Téa Braun on Challenging the Illegality of Homosexuality
We spoke to Téa Braun, Director of the Human Dignity Trust, about the charity’s role in supporting those who want to challenge anti-gay laws, the state of LGBT+ equality globally, and the steps towards equality that still need to be made.
Can you give us a summary of the Human Dignity Trust and the work they do?
The Human Dignity Trust is UK-based legal charity that supports LGBT activists and organisations who are using the courts to uphold human rights and constitutional law in countries where same sex activity is criminalised.
The Trust is currently working with LGBT activists in 15 countries across four continents to challenge the laws that criminalise them. There are a range of issues we are working on. We are working with LGBT activists to use the courts to challenge the criminalisation of LGBT people, to protect their freedom of association and to prevent the routine use forced anal examinations by the police.
The Trust is the only organisation that works globally to support LGBT activists to use the courts to challenge the laws that discriminate against them. We do this through mobilising the intellectual resources of the international legal community in order to provide world-class pro bono legal support to LGBT human rights defenders across the world.
On what basis does the Human Dignity Trust conduct its work?
We believe passionately in taking the lead from local civil society. Effective and sustainable social change requires broad-based consultation and consensus among local LGBT activists, organisations and communities who are on the front lines in their country. Their expertise is vital in ensuring that the progressive changes that litigation can achieve are locally driven, holistic and long-lasting. As such, our work is always guided and led by local and regional actors. We do not initiate litigation unless and until local organisations approve of it, providing them with the support they deem necessary to be effective advocates and campaigners – from expert legal advice to media and communications resources to security planning and assistance.
Can you give us an example of a case which Human Dignity Trust is currently working on/has recently worked on? What typical challenges do the Human Dignity Trust, and other campaigners for LGBT+ equality, face in decriminalisation?
The Trust, on the whole, doesn’t publicise where it works, in order to protect the security and interests of our local partners. However, we publicly supported a legal case in Belize, where we intervened as an Interested Party to support a challenge brought by local activist Caleb Orozoco against the law that criminalised consensual sexual intimacy between men. The Chief Justice of Belize struck out that law in August 2016 on the basis that it violates the constitutional rights to dignity, privacy, equality and non-discrimination. It is the first judgment of its kind in the Caribbean region. We also supported a case against Northern Cyprus at the European Court of Human Rights, which led the local legislature to repeal the anti-LGBT criminal law in 2014. We have also supported cases that have established constitutional protections against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, that affirm that LGBT people enjoy the right to freedom of association, and that have held that forced medical procedures to prove homosexuality are unlawful.
LGBT activists on the ground who are fighting for equality almost universally face the accusation that both homosexuality and LGBT human rights are a Western agenda. This accusation is pervasive and erroneous. LGBT people exist in every culture, and in many countries the laws that act to criminalise them were imposed by Western powers during colonial times. It is thus homophobia, not homosexuality, that was a Western export. Many of our partners also face the conflation of decriminalisation with equal marriage, even in countries where the community is struggling to access even basic rights. Under-resourcing of LGBT activism is also an endemic problem. Many LGBT organisations working in hostile environments are operating on shoestring budgets, especially in comparison to the well-funded opponents of equality. Religious groups often intervene in legal cases to oppose decriminalisation, seeking to keep LGBT people invisible and disenfranchised. Fortunately, there is a growing number of faith leaders speaking out against these old world views of religion and morality.
The Human Dignity Trust works in international human rights law, conducting a lot of work in and with other countries. As a UK-based organisation, why does the Trust have such a strong focus on tackling homophobia, biphobia and transphobia overseas?
The Trust works exclusively on supporting activists that are operating overseas, particularly in criminalising countries. In these countries, LGBT people face enormous obstacles to accessing their basic rights and to living their lives free from persecution and violence. Our expertise is in constitutional and international litigation where the issue of LGBT human rights can move away from often irrational public narratives and into the rational space of the courtroom, where it is the law – rather than public animus – that prevails.
There are also historic reasons for the Trust, as a UK-based organisation, to focus our attention globally. The majority of the 74 jurisdictions that criminalise consensual same-sex activity do so on the basis of laws they inherited from the British or that are otherwise based on British laws. Being in a position to mobilise British resources – financial, legal, intellectual – to help address this historic injustice is ethically important.
How much progress do you think is being made in affecting change? Domestically? Internationally?
Huge strides are being made around the world. When the Trust was formed in 2011 more than 80 jurisdictions criminalised same-sex activity. That figure is now 74. Activists on every continent are securing their rights in innovative and exciting ways. In Northern Cyprus, Belize and Trinidad and Tobago activists have used the courts to remove laws that criminalise same-sex activity. In Kenya and Botswana, activists have successfully litigated to defend their freedom to associate. In 2018 cases to decriminalise same-sex activity are being heard and decided in Botswana, India and Kenya.
Beyond just changing the laws, these cases are helping to change public perceptions of the LGBT community, and empowering LGBT communities by giving them a platform to hold their governments to account. Litigation also allows entire countries to start difficult conversations about the ways in which the rights of LGBT people are violated and to discuss what sort of societies they want to be – forward-looking, pluralistic and inclusive, or exclusionary and oppressive.
How much collaboration do you think there is between the third sector, businesses, governments/policy-makers and researchers, in affecting positive change, such as that sought by the Trust?
It really varies from country to country and region to region. However, broadly speaking it is increasingly clear that collaboration between a whole range of players is vital to achieve positive and lasting change. While this has been true for some time in Western Europe and North America, we are seeing an increasing commitment from businesses, governments and the third sector to work together to create equal and tolerant societies for LGBT people.
While clearly we believe in the importance of using the law to secure the human rights of LGBT people, changes in the law need to be supported by social and attitudinal change, the embedding of values in policy and the attitudes of businesses in how they conduct themselves as employers and members of the community. There are important roles, and benefits, for all sectors of society – governments, businesses and the third sector – in pursuing the sort of change that builds diverse, equitable societies where everyone is free to be their authentic selves regardless of sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
What more can be done to affect policy change with regard to decriminalisation?
First and foremost, policy change is driven by LGBT activists and organisations in the countries where they are criminalised. Supporting their work is the surest way to promote effective, sustainable, locally-owned change. This support can manifest itself in many ways, including understanding the issues and the fact that, across the world, for many LGBT people equal treatment by their governments, their communities and even their families is not a reality, and encouraging your own government to support the work of on-the-ground LGBT activists and organisations in criminalising jurisdictions. The world is also a far smaller place than it was even ten years ago. Many of the organisations pushing for change across the world are sophisticated communicators; engaging with them on social media, listening to what they have to say and standing in solidarity with their struggles is more important than it may seem as these conversations are watched at all levels and signal shifts in public attitudes and support.
Téa Braun is Director of the Human Dignity Trust, overseeing the implementation of all of the Trust's core legal work and managing the Trust’s overall operation. She has global experience in strategic litigation, training and technical assistance on international human rights law and comparative constitutional law, with a particular focus on matters relating to women’s human rights and LGBT human rights. Read more about Téa, the Human Dignity Trust and their work, here.