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.