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 largely unthinkable. Today, same-sex marriage exists in more than two dozen countries. Until 1970, same-sex acts were legal in about 60 countries. Today, the number is roughly double that, leaving 70 nations where they are criminalized. On the other side of the ledger, Nigeria and Russia have raised penalties facing homosexuals in recent years. In Poland, schoolchildren are being taught that being gay is a disease to be cured.

The Situation

Opposition to gay rights on religious grounds has dwindled in societies that have become more secular and urbanized. In Serbia, a patriarchal and conservative country, a lesbian became prime minister in 2017, and in Ireland a gay man won the same post. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to wed, bringing gay marriage to the 14 states where it was still banned. South America is shedding its machismo to emerge as a gay-friendly haven. The situation in Asia is varied. Although voters in Taiwan rejected same-sex marriage in a non-binding referendum, the ruling party passed a marriage-equality law in May 2019, a first for the continent. Buddhist Vietnam and Thailand are more tolerant than super-modern Singapore, which has kept a colonial-era sodomy law, or traditionalist Japan. Brunei has suspended plans announced earlier this year to punish gay sex and adultery with the death penalty after a global outcry. Intolerance is more the norm in former Soviet satellites, and persecution abounds in the Middle East and other places where Islam is dominant. In Chechnya, more than 100 men suspected of being gay were abducted and tortured by authorities in 2017, according to Human Rights Watch. Gay-bashing often is a political tool. Russia’s law against gay “propaganda” is part of President Vladimir Putin’s war on Western values. In Poland and Hungary, ruling nationalists stir up antipathy toward homosexuals to consolidate support among religious conservatives. Laws or proposed laws targeting homosexuals in Africa can divert attention from corruption and economic malaise. 

The Background

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 of the closet,” 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 Argument

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 negative 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 voided on a technicality, the country’s president dropped his support for it, citing potential economic consequences. Uganda may be a special case, however, because it relies on foreign aid. 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. Another route is to highlight the economic costs of isolating a segment of society. Anti-gay discrimination cost India 1.7% of its gross domestic product, according to a 2014 World Bank study.

To contact the author of this QuickTake: Flavia Krause-Jackson in London at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake: Lisa Beyer at

First published April 28, 2015

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