Across the world, LGBT people experience violence and fear for their lives. In Honduras, for example, homicide rates have spiked since the 2009 military coup and the left-leaning government lost power.
In Iran, complex laws around homosexuality allow fathers and grandfathers to kill their children in so-called “honour killings.” But are global developments improving the situation?
In many countries, LGBTI people experience violence and discrimination that affects their daily lives. These include criminal prosecution and the denial of basic rights, such as access to healthcare, employment, housing and education. These forms of discrimination are often interlinked and intersect with other oppressions and axes of power, such as race or gender. This is known as intersectionality.
Society’s attitudes towards homosexuality and the rights of LGBT people have evolved significantly over time. Homosexual activity was criminalised in Europe until 1989 and in some parts of the world as late as 1994, when same-sex homosexual activities between men were decriminalised in Germany. Throughout the 20th century, people who were not heterosexual continued to face discrimination through the pathologisation of sexual orientation – the dehumanising process of assigning blame to an inherent nature and seeing non-heterosexuality as a ‘sickness’ that needed to be cured. This pathologisation finally ended in 1973, when the American Psychiatric Association dropped homosexuality from its second edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
However, the rapid advancements in protections for LGBTQ+ people globally were stalled or, in the case of the United States, reversed by the Trump administration, which has shifted the priorities of U.S. foreign policy and downplayed the role of the United States as an ally in the fight for human rights. This has left countries like Russia, Uganda and the Northern states of Nigeria with draconian anti-LGBT laws.
In addition, the resurgence of religious exemption laws – which allow government support for discrimination on the basis of “sincerely held moral or religious beliefs” – is troubling. They undermine the progress made by the Obama administration and threaten to erode the rights of LGBT people in the United States and around the world.
Despite advances in legal protections for LGBT, discrimination continues worldwide. Around seventy countries still criminalize homosexual activity and, in twelve of those states, adults who engage in consensual same-sex sexual acts can face the death penalty. In addition, countless LGBT people live in geographic areas beyond the reach of state authorities and endure brutality at the hands of militant groups or their own family members. They are also disproportionately impacted by so-called honor killings and enforced marriages, based on conservative interpretations of religious texts.
Anti-LGBT discrimination is exacerbated by deep-rooted stigma. Many of those who have internalized stigma experience it as a form of mental torture. In some cases, it can be so severe that it triggers physical attacks or even suicide attempts. In other cases, it manifests as limited access to healthcare, difficulty securing employment and bullying or harassment in the workplace. The term ‘intersectionality’, used to describe the ways that multiple forms of oppression intersect with each other, is increasingly being applied to LGBTI experiences.
In the past year, we have seen a rash of anti-LGBT laws being passed in countries from Brazil to Hungary and Uganda. These laws are not only violating international human rights standards, but they are causing real harm to LGBT communities and individuals in those countries. Those who are impacted by these new measures will lose out on life saving health care and access to inclusive education, activities and spaces.
The new US administration has an opportunity to push back against illiberal trends in the West and to work with partners to confront violent, rights-abusive behavior across the globe. For example, it could work with Afghanistan to strengthen the country’s asylum protections and make it easier for people fleeing Taliban abuses to resettle in safer countries.
Even as some LGBT communities enjoy greater equality and acceptance, others struggle to gain basic freedoms and dignity. The US has its own challenges with anti-LGBT rhetoric from the hard right, including threats to ban adoptions by same sex couples and gay marriage, while many cities have declared themselves to be “LGBT free zones”. In Europe, the governments of Poland and Hungary stoked homophobia in the name of family values, and both countries passed laws blocking teaching on LGBT issues in schools and banning gay marriage.
Observations that LGBT people no longer experience excess exposure to prejudice and stigma are a shock to investigators who have studied LGBT health using minority stress perspectives. Nevertheless, the persistence of LGBT discrimination and violence suggests that we cannot simply dismiss minority stress theory as irrelevant to our understanding of LGBT wellbeing. It is also crucial to deconstruct systems that oppress LGBTI people, including homophobia and biphobia, alongside racism, imperialism, sexism, classism, ageism, heterosexist discrimination and other forms of oppression.
Some LGBT activists are able to resist these forces of oppression, however. A US-based charity, Friends Ugandan Safe Transport Fund, has helped more than 1,800 LGBT refugees to escape to safety in the UK. In Iran, where a complex series of laws means that men may be punished for consensual sexual intercourse based on whether they are the active or passive participant, Iranian queer activist Saghi Ghahraman says that “children learn starting at home that the world is very hostile to them”.
Meanwhile in Nigeria, Sharia law and 14 year prison sentences for homosexual acts make it unsafe to identify as LGBT in some regions, and in Afghanistan, revenge killings, restrictions on media and freedom of expression, and land grabbing by the Taliban complicate international efforts to support Afghan LGBT communities. Yet, international donors and aid agencies must continue to make delivering services that assist and protect LGBT people a priority.