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Sir Ian McKellen on why we're Stronger In

Today is International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia. In other words, it is a day to raise awareness of the discrimination, which all too often leads to violence against LGBT people around the world. The day was chosen because it marks the historic decision to remove homosexuality from the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases, just 26 years ago.

Since then, many governments have accepted the justice of their LGBT citizens enjoying the  same rights as the rest of the population. Some 22 countries have followed the early lead of the Netherlands and Belgium and legalised same-gender marriage, including Britain (though not yet queerly, Northern Ireland).

Many more states have introduced civil unions. Italy did so last week. Laws are changing for the better: public perceptions too. Close to 80% of Britons now believe homosexuality is ‘acceptable', though elsewhere there remains institutionalised hostility. Old prejudices die hard.

It is alarming that in the Commonwealth, homosexual activity remains a criminal offence in 40 of the 53 member states, a shameful legacy of British colonial rule, ironically often now defended as a bulwark against the spread of our limp-waisted western culture: "There are no homosexuals in our country". In India, where next week I attend a gay film festival, a law decriminalising male homosexuality is still waiting to pass.

Encouragingly, Patricia Scotland, the new Commonwealth Secretary General, is urging dialogue among those member states that still criminalise and discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Kaleidoscope Trust, a far-sighted charity dedicated to promoting LGBT rights globally, has produced a report to help Commonwealth countries learn from each other in upholding the rights of their LGBT citizens. Other UK groups, like Stonewall, give discrete advice to activists in other parts of the world.

The European Union has played a crucial role in promoting LGBT rights to legal equality in Britain, across Europe and around the world. The EU’s guidelines for supporting human rights call for measures to end discrimination against all LGBT people. The EU funds local groups who are campaigning against homophobic and transphobic violence – many of them at great personal risk.

In Britain bad laws were gradually replaced with good ones and LGBT people won their rights. Hard-won uniquely amongst civil rights movements without any violence. Argument won the day.    

Stonewall UK was founded in 1989, by 10 declared lesbians and 10 openly gay men, to argue for legal and social equality for our kind - LGB to begin with and, of late, T. We faced a political establishment determined to implement anti-LGBT legislation and a mostly hostile or blinkered media. With straight allies in support, gay people fought their own fight.  My inspiration was the joy of coming out of my half-open closet, discovering commonality with my co-founders and wanting to release others, who were also criminalised by an ignorant status quo.

The same process of change is being replicated in many countries around the world. There are activists everywhere. Most dare not speak their name. Britain, working with our allies and partners in the European Community and the Commonwealth, can support and encourage in many ways.

Governments, charities, businesses, individuals, holiday-makers even, can collectively have an impact. The opposition from many quarters will be an ignorance, which can best be removed by gay people coming out of their closet or cupboard or ghetto, proud to say they are gay.

It will in the end depend on local activists. These are the brave ones, the honest ones, the oppressed ones, who make necessary an International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia.