Media coverage of gays and lesbians in 2014 has followed a very different trend to previous years. Rather than good news stories about love and weddings, the majority of reports relate to violence, persecution and discrimination of LGBTI people.
What is behind this apparent increase in hostilities towards gays and lesbians? The more the west recognises and protects gay rights, the more African and Asian nations seem determined to go in the opposite direction.
It is as if we are watching Newton’s law of physics being played out on the world stage. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every country that legislates for marriage equality, another country increases its persecution of gays.
So, does the west bear any responsibility for this apparent increase in homophobia in many parts of the world? The perhaps surprising answer is that it does.
In 2013, France, New Zealand and Uruguay all enacted same-sex marriage legislation, along with six American states. Also, for a brief period last year, lesbian and gay couples could marry in the ACT, although the law was later voided.
The lead-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics was dominated by reports of extreme violence perpetrated against individuals because of their sexual orientation and a global backlash against host nation Russia’s anti-gay laws.
In Africa, a significant upsurge in violence against gays followed the passing of laws further criminalising homosexuality and imposing even harsher penalties in Uganda and Nigeria. It has been described as a “sexuality genocide”.
In Uganda, a new offence of “aggravated homosexuality” has been created. This is defined as repeated sexual offences by consenting adults and same-sex sexual conduct by a person who is HIV positive. The penalty is life imprisonment.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court of India handed down a judgment that recriminalised homosexuality, just over four years after it was legalised.
The west’s role
There are two ways in which the west has directly contributed to the recent escalation in persecution of gays. Anti-gay Christians from the United States, perhaps frustrated by their lack of success in curtailing the recognition of gay rights in the US, have sought to exert influence further afield.
Scott Lively, an evangelist from Massachusetts, appears to have played a pivotal role in developing the laws further criminalising homosexuality in Uganda. He is being sued in the US courts for crimes against humanity.
In 2009, Lively visited Uganda where he made speeches:
…about the “gay” agenda in churches, schools colleges, community groups and in parliament.
It has been asserted that before Lively’s visit, gay men and lesbians were looked at as different, but no-one bothered them. After his visit, the bill to further criminalise homosexuality was introduced into parliament (although it was not passed until December 2013) and gays were persecuted, arrested, tortured and murdered in increasing numbers.
Lively has also taken “credit” for inspiring Russia’s anti-gay laws.
Western governments have also unwittingly provoked the harsher treatment of gays and lesbians in places such as Uganda and Nigeria. When the Ugandan anti-gay bill was passed by the nation’s parliament, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni was pressured by US president Barack Obama not to sign it into law, saying it would complicate relations with the US.
Nobody likes to be told what to do, including the Ugandan president. Museveni quickly responded that America’s veiled threats – and the international outcry over the bill – amounted to social imperialism. He promptly signed the bill to demonstrate to his people that he would not be bullied by the west.
While it is clear that the west has played a role in the increase in persecution of gays, this should not mean that the rising attacks on gays in some parts of the world should be ignored.
Rather, a more nuanced response is required: one that recognises the motivations behind targeting gays (for example, a ploy to distract people from government corruption or the dire state of the economy ahead of an election) and respects the sovereignty of other countries, but never deviates from a commitment to universal human rights.
Quiet diplomacy, rather than high-profile condemnation, has a greater chance of succeeding when it comes to increasing respect for the rights of sexual minorities.