This week Ugandan police arrested 16 LGBTQ activists on charges of gay sex — which is punishable by life imprisonment. Police arrested them at the sexual health organization where they worked and lived and cited condoms, lubricants and anti-HIV medicines found there as evidence of a crime.
They are not alone.
At least 68 countries — including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Singapore — have laws on the books criminalizing same-sex relations involving consenting adults, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch. At least nine others have criminal laws that target transgender and gender-nonconforming people.
Even in some countries with no criminal laws against same-sex relationships — such as Russia and Hungary — there’s a “real hostility based on a fear that an increase in gender equality writ large will destabilize the patriarchy,” said Neela Ghoshal, senior researcher for LGBT Rights at New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Here’s a look at five countries engaged in high-profile battles over LGBTQ rights.
The east African country of Uganda has one of the world’s harshest laws for gay sex (life imprisonment). That’s even after the government in 2014, responding to international pressure, nullified a bill known in Uganda as “Kill the Gays,” making homosexuality a capital offense.
The law in Uganda — which bans “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” — is a holdover from British colonial rule.
Asia Russell, the Uganda-based executive director of Health GAP, an organization that campaigns for access to HIV-medications, noted that there’s been “important progress” in neighboring countries and other former British commonwealths in repealing similar British colonial laws, citing Botswana, Angola, Mozambique and India.
“Uganda is resisting doing that, despite the fact that its exploring penal code reform in other areas and that the criminalization of homosexuality is not a priority for ordinary Ugandans,” she said.
Russell also connected the recent arrests with an “uptake in civic unrest” happening in Uganda. “Civic space is shrinking,” she said. “Police and the military are cracking down harder and harder on dissent. And at the same time, they are deploying a playbook of trying to scapegoat minority communities,” LGBTQ people included.
She compared the situation to Egypt, where LGBTQ people, long stigmatized, have become a particular scapegoat and target of state violence amid an ongoing crackdown.
Poland’s far-right Law and Justice party won a majority in the 2015 election on an anti-immigrant agenda. In campaigning this October, the party emphasized another agenda: homophobia. They prevailed again.
The party leader, 70-year-old Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has called “LGBT ideology” an imported “threat to Polish identity, to our nation, to its existence and thus to the Polish state,” The Post reported in July.
In much of Africa, homosexuality remains a major taboo. In May, Kenya almost became one of a handful of countries on the continent to legalize homosexual relations. Instead, the Supreme Court ruled to keep the colonial-era law, which includes jail terms of five to 14 years. The judges said they “were not persuaded by the petitioners that the offenses against them are overboard.”
NPR reported at the time, “The measures have not been widely enforced — Human Rights Watch said it was aware of just two prosecutions against four people in the last decade. Instead, the organization says, the laws have served as a pretense to mistreat LGBTQ people, who report harrowing accounts of being forced into sex, discriminated against at work, suspended from schools, pressured into paying off authorities and other abuses.”
Lebanon has the reputation as the gay (and party) capital of the Middle East — but it’s complicated. The country has laws on the books that criminalize homosexual relations, though several lower courts in recent years have sided with gay individuals who’ve challenged these laws.
Lebanon held the Middle East’s first Gay Pride Parade in 2017. The next year, however, the main organizer was arrested and the event was curtailed. Last year, organizers had to cancel the opening event after police said they couldn’t protect participants from threats from religious leaders.
“The cancellation comes after death threats prompted a Lebanese festival in July to pull an appearance by one of the Middle East’s most popular bands, Mashrou’ Leila, which has a gay frontman, leading to fears of a crackdown on LGBT+ rights,” Reuters reported at the time.
In May, the Sultan of the small Southeast Asia island-nation of Brunei rescinded legislation that included death by stoning for those caught engaging in gay sex and adultery. People can still face 10 years in jail for same-sex relations.
“The United Nations called the laws draconian, and the move prompted calls for a boycott of Brunei-controlled hotels from Hollywood celebrities including George Clooney and Ellen DeGeneres,” The Washington Post reported. “Western governments had been quietly lobbying Brunei to refrain from implementing the laws, which they said would complicate trade deals with the oil-rich sultanate.”