On May 24, 2019, same-sex couples in Taiwan registered their unions as the country’s historic new law legally recognizing same-sex marriages went into effect. On the same day, Kenya’s high court ruled to keep a law criminalizing same-sex sexual activity; Brazil’s high court ruled that homophobic and transphobic discrimination is a crime; and in the U.S., the Trump administration moved to end a policy prohibiting healthcare providers from discriminating against transgender patients.
Around the world, LGBTQ+ rights are in flux, yet “what we are seeing in the world is, undoubtedly, momentum towards equality,” says Jean Freedberg, the Human Rights Campaign’s Director of Global Partnerships. To be clear, there’s still a lot of work to do to achieve that equality, but progress is being made. In 70 countries around the world, consensual same-sex sexual activity is criminalized, punishable by imprisonment, torture, and even death. In other countries, LGBTQ+ folks’ rights are protected by law — but social stigma means that it can be dangerous to live openly. “It’s inconceivable that there are places on our planet where people’s lives are at risk for simply being who they are or loving whom they love,” Freedberg says. Even countries that are widely considered to be LGBTQ-friendly still need to take steps to end discrimination, particularly against transgender individuals. There’s no country on earth that doesn’t need to do better.
Along with rolling back queer and trans equality in our own country, since Trump was elected in 2016, the United States has become less active in supporting LGBTQ+ rights worldwide. “In the past, the U.S. has been a leader, speaking out strongly, joining international coalitions, being part of a global movement for human rights and LGBTQ+ protections,” Freedberg explains. “In the past two and a half years of this administration, we’ve seen an incredible backsliding on this issue.” We can work to change that, by donating to international organizations, amplifying activist voices, calling on our government to do more — and staying informed.
With help and data from the Human Rights Campaign, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association’s (ILGA) State-Sponsored Homophobia and Trans Legal Mapping reports, and the Williams Institute’s Polarized Progress report, which measures social acceptance of LGBTQ+ people in countries worldwide, we take a look at LGBTQ+ rights and acceptance in ten very different countries around the world.
Argentina’s social acceptance of LGBTQ+ folks is among the highest in the Western Hemisphere (and higher than in the United States). The country is also a worldwide leader when it comes to legal protections for the LGBTQ+ community. In 2010, Argentina became the first country in Latin America and the tenth country worldwide to legalize same-sex marriage. In 2012, Argentina passed a Gender Identity Law, recognizing people’s right to identify their own gender — the first law of its kind worldwide. In 2015, Argentina ended a ban on blood donation from sexually active gay and bisexual men, something that the U.S. and many other countries have yet to do.
These legal protections for the LGBTQ+ community mean that refugees from countries with anti-LGBTQ+ laws seek asylum in Argentina. Many come from Jamaica and Russia, and they often face difficulty when they arrive. “There’s no salary, there’s no housing, the only thing that is provided is a basic humanitarian care that is funded by UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees] for a maximum period of three months,” says Mariano Ruiz, project coordinator at Asociación Familias Diversas de Argentina (AFDA). “Which means that in three months refugees need to learn the language and get a job.”
Although Argentina has strong legal protections, like in the rest of the world, discrimination persists. One 2017 survey found that over 70% of LGBTQ+ Argentinian youth said they had been bullied in school. A 2012 survey found that 83% of trans women had experienced violence or discrimination. In 2015, activist Diana Sacayán’s murder marked the first time the country’s courts recognized transphobia as the motivation for a hate crime. Trans folks also face discrimination in the workforce; but to counteract this, activists are currently pushing for stronger legal protections and the introduction of hiring quotas to ensure that at least 1% of the government workforce is trans.
Australia legalized same-sex marriage in late 2017, following a voter referendum by postal survey. Though same-sex marriage found support with 61% of votes, Queensland’s LGBTI Legal Service documented 220 incidents of hate speech during the postal survey. “The postal survey opened the door to homophobia and vilification being expressed under the guise of legitimate debate,” LGBTI Legal Service president Matilda Alexander told the Guardian in 2018. In response, LGBTI Legal Service lodged an anti-discrimination complaint. “This case will close that door,” she said.
Australia’s laws protect anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination in schools and workplaces, but there are a number of religious exemptions. In 2017, a teacher at a Baptist school was fired for being gay, bringing attention to how religious loopholes lead to the lack of legal protections for LGBTQ+ folks. Australia’s social acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community is stronger than the United States’, yet there is still stigma. Just like much of the world, depression and suicide rates are higher for LGBTQ+ folks, and in Australia, this particularly affects the Aboriginal community. Australia has also earned criticism for the treatment of LGBTQ+ refugees seeking asylum.
Legal protections for LGBTQ+ folks vary from state to state, much as in the U.S.; for example, New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania, and Australian Capital Territory have enacted laws prohibiting inciting violence based on sexual orientation. The same goes for the process by which trans individuals can change their legal gender marker. Tasmania allows people to change the gender on their birth certificate by making a declaration, while the more populous New South Wales requires verification of surgery, making it harder for trans folks to get legal gender recognition. Along with male and female, Australia has offered a third gender option on birth certificates and passports since 2013, but this is not accessible to everyone. ”To change your passport, you use your birth certificate, and on your passport you can opt for an X marker. But the X markers are provided by certain states, but not by all states,” ILGA’s Gender Identity and Gender Expression Programme Coordinator Zhan Chiam points out. “There’s a general inconsistency in Australia in relation to the gender markers on their birth certificates, as well as what people are able to access on their passports.”
In 2017, intersex activists in Australia and New Zealand released the Darlington Statement, which set forth the intersex movement’s priorities, including removing sex and gender markers from identification documents: "as with race or religion, sex/gender should not be a legal category on birth certificates or identification documents for anybody,” the statement reads.
This small island country off the coast of Northwest Africa has a very high social acceptance of LGBTQ+ folks — significantly higher than the United States’ — but some harassment and stigma still exist. Politically, Cape Verde is a leader in LGBTQ+ rights both in Africa and worldwide. In 2004, Cape Verde decriminalized same-sex activity, and in 2008, the country made workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal. Cape Verde has joined with other countries urging for LGBTQ+ acceptance as part of the Equal Rights Coalition, an intergovernmental coalition for LGBTI rights, as well as supporting the United Nations’ Free and Equal campaign. However, the country does not currently recognize same-sex marriage and lacks workplace legal protections for trans individuals.
In 2013, the nation held its first Pride parade, organized by the Associação Gay de Cabo Verde (Cape Verdean Gay Association). The Cape Verdean island of São Vicente is known for being particularly accepting and is home to trans activist Tchinda Andrade, who has been so influential that trans and queer Cape Verdeans are sometimes called "tchindas." In a documentary about her work, Andrade recounts how coming out in a 1998 newspaper article inspired others to come out. “Every day, there were new ones,” she says. “We started to create a gay community.”
The Williams Institute’s Polarized Progress report ranks Iceland as the best in the world when it comes to social acceptance of LGBTQ+ folks. The country also has many legal protections for the LGBTQ+ community. Same-sex marriage was made legal in 2010, and same-sex couples have equal access to adoption and IVF. The country’s non-discrimination laws include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories, legally protecting LGBTQ+ folks from employment discrimination, refusal of goods or services, and hate speech and harassment. However, harassment and hate crimes still happen, and some have said that Iceland’s laws should include stronger protections for gender identity and sexual orientation.
Iceland’s rules regarding trans folks changing their legal gender markers are more prohibitive than some other progressive countries, such as Argentina, and require proof of hormone treatment and surgery. Although Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík, hosts Pride celebrations, there are fewer public celebrations in the rest of the country.
Some activists have said that Iceland’s reputation as a LGBTQ-friendly country has made it hard to come forward about discrimination and harm. “It’s difficult enough for people to speak up about having been subjected to violence, without having somehow also ruined this tolerant image, or thinking that you’re the only person who has been attacked,” María Helga Guðmundsdóttir, director of queer rights group Samtökin ’78, told the Reykjavík Grapevine in 2018.
India has made some major strides for LGBTQ+ folks in recent years, yet social acceptance is still low, leading to harassment and hate crimes. The country’s highest court decriminalized same-sex activity in September 2018, with Chief Justice Dipak Misra saying, “The LGBTQ+ community has the same fundamental rights as citizens. The identity of a person is very important and we have to vanquish prejudice, embrace inclusion and ensure equal rights.” In ILGA’s State-Sponsored Homophobia Report, human rights activist Cynthia Rothschild describes the decision as “likely… the most far-reaching legal victory of 2018.” Pride parades have been held in various cities throughout the country beginning in 1999, and India has many active LGBTQ+ rights organizations.
Hijras — who can be trans or intersex— have been a part of India’s culture for thousands of years, and in 2014, India’s Supreme Court put a third gender category in place. However, not all trans folks identify as hijras. Both the trans and hijra communities experience harassment and discrimination as well as barriers to healthcare and employment, and despite the recognition of a third gender, there are many barriers to legally changing one’s name and gender marker. A recent bill called the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill has earned criticism from the LGBTQ+ community for requiring the presentation of a certificate of identity granted by two sets of authorities, rather than self-identification.
“Buggery” and “gross indecency” between men is punishable by ten years’ imprisonment in Jamaica, although it has not been enforced for several years. “Jamaica is not enforcing it right now, but this does not mean that law enforcement officials are using the law to blackmail or to harass people. That’s a whole different story,” notes Lucas Ramón Mendos, ILGA’s Senior Research Officer.
Additionally, social acceptance of LGBTQ+ folks is low. The media, both nationally and internationally, has reported on violent mob attacks against gay men and trans women, and “corrective rapes” of lesbians also occur. Sometimes, the police have been the perpetrators. Mendos notes that these attacks often target low-income people, leading to homelessness among LGBTQ+ folks — as in the case of the “gully queens,” a community of homeless trans women and other LGBTQ+ youth who live in Kingston’s open-air sewers.
But there is an active LGBTQ+ rights movement pushing for change in the Caribbean nation. “For a small island, they have a very active and engaged movement,” says Freedberg. LGBTQ+ rights organization Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays has been active since 1998.
Jamaica held its first Pride parade in 2015, and in recent years, both public and private Pride celebrations have continued to increase. “It felt liberating,” one Pride attendee told the Guardian in 2015. “It was safe with no fear. When you go out in public, if you express yourself in a particular way or use certain mannerisms you have to be on your guard, but this really felt like it was ours.”
Mauritania, neighboring Senegal in Northwest Africa, is one of the few countries on the world that has the death penalty for consensual same-sex sexual activity written in its penal code, rather than implied through the adoption of Sharia law. Though it has been some time since the death penalty has officially been enforced, the effect of this law makes it is very dangerous for LGBTQ+ individuals to live openly, and they are at high risk for hate crimes and harassment. This means it’s difficult for international organizations to gather information about the lives of the LGBTQ+ community in Mauritania or make contact with LGBTQ+ people living there.
“The chilling effect is so strong that we only hear from people of Mauritania when they are abroad,” says Lucas Ramón Mendos, ILGA’s Senior Research Officer. In 2011, a gay Mauritanian refugee known as Ahmed A. won asylum in the United States; Jane Kim, a Columbia student who worked on his case, said in a Columbia Law School press release, “For nearly 40 years, our client, Ahmed, never felt free. His entire life, he changed his behavior to avoid suspicions, beatings, and death by his father, his tribe, and by the Mauritanian government for being gay, for being himself. He lived a private life, trusting very few.”
In 2013, Russia passed a federal law called "for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values,” commonly known as the “gay propaganda law.” This law makes "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships" illegal. Freedberg tells Refinery29, “This absolutely horrendous propaganda law is as bad as criminalizing same sex activity because it has effectively shut down the movement there, although there are many brave folks continuing to work.” According to Reuters, after the law was passed, anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes doubled. However, polls also indicate that support of the LGBTI community is quietly growing, with one 2019 poll showing that 47% of Russians now support equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community, a 14-year high.
In 2017, the Russian republic of Chechnya began a “gay purge,” rounding up, torturing, and sometimes killing men who were suspected of being gay or bisexual, and officials have even urged people to kill LGBTQ+ family members. In response to criticism, the head of Chechnya has said that LGBTQ+ people “simply do not exist in the republic.” “We’ve always been persecuted, but never like this,” one survivor told France24 in 2017. “Now they arrest everyone. They kill people, they do whatever they want.”
Freedberg says that the United States needs to get involved with stopping these atrocities, and HRC has launched a campaign called #EyesOnChechnya for this purpose. “The Trump-Pence administration has been completely silent on what’s going on in Chechnya,” she says. “It’s really important that Trump not cozy up to Putin with these human rights atrocities happening. He needs to speak up and speak loudly.”
Saudi Arabia has one of the lowest social acceptance rates for LGBTQ+ folks in the world. Although the death penalty is not expressly written into the country’s penal code, Saudi Arabia follows Sharia law, which states that same-sex activity is punishable with death by stoning. Saudi Arabia’s morality law enforcement agency, “the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice,” arrests and harms people who are suspected of same-sex sexual activity or who are gender non-conforming.
The death penalty for same-sex activity is enforced in Saudi Arabia, however, Lucas Ramón Mendos, ILGA’s Senior Research Officer notes, “It’s very rare that you get a conviction based on one specific charge,” so it’s not easy to tell when someone was executed for their sexual orientation rather than another charge.
In 2019, one gay Saudi asylum seeker, Abdullah Bentalab, told the Montreal Gazette that after his parents saw a photo of him marching in a Pride parade in London, where he was spending the summer learning English, his father beat him and threatened to turn him in to the police. His mother wanted him to go through conversion therapy, and both parents brought a sheikh to him to try to exorcise the “demon.” While in the U.S. on a student visa, he attempted suicide, and after being discharged from a medical center, fled to Canada to seek asylum. “I don’t have to hide, it was so much weight on my chest and I just took it off,” he told the Montreal Gazette. “I’ve never wanted to be alive as much as I do right now. I feel like I have hope.”
In 1996, South Africa became the first country in the world to outlaw discrimination based on the basis of sexual orientation when it included sexual orientation as a protected category in its constitution. Ten years later, South Africa became the first (and so far only) country in Africa to legalize same-sex marriage. In 2003, the Parliament passed the Alteration of Sex Description and Sex Status Act, allowing people to change their legal gender marker under certain conditions, including proof of surgery. Despite these protections, social acceptance of LGBTQ+ folks is relatively low — a 2013 Pew poll found that 61% of South Africans thought society should not accept homosexuality — and hate crimes, especially so-called “corrective rapes,” particularly against Black lesbians, occur too frequently.
Landa Mabenge — a trans activist and the first known trans man in South Africa to successfully motivate the healthcare system to pay for gender alignment surgeries, which he documented in his book Becoming Him: A Trans Memoir Of Triumph — tells Refinery29 that there are many barriers for trans folks to receive necessary healthcare. “South African private health care views transgender surgeries as being medically unnecessary, and thus cosmetic,” he explains, adding that trans folks generally have to wait between 20 and 30 years for gender alignment surgery through the healthcare system. “So while the law strives for inclusion in terms of policy and our constitution, the translation to reality for many transgender people remains a myth.” He adds that while in the past decade, there has been an increase in visibility of trans people in South Africa, there has been “equally a rise in prejudicial attitudes.”
Freedberg, who grew up in South Africa, adds, “We’re so proud of the fact that South Africa is one of the handful of countries that has constitutional protections for LGBTQ+ people, but they have to live up to that commitment.”