The global assault on LGBTQ rights undermines democracy

From Poland to Uganda, the politicized backlash against sexual and gender minorities is a bellwether for rising authoritarianism, writes Ari Shaw.

The World Today
5 minute READ

Ari Shaw

Senior Fellow and Director of International Programs, Williams Institute, UCLA

Despite decades of progress on LGBTQ rights in many countries, from decriminalization to recognition of same-sex marriage, sexual and gender minorities are increasingly under threat. This comes at a time inclusive democracy around the world is in regression.

According to Freedom House, more than three out of four people in the world live in a country that has some restrictions on freedom – the highest proportion for more than 25 years.

‘Gender ideology’

The Ugandan parliament recently passed the most draconian measure yet. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2023 not only extends the penalty for consensual same-sex acts, which were already criminalized in Uganda, but it creates a new category of offence that would impose the death penalty for ‘aggravated homosexuality’, including same-sex acts involving people with disabilities or the use of drugs or alcohol. The bill goes further by imposing a requirement that people report anyone they suspect of engaging in same-sex acts, including family members.

In a number of countries, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is increasingly part of right-wing strategy that weaponizes fear against sexual and gender minorities

Such anti-LGBTQ bills are under consideration in other countries in the region. In Kenya, politicians have proposed a similar bill that would extend the penalty for same-sex acts to life imprisonment and ban discussion of homosexuality in the media.

In Ghana, long seen as a democratic success story, legislation under review would impose harsh sentences on individuals who engage in same-sex conduct, including forced exposure to ‘conversion therapy’ practices, widely discredited by the medical profession and seen by human rights organizations as tantamount to torture. Proponents argue that such restrictions are necessary to protect traditional African values.

Farther afield, anti-LGBTQ laws have been framed as efforts to combat ‘gender ideology’. This vague term was initially adopted by the Vatican to cast LGBTQ and feminist advocacy as subverting traditional notions of the family. In recent years, it has been employed by a range of right-wing and authoritarian leaders to shore up political power, claiming that LGBTQ ideology poses a threat to the national identity to mobilize opposition.

Polish President Andrezj Duda called sexual and gender minorities a ‘rainbow plague’

In Poland, for example, President Andrzej Duda won a narrow victory in the 2020 election by embracing homophobic politics to distract from waning economic growth and claims of executive overreach by his PiS party. His opponent, Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, had signed a non-binding declaration in support of sexual and gender minorities. In response, Duda amplified the threat they posed as a ‘rainbow plague’ and an ideology ‘worse than communism’.

In some countries, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is increasingly part of right-wing strategy that weaponizes fear and stigma against sexual and gender minorities to align with the values of religious conservative voters needed to win elections.

In Colombia, for instance, the 2016 peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrillas was narrowly defeated after a polarizing campaign that centred on a provision of the agreement recognizing sexual and gender minorities as victims of the armed conflict. Supporters of the No vote seized on the provision by linking it to advances on LGBTQ rights and citing it as evidence that the agreement would further impose a gender ideology to undermine traditional ‘family values’. 

The weakening of democratic norms

Similarly, Jair Bolsonaro, the former Brazilian president, campaigned for office while publicly condoning violence against sexual and gender minorities and vowing to restrict ‘indoctrination’ through comprehensive sex education in schools – a particular priority for evangelical voters.

It is no coincidence that anti-homosexual attacks have come amid the weakening of democratic norms and institutions. A 2018 study by colleagues at the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law found that inclusion of sexual and gender minorities in a country’s laws and policies are strongly associated with the level of democracy, the rule of law and a free press.

State-sanctioned attacks on sexual and gender minorities can be a bellwether of democratic backsliding

Democracy is often seen as a precondition for advances on LGBTQ rights. Aspects of liberal democracy such as freedom of assembly and expression enable LGBTQ rights organizations to mobilize and press for greater inclusion. While democracy alone may be insufficient to produce accepting environments, there are no non-democracies that have strong rights and protections for sexual and gender minorities.

In a forthcoming report, we look specifically at the relationship between democratic backsliding and changes in public attitudes towards sexual and gender minorities and their rights in Indonesia, Poland, Ghana and Brazil. Public attitudes are important because shared beliefs may form the basis of laws or policies that can lead to the acceptance or exclusion of sexual and gender minorities.

While the relationship between such acceptance and the erosion of democratic norms is complex and multifaceted, we find that state-sanctioned attacks on sexual and gender minorities can be a bellwether of democratic backsliding. In some cases, anti-LGBTQ stigma may even be a factor in weakening democratic institutions.

For example, in countries that are moderately or highly accepting of sexual and gender minorities, efforts to pass anti-LGBTQ laws run counter to public opinion and could undermine the legitimacy of democratic processes.

In the United States, at the time of writing 546 anti-LGBTQ bills have been proposed this year alone in state legislatures largely controlled by conservative Republicans. Despite recent polling that indicates 79 per cent of Americans support laws that protect sexual and gender minorities from discrimination, politicians have sought to deny life-saving gender-affirming medical care, limit transgender students’ participation in school athletics and ban discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, among other measures, as part of a concerted electoral strategy.

These laws may reinforce a polarized and fragmented political environment that helps lead to the emergence of more extremist movements.

Many leaders frame anti-LGBTQ laws as a necessary bulwark against the imposition of foreign values or ‘gender ideology’. Particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, opponents of LGBTQ rights have cast reforms as neo-imperialist projects imported from the West.

How the West exports anti-LGBTQ sentiment

In fact, it is anti-LGBTQ sentiment that is being exported from the West, in many cases through networks of activists, politicians, religious leaders and donors with ties to organizations based in the US. An analysis by the Global Philanthropy Project found that US-based bodies linked to the ‘anti-gender ideology’ movement received more than $6 billion between 2008 and 2017. Of that, more than $1 billion was spent on overseas activities.

While precise expenditures can be difficult to trace, US-based anti-LGBTQ organizations have publicly engaged in shaping attitudes and laws in a number of countries. In 2019, the World Congress of Families held a regional summit in Ghana, which brought together faith-based and anti-LGBTQ groups to challenge comprehensive sexuality education.

In 2021, Hungary passed its own ‘don’t say gay’ law banning the discussion of LGBTQ issues in schools and on children’s TV

The congress was instrumental in helping local organizations identify strategies to campaign against programmes and resources that would promote sexual and gender diversity. Within two years, MPs had proposed an extensive bill that further criminalized LGBTQ identities and included a ban on LGBTQ organizations.

The congress has maintained active ties in Russia, which passed an ‘anti-gay propaganda’ law in 2013. Four years later, Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, welcomed the World Congress of Families to Budapest, where it held its annual summit. In 2021, Hungary passed its own ‘don’t say gay’ law banning the discussion of LGBTQ issues in schools and on children’s TV.

More recently, Family Watch International brought politicians from across the region to Uganda to address ‘global challenges that threaten African families and values’. The wife of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni attended the event and praised the organization, responsible for disseminating disinformation about sexuality and gender diversity. Following the conference in March, the Ugandan parliament passed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.

The weaponization of homophobia

The political weaponization of homophobia and transphobia may be a useful national strategy for authoritarian leaders, but anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and policymaking have important consequences that transcend borders. It can incite violence and persecution that leads sexual and gender minorities to flee their country of origin, adding to the 37 million refugees and asylum seekers in the world today.

According to a recent analysis of government data, an estimated 30,900 members of sexual and gender minorities claimed asylum in the US between 2012-2017. The majority came from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador – three countries that have seen a decline in social acceptance of sexual and gender minorities since 2009. Likewise, many made the painful decision to leave Poland after the rise in anti-LGBTQ stigma, including nearly 100 municipalities across the country proclaiming to be ‘LGBTQ-free zones’.

Countries that are more inclusive of sexual and gender minorities are also more economically prosperous

What is more, these refugees often face risks that are different from other migrants. Many face daily exposure to harassment, violence and discrimination based on their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. They may even be forced to conceal their identity to avoid abuse or violence from government officials, aid workers or other migrants.

In some cases, the environment in countries they are passing through are nearly as hostile as the one they are fleeing. For example, hundreds of LGBTQ Ugandans have been forced to seek refuge in neighbouring Kenya, where homosexuality remains criminalized. As more than 60 countries have criminalized consensual same-sex activity, and still more have exclusionary laws and policies, sexual and gender minorities tend to have few options for seeking assistance in safe, accessible countries.

Fewer safe harbours

The rise in state-sanctioned anti-LGBTQ stigma is troubling not only because it is a sign of democracy in retreat, but it signals that countries once thought safer for sexual and gender minorities are increasingly less so. The rise in populist authoritarianism fuels anti-LGBTQ persecution that can drive migration, while also reflecting fewer safe harbours for sexual and gender minorities.

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Policymakers should commit to protecting the rights of sexual and gender minorities not simply because every individual is entitled to a dignified life, free and equal under the law. Countries that are more inclusive of LGBTQ  minorities are also more economically prosperous by ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to maximize their potential. Anti-LGBTQ stigma has costs, both human and financial, but promoting inclusion yields dividends for all.

A barrier to facing this challenge is the lack of data available on the LGBTQ community. Most governments fail to collect systematic data that is inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity.

As a result, we have limited information about the full extent to which sexual and gender minorities are excluded from aspects of political, social and economic life. Robust, ethical data collection is an important part of turning the tide on the retreat in liberal values by ensuring that we build strong, inclusive democracies.