The massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando made it clear: Basic legal rights are no guarantee of safety. Yet in several nations, the laws don’t even pretend to protect LGBT citizens—instead, they actively work against them.
Seventy-three countries, or 37 percent of the United Nations, declare same-sex physical relations illegal, according to a comprehensive survey of sexual orientation laws from the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA).
Sudan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen call for the death penalty nationwide for same-sex relations, the report says, while other places can impose death penalties regionally, along with fines and prison sentences. Though the criminalization is centered mainly in Africa and the Middle East, as the map above shows, it also persists in the Caribbean and elsewhere.
In about three-quarters of those countries, report author Aengus Carroll says, the laws are colonial legacies. India’s penal code Section 377, for example, which prohibits “carnal intercourse against the order of nature,” dates back to British rule in the 1860s. It was struck down in 2009 before being reinstated in 2013.
Section 377 “became a model anti-sodomy law,” writes Alok Gupta in a 2008 Human Rights Watch report. “Its influence stretched across Asia, the Pacific islands, and Africa, almost everywhere the British imperial flag flew.”
Elsewhere, new laws are clamping down on sexual expression, forbidding LGBT “propaganda” or “promotion.” Russia, for example, decriminalized same-sex sexual acts in 1993, but in 2013 banned public affirmations of “non-traditional sexual relations.” The founder of an online LGBT network for teens, Lena Klimova, was convicted and fined under that law last year.
“It is erasure,” Carroll says of such laws, which technically could extend to something as simple as putting a rainbow flag on an internet profile. “It is a way to erase your reality from our public discourse and from our public space.”
The trends aren’t all bad. The number of countries that criminalize same-sex relations has declined from 92 since 2006, when the ILGA first started publishing the annual report, Carroll says, “which is fantastic.” Indeed, a UN time line from 1790 to the present shows a widening trend of decriminalization.
And there are some places where more rights are being recognized, Carroll says. South American countries, including Brazil and Argentina, “have moved mountains in this area,” he says, allowing people to legally self-declare gender. And national human rights institutions “are increasingly accepting that sexual orientation and gender identity are human rights issues, and they are statuses deserving of recognition,” he says. “That’s very encouraging.”
At a UN Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva this month, advocates will propose the appointment of a special rapporteur, or investigator, of human rights violations against LGBT people. “The very act of putting someone into that kind of a position would be very important in institutionalizing it,” a U.S. diplomat told BuzzFeed.
Still, even in the United States, where federal hate crime law has been expanded to include sexuality and gender, nearly 200 anti-LGBT bills have been introduced at the state level this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign. In Florida, a new measure dubbed the “Pastor Protection Act” allows clergy to refuse to perform gay marriages. Fewer than half of states have laws in place prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexuality.
The U.S. also hasn’t enacted any preventions of “incitement to hate” speech, Carroll notes, which can be a potent restriction in a world filled with easily amplified social media messages. The report says 36 countries, including Ireland, South Africa, and Norway, have enacted such speech prohibitions.
Of course, what’s on the books is one thing. The daily reality for many LGBT people remains fraught, Carroll says, no matter the legalities.
"We are a minority everywhere we go in the world,” he says. “In no country could we be considered safe.”