At the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London, LGBTQ rights was not on the agenda, even though the Commonwealth — a group of over 50 nations, most of which are former British colonies — contains 36 states that criminalize same-sex activity. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada still found a way to make sure queer equality wasn't ignored by taking a meeting with LGBTQ activists, known as the Commonwealth Equality Network, to discuss their struggles, and how Canada could help them.
The meeting is noteworthy because, if followed up with effective action, Canada can play an important role promoting global LGBTQ rights, especially given U.S. regression on the issue.
This would not be the first time Canada defended LGBTQ rights in Commonwealth states.
In 2012, Canada’s government publicly admonished Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Bill in front of the speaker of Uganda's parliament. Though well-intentioned, those remarks contributed to a narrative that Western leaders were lecturing foreign societies about values, prompting the government to direct its actions out of the spotlight. British Prime Minister David Cameron similarly ran into hot water when he threatened to withhold aid to countries that did not improve their LGBTQ rights.
Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Bill was eventually struck down by its courts in 2014, on a technicality. That happened not because of harsh words ringing from Western capitals, but because front-line activists — lawyers and civil society organizations — engaged in tireless campaigns. Similarly, when Belize's Supreme Court overturned that country's anti-sodomy law, it was because Belizeans took to the courts. The same is true for Trinidad and Tobago. Today, courts in Kenya and India are considering challenges to those countries' anti-sodomy laws, all led by local organizations.
Which brings us to the Prime Minister's meeting in London. "Canada," the Prime Minister wrote, "will always be a voice and an ally for LGBTQ2 people." The question for the Prime Minister is how.
When I asked Caleb Orozco, whose legal challenge overturned Belize’s anti-sodomy laws, that question, his suggestions were simple: use Canadian resources and capital to better enable local activists to mount campaigns and legal challenges.
He called for Canada to "have an active role in setting up legal programs between University law clinics and LGBT civil society organizations in the Commonwealth." He stressed the need to "build legal and political capacity" so local groups could better advocate before their elected officials and neighbours about the imperative to respect and improve LGBTQ rights.
Another of his requests was for Canada to invite LGBTQ activists to attend international or regional summits, which he called "spaces of power," to provide activists opportunities for engagement with decision-makers they would not otherwise have.
These suggestions will not lead to a headline recording how the Prime Minister stood at the podium before his peers to condemn their prejudices and intolerance; a loud proclamation of Canadian values on the world stage.
Instead, there will be quiet acts. Workshops facilitated, resources provided, and maybe even Canadian law students offering research for a court brief. And while that may not provide the same immediate gratification as being able to say we rose boldly to defend our values in the faces of intolerance, the past decade has shown us that the most effective change is first and foremost local. Our job as Canadians is to support and enhance those efforts, not supplant them.
In London, Trudeau sided publicly with the Commonwealth Equality Network and the furtherance of LGBTQ rights. In the picture he shared of their meeting, his shirt sleeves are rolled up. Now is the time to get to work.
JOSH SCHEINERT is a lawyer and author of the novel The Order of Nature, which explores a same-sex relationship in Gambia, one of 36 Commonwealth nations that criminalizes homosexual activity.