- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
Ari Shaw is a Senior Fellow and the Director of International Programs at the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.
Earlier this year, President Joe Biden convened the second Summit for Democracy, in which global leaders took stock of the state of democracy around the world and measured progress on commitments that countries made during the first summit fifteen months prior. At the time, Biden remarked that “we are turning the tide” away from autocracy and towards “greater freedom, greater dignity, and greater democracy.” His observation was notable, in part, because it was said against a backdrop of what many indicators suggest is a global rise in authoritarianism. According to Freedom House, more than three quarters of the world’s population lives in a country that has some restrictions on freedom [PDF]—the highest proportion in more than a quarter-century.
Also noteworthy was the absence of any meaningful discussion of how democratic backsliding has mirrored a surge in attacks targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) people. Anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric and policies have increasingly been deployed for a variety of political aims by populist leaders with illiberal tendencies, including several from countries that participated in the summit. Right-wing Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni, for example, campaigned against an “LGBT lobby” and has moved to limit adoption rights of same-sex couples, while in the U.S. nearly five hundred anti-LGBTQI+ bills targeting issues from lifesaving healthcare to LGBTQI+ content in schools have been proposed in largely conservative state legislatures.
This pairing is hardly coincidental.
In a new study [PDF] from the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, my colleagues and I find strong evidence that attacks on LGBTQI+ people and their rights can be a bellwether of broader democratic backsliding. Using an original Global Acceptance Index that measures public attitudes towards LGBTQI+ people and their rights across 175 countries, we find that efforts to stigmatize LGBTQI+ people can telegraph and even contribute to a more fundamental erosion of democratic norms and institutions, whether curtailing judicial review, cracking down on independent media, or other illiberal acts.
In some cases, homophobic and transphobic rhetoric are used as part of a populist electoral strategy to appeal to conservative and religious voters. In other cases, disinformation about LGBTQI+ people is used to divert attention from internal social and economic crises or entrenched corruption. The manufactured threat of so-called gender ideology has been used by conservative movements and authoritarians alike to frame LGBTQI+ and feminist advocacy as externally imposed efforts to subvert traditional family and gender norms.
Regardless of the form, the effect is often the same. Anti-LGBTQI+ attacks create a wedge that defines sexual and gender minorities as outsiders and threats to a core national identity. This fissure can then be used to justify subsequent antidemocratic behavior in the name of protecting “the nation.” Many anti-LGBTQI+ laws target essential lifelines for advocacy groups by closing LGBTQI+ community centers, limiting NGO registration, or banning LGBTQI+-related speech, thereby restricting freedoms of assembly and expression under the pretense of protecting against the supposed external threat of LGBTQI+ rights.
Take, for instance, the case of Indonesia. Following an extended period of democratization, 2016 saw a dramatic escalation in anti-LGBTQI+ attacks, including an effort to ban LGBTQI+ student organizations, a ministerial order requiring internet service providers to block social networks used by LGBTQI+ people, and the removal of mobile apps that included LGBTQI+ content. A “moral panic” ensued in which a number of municipalities passed regulations explicitly prohibiting “acts considered LGBT.” Meanwhile, President Joko Widodo walked back promised reforms that were intended to strengthen media independence, and he consolidated executive authority by, among other things, placing the administration of new social policies under military control.
Populist homophobia and transphobia accompanied similar antidemocratic turns in Brazil. Even before running for president, Jair Bolsonaro openly embraced anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric, proclaiming that he would rather his son die than be gay, and warning against the incursion of “gender ideologies” into schools. As president, Bolsonaro dismantled the professionalized bureaucracy in favor of “super ministries” overseen by his allies and actively courted political participation of the military. He appointed conservative cabinet members who stripped LGBTQI+ protections from the ministry of Family, Women, and Human Rights, and he issued executive orders in efforts to monitor and restrict the activities of human rights and environmental NGOs.
The precise relationship between attacks on LGBTQI+ rights and democracy is complex, but the strong association suggests that policymakers should pay close attention to anti-LGBTQI+ activity as a signal of underlying threats to democratic institutions.
What’s more, the relationship may be working in both directions. Our study finds that countries with high levels of LGBTQI+ acceptance are more likely to have free and fair elections, strong rule of law, civil liberties protections, and minority rights. We also find that more accepting countries tend to have higher GDP per capita. In other words, it is not just that anti-LGBTQI+ attacks can presage a weakening of democracy, but stronger protections for LGBTQI+ people may help buttress against further democratic erosion by reducing political polarization and economic insecurity.
LGBTQI+ inclusion could yield both political and economic benefits, and policymakers should prioritize efforts that promote LGBTQI+ acceptance and expand human rights protections. Between 2019 and 2020, just 0.04 percent [PDF] of global overseas development assistance went to fund LGBTQI+-specific programs and organizations. LGBTQI+ people experience violence and discrimination at disproportionately higher rates than other groups, and donor governments should increase funding to levels that match the urgency of this reality. Governments should also leverage multilateral systems to mainstream LGBTQI+ issues and help bolster the capacity of local LGBTQI+ civil society organizations to both advocate for greater inclusion and to oppose the rollback of democratic freedoms.
Early in his administration, President Biden signed a presidential memorandum that explicitly located the protection and promotion of LGBTQI+ rights within U.S. foreign policy objectives. While the directive was cast in terms of advancing “our most deeply held values,” sufficient resources and political will have not always followed. To help stem the tide of autocracy, we should prioritize LGBTQI+ inclusion not only because it is consistent with our values, but also because it is good policy that can strengthen the underpinnings of democracy.