Why Democracy Matters for Gay Rights | Freedom House

Why Democracy Matters for Gay Rights

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By: Omar G. Encarnacion, Guest Blogger

Even before the year 2013 was officially over, gay activists were already declaring it “the gayest year in gay history.” Barack Obama, hailed by Newsweek as “America’s First Gay President,” got the year off to an auspicious start in January by becoming the first U.S. president ever to make reference to gay rights in an inaugural address. In June, in United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), passed into law in 1996 by veto-proof congressional majorities to prevent same-sex marriages from being recognized by the federal government. The court also effectively invalidated California’s ban on same-sex marriage (Prop 8), passed by popular referendum in 2008. Beyond the United States, same-sex marriage became legal in Britain, France, Brazil, Uruguay, and New Zealand during 2013.

Ironically, however, the year also featured a countervailing trend—the rise of some of the most odious antigay legislation in history. Uganda passed a law that calls for life imprisonment for some homosexual acts and a seven-year jail term for anyone who conducts a same-sex marriage ceremony. Analogous laws have been adopted in Nigeria, Liberia, and Cameroon. Russia enacted a law banning the promotion of “sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality, and transgenderism,” a prohibition so broad that it outlaws gay pride parades, public displays of affection by same-sex couples, and gay symbols such as the rainbow flag.

The schizophrenic manner in which gay-rights politics played out in 2013 highlights the ambiguities in global trends: Gay rights are expanding in some countries while contracting in others. Moreover, the events of 2013 reveal the serious limitations of transnational factors—like the growing acceptance of gay rights as a human rights norm—in explaining the global spread of gay rights. It is apparent that we have to delve deep into the domestic environment to understand why gay rights are thriving in countries like Brazil and floundering in others such as Russia.

Religion and wealth are the most discussed factors behind the so-called global divide on homosexuality, a point underscored by a recent Pew Research poll. It found that the more affluent and secular the nation, the more likely it is to embrace gay rights; conversely, the poorer and more religious the nation, the more likely it is to repress homosexuality. These findings reflect rising levels of societal acceptance of homosexuality since the mid-2000s in North America, Western Europe, and Latin America, with some countries, including the United States, registering double-digit increases. In 2007, less than half of Americans thought that gays should be accepted by society, compared with 60 percent today. By contrast, the Pew data show that societal attitudes toward homosexuality in Africa, the Middle East, and Russia have remained mostly unchanged. In these regions, social and economic development has stagnated, in one way or another; and, more importantly, religion remains a central part of public life, including in Russia, which since the demise of communism has experienced a vigorous religious revival.

Less studied and therefore less understood, however, is the effect of the political regime, especially whether the country is democratic or not. Although gay rights are not found in all democracies, they are virtually nonexistent in nondemocracies. The picture is especially suggestive among newly democratic states—those democracies created as a consequence of the so-called “Third Wave,” the global tide of democratization that began with the demise of right-wing dictatorial regimes on the Iberian Peninsula in the mid-1970s and crested with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Gay rights have flourished in the very places where the Third Wave has been most successful in establishing political freedoms, civil society, and the rule of law, as in Spain, South Africa, and much of Latin America.  

By contrast, gay rights have had a difficult time gaining any traction where the Third Wave made relatively few, if any, inroads, as in most parts of Africa and the Middle East, and in China, where homosexuality was decriminalized in 1997, but gay activism remains essentially outlawed, being viewed as subversive by the state. More telling, perhaps, are places where democratization has stalled, as in Russia. Gay rights got off to a promising start there in 1991, but faltered as progress toward democracy was reversed, and especially since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, which ushered in severe new attacks on political and civil freedoms.

To be sure, democracy is not an unmitigated blessing for gay rights, as suggested by the American experience. No fewer than 30 bans on same-sex marriage have been introduced in the United States since 2004 by popular referendum. But democratic states are uniquely equipped for fostering gay rights. Among the many factors that make democracy an apparent prerequisite for gay rights are the opportunities that it provides for advocacy—including access to the courts, the party system, and the legislature—as well as a social environment that permits gay people to live their lives openly and honestly, a critical but often overlooked factor in advancing societal acceptance of homosexuality. The polling data consistently show that knowing someone who is gay is the best predictor of support for gay rights, including same-sex marriage.

These findings about democracy and gay rights matter a great deal for understanding how gay rights develop, and more importantly, perhaps, for thinking about how to promote gay rights globally. The most sensible approach would be to fortify existing programs to promote democracy, civil society, and the rule of law. These programs have a twofold advantage over more targeted policies aimed at promoting gay rights: First, they are less likely to be attacked as foreign meddling in cultural affairs, a typical response in countries such as Uganda and Russia. Second, and even more important, a robust democracy provides the best environment for nurturing the rise of gay rights.

Omar G. Encarnación is professor and chair of political studies at Bard College. He is the author of Latin America’s Gay Rights Revolution, forthcoming from Oxford University Press. This article is adapted from a longer essay that appears in the July 2014 issue of the Journal of Democracy.

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