LGBT people have long been an extremely oppressed group in places all over the world. While many nations in the global north currently have stopped criminalizing the existence of queer people, and some even have legal nondiscrimination protections, there are also still a number of countries were queer people are denied all kinds of rights through both social stigma and government institutions. As supporting democracy is often considered the best currently-known way to help human rights to flourish, the degree to which a society is democratized often correlates with how much protection the freedoms of queer people within that society are afforded.
Democracy as a regime type (or a category of many regime types) is somewhat contested. Different democracies around the world have different ways of structuring their systems and implementing democratic values in their governing methods, but those values specifically and their importance are very much more commonly agreed upon. The UN promotes “greater participation, equality, security and human development” of citizens as its guiding light towards increasing prosperity and peace (1). General freedom index scores by country (2) correlate highly with democratization scores (3), with Switzerland, Denmark, New Zealand, Canada, Finland, Sweden, and Australia making the top ten of both rankings (The United States did not score in the top ten for either ranking). This shows that citizens’ human rights are generally respected more in more democratized societies, which is as expected, since democracy is the process of citizens setting rules for themselves. While this data alone does not prove any causal factor, there is reason to believe that both the variables of human rights and democracy feed into and propagate each other.
Some of the key measurements of human rights are also some of the mechanisms upon which democratic systems function. Democracies need uncensored press as a form of mass information distribution, because voters need to be able to know what different politicians claim to believe, what policies they actually push for, and the different actions they may take while in office in order to make informed decisions about their votes. A free press also functions to preserve human rights by deterring against violation; an officeholder is less likely to illegally harm citizens with the possibility of their crimes being widely exposed by the press. Other freedoms such as expression, assembly, and civil society likewise have a looping relationship with human rights and democracy, further cementing this deep connection.
Currently, many of the least democratic countries in the world are also some of the most dangerous places for LGBT people to live. Queer citizens in Afghanistan and Iran have faced severe institutionalized discrimination for even longer, with states forces and paramilitary groups such as the Taliban and Iran’s basij publicly arresting, raiding the private homes of, displacing, torturing, raping, and killing people thought to be LGBT (5) (6). However, these countries are also often extremely dangerous for anyone to live in. Both Afghanistan and Iran, two of the lowest-scoring countries on the democracy index (2), have for decades been facing extreme human security crises with violence, corruption, and lack of resources taking their toll on these nations’ populations and cultures (4).
In contrast with such authoritarian countries that are often called ‘failed states,’ there are other countries in similar democratic positions that have comparatively robust citizen-protection structures. Saudi Arabia is a perfect example. Saudi Arabia is a theocratic monarchy based in Sharia, a group of moral codes derived from traditional Islam (7); its people have very little control over what laws are in place and there are many archaic and horrific criminal punishments carried out by the state, such as stoning and amputation, for offences such as witchcraft and adultery (8). However, the state also polices more broadly recognized crimes like theft, rape, and murder with a relatively competent and trained police institution (9). Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has a number of social programs to increase citizen welfare including general healthcare, disability care, higher education, and agricultural development using modern farming technologies (10), despite being a theocracy with little need to respond to citizen concerns.
Are more stable states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia more secure places for Queer people to live than Afghanistan, because of the greater personal security of the general population? No, despite some civil protections, anyone even perceived as LGBT is targeted by state forces for imprisonment and torture. While the presence of any amount of institutionalized security creates a space where, theoretically, activism for promoting civil rights can take place, without any democratic institutions to allow for core change, the state will inherently be repressive against individual rights. While authoritarian systems can create spaces where some people have some freedoms, they cannot grow and develop to maximize those freedoms over a greater percentage of the population.
This post broadened somewhat my horizon. I never really thought about the option to measure democratic progress with the aid of the extent of LGBTQ-rights. But actually, it is pellucid and logical since the acceptance of diverse forms of sexuality is an inherent feature of an inclusive democracy.
While reading this, the Modernization Theory came into my mind. It argues that demo-cratic progress (freedom of the media, fundamental rights, etc.) and the modernization of the economy or economic progress in general are interrelated. Of course, under the caveat of en-dogeneity one can’t say what precedes the other. But the positive correlation is undisputed.
The point where I allow myself to bring up criticism is the following: The General Free-dom Index score includes LGBTQ rights but has also other, weightier variables. It is evident by directly looking at the variables: Rule of Law, Security and Safety, Movement, Religion, Associ-ation, Assembly, and Civil Society, Expression and Information, Identity and Relationships, Size of Government, Legal System and Property Rights, Access to Sound Money, Freedom to Trade Internationally, Regulation.
Identity and Relationships therefore contributes just a relatively small part to the defini-tive score a country achieves. Therefore, it may be misleading to take the Human Freedom Index as a measurement for the extent of LGBTQ-rights.
Switzerland for example is after this Index the freest country in the world. The situation for gay people however is not as progressive as in countries which score lower on this index. There must be added, that LGBTQ-rights (specifically gay rights) improved drastically after the Swiss people accepted same sex marriage by popular vote. Since the vote happened last Sep-tember, it has not advected into Switzerland’s score on the index yet.
The trend, however, is clear: Countries which score high in the Index are usually relatively open concerning LGBTQ-rights.
This is such an important topic to discuss. As someone who has known they were queer their whole life and has been out for over 7 years, this resonates with me personally. I grappled with my own queerness before it was legal to marry someone of the same sex here in the United States. The feelings of isolation that brought, knowing that I may not be able to marry someone I loved, were terrifying- yet don’t even come close to measuring up to the persecution that queerness can bring in many other countries, as you mention.
The correlation between the two factors is apparent. My question is what exactly is the causal relationship between LGBT acceptance and democracy? Does democracy inherently bring gay rights? Or does democracy curate an environment where other factors tend to correlate with increased gay rights? Or maybe the other way around? Or is it a cycle, where democracy brings human rights, which thereby reinforces democratic institutions?
It’s interesting to evaluate how much of LGBT hate is legitimately secular vs. that which is non-secular. Here in the United States, for instance, a lot of the justification for anti-LGBT sentiment is backed with religion, yet truly just stems from homophobia. We are a secular nation and religion-backed laws have no place in our government. It’s sometimes hard to distinguish where hate comes from because the hateful minds in question are clouded by their own emotions, but the origin of the discrimination would be extremely useful to know in determining the causal relationship in question here.
As a trend, countries are becoming more accepting and tolerant of LGBT people and rights over time, which is assuring. Hopefully, we will get more data to work with over time as we see which countries adopt reforms towards gay rights, and which ones refuse, and for what reasons.
Aaron, thank you so much for sharing. I was always aware that human rights were a greater issue amongst authoritarian regimes, but I never explicitly paid attention to the treatment of queer people. Because I’m a woman, I tend to monitor more closely the treatment of women in the Middle East and how that compares to my life here in the U.S. However, I think women’s rights and LGBTQ rights are largely intertwined when it comes to who gets what. Of course, there is a difference in the fact that while I might be oppressed in some parts of the world, I am still allowed to exist, whereas anyone suspected of identifying as LGBTQ is killed instantly. I am curious to know whether or not an actual trial takes place before execution. I’m assuming no because they’re not democracies and therefore don’t take due process into consideration. I’m glad that democracies such as the United States have taken actions to further the rights of minority groups, but there is still work to be done, more so on a social level rather than a legislative one. That is obvious even being on UGA’s campus. I often wonder how people come to such harmful conclusions about people that are different from them. When it comes to LGBTQ rights, the biggest oppressor has been the misuse of religion to promote ideas that may not exactly be true. This is interesting to me because there are differences of religion all across the world, yet the struggle for LGBTQ rights seems universal. While the current state of things is pretty depressing, it is hopeful to look at history and see what progress has been made. We can only hope the progress will continue through the promotion of democracy and our own will to stick up for what we believe in.
Hi, Aaron. I could not thank you enough for shining light on such an important topic not commonly discussed in many of our courses. Yes, it is evident that nearly all human rights are threatened under authoritarian regimes. However, focusing specifically on the treatment of members of the LGBTQ+ community is often overlooked — especially when looking on the international stage. The country I am doing for our final assignment, Nigeria, exemplifies this sentiment. According to Forbes, Nigeria was named the most dangerous country for LGBTQ+ people in the world. It was ranked so high because of the harsh punishments for simply being gay, which include up to 14 years in prison and the death penalty in Sharia-compliant states, according to journalist Lyric Fergusson. Under the current system, even discussing LGBT rights is illegal. The country has seen an uptick in violence and extortion against the LGBTQ+ community as a result of Nigeria’s Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act of 2013.
Delving further into the point of overlooking the lack of LGBTQ+ liberation nationally, I want to call out a trend I have noticed happening among individuals in the United States. All across the internet, I have taken notice of individuals, no matter their intention, bashing and essentially making fun of nations that have horrendously anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in place. They praise the United States for legalizing gay marriage and an increase in acceptance over the years, when all of that is simply the bare minimum. It is incredibly ignorant to compare the freedoms queer people have domestically to the lack thereof for people in other countries, completely undermining the genuine plight queer people in those countries face.