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12 Mar 2013

Debate over whether the new Commonwealth Charter covers gay rights

Media outlets have declared the Queen of England to support gay rights even as the new Commonwealth Charter she signed yesterday makes no mention of sexual orientation; the Commonwealth Secretariat clarifies the news to be an "interpretation that certain publications who have reported (it) have formed on their own."

Headlines last weekend in the UK and around the world praised Britain's Queen Elizabeth II for "fighting for gay rights" by signing the charter that sets out the Commonwealth's values and commitment to equal rights although the document itself makes no mention sexuality or sexual orientation.

Above: Britain's Queen Elizabeth II; Bottom: UK's The Mail newspaper's frontpage on Saturday

The Queen on Monday signed a new Commonwealth Charter that contains the following: "We are implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds."

The phrase "on other grounds" is said to include sexual orientation or gender identity, according to the UK's The Mail newspaper which declared on its frontpage on Saturday "Queen fights for gay rights". It quoted unnamed insiders who said "her decision to highlight the event is a ‘watershed’ moment – the first time she has clearly signaled her support for gay rights in her 61-year reign."

The report added: "The 'other grounds' is intended to refer to sexuality – but specific reference to 'gays and lesbians' was omitted in deference to Commonwealth countries with draconian anti-gay laws."

When contacted by Fridae, a spokesperson for the Commonwealth Secretariat said: “The notion that the Queen has pledged to promote gay rights is an interpretation that certain publications who have reported this have formed on their own.”

“The Commonwealth Charter speaks to the values and principles of the Commonwealth generally. It does not mention gay rights specifically, but rather human rights more broadly.”

A Palace spokesperson reminded the public: “The Queen does not take a personal view on these issues. The Queen’s position is apolitical, as it is in all matters of this sort.”  

The charter, which was drawn up for the first time, includes affirmations on democracy, human rights, international peace and security, and freedom of expression as well as a commitment to "gender equality" and “women’s empowerment”.

It was adopted by all 54 member states, which accounts for 30% of the world's population, in December.

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell told HuffPost UK that it was a "bit of a stretch" to see this speech and charter as a declaration in support of gay rights from the Queen.

"She's made no such explicit commitment and not used any such words."

"While I doubt that Elizabeth II is a raging homophobe, she certainly doesn't appear to be gay-friendly. Not once during her reign has she publicly acknowledged the existence of the LGBT community."

Tachell added: "Indeed, in her 61 years on the throne, the Queen has never publicly uttered the words lesbian or gay. She is a patron of hundreds of charities but none of them are gay ones. Not once has she visited or supported a gay charity."

Forty-one of the 54 Commonwealth countries including Singapore, Malaysia and Sri Lanka still criminalise homosexuality, mostly under laws imposed by Britain during the colonial era. Of the 54, two sentence gay people to death, one tortures them with flogging while five impose life sentences. Uganda, also a Commonwealth member country, is currently considering legislation that would introduce the death penalty for repeat “gay offenders”.

In his column “The Queen defending gay rights? She can't even say the words out loud” for the Guardian newspaper, Patrick Strudwick wrote: “By refraining from using the word gay or gay rights, the head of the Commonwealth will in fact silence opponents of equality!

“Fighting for gay rights? The Queen won't even mention them. She dare not speak our name – that is, if you believe she is even referring to gay people; if you buy the newspaper's inference that "other grounds" denotes an "implicit support of gay rights". “No, to refrain from specification is to collude with silence, the Grand Pause that keeps lesbians and gay men invisible, suffocating in marriages of inconvenience or trapped in police cells.”

Tim Marshall, Foreign Affairs Editor of Sky News wrote: “The Queen is not signing a new charter 'backing equal rights for women and gay people in every Commonwealth nation', despite headlines to the contrary.”

“The words "other grounds" are being seen by some as including sexuality. However, they can interpret it that way as much as they wish. The fact that "sexuality" is not spelled out will allow homophobic governments to retain laws currently used to suppress forms of sexuality they see as threatening.”

Reader's Comments

1. 2013-03-12 18:45  
I m very interested to know if Singapore will now stop deporting people with HIV, which goes against all human rights.I am confused about the above but only hope pressure can be bought on the Singapore govt to change their medieval attitudes.
2. 2013-03-12 20:16  
Don't everyone get too excited about this new Charter. There are still a lot of laws on the books in plenty of Commonwealth jurisdictions that proscribe certain activities between consenting adults. Nothing whatsoever in the new Commonwealth Charter encouragers states to abolish these statutes, because in the eyes of prosecutors they are laws against acts, and not people ... and therefore, in their recalcitrantly narrow view, they can still tell the plenary that they are not discriminating against people. In this nitpicking way, Singapore and a few other places are as much culprits in this sorry business as Uganda continues to be.
3. 2013-03-13 00:51  
How silly of the media. HRH was clearly heard to say she strongly supports "Queen's rights", not "queens' rights". What a difference an apostrophe makes!
4. 2013-03-13 05:09  
@3: heard?
Comment #5 was deleted by its author on 2013-03-13 05:10
6. 2013-03-13 10:58  
"Other grounds"? With not a single word used to even remotely suggest sexual orientation, she might as well be fighting against discrimination on the grounds of being a Justin Bieber fan.
7. 2013-03-13 12:01  
i don't get it?? i thought queen elizabeth and elton john were
sistas. i mean come on she knighted him right? surly, she must
realize that people like elton and even maybe some of her
relatives want a government document to "spell it out". maybe
she must realize that these old british laws are used in places
like singapore, maylasia, siri lanka and uganda(extremes religious
zelots) intimidate, discrimanate and persecute but hey, we
are not going away.
8. 2013-03-13 17:29  
Comment edited on 2013-03-13 17:44:23

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