More than 50 nations offer broad human-rights protections for the LGBTQ community, covering 15 percent of the world’s population.
By Joseph Chamie and Barry Mirkin*
Globally, an increasing number of countries are enacting legislation and adopting policies to ensure that those in the LGBTQ community have fundamental human rights, civil liberties and protections. The pace of societal changes has been particularly rapid. For example, the Netherlands legalized same-sex marriage.in 2001, and 25 countries soon followed. Together, these represent one sixth of the world’s population.
With these legal changes, the numbers of such married couples have grown considerably. In Canada, for example, from 2006 to 2016, the number of same-sex marriages increased by about 60 percent versus a 10 percent increase among opposite-sex marriages.
Broad protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation are in place for 52 countries, about 15 percent of the world’s population, with nine countries constitutionally prohibiting such discrimination. In addition, 43 countries passed legislation that treats homophobic crimes as hate crimes. Other rights and freedoms extended to the LGBTQ community include joint adoption by same-sex couples in 28 countries and transgender military service in 18 countries. Eight nations have banned conversion therapy, a medically discredited practice that aims to change, suppress or eliminate an individual’s sexual orientation. Other countries consider following suit.
Gender-assignment and hormone-replacement therapy are increasingly available to transgender persons. Argentina, for example, made sex-change surgery a legal right in 2012. In the United States, Medicare, which eliminated the exclusion in 2014, permits such surgeries. Some 20 member states of the European Union allow gender reassignment surgery. With demand for the sex-reassignment surgery increasing markedly in recent years, foreign destinations like Thailand, emerge as popular locations for the surgical procedure.
LGBTQ adults report that many countries have become more accepting and expect the trend to continue. In a United Kingdom survey, for example, the proportion of respondents suggesting same-sex relationships are “not wrong at all” went from 17 percent when the survey began in 1983 to 64 percent in 2016. However, the LGBTQ community understands that public opinion could shift and governments could retract these rights.
Factors behind growing acceptance include people knowing, interacting or working with someone who is LGBTQ; advocacy by rights organizations and public figures; positive media portrayals; and seeing LGBTQ couples marry, have children and raise families. Prominent political leaders and celebrities in Belgium, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Scotland, Serbia and the United States publicly acknowledge their sexual orientation and encourage acceptance.
While 123 countries, about two-thirds of the world total, consider consensual same-sex acts to be legal, there are striking regional differences: All the countries in Europe and North America consider consensual same-sex acts to be legal, and less than half of the countries in Africa and Asia and about three-fourths of Latin America and the Caribbean consider those acts legal.
In 68 countries where same-sex sexual activity remains illegal, such acts are punishable by imprisonment in 14 and death in seven. Brunei, for example, recently imposed whipping and stoning to death as punishment for same-sex sexual activity, which sparked international outrage and demands for a reversal. In an apparent bid to temper international condemnation, Brunei’s leader announced that he would extend a moratorium on capital punishment for same-sex sexual activity. Concerns emerged that Brunei’s recently adopted law could influence neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia toward adopting similar laws.
Oppressive laws regarding the LGBTQ community are not limited to developing countries. Japan’s 2004 Gender Identity Disorder Special Cases Act, for example, contravenes human rights and UN conventions by recognizing a transgender person’s identified gender only with strict criteria: diagnosis of a gender identity disorder, unmarried status, at least 20 years of age with no children younger than 20 years, gonads absent or non-functioning, and genitalia resembling their transition gender. About 0.5 percent of the Japanese population is transgender, and the country is not alone in restricting legal recognition to those who have had sex-reassignment surgery.
Despite growing tolerance in Western Europe and the Americas, some groups and political parties continue vocal opposition to extending LGBTQ rights, especially marriage. Central and Eastern European countries such as Azerbaijan, Hungary, Latvia, Poland and Russia display increasing intolerance, discrimination, hostility and violence toward the community, including resistance to legal marriage for gays and lesbians. Those governments insist that their positions reflect values of conservative societies.
Many countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East ostracize, criminalize and punish LGBTQ persons. The denial of basic human rights to those in the LGBTQ community extends to a broad range of social issues, including marriage, parenting, adoption and military service with objections often rooted in religious attitudes, moral beliefs, traditional cultural norms, homophobia and political ideologies that define gender as an immutable condition determined by biology at birth.
Higher levels of depression, suicide, discrimination and ill health are still reported for the community, especially among youth, older adults and the transgender community. In most of the world, not identifying oneself as male or female can lead to a life plagued by discrimination, abuse and violence. Even in developed countries, men and women who identify as gay, lesbian and bisexual report lower levels of wellbeing and higher levels of rejection than heterosexuals. A lack of non-binary designations often means official government statistics go uncollected on transgender citizens, making it easy to ignore issues that affect their wellbeing. An American Foundation for Suicide Prevention survey found that more than 41 percent of transgender people attempt suicide, well above the US national rate of 5 percent.
A growing number of governments and organizations worldwide like airlines have expanded the traditional binary sex classification in documents and forms, offering a gender non-binary designation. At least 10 countries, including Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Denmark, Germany, India, Ireland, Malta, Nepal, New Zealand and Pakistan, permit passports to be issued with a third gender option. Eight US states and the District of Columbia also permit non-binary options on driver licenses, birth certificates and other documents. Canada, India, Nepal and Pakistan recognize and incorporate binary gender identities for upcoming population censuses.
For LGBTQ individuals to acquire rights, protections and liberties as other citizens, governments must pursue policies and programs including:
Non-binary option: A third gender identity option should be available and voluntary in identifying documents and records, providing transgender individuals the same rights as those who identify as male or female.
Data and research: Governments should compile data on sexual orientation and gender identity in censuses and large-scale surveys, and publish appropriate research, including basic statistics and concerns relating to the community.
Special needs: Governments should invest in programs and services needed to improve and protect the security, health and overall wellbeing of the community – ensuring that members are treated equitably, protected from discrimination, bullying, ridicule and harmful practices such as conversion therapy.
Education: Public education should raise awareness and understanding of the diversity of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Inclusion: Governments, businesses and social organizations should encourage participation of the LGBTQ community in all spheres of society.
Human Rights: Governments should do their utmost to eliminate the abuse and persecution of those in the community and guarantee their fundamental human rights, including ending the criminalization of homosexuality.
A global sexual, gender and identity revolution is underway and occurring at a particularly rapid pace. The LGBTQ community has achieved notable gains, though not yet universal. Since the start of the 21st century, many governments, industries and social organizations have revised laws, policies and regulations to provide protections and civil liberties to these citizens. Efforts to ensure fundamental rights and equal treatment of all members of this community must be promoted and extended worldwide.
*Joseph Chamie is a former director of the United Nations Population Division and Barry Mirkin is the former chief of the Population Policy Section of the United Nations Population Division.