2 min

Looking for progress on global LGBT rights? Think smaller

LGBT activists would make more headway in small democracies than in the big, headline-grabbing horror shows

Globally, around 79 states and territories still criminalize LGBT people. Credit: DeoSum/iStock

No matter the impression you might get from reports of a new stream of anti-gay horrors being unleashed in places like The Gambia, Uganda, Nigeria, Russia, or the ISIS-held territories, we’re actually living in an time of vast freedom for LGBT people worldwide unprecedented in the modern era.

We react with horror whenever a state like Russia or Kyrgyzstan attempts to crackdown on LGBT freedom — as we should — but in the grand scheme, these examples are outliers on a broad trend to greater liberalization and acceptance for LGBT people. Since 1991, 50 countries have decriminalized homosexuality – including, for perspective’s sake, the United States, which maintained sodomy laws in more than a dozen states until 2003.

The progress has been so quick and strong that even the United Nations — famously reluctant to discuss LGBT issues — has become a vocal champion of LGBT rights under its current secretary-general Ban Ki-moon.

Globally, around 79 states and territories (it depends what you count as a state) still criminalize LGBT people. These states are home to just over 2.9 billion people, or around 40 percent of the global population.

The good news is that a large number of these states are more-or-less liberal democracies that are currently grappling with the issues around striking their anti-gay laws from the books. In India — by far the largest of the criminalization states and home to 44 percent of their total population — a growing chorus of (mostly opposition) politicians are calling for decriminalization.

In the medium term however, we’re likely to see the next major decriminalization victories come from the many, many small island states that maintain anti-gay laws. About 20 small island states in the Caribbean, and the Pacific and Indian Oceans are facing increasing scrutiny for their anti-gay laws or are actively grappling with decriminalization. In some of these states, antiquary sodomy laws remain on the books despite the passage of modern laws against LGBT discrimination (Mauritius, Seychelles, Cook Islands, Samoa) and despite their signing a pro-gay-rights statement at the UN (Nauru, Tuvalu).

In the South Pacific, the UN is promoting LGBT equality in the eight states where anti-gay laws remain on the books. In the Caribbean, Jamaican-Canadian activist Maurice Tomlinson is pursuing court challenges of the anti-gay laws in 11 countries, in part with the official support of the Caribbean Community.

These microstates are only home to about 8.5 million people, which is a drop in the bucket compared to a global total of 2.9 billion. But going forward the important metric may actually be the number of states, and not actually the number of people affected by their laws.

International laws and norms are not entirely democratic. They’re formed by convention and agreement among states, where individual states have a more or less equal voice and vote whether they’re home to one million people or one hundred million. Bringing these smaller states on side for basic LGBT rights helps build an international consensus, and in the long run, helps isolate anti-LGBT states as outliers to the global norm.

I’m not saying we should ignore the judicial murder and torture of LGBT people in Saudi Arabia and Iran, but we’re unlikely to see Pride marches in Riyadh and Tehran any time soon. By focusing lobbying efforts and resources toward LGBT movements in the two dozen “tipping point” countries, we may see real results in the short term that help move the discussion in places where the victories will not come so easily.