The Shifting Global Terrain of LGBTQ Rights

This year, and especially this month, events and celebrations in countries around the world are marking the growing acceptance of people who identify as LGBTQ.

Posted Updated
Queer Love in Color
Tanya Mohn
, New York Times

This year, and especially this month, events and celebrations in countries around the world are marking the growing acceptance of people who identify as LGBTQ.

Some, like New York City and San Francisco, are splashy and spectacular. Others, like Lexington, Kentucky, and Bilbao, Spain, are much more modest, even wary, but they are still celebrations.

There are other places in the world, however, where acceptance of people in the LGBTQ community has been slower, or has shown no signs of progress at all.

Julie Dorf, co-founder and senior adviser of the Council for Global Equality in San Francisco, said the 193 U.N. member states were sharply divided.

“In a glass half-full representation, the consensus is definitely one that is slowly bending toward one of equal rights and inclusion of LGBTQ people,” she said, “and yet the world is increasingly either in that camp or in a fairly opposite camp — with not a lot in between.”

But, she added: “I don’t think other countries will join the Russias and Egypts of the world that have an intentional homophobic agenda.”

For example, she said, in Belize, activists who struggled over many years to decriminalize same-sex intimacy and experienced extreme hostility and even death threats, were now being courted by the government. “It’s an amazing transformation, it’s a model for the Caribbean,” Dorf said.

Here are some recent trends from around the world:

— Moving Toward Recognition

Efforts to decriminalize same-sex activity are expected in coming months in a number of countries, including Botswana, India, Kenya and Trinidad and Tobago.

In Botswana, one of several countries with laws from British colonial era rule, a hearing is imminent that will challenge a law banning same-sex sexual activity that can result in up to seven years in prison.

Anna Mmolai-Chalmers, coordinator of Legabibo, a member of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, or ILGA, in Botswana that co-hosted the Pan Africa ILGA regional conference in Gaborone this month, said the success of a recent suit granting a transgender man the right to change his name and gender on official documents might serve as a precedent.

“We are hopeful,” Mmolai-Chalmers said. “It’s the right environment, the right time. But progress hasn’t been without a fight, without sweat and blood. If we win, it will be a milestone achievement. Living with dignity is a right for all human beings.”

Tunisia formally accepted a recommendation to end the practice of forced examinations to “prove” same-sex sexual conduct. And in Taiwan, marriage equality has come closer to becoming a reality than anywhere else in Asia, according to the ILGA, a Geneva-based group that enjoys consultative status at the United Nations and lobbies for LGBTG equality on behalf of more than 1,300 member organizations in 141 countries.

In Bermuda on June 6, the Supreme Court ruled to overturn the nation’s recent same-sex marriage ban. The move amounted to a reversal of a reversal, as the ban was passed about a year after a previous Supreme Court ruling first allowed marriage equality.

India is in the midst of one of the biggest turnarounds. An 1860 colonial law that criminalized same-sex relations as unnatural remained in effect in independent India until 2009 when the Delhi High Court annulled it. In 2013, the Supreme Court overruled that judgment and recriminalized same-sex relations. Arundhati Katju and Menaka Guruswamy, both lawyers, are representing dozens of petitioners in cases that challenge the constitutionality of the law.

The reversal “was a rude shock,” Katju said. “The 1860 law obstructs citizens from being able to enjoy rights that the constitution grants. The fear of prosecution, the fear of the consequences that follow,” she said, came at great cost to the mental and physical health of LGBTG citizens. The petitioners range from well established city professionals to economically diverse students from around the country, some from very traditional backgrounds. The current law “is saying very loudly that LGBTQ people are criminals,” Guruswamy said. Participating in the public lawsuits, she said, “takes raw courage.”

“This is a big moment,” Guruswamy said of the review that was expected to take place in July before the Supreme Court. “This is the world’s largest constitutional democracy. Recognizing the LGBTQ community reflects the idea of India fought for by generations of Indians,” she said. “The time has come.”

— Hostility Toward LGBTQ Individuals

Around the world, LGBTQ people still face harsh laws and brutal treatment.

In Azerbaijan in 2017, police conducted a violent campaign, arresting and torturing transgender women and about 80 men presumed to be gay or bisexual.

In Uganda, police raided and forcibly closed the Queer Kampala International Film Festival at the end of 2017 with no formal legal basis, the latest in a series of attacks and crackdowns on pride events.

In Indonesia, LGBTQ people have been targeted with hateful rhetoric from government officials, attacks on human rights defenders, raids on lesbian-owned houses and private gay clubs, and unlawful arrests. Transgender women were stripped, beaten, and had their heads shaved.

This rash of anti-LGBTQ incidents, tracked by the ILGA, is only a sampling of recent human rights violations around the world, the group said.

“They can fine people, imprison people, and even kill people,” in some countries today, said André du Plessis, a human rights lawyer and executive director of the ILGA.

Overall, du Plessis said, the global LGBTQ movement had made huge strides. “We’ve seen a lot of exciting changes,” from decriminalized same-sex relations in some countries to public apologies and marriage equality in others. “Progress has been slow but steady.”

But there are still about 72 countries where same-sex sexual activity is criminalized, and the death penalty, while not always invoked, exists in about a dozen countries for people who engage in same-sex sexual relations, according to the ILGA, which publishes annual reports that detail the world’s sexual orientation laws and maps that chart where criminalization, protection and recognition laws are enacted.

— Laws vs. Acceptance

In Samoa, Fa’afafine and Fa’atama, the equivalent of LGBTQ individuals have long been welcomed by society, but religion and the law do not reflect that acceptance, said Tuisina Ymania Brown, executive director of the Pacific Human Rights Initiative in Samoa and a transgender woman.

“We traverse a difficult line,” Brown said. “It’s been our tradition and culture for a millennia,” but “we are shunned and ostracized under Samoa’s strict national religious agenda, and on top of that, legal acceptance is minimal and confusing.”

In the United States, there has been an uptick in violence against LGBTQ people, according to a recent report: “A Crisis of Hate,” from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. In 2017, there were 52 hate-violence-related homicides of LGBTQ individuals, the highest number reported for a year.

Dawn Ennis, an American transgender woman and mother of three who writes about transgender and family issues, said there were daily hurdles during her transition, despite a legally receptive environment. Reporters hid in the bushes in her Connecticut town, her son was “ambushed,” and she fielded indiscreet comments from pharmacists.

“Questions about identity happen to us on an almost daily basis,” said Ennis.

International travel can be challenging for LGBTQ individuals, but last year Ennis took a business trip to Mexico and a vacation to Ireland and Scotland with her family and they went very well, she said. “The kids were worried, but it could not have been easier.”

She said for successful travel experiences, it was important for LGBTQ people to do their homework and learn about local laws and customs. For example, in some countries it is OK to be transgender but not to be gay. Ennis recommends consulting the U.S. State Department (the website provides general and country specific information, under special laws & circumstances), to research things like bathroom policies, and update official documents with gender and photo information.

“I’m very fortunate. I pass,” she said, and that all of her identification matches both her gender identity and now her body.

Overall, though, the transition has not been easy. “I’ve taken the hits, and I’m still standing,” she said. “But I’m so much happier. The kids are doing so well. I have no regrets.”

Sidebar:— An LGBTQ Guide to Traveling Safely Abroad
Billy Kolber, founder of ManAboutWorld, a digital magazine that recently published “The LGBTQ Guide to Travel Safety,” addressed the challenges of traveling abroad. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Q: Why did ManAboutWorld write a safety guide?

A: Globalization has made international travel easy and commonplace. And the globalization of travel hides a great disparity in local attitudes toward LGBTQ people. We wrote the guide to help LGBTQ travelers navigate a complex world of laws and risks, and understand the ways their local interactions can help and hurt local LGBTQ communities. By including personal experiences and recommendations from LGBTQ travelers all over the world, we are able to present more nuanced information. It’s more like asking a friend than asking Google.

Q: How can the guide help promote safe travel?

A: It’s more important than ever to know what’s going on with the local LGBTQ community. The laws don’t reflect the reality in so many places, and the acceptance and welcome for LGBTQ travelers are constantly changing. It’s increasingly important to know where to get the most current information, how to apply that information to your itineraries and personal experience, and what travelers can do to help advance the cause of LGBTQ people in the places they visit.

Q: How does the new guide differ from last year’s first edition for business travelers?
A: The business travel industry was often ignoring the risks of sending LGBTQ employees and contractors into countries that criminalize them without any warning, advice or resources. We launched our LGBTQ business travel guide to address that gap. Vacation travelers can choose their destination, but many of us choose to travel to places where we are criminalized. We wanted all LGBTQ travelers to have access to those resources.
Q: What are some highlights of the new edition?

A: There are specific recommendations for women, transgender and gender nonbinary travelers. These travelers face challenges specific to their gender and gender expression. We worked with experts in those communities to provide the most comprehensive and useful information.

Q: What will surprise readers?

A: How local and personal the challenges are. We can’t generalize about countries anymore. We can’t generalize about LGBTQ travelers — our safety and welcome can often be a function of our gender presentation, our visible wealth, our skin color, our accent. What might be fine in Moscow or Kuala Lumpur might not be OK in rural parts of Russia and Malaysia. It’s complicated.

Q: Can a traveler’s behavior affect local communities?

A: Visitors travel with extraordinary privilege — especially those from wealthy Western nations. Even places hostile to LGBTQ locals are often deferential to visitors. It’s easy to forget that locals are being persecuted for things that are routinely ignored for travelers. I might think nothing of kissing a date good night in a public place, but that could cost a local their friendships, families or careers. A gay party might be raided in a place like Egypt — the foreigners are let go or at worst deported; the locals go to prison.

Copyright 2024 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.