Almost half a century ago, the Stonewall uprising at a New York gay bar, a spontaneous act of resistance against police brutality, marked a turn in the fight for LGBTQI+ equality. This moment, in June 1969, sparked a movement, now celebrated yearly in a month-long commemoration known as Pride.
But while global corporations (many of which have been revealed to fund anti-LGBTQI+ legislators) take down their rainbow-flag logos at the end of June, queer people around the world continue to face an increasingly hostile environment within which they must struggle for survival and dignity.
LGBTQI+ populations are increasingly unprotected in many countries, subjected to a wave of well-funded efforts by anti-rights organisations that are endangering lives. Once seen as a natural progression for maturing and strengthening democracies, full equal rights and an end to discrimination based on sexuality or gender identity are in jeopardy.
Women’s and LGBTQI+ rights are a global litmus test of democracy. Democracy depends on defending these rights beyond the fleeting celebrations of Pride, and while critical in pushing the movement forward, individual allyship and action alone cannot effectively counter an emboldened anti-rights movement – unless supported by more systemic responses.
Below we outline three key areas for action: promoting feminist foreign policy, responding to LGBTQI+ rights in crises and countering fear-based narratives.
Harness the power of feminist foreign policy
Feminist foreign policy (FFP) goes beyond ‘women and girls’ or ‘gender equality'.
Providing an alternative to traditional ways of conducting foreign relations, it emphasises the need to transform unjust global systems that perpetuate inequality, including those based on gender, race and extractivism. FFP centres the lives of those most excluded. This brings significant potential to integrate LGBTQI+ rights into foreign policy agendas to ensure a tolerant and safe world for everyone.
While attacks against LGBTQI+ people and feminists are not new, a well-organised ‘anti-gender movement’ has been working to undermine rights for decades. This growing conservative network includes evangelical religious organisations, the Vatican and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, as well as legal advocacy organisations such as the Alliance Defending Freedom. In Europe, the Alliance spent $23.3 million between 2008 and 2019 on anti-LGBTQI+ and anti-gender activities.
Research has also documented how ‘progressive’ governments (some with FFP), have helped fund anti-LGBTQI+ backlash through bilateral relationships with religious civil society organisations, such as the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda. This group popularised support for the 2023 Anti-Homosexuality Act, which made ‘aggravated homosexuality’ punishable by death. As a result, ‘many Ugandans who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community are now living in fear or looking for a way to get out of their country.'
To counter the powerful influence of the anti-rights base, countries with FFP need to strategically and fearlessly work together to support LGBTQI+ organisations and feminist movements with unrestricted, flexible and long-term funding. This is the first step to defend rights and sustain deeper normative change, as funding to the anti-gender movement worldwide ($3.7 billion) is currently triple the amount of that supporting LGBTQI+ movements ($1.2 billion). As for government funds, only 0.04% of official development assistance was granted to LGBTQI+ movements in 2019–2020.
Many Ugandans who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community are now living in fear or looking for a way to get out of their country.
If put into practice, governments raising ambitions on FFP, such as Germany, Netherlands, Chile and Liberia, can lead the way by openly standing for the rights of lesbian, bi, gay, cis and trans people to live and love freely without fear.
Don’t ignore LGBTQI+ rights in crises
In crisis or conflict settings, belonging to the LGBTQI+ community means facing another layer of risk in an already perilous life.
LGBTQI+ refugees endure a twin stigma, with discrimination based on their gender or sexuality amplified as they confront new prejudices derived from their status as a refugee. As ODI research shows, LGBTQI+ refugees are not a homogenous group, and must navigate many intersecting exclusions and discrimination both from host communities and from other refugees. In unfamiliar contexts, as DeLovie Kwagala says: ‘visibility without protection is a death sentence.’
The humanitarian system itself is culpable in this discrimination. There is a reluctance to explicitly defend LGBTQI+ rights, with humanitarian action often ignoring gender entirely, or interpreting it as only relating to heterosexual women and girls. LGBTQI+ concerns are seen as either too sensitive or too political to fully engage with – particularly in places considered legally, religiously or culturally conservative.
Humanitarian actors place LGBTQI+ rights in what the Humanitarian Advisory Group and VPride Foundation have called the ‘too-hard basket’. This lack of attention, and funding, produces a major gap in data and knowledge of what LGBTQI+ people need to feel protected and safe. Many in the aid sector assume queer communities to be an insignificant sub-group in conflict contexts without immediate needs, even though they encounter heightened exposure to violence.
This reveals the heteronormative assumptions that shape humanitarian research and action on gender and sexuality, which often adopt a binary approach that renders invisible the realities that LGBTQI+ people face. If we want humanitarian responses that are inclusive of this community, we need a major paradigm shift towards funding that can unashamedly centre on human rights in crises. FFP may provide an exciting route to fully tackle ongoing resistance to these agendas, such as that towards ‘Women, Peace and Security’.
Counter fear-based narratives fuelling global backlash
Democracy itself faces significant challenges in its ability to manage the multiple overlapping crises that are intensifying around the world. Amid global conflicts, inflation, climate breakdown and wealth inequalities, people’s loss of faith in democratic systems fosters an environment where the simplistic narratives of anti-rights actors find traction.
As ALIGN analysis has shown, backsliding and backlash on human rights are fuelled by turning fear-based prejudice into political currency, with divisive language having tangible impacts on queer peoples’ lives. In Uganda, for example, many report having lost their jobs and their homes, or being refused medical treatment amid rising violence. In countries like Ghana, Poland and Brazil, those in power have used gender minorities as scapegoats to distract from systemic inequities that keep the majority dissatisfied. These tactics are about preventing change to the status quo.
However, while anti-rights voices use narratives that target LGBTQI+ people and misrepresent gender as an ideology threatening the ‘natural family’ and ‘current order’, new narratives are essential to undermine such myths.
What can be done?
Increasing attacks on LGBTQI+ rights is part of a broader context of eroding democratic rights for everyone. These rights should therefore be defended by all who value equality and democracy.
The international community can stand up for LGBTQI+ rights beyond Pride:
- States can provide more safe asylum routes and humanise the application process so LGBTQI+ people escaping conflict or persecution can find safety.
- Donors can pivot funding to resource LGBTQI+ social movements and crisis-responses led by LGBTQI+ organisations.
- Humanitarians can better integrate gender diversity into project design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation that accounts for the particular needs of LGBTQI+ people.
- States with FFP can take robust and principled policy positions into their negotiations with foreign governments and non-governmental actors. Particularly to uphold LGBTQI+ rights and defend gender equality norms in international institutions and multilateral fora like the UN Human Rights Council.
- Ugandans have asked that states take steps to restrain the resources flowing to the anti-rights movements, turning prejudice into political projects in the Global South.
- Donors can invest in research to understand what public narratives can counter fear-based rhetoric fuelling global backlash against democracy.