There’s never been a better time to be gay, except in a handful of places where it’s become worse. Gay-rights activists have made historic gains in a fraction of the time it took the movements for civil rights and women’s rights. Two generations ago, the idea that homosexuals could marry was unthinkable. Today, same-sex marriage exists in almost 20 countries. Until 1970, same-sex acts were legal in about 60 countries. Today, the number is roughly double that. The trend isn’t universal. Russia and Nigeria have raised penalties facing gay people in recent years. In any case, it’s clear that change is more than passing when the leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics is asked about homosexuality and responds, “Who am I to judge?”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2015 that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, bringing gay marriage to the 14 states where it was still banned. Globally, opposition to gay rights on religious grounds has dwindled in societies that have become more secular and urbanized. In 2015, Ireland became the first country to legalize gay marriage by popular vote. South America is shedding its machismo to emerge as a gay-friendly haven, while the situation in Europe runs the gamut, from intolerance in former Soviet satellites to equal rights in Spain. Persecution abounds in the Middle East and other places where Islam is dominant. Buddhist Vietnam and Thailand are more tolerant than super-modern Singapore, which has kept a colonial-era sodomy law. Where punishments are worsening, gay bashing often is a political tool. Russia’s law against gay “propaganda” is part of President Vladimir Putin's war on U.S. and west European values. Laws or proposed laws targeting homosexuals in Africa can divert attention from corruption and economic malaise. Violence against gays still happens in countries that have become officially more tolerant: 49 people were killed at a gay club in Florida in June by a gunman who pledged allegiance to the extremist group Islamic State.
Throughout history, being gay has meant keeping a secret or paying a price. Even the ancient Greeks, widely thought to have embraced homosexuality, in fact accepted only pederasty — sex between a man and a male teenager. Homosexuals were massacred in the Holocaust. Until 1973, the American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality as a mental disorder; it was sometimes treated using electric shocks. The 1969 police raid of a New York gay bar triggered the Stonewall Riots, which gave birth to the modern gay-rights movement. Two decades later, a backlash against urban gay males in the early days of the AIDS pandemic gave the movement a sense of urgency. The increasing numbers of homosexuals, including celebrities, who “came out,” drove a sea change in public opinion in North America, Europe and much of Latin America. Gains by gay activists paved the way for the growth of the transgender-rights movement.
The United Nations, through its Human Rights Council, in 2014 committed to overcoming discrimination based on sexual orientation everywhere. The question is how to influence governments where attitudes toward homosexuality are steeped in cultural and religious beliefs. The World Bank and several countries suspended or cut aid to Uganda after it increased jail terms for homosexual acts in 2014. After the law was judged void on a technicality, the country’s president dropped his support for it, citing potential economic consequences. Uganda relies on foreign aid, however, and thus may be a special case. Some policy specialists argue that donors who condition foreign aid on protecting gay rights can come across as bullies promoting a foreign agenda. They suggest instead supporting grass-roots groups that are likely to be more effective. Another route is to highlight the economic costs of isolating a segment of society. Anti-gay discrimination cost India 1.7 percent of its GDP, according to a 2014 World Bank study.
The Reference Shelf
- The report of the International Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans and Intersex Association describes the status of gay rights around the globe.
- A Pew Research Center report explores the major religions’ stands on gay issues.
- A UN report, the first of its kind, documents discrimination and persecution of gay people.
- In his book “Stonewall,” historian Martin Duberman provides a first-hand account of the birth of the modern gay-rights movement.
- A Bloomberg data visualization illustrates the rapid pace of change on gay marriage in the U.S.
First published April 28, 2015
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