Written by Prof Christine Bell
Recently I visited the ‘Homomonument’ memorial in Amsterdam which commemorates the many gay and lesbian people persecuted by the Nazis. Estimates of those killed in Nazi concentration camps range from 5000 to 15000. In most countries this dimension of the holocaust went unacknowledged, and gay men were even rearrested sometimes on the basis of Nazi evidence. It was only in 2002 that Germany apologised and pardoned those convicted in that period, but only in 2017 did it pardon gay men convicted under Nazi era laws more generally. Standing at the monument served as a reminder also that in times of conflict, LGBT communities are often targeted in violent attacks in particular ways. Furthermore, awareness is now increasing that peace processes and post-conflict environments, almost without exception, fail to address LGBT security or consider what peace would look like for LGBT people.
During these 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence, it is worth highlighting how persecution of LGBT people is often bound up with conflict violence in a myriad of ways and LGBT communities often make distinctive and important contributions to peace processes. In the early 1990s, during the conflict in Northern Ireland, I conducted some interviews with gay men and lesbian women, on police harassment for human rights research project (McVeigh, ‘Harassment – Its Part of Life Here’, 1992), which was to feed into police reforms as part of the eventual peace process. ‘Homosexuality’ had remained illegal in Northern Ireland long after 1967, when it was legalised in the rest of the United Kingdom, in part due to the conservative social culture, and in part because of the unwillingness for the UK government to legislate for Northern Ireland even when it directly held power there. It was not until 1981 when a European Court of Human Rights case brought by a gay man, forced a change in the law (The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act). This was the law under which the poet and playwright Oscar Wilde was convicted in 1895 – coincidentally Wilde grew up in Northern Ireland – and whose provisions still apply to make abortion illegal in Northern Ireland. A similar case before the ECHR against the Republic of Ireland in 1988, saw a law change South of the border.
The interviews made clear that, in addition to the difficulties, and often violent consequences that came with being a gay person in a very conservative society, were the specific threats that emanated from ‘the troubles’ (as Northern Ireland’s conflict was euphemistically called). People’s sexuality was routinely used against them. For example, in instances of police harassment, sexuality was often focused on as a ‘vulnerability’, and in particular with regard to people from Catholic/Nationalist/Republican communities, to be used to push people to become ‘informers’. Informing was in itself a lethal activity given that informers were routinely killed by the IRA. The ‘hypermasculinised’ culture of the troubles, coupled with a conservative social climate, meant that socialising as a gay person was very difficult, although the few spaces that did exist often transcended Northern Ireland’s other class and religious divisions. When a book was published with anonymous contributions on those from a Protestant background who did not ‘fit’ in the traditional ‘Unionist’ box allocated them, some of the most interesting accounts were from gay men (Hyndman ‘Further Afield’ 1992). They told of lives lived in complex navigation around Northern Ireland’s sectarian divisions, its violent religious ‘interfaces’, and its rigidly and violently policed gender boundaries. A long story could be told of the complex relationships of both Unionism/Loyalism and Nationalism/Republicanism with ‘homosexuality’ but remains to be written.
In the contemporary academic conflict literature, gender violence against gay people is rarely discussed, although this is beginning to change. Yet it is a feature of many identity conflicts, where concepts of ‘ethno-national belonging’ often include concepts of ‘the purity of the nation’ in ways that are used to police gender boundaries and reinforce violent attitudes not just towards women but also towards LGBT people. Many more conflicts than that in Northern Ireland have produced ‘hypermasculinised’ dimensions to conflict which has been visited on LGBT communities.
Also rare, is the addressing of any of these issues in peace processes and agreements. In a research project – the Political Settlement Research Programme (www.politicalsettlements.org), based at the University of Edinburgh, we have collected a very broad set of peace agreements, from pre-negotiation agreements through comprehensive agreements, through to implementation agreements and coded them for the issues addressed. This database is fully publicly available and searchable (www.peaceagreements.org). Between 1990 and 2015 out of over 1500 peace agreements, only nine referred in any way to sexual orientation. Six of these references are positive in the sense of providing rights, and three were negative – reinforcing prohibitions on same sex marriage for example or making ‘homosexuality’ illegal. In 2016 the Colombian peace agreement between the FARC and the Colombian government was ground breaking in the way it addressed LGBT rights and concerns. However, this agreement was narrowly rejected in a popular referendum, in part due to the opposition of religious groups who resisted what they saw as a ‘gender ideology’ in which LGBT rights were implicated. In the months that followed, tweaks to the agreement were made, until a new version was adopted some months later and, among other changes, the LGBT commitments and language were significantly reduced. Despite a well-established ‘Women, Peace and Security’ agenda underwritten by UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which mandates that peace agreements adopt a ‘gender perspective’, there has been little or no discussion of how a gender perspective should understand and include LGBT communities and perspectives.
Yet LGBT communities and individuals are often critical to the search for peace. Working behind the scenes in the Northern Irish peace process, it was clear to me that gay people were very significant in party structures and at the heart of the political negotiations. Some found room within their party to be out, others did not. How much was this contribution networked and understood as a ‘gender /gap perspective’ on the peace process? Not much. But there was sometimes a form of silent acknowledgement of the contribution of key gay individuals to the moderation of views within key political parties, although rarely causing a structural shift in party positions or attitudes.
Within civil society, LGBT communities were a key constituency pushing for a just peace based on equality and human rights. LGBT groups played a significant role in the peace process on their own, and as part of broad-based equality alliances that were responsible for many of the human rights and equality provisions of the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement (although the ‘single equality Act’ promised in the peace process was never finalised). In the years after the Agreement, there were some breakthroughs – a major report aimed to give Lesbian and Bi-sexual women a voice in equality debates, and broke new boundaries by being launched in Stormont, the seat of the new Northern Irish Assembly, with cross party support (‘A Mighty Silence’ Marie Quiery 2002). There is today some more space for being gay than when I was growing up, and a range of organisations now fill the spaces created by the brave but often lone spokespersons of eras before. But progress is frustratingly slow, and life as a young LGBTI person remains challenging (a report whose release was for a time blocked by the DUP Education minister, showed that 2:3 pupils did not feel welcome in Northern Ireland’s schools). A survey of LGBT rights and experiences across Europe in 2017 found that Northern Ireland was ‘the worst place to be gay’.
While there were some equality gains from the peace process, the peace process and resultant power-sharing mechanisms, also helped bring about regressive outcomes on LGBT rights. Under power-sharing, and backed up by a socially conservative Attorney General for Northern Ireland, many progressive measures were routinely blocked or challenged. Same sex adoption was resisted, with the (new) Attorney General also stretching the limits of his role to intervene, in line apparently with his own religious views, against same sex adoption in the European Court of Human Rights. Same sex marriage remains prohibited, even though legalised in the rest of the UK and in Ireland. The Democratic Unionist Party (currently crucial to the current UK government remaining in power) has a track record of regressive policies including trying to ban blood donations from gay men .
A report ‘Reimaging Inclusive Security in Peace Processes: LGB&T Perspectives’, authored by Fidelma Ashe of University of Ulster, and shortly to be produced by the Political Settlement Research Programme (www.politicalsettlements.org), interestingly returns to the issue of LGBT security. Based on research in Northern Ireland, this report reveals a situation where LGBT communities still feel insecure. Even new generations are affected by some of the historic distrust of institutions such as police, with respect to past actions. It is clear that security has not been defined and implemented with LGBT experiences in mind. The report contains useful recommendations for how the security of LGBT communities could be addressed in future peace negotiations. The report will be available in mid-December at www.politicalsettlements.org.
Christine Bell is a Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Edinburgh. She is also the Director of the Political Settlements Research Programme and the Assistant Principal for Global Justice.