Gay and Lesbian Rights Rising in Hostile Countries

Across the globe, LGBT activists are seeing gains. The ACLU has fought harassment of students in states like California and Ohio, defended gay teachers in Idaho and Utah and promoted school policies that allow gay and lesbian student groups to meet on campus.

But the West’s promotion of LGBT rights as universal human rights has also fueled a movement hostile to them, guised as nationalism.

1. Kenya

A day after the Supreme Court ruled that Kenya’s National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC) must be allowed to register as an NGO, I met with activists in Nairobi to learn more about what the ruling could mean for their community.

NGLHRC was founded in 2010 by Eric Gitari, a former government official who was later arrested on charges of inciting homosexual acts. The group has since been shut down several times and its members have faced persecution. “You’re always under scrutiny by police, your family, your neighbors,” Gitari told openDemocracy. “You’re not safe in your homes.”

While a Supreme Court victory might not reverse discriminatory laws, it could encourage LGBT advocates to mount legal challenges of their own. Already, courts in some other former British colonies have struck down laws against homosexual acts.

But the fight for rights in Kenya is far from over. Activists have vowed to pressure President Ruto to reject the proposed law, and US Trade Representative Katherine Tai has been urged by a coalition of LGBTQI+, labor, HIV, and human rights groups to pause STIP negotiations until Kenya commits to vetoing the bill.

2. Uganda

In Uganda, a country with an incredibly religious population — many of the staunchest supporters of its anti-gay law are clergy members — a government crackdown on LGBT people is now threatening lives. A new bill that could send homosexuals to life in prison or even death has prompted a wave of fear in the LGBTQ community.

The 2023 bill criminalizes anyone who “promotes” homosexuality, a vaguely worded term that would allow authorities to investigate and arrest activists. The country’s long-serving president, 78-year-old Yoweri Museveni, has a history of hostility to LGBT rights. His administration demonizes homosexuality, distorts evidence, and stirs hatred.

Activists say this latest proposal will put LGBT+ people at greater risk of blackmail, extortion and murder, and will increase the already-frequent incidents of violence, arbitrary arrest, and hate crimes. They will also face health risks, as fear of stigma prevents them from seeking treatment for illnesses like HIV and AIDS. Attempts by Western governments to pressure Uganda over the bill can backfire, as they can fuel anti-LGBT sentiment. Activists say it is time for Ugandans to rise up and demand change.

3. Morocco

Morocco is plagued with entrenched legal and religious prejudice against gay people. The country’s legal prejudice stems from Article 489, which criminalizes same-sex relations, while religious prejudice is based on the Quran and hadiths, or sayings of the prophet Mohammed, that condemn homosexuality. These obstacles make it very difficult for gay organizations to develop in the country. Gay people are forced to pass as heterosexual in every aspect of their lives, including at work and at home, making it a challenge for them to participate in organizations that advocate for gay rights. Additionally, the organizations that do exist in the country keep their membership lists private so they can avoid outing members to family, friends and employers.

Samir Bargachi, the head of Morocco’s only gay organization, KifKif, works to improve the lives of Moroccan gay people through legal and societal changes. He, like Taia, is an openly gay Moroccan and a leader in the movement. He points out that he and his colleagues, while advocating for legal changes in the country, are also working to create a space where gay people can come together in solidarity.

4. Turkey

Despite the resurgence of LGBT activism, experts say there is little reason to be optimistic about Turkey’s prospects. The country’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used fearmongering tactics to justify a crackdown on freedom of speech since the July 2016 failed coup attempt. As a result, the community has been left vulnerable to scapegoating and incendiary rhetoric. For example, a Turkish community website documented 47 homophobic and transphobic murders between 2010-2014. And the military’s conscription system classifies homosexuality as a mental illness, and until recently required intimate photographic evidence or family testimonials from anyone seeking an exemption based on their sexual orientation.

In addition, sex-related content has been banned from television, and the governing AKP has pushed an Islamist agenda that has alienated the secular population. LC Waikiki, an American retailer, faced pressure to remove rainbow-themed products from stores after pro-government media accused the company of promoting homosexuality.

Neither Sulu or Ozenen are expected to win a seat in parliament: Both are running on lists for the minor Anadolu Party, and both are listed at the bottom of their parties’ candidate rosters. However, if either were elected, they could bring more visibility to the LGBT movement in Turkey, although their success would not necessarily be seen as a mandate for LGBT rights.

5. South Africa

South Africa is one of the most progressive countries in the world when it comes to LGBT rights. It was the first African country to include sexual orientation as a ground of non-discrimination in its constitution. It is a pioneer in the area of same-sex adoption and marriage. It allows gay people to serve openly in the military and donate blood.

But domestic repression of gays and lesbians still exists here, too. A recent survey found that 9% of South Africans would attempt to change the sexual orientation of their male neighbor. Moreover, the government’s attitude to the issue of homophobia is inconsistent.

The ANC government has a unique opportunity to use its influence in the continent to help protect LGBT Africans from homophobia. It is important for the government to take a stronger stand on this issue and demonstrate that it truly respects its own values and principles. This can help dispel the notion that South Africa is importing Western values. It can also set a positive example for its African neighbors. It can do this by clearly and consistently advocating for LGBT rights in the region.