Russia Not Only Country With Anti-Gay Laws
Many other countries, from Iran to Cameroon, have harsh anti-gay laws.
A new Russian law that criminalizes "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors" has sparked growing calls from the global gay community and its supporters for a boycott of Russia's upcoming Winter Olympics.
While heads of state like U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron have resisted such calls, they and other high-profile figures and institutions have criticized what appears to be Moscow's increasing anti-gay posture.
On Tuesday, FIFA, the federation governing world soccer competition, requested "clarification and more details" from the Russian government concerning the law, passed in July with vocal support from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Set to the host the World Cup in 2018, Russia had recently received a similar request from the International Olympic Committee concerning the 2014 Sochi Winter Games after Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko said that the new law would be enforced during the Olympics.
While homosexual relations have been legal in Russia since 1993, the new law has been assailed by critics as the latest and most serious attempt by the authorities to criminalize and stigmatize Russia's gay community.
Long hostile toward gay rights movements and to homosexuality more broadly, the Russian public overwhelmingly supports the new law, according to public opinion polls.
"What's happening in Russia is horrific; but to make it even worse, Russia is not alone," said Jessica Stern, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. "The sad truth is that many countries around the world have preceded Russia in singling out LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] people."
Obama spoke to that point last week in an appearance on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, noting that Russia is not the only nation to legally discriminate against the LGBT community.
Despite positive recent developments for LGBT people in the United States and other parts of the world, consensual same-sex relationships remain a crime in at least 76 countries, according to a United Nations report released in 2011.
Here are six nations that have recently adopted or have especially harsh anti-gay laws:
"Homosexual conduct is criminalized in 38 states in Africa, and in many, laws are becoming stricter," said Boris Dittrich, advocacy director of the LGBT rights program of Human Rights Watch. "In several of these countries, LGBT people are being arrested and detained, sentenced to prison by the judge, simply because they are gay."
He pointed to Cameroon as a prime example. Homosexual conduct there is punishable with a fine and up to five years in jail.
Broader hostility toward homosexuality is also on the rise in the country. Last month, Eric Ohena Lembembe, Cameroon's most prominent and outspoken LGBT rights activist, was found murdered in his home after having been tortured.
Homosexuals, especially gay men, are regularly prosecuted in Cameroon, and it sometimes takes as little as a text message to another man expressing love or having an appearance perceived as overly effeminate to be put behind bars. Attacks on advocacy organizations, like the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS, where Lembembe was executive director, or Alternatives Cameroun, whose office was burned down in June, are also common.
In Uganda, home to some of the harshest anti-gay laws in Africa—with sentences for homosexuality ranging from 14 years to life imprisonment—some political forces have been seeking to pass an "Anti-Homosexuality Bill."
While the bill includes such headline-grabbing provisions as the death penalty for "aggravated homosexual conduct," the scope of the proposed law is what has many gay activists most worried, said Human Rights Watch's Dittrich.
One clause in the legislation states that anyone, including family members of LGBT people, can be prosecuted for not notifying authorities within 24 hours if they know someone who is gay, with sentences of up to three years in prison. Another clause states that Ugandan citizens can be prosecuted for homosexual activities that take place outside the nation's borders.
After facing harsh international criticism, the bill has been tabled for now.
In April 2009, Burundi's lower house of government passed a law outlawing homosexual activity, with prison sentences for the convicted ranging from two months to three years. President Pierre Nkurunziza led the criminalization effort and worked with the country's National Assembly to sign the act into law, even after its senate overwhelmingly rejected the proposal.
Burundi, a landlocked Francophone nation in East Africa, previously had some of the most lenient policies toward the LGBT community in the region, particularly when compared with Kenya (10 years hard labor), Uganda (14 years to life imprisonment), and Tanzania (20 years to life).
A 2011 report by the U.S. State Department stated, though, that no one in Burundi had been arrested or prosecuted under the anti-gay law that year, feeding the suspicions of the president's critics that the move was a political ploy.
That some of the more vicious crackdowns on LGBT communities are taking place in sub-Saharan Africa's poorest countries is not a coincidence, said the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission's Jessica Stern, since the attention they generate can sometimes provide a useful distraction from other pressing priorities.
"It's a great political strategy—find those who are the most hated and pick on them," she said. "And then people forget to think about whether or not schools are being fixed up for their children, and whether the rich are getting richer at the poor's expense."
Under the penal code of the Islamic Republic of Iran adopted after the 1979 revolution, death is a potential punishment for homosexuality. Kissing another man or woman in public may result in 60 lashes.
International human rights groups have collected evidence that Iran has executed men on homosexuality charges, and documented cases of arrests, imprisonment, and physical abuse of LGBT persons based on their sexual orientation or association with other members of LGBT community. An updating of Iran's penal code in May 2013 criminalized homosexual identity, rather than specific acts, making it punishable by 31 to 74 lashes.
Homosexuality was described by the secretary general of Iran's high council for human rights as "an illness and malady," and by former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as something which "we don't have in our country." A Tehran journalist who interviewed several Iranian homosexuals to show that that they do indeed exist received 60 lashes and a four-year jail term.
As in Russia, Qatar's anti-homosexual laws have come under increased scrutiny as it prepares to host the 2022 World Cup. Qatari law considers homosexuality a criminal offense that's punishable by up to seven years in jail (or a life term when one of the parties is under 16 years of age).
Along with the civic penal code, Islamic Sharia law is on the books in Qatar, though it applies only to Muslims. It dictates death for homosexual acts committed by married persons and flogging for homosexual acts committed by unmarried individuals.
Among the many patrimonies of British colonial rule, 11 former British colonies in the Caribbean, including Jamaica, still have laws on the books prohibiting male homosexual relations.
"The old Victorian law got exported by the United Kingdom to all its colonies—India as well as Jamaica and the Caribbean Islands—and there it's called 'buggery law,'" explained Dittrich. "But it's the same kind of law which criminalizes homosexual conduct."
The buggery laws (formally the Offenses Against the Person Act) were instituted in 1864 in Jamaica. While almost never enforced, the laws carry with them a sentence of up to ten years of hard labor. "Buggery," an archaic British term for sodomy, is limited to males, and lesbian relations do not face criminal sanction.
Positive Trends in LGBT Rights
Despite the persistent restrictions on LGBT rights in some regions and states and the further tightening of controls in others, experts are quick to highlight more heartening trends elsewhere.
"We see positive developments going on in other parts of the world, in particular related to marriage equality," said Dittrich. "There are more and more countries in the world that open up their civil legislature, their marriage legislature for couples of the same gender. Today, 10 percent of the world's population is living in countries where same-sex marriage has been legalized." Just this year, new additions to this group included France, Great Britain, Uruguay, and New Zealand, with similar legislation being discussed in several others.
The United Nations has entered the fray of LGBT rights with renewed energy in recent years, under the leadership of secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, who is a staunch supporter of equality and nondiscrimination. "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights," he said in a December 2012 speech in which he pledged to work toward decriminalizing homosexual conduct worldwide. "All human beings—not some, not most, but all."