Why that kiss was important

As you watch the friendly games this week, spare a thought for those people of the British Commonwealth who are LGB or T. Of the 53 countries that make up the group:

  • In 37, it is illegal to be gay and, in 21, it is illegal to be a lesbian;
  • 7 countries recognise same-sex unions and 4 have equal marriage;
  • 6 countries allow same-sex couples to adopt;
  • 9 countries allow homosexuals to serve openly in the military;
  • 12 countries have anti-discrimination legislation in place to protect their LGBT citizens;
  • 12 countries have some form of legislation that permits transgender people to be recognised as their true gender;
  • In 31, being LGB or T carries a prison sentence of anything from 2 to 25 years;
  • 3 countries carry out some form of corporal punishment and 3 countries have the death penalty for LGBT people.

In Uganda, Clare Balding could be sentenced to 7 years in prison or, in Dominica, a 10 year prison sentence or incarceration in a psychiatric institution. In Jamaica, Ian Thorpe and Tom Daley could be sentenced to 10 years hard labour or, in Malawi, 14 years in prison and whippings. In the Maldives, where Shariah law applies, all of them could be sentenced to whippings, house arrest, deportation and up to 6 years in jail, assuming that vigilantes don’t attack and/or execute them first.

I have written about the legacy of the British Empire to these countries before and Britain’s responsibility to take a stand on the issue so I’m not going to repeat myself. Instead, I thought I’d give out some awards for to those Commonwealth countries whose stance on LGBT rights is worthy of note and shame some of those who should be doing better.

CanadaNew ZealandSouth Africa

Sharing the gold for progress on LGBT equal rights are Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. All three countries have same-sex marriage, same-sex adoption, open service in the military, anti-discrimination legislation and transgender recognition. The UK takes the silver because it doesn’t have same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man. And Malta takes the bronze because it doesn’t have same-sex marriage, only civil unions.

None of the above probably comes as any surprise. There is an obvious correlation between the wealth of a nation and its standard of education. Equally, if government is worrying about food, housing and healthcare for its people, LGBT rights come close to the bottom of the list. Those countries with a high GDP per capita are likely, therefore, to be ahead on LGBT rights. The only country on the medal podium that is not in the top ten for GDP per capita is South Africa that ranks 22nd out of the 53 countries. Kudos to them for punching above their weight.

Time to name and shame those countries who are wealthy and should, therefore, have been on the podium instead of South Africa. Singapore has a GDP per capita of $50,858.93 and is 3rd in the table. It is legal to be a lesbian there but, although it recognises transgender people’s gender and, through conscription, its LGBT citizens serve by default in the military, it is illegal to be gay and punishable by up to 2 years in prison. Singapore should be doing better than this.

Although Singapore is bad, Brunei is worse. A lot of attention has been focused on the LGBT record of African countries like Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia, but Brunei’s treatment of its LGBT citizens is made all the more appalling because of its wealth. Brunei is 4th in the GDP per capita league table with each citizen’s share being $41,656.02 (Nigeria $1,482.50, Uganda $614.65, Tanzania $614.78 and Zambia $1,520.99). Brunei’s LGBT citizens have no rights and are sentenced to death by stoning. Brunei is subject to Shariah law and, in April 2014, it strengthened its punishment for homosexuality from 10 years in prison to death.


Conversely, there are those countries who are low down on the GDP per capita list but whose progress towards LGBT equal rights is remarkable. The most impressive country is Mozambique. They come in the top ten of Commonwealth countries for LGBT rights but come 52nd out of 53 for GDP per capita. Each citizen’s share of the GDP is just $569.34. For comparison, Mozambique shares its position on the LGBT league table with The Bahamas whose GDP per capita is $21,855.98. (You can read more about Mozambique’s LGBT rights here.)


Lesotho and Rwanda fall just outside the top ten for LGBT rights and their GDP per capita is $1,294.65 and $658.91 respectively (44th and 49th out of 53). To our eyes, both countries may look unimpressive with regard to LGBT rights. The only progress they have made is to legalise same-sex activity. However, when one considers where Rwanda, in particular, sits in East Africa, surrounded by countries like Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, it is a massive achievement.


The transgender gold goes to Bangladesh (GDP $823.19 per capita) for passing legislation that recognises the Hijra community (MtF). India, Pakistan and Samoa also recognise their traditional “third sex” communities. In Samoa, transwomen are known as Fa’afafine.

For those of us watching the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in the UK, John Barrowman’s kiss in the marriage section of the spectacle was a bit of fun. For others, it was cause to write a strongly worded letter to the BBC about young viewers and the watershed, etc. However, for those LGBT people watching in countries like Tuvalu, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Kenya, Guyana and Antigua and Barbuda that kiss represented the possibility of a life free from the threat of 14+ years in jail for just being themselves. A possibility that membership of the British Commonwealth offers.

So, should we ask Brunei and Nigeria, and all those other countries whose record on LGBT rights is horrendous, to leave the Commonwealth? Or should we, by example, show them that there is another way to go about this? Yes, the kiss was a blunt instrument, but it was there and the more that we show we are not afraid to embrace our LGBT citizens equally as a nation, the more the rest of the Commonwealth will see that to do so does not herald the start of an apocalypse.

If you were offended by John Barrowman’s kiss, for whatever reason, just take a moment to be grateful that he was free to make that gesture and that you live in a country that doesn’t curtail the human rights of its citizens, whatever their race, sexuality, gender or disability. I know I am.

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