I was deeply honoured to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Kaleidoscope Trust at the end of 2022 and it made me reflect. I don’t like looking back usually but history matters and this was a rare occasion.
The award means a lot to me because of my respect for Kaleidoscope’s achievements since it was established in 2011. Dedicated as it is to ending sexuality and gender-based discrimination, it is an organisation that also recognises the Commonwealth’s responsibility to address the issues.
The Trust identified with the call from LGBTI+ people from the global south to be active participants in the discussion on equality that needs to take place – in the Commonwealth and elsewhere. The Trust helped to establish The Commonwealth Equality Network (TCEN). In 2017, TCEN gained accreditation to the Commonwealth – becoming the first Commonwealth organisation to fly the flag for LGBTI+ equality.
Me with colleagues from TCEN and supporters in 2019
I joined the Commonwealth in 2006 – as the Deputy Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation, which is the Commonwealth’s agency for civil society. The organisation’s name might suggest that it is an NGO. In fact, it is governed and funded by Commonwealth governments, most of which make an annual contribution to the Foundation so that it can broaden and strengthen people’s participation in the Commonwealth’s work. But each of those governments brings its own perspective and priorities to the Commonwealth. When it came to discussing an inclusive Commonwealth – opinions differed.
One of my first responsibilities was to bring civic voices to the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). In 2007 this took place in Kampala and working with Ugandan organisations we made space for LGBTI+ film and discussion at the Commonwealth People’s Forum (CPF), which took place in the wings of CHOGM. Delegates to the CPF developed a statement that was presented to governments attending CHOGM. This called on governments to “include issues concerning minority rights, such as the rights of indigenous peoples, gay and lesbian people, people with disabilities, and refugees on the Commonwealth agenda.”
It might seem like a small thing today, but at the time we celebrated. We did so because, for the first time, people were visible and recognised on a Commonwealth agenda. That was to become our focus - to find ways to keep people on the agenda even in the most difficult of circumstances. When I was appointed Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation in 2012, I determined to continue this work – with fulsome support from the Foundation’s staff (and Myn Garcia as Deputy Director-General in particular) and successive Chairs of the Board (notably Sir Anand Satyanand), we focussed on providing Commonwealth platforms for LGBTI+ voices from the global south. We built on work done by others working within the Commonwealth system – including supportive governments, the Royal Commonwealth Society and the Commonwealth Lawyers Association alongside writers, filmmakers, and civil society advocates.
That coalition of organisations and individuals shared a view that the Commonwealth has a responsibility to address issues left behind by a hostile colonial past. A past with its laws and penal codes that link to a present where 35 of the 56 Commonwealth member states criminalise same-sex intimacy. The Commonwealth can’t solve the problems that era left behind, but it is well-placed to be part of the solution. Its narrative emphasises inclusion, its methods are based on dialogue and its forums enable the sharing of experiences.
This award could have been shared with many people and organisations. This surely means that I am not alone in looking forward to seeing Kaleidoscope and TCEN continue to address this colonial legacy, sure in the knowledge that they will be on the right side of history.