From Taiwan to Kenya to the United States, LGBTQ+ individuals face profound discrimination and tirelessly advocate for equality.
June is Pride Month in the United States, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer individuals across the country are commemorating the anniversary of the historic 1969 Stonewall Riots, recognized as a turning point for the LGBTQ+ liberation movement. Yet around the globe, simply existing as a sexual or gender minority can be profoundly dangerous and even life-threatening—and even amongst celebration in the US, legislative developments threaten to undo the decades of progress that have afforded LGBTQ+ individuals their rights to live with dignity and respect.
Recently in the news for LGBTQ+ discrimination is Russia, whose grim record of intolerance based on sexuality is particularly pronounced in the region of Chechnya. Located in the North Caucasus, Chechnya experienced a vicious anti-gay purge in February 2017, and one that is now tragically recurring. In early May, Human Rights Watch reported that Chechen police were rounding up men presumed to be gay or bisexual, proceeding to detain them at the Grozny Internal Affairs Department, where they were humiliated, raped, and brutally beaten. Activists with the Russian LGBT Network asserted that at least 23 men were detained between December and April due to their sexuality. Chechen authorities have denied reports of the persecution, and Russian federal authorities have neither commented nor launched an investigation.
Perhaps even more shocking than the negligence of the Russian authorities, some governments have actively ratified discriminatory treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals: Across the globe, 76 countries still place criminal sanctions on homosexuality. One such country is Brunei, a small nation located on the coast of the island of Borneo, whose Syariah Penal Code went into effect on April 3 of this year. The code calls for a wide range of barbaric punishments affecting LGTBQ+ individuals, including death by stoning for anal sex and 40 lashes with a whip for lesbian sex. It prohibits consensual same-sex conduct, broadly discriminates against women and sexual and gender minorities, and infringes upon freedom of expression and religion. In response to international outcry, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who holds absolute power in Brunei, has put forth a de facto moratorium on capital punishment, but the ban could be lifted at any time and does little to mitigate the dire rights offenses of the penal code.
Later that month, in Kenya, the High Court upheld similarly anachronistic laws criminalizing consensual acts between same-sex adults. The laws are a relic of colonialism, first put forth by British settlers in 1897; while they are rarely enforced, they nevertheless validate a climate of prejudice and violence, and are used to justify police harassment, employment and housing discrimination, expulsion from schools, and artistic censorship. The court case that concluded on May 24 addressed a 2016 petition by three Kenyan human-rights organizations, which asserted that the criminalization of same-sex conduct violated various rights—including equality, privacy, and human dignity—enshrined in Kenya’s constitution.
Just that same day, across the ocean in the United States, LGBTQ+ rights sustained a blow with the proposition of a new rule by President Trump’s administration. The rule would remove nondiscrimination protections for transgender people under the Affordable Care Act, erecting further barriers to wellness for a community that already faces difficulty in accessing healthcare. Protection on the state level is of little consolation, given that only 14 of out 50 US states prohibit health insurance discrimination based on gender identity, and 10 specifically exclude transgender-related care under Medicaid policy.
Within a sea of devastating setbacks for the global LGTBQ+ community, instances of progress and activism stand out as beacons of hope. In the deeply Catholic Mediterranean archipelago of Malta, a transgender woman named Joanne Cassar was recently allowed to marry, representing the culmination of her nine-year legal battle. The following day, on April 1, the Maltese government passed a gender recognition law, which came into existence largely due to Cassar’s efforts, and which acknowledges that “gender identity is considered to be an inherent part of a person which may or may not need surgical or hormonal treatment or therapy.” The law also initiates a working group on transgender healthcare to research international best practices, with one-third of the group mandated as being experts in the field of human rights.
In May, another historic ruling made Taiwan the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage, effective from the 24th of the month. “Today, we can show the world that #LoveWins,” tweeted Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, the morning of the ruling, celebrating the same sentiment as the crowds that turned out in the streets, cheering, weeping, and waving rainbow flags as news of the decision spread. There is still room for legislative improvement, particularly given that the law does not provide equal adoption rights for same-sex couples, but the events of May 17 nevertheless represent an impressive step forward for the East Asian region.
While legislative strides are crucial to affording LGBTQ+ individuals the rights they deserve, grassroots activism can be an incredibly powerful driver of official change—such as in the case of Joanne Cassar, or of the LGBTQ+ organizers who recently marched in Honduras to celebrate the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia. The activists’ demands included an end to pervasive violence against LGBTQ+ people, legal recognition of trans identities, and curtailing prohibitions on same-sex marriage and adoption. Currently, two petitions brought forth by the leaders of activist groups—one pushing for a process allowing official name and gender changes for trans people, and one encouraging equality of marriage and adoption—are pending before Honduras’ Supreme Court, and various other LGBTQ+ rights cases are afoot in Congress and in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Like any human-rights movement, seeking legislative and societal parity for LGBTQ+ individuals will doubtless continue to be an arduous battle fraught with discouraging defeat—particularly considering the vast disparities between rights in different countries, as celebration of one victory in one nation is dampened by news of horrifying injustice in another. Yet with the efforts of LGBTQ+ community members and allies, and the renewed conviction offered by recent progress in Taiwan and Malta, the international community can continue to hope that each Pride Month will bring more to celebrate than the last.
TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.