Supporting the LGBTI Agenda: Why It Matters for Civil Society

By Julie Snyder

After the significant strides forward made by civil society in the 1980s and 1990s, the world faces insidious threats to civic space, and has seen a significant erosion of civil and political freedoms. Governments across the globe have used various tools and strategies to clamp down on civil society and curtail their space of work. These tactics range from restricting the resilience and sustainability of civil society actors to conflating human rights activism with threats to legitimacy. This trend of closing civic space threatens the survival of groups across the spectrum, from international humanitarian organizations that provide life-saving assistance to small, local social change movements. However, particularly vulnerable groups are at an even greater risk. Exacerbated by long and entrenched history of marginalization, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) groups “ [are] bound to be among the most affected when repressive regimes place constraints on civil society.” Often excluded by mainstream civil society, LGBTI groups are left to fend for themselves, facing stigma, discrimination, and intimidation. LGBTI rights are, therefore, among the first rights to be attacked and the last to be protected.

Over the last decade, LGBTI advocates managed to achieve a recognition of the civil, political, economic, and social rights for LGBTI persons in many countries. Acknowledging the work of civil society organizations on LGBTI rights, the former United Nations special rapporteur on the freedom of association and peaceful assembly pointed out that “more than 20 countries allow same-sex marriages today; in 2000, there were zero. The community’s advocacy has also been wildly successful in changing public opinion. In the United States, for example, only 26 percent of people supported the idea of same-sex marriage in 1996. By 2015, that number rose to 61 percent.” Under the Obama administration, the United States advanced the LGBTI rights agenda at both the domestic and international level, with LGBTI rights forming an integral part of U.S. foreign policy in 2011. This led many conservative countries to follow suit and adopt policies that recognize the rights of LGBTI persons and support their collective action.

However, with the rise of populism and conservatism as well as the increase of restrictive measures on civil society, groups working on LGBTI rights have been subjected to all forms of human rights violations, including being arrested, harassed, tortured, demonized and killed. These practices aim to consolidate power within their conservative constituents, silencing dissenting voices and limiting the space for civic action. Governments and non-state actors engage in smear campaigns against LGBTI individuals or against organizations working on LGBTI rights or led by LGBTI individuals, associating LGBTI with pedophilia, mental illness, or sinful and contagious behavior.

Homosexual relationships are criminalized in 72 countries around the world, making the very act of upholding LGBTI rights illegal and sometimes fatal. In Nigeria, identifying as homosexual can lead to sentences ranging from prolonged imprisonment to death by stoning. Even in Georgia, where homosexuality is legal, LGBTI activists are often attacked by anti-gay groups while the police turn a blind eye. Though its provisions on the criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct are rarely enforced legally, Ghanaian LGBTI persons are often subjected to vigilante violence. Oftentimes, the push for LGBTI rights – and the subsequent clampdown on them – is dismissed as a western phenomenon or an “attack” on traditional values. The Indonesian Defense Minister claimed, for example, that “[i]t’s as we can’t see who our foes are, but out of the blue everyone is brainwashed — now the [LGBT] community is demanding more freedom, it really is a threat.” Since 2013, Algeria, Lithuania, Nigeria and Russia have all passed laws prohibiting “homosexual propaganda,” making it difficult, if not impossible, for LGBTI civil society organizations (CSOs) to operate without interference from the state. Similarly, Ugandan authorities prohibited the organization of capacity building activities for LGBTI human rights defenders in various instances.

The year 2017 alone portrays a disturbing picture, “a global backlash against gay rights.” Evdokiya Romanova, a Russian activist, was found guilty of spreading “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships among minors using the Internet” by a Russian court in October 2017. Furthermore, governments have made it difficult and sometimes impossible for organizations working on LGBTI rights to be registered, to receive foreign funding, and to organize their advocacy. In Egypt, the government ramped up arrests for openly LGBTI individuals, and several public figures condemned homosexuality, with one television host even saying that it “ is a crime that’s as terrible as terrorism .” Similarly, Turkey banned all LGBTI events using the justification of protecting public security.

As some segments of society in many countries embrace deep-rooted homo-, bi-, and transphobic beliefs alongside traditional values, civil society organizations – in an attempt not to alienate their constituents – fail to stand in solidarity with LGBTI communities and groups. Given the prejudice and social bias against LGBTI rights, some CSOs opt not to amplify and lend legitimacy to efforts to advance the recognition of the rights of LGBTI people, and turn a blind eye on the violations committed against LGBTI community. The silence of mainstream human rights CSOs stems from the narrowing of civic space; as pressure on civil society increases, mainstream CSOs become absorbed in their own survival and leave more vulnerable organizations by the wayside.

To avoid further scrutiny by host governments and cultural barriers, donors are often hesitant to fund LGBTI groups or initiatives. The quest for sustainable funding plagues LGBTI groups – in 2013, Funders for LGBTQ Issues found that for every $100 given by foundations, only 24 cents goes to LGBTI groups; furthermore, 54 percent came from only three organizations. These groups are seeking to diversify their funding through community donations and implementing cost-saving measures that could expose their staff to greater insecurity.

Civil society experts note the significance of networks between CSOs to protect civic space, particularly for more vulnerable groups. The Fund for Global Human Rights deliberately connects LGBTI CSOs to human rights movements in their own countries to build constituencies for their advocacy. Careful and deliberate coalitions with other civil society groups can be a powerful bulwark against attacks on LGBTI groups and yield gains for all. For example, California adopted a gender neutral access law after joint advocacy by LGBTI groups and women’s groups, and the targeting of LGBTI groups in Uganda through social media led to a broad-based movement to learn how to use and implement virtual private networks (VPNs) by civil society.

Because of their heightened vulnerability and connection with the status of rights across the board, the health of LGBTI organizations within a country can serve as a weathervane for the state of broader civil society. As the Global Philanthropy Project notes, the targeting of LGBTI groups often signals an incoming crackdown on civil society writ large. CSOs at large should not only be standing with LGBTI groups and individuals in solidarity to protect their human rights, but also for the health of civic space – as a diverse and dynamic civil society that is inclusive of all voices is one that is most effective. CSOs must support their LGBTI colleagues to successfully push back against closing space. Civil society should actively seek areas for collaboration to uphold both their own and the LGBTI agenda. LGBTI rights are human rights – and civil society cannot be selective in its call for change.

Julie N. Snyder is a research and advocacy associate with the U.S. program at the Center for Civilians in Conflict.