Improving citizenship rights for LGBT people worldwide

The Project for Modern Democracy is launching a new research project on Global LGBT Rights. Our aim is to identify effective policy interventions in countries where LGBT people continue to face persecution and discrimination, which prevents them from open and active participation in the public sphere and therefore inhibits good citizenship.

LGBT rights and citizenship

Despite the continuing advance of LGBT rights across the world, millions of people still experience daily, and in many cases institutionalised, discrimination: unequal legal recognition, restricted access to healthcare, and criminalisation of sexuality are among many examples. 

The effect of discrimination on individual people can be devastating but it can also damage a nation’s citizenry as a whole. The universality of citizenship rights is brought into question when legal entitlements such as employment benefits and marriage are denied to LGBT citizens. Exclusion from healthcare provisions for transgender and HIV-positive people can perpetuate stigma and lead to widespread public health problems. Institutionalised discrimination such as criminalisation can foster a culture of hatred amongst the general public and encourage persecution at the hands of officers of the state. 

Taken together the suppression of citizenship rights for LGBT people can create a fractured society and a poorly realised civic body. At least in some cases, this suppression of citizenship engagement appears to have been a deliberate strategy pursued by governments or elite groups to prevent an organised civil society from challenging its monopoly on power.

Although there has been recent progress in advancing the rights of LGBT citizens – such as the legalisation of same-sex marriage in countries such as Australia and the Republic of Ireland, and the decriminalisation of homosexuality in India – there remains significant resistance to progress in many countries across the world, which is having a detrimental effect on their citizenry. For example, the deportation of HIV/AIDS groups for ‘promoting homosexuality’ in Indonesia and Tanzania has come at a time when a high HIV/AIDS rate is affecting their general populations. The censure of LGBT cultural events in Turkey illustrates a wider pattern of democratic backsliding in the country. Violence on the streets and threats against LGBT people have accompanied the discriminatory rhetoric of the new President of Brazil.

The global response to LGBT discrimination

The response of Western leaders and intergovernmental organisations to the persecution of LGBT people has been varied but with different degrees of success. A number of policy interventions have been deployed, from threatening sanctions and travel bans on culpable governments to mild rebukes. In countries that receive official development assistance (ODA), the suspension of aid programmes has been threatened in response to the introduction of discriminatory legislation. Other interventions, such as backroom diplomacy and legal aid, may also be utilised in a less conspicuous way.

Nevertheless, in several countries and circumstances, institutionalised discrimination against LGBT people receives widespread popular support. In this context, overseas intervention to uphold LGBT rights risks an angry backlash and may worsen the overall situation. The challenge for any group, organisation or state looking to uphold LGBT rights in other countries is to determine how best to intervene with the appropriate response when other groups, organisations or states threaten these rights. It is therefore important to identify what interventions are successful in improving the LGBT rights situation in other countries and whether this leads to a positive improvement in citizenship engagement.

Our project 

Our research project will assess the strengths and weaknesses of the policy intervention options available to actors involved in advancing citizenship rights for LGBT people internationally.

The project starts from the assumption that an active and engaged citizenship is fundamental to a modern, free and dynamic state. An advanced and inclusive civic community is an important institution in a developed state as it gives citizens a stake in their future, whereas denying rights to certain minority groups can foster disengagement and suppress active participation in the public sphere. Accepting and normalising the rights of LGBT people helps this community to reconcile their private identity with the public sphere, as fewer and fewer people feel that they will face discrimination in public life for simply being themselves.

Citizenship rights should be understood as an individual’s right to participate in civil and political life without discrimination or repression. These rights should be treated as universal and states have an obligation to uphold them across the global community. This view means that the debate over foreign interventions to promote LGBT rights abroad becomes a matter of what rather than if

The project will look at what policy interventions are effective and which are not, and who is exercising these interventions. Intergovernmental organisations, individual governments, civil society organisations and the private sector have all made interventions in past instances, but success can depend on who has made the intervention and where the intervention has been made.

Where are interventions made? 

To illustrate the varied success of policy interventions, the US government has supported global AIDS prevention efforts through PEPFAR which has led to improvements in healthcare provision, but has been criticised by some African countries for urging leaders to end LGBT discrimination. International condemnation of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act and cutting World Bank development aid to the country was seen as effective in dissuading leaders from pursuing the Act, whereas similar condemnation of LGBT persecution in Chechnya and trade restrictions on Russia has not ended violence and discrimination there.

Civil society organisations such as the Naz Foundation in India have successfully appealed to supreme courts to decriminalise homosexuality, whereas in countries from Belarus to Nigeria LGBT CSOs are refused registration or the right to exist. Private companies have successfully contributed to the repeal of discriminatory laws – such as PayPal’s decision not to expand in North Carolina after ‘House Bill 2’ restricted transgender rights or Virgin Group’s boycott of Uganda – yet have provoked antagonism elsewhere, with multinational companies banned from funding Singapore’s LGBT rights festival.

By looking at what interventions work and where, the project distinguishes three major policy strands where intervention may be exercised.

The first is on the issue of decriminalisation, where a country may be encouraged to reform its penal code so that it is not illegal to identify as LGBT. The second is the promotion of non-discrimination and equal rights, where a country has the capacity to grant greater legal recognition to LGBT people through minority protections or equal access to employee benefits, adoption rights or marriage. The third is ensuring that LGBT people have sufficient and equal access to healthcare services which may be denied on the basis of their sexuality, such as access to HIV treatment and safe medical consultation for transgender people.

Governments, civil society organisations and the private sector all have an important role to play. Each have unique options at their disposal that when implemented correctly alongside effective policy interventions can result in increased rights for LGBT people.

Our aims

By evaluating the various effective and non-effective policy interventions made in the past by governments, civil society organisations and private companies in cases where LGBT rights have been denied and suppressed, the project will demonstrate how these three sectors can deploy interventions in line with their core competencies to improve the global LGBT rights situation, and how these sectors can operate together to achieve tangible outcomes.

The objective is to show that progress in LGBT rights can be achieved when particular policy outputs are exercised by these actors within the correct context and with the appropriate co-ordination, and that ultimately this leads to a strong and developed sense of citizenship which is conducive to a modern liberal state.

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Andrew Slinn is the Researcher for the Global LGBT Rights and Citizenship project at P4MD.