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From the streets of New York City to the townships of South Africa, the LGBT rights movement and its opposition are engaged in an unprecedented international battle. GlobalPost presents an ongoing series of reports from key locations at this pivotal time in history, telling highly personal, often overlooked stories from the fight.
LGBT advocates face a hulking, well-funded force that fights with religious fervor. But by most tallies, they're winning.
Working in different capacities with foreign leadership and the ground, they seek to influence policy and law in foreign nations by serving as experts on the dangers they associate with homosexuality, such as HIV/AIDS, the breakdown of the family unit and spiritual decay. As mainline Christian denominations argue about how to handle homosexuality, their more extreme brethren hold the banner high in denouncing it.
Key battlegrounds in the “Rainbow Struggle" include much of Africa, the Caribbean, Middle East and Eastern Europe. Although much of Western Europe, Asia, and the Americas have moved away from criminalization of homosexuality toward greater rights, countries like Iran, Uganda, Nigeria, Russia and Saudi Arabia are moving in the opposite direction.
Indeed, 76 countries still criminalize same-sex sexual activity, and it is punishable by death in five. In many of these places, police and military harassment and brutality are commonplace. Gays have few if any public places where they may socialize openly, particularly outside major cities. Government raids on gay venues persist, lengthy prison sentences handed down with regularity. In most countries, LGBT people are the most likely minority to fall victim to hate crimes.
A relatively nascent movement
On the other side of the fight is a formidable LGBT rights movement that has plugged itself into mobile technology at an accelerating rate, connecting demonstrations in Moscow to those in New York City and Buenos Aires, and sending representatives from city to city in a highly flexible operation. Entrenched organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have helped globalize the battle, spotlighting cases of abuse against LGBT people and funneling resources toward efforts to change policy.
International activists like Lt. Dan Choi, the face of the successful movement to overturn the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, Moscow Pride founder Nikolai Alexeyev and Australian gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell have formed a loose but effective alliance, serving as international foot soldiers. Organizers in Cuba, Montenegro, Russia, China and the Czech Republic have hosted sanctioned gay pride parades for the first time over the past two years.
It is a highly decentralized movement, its leaders say, and its funding base pales in comparison to that of large religious activist groups like the American Family Association and the Family Research Council. Many participants in the global campaign to increase gay rights are self-funded while many participants in the counter-movement against gay rights are able to tap into larger reservoirs of funding from traditional churches and evangelical groups.
“If you take the budgets of the top 10 American LGBT organizations and combine them, it’s still less than Focus on the Family,” said Julie Dorf, senior advisor at the Council for Global Equality. The organization reports an annual budget around $100 million. “The right wing’s budget so far outweighs gay organizations that it’s amazing we make progress at all.”
And yet, she believes, the American gay rights movement is winning. Dorf cited May 2011, the first time that a majority of Americans said they favor legalizing gay marriage in a Gallup poll. And many LGBT rights advocates say the tide is turning even among American conservatives, who have gay friends and family members.
Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center agrees with Dorf.
“Anti-gay ideas are losing currency in the U.S. — no question,” Potok said. “The religious right is losing the battle and the field is shrinking, but there is a huge open field in Africa and elsewhere.”
The larger struggle across Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere is a huge territory for global gay rights’ groups to cover with limited resources. Surveying the international landscape of LGBT groups, Dorf said that the majority are less than 10 years old, composed mostly of volunteers, with budgets under $50,000 annually.
“It’s an extremely nascent movement,” she said, noting that a microscopic fraction of U.S. foreign development money — less than one one-hundredth of one percent — reaches LGBT rights groups around the world.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has emerged as one of several prominent leaders lending support for global gay rights.
In September he heralded the launch of Kaleidoscope Diversity Trust, established to lobby for LGBT rights in Africa and the Middle East.
And in August, ambassadors from 13 countries chastised the administration of Czech President Vaclav Klaus after he publicly criticized what was to be Prague’s first gay pride parade, calling it “a pressure action and a political demonstration of a world with deformed values.”
Since the inauguration of President Barack Obama, Dorf said, the U.S. State Department has become a vital ally to pro-rights interests, diligently working with its embassies to educate overseas populations about gay culture, help bring justice in cases of anti-gay hate crimes and lobby foreign governments to support resolutions like the one before the U.N. Human Rights Council in June.
“The non-headlines are the things I’m most excited about,” Dorf said of the behind-the-scenes diplomacy. “It’s not particularly sexy, but I’d say it’s a damn good use of taxpayer dollars.”
Globalizing the battle
Graeme Reid, LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch, explains the urgency of the current moment: “Globalization has had paradoxical effects — on one had it has facilitated the gay movement and on the other provoked a backlash. New possibilities for communication and connectivity have given impetus to international solidarity. But globalization has also seen the growth of religious fundamentalisms. Many people feel that their traditional way of life is changing too rapidly, and LGBT people are often the scapegoats.”
Even in countries like Sweden, Spain and Argentina, three of the 10 countries worldwide that have legalized gay marriage, church-affiliated political parties have steeled themselves against recognition of any further LGBT rights. And in overwhelmingly Catholic Spain, where a progressive surge in 2004 swept the Socialist Workers’ Party into power — paving the way for gay marriage — the Church-affiliated Popular Party is poised to retake the majority and has promised to repeal the legislation.
Brazil, which enjoys a reputation as one of the world’s most gay-friendly countries, has itself encountered an evangelical Christian backlash against gay rights.
In schools across the country around the world, millions of young people suffer bullying and abuse for their sexual identities, kept in the closet or barraged with vitriol that would push them back in. The world’s largest religious bodies continue to cite scripture in excluding LGBT people from their communities. Few protections exist in any country for transexuals, and gay adoption is not an option in most of the world. And although six U.S. states offer marriage licenses to same-sex couples, 39 now explicitly prohibit it.
As former Army Lt. Dan Choi said a few weeks before the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal was set to take effect, “There’s still a lot that’s left undone. Our civil rights movement depends on this idea of publicly having integrity. So it’s very effective for the opposition to make it harder and harder for us to come out.”
(GlobalPost will be publishing stories from its Special Report, “The Rainbow Struggle: A global battle over gay rights” weekly in partnership with the Huffington Post between Oct. 3 and Nov. 30. Upcoming stories originate in South Africa, Turkey, Spain, China, Sweden and Argentina among others.)