The turn of the millennium brought us many things. Big Brother hit the screens and the UK IQ average dropped by two points (not necessarily a causation effect…); Clippit became the default Office assistant on Windows 2000, the latest in processing software, successfully annoying us enough to become one of the first mainstream internet memes; and the first Sims game came out, allowing Millennials the joy of playing in a fantasy world where they could have a job, a family and still buy a house!
The cultural jokes aside, there was one thing that made 2000 an important turning point, and that was the Netherland Parliament passing a bill allowing same-sex marriages, permitting same-sex couples to marry, divorce and adopt children. This monumental decision, the first of its kind, started the movement towards marriage equality bills being voted in across the developed world.
The most recent positive move towards LGBTQ+ equality came on the ninth of January, from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, who ruled that all signatory parties of the Pact of San José were required to provide the same rights to same-sex couples, including marriage. This may lead soon to legalizing same-sex marriage in most of the Americas, where Panama and Costa Rica have already agreed to comply!
However, not all developing countries are quite as liberal. Eighty countries still have criminal punishment for consensual homosexual sex, six of which currently enforce the death penalty for same-sex relations – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen, plus some regions of Nigeria and Somalia. Five further states; Afghanistan, Mauritania, Pakistan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, permit the death penalty technically, but have yet to publicly invoked it. Of the latest to change their laws, Chad last year criminalised homosexuality, and Brunei, in 2014, moved to allow the death penalty for homosexuality, but is yet to enact the change.
Saudi Arabia by far has the greatest list of challenges against LGBTQ persons. When the UN and other bodies that monitor countries equality and development, look at the progression of LGBTQ+ rights, there is a list of things they look for to get a bench mark of how tolerant a state is.
Is same-sex sexual activity legal, is there equal age of consent for hetero and homosexual couples, are there anti-discrimination laws in employment, in the provision of goods and services, or in all other areas (for example indirect discrimination, or hate speech), is there legal same-sex marriage, or recognition of same-sex couples married in other jurisdictions, is there the ability to adopt a step-child by same-sex couples, or have joint adoption, are they allowed to serve openly in the military, do they have the right to change legal gender, is there access to In Vitro Fertilisation, or commercial surrogacy, and can sexually active homosexuals donate blood?
In Saudi Arabia it failed to score on any one of these markers. It is not even illegal to discriminate against a non active LGBT member, in fact, discrimination is encouraged, enforced and heavily applied to the LGBT community.
The reason Saudi Arabia is so intolerant primarily comes down to its legal system and staunch stance in Sharia law, Islamic law derived from the Qur’an and the Sunnah traditions. All laws come from Royal decree, some based on advice from Sharia Judges, or high ranking clerics. In addition to law enforcement, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice has the power to arrest and detain people who violate the traditional teachings of Islam, including acts of homosexuality and cross-dressing. All together, it creates an environment that is deadly for the LGBT community.
Recently the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to condemn the use of the death penalty for homosexuality, however unable to enforce any measures efficiently, the vote only acts as a wagging finger in the face of the culprits of such penal codes. This is weakened even more so when the US, yes the home of freedom, where same-sex marriage is legal, voted against the condemnation measure. Meaning there is little pressure on these countries, as the US, widely regarded as the world police, decide to turn their back to it.
The Pew Research Centre for Global Attitudes and Trends found acceptance of homosexuality is particularly widespread in countries where religion is less central in people’s lives. These are also among the richest countries in the world. In contrast, in poorer countries with high levels of religiosity, few believe homosexuality should be accepted by society. This is most prevalent in the Middle East, where only 11.2% believe that society should accept homosexuality. Though this value was pulled up by the split vote of the Israeli population, who are 47% in favour of acceptance. The spread of homophobic tendencies can also be traced back to evangelic fundamental Christian groups whom have a great belief in missionary work, but also theology rooted in specific reading of the Hebrew Bible and Paul’s Letters, which some site as condemning homosexuality. Regularly, in exchange for aid, they would encourage local communities to move towards their theological teachings, leaving the LGBTQ+ at the fringes of society.
Religion, however, is not the only reason that many countries form such negative attitudes, and laws, against the community. Of the eighty countries where same-sex sexual activity is illegal, forty rely on sodomy laws, brought in with the British Empire. These sodomy laws are based off the British “Buggery Act”, which was a legal act that defined buggery as an unnatural sexual act against the will of God and man, later defined by the courts to include only anal penetration and bestiality. Despite the fact many of these cultures pre-colonization, had fluid gender roles, and the “third gender”, this has all been eradicated by the enforcement of the colonial culture onto the native culture. This has been noted, again by Pew Research Centre, who showed only 8.5% of the population in Postcolonial nations believe homosexuality should be accepted. However, if you take out South Africa, who legalised for same sex marriage, as not to be in violation of its constitution which heavily values equality post-apartheid, this value drops 3.2% showing how the colonial era culture and laws have had a devastating effect to the acceptance within these countries.
Unfortunately, this is not something we can fix. As the British Empire imposed itself as culturally and morally superior for centuries, these countries have an anti-colonial sentiment that will push back against any further imposition from the West, and it is justified given the atrocities we committed. This can be seen as proposals to have British foreign aid be dependent on the repeal of anti-LGBT laws, have armed many countries with anti-imperialist and cultural protectionist rhetoric, that actually lead to backlash of even more intolerant governments moving into power. In fact, often as the West step forward in terms of legalising for LGBTQ+ rights, the anti-West mentality moves these countries towards more hard line laws. We rely on new emerging economies, like South Africa or Brazil, who may offer better received advice, to stand up for LGBTQ+ rights, and move for these countries to do the same.
However, there are a number of countries that are making strides forward in the legislation for LGBTQ+ rights, specifically within the Global South. “On gay rights, Vietnam is now more progressive than America” A headline ran by NBC, and although maybe a little over ambitious in how progressive Vietnam actually is, it is true to say that it has made huge movements recently to narrow the gender and sexual identity equality gap. In 2016 Nepal moved to recognise the third gender legally, protecting the rights of Hijras, a transgender community who have a long cultural history in Nepal, and the September prior to that, the constitutionally enshrined protections for the LGBT community, a first for any Asian state. Mozambique, the ex Portuguese colony, with harsh ties to the Catholic Church, decriminalized homosexuality, a huge step forward in that southern region of Africa.
The Theodore Parker quote, made famous by Martin Luther King Jr., comes to mind now; “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”. Although totally equality may not have been reached as of yet, in this age of globalization, with international and social pressures, there is no doubt that LGBTQ+ rights are on the rise.
-Owain Campton, Co. Editor-in-Chief
(At Time: Politics and Current Affairs Editor)