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World’s first openly gay high-court judge calls anti-gay laws ‘sexual apartheid’

International Bar Association holds gay session in Vancouver

The world's first openly gay high-court judge, Australia's Michael Kirby.

State-sanctioned violence against gay people around the world can run the gamut from executions to the results of ill-defined school bullying rules, an international legal conference in Vancouver heard on Oct 5.

“We are in the midst of a human rights crisis internationally with governments imprisoning and torturing people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity,” San Francisco lawyer David Lowe says.

“Millions are forced to live in fear and choose between living openly or going to prison or worse.”

Lowe spoke at the first session of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues Working Group of the International Bar Association conference.

The session brought together lawyers from countries such as Iran, Kenya, the Netherlands, Nigeria and England.

The consensus is that lawyers need to use their influence not only to push for changes to repressive laws enforced by anti-gay regimes but also to support and help protect lawyers who defend those being prosecuted.

The recent suicides of queer students in North America loomed large in the session.

Boris Dittrich, an MP in the Netherlands, says that young people have no choice but to go to school and that authorities have a duty to create safe environments.

“School districts, school boards, state legislatures need to have policies based on sexual orientation,” he says.

In Canada, BC could well fall into the category of a state that has failed in that responsibility. While 11 of BC’s 60 school districts now have anti-homophobia policies, they are not specifically required to do so by the province.

Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid has consistently rebuffed Xtra‘s attempts to discuss the issue.

Kenya’s Monica Mbaru of the International Lesbian and Gay Human Rights Commission says people should not be fooled into believing that some states are welcoming of queer people.

She says many persecuted queer activists flock to South Africa believing they will be safe. But, she says, if people disclose their sexual orientations, they will be singled out by immigration officials and denied asylum.

Much of the session was horrific, with details of violence, rape, execution and torture of gay, lesbian and transgendered people at the hands of government officials or by laws that allow others to perpetrate it.

“The sheer waste of state resources targeting people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity is increasingly creating concern,” Mbaru says.

The session also screened a video address from the world’s first openly gay high-court judge, Australia’s Michael Kirby.

He says laws persecuting men who have sex with men go further than persecution. They impede the work of health officials trying to combat the spread of HIV.

Many of the countries that still have anti-sodomy laws are Commonwealth countries relying on the common-law tradition, Kirby notes. Those nations using the legal tradition of the Napoleonic Code, such as Russia and Germany and the nations that have emerged from their empires, are not as restrictive, he says.

Kirby described the restrictive laws as “sexual apartheid” and “a particularly unlovely legacy of the English common law.”

“The age of sexual apartheid is over and we the lawyers are dedicated against it,” he says.