The US supreme court’s ruling that same-sex marriage is a legal right across the country marks a milestone in the march for equality.
But the ever-expanding rainbow map of America, bolstered by the Friday verdict, is in stark contrast to the state of LGBT rights in the rest of the world, where as many as 80 countries are still hostile toward gay people.
Despite recent progress in the US, Latin America and even Ireland – one of the most conservative societies in Europe – the global campaign for the rights of sexual minorities has experienced a series of setbacks in other regions including Africa and the Middle East.
Fewer than 1 billion of the world’s population live in countries where same-sex marriage or civil unions are recognised, compared to almost 2.8 billion living in countries which criminalise gay people and impose severe punishments on homosexuality, such as imprisonment, lashings and even death sentences.
In around 10 countries, homosexuality is punishable by death, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Brunei.
Jessica Stern, the executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), welcomed the US supreme court’s ruling on Friday but said that the campainers’ work is far from over.
“Today and for weeks and months to come, Americans will celebrate today’s historic ruing – a dream come true for tens of thousands of [people],” she said. “The US has joined 19 other countries in recognition of the freedom to marry for same-sex couples nationwide and yet, our work is far from over – not in the US and not around the world.”
She added: “Marriage equality is one slice of the pie, but homophobia and transphobia morph into different shapes in law and practice. Nearly 80 countries still criminalize same-sex intimacy and countless prohibit so-called ‘cross-dressing’.”
Charles Radcliffe, the UN’s special adviser on LGBT rights and the head of global issues at the UN human rights office in New York, said that the global picture was not entirely bleak and stressed that there have been significant improvements worldwide.
“There have been some setbacks, notably in some parts of the former Soviet Union and a few African countries, but it’s important not to lose sight of the larger picture, which remains one of enormous progress affecting LGBT people in most of the world,” he said.
“Whether on marriage, new anti-discrimination laws or transgender inclusion, we continue to see big steps forward. Advances have not been confined to western countries, some of the most striking changes have occurred in Latin America, and positive measures have also been taken by some African and Asian countries. And almost everywhere – even in hostile places – you see greater visibility of LGBT communities and LGBT activism.”
Recent improvements on gay rights, he said, include a new gender identity law in Argentina, a new civil union law in Chile, constitutional amendments in Malta, decriminalisation of gay relationships in Mozambique, pro-transgender assistance in India, and decriminalisation of homosexuality in Pacific countries such as Fiji and Palau.
But many countries in Africa and the Middle East are extremely hostile to gay people, who remain at risk of criminalisation or homophobic violence.
According to Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, the intensifying backlash in the world is partly due to the greater visibility of the LGBT community in societies that have begun to recognise their rights.
“LGBT people are also convenient scapegoats for embattled leaders, who are trying to rally support from more conservative sectors of their society. Whether it’s Uganda, Nigeria or Russia, the decision to scapegoat the LGBT community is an outcome of serious challenges to the regime, for widespread corruption or abusive authoritarianism,” he said, according to HRW’s website.
“The status of the LGBT community is a good litmus test for the status of human rights in society more broadly, precisely because it is such a vulnerable minority – similar to the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Where the rights of LGBT people are undermined, you can be sure that the rights of other minorities and critical members of civil society will soon also be in jeopardy.”
The Commonwealth remains a bastion of homophobia, with 41 out 53 member states still using British colonial-era legislation to criminalise homosexuals.
A major setback for gay rights campaigners was a 2013 ruling by India’s supreme court which re-criminalised gay sex in the country, said Felicity Daly, executive director of the Kaleidoscope Trust.
In Trinidad and Tobago gay people can be jailed for up to 25 years; in Malaysia the punishment for being gay is 20 years plus an additional sentence of lashing. Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Pakistan, Uganda, Bangladesh and Guyana all impose life imprisonment for homosexuality.
Earlier this month in Morocco, two gay men were sentenced to four months each in jail after they were arrested for standing too close to one another as they posed for a photograph.
Amid improvements, violence against gay people remain a big concern, said Joel Simkhai, the CEO of gay dating app Grindr. “Since 2008, activists have documented over 800 murders of transgender people,” he wrote in a column for the Huffington Post last month.
“Sometimes the perpetrators who act against us represent governments, themselves, as happened with police raids on a gay bar in Kenya last year. Other times, it is their lack of action to protect us that makes officials complicit, as when Russia ignored gun violence and gas attacks on gay clubs in Moscow. There are countless other acts of violence around the world that go unreported and ignored by local officials.”
Speaking after Friday’s ruling, Stern said gay activists in the US should now turn their attention to fresh challenges.
“First, we must address those who are most vulnerable within this country, including transgender people in immigration detention. Second, I hope that we will join the global movement to fight intolerance and affirm fundamental dignity. That work must truly become our own, if we hope to achieve a world free and equal for all. Today is not an end but a new beginning.”.
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