Hidden Flags

5 July 2019

This time last year I wrote about why language matters and how as an LGBTQ ally it was my duty to speak up (#PrideMatters Minding my Ps and LGBTQs). What I’ve been thinking about this year in the run up to Pride 2019 is how much the ability to speak openly and freely is itself an important privilege.

The rainbow flag can be found in all sorts of places across London, from a British Airways rainbow wall at Heathrow, to the Sea Containers building whose river-front is covered in fluttering rainbow lights.  But that’s London, and whilst my colleague Emily rightly highlights some of its problems in her article of earlier this week, it is one of the more open and inclusive cities.

And therein lies the privilege.

There remain many countries where same-sex marriage or relationships are not recognised, but many more where the position is even bleaker:

  • In Brunei where the implementation of a law punishing gay sex or adultery by stoning was only suspended after an international backlash, and where the current punishment is up to 10 years imprisonment, even speaking up as an LGBTQ ally risks putting other people’s lives at risk.
  • In certain states in Nigeria same sex sexual activity is punishable by death and in Gambia it can result in life imprisonment. 
  • Russia has a law banning spreading “gay propaganda” to under-18s which can include something as seemingly innocuous as displaying the rainbow flag and can result in arrest.  There have been reports and allegations of abductions, imprisonment, torture and killings of people in the Chechen Republic based on their sexual orientation.

As such, the six LGBTQ activists who attended the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia and posed in famous settings wearing football shirts in the colours of the rainbow for a project called “the Hidden Flag” were doing more than just taking colourful pictures on location.  Instead they had come up with a creative way to send a message of support to LGBTQ people in Russia without necessarily putting themselves in danger.

So I would like to modify my position from last year.  Whilst I still strongly believe that language matters, and that those with privilege have an obligation to use it. However with great power comes great responsibility and sometimes words can put people in danger.  Sometimes support is best given silently, subtly or with fabulously coordinated outfits - [See BBC article - World Cup 2018: Smuggling the Pride flag into Russia]

About the author

Mary Young is a partner in Kingsley Napley’s Dispute Resolution team.  She is an active member of the firm’s Diversity and Inclusion and LGBTQ & Allies networks.

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