the other issues that come from war trauma, and we basically took care of about 800 soldiers.

“We faced a lot of rocket attacks in Iraq. For a while, we would get rocketed every Thursday night.

“My family has been defending America since before there was an America. Military service and love of country are bound up together very tightly, part of having all the benefits of democracy that include — I believe — there being rights to protections for transgender people and other gender minorities. Part of that is bound up in putting your life on the line for your country.

“I always knew I was a girl, I had made some small attempts at transitioning, but had just faced tremendous resistance. Either there was no trans health-care available, or if there was, you had to go to providers who had really bizarre negative understandings of trans people and thought this was a disease.

“We deserve full access to all the rights, responsibilities and burdens of citizenship. One of those rights, responsibilities and burdens is military service. And by God, we’re good soldiers. We’re not magic, we’re not special, we just deserve the same rights that everybody else gets.”

Janice Covington, 69

U.S. Army, 1964-67
Transitioned

“I was almost captured one time. I laid in a ditch on the side of the road, it was total darkness and there were three Viet Cong came along with AK-47s and they were four feet from me and they didn’t see me. I just had a side pistol, a 45 Colt. I could see their silhouettes in the darkness. I could hear my heartbeat. You ever been that scared? So scared you could hear your own heartbeat?

“I was in the Army. I was in Vietnam in ’65 and ’66, and discharged in ’67. Back then, I couldn’t come out. I didn’t even know if another transgender person existed in this world. We didn’t have internet, we didn’t have communication.

“I survived, but I got wounded in 1966. I got shot in my left leg and I spent three months in the hospital.

“Then I finally came out full time in 2004, because I was just tired of living as a lie. So Janice said, ‘I’m coming out full time, people, so watch out.’ As for that other fella? He died, if you understand what I mean.

“The thing is, we went to battle, we put our lives on the line, we bleed just like they do. So what’s the big deal? I can think of about 15 other countries that allow transgender people to serve in the military openly. We’re the land of the free, so why can’t we? It’s wrong to treat people like that. We’re people and we have a right to serve the military if we want to, like anybody else.”

Gage Gatlyn, 39

Active Army, Navy, Army Reserves, 1996-2005
Transitioned from female to male

from male to female

“It doesn’t matter what’s between their legs. Nobody cared as long as I did my job and I did it to the best of my ability, and that’s what the other soldiers, the other sailors, looked for.

“This whole thing makes me very angry, but also very sad and distraught at the same time. There’s so many soldiers out there; so many people out there who want to be soldiers, and our military is telling them ‘No, you can’t serve your own country.’ That just makes my blood boil.

“I was in the Navy, I was an aviation ordnanceman. I built bombs and missiles and also did small arms on the range. I used to help teach MPs [military police] how to shoot their weapons so they could pass their weapons qualifications. When I was in the Army, I was mortuary affairs technician and basically dealt with death on a daily basis, doing autopsies. It’s a hard job, but we have to do it, somebody has to do it. And it has nothing to do with their gender, as long as they’re doing the work.

“They’re saying everybody’s going to run and join the military so they can get their sexual reassignment surgery. Nobody’s going to go through basic training, go overseas, fight in Iraq, fight in Syria, then come home and get their surgery. Nobody does that — if they want to serve, they’ll serve.”

Lara Americo, 32

U.S. Air Force, 2002-2008
Transitioned from male to female

“I was having a rough night last night so I planned to wake up to a piece of strawberry shortcake. I woke up instead to a notification on my phone about trans folks being banned from the military. It was surprising, because we fought so hard to allow gays in the military and I knew for a fact that transgender rights would be next. So I was surprised and saddened.

“I know for a fact there are trans people in the military right now who are hiding and can’t reveal who they are, even though people who identify as gay are able to live their lives authentically.

“I was in the Air Force for six years. I had a rough time because being a trans woman is a difficult identity to have when you’re enlisted. I had to deal with those issues in basic training. Anybody who knew me knew me as very masculine cis-straight male. Which was not who I was and who I am. I was an MMA [Mixed Martial Arts] fighter and I was lifting weights and doing all the stereotypical male things just so I could blend in and do my job.

“Around 2002, I enlisted. A year prior to that, 9/11 happened, and I was motivated to be a part of the solution and make sure America was a safe place. The biggest danger then was probably people finding out that I was transgender and me losing my job as an airman and being discharged.

“I have Indigenous ancestry, Spanish and Native American. But to be a person of colour myself and a transgender woman who has fought to make this country a safe space — it hurts to live in a country that’s not a safe space, that’s not equal for trans people.

“I’m afraid that this is only another step in systematically erasing the trans community. And I feel like if we don’t stand up, it will be difficult for us to exist in America.”

Part of this article is source from KuchuTimes.

Muhsin Hendricks, Imam of Africa’s first Gay-Friendly Mosque

The People’s Mosque in Africa’s southern-most city, Cape Town, is no ordinary place of worship. Through its doors pass local Muslims who all have an unusual trait in common: the struggle to reconcile their faith with their LGBT identities.The mosque was founded by Muhsin Hendricks, an imam who has devoted his life to giving LGBT Muslims a safe space in which to worship, away from the condemnation of orthodox faith leaders, many of whom see homosexuality as a sin.

In many countries in Africa, being gay is a crime. In some places – Somalia, Southern Sudan and parts of Nigeria, for instance – it’s even punishable by death.

But South Africa is different. It was the first country in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, and same-sex marriage has been legal in the country for over a decade. All the same, attitudes are slow to change. According to a survey by the Other Foundation, 72% of South Africans believe same-sex sexual activity is morally wrong.

Religious communities are especially prohibitive, with orthodox mosque leaders often explicitly opposing the expansion of gay rights. For the faithful, the torment isn’t limited to legislative ostracism; the experience of being cast from the communities becomes an emotional excommunication as well.

“There’s a cognitive dissonance experienced by many gay Muslims,” says Hendricks, “and it plays out in drug and alcohol abuse, irresponsible sexual behaviour and suicide.”

Hendricks wants to change that. A gay Muslim himself, he founded a support group for LGBT Muslims 20 years ago. The Inner Circle supports people who feel rejected by their faiths because of their sexual identities, and even offers a marriage blessing to same-sex couples.

Faith in a more inclusive future

What does the wider Muslim community think? Hendricks says it’s volatile. “Sometimes they feel that I should be thrown from the highest mountain, and sometimes they appreciate that there is one imam who is willing to work with people who they are unwilling to work with,” he told AFP last year.

“I learned that homosexuality was just the first avenue to address a lot of other injustice committed in the name of Islam. And now you’d be amazed at the amount of straight people that are attracted to our organization. So I realized that I’d taken on something big. I’ve taken on the patriarchy that sits behind Islam.”

But ultimately, Hendricks sees a more inclusive future for his fellow faithful, and his Cape Town mosque may have started a trend. Since it opened, alternative places of worship have popped up with increasing frequency. “These spaces provide LGBT Muslims with a renewed sense of hope, that they too have the right to practice their faith, to love and be loved,” he says.

Where are we now? The global outlook for LGBTI rights

The backlash against LGBTI communities worldwide is alarming, but human rights defenders will win the battle.

Nearly 80 countries still have a total prohibition on same-sex relations. Over half of them are members of the Commonwealth. Their homophobic laws were imposed by Britain in the 19th century, during the era of colonialism, and retained after independence. The penalties for homosexuality include 25 years jail in Trinidad and Tobago and 20 years plus flogging in Malaysia. Several Commonwealth countries stipulate life imprisonment: Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Pakistan, Uganda, Bangladesh and Guyana.

There have also been new laws enacted in some countries, most excessively in Nigeria, which has outlawed LGBTI organisations, fundraising and public advocacy – and even gay-focused HIV prevention, and LGBT-themed books and movies. Lesser repression involves restrictions on media coverage of LGBTI issues and the foreign funding of LGBTI groups, as happens in Uganda.

In these backlash countries, LGBTI people are increasingly demonised and scapegoated by demagogic politicians and fundamentalist clerics as a cheap way to win popular support. At the start of 2016, a spokesperson for Malawi’s opposition party, Ken Msonda, sought to bolster his profile and reputation saying: “Arresting them [LGBT people] won’t address this problem because sooner or later they are being released on bail. The best way to deal with this problem is to kill them!”

Anglican churches in Nigeria and Uganda have contributed to the witch-hunting atmosphere; supporting draconian new anti-gay laws. To the delight of many governments, having an “enemy within” has conveniently distracted public attention from economic failings and corruption.

Hate rhetoric is fuelling homophobic mob violence – sometimes perpetrated by right-wing death squads – especially in Honduras, Brazil, Mexico, Peru and El Salvador. Six Honduran LGBTI activists have been assassinated since last summer.

A disproportionately high number of victims of anti-LGBTI violence are trans people. The Trans Murder Monitoring Project reports that over 1,300 trans and gender-diverse women and men were murdered in Latin America from 2008-14.

In recent years, the Indian and Singaporean courts have upheld the criminalisation of same-sex relations (that decision in India was recently referred back to the supreme court), and Burundi has outlawed homosexuality for the first time it its history. In Syria, Isis is targeting LGBTI people for execution, mostly by being thrown off tall buildings and in neighbouring Iraq, Shia militias are also waging a terror campaign against LGBTI people.

Despite backlash, the trend is towards greater equality

Despite this bleak picture, in the overwhelming majority of the world’s 193 countries, the trend is towards ever greater LGBTI acceptance and equality.

In recent years, we’ve seen the decriminalisation of gay sex in Palau, São Tomé and Príncipe, northern Cyprus and Mozambique. The Seychelles has pledged to repeal its anti-gay laws, though it has not yet done so.

A Ugandan court annulled the notorious anti-homosexuality act, albeit on a technicality. The new bill to replace it has never been legislated. Vietnam lifted the ban on same-sex marriage in 2015, as a prelude to its expected eventual legalisation.

The Botswana courts have recognised the right of an LGBTI organisation to be registered and the Indian supreme court has upheld the rights of the trans community. Helem, Lebanon’s LGBTI group, has operated for over a decade; hosting the first LGBTI centre in the Arab world. Taiwan has just elected its first women president, a supporter of same-sex marriage, in a country where marriage equality has more than two-thirds public support.

The first openly lesbian cabinet minister has taken office in South Africa and two men who were prosecuted for being gay in Zambia were acquitted at their trial.

Both the UN’s human rights council and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights passed resolutions in 2014 calling on all countries to protect their LGBTI communities from discrimination and violence.

Research by the Williams Institute has found rising global acceptance of same-sex relations, including in developing countries: “Latin America acceptance of homosexuality ranges from a high of 34% in Uruguay to a low of 2% in Ecuador. On the legal recognition for marriages for same-sex couples, Uruguay has the highest level of support at 57% while Guatemala has the lowest level of support at 12%. In Africa, acceptance of homosexuality ranges from a high of 38% in South Africa to a low of 2% in Ghana.” These figures are still quite low but nonetheless a big improvement on a decade ago.

In this context of majority progress, backlash is a minority blip in the overall worldwide trajectory towards LGBTI equality. It is a reaction to the positive gains won by brave, determined LGBTI human right defenders, many of whom risk their liberty and lives. If we were not winning there would be no need for backlash. Take it as a backhanded compliment. LGBTI freedom has been long delayed but it cannot be denied.

There are reasons to be cheerful … LGBTI rights gains in unlikely countries

Iraq, Tunisia and Lebanon have recently made progressive steps forward in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex human rights.

In the last 12 months, Martin Luther King’s “arc of the moral universe” has bent towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) human rights.

Nauru and Belize decriminalised homosexuality and the Seychelles parliament passed a bill ending the ban on same-sex relations. In India, the supreme court said it will review its 2013 judgement that upheld the colonial-era law criminalising “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”.

More reasons to be cheerful: Greece, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina enacted new statutes to protect sexual and gender minorities from discrimination. Same-sex marriage was legalised in Colombia, Gibraltar, Isle of Man, Guernsey and the British Antarctic Territory. Italy became the 27th country in Europe to officially recognise same-sex couples, approving the law on civil unions. Similar civil unions were agreed by lawmakers in the Caribbean island of Aruba.

Meanwhile, a cross-party coalition of Guatemalan politicians began pushing for marriage equality and Taiwan’s legislature passed the first draft of a bill for same-sex marriage. Voices have also been raised for equal marriage in Cuba, Nepal and Vietnam.

There was more progress at the UN, with Thai law professor Vitit Muntarbhorn appointed the UN’s first independent investigator to protect LGBTI people from violence and discrimination, with a mandate to examine violence and discrimination against sexual and gender minorities.

There remain 75 countries and dependent territories that still criminalise same-sex relations – with nearly half of these jurisdictions outlawing both male and female homosexuality. The total increased by one in 2016 when the Chad parliament voted to criminalise same-sex acts for the first time in its history, albeit as a misdemeanor punishable by a fine and suspended prison sentence.

Both in countries that do and don’t criminalise same-sex behaviour, hundreds of millions of LGBTI people are at risk of “honour” killing by family members, mob violence and discrimination in housing, employment, healthcare, education and the provision of goods and services – much of it orchestrated by religious zealots and opportunistic politicians, as witnessed in Russia and Nigeria.

Ongoing anti-LGBTI backlashes continue in about 20 of the 193 UN member nations, where state repression and public hostility are increasing, including Ethiopia and Indonesia. But these are minority setbacks. Overall, LGBTI rights are mostly powering ahead.

During 2016, notable advances were won for trans and, to a lesser extent, intersex people. The Chilean Ministry of Health instructed health providers to stop “normalising” medical interventions on intersex infants and children. This is the first time that any health ministry in the world has taken such a step without being required to do so by legislation or legal action.

Coinciding with Intersex Awareness Day on 26 October, a group of UN and international human rights experts called for an urgent end to human rights violations against intersex people, including unwarranted surgical interventions and the non-recognition of a person’s intersex status.

Last year was the year of the biggest global wins for trans communities. Courts in Lebanon and Malaysia ruled in favour of trans people who wanted their identity documents to reflect their gender identity. A Chinese court in Guizhou province backed a trans man who sued his employer for unlawful dismissal. Vietnam and Bolivia amended their laws to allow trans people the right to change gender in legal documents. The Lahore high court in Pakistan decreed that it is a violation of human rights to exclude trans people from the national census. Furthermore, Geraldine Roman became the first elected transgender congresswoman in Philippine history.

On the wider LGBTI front, Malta approved bills to ban gay conversion therapy and the pathologisation of trans identities. The World Psychiatric Association also spoke out against gay “cure” programmes, stating: “There is no sound scientific evidence that innate sexual orientation can be changed”.

Some of the gains in 2016 were in unlikely countries, where LGBTI activists and their straight allies are risking their liberty and lives to push for acceptance and equality.

Despite the threats from anti-gay Islamists, the Tunisian LGBTI advocacy group Shams won a legal challenge against a government order that forced it to suspend operations. The government of Botswana was ordered by the country’s court of appeal to allow the official registration of the LGBTI organisation LeGaBiBo.

In Iraq, the Kurdish human rights group Rasan Organisation painted murals at high schools as part of an education campaign to draw attention to LGBTI rights, gender equality and domestic violence.

Despite this progress in 2016, there is still much work to do. Homosexuality remains criminalised in 36 out of the 52 Commonwealth member states (down from 46 a decade ago). Most of these anti-gay laws were imposed by Britain during the colonial era. They are not authentic national statutes. This legal persecution is happening despite the Commonwealth charter pledging human rights for all Commonwealth citizens.

For six decades, successive Commonwealth summits have refused to even discuss – let alone support – equality and non-discrimination for LGBTI people in the member states. The Peter Tatchell Foundation is supporting a coalition – the Commonwealth Equality Network, coordinated by Kaleidoscope Trust – which is lobbying to get LGBTI rights on the agenda of the 2018 Commonwealth summit.

At the very minimum, consistent with the Commonwealth charter, member states should: decriminalise homosexuality; prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity; enforce existing laws against threats and violence, to protect LGBTI people from hate crimes; and consult with LGBTI communities.

I am not sure we’ll get the Commonwealth summit to discuss these issues but we’re determined to try – again – for the tenth time. One thing is for sure: no injustice lasts forever. LGBTI freedom has been long delayed but it cannot and will not be denied.

‘The exorcism was over in 15 minutes but nothing changed’ – LGBT life in Nigeria

After going through Christian rituals in an attempt to change her sexuality, Bree found a way to reconcile her faith and same-sex attraction.

A pastor spits out prayers as his subject falls to the ground, writhing and contorting after a 30-day fast. Ministers form a circle around the emaciated man and douse him in anointing oil and holy water. When the prayer tsunami ends, a hovering calm ensues. A hologram glides through the man’s atrophied body as he springs to his feet, professing his salvation. So goes the standard script for a deliverance session or exorcism in Nigerian film.

Bree, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, said her first deliverance session in 2004 had none of this Nollywood drama.

“The pastor acted like it was pretty normal and routine. It was a quick 15 minutes, and nothing changed,” she says, stifling a laugh. “I felt like he didn’t realise it was a big spiritual issue, and he didn’t treat it with the weight it deserved.”

Bree, who identifies as lesbian and Christian, has been grappling with reconciling her faith and sexuality for most of her life. Growing up in a conservative community where the two identities were considered mutually exclusive, her sense of God’s disapproval and abandonment had taken its toll. Her meandering from unstable to abusive relationships only confirmed her belief that her sexuality was wrong and something that would continually punish her.

In 2009, while attending a Pentecostal church service with her girlfriend at the time, the pastor asked women who wanted to be delivered from the spirit of lesbianism to approach the altar.

“I was so tired of feeling rejected by God. I just wanted peace,” she says of her decision to step forward. “I was so conflicted. You go to church and keep hearing about how lesbians and gay people are an abomination, how they are going to hell, and you don’t understand why God is rejecting you before you even had a chance to say, ‘I don’t want this’.”

This time around, the pastor laid hands on Bree and her girlfriend. Believing they were entranced in spirit, the women rolled on the ground and were surrounded by ministers. “It was intense, and I was hopeful this was it, maybe we had been cured. I needed to not be gay anymore,” Bree says.

After a tearful breakup from her partner following the deliverance session, they got back together a week later, both exhausted from acting “healed.” “I finally had a conversation with God saying that if this is who I am, ‘you made me, then you fix me’,” Bree says.

Bree believes one of the burdens religious exorcism places on sexual minorities is the need to “perform” – pretend to be straight. She reminds herself to switch feminine pronouns to masculine ones when discussing past relationships with work colleagues and when writing on her blog. Once, when a colleague gave her a suspicious look for staring admiringly at a woman, Bree invented a quick fib about having previously met the person.

Olumide Makanjuola, executive director of The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERS), an organisation based in Lagos that works on LGBTQI rights and sexual health, says that “performing” is mentally straining.

“In a space like Nigeria, people perform sexuality quite well. We don’t care what performance does to people mentally, as we are focused on how people see us and how they imagine us,” Makanjuola says.

Through his work, Makanjuola has encountered many people in the local lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) community dealing with acute anxiety and depression as a result of performing straightness brought on by deliverance attempts and conversion therapy.

“Exorcism reduces people. They feel so incomplete and powerless,” he says. “We run a religious system that is full of condemnation as opposed to understanding, which is very problematic.”

Makanjuola emphasises the need to deconstruct social norms society places on people, whether gay or straight, and warns about the mental health strain that can arise from this constant need to perform.

Bree says her deep-seated distrust of Nigeria’s mental health system prevented her from seeking professional help when coming to terms with her faith and sexuality. “I wouldn’t talk to a professional about it, because I’m not going to have someone validate negative feelings,” she says. “The people who we talk to will fall back on culture or religion.”

Makanjuola says Nigeria’s LGBTQI community often faces stigmatised responses from healthcare providers because of institutionalised homophobia and prejudice, making it difficult for them to seek help.

Addressing this lack of trust and presumed discrimination, psychiatrist Gbonju Abiri from the Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital in Lagos says: “Nigeria is deeply ingrained in culture and religious beliefs, and we are not able to deal with diversity just yet as we should. Our practice encourages that we should put health above all first.”

She adds that many LGBTQI patients ask doctors about their views on sexuality prior to consultations, using the doctors’ responses to determine whether or not to go forward with the appointment.

Acceptance of homosexuality is difficult in a country which outlaws gay marriage. Nigeria’s Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, which stipulates up to 14 years in prison for divergent sexual orientation and gender identity expressions, was signed into law by President Goodluck Jonathan in 2014.

Makanjuola believes the law validates existing social prejudices. “As a health service receiver, you are dealing with two monsters: a doctor who is prejudiced towards you, and a service provider who is also using the law to validate their own sense of what is right. If you win with the law, are you going to win with the angle of their personal belief system?” he asks.

In 2012, exhausted from feeling depressed and condemned, Bree decided to study more about the intersection between her faith and her sexuality. She looked through the works of theologians, unlearning most of what she had been taught and reading stories of people who had taken their own lives when faced with similar battles.

“You can’t blame people, because there is a culture that has been handed down, but I will not accept that anybody is an abomination because of whom they love,” she says.

After hours spent counselling a young woman on the verge of suicide who was unable to find an existence between her faith and her sexuality, Bree is now working towards earning a professional counselling qualification to help others who were once in her shoes. Now that she has found acceptance inside herself, she hopes to help others do the same.