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Op-ed: Can All of the World’s LGBT People Be Free?

Op-ed: Can All of the World’s LGBT People Be Free?


Here in the UK we may be on the point of achieving marriage equality nationwide, and from a government of the center-right. In many parts of this country it is still very tough to grow up gay, but compared to what we know of other areas of the world, where just to be gay is to be in daily danger, we are very lucky.

I sat in a bar last October with one of the founders of Stonewall, the organization that did so much to win us our rights in Britain. By the end of the evening we decided we couldn't just celebrate our own success. Concern for human rights doesn't stop at your country's borders and the fight was now an international one.

Progress in Britain has been remarkable, both in terms of legislation and social attitudes. We knew the challenge of bringing change to some of the most homophobic countries on earth would be much tougher. It wasn't our job to tell them how to do it, but if there was anything we could do to help encourage a shift in public and political opinion, we believed it was our duty to do so.

Just over a decade ago I had the privilege of working for the recently-elected British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. I was a media adviser inside 10 Downing Street. It was a little bit like the West Wing but without the glamour. I used to kid myself I was doing for real what Rob Lowe was doing on television.

I hadn't expected my sexuality to have anything much to do with my new job. Up until then I'd been a BBC journalist, and being gay was neither here nor there. The BBC is a splendidly liberal institution. But the British newspaper media doesn't have the same reputation. The tabloids in particular, or most of them, were consistently homophobic.

Blair's government included more out gay ministers than ever before. Well, if we'd had only one it would have been more than any previous administration, and we had six or seven. The famously shrill Sun, owned by Rupert Murdoch, ran a headline demanding to know "Are We Being Run By a Gay Mafia?"

The government I was proud to serve decided, on this issue at least, to defy tabloid opinion and do what was right. We equalized the age of consent, abolished quickly and painlessly the ban on gays in the military, and introduced a raft of equality measures. Public opinion had moved on faster than the media realized until even the Sun said it would stop outing people against their will.

Ten years later, I and many others started private discussions like the one in the bar that night about what had been achieved but also what was so obviously left to do. Sure, homophobia wasn't history. But most of us were enjoying new freedoms and a new sense of belonging in society.

Then I went away on holiday with my partner, James, to Australia and the South Pacific. Backpacking in the beautiful but often primitive islands of Vanuatu, I kept thinking about our conversation. I was going to change the world, take on the malign influence of hate-preaching evangelicals and free every gay man and woman from the shackles of persecution. Actually, no. Working for Tony Blair I had been tutored in the politics of the possible, securing change that will last by bringing people along with you. Dialogue rather than confrontation.

The task appeared so huge that I was nervous of talking to friends about it when I got back. I feared they'd say I was absurdly idealistic, that I had ignored the immensity of the task and the improbability of ever getting anywhere in the face of such deeply embedded cultural hostility in so many parts of the world.

Instead the most common reaction was, "Yes, this should have been done long ago." "Why doesn't something like this exist already?" "You should do it. I'll support you." And so the idea grew, and grew quickly. Having worked in journalism and politics at a fairly senior level, I was able to speak to people in positions of influence and power. Judging by their words, at least, it seemed all parties were now united on the issue of LGBT rights.

Big questions remained. Were there enough volunteers ready to do the hard work to turn an idea into reality, and in difficult economic times would people be willing to contribute to an organization that isn't about advancing our rights but those of others, many of them a long way away?

On the first question, I need not have worried. Lots of people offered their time and energy and in the space of little more than six months we turned an idea into a reality. We had letters of support from the new prime minister, David Cameron, and the leaders of all major parties in Great Britain. The Speaker of the House of Commons immediately agreed to be our honorary president and on September 13, he hosted a reception for our launch in his august State Rooms at Westminster.

In my introductory speech, I expressed my gratitude that such a consensus had formed but said that when I could brandish letters from the 79 countries that still make being gay a crime, including more than two-thirds of the nations in the Commonwealth, then we could have a real party.

I will never be able to do that. But we can make progress so the next generation can at least start to live that dream. Because wherever and whenever progress has been made it is because brave individuals stood up against the prevailing cultural attitudes of their societies at the time.

There are brave people right now in every corner of the world. If the second question, of whether people care about those they cannot see and will never meet, becomes a yes, and if people are willing to continue giving generously to help others enjoy the rights that so many of us now take for granted, then the Kaleidoscope Trust can help those men and women feel a little less isolated and a little less scared. That, to me, will show we were right to try.

LANCE PRICE is Director of the Kaleidoscope Trust. If you'd like to help in its work, please visit the group's website,

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