The geographies of LGBT+ rights: how do they vary, where and why, in law and politics?

By Alex Cuthbert

Global attitudes towards the LGBT+ community vary widely. In some countries, employment protections, joint adoption, gay marriage and social acceptance are widespread. In others, socially conservative attitudes prevail, in legal, social and political contexts. In this blog post, I will explore how these variations occur, and the impacts of this on the global LGBT+ community. I aim to broadly analyse some of the major global trends in political attitudes towards LGBT+ rights, with a particular focus on laws around homosexuality and gay marriage, where the greatest developments have been made. I aim to answer the question through analysing nations and their political attitudes towards LGBT+ rights, as well as global patterns and individual examples (Ayoub, 2015). Historically homophobic laws have also existed in western countriesand certainly homophobic attitudes are not confined to the past (Bell, 1995). Homosexuality was illegal in England and Wales until 1967, and until the early 80’s in Scotland and Northern Ireland. In America, homosexuality was not legalised in 14 states, including Texas and Florida until 2003, and had been illegal across the whole country before 1962. Globally there needs to be significant improvements in LGBT+ rights, as a large number of countries criminalise homosexuality, while others have restrictions on freedom of expression, or an absence of legal protections.

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Map of global gay rights. Source:  The

Political debate around Gay Marriage

Gay marriage is an area of major controversy when considering political attitudes towards LGBT+ rights; it is completely legal in 26 countries, but not in the remainder. Northern Ireland is a particularly interesting example in this respect as they lie within the United Kingdom but have not legalised gay marriage. The staunch opposition of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), combined with a unique constitutional mechanism have enabled this. The mechanism, otherwise known as The “petition of concern” requires majorities in both the nationalist and unionist communitiesfor a bill to pass.  A petition of concern can be presented by 60% of the Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLAs) for either the unionist or nationalist community. If it is used, a bill cannot pass, even if a majority of MLAs in the Stormont Assembly support the bill. The socially conservative Presbyterian Free Church has a strong influence over the DUP’s membership and internal politics, meaning that all DUP MLAs oppose the legalisation of gay marriage. The family values of the Presbyterian Free Church mean that they take a traditionalist view of marriage, arguing it is only between a man and a woman.

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2013 Pride parade in Belfast. Source: Belfast Telegraph. 

Laws and Attitudes

Attitudes can be more important than legislation in the global geopolitics of LGBT+ rights. Many countries with legalised gay marriage still face internal tensions surrounding the matter and this shapes the lived experiences of those who identify as gay. Pew Research found that 33% of Americans and 18% of Britons said that homosexuality should not be accepted. In 2017 the International Lesbian and Gay Association published findings it was illegal to be gay in 72 countries. While countries may have a particular legislation dealing with LGBT+ rights, this does not erase discrimination, particularly as some of these rights or protections remain limited. Attitudes can be driven by religious, and other political beliefs of a socially conservative nature, as I discuss below.

In a wide variety of countries there is legislation restricting the LGBT+ community which carry severe penalties. A highly publicised example of this is Russia who, since the collapse of the Soviet Union haveportrayed the LGBT+ community as as supporting the West, as politicians have securitised the issue of LGBT+ rights with horrific consequences (Buyantueva, 2018). In Chechnya there have been allegations of human rights violations, which have been denied by the authorities. This includes accusations of arrest and torture of gay men. People can be arrested for promoting homosexuality under the ‘gay propaganda law’. Although this is a complex issue, the rise of the Orthodox Church since the collapse of the USSR has meant it has had increased political influence in the country, impacting attitudes towards LGBT+ rights (Buyantueva, 2018). This campaign has made the LGBT+ issues important in Russian politics, religious and conservative elements have demonstrated strong opposition to LGBT+ rights in many areas. There is also an increasingly hegemonic masculine culture, championed by Putin and feeding into Russian culture.

There are 72 countries where homosexuality is illegal and severity of the penalties can vary quite widely. This ranges from the death penalty in Saudi Arabia and Iran, to police harassing the LGBT+ community in India. Uganda securitised the LGBT+ community, creating the offences of ‘homosexuality’ and ‘aggravated homosexuality’, which is seen by the government as a threat to children. Gay pride events have been banned for two years in a row. A law carrying the death penalty for homosexuality was passed, but this was declared unconstitutional. In Uganda, gay relationships are still illegal for both men and women. Strong socially conservative attitudes towards the LGBT+ community in these countries tend to prevent legislation aimed at preventing discrimination from passing.

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UNHR Watch map showing where criminalisation of same sex relations still exists. Source: Gay News. 

Globally we are a long way from equality of rights for the LGBT+ community. More legislative action is needed, but this is only possible when social attitudes change. Progress has been made on legislative advances for gay rights, but this has not always been wholly successful in changing attitudes, as events in Northern Ireland and America demonstrate. Tolerance and inclusivity can be encouraged through persuading people that co-existence between social conservatives and the LGBT+ movement is possible, as has happened in many countries where attitudes have changed through the past 50 years. Historically, the same strongly conservative attitudes had been prevalent in these countries as well. The politics of LGBT+ rights is global, and social attitudes need to change everywhere in order for full equality to be achieved.


Ayoub, P.M. (2015) Contested norms in new-adopter states: International detrimants of LGBT rights legislation. European Journal of International Relations. 21(2), pp.293-322.

Baker, C. (2017) The ‘gay Olympics’? Eurovision Song Contest and the politics of LGBT/European belonging. European Journal of International Relations. 23(1), pp.97-121.

Bell, D. (1995) Mapping Desire: Geographies of Sexualities. London: Routledge.

Buyantueva, R. (2018) LGBT Rights Activism and Homophobia in Russia. Journal of Homosexuality.65, pp.456-83.

Gay News Europe (2016)The UN introduced an interactive map of the criminalization of same-sex love for 225 years[online]. Gay News Europe. Available from: [Accessed: 7 July 2018].

Mikuš, M. (2011) “State Pride” Politics of LGBT Rights and Democratisation in “European Serbia”. East European Politics and Societies: And Cultures. 25(4), pp.834-51.

Shakhsari, S. (2014) The queer time of death: Temporality, geopolitics and refugee rights. Sexualities.17(8), pp.998-1015.

Zebracki, M. (2017) Homomonument as Queer Microrepublic: An Emotional Geography of Sexual Citizenship. Window on the Netherlands. 108(3), pp.345-55.

Alex is currently completing the MSc in Geopolitics and Security at Royal Holloway. His interests lie in British and American politics, fracking and social issues.


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