LGBTI People Face Harsh Laws in Both Free and Unfree Countries

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Senior External Relations Associate

The human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people are under assault in many parts of the world. This increased hostility, which often takes the form of severe new laws that encourage societal discrimination, is affecting fundamental rights including physical safety, freedom of expression, privacy, and democratic participation.

The most egregious violators of LGBTI people’s rights, such as Cameroon, Russia, Iran, Uganda, and Nigeria, are already ranked Not Free or Partly Free in Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World report for their overall suppression of political rights and civil liberties. But even some democratic countries that earn a Free ranking have proven to be harsh environments for their LGBTI citizens. In these states, there are laws that assign jail time for engaging in homosexual activity, and that make it impossible for transgender people to gain legal and economic status in their authentic gender. For LGBTI people who are fighting to stay alive and out of jail, things like marriage rights, equal employment opportunities, and even access to health care and education can seem like impossible aspirations.

Hostile Democracies

In Jamaica, harassment and violence against LGBTI people is widespread, and the police often ignore crimes against the community. Sex between men is punishable by up to 10 years in prison with hard labor. The Jamaican Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG) reported that nine gay men were killed in 2012 and at least two more in 2013. Transgender women also face violence, and transgender men remain deeply closeted.

Basic human rights in Ghana are guaranteed by the constitution and generally respected. However, the traditional religious society is uncomfortable with homosexuality, and the LGBTI community faces discrimination. The criminal code considers “unnatural” sexual intercourse to be a first-degree felony carrying a prison sentence of 5 to 25 years. In 2011, regional leader and lawmaker Paul Aidoo called on Ghana’s intelligence services to track down and arrest all gay men and lesbians. He said, “All efforts are being made to get rid of these people in the society,” adding that “once they have been arrested, they will be brought before the law.” In addition to government officials, prominent religious figures in Ghana have condemned homosexuality.

In Belize, sex between men is illegal and can result in 10 years’ imprisonment, while sex between women is considered legal despite the broad wording of the penal code. A lawsuit challenging the prohibition is currently under consideration by the country’s Supreme Court. There are also laws prohibiting transgender people from changing their sex on official documentation, and there have been two cases of violence against transgender women in 2014, one resulting in death. The discrimination in Belize does not just apply to its citizens; foreigners who identify as gay are legally prohibited from entering the country.

In 2013, India’s Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a legal provision criminalizing same-sex relationships. The law allows for a prison sentence of up to 10 years for “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” In 2009 a lower court had declared the law unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court found that only Parliament had the authority to change the legislation. However, the same Supreme Court ruled in April of this year that the government must recognize and uphold the human rights of transgender people who wish to officially identify as a “third gender.”

A Divided World

There have been significant achievements in the struggle for the human rights and equality of LGBTI people in a wide range of countries. Gay marriage is now legal in places like Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Denmark, France, New Zealand, Britain, and the United States; leaders in Malawi and Trinidad and Tobago are a taking a stance against discrimination, and LGBTI human rights movements in Vietnam and Singapore are gaining momentum.

However, laws that criminalize the LGBTI community still exist in 76 countries, and several states are moving in the wrong direction, enacting even harsher restrictions. Meanwhile, efforts to legalize the status of transgender people and ensure their access to public services are making almost no headway outside of the few (no more than 20) countries that have adopted favorable laws. In nearly all cases, the problematic countries conflate transgender and intersex people with gay people, failing to distinguish between gender identity and sexual orientation.

Democratic governments and activists around the world face a difficult challenge in fighting for the human rights of LGBTI people in authoritarian states, where most citizens are denied their basic rights, and gay and transgender people are particularly vulnerable. Nevertheless, supporters of LGBTI rights should not overlook the democracies that continue to exclude some of their citizens from the equal protection of the law.

Photo Credit: Nick Johnson

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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