I tend to think of sex as an act of love. I'm not naïve enough to think that all sexual activity is motivated by love, nor am I judgmental enough to suggest that sex that is driven more by lust than love is wrong, but the act itself can be an exquisite expression of giving, sharing and togetherness. It can be beautiful and affirming and one of the most wonderful parts of being human.
Which is why it blows my mind that people can be criminalised for having consensual sex if they happen to be of the same gender.
In the West, homosexuality has been largely decriminalised for a few decades, but elsewhere, the act of same-sex lovemaking can land you in a cell (or worse, a coffin). In Malaysia this week, a lesbian couple were fined and publicly caned (yes, caned) after being discovered "attempting to have lesbian sex" in a car in April. The case made headlines around the world, presenting a disturbing reminder that the fight for basic LGBTQ rights is still raging in many countries.
Sexual activity between people of the same sex is illegal in Malaysia, as it is in many Asian, Middle Eastern and African countries. There are 72 countries worldwide where homosexual sex is criminalised in some way. In some places, the punishment for sex acts between same-sex couples is death.
It's something that I'm ashamed to admit I didn't give much thought to before I came out. When you're part of the straight community, consensual sexual activity doesn't generally cause legal headaches. In most places, consensual heterosexual sex is considered a private matter, outside of the purview of the law.
Here in New Zealand, most of us are likely aware that LGBTQ people face dangerous persecution in some countries overseas, yet probably give little thought to it most of the time. When stories of state-sponsored violence against LGBTQ people hit the media, however, we're presented with abrupt reminders that it is not safe to be queer in many places around the world.
When I read the story about the lesbian couple in Malaysia it gave me a shock, for which I then felt guilty. As someone who has only recently come out, I know that I've been guilty of taking the rights I enjoy in New Zealand somewhat for granted. Allowing people to love who they love, regardless of gender, seems like such a no-brainer to me that I sometimes forget the enormous battle that took place in order for me to be who I am.
As a young (or youth-adjacent) member of the rainbow community, I have much to be grateful for. Here in New Zealand, the older generations of the LGBTQ community fought for the rights that I now don't have to give a second thought to. Without their struggle and sacrifice, I doubt we'd be where we are today.
And we're a lot more advanced than many. As a Kiwi, I am thankful for our generally fairly reasonable societal discussions around sexuality. Across the Ditch in Australia this week, new Prime Minister Scott Morrison agreed that high school students engaging in a role-playing exercise that involves bisexual and lesbian characters makes his "skin curl", slammed teachers trained to recognise trans students, calling them "gender whisperers", and told reporters that so-called conversion therapy (which aims to "convert" people from gay to straight – a practice that has been defined as torture by the UN - in Australia was "not an issue" for him.
This after the rainbow community in Australia was recently forced to endure a plebiscite on marriage equality that brought bigotry and hatred into the public arena, aided by generously funded anti-LGBTQ campaigns. Like many other things, the state of LGBTQ acceptance in Australia makes me very grateful to be a New Zealander.
The protections we have in Aotearoa, however, can fall away as soon as we step on a plane. One of the most mind-boggling realisations I had when I came to terms with my sexuality was that a number of destinations had effectively been crossed off my travel list. I actually travelled to Malaysia in my late teens and performed a concert there. I wouldn't be doing that – at least with a female partner in tow – now.
Nor will I be going to Egypt, Kenya, India, the Maldives, Qatar, Dubai, or the Solomon Islands (all places I'd quite like to go) without fear. It's worth pointing out that the list would be longer if I were male, as there is a strange double standard in a number of countries, where lesbian acts are technically legal, while gay male acts have been criminalised. Planning intrepid holidays can be a real headache when your sexuality is still seen to be immoral or even demonic in some places.
As much as we like to think that we live in an enlightened and progressive time, we still have a long way to go. From Australia to Malaysia and beyond (and let's just say, legally speaking, that being gay in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Brunei, Iran, Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria, and Somalia would be extremely frightening) there is plenty of ground to be gained.
As an international community, our advocacy is incredibly important. Just because the battle is largely won here, doesn't mean we should forget the struggle of LGBTQ communities offshore.
Love may be love here in New Zealand, but overseas love may be a prison or a death sentence.