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Prospects for LGBTQI+ rights worldwide in 2019

Written by David Watson, Dina Mansour-Ille, Caelin Robinson, Aaron Bailey-Athias, Richa Okhandiar-MacDougall, Ben Tritton, Leah Campbell


On 1 January 2019 a law came into force in Germany allowing intersex people to legally identify as ‘diverse’ on official documents. Although not without controversy because of the requirement for a doctor’s certificate to register, the legal change was a welcome step forward for the recognition of diversity.

On the same day in the UK two gay men were attacked on London’s South Bank for holding hands. This was utterly shocking in one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world, where the traffic lights in Trafalgar Square feature heterosexual and same-sex couples holding hands, and multiple gender symbols.

If the rights and safety of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, questioning or queer and intersex (LGBTQI+) people remain a work in progress in two of the world’s most progressive countries, elsewhere, the situation can be a lot worse. ‘Homosexuality’ is still illegal in over 70 countries; many of those are members of the Commonwealth.

Despite this grim statistic there is also cause for optimism. Angola has just decriminalised gay sex and introduced protections against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. A record 10 LGBTQI+ people took office as Members of the US Congress on 3 January. And Bangladesh may see its first transgender MP in February.

Here members of ODI’s LGBTQI+ staff network outline prospects for LGBTQI+ people in 2019.

Frequently asked questions

David Watson: UK must show global leadership

The UK Prime Minister said in her opening speech to the Commonwealth Summit in April 2018 that nobody should face persecution or discrimination because of who they are or who they love. 2019 should be the year that Britain takes global leadership on making that a reality.

In June the United Kingdom takes over as co-chair of the Equal Rights Coalition together with Argentina. The coalition helps governments to cooperate, coordinate and communicate to strengthen LGBTQI+ rights globally. Combined with being Chair-In-Office of the Commonwealth, this presents a tremendous opportunity for the UK to advance LGBTQI+ equality and anti-discrimination.

The UK is already providing much needed funding for work internationally on LGBTQI+ equality and inclusion, through the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In the LGBT Action Plan 2018 the government committed to ‘delivering an international conference focusing on the issues LGBT people face around the world’.

These issues are pressing and they have been largely absent from discussions at the United Nations on progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals, despite governments’ attestations that the Goals and targets should be met for ‘all segments of society’. Convening the conference this year while holding the chair of the Equal Rights Coalition and the Commonwealth would be a good way to maximise the UK’s influence.

This confluence of activities presents an opportunity for the UK to work with governments, civil society and community representatives, and businesses to articulate a clear set of LGBTQI+ objectives for Agenda 2030. It will be particularly important to support and listen to allies in Africa and the Middle East where many countries with the most punitive laws criminalising consensual same-sex activity are located.

With the UN High Level Political Forum meeting at Head of State level in September, the UK would be well placed to present and amplify those objectives and lead a global alliance to leave no LGBTQI+ person behind.

Frequently asked questions

Dina Mansour-Ille: growing activism in the Middle East and North Africa

In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), where the concept of family is governed by religion, culture and tradition, the LGBTQI+ community faces not only state-sponsored repression, but also societal and familial reprisal.

In 2013, a survey found that most people in the region believe that homosexuality should be rejected: 97% in Jordan, 95% in Egypt and 80% in Lebanon.

Conservative interpretations of Islamic shari’a law, state laws condemning homosexuality directly or indirectly, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and associating homosexuality with ‘western influence’, have all contributed to increased hostility towards LGBTQI+ people and restrictions on their rights.

In countries where homosexuality is not explicitly made an offence, such as Egypt or Lebanon, vaguely worded laws around ‘morality’ or ‘unnatural’ sexual acts are used to persecute those who stand accused of ‘promoting sexual deviancy’. Most countries in the region can attribute their strict laws against homosexuality to the justice systems they inherited from their French or British colonisers.

LGBTQI+ people face imprisonment in most MENA countries; in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen and Sudan they face the death penalty. In Iraq, where technically same-sex relations are not illegal, the conflict beginning in 2003 enabled Islamic militia groups to target homosexuals.

Yet there is evidence that positive change is possible. In Lebanon, for example, despite the vagueness of the law, an appeals court made an unprecedented ruling in July 2018 that consensual sex between same-sex people is not unlawful. In Jordan, activists are using theatre and arts to raise awareness about gender identity and sexual orientation among the LGBT communities themselves and in some cases, to the general public.

And despite the crackdown on LGBTQI+ people in some countries across the region, activism in support of LGBT rights in the region has been on the rise in recent years. From only four associations advocating for sexual freedom in 2009, today there are more than 20 such movements across the MENA region.

Activists continue to employ creative means to support one another, forming new coalitions to respond to repression, offering emergency shelters to LGBTQI+ people harassed by police forces and galvanising international pressure to instigate change.

Frequently asked questions

Caelin Robinson: Canada leads the way – but it can still do more

Canada is often held up as a leading example in the fight for LGBTQI+ rights. It has helped individuals escape persecution and violence, co-chaired the Equal Rights Coalition and supported the accreditation of the Commonwealth Equality Network.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told Parliament: ‘It is our role to set a standard for how states should treat women, gays and lesbians [and] transgendered people […]’.

The country has made world-leading and steady progress towards establishing its LGBTQI+ citizens’ rights since decriminalising homosexuality in 1969. Current prime minister Justin Trudeau has followed in his father’s footsteps (whose government passed the 1969 decriminalisation law): in November 2017 he issued an historic apology to the LGBTQI+ community for the country’s past mistreatment of its fellow Canadians and expunged the criminal records of men persecuted for homosexuality (Bill C–66 was given Royal Assent in 2018).

Canada has also made positive progress on gender identity and trans rights. There is now a non-binary gender option on passports. Bill C–16, passed in 2017, amended the Canadian Human Rights Act to include gender identity or expression as grounds for protection against discrimination.

But while this progress is worth celebrating, Canada must not become complacent. The General Election in October will be an excellent litmus test for the country’s post-2019 direction – and while campaign platforms have not yet been released, there are plenty of good places to start. There remains, for example, a deferral period on blood donations from gay men, despite the Liberals running on a pledge in 2015 to end it. Conversion therapy, too, is still legal in Canada; it is banned in only three provinces (and the City of Vancouver).

Canada should be proud to be a world leader in this area, but to stay there, it needs to continue to push for protections, equality and rights for LGBTQI+ people around the world.

Frequently asked questions

Aaron Bailey-Athias: Bolsonaro’s presidency must not roll back hard-won rights in Brazil

Brazil has made incredible progress in recent years in expanding equal rights to its LGBTQI+ population. Civil same-sex marriage is legal across the country, same-sex couples can adopt children and transgender people have won the right to change their legal gender and name.

So why were so many gay couples rushing to get married before the start of 2019? The answer: Jair Bolsonaro.

Brazil’s new president has a history of making racist, sexist and homophobic remarks. In one of many controversial statements he said he’d rather have a dead son than a gay one. But these sorts of remarks did not affect his popularity. Bolsonaro’s successful campaign was able to take advantage of the crippled economy, corruption scandals and rampant crime to stoke anger and fear and gain votes across the political spectrum.

Despite legal wins, Brazil still marginalises its LGBTQI+ populations – especially poor, black trans women – who suffer from violence. And violence has grown. Deaths from homophobic attacks rose 30% from 2016 to 2017. Last week, openly gay congressman Jean Wyllys resigned and fled the country because of death threats.

What does a Bolsonaro presidency mean for Brazil’s LGBTQI+ community?

Bolsonaro is vocally against so-called ‘gender ideology’ – a vague term adopted by conservative religious movements to denote policies or activism aimed at improving gender equality and LGBTQI+ rights, which they feel undermine family values. If these ideas are influencing the most powerful politician in Latin America, then LGBTQI+ people have every right to be concerned.

Yet there are reasons to be hopeful. The LGBTQI+ community in Brazil has seen increased visibility in mainstream media, political movements are more organised and younger generations are more aware of their rights.

LGBTQI+ rights, which are far from being consolidated in full, will not be addressed by the current administration. But if there are attempts to roll back hard-won rights, the government will face strong resistance.

Frequently asked questions

Richa Okhandiar-MacDougall: welcome legal changes in India; now attitudes must follow

2018 saw a major turn towards LBGTQI+ equality within Indian law when, on 6 September, the Supreme Court declared Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code unconstitutional and decriminalised homosexuality.

The judiciary bench unequivocally called Section 377 ‘irrational, indefensible and manifestly arbitrary’, while apologising for the harm and oppression LGBTQI+ people have faced. This discriminatory law was put in place under British rule in 1864 and was repealed in 2009 only to be reinstated in 2013.

The new ruling sparked a wave of joy and celebration among progressive and queer groups, but also acknowledged that the battle to change social attitudes remains a long one.

The last decade has seen a visible rise in queer rights in India, including in 2014 when transgender people were granted the ability to legally self-identify without sex reassignment surgery, and to legally register under a third gender.

The third gender – or hijras as they are known in South Asia – exist outside of the binary male and female identity and are a long-standing part of South Asian culture. They have been excluded from the main sectors of society and are vulnerable to extreme poverty, persecution and ridicule.

Historically LGBTQI+ people have faced countless setbacks to get us to where we are today. With the 2018 and 2014 rulings, state-sanctioned homophobia and transphobia have in theory been removed and will hopefully have set the tone for a more inclusive Indian society.

However, there is a long road ahead to change cultural attitudes so queer people are not just legally recognised but able to thrive in India.

Frequently asked questions

Ben Tritton: protect LGBTQI+ rights after Brexit

Britain is considered one of the most LGBTQI+ friendly countries in the world, based on anti-discrimination legislation, marriage rights, adoption, transgender rights and equality of the age of consent. But as Jonathan Cooper OBE points out, these hard-won rights are more precarious than you might think.

When parliamentarians voted down Lord Pannick’s amendment to the European Union Withdrawal Bill retaining the EU Charter of Fundamental rights, they voted to remove the only express right to non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in international law. Given the UK government’s historic role in persecuting LGBTQI+ people – the first specifically anti-gay legislation was enacted in 1885, criminalising all sexual acts between men, and it was not until 2003 that Section 28, the ban on ‘promoting’ homosexuality in schools, was overturned – LGBTQI+ people may understandably not take our rights for granted in post-Brexit Britain.

A 2018 online government survey of 108,000 people self-defining as LGBTQI+ showed that in the last year 28% of respondents experienced harassment or insults while 70% reported concealing their sexual orientation for fear of a negative reaction. Prejudice still persists: a 2018 poll of political party members views showed that only 41% of Conservatives, the main party of government since 2010, support gay marriage, compared to over 80% of Labour, Liberal Democrat and Scottish National Party members.

So while the government has plenty to navigate already in the Brexit Rubik’s cube, it must take steps to reassure that the rights and protections for LGBTQI+ people in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights will be enshrined in law once the UK leaves the EU.

Frequently asked questions

Leah Campbell: growing awareness of LGBTQI+ people’s vulnerability in humanitarian crises

LGBTQI+ people worldwide face discrimination and inequality, which create vulnerabilities and can further marginalise them in times of crisis.

Despite this, sexuality and gender identity are not often explicitly considered when humanitarians target their assistance. A report about sexual and gender minorities in Fiji explains that ‘most humanitarian documents either make no reference to sexual and gender minorities… [or] there is little or no detailed policy or practice guidance’.

Inadvertently, ways of working which don’t specifically consider the situation of LGBTQI+ people can do harm – excluding gay men from receiving food aid (where assistance is given only to women) or raising safety concerns for transgender people forced to choose between male/female designated shelters.

Lack of legal and social protections in most of the places where humanitarian response takes place make it even more difficult for LGBTQI+ people. Countries receiving humanitarian assistance are significantly overrepresented in ILGA’s 2017 State-Sponsored Homophobia Report . Of 36 countries in need of humanitarian assistance in 2018, 25 criminalise same-sex acts. Syria, Yemen and Iraq, where same-sex acts are punishable by death, were the three largest recipients of humanitarian assistance in 2016

While these facts appear bleak, there are some glimmers of hope. Grassroots LGBTQI+ organisations do exist and respond in crisis. Nepal’s Blue Diamond Society, for example, actively responded to the 2015 earthquake and played a critical role.

Globally, LGBTQI+ issues are starting to be considered by large international organisations as well – being raised for the first time in the 2018 State of the Humanitarian System report as one of several areas where humanitarians need to improve.

While changing laws and societal attitudes will take significant effort, individuals can get informed by getting familiar with terminology (PDF), or reading more from organisations such as ORAM, Edge Effect and Stonewall, and take steps to ensure the needs and experiences of LGBTQI+ people are taken into consideration in humanitarian crises.

Note on terminology: there are multiple terms used to describe sexual orientation and gender identity. ODI’s staff network uses LGBTQI+ for example, whereas the UK government uses LGBT and the UN uses LGBTI. We aim to be inclusive and respect the use of terms adopted by other organisations, hence the use of various acronyms in this comment piece.