In western countries over the last two decades there has been huge progress towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality. But the global picture is much bleaker, with 72 countries still having a total prohibition on same-sex relations. Nearly half of them explicitly criminalise sexual acts both between men and between women. And in eight Muslim-majority countries, there is the death penalty for having sex with a person of the same gender.
Hundreds of millions of LGBT people around the world have no recognition of their human rights and no protection; in fact, they face criminalisation, harassment, discrimination and hate crime on a massive scale. Shockingly, even today, there is no international human rights convention that explicitly recognises that LGBT rights are human rights.
The fightback is happening around the world. There are existing or emerging LGBT movements in almost every country; some of them clandestine and underground because they would face imprisonment or worse if they were discovered. We have witnessed the emergence of vocal and courageous LGBT movements, such as in Honduras, where a public movement exists despite the assassination of over 200 LGBT people by death squads in the last decade. Honduran LGBT people still organise, protest, campaign and march, despite the risk to their own lives.
The emergence of these movements, particularly in repressive homophobic countries, has provoked a backlash by about 20 regimes. What is happening is shocking and often surprising. Ethiopia, for example, which had no tradition of homophobic persecution, has ratcheted up victimisation, with police raids, arrests, imprisonments and mob violence. A similar trend is exploding in Indonesia—a country previously not noted for anti-LGBT witch-hunts.
Those countries experiencing backlashes have either passed new anti-gay laws, like the law that was promulgated in Russia in 2013, or they’ve reversed decriminalisation, as happened in India, or they’ve enforced existing laws with renewed vigour, as in Egypt.
Some countries embody extreme contradictions. There are death squads that target LGBT people for so-called “social cleansing” in Brazil and Mexico. Yet, same-sex marriage is legal in Brazil. Most of the major cities and states have laws that protect LGBT people against discrimination in the workplace, housing and so on. The same contradictions are present in Mexico. Mexico City recognises same-sex marriage and some parts of the country have anti-discrimination protections. Yet other regions have right-wing death squads that kill LGBT people.
It’s easy to feel depressed and disheartened given the anti-LGBT backlash that we witness in many countries. Understandably, some people feel pessimistic. We hoped that although progress may sometimes be slow, LGBT rights would always move steadily forward, not backward. However, the important thing to bear in mind is that the backlash countries are a small minority: only about 20 countries out of 193.
You could look at the backlash as both a negative and a positive sign. It is happening because LGBT communities are more open and more determined to demand and win their rights. It’s precisely because pro-LGBT change is powering forward that counterattacks are happening. The homophobes are seeking to roll back the ever more visible LGBT minority and thwart their bid for reform.
Every social movement down the ages has provoked a backlash by the defenders of privilege and power. Horrible, tragic and undesirable though it is, backlashes are often a sign of progress. They signify that people seeking advances in human rights are sufficiently threatening to the survival of the status quo that those who want to keep things as they are feel compelled to react.
Queer freedom is an unstoppable global trend. It knows no borders. It transcends all nations and all cultures. One day we will make homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia history. Although LGBT liberation has been long delayed, it cannot and will not be denied.