Last Monday, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who has a long history of homophobic statements, made a strange declaration while addressing the United Nations General Assembly: “We … reject attempts to prescribe ‘new rights,’ that are contrary to our values, norms, traditions, and beliefs. We are not gays!” he declared, apparently ad-libbing the second sentence. According to Vox’s Max Fisher, Mugabe’s remarks elicited “audible laughter” from attendees.
At another U.N. event the next day, Mugabe’s utterance was vociferously denounced. At an animated meeting of the Core LGBT Group, the speakers—who included U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, former prime minister of Botswana Festus Mogae, and Pakistani human rights activist Hina Jilani—made impassioned pleas for the rights of LGBTI—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, and intersex—people to be recognized by all U.N. members.
Ban spoke of his pride in receiving the Harvey Milk Award for fighting homophobia and transphobia. “Looking at me, you would think I didn’t have much in common with Harvey Milk. I would never claim to be as courageous as he was,” he said. The secretary-general said that thanks to Milk and other activists, he had learned that speaking out about injustices was “a matter of life and death.” He also revealed that a private appeal to the president of Malawi had led to the release of a gay couple who had been imprisoned and sentenced to hard labor.
After the meeting I spoke with attendee Baroness Joyce Anelay, Britain’s minister of state for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, about how the United Nations can be more effective in fighting for the rights of LGBTI individuals around the world, why British embassies stopped flying the rainbow flag, and the evolution of Britain’s Conservative Party on gay rights.
To many of us outside the world of international diplomacy, it seems that the United Nations has a hard time getting anything done about the 78 jurisdictions in the world where homosexuality is criminalized. What’s your response to that?
This is a core question: Does multilateralism work? My answer is: If you don’t work together, you never get anything done, and therefore we’ve got to be able to hold each other to account. That’s what we do. Within the United Nations, there are states that need to be encouraged, states that need to hear from others why they need to change legislation. I’m very keenly conscious of the position with regard to the Commonwealth. It’s a matter of great regret, almost shame, I would have to say, that so many [members of the Commonwealth] still have legislation which criminalizes people who have same-sex relationships; that they prevent people from being who they are and even punish them. That’s not acceptable.
What can the U.K. government do about the 40 or more Commonwealth countries that criminalize homosexuality?
We are only one member. Having said that, we clearly have a strong voice, and it’s important we use it. Hugo Swire, the minister who has special responsibility for the Commonwealth, was about the only person last time around [at the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting] who raised the issue of LGBTI rights, and he did so very strongly. He does that when he travels to Commonwealth countries, so it’s a case of being not just persistent, but insistent wherever we go.
It was very striking to hear the secretary-general talk about his personal conversations with world leaders, and how in one particular case, some LGBTI people who had been locked up were freed. Do you find yourself having those personal conversations in off-the-record situations when the cameras aren’t rolling?
Yes, and I wish I had such a good news story as Ban Ki-moon, but then he is special. I think the important thing is first of all establishing confidence with the colleagues that you meet in other countries, and secondly, having your off-the-record—sometimes on-the-record—discussions about what it really means to a country to change its legislation. So often when you’re talking to colleagues, particularly in the Commonwealth, they say, Ah, but it was you colonialists who provided this legislation. My answer to that is it doesn’t mean to say we were right to do it then, and we’ve learned that’s not the way that society thrives. We’ve learned that everybody has rights and everybody matters. No matter who you are and whom you love, human rights really are for everyone.
I believe it was under your leadership that the U.K. decided to no longer fly the rainbow flag at British embassies overseas during Pride. How did that come about?
“Flying the flag” is a policy whereby we fly the flags of states. A decision was taken on one occasion several years ago to fly the rainbow flag, and it got stuck. But we’re excluding so many other groups by not flying everybody else’s flag. The fact is, the policy of our country has always been to fly national flags. We don’t, for example, fly Commonwealth flags on Commonwealth Day. So, what we did, in order to avoid discriminating against other groups, was simply say, let’s go back to where we were: Flying the flag means a country’s flag.
On the other hand, for example, when I came to New York in June. I arrived just too late to join our ambassador here on Pride Day. We weren’t flying the [rainbow] flag, but by golly he got the flag draped over the UK float, and had a great T-shirt on, so that was brilliant.
The rainbow flag is something of which everybody should be proud. It stands for something in which we should all have pride, but it’s not a country’s flag. That’s why it’s not on the top of a flagpole on a country’s building.
In Istanbul this year, when there was violence at the Pride march, some people said that seeing the rainbow flag on the British Embassy would make LGBTI people realize that this country supports you, this place will look out for you. How do you show that now?
I think we have the loudest voice possible. We don’t need a flag on an embassy in Istanbul. Our prime minister, our ministers, our ambassadors do tremendous work around the world. We say that if you discriminate against people because of their sexuality, then you’re wrong, and you’re destroying the security for your own community.
Did I see that British embassies around the world can perform same-sex marriages?
They can. In our embassies, they can perform same-sex marriages on the premises, provided the host country doesn’t object—so it’s not a case of we’re just going to do it without checking. On the other hand, I haven’t heard of any country saying no. It would also, I think, be very difficult for a host country to say no.
I know that you’ve been active in the Conservative Party for many years, and I’m curious about its evolution from being the party that introduced Section 28 to the party that brought equal marriage to Britain, albeit in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats at the time.
The Conservative Party has always considered itself a broad church. It reflects society as a whole. I’ve been an active member since 1976, and I knew from my own contacts with Conservatives where I live that they had very much an equal rights approach. And then I could see that there were some groups that didn’t, still within the Conservative Party. When same-sex marriage was being debated, I knew that it was going to get through the House of Lords, because by then I knew that the membership had changed their views and had come to appreciate fully the importance of human rights for everyone. In every single vote, the Conservatives voted for the bill. There was never a majority of Conservatives against it.
However, Northern Ireland still doesn’t have equal marriage. That’s a strange anomaly.
Yes, it is, and we are the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I find it such a matter of regret. I hope they think carefully. They’ve seen what’s happened in the Republic of Ireland. They’ve seen the way that we can mature, we can change.
Do you feel generally optimistic about the progress of LGBTI rights in institutions like the United Nations?
I do. I think the event we’ve just seen shows that this is an issue where people are enthusiastic. It’s not a case of small groups meeting quietly. There is enthusiasm; that’s infectious. We must keep that going, but never let one’s guard down.
This interview has been edited and condensed.