Daniela Strube is a Research Fellow with the G20 Studies Centre at the Lowy Institute.
Marriage equality and LGBT (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender) rights are again in the headlines in Australia, with the High Court due to rule today on the Commonwealth’s challenge to the same-sex marriage legislation recently adopted by the Australian Capital Territory.
Given the bumpy road for LGBT rights in this country, it is pertinent to ask whether other countries have experienced a similar journey. Where does the world stand in terms of the legal and social status of homosexuality?
At least here in Australia, we are clearly living in a world where tolerance and diversity are cherished and practiced values and where assimilation to strict social norms is less and less required. This seems hard to reconcile with the current government’s stance on marriage as a union between a man and woman. However, a majority of national governments take this stance.
To date, 15 countries out of 196 allow gay marriage. The first legalisation of same sex marriage occurred only a decade ago, in 2001 in the Netherlands. However, the numbers are rising. Most of the 15 countries to legalise gay marriage have done so very recently. This trend is backed up by a rising social acceptance of homosexuality. This is important, because popular attitudes towards homosexuality correlate with the legal situation of gay and lesbian people.
On the other hand, homosexuality is a capital offence in some countries.
In Saudi Arabia and Iran, you can be sentenced to death for being gay. In other countries, police turn a blind eye to crimes against homosexual people. In parts of Somalia or Nigeria, homosexuals are not protected by state laws. Many more countries, at least 76, criminalise homosexuality in some form (more than half are part of the Commonwealth of Nations, with approximately 77% of Commonwealth countries considering homosexuality a criminal offence, while only 25% of the rest of world does). Even in Australia, decriminalisation of homosexuality was only completed in 1997.
It is important to keep in mind that LGBT rights are not only about marriage equality and the legal status of homosexuality; there are numerous other forms of discrimination. In addition to the status and legality of homosexual relationships, LGBT rights concern both human and civil rights, addressing discriminatory practices at work and in public life, immigration laws, parenting rights, military service regulations and the criminal law implications of discrimination and violence against homosexual people. LGBT rights have recently made (troubling) headlines in three countries: Chile, Russia and Uganda.
The horrific murder of 24 year-old Daniel Zamudio in a public park in Santiago almost two years ago has shocked Chile. Daniel was sadistically tortured by a group of men simply for being gay, and died in hospital shortly afterward.
The case confronted Chile with its history of violence and repression against homosexual people. This dark legacy is inconsistent with traditions in other Latin American countries, such as Brazil, where homosexuality was decriminalised in 1830 – Chile passed such a law only in 1999. But the brutality of the hate crime on Daniel Zamudio has shaken up the political elite, including former (and probable future) President Michelle Bachelet, who previously opposed gay marriage but has now changed her views.
Russia’s LGBT rights situation has been the subject of significant media interest in wake of the country hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Russia recently passed a law criminalising 'propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships' among minors. The loose wording of the law makes it particularly susceptible to broad discrimination against homosexual people. Following international media outrage, President Vladimir Putin was quick to declare that athletes and Olympic visitors would not be affected by the law.
The most concerning aspect that has come to light in the last few months is the broad support the discriminatory law receives among the Russian public. In fact, the Levada Centre has found that more than one-third of Russians hold the view that homosexuality is a disease. This is the breeding ground for a series of appalling hate crimes that have occurred recently. Videos have emerged of torture against gay men where the crimes are motivated by grotesque allegations of a link between homosexuality and paedophilia. Although it is not known who is behind these horrific acts, little is done by the authorities to stop them.
Uganda is known as one of the most hostile countries for homosexual people.
It has recently been in the media for a court case raised against a British national and his Ugandan partner. The case has been used by local demagogues to reinforce the crude propaganda that homosexuality is an evil brought into the country by Western tourists. In fact, Western influence moves in the other direction — the strong influence of Western evangelical movements in Uganda preaching an outdated and violent sexual morality is well known. The Ugandan media has previously published the names and addresses of allegedly homosexual people, seriously endangering them and their families. Anti-gay sentiments are also widespread among the political elite.
In 2009, the so-called ‘kill the gays’ bill was first introduced into parliament, calling for the death penalty for certain homosexual acts. It would also sanctify harsh punishment for people helping or dealing with gays or lesbians. Due to strong international pressure, the bill has been on hold ever since, but a slightly modified version is now under debate in parliament.
It is clear that there is a deepening of the divide in LGBT rights worldwide. If you are gay or lesbian or have a homosexual family member, friend or colleague (and statistically, that applies to pretty much all of us) it has never mattered more where you live.
Photo by Flickr user Person Behind the Scenes.