Drive for LGBT+ equality feared stalling 50 years after Stonewall

Tuesday, 25 June 2019 04:00 GMT

Eduardo getting ready Carlos Eduardo Calix, a transgender man gets ready in his home in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, April 4, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Nicky Milne

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More countries are using legal clout to recognise LGBT+ rights, but the pace of change has stalled amid an escalating conservative and religious backlash

By Hugo Greenhalgh

LONDON, June 25 (Openly) - When Tree Sequoia joined hundreds of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people rioting in downtown New York 50 years ago, same-sex relations were illegal in more than 100 countries worldwide and every U.S. state had anti-sodomy laws.

"(The police) came in nasty," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation outside the Stonewall Inn where the modern LGBT+ rights movements began on June 28, 1969, after a police raid.

"They pushed the wrong person and that person pushed them back and before you know it, they were beating up the cop and that started the whole rebellion."

Fast forward half a century and gay sex remains illegal in 69 countries and can be punished with death in seven nations.

Denmark in 1989 became the first nation to legalise a form of gay marriage with 26 countries and Taiwan following suit, but courses to "convert" minors from being gay are legal in all but three nations and reported murders of trans people are rising.

Exclusive data analysis by the Thomson Reuters Foundation showed while more countries are using legal clout to recognise LGBT+ rights, the pace of change has stalled amid an escalating conservative and religious backlash.

"It's really important that people see how easy it is to lose the rights we have gained, how fragile our hold on human rights is," Lisa Power, one of the founders of British campaign group Stonewall, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

To track the pace of changes since the Stonewall riots, the Thomson Reuters Foundation analysed data from a number of LGBT+ rights groups and some external sources.

The analysis found the 1970s and 1990s saw a rush of countries removing bans on same-sex relations, with 13 decriminalising gay sex in the 1970s and 26 in the 1990s.


This dipped to five nations in the 1980s as the global HIV/AIDS epidemic dissuaded countries from tackling what was seen as a highly controversial issue, said Matthew Hodson, executive director of NAM aidsmap, a British HIV/Aids information charity.

"This hindered the progress which we were making at the time towards social acceptance," Hodson said.

Twelve countries removed laws punishing same-sex relations in the 2000s, and 13 have lifted bans since 2010, with Botswana and Angola the most recent to join the list, acting this year.

While most European nations had scrapped laws on gay sex by the late 1990s, Africa has remained largely resistant with 32 of its 54 nations still outlawing gay sex as some politicians and church leaders refer to the "Western disease" of homosexuality.

In May this year, Kenya's high court upheld a ban on same-sex relations with punishments of up to 14 years in jail.

In the Asia-Pacific region, 18 countries outlaw same-sex relations and it is illegal to have gay sex in 10 Middle East nations.

In March, Brunei - an Islamic member of the Commonwealth in Southeast Asia - announced it would impose the death penalty for gay sex, rape and adultery, only reversing its decision after an international outcry and boycott of its hotels.

Muslim-majority countries such as Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia have cracked down on LGBT+ rights, said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division.

"Those governments are feeding on popular sentiment against LGBT persons and there is some really frightening intimidation tactics and abuse," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Similarly in countries with well-organised, heavily conservative Protestant churches like Singapore and South Korea, it's also religion that is being deployed against any move to recognise LGBT people and their rights."

Data agency Trans Murder Monitoring has tracked a rise in the number of murders of trans people over the past three years, with 369 deaths in the 12 months to September last year - the highest number in Brazil - versus 325 in 2017 and 295 in 2016.

Stonewall 50
Where next for LGBT+ lives?


While battles over decriminalising gay sex rage in some nations, the faster liberalisation in the West has led campaigners to focus on other areas, such as same-sex marriage, transgender and intersex rights, and gay adoption and surrogacy.

But the Thomson Reuters Foundation research found even in Europe, progress over LGBT+ equality has slowed, as highlighted by anti-gay rhetoric during European Union elections in May including in Spain where the far-right Vox party challenged LGBT+ rights.

"Sadly, this year we see concrete evidence of roll-back at political and legislative levels in a growing number of countries," said Evelyne Paradis, executive director of ILGA-Europe, a network of about 600 LGBT+ organisations.

The challenges remain 50 years after Sequoia, then 30, was dancing in the Stonewall Inn and police raided the bar.

Under the fake name of "Fenwick Fingernail", Sequoia had gone to jail "10-12-14 times for being in gay bars", but this time the mood had changed.

Debate rages still over who threw the first punch or the first bottle, but that night the gay community fought back.

"Outside there were 25-30 of us then 50-100 then a couple more," Sequoia said.

A parking meter was ripped out of the ground and used as a battering ram to get to the police. A rock was thrown through the window of the Stonewall Inn, followed by a lit garbage can.

And it was not just gay men fighting back.

Outside the bar there were "a couple of drag queens, lesbians in men's clothes, Fat Tony who couldn't move that fast and Mario Mae West, the bartender", said Sequoia.

Despite initial resistance, the Stonewall Riots kick-started a movement that resonates today, said author and LGBT+ historian Eric Marcus, presenter of the podcast "Making Gay History".

"Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad" ran the headline of the New York Daily News' coverage of the riots.

Marcus said Stonewall was as relevant now as 50 years ago.

"It's a turning point," he said. "There is the potential for what happened here to inspire people around the world."

Lesbian couple Jovi Wu (R) and Mindy Chiu (L), with their daughter Allison Wu, pose for a portrait after their marriage registration at the Household Registration Office in Zhongli District, Taoyuan City, after Taiwan has become the first place in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage, May 24, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Chih Kang Chiang


One year after the Stonewall uprising, thousands of people took to the streets of Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco to mark the first anniversary of the riots.

Now more than 60 countries globally hold annual Pride marches, but in many nations gay events are quashed.

The first pride march in the former Soviet republic of Georgia was called off last week after a wave of political unrest left hundreds injured and with threats from extreme right-wing groups and opposition from the influential Orthodox Church.

The Trump administration ruled earlier this month that the rainbow freedom flag should not be flown on U.S. embassy flagpoles during Pride Month, a move welcomed by Franklin Graham, president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

"The gay pride flag is offensive to Christians and millions of people of other faiths, not only in this country but around the world," Franklin wrote on his Facebook page.

Despite setbacks, many campaigners - from non-governmental organisations and the business community - remain optimistic for the future, but stress there is still much work to be done.

"I have children, and young people today are absolutely on the right side of these issues almost naturally," said Wall Street veteran Charles Myers, founder of Signum Global Advisors.

"In the end I am very optimistic but we have a rough couple of years to get through." 

(Reporting by Hugo Greenhalgh, @hugo_greenhalgh; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit


Openly is an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation dedicated to impartial coverage of LGBT+ issues from around the world.

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