‘If you all agree with the question then we’ll have nothing to discuss.’[1] Thus spoke a bemused David Dimbleby on BBC’s Question Time in Belfast in January when faced with the exceptionally rare occurrence of a studio audience applauding in support of an issue almost unanimously. The topic in question was one that even a year ago I believe would have provoked a far more divided response: the legalisation of gay marriage. Northern Ireland is now the only part of the British Isles where gay marriage remains illegal, and as such is one of a diminishing group of territories around the world. Whatever one’s opinion on the matter, the words of one Question Time audience member do not appear exaggerated: Northern Ireland is not ‘moving with the times.’ So before we cast judgement on the next steps in Northern Ireland or anywhere in the world, this seems an opportune moment to remind ourselves about these ‘times’ and to look back on what has been a year of plate tectonics shifting around the world for LGBT rights as a whole.

First of all it is necessary to examine the term LGBT. It has become such a ubiquitous piece of jargon that, particularly for those of us who immerse ourselves in LGBT issues, it is easy to forget what it actually means. What is important to remember is that the term encompasses two very distinct ideas: groups of people who identify as non-heterosexual (LGB: lesbian, gay and bisexual) and those who identify as non-cisgender (T: transgender). “Cisgender” is a term applied to people who align themselves with the biological sex they were assigned at birth. The distinction between fluidity in sexuality and in gender has been one of the greatest progressions this year, as will be discussed in more detail. Many people prefer the term LGBTQ, adding “queer” or “questioning” as a separate identity. This is one of the fastest growing self-identified parts of the LGBTQ community. Other groups add an “I,” standing for “intersex.” In this article, LGBT will be used as it is the most normally accepted, but inclusion of these other groups should be implied. Discussion continues, additionally, over what exactly the T stands for: the term “transsexual” is not often used now as it implies privy knowledge of a person’s sexual organs. The more general “transgender” is more usually employed. Many members of this community to whom I have spoken prefer the catch-all “trans,” thus I will be referring to this group as such throughout. This article will discuss the progress in trans rights in 2015.

Thomas Hawk

Image courtesy of Thomas Hawk, © 2015, some rights reserved.

Firstly, however, the issue of gay marriage will be looked at in greater detail, particularly in terms of the social effects of various legal changes. Readers may know that 2015 was the year the Republic of Ireland decriminalised gay marriage; the keen-eyed may even have heard that the same is true of the Pitcairn Islands, a number of North American Indigenous Nations, several Mexican provinces and Luxembourg.[2] However, it is fair to say that almost everyone – except for anyone who has spent the last year living under a rock – will know that on 26 June 2015 the Supreme Court of the USA decreed[3] that refusing to grant same-sex marriage was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment, essentially making equal marriage legal across all fifty states of one of the most populous and influential countries in the world. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that both the public and the left-leaning media went wild with excitement. What had until recently been a relatively niche issue had become everyone’s celebration: Facebook users will remember, with various levels of cynicism, the rainbow filters added to many people’s profile pictures. There is nothing scientific in counting the colours on social media, but the support levels were clear. In the Republic of Ireland the issue was decided through a referendum, the first time that such a topic had been quite literally been put to the public vote. The sense of pride in Ireland was tangible: as Tom Curran, Fine Gael General Secretary put it: ‘We have gone back to the values of decency and honesty and treating everyone the same.’[4] This was a victory of the ordinary people. Supporting gay marriage had become, for lack of a better word, cool.

While this may have been predictable to a certain extent – after all, a number of other countries had legalised gay marriage in the last few years – what has been a more unprecedented journey in 2015 has been that of trans rights. 2015 saw, in the words of trans actress Rebecca Root, trans issues ‘come to the spotlight.’[5] This was the year that the US military allowed trans people to be open about their identity while serving in the army.[6] This was the year that the world realised that suicide rates amongst young trans people were, in almost every country, much higher than amongst their cisgender equivalents.[7] And, of course, this was the year of Caitlyn Jenner. She has been dismissed by many as attention-seeking, or as a single voice whose influence was overstated. Like her or loathe her, however, her influence cannot be exaggerated. While she was not the first person in the public attention to come out as trans, she was one of the first people to discuss the process so openly and publicly. Through social media, people could access her story from around the world. In December she was named Glamour Magazine’s Woman of the Year, the first time a trans woman had been honoured for any such high-profile award. Trans issues were being brought to the forefront: the “T” of LGBT was being noticed.

So far in this article I have focused on the progression of rights in Western countries. As of the end of 2015 homosexuality is still illegal in 79 countries around the world.[8] The horror stories we all read about the treatment of sexual minorities in countries such as Russia and Uganda by both the government and individual groups mean that whatever steps have been taken in 2015, it seems sometimes as if a losing battle is being fought. However, 2015 did see some small steps being taken in certain parts of the world that have arguably been overlooked by the Western media. Botswana, Kenya and Zambia all saw decisions in high courts that, while not going so far as to legalise homosexual acts, at least saw basic human rights in terms of identity being allowed.[9] The common theme of all the rulings, which pertained to specific cases, was exemplified by the ruling in Botswana, which said that only the acts are being criminalised: the state of being homosexual is not forbidden. This may seem like a difference purely of semantics, but compare this to a court in Uganda that as recently as 2014 imprisoned organisers of a workshop around LGBT rights; people who had not even identified as LGBT themselves. Obviously it is impossible and incorrect to compare the situation in these different countries with different histories, but the point still stands that values are evolving in some of the most historically anti-LGBT parts of the world. Governments and societies are at least acknowledging non-heterosexuality as something other than an illness, even if there is still prejudice against it. This is most clear in the Kenyan court ruling which saw the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission being acknowledged as a legitimate government agency.[10]

So if 2015 has seen in various parts of the world steps being taken in terms of rights and acknowledgment for the LGBT community, I would like to conclude by contending that 2015 actually saw the beginning of something more than that: an end to the common divisions of sexuality and sexual identity. This article has mentioned the different parts of the LGBT acronym, but a recent American study shows that the sexual identity most commonly identified with is “Q” – standing in this case for questioning.[11] Perhaps inspired by the how mainstream LGBT issues have become in the last few years – and particularly in 2015 – more and more people are questioning their own identity in a way that they never have before. I would argue that 2015 was the year that people started looking at their sexual identity as something less defined than ever before. People are ‘moving with the times,’ and it appears that they are happy about it. To quote the motto of the pro-gay marriage movement in the USA, it seems that love, if it has yet to actually win, is certainly winning.

[1] “BBC iPlayer,” last modified 21 January 2016, http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b06yms21/question-time-21012016

[2] “Quartz,” last modified 31 December 2015, http://qz.com/438526/countries-where-gay-marriage-is-legal-nationwide

[3] “Time,” last modified 26 June 2015, http://time.com/3937766/us-supreme-court-countries-same-sex-gay-marriage-legal/

[4] “BBC News,” last modified 23 May 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-32860527

[5] “Huffington Post,” last modified 14 December 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/12/14/transgender-rights-uk-caitlyn-jenner-transbritain_n_8777032.html

[6] “Advocate,” last modified 10 April 2015, http://www.advocate.com/politics/transgender/2015/04/10/meet-first-out-trans-soldier-us-military

[7] “Vocativ,” last modified 3 May 2015, http://www.vocativ.com/culture/lgbt/transgender-suicide/

[8] “76 Crimes,” last modified 3 December 2015, http://76crimes.com/76-countries-where-homosexuality-is-illegal/

[9] “Human Rights Watch,” last modified 5 August 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/08/05/africa-rulings-move-lgbt-rights-forward

[10] “New Statesman,” last modified on 25 August 2015, http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/08/there-are-signs-hope-lgbt-rights-africa

[11] “Springer Link,” last modified July 2013, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10508-013-0112-2/fulltext.html