The past 10 years have seen a stunning shift in global attitudes toward homosexuality. In Western Europe and throughout much of the Americas, the issue has gone from borderline taboo to largely accepted. Even in predominantly Catholic Latin America, legal same-sex marriage and non-discrimination protections are increasingly the norm.
This progress has been met with a backlash in other parts of the world. Since progress has been so fast and has taken place largely in the “West,” countries that have a complicated relationship with Europe and the US have doubled down on anti-homosexual practices and laws. The headlines about Russia’s new “anti-gay propaganda law” are indicative of that.
What follows is a report card of sorts on where different regions of the world stand when it comes to LGBT rights.* I’ll do my best to offer my own thoughts on why the situation is what it is in each region and look to the future at what we can expect over the next 15 years.
*The metrics I’m using to rate are: LGBT non-discrimination legislation, progress toward same-sex marriage, and the presence of expressly anti-LGBT ordinances.
Wikipedia Commons | Man is beaten during a Gay Rights rally in Russia.
The Russian model of decriminalizing homosexuality while at the same time passing discriminatory laws has proved to be a political winner for President Putin. This cannot be understood in a vacuum. He’s been able to use same-sex relationships as an example of the West encroaching on traditional Russian values; rhetoric that much of the population is familiar with. This plan of action has spread to many other former Soviet States, notably Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan both have similar laws pending.
Wikipedia Commons | A Chinese Lesbian couple poses for a picture.
Considering the vast size of Asia and it’s population, it’s hard to create a simple summary of the issue. China, for example, with it’s 1.3 billion people has relaxed its attitude in recent years. Although homosexuality was removed from the list of mental issues in 2001, discrimination has remained common. Encouragingly the past few years has seen this begin to abate. Just last month, a Beijing court ruled in favor of a defendant seeking damages from receiving forced electric shock therapy to “cure” him of his homosexuailty.
Telegraph.co.uk | Militants prepare to execute a suspected gay man by throwing him from a building.
The Middle-East, which has in recent history been a difficult place for the LGBT community, is on the brink of disaster in parts of the region due to the rise of ISIS. Males who have been found to have engaged in same-sex activity have been subject to execution. The above photo comes from ISIS propaganda and shows a crowd gathering to see gay men thrown to their deaths.
Wikipedia Commons | A gay pride march in Bangalore.
There are also interesting case studies in India and many countries in South-East Asia. For the purposes of this article they’re a bit too nuanced to try and put together a quick summary. For more info, check out this study Pew Research put together in in 2013.
Wikipedia Commons | New Zealand Parliament and administrative buildings.
New Zealand has risen to be a world leader on LGBT rights with both marriage and non-discrimination practices enshrined in law.
Flickr: Transparency International | A street protest in Papua New Guinea.
The same cannot be said for Papua New Guinea. A deeply Christian society (a holdover from the days of colonialism) there is no legal recognition for LGBT couples. Same-sex relationships are in fact expressly forbidden and come with a 12-year prison term. Although arrests are rare, there are no plans to change the policy and discrimination remains very common.
Australia is another interesting case. There has been vigorous campaigning (see the above video) for the better part of a decade for increased protections for LGBT people and for equal marriage. In 2013, an ordinance was passed banning discrimination against LGBT people but the fight for marriage stalled when the Liberal Party (who are ideologically conservative) came to power in 2013.
The Americas: B
Wikipedia Commons | NYC pride parade.
Progress has been swift toward LGBT inclusion across the Americas. In the United States, more than 70% of the population currently lives in States where same-sex marriage is legal. While there are far fewer States that offer discrimination protection, it seems likely that there will be full legal equality for Gay and Lesbian couples in the next few years.
Wikipedia Commons | Parade in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Another fascinating case is in Argentina. Although predominantly Catholic, LGBT people have enjoyed increasing recognition and protection since the early 90’s. With equal marriage enshrined in law since 2010, Argentina has been leading the way in Latin America toward equality.
Wikipedia Commons | Protest over proposed Ugandan anti-gay law.
African nations have made headlines over the past few years for draconian anti-gay laws. Recent years has seen a crack-down on homosexual behavior in countries like Uganda, Nigeria, and Gambia. The threat from these laws are not just arrest: they also represent a marked increase in extra-legal attacks against the community. A climate of fear has been created in many of these countries that is undermining both international human rights ordinances, as well as the fight against diseases like HIV/AIDs.
Wikipedia Commons | Al Rifa'i Mosque (right) and Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan (left) in Cairo, Egypt.
In Egypt, while there is no official anti-gay law on the books, the Sisi government have begun to crack down on the LGBT community using decades old “public-decency” laws. Last year, a group of men were brought to trial after being suspected of attending a same-sex wedding. Although charges were later dropped, it does represent a disturbing trend.
Wikipedia Commons | 3 people march in a gay pride in Johannesburg, South Africa.
It’s important to note though that it’s impossible to paint the entire continent with the same brush. While there are notable challenges in parts of Central and North Africa, South Africa has been a world leader in gay rights. Thanks to the legacy of Nelson Mandela, an ardent gay-rights supporter, the local LGBT community has enjoyed many legal protections. SA was the first country in the world to have an inclusive anti-discrimination law explicitly on the books. Same-sex marriage has also been legal in the country since 2006.
Flickr: William Murphy | Preparing for a pride parade in Dublin, Ireland.
Europe has a reputation for being an inclusive place for LGBT people. 12 countries have legalized same-sex marriage and same-sex activity is technically legal across the continent. Unfortunately, anti-discrimination laws are at best a patch-work, and violence against LGBT people is still common in much of Eastern Europe.
Wikipedia Commons | Violence erupts at a pride march in Serbia.
The Balkans are a good example of this. Although same-sex activity is legal, pro LGBT demonstrations have been met with violence across the region. In Serbia in particular, anti-gay violence is common. Some of this has to do with traditional Orthodox Christian values and partly to do with the country’s historic ties with Moscow.
Around the world, the movement toward full equality for gays and lesbians is piecemeal and scattered. But let me be clear: this is not just a human rights issue. Stalling progress will have real, measurable consequences on the fight to end extreme poverty. Hillary Clinton in her 2011 speech to the UN in Geneva sums up this reasoning nicely:
“...in all countries, there are costs to not protecting [LGBT] rights, in both gay and straight lives lost to disease and violence, and the silencing of voices and views that would strengthen communities, in ideas never pursued by entrepreneurs who happen to be gay. Costs are incurred whenever any group is treated as lesser or the ‘other,’ whether they are women, racial, or religious minorities, or the LGBT. Former President Mogae of Botswana pointed out recently that for as long as LGBT people are kept in the shadows, there cannot be an effective public health program to tackle HIV and AIDS.”
While in “The West,” there is reason to hope that full legal equality is just around the corner, let’s make sure that hope doesn’t translate into complacency. There are people all over the world for whom the situation is getting worse, not better. It’s our role as global citizens to stand together with those who are fighting for their rights because when someone doesn’t have the opportunity to be who they truly are, we all lose.