Out in the World: Democracy, LGBTQ rights were threatened around the world in 2023

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Thursday January 4, 2024
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Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin continued to lead anti-LGBTQ efforts in 2023. Photos: Museveni, Darko Vojinovic/AP; Putin, Gavrill Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin continued to lead anti-LGBTQ efforts in 2023. Photos: Museveni, Darko Vojinovic/AP; Putin, Gavrill Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

The year 2023 was marked by a severe global assault on LGBTQ rights and unexpected challenges and progress. Despite the hard shove backward, LGBTQ communities stood up and fought back against hate for themselves and communities across the globe.

Some anti-LGBTQ political leaders and conservative forces in Russia, Uganda, and Italy led the way to queer oppression. India delivered the biggest disappointment of the year in October when the Supreme Court declined to legalize same-sex marriage in the world's largest democracy.

Mpox continued to pose a public health threat to men who have sex with men and their sexual partners as the virus surged in China, reported the Guardian, and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Despite judicial setbacks, public health concerns, and countries cracking down on LGBTQ rights, there were some extraordinary historic moments, some wins, blessings, and surprises that gave a ray of hope for 2024.

Landmark moments

In December, Australia delivered a landmark decision in an inquiry into the New South Wales Police Department's handling of hate crime cases over the span of 40 years. Inquiry commissioner John Sackar found police failed to properly investigate crimes, including 32 suspected murders of gay and transgender people, in a report released December 18. One of the murdered gay men was American mathematician Scott Johnson, which the Bay Area Reporter reported on in connection with the release on Hulu of a four-part docuseries, "Never Let Him Go."

The United Nations Security Council held the second-ever Arria formula meeting addressing the security of LGBTQ people in conflict zones and wars. The U.S. and the U.N. LGBTI Core Group led a coalition of countries addressing the issue that was widely supported by a majority of member states in March, reported the B.A.R. However, an LGBTQ Afghan organization, Roshaniya, criticized the council for leaving out LGBTQ Afghans and queer rights in a draft resolution for the peacebuilding process of Afghanistan in a January 1, 2024 Facebook post.

InterPride, the international association of LGBTQ Pride organizations, was granted consultative status at the United Nations in June.

The U.N. Human Rights Council said goodbye to Victor Madrigal-Borloz and hello to Graeme Reid, who started his three-year term as the new independent expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity November 1, reported Human Rights Watch. Madrigal-Borloz, a gay Costa Rican man, served as the second LGBTQ expert for the global governing body for nearly six years. He succeeded gay Thai man Vitit Muntarbhorn. Reid, who formerly was the director of HRW's LGBTQ Rights Program, is a veteran LGBTQ rights activist from South Africa.

Pope Francis did many things to make the Catholic Church more welcoming to LGBTQs in 2023. Photo: Bill Wilson  

Pope Francis moved the Catholic Church closer toward acceptance of LGBTQ Catholics throughout the year. Remarkably, it happened during LGBTQ Catholic organization's Dignity/USA's 50th anniversary year. Last January, just after Dignity/SF celebrated its 50th anniversary, Francis stated homosexuality isn't a crime, reported the Associated Press. In October, New Ways Ministry, an advocacy group for LGBTQ Catholics, announced the pope told queer Catholics to continue worshiping. In November, Francis welcomed transgender people to be baptized in the church.

Finally, in a stunning announcement in December, the pope issued a directive that allows priests to provide blessings to same-sex couples.

Democracy's ties to LGBTQ rights
According to a report from the Williams Institute, an LGBTQ think tank at UCLA School of Law, democracy is under threat worldwide. The report, "Democratic Backsliding and LGBTI Rights," was published in September. Data analyzed from the LGBTI Global Acceptance Index and the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute for the report showed a striking trend, "80% of the global population now lives in a country that is experiencing some restriction on freedoms, which is the highest proportion since 1997." Some of the report's key findings noted "attacks on LGBTQ rights can be a precursor to democratic backsliding, and anti-LGBTI stigma and policies may contribute to the weakening of democratic norms and institutions."

Last year also saw more countries that were once pro-LGBTQ, such as Argentina and Spain, suddenly flip to right-wing governments. The political change threatened to undo queer and transgender rights gained within the last decade. Other countries that were either pro-LGBTQ or queer-friendly are also trending toward conservative governments or social political attitudes, such as Belgium and Lebanon.

In December, Argentina swore in anti-LGBTQ right-wing libertarian Javier Milei as its new president, reported Openly. Milei, who was elected in November, has been compared to far-right leaders such as former U.S. President Donald Trump and former president Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. Argentina had led the way for LGBTQ rights in Latin America since the early 2010s. A sign of hope, Argentinians also elected prominent LGBTQ activist Esteban Paulón to Congress, reported the Washington Blade. Paulón represents the Santa Fe province.

In December, Spain, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2005, rolled back legal protections for queer and transgender people passed in 2016, reported Reuters.

In Israel, which has had a far-right government for years, the LGBTQ community was one of many groups that fought back against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial overhaul. The controversial policy would weaken LGBTQ Israeli's rights due to many of them being gained through court rulings, reported the New York Times. Earlier this week, Israel's Supreme Court rejected changes to the judiciary law.

Hamas' surprise attack on Israel October 7 killed 1,200 people and led to the ongoing Hamas-Israel war, in which thousands of Palestinians have been killed. Israel's military response to the attack has been criticized by many because civilian lives are being lost in Gaza due to the heavy fighting. Progressive LGBTQ organizations in the U.S. have joined Palestinian supporters, including the Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow, calls for a permanent ceasefire and staged large rallies around the world. At the same time, incidents of antisemitism have spiked, according to Euronews.

Russia ended the year banning the entire LGBTQ movement after attacking anyone - from celebrities to bloggers - who challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin: LGBTQ people and queer journalists were high on his list.

As soon as the law was enacted, reports surfaced of LGBTQ bars and parties being raided in Moscow, and Russia's cultural center, St. Petersburg. Some LGBTQ Russians fled the country. Human rights organizations that hadn't already left and queer-friendly businesses packed up and moved operations outside of Putin's reach.

Putin targeted Pulitzer Prize winning former Novaya Gazeta's award-winning Russian journalists Elena Kostyuchenko, as well as Elena Milashina and Russian American journalist Masha Gessen. Kostyuchenko, a lesbian who recently published her memoir, "I Love Russia: Reporting from a Lost Country," believes she was poisoned in an attempt to kill her, as she told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Milashina, who was one of the journalists who exposed Chechnya's detainment and torture of mostly gay men in 2017, was brutally attacked in the Russian republic's capital, Grozny, while on her way to a court hearing for a human rights activist in July. In November, Gessen was sued by Russia's government for spreading "false information" about Russian soldiers' actions in Ukraine.

Russia lost its legal battle at the European Court of Human Rights defending Chechnya against one of its "gay purge" victims, Maxim Lapunov. The court also deemed Russia's investigation into the issue was inadequate, reported Mamba Online.

In May, Uganda enacted the world's most draconian LGBTQ law, the Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023. The law includes the death penalty for "aggravated homosexuality." President Yoweri Museveni signed the law in May. It was the culmination of a 14-year journey to further criminalize queer people in the East African country, where homosexuality was already illegal.

Uganda was slapped with billions of dollars in sanctions from the United States, the World Bank, and other entities. Travel restrictions were imposed for key lawmakers responsible for the law. The year ended with the Convening for Equality Uganda, a coalition of Ugandan LGBTQ and human rights activists, challenging the law at the country's Constitutional Court December 18. LGBTQ activists are awaiting the court's decision.

This was the second time the court heard a case for the Anti-Homosexuality Act. In 2014, the B.A.R. reported the court struck down an earlier version of the bill - that was signed into law by Museveni at the beginning of that year - due to a technicality.

Kenya's Supreme Court dismissed a challenge to its earlier decision to uphold LGBTQ organizations' right to register with the government. That led to anti-LGBTQ protests throughout the country and the consideration of the Family Protection Bill 2023. If passed, the bill would further criminalize LGBTQ people with 50 years in jail in the country, where being queer is already illegal, reported Africa News.

Family rights
In August, Italy moved to remove non-biological same-sex parents from children's birth certificates under its new Prime Minister Georgia Meloni's ultra-conservative government, the most far-right government since Benito Mussolini (1922-43). An unnamed Milan gay male couple fought back and won the right to at least register their children, who were born abroad, under the biological father, reported Openly.

Discrimination and anti-LGBTQ protests
Gay activists in Afghanistan and the Philippines found themselves behind bars.

According to Afghani LGBTQ rights organization Roshaniya, news releases, and Facebook posts in November and December, LGBTQ peer advocate Faraidun Fakory was detained by the Taliban for more than 50 days. He was released December 23. Fakory faces being killed if a military tribunal finds him guilty of the 11 charges against him. The Taliban is accusing Fakory of being an enemy combatant who has waged war against the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan among the Taliban's charges against him. Fakory is the director of Paiwand 34, the first LGBTQ Afghan organization to be established in the country. In October, LGBTQ Afghans pleaded with the U.N. to investigate the Taliban's abuses against queer and transgender Afghans, reported Pink News. An investigation has yet to materialize.

Filipino drag artist Amadeus Fernando Pagente, popularly known as Pura Luka Vega, was arrested for his performance resembling Jesus Christ dancing to "Ama Namin," a rock version of the Lord's Prayer, reported Human Rights Watch. The performance was captured on video in July and went viral. It caught the attention of Philippine authorities. Vega was arrested and charged with "indecent or immoral plays, scenes, acts or shows that offend any race or religion." If convicted Vega faces fines and imprisonment.

British bands found themselves in unwelcoming territory in Indonesia and Malaysia last year due to their support for the LGBTQ community. Anti-gay protests erupted against Coldplay at a concert in Indonesia in November, reported the Associated Press. In July, 1975's straight frontman Matty Healy's on-stage kiss with bassist Ross MacDonald and rant against the country's anti-LGBTQ laws drew protests from fans.

China closed the Beijing LGBT Center, the last LGBTQ center in the country, in May, reported Semafor.

Pride events from Tbilisi to South Korea faced threats and violence from right-wing anti-LGBTQ protesters to attempts of government shutdowns.

Malaysia started ramping up raids against places where LGBTQ people gather. The latest was the raid of a massage parlor and arrest of five transgender women in December.

France's LGBTQ expert Jean-Marc Berthon was forced to cancel a scheduled trip to Cameroon for security reasons due to online threats ahead of his planned visit, according to HRW. In 2022, U.S. LGBTQ expert Jessica Stern was forced to cancel her trip to Indonesia due to the objection of the Indonesian Ulema Council, the country's most influential Islamic group.

Nearly 250 British LGBTQ organizations called upon Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's government to reaffirm the country's commitment to LGBTQ rights worldwide in an October letter. The United Kingdom was once a pro-LGBTQ global leader advancing queer and transgender rights. The letter was in response to former Home Secretary Suella Braverman's anti-LGBTQ and -women statements. Braverman was fired November 13 in a cabinet reshuffle. The day after, she sent a scathing resignation letter.

In a positive twist of fate, two countries formerly ruled by anti-LGBTQ leaders suddenly flipped to leaders who are supportive of LGBTQ rights.

At the beginning of the year, Brazil's former progressive president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was sworn back into office January 1, 2023, after defeating Bolsonaro in the 2022 elections. In February, Silva reiterated his support for Brazil's LGBTQ community with President Joe Biden, reported the Blade.

Poland's Law and Order Party lost power in October elections. Poles elected pro-European Union Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who promised to protect LGBTQ Poles. Last month, the ECHR ruled Poland violated same-sex couples' rights by not allowing them to register their relationships. The court ruled the country must recognize their relationships. Tusk already has a same-sex marriage bill and a trans self-determination bill in process.

Lithuania also had a change of heart. In October, the government did away with its Russian-styled anti-homosexual propaganda law it passed in 2009 due to an ECHR ruling that the law violated the right to free expression.

In May, Romania was handed a similar ruling to recognize same-sex couple's relationships, reported Social Europe. Russia was also included in the court's ruling, but banned same-sex marriage in 2021.

The U.S. added one more out diplomat in 2023. Seattle resident Roger Nyhus, a gay man, was confirmed by the Senate November 16 as ambassador to Barbados, the Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Antigua and Barbuda, the Commonwealth of Dominica, Grenada, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Nyhus' confirmation made him the 10th out LGBTQ ambassador. Gay former congressmember Sean Patrick Maloney (D-New York), who was nominated to be the U.S. representative to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in May has yet to be confirmed by the Senate.

The European Union also welcomed its first openly gay president. Edgars Rinkevics was sworn in as Latvia's new leader in July, reported the BBC.

Progress toward equality
Despite the severe backlash, 2023 still saw progress toward equality for LGBTQ people around the world.

In July, Japan passed a bill promoting education about LGBTQ people and banned discrimination, reported HRW. Some Japanese provinces banned outing of LGBTQ people without their consent, reported the Japan Times.

In October, Dan Juvan, Slovenia's state secretary at the ministry of labor, committed to the preparation and publication of the country's first national strategy for LGBTIQ+ persons. Juvan announced the plan at the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association-Europe annual conference in Ljubljana, Slovenia's capital, according to an October 27 ILGA-Europe news release.

Marriage equality and civil unions
While India's top court declined to rule in favor of same-sex marriage in October, the high court in the Indian state of Madras suggested to the Tamil Nadu government to legally recognize same-sex relationships in November, giving hope to same-sex couples, reported the Times of India. The state government has yet to respond.

Estonia made history becoming the first Central European country to legalize same-sex marriage in June, reported HRW.

In November, Latvia legalized same-sex civil unions.

Nepal became the second Asian country to legally grant same-sex marriage. The country wed its first couple in November.

Despite China's crackdown on Hong Kong's democracy movement, LGBTQ Hong Kongers were hopeful for marriage equality in 2023 due to four positive court rulings. The court's ruled in favor of protecting same-sex couples' inheritance rights, housing rights, parenting rights, and in September Hong Kong's highest court ordered the government to recognize same-sex unions within two years, reported NPR.

Transgender rights
In November, nonbinary judge Jesús Ociel Baena and their partner were murdered in their home, reported the New York Times. According to Transgender Europe's Trans Murder Monitoring 2023 Global Update, 321 transgender people globally were murdered between October 1, 2022 and September 30, 2023.

Transgender people saw a backlash against gender education in Canada with thousands taking to the North American country's streets protesting Canadian schools' gender policies, as the B.A.R. reported. Russia banned gender reassignment surgery in July, reported Deutsche Welle.

Some rights were gained for transgender people in 2023. In October, Japan's Supreme Court ruled the country's sterilization requirement for transgender people to legally change their gender identity was unconstitutional.

Small island countries the Cook Islands and Mauritius decriminalized homosexuality in 2023.

In October, the Austrian Ministry of Justice proposed to set aside more than $36.5 million (€33m) for gay people who were persecuted or convicted of consensual homosexual acts between 1971 (when homosexuality was decriminalized, but discriminatory laws were put in place) and 2002 (when the last of the laws were repealed), reported Euronews.

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

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