The Global Gay Rights Battlefields

Don't Ask Don't Tell might be finished in the United States but, in many countries, the fight for gay equality has far bigger challenges to overcome.

By , an associate editor at Foreign Policy from 2014-2015.


Homosexuality is already a crime in Uganda, but a bill introduced to parliament last year would seriously up the ante. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill would legislate new criminal offenses and step up the punishment for existing ones. “Aggravated homosexuality,” an offense that includes everything from statutory rape to being a “serial offender” of gay acts, for example, would become a crime punishable by death. Gay men who test positive for HIV could be executed as well. Human rights groups have condemned the legislation, which comes up for consideration in the Ugandan legislature early next year. But regardless of whether the law passes, anti-gay vigilantes aren’t relying on the government to do all the persecuting. A local tabloid published a list of known homosexuals earlier this year and called on readers to “hang them,” NPR reported. Four of the men on the list were attacked shortly thereafter. [Update: On January 26, David Kato, a leading Ugandan gay rights advocate whose photo was featured on the cover of the newspaper, was beaten to death in Kampala.] 

Among the many disturbing aspects of the homophobic tide sweeping Uganda is that many analysts believe it has its origins in the United States’ own culture wars. As conservative Christian missionaries have flocked to the East African country to evangelize, they’ve often brought with them strong views about homosexuality, which seem to have caught on. The bill’s sponsor is a member of “The Family,” a Christian fundamentalist political and religious organization with ties to powerful members of the American evangelical movement.

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In a country whose people are divided almost equally between Christian and Muslim faiths, all Nigerian religious leaders seem to come together around a single issue: the persecution of homosexuals. A sodomy conviction carries a 14-year prison sentence under federal law, and homosexuality is punishable by death in the 12 states that practice Islamic law. In the most dramatic example, 18 young men in the northern city of Bauchi were arrested for supposed cross-dressing in 2007, only to later be charged with sodomy — an offense that, in the Islamic courts of northern Nigeria, could have incurred execution by stoning. (Luckily, they were later released after international pressure was brought to bear.)

Despite the general agreement among faiths, it’s the Anglican Church that has been particularly outspoken against homosexuality in Nigeria. When the international Episcopal Church split over whether to allow openly gay men to serve as priests, it was Nigeria’s Archbishop Peter Akinola who conservatives turned to as a leading light for their splinter sect. As Akinola wrote, “homosexuality is flagrant disobedience to God, which enables people to pervert God’s ordained sexual expression with the opposite sex. In this way, homosexuals have missed the mark; they have shown themselves to be trespassers of God’s divine laws.”

The Nigerian government is more than happy to defend these views, which remain widespread. In 2006, the country’s ambassador to the United Nations said in a statement to the U.N. Human Rights Council: “The notion that executions for offences such as homosexuality and lesbianism is excessive is judgmental rather than objective. What may be seen by some as disproportional penalty in such serious offences and odious conduct may be seen by others as appropriate and just punishment.”

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The Malaysian attitude toward homosexuality is perhaps best exemplified by the experience of Anwar Ibrahim, the country’s best-known opposition leader, who denies that he is gay. Nevertheless, his enemies in government saw the charge as one of the most potent ways to discredit him: Anwar was the deputy prime minister of Malaysia in 1998 when his political opponents accused him of the crime of practicing sodomy. He was fired, put on trial, and sentenced to nine years in prison. Although the charges were overturned in 2004, Anwar went back on trial in early 2010 on another charge of committing sodomy with a male aide.

The opposition leader claims that the charges are politically motivated, demonstrating just how far the ruling party is willing to go to stymie its opposition. But Malaysia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community takes away a different lesson: The moderate Islamic country is a dangerous place to be out.

Malaysia today boasts a morality police charged with arresting homosexuals. Being gay holds a penalty of up to 20 years in prison, and the government censorship board has banned films about lesbian and gay issues for being against Malaysian culture and Islam.

Still, things might be changing. An openly gay pastor founded the first pro-gay church in the country nearly three years ago, and has yet to be imprisoned, despite opposition from the government and other religious officials. It’s one step on a long road ahead.

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During his 2007 visit to Columbia University, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad famously claimed, “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country.” His statement elicited laughter from the crowd. But Ahmadinejad had a point: Iranian gays can’t be open about their sexuality in the same way as Americans without serious fear for their lives. Just witness the July 2005 execution of two young gay boys on charges of rape and disturbing the public order. Sadly, it’s not an uncommon occurrence: Gay Iranians regularly face police and paramilitary brutality, discrimination, and isolation at school and within their families.

Indeed, many homosexuals in Iran are so fearful that, as a recent Human Rights Watch report details, they seek sex-change operations: “Iran has become renowned throughout the world for its relatively large number of sex reassignment surgeries — at least some of which have been performed on Iranians who likely self-identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual but who felt compelled to undergo the procedure to erase the ‘stain’ of homosexuality and become ‘legal’ under Iranian law,” the report reads.  

There is a small community of gay and lesbian Iranians who gather to discuss issues related to their community, but due to officially sanctioned persecution, the gay rights movement still largely remains underground.

Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images


As in other countries that submit to strict interpretations of Islamic law, the punishment for gay sex in Saudi Arabia is death though lashing. Imprisonment can also be ordered. Men can even be flogged for “behaving like women.” Things are apparently so difficult for gay Saudis that a diplomat representing the kingdom in Los Angeles asked for asylum after employees at the consulate discovered he was gay and passed the information back to Riyadh. The diplomat said he feared he would be killed if he returned home.

Still, if you know where to look, there is reportedly a flourishing underground gay scene in Saudi Arabia. One Riyadh resident told the Atlantic that the capital city is a “gay heaven.” The pervasiveness of same-sex relationships in Saudi Arabia is ascribed to the country’s strict gender segregation, which means that men and women don’t interact with each other outside the family. In schools and other private places, reports the Atlantic article, young Saudis experiment with each other for lack of other options.

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“The abominable crime of buggery,” as homosexuality as sodomy is known under Jamaican law, can earn Jamaicans up to 10 years of hard labor. But the greater danger to gays comes from rampant and aggressive homophobia prevalent in certain segments of Jamaican society. Mob violence against transsexual, transgender, and homosexual Jamaicans is startlingly common. Buju Banton, one of the country’s most popular dance-hall artists used to sing about shooting gays with Uzis and burning off their skin, and he’s not alone — many other popular musicians have railed against gays and urged their listeners to take matters into their own hands.

Discriminatory laws and attitudes have also hampered the island nation’s ability to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS; anti-sodomy laws, for example, are sometimes used to arrest AIDS educators in a country where 1.5 percent of the population is infected and the rate is growing. Yet despite international pressure, the Jamaican government continues to resist reforming its laws on the matter. So unsurprisingly, many gay Jamaicans are leaving the country for safer shores.

The Jamaica Forum for Lesbians All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG) is pushing for a more tolerant Jamaica, though it has won few victories at this point. A campaign called Stop Murder Music, which was created to fight back against homophobic lyrics in dance-hall music, has, however, gotten some results, with a number of Jamaican artists agreeing to refrain from lyrics that incite violence against gay men.

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Dakar was once considered the gay capital of Africa, but these days the homophobia that seems to be sweeping the continent has reached the Senegalese capital, too. Mob violence, police brutality, and even lynching of gays are all common in Senegal, according to Human Rights Watch. In a particularly grisly instance this April, the body of a gay man was exhumed and desecrated by an angry mob — one of four such instances in the last two years. In addition to this discrimination and abuse on the street, the country’s laws ban homosexuality. Even publishing pictures of a gay wedding can get you arrested in this predominantly Muslim country.

A Senegalese gay rights activist, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Agence France-Presse that the situation in the country is getting worse and many gay Senegalese are fleeing to neighboring countries. International human rights organizations have slammed Dakar for not doing enough to protect sexual minorities, but there doesn’t appear to be any progress on the horizon.

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While homosexuality isn’t a crime in Lithuania, as it is in most other countries on this list, the media and the Catholic Church still cling tightly to their homophobia, even as much of Europe has moved in the opposite direction. In September 2009, the Lithuanian parliament took up two controversial pieces of legislation — one that would have criminalized homosexuality and another that would have put a ban on “promoting” it. The criminalization bill was defeated, but a law was still passed that aims to keep information about homosexuality away from children.

Nonetheless, the homosexual community in Lithuania is pushing back, holding a gay pride march in Vilnius in May. The celebration was interrupted by violence when counterprotesters threw smoke bombs and shouted insults at the marchers. Activists have noted* that the country’s anti-gay legislation violates EU membership agreements in terms of human rights.

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*Update, Jan. 28, 2011: Text implying that Lithuania is making a bid for EU membership was deleted. The country has been an EU member since 2004.


For the last four decades, the Cameroonian penal code has prescribed penalties of up to five years in prison for anyone caught engaging in sexual acts with people of the same gender. But anti-gay hysteria rose to a new level in 2005 when a local archbishop gave an inflammatory speech accusing Cameroon’s LGBT community of being responsible for the country’s unemployment and corruption. That set off a furor of anti-gay rhetoric, in which tabloids published the names of supposedly gay men, including government officials. Today, “homosexual acts” are punishable by law, carrying a sentence of up to three years in prison.

Over the summer, one gay Cameroonian man applied for asylum in Britain out of fear of persecution back home. Some activists are trying to stand up to the law by bringing homosexuality into the open, thereby removing the stigma associated with it, while lawyers are challenging anti-gay laws in the courts. But it looks like these activists still have a long way to go.

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Same-sex marriage has been illegal in Honduras since 2005. And though relations between people of the same sex are not outlawed, authorities turn a blind eye to violence against gays. In this Central American country, police are frequently the worst perpetrators of anti-LGBT (particularly anti-transgender) violence. In September, for example, a police officer in the capital city of Tegucigalpa stabbed a transgendered sex worker to death. (He was later sentenced to 10 to 13 years in prison.) Activists note that homophobic violence has risen precipitously since the 2009 coup that ousted former President Manuel Zelaya.

Although the Honduran LGBT community has bigger concerns than the 2005 ban on same-sex marriage, local groups fought back against the measure, which they feared would push gay and lesbian Hondurans toward second-class citizenship. Activists have also worked to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and improve the rights of sex workers.

Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

Max Strasser was an associate editor at Foreign Policy from 2014-2015. Twitter: @maxstrasser

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