At the annual NYC Pride parade in New York City, participants carry photos of victims killed in the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting during, June 26, 2016.
Brendan McDermid / Reuters

No revolution worth its salt comes without pushback. The fight for gay rights—widely regarded as “the fastest of all civil rights movements” (over a short period of time, 20 nations have come to recognize same-sex marriage and an additional 15 now allow same-sex civil unions)—is no exception. A shooting rampage last June at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, by a terrorist who had expressed loathing for the LGBT community, was the deadliest assault ever on the American gay community and attests to the viciousness of this pushback. But that was only one incident. In recent years, there has been a global backlash against gay rights that runs from the United States, through many parts of the global South, to Russia and other parts of the post–Communist world.

The opposition to gay rights comes in two strains and reflects what the Pew Research Center has called “the global divide on homosexuality.” In Western Europe and the Americas, home to the world’s most democratically advanced states and the largest and most sophisticated gay rights movements, the gay backlash takes the form of a counter-revolution designed to intimidate the gay community and roll back gains in gay rights. Across Africa, the Middle East, and much of the post–Communist world, the parts of the globe where democracy, civil society, and human rights are either in short supply or struggling, the gay backlash consists of a “preemptive strike” meant to stop the gay rights movement before it can gain its footing. This involves passing legislation that criminalizes or re-criminalizes homosexuality and that bans the promotion of homosexuality. Both strains, however, serve to fuel anti-gay violence and discrimination, and have exposed the political, rather than cultural nature of the backlash


In Europe, there have been massive protests against same-sex marriage, especially in Catholic-majority countries. In May 2005, some 500,000 anti-gay protestors jammed the streets of Madrid to protest Spain’s same-sex marriage law. They were, of course, opposed to extending marriage to gay couples, but what truly mobilized them was that Spain’s same-sex marriage law was the first one in the world to put same-sex couples on the same legal footing as heterosexual couples: allowing for gay adoptions and access to reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization. Over the course of 2013, France’s “marriage for everyone bill,” which replaced a civil unions law that bestowed on same-sex couples most of the benefits of marriage, prompted more than a million people to take to the streets of Paris to oppose the bill. The protests were for the most part peaceful, but at least one demonstration in May 2013 turned violent, forcing the police to use tear gas and batons to disperse demonstrators.

Across Latin America, the gay backlash has been felt most profoundly in Brazil, where the highest court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in 2011. Since then, Brazilian legislators have retaliated with a plethora of anti-gay bills that call for redefining the family to exclude homosexual couples, for establishing a national day of “heterosexual pride,” and for banning “Christ-phobia,” or the desecration of Christian symbols. The ban targets the provocative floats mixing religious imagery and sexuality typical of Brazilian gay pride parades. Although these bills don’t really stand much chance of ever becoming law (for one thing, they are of dubious constitutionality), they contribute to the homophobic culture that underpins Brazil’s massive problem with gay killings. According to the Group Gay da Bahia, Brazil’s oldest and most respected gay rights organization, since the mid-1980s, when Brazil became a full democracy, more than 3,000 LGBT people have been murdered. Brazilian gay activists have taken to refer to this wave of gay killings as the “Homocaust.”

It is in the United States, however, where, along with liberal democracy, the strongest backlash against gay rights can be found. We can count three distinct waves.  The first began immediately after the rise of the gay liberation movement in the 1970s and entailed nothing short of moral panic. Its most dramatic manifestation was country singer Anita Bryant’s “Save the Children” campaign, which succeeded in overturning an anti-discrimination ordinance enacted in Dade County, Florida, by depicting homosexuals as pedophiles. A second wave of backlash crashed in the late 1990s. Between 1998 and 2012, some 30 states enacted constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. By far the cruelest and most diminishing of these state bans was Proposition 8, which in 2008 overturned California’s same-sex marriage law. Among many other tactics, Prop 8 proponents compared the fight against gay marriage “to the battle against Hitler” and urged Californians “not to stand quietly and accept what happened in Germany.” To add insult to injury, Prop 8 threw into legal limbo thousands of same-sex marriages.

A third wave arrived in 2013 in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, a 1997 law that barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage. A virtual tsunami of legislation intended to undermine LGBT rights has ensued: 254 anti-gay bills have been introduced, 20 of which have become law. In the first half of 2016 alone, 87 bills that could in theory limit LGBT rights were introduced, a steep increase from previous years. The bulk of these laws are justified as measures to protect religious freedom. The passage of bills of this kind has increased by at least 50 percent every year between 2013 and 2015. Then there were the so-called bathroom bills, such as the one in North Carolina, which, before it was repealed, required transgender individuals to use public bathrooms according to the gender on their birth certificates. 

A man lights a candle at a memorial outside The Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, considered by some as the center of New York State's gay rights movement, June 12, 2016.
Mark Kauzlarich / Reuters


In 2009, the Ugandan government debated the world’s most infamous anti-gay legislation, the Anti-Homosexuality Act, universally known as the “kill-the-gays-bill.”  Ostensibly seeking to prevent “foreigners from coming into Uganda and spending millions of dollars to recruit children into homosexuality,” the bill called to punish by death those who committed the “offence of homosexuality” and to jail for up to seven years family and friends of homosexuals who failed to report them to the authorities. Western condemnation and threats of economic retaliation forced Uganda to withdraw the bill. But this was, for the most part, a pyrrhic victory. The bill was signed into law in 2014, with the death penalty exchanged for life in prison. Although it has yet to go into effect due to an intervention by the Ugandan Constitutional Court, the bill has spawned copycats across Africa, including Gambia, Liberia, and Nigeria.

Russia’s “gay propaganda law,” enacted in 2013, has also earned its share of infamy. It punishes anyone who promotes homosexuality with jail time and fines. So broadly written is the law that, in principle, it outlaws pride parades; public displays of affection by same-sex couples; gay newspapers and magazines; gay-themed literature, television, and films; and symbols of the LGBT community, such as the rainbow flag. Even an admission of homosexuality, unless the admission is made in order to denounce homosexuality, can be considered illegal. Similar legislation has been passed or is in the works in Lithuania, Moldova, and Ukraine.  

Darker still is the picture across Central Asia and the Middle East, where the gay backlash has unleashed a nasty wave of anti-gay violence. Since March, more than 100 gay and bisexual men have been reported tortured, held in camps, and killed in the semi-autonomous Russian Republic of Chechnya. For several years now, the world has been horrified by the ghastly antics of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), which has been beheading gays and throwing them from rooftops in the territories that it controls, such as parts of Iraq. In Southern Iran in 2014, two gay men were hanged as part of a wave of executions for “immorality.” That same year, seven men were arrested in Egypt after appearing in a Youtube video clip, depicting two men exchanging wedding rings. It was described as “Egypt’s first gay marriage.” According to a report by Human Rights Watch, the arrests are part of broader campaign by the Egyptian government to “arrest and routinely torture men suspected of consensual homosexual conduct.”


What is causing the global gay rights backlash is less clear, since societal acceptance of homosexuality in most countries has never been higher. A popular sociological explanation is that increasing visibility makes LGBT people an easier target for anti-gay rights activists. Suzanna Walter, author of All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America, makes that case, arguing that images of gays became ubiquitous in the American media during the 1990s, and this, in turn, led to increased violence against LGBT people. Although this visibility has had a positive effect, leading to greater acceptance of the gay community, the normalization has also galvanized staunch opponents. As Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told The New York Times, “As the majority of society becomes more tolerant of LGBT people, some of those who are opposed to them become more radical.” 

Another popular explanation is the enduring strength of homophobia, which flows from the cultural heterosexism embedded in most religions. Public polls show that societal acceptance of homosexuality is intimately linked to levels of social and economic development and rates of religiosity. The higher the religiosity, the lower the acceptance rate of homosexuality, and vice versa. The polling data also show that among the major religious groups, Muslims are the least accepting of homosexuality and gay rights, followed by Protestant–Evangelicals, Catholics, and mainstream Protestants. These findings would explain why the gay backlash has been most severe in the most deeply religious parts of the world, such as African and Middle Eastern nations, and, among Western nations, more pronounced in nations with large Evangelical populations, such as the United States and Brazil, than Catholic ones, such as Argentina, Ireland, and Spain.

Decidedly less noted, and therefore less understood, are the political roots of the gay backlash. By openly embracing anti-gay violence and extremely homophobic legislation, many autocratic regimes across the world are doing what such regimes have done for centuries to groups as varied as Jews, heretics, and various ethnic minorities: scapegoating a socially despised minority as a way to consolidate power, to justify conservative policies, and to distract from other issues.

The governments of Egypt and Iran, for example, employ anti-gay violence in a way that is strikingly similar to the way terrorist organizations, such as ISIS, use violence. Beheading and hanging gays is as much about punishing individuals as it is about intimidating a community or an entire group of people. Russia’s “war on gays” is more a reflection of President Vladimir Putin’s desire to crack down on civil and political liberties than it is an expression of homophobia in Russian culture. Before Putin’s rise, Russia had decriminalized homosexual activity immediately following the fall of Communism.

Although homophobia in Africa is often seen as an “ancient hatred,” its history is surprisingly short. A study by Human Rights Watch revealed that roughly half of the world’s remaining anti-sodomy laws are holdovers from British colonial rule. After independence, post-colonial leaders in Africa kept the anti-sodomy laws in place mainly out of political convenience. Leaders such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe discovered that they could score political gains by condemning homosexuals and demonizing homosexuality as a “Western perversion.” And not every African country discriminates against homosexuals. South Africa’s post–Apartheid Constitution was the first in the world to ban anti-gay discrimination, and in 2006 it became the first non-Western nation to legalize same-sex marriage.

Politicians in the West, but especially in the United States, have also found that exploiting hostility toward homosexuality can score them political points, especially around election time. U.S. presidential candidate Pat Buchanan electrified the 1992 GOP National Convention with his fire-breathing “culture war” speech, in which he warned that the “Clinton and Clinton agenda,” (that is Bill and Hillary Clinton), would bring “homosexual rights” to the United States. Karl Rove, the architect of George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, put same-sex marriage referenda in as many states as possible for the sole purpose of mobilizing so-called value voters. That year, 11 state anti-gay marriage referenda were put to the voters, including in the very important swing state of Ohio. The campaign also capitalized on the anger in conservative circles unleashed by the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down all remaining anti-sodomy laws in the United States.

U.S. President Donald Trump, despite his pledge at the 2016 GOP National Convention to protect LGBT Americans from violence and discrimination, ran on a platform described by gay Republicans as the GOP’s “most anti-LGBT platform” in the party’s 162-year history. The platform called for reversing the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling and for amending the federal constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Since the election, Trump has pledged to sign the First Amendment Defense Act, or FADA, which calls for the federal government to allow individuals and business corporations to discriminate against LGBT people on religious grounds. While these anti-gay stances no longer have the popular political appeal that they once had, they still serve the useful purpose of keeping social conservatives within the GOP’s fold.


If there is a silver lining to the gay backlash, it is that the backlash is forcing the international community to confront the issue of anti-gay violence and discrimination. In 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Commission, with the support of the United States, the European Union, and several Latin American nations, enacted the Resolution on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, which called for the decriminalization of homosexuality. It was the first document of its kind for a UN agency. In May 2016, in the wake of the attack in Orlando, the UN Security Council issued a resolution condemning violence against LGBT people, the first time that the body had mentioned homosexuality. Soon after, the UN Human Rights Council announced the appointment of a “Gay Czar” to monitor LGBT violence around the world.

These international initiatives aim to undermine homophobia by sensitizing the world to the fact that despite securing rights once thought to be unattainable, gay people remain among the world’s most vulnerable minorities, even in some of the world’s most liberal societies. This is an unquestionably worthwhile goal. But faster and more effective change could come if the international community took a stronger stance against those regimes inclined to use gays as a political scapegoat and to employ homophobia as a political tool. The former administration of U.S. President Barack Obama took a strong stance on this issue, which is how Uganda’s toxic anti-gay bill was derailed. But based on his well-documented admiration for flagrant human rights violators, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, it seems unlikely that Trump will do the same.

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