British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s advisor on LGBTQ issues last week applauded his government’s efforts to help facilitate the successful evacuation of LGBTQ Afghans from the country.
“I’m very proud of the tremendous work that’s been done by the U.K. government,” Nick Herbert, a member of the British House of Lords, told the Washington Blade on Dec. 1 during an interview in D.C. “The U.K. has shown global leadership here.”
A group of 29 LGBTQ Afghans who Stonewall, Rainbow Railroad and Micro Rainbow evacuated from Afghanistan with the help of the British government arrived in the U.K. on Oct. 29. Herbert on Nov. 6 announced a second group of LGBTQ Afghans had reached the country.
“It took … a strong effort with different parts of government working together and the determination that this was really important and that people’s safety was at risk and also that we have a moral obligation to the communities affected,” said Herbert.
The Taliban entered Kabul, the Afghan capital, on Aug. 15 and regained control of the country.
A Taliban judge has said the group would once again execute people if it were to return to power in Afghanistan. Rainbow Railroad and Taylor Hirschberg, a researcher at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health who is also a Hearst Foundation scholar, and others have been working to help evacuate LGBTQ Afghans from the country.
Advocacy groups continue to urge the Biden administration to do more to help LGBTQ Afghans who remain in Afghanistan.
Herbert noted the British government has committed to grant asylum to 10,000 Afghans under the country’s “Operation Warm Welcome” that seeks “to ensure the Afghans who stood side by side with us in conflict, their families and those at highest risk who have been evacuated, are supported as they now rebuild their lives in the U.K.” Herbert stressed this program will “prioritize” LGBTQ people and other at-risk groups in Afghanistan.
“This shows the power of working together and governments working in partnership with NGOs to achieve something,” he told the Blade. “I fully recognize there were lots of citizens who remained in Afghanistan, and so nevertheless, I think it was very heartening to see that those Afghan citizens who are most at risk were brought to the center.”
Herbert said he expects more LGBTQ Afghans will be “brought to safety,” but he declined to provide a specific number.
Johnson raised LGBTQ rights crackdown with Hungarian prime minister
Herbert spoke with the Blade before he participated in the Victory Institute’s International LGBTQ Leaders Conference that took place in-person at the JW Marriott in D.C. from Dec. 2-4.
Johnson in May appointed Herbert as his LGBTQ rights advisor.
Herbert is the first person who officially advises a British prime minister on LGBTQ issues. The former House of Commons member also co-founded the Global Equality Caucus, a group of LGBTQ elected officials around the world who work to fight discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Herbert throughout the interview noted his government continues to champion LGBTQ rights.
The British government on World AIDS Day pledged more than £23 million ($30.5 million) in additional funding to efforts that seek to “achieve zero new HIV infections, AIDS and HIV related deaths in England” by 2030. The British government also announced it would move to allow people with HIV/AIDS to serve in the country’s armed forces.
“It’s a legacy discriminatory policy that has no basis in sound science any longer,” said Herbert, referring to the policy against people with HIV/AIDS in the British military. “It’s entirely safe for people to serve, and we think they should be free to do so.”
A public comment period on a bill that would ban so-called conversion therapy in England and Wales is underway. Herbert also expressed concern over the increasing backlash over efforts to expand rights to transgender people in the U.K.
“I’m troubled by the debate,” he said. “I recognize that … this is a that a complicated issue where you have an assertion of conflicting rights. But I don’t think it’s acceptable to see some of the sort of angry exchanges of language that has been seen over the course of the last few months.”
“It’s very damaging,” added Herbert.
Herbert noted to the Blade that Johnson rose Hungary’s anti-LGBTQ crackdown with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán when the two men met in May in London. Herbert also highlighted the British government in June will host a global LGBTQ rights conference that will coincide with London Pride’s 50th anniversary.
“The prime minister, by the way, has always been very ready to raise these issues, both when foreign secretary and now as prime minister, which is why I think he wants to hold this conference on the agenda,” said Herbert.
“We have to stand together with other countries to express our concern about what is happening,” he added. “We also must take a strong stance against culture wars, and I think governments joining in culture wars results in harm to citizens.”
U.K. has ‘historic responsibility’ for anti-LGBTQ laws in former colonies
Consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized in dozens of countries around the world, and many of them are former British colonies.
Then-Prime Minister Theresa May in 2018 said she “deeply” regrets colonial-era criminalization laws the U.K. introduced. Herbert spoke with the Blade two days after the Botswana Court of Appeals upheld a 2019 ruling that decriminalized consensual same-sex sexual relations in the country.
“We want to work with our partners in encouraging countries to try to change those laws,” Herbert told the Blade.
He stressed the British government has “to guard against any idea that we’re being so neocolonial,” while adding the U.K. has a “historic responsibility for these laws and their legacy.”
“The position we approach (with) this is one of respect where we, along with other countries, are encouraging decriminalization,” said Herbert. “We want to work with countries that will work with us to support them in that journey. We have to recognize that all countries have been on a journey.”
Herbert noted to the Blade that homosexuality was criminalized in the U.K. when he was born.
“We need to remember that other countries are different points of the journey, but it doesn’t all happen at once. And they have to make their own decisions on this and we have to encourage them to support them to do,” he said. “I don’t think that this is a case of Britain lecturing, certainly not a case of dictating. It’s a question of encouraging.”
Herbert also questioned the use of sanctions against countries that enact anti-LGBTQ laws.
The British government late last year sanctioned three Chechen officials who are responsible for the anti-LGBTQ crackdown in the semi-autonomous Russian republic that continues. Herbert described these sanctions as “justified,” but said the British government has “to be careful of blunt instruments that may backfire.”
“There can be different ways to make our feelings known and to encourage countries to do the right thing,” he said.