Perspectives June 29, 2023
How LGBT+ Advocates Fight for Everyone
Democracy cannot thrive without the protection and promotion of universal human rights and the recognition of the inherent dignity and worth of every individual.
LGBT+ activists work tirelessly to defend individual rights for all, even as they are subjected to repression and hostility. In recognition of Pride Month, Freedom House spoke with the staff of two rights groups to learn about their contributions to the global fight for democracy, the progress LGBT+ advocates have achieved, and the risks LGBT+ people continue to face.
UHAI (“Life”) is Africa’s first Indigenous activist-led and -managed fund for and by LGBT+ people. UHAI supports civil society organizing through flexible and accessible grants, capacity support, and research and documentation. The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association–Europe (ILGA-Europe) is an independent nongovernmental umbrella organization uniting over 700 LGBT+ groups from 54 countries across Europe and Central Asia.
Q: LGBT+ advocates and organizations are often at the forefront of democratic change, but that history often goes untold. How is your work instrumental in advancing democracy?
UHAI: In essence, LGBT+ activists and organizations are defending and promoting fundamental rights for all individuals. Everyone wants to express themselves openly, associate freely, and live without discrimination. We are an integral part of civil society and play a vital role in holding governments accountable. Democracy cannot thrive without the protection and promotion of universal human rights and the recognition of the inherent dignity and worth of every individual.
ILGA-Europe: Antidemocratic and authoritarian forces use tools like hate speech and repressive legislation to attack LGBT+ people in much of Europe and Central Asia. This is emerging as a key tactic in their political playbooks; by targeting minoritized and underresourced groups, they threaten fundamental rights for all. ILGA-Europe focuses on nurturing and strengthening civil society, which is the very fabric of a democratic society. The LGBT+ groups we support are consequently protecting democracy for everyone, not just one community.
Q: Freedom House has documented a global democratic decline over 17 consecutive years. Do attacks on LGBT+ people presage a greater democratic retreat in the places you work? If so, how?
UHAI: In a robust and healthy democracy, equal rights and protections should be extended to all citizens, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Democracies thrive on inclusivity and the recognition of diverse perspectives. When these protections are eroded or undermined, it signals a regression in democratic values and principles. When protections for LGBT+ individuals are diminished, it can lead to a fragmented society, deepening social divisions, and an erosion of social cohesion—all of which are detrimental to democratic stability. Reversing these declines is essential for safeguarding and revitalizing democracy.
ILGA-Europe: Attempts to curtail LGBT+ rights are certainly linked to greater attacks on democratic principles. That can be a consequence, not just a precursor, of a broader democratic decline, since those who attack LGBT+ people often target other minorities in their quest for power. But sometimes, these acts are the first steps authoritarians take in their efforts to disassemble core democratic institutions. And LGBT+ people face serious real-world consequences. In the most recent edition of our Annual Review of the Human Rights Situation of LGBTI People in Europe and Central Asia, we noted that 2022 was the most violent year for the region’s LGBT+ people in the past decade.
Q: There have been many threats to LGBT+ people’s rights and freedoms across Africa, from officially sanctioned persecution to targeted violence. Describe the current realities facing LGBT+ people in your region. What threats do they face?
UHAI: LGBT+ individuals often face deep-rooted social stigma and discrimination within their communities, families, and workplaces, all of which contribute to the perpetuation of violence and hate crimes. Several African countries maintain laws that criminalize same-sex activity, with punishments ranging from imprisonment to the death penalty. The absence of comprehensive antidiscrimination laws and the criminalization of same-sex activity contribute to a climate of fear and insecurity. Despite these challenges, it is important to acknowledge the resilience and strength of LGBT+ individuals and organizations in Africa, who continue to advocate for their rights, provide support, and foster community networks.
Q: While regional public discourse is becoming more polarized and violent, LGBT+ human rights defenders have scored wins. How are LGBT+ advocates advancing human rights and protecting democracy?
UHAI: Some African countries have made real progress in expanding LGBT+ rights, like Botswana and Namibia; the latter country’s Supreme Court recently recognized same-sex marriages conducted abroad. The decriminalization of same-sex activity has also taken place, like in Angola. However, the overall situation remains complex. Advocates have to lodge a continued effort to protect and advance LGBT+ rights across the continent. But by focusing on community-led solutions and engaging directly with LGBT+ people, we can help address specific challenges and empower individuals to become agents of change.
ILGA-Europe: While the public discourse is indeed becoming more hostile, particularly against transgender people, there is a clear political will to advance LGBT+ rights. Governments in Finland, Spain, and Scotland have passed laws making it easier for transgender people to receive legal recognition of their gender identities based on self-determination, though the UK government has sought to block the Scottish law. Moldovan activists helped secure major legislative victories in 2022, even as that country’s leaders were focused on the war in Ukraine. Same-sex couples can marry and adopt in Slovenia and Switzerland. Continued progress on LGBT+ rights might look different in different places, but that progress is clearly within reach. The region’s LGBT+ movement has proven itself to be strong, persistent, and successful despite fierce opposition.