There’s never been a better time to be gay, except in a handful of places where it’s become worse. Gay-rights activists in much of the world 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. In 1970, homosexual sex was legal in about 60 countries, whereas today the number is more than double that. Still that leaves 69 countries where it is criminalized, in some cases with extreme penalties including death. And a number of countries, notably Nigeria and Russia, have raised penalties facing homosexuals in recent years.

The Situation

Opposition to gay rights on religious grounds has dwindled in societies that have become more secular and urbanized. South America is shedding its machismo to emerge as a gay-friendly haven. Brazil’s highest court ruled in 2019 that anti-gay discrimination is a crime. The U.S. Supreme Court said in 2015 that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to wed, bringing gay marriage to the 14 states where it was still banned. In the last few years, Serbia and Ireland, both conservative countries, have seen a lesbian and a gay man, respectively, become prime minister. The situation in Asia is varied. Although voters in Taiwan rejected same-sex marriage in a non-binding referendum, the parliament passed a marriage-equality law, a first for the continent. India’s supreme court struck down a colonial-era law criminalizing sodomy. Buddhist Vietnam and Thailand are more tolerant than super-modern Singapore, which has kept its sodomy law, or traditionalist Japan. Brunei announced a plan to punish gay sex with the death penalty but suspended it after a global outcry. Intolerance is the norm in former Soviet satellites, and persecution abounds in the Middle East and other places where Islam is dominant. In 2019, authorities in Russia’s Chechen Republic resumed a 2017 campaign in which they abducted and tortured men they suspected of being gay, 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. Measures targeting homosexuals in Africa can divert attention from corruption and economic malaise. Nigeria has expanded on its ban on gay sex, making a public show of same-sex affection punishable with 10 years’ imprisonment.

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. Polls show that people who know someone who is gay tend to support equal rights for homosexuals.

The Argument

The achievement of same-sex marriage has opened a debate among gay activists over next priorities. Some push to broaden the agenda, notably to press for rights for transgender people, who identify with a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. Others say that amounts to mission creep as gender identity is separate from sexual orientation. Some gay activists argue that their efforts should focus on pressing for change in countries where homosexuals live in dire circumstances. One option is to urge wealthy governments to condition foreign aid on protecting gay rights. Because that can come across as bullying, some policy specialists instead suggest supporting grass-roots groups. Another route is to highlight the economic costs of isolating a segment of society. Anti-gay discrimination cost India the equivalent of as much as 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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