The Rise in LGBTQ+ Hate and Democratic Backsliding

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, United Nations

Senior Fellow and Director of International Programs, The Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law; CFR Term Member

Executive Director, Outright International


Assistant Dean of Student Life and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging, David Geffen School of Drama; Assistant Professor Adjunct of Theater Management; CFR Life Member

Panelists discuss the global rise of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments and the intersection of the deterioration of LGBTQ+ rights and democratic backsliding.

YAO: This is great. (Laughter.) This is amazing. Good afternoon, everyone. I’m Nancy Yao. And I have the real great privilege of serving as a presider today. And welcome, everyone. My pronouns are she/her. And in the course of this conversation, if you feel that it’s your practice to share your pronouns, please feel free to do so. This may be the first meeting as the Council on Foreign Relations where we may share pronouns. I don’t know. I’m guessing. But we are on the record today, and I just wanted—I’m so grateful to Graeme Reid, Ari Shaw, and Maria Sjödin for joining us today for this very important conversation.  

I guess I want to start off by saying June is pride month, but I’m going to suggest—and I hope I’m right—that this is not a check-the-box conversation because it’s pride month. But this is a critically important global issue, and one that we should really prioritize in our conversations around many global issues that we are so familiar with at the Council. So thank you for the Council on Foreign Relations for having this conversation. I worked here for cumulatively, six years. I’ve been a term member and a life member. And to be honest, this is the first time that I’ve seen this conversation on the podium. And I’m grateful also that it’s in the Peterson Hall. So thank you so much for doing that.  

I wanted to share—I think you know their bios. If you don’t, please go and take a look at this extraordinary group. 

But Graeme Reid, independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity at the United Nations. 

Ari Shah, a senior fellow and director of international programs at the Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law. And many of you may be familiar, a veteran CFR in many different forms. We always come back somehow. 

And Maria Sjödin, executive director of Outright International. Please check out The Williams Institute, just came out with a new report, Outright International has a lot of resources. 

And Graeme Reid’s work, both published and at the U.N., is extraordinary in this space.  

So thank you so much. And thank you for the members who are attending in person and those who may be able to have this opportunity to join us in conversation—in consideration as they review this material on a latter point. I have the great pleasure of just wanting to start off this conversation. We have a lot of different issues. We want to make sure everyone feels comfortable in having this conversation. I’ll run it for about thirty minutes and then open it up to the floor. But it’s a large-ranging space. And I think there’s a lot of acronyms and a lot of concepts that are not always familiar to everyone.  

We are currently living in a very polarized environment, as we all know, both domestically and globally. So we’re encouraging everyone to give space to, one, education, and also advocacy, depending on where you are in these conversations. But, Maria, would love to start out with you. Executive director at Outright. Why are we even here today talking about this? What has been the evolution of this conversation? And why are we talking about these issues today? 

SJÖDIN: I mean, I think in some ways it’s a—it’s a sign of the success of the broader LGBTIQ movement that we do see inclusion in more spaces. But certainly not enough. I mean, I’ve been an activist of sorts for the last twenty-five years in this space, starting in my home country, Sweden, and now focused solely on working internationally. And when I started as an activist in this space, so much of the work of the LGBTIQ movement was really focused around HIV and AIDS. Those were the sorts of opportunities for organizations to get any funding to do any kind of work.  

And then I think we were very successful in saying, well, it’s not just about the sort of what the rest of the world consider as being a potential threat to them. It’s about our rights. So we moved the conversation into the space of human rights—very successfully I think. A lot of organizations and actors around the world now in the LGBTIQ movement are very fluent, if you will, in the language of human rights. But I think, as we’re—it’s not like—it’s not like I think we see the limit of human rights, but I do think that we need more tools. And that’s where I think a lot of other frames of doing this work has come in. And democracy is one of them.  

So at Outright, and with some—with a couple of partners, Synergia and IFES, we’ve launched a program called The Global LGBTIQ Inclusive Democracy and Empowerment Program. And this is solely focused on democracy. And so we’re working with partners around the world to advance inclusion for LGBTIQ people in democratic processes, using democratic frameworks. And I think at this point in time it is particularly important because, as you just said, I mean, polarization is increasing, authoritarian regimes and the populist regimes. I mean, sometimes they’re the same. Sometimes they’re not. But they increasingly love using us as sort of both targets and to win allies.  

So you can hear Hungary’s government say, well, you know, we don’t think you should have any rights. But we’re a democracy, so we’re just going to let the majority vote for the minority not to have rights. Or, we see the kind of populist rhetoric pointing to LGBTIQ people as threats, often not in a sort of a new way or necessarily new language, but in reaching, I think, some new audiences. So it’s kind of a mixed—at the same time as there is more visibility than ever before, LGBTIQ organizing happening in more countries than ever before, there is also a very real backlash that takes many forms. And democracy is one way—we have to defend democracy. We have to push forward for our democracies to be inclusive. 

YAO: I appreciate that, Marie. 

And, Ari, the report out of UCLA actually suggests that there—that attacks on LGBTI people and their rights can be a precursor to democratic backsliding. Can you expand a little bit on that? 

SHAW: Yeah. So, first, I’d also just like to thank the Council for hosting this meeting. I think this is a really important conversation. And I’m grateful that we’re able to be here today.  

So by way of answering that, for those who don’t know, The Williams Institute is a think tank at UCLA. And our main sort of mission is to ensure that data and evidence are brought to bear on conversations connecting to LGBTQI+ people and communities, particularly because so often it has been myths and stereotypes that inform a lot of policymaking and judicial decision making around these issues. So we kind of approach all of our work, and this question in particular, with that sort of lens.  

And so, you know, I think we all kind of observe that we’re in this moment of democratic decline, right? You know, I think Freedom House, by one measure, says that 80 percent of the world’s population is living in some sort of political context that is facing restrictions on freedoms. And against that backdrop, we see, as Maria mentioned, in places like Hungary, in Uganda, we see a kind of increase in the weaponization of homophobia and transphobia in a lot of different ways. You know, whether it’s sort of electoral strategies to mobilize conservative voters or as a way of kind of deflecting attention from political and economic crises.  

Even here in the United States, right, we have a record more than 500 anti-LGBTQ bills have been proposed this year alone. And this is not just kind of what we’re seeing in the community, right? Department of Homeland Security and the FBI recently released warnings that speak to threats against participation in pride events in the country. The State Department has put out warnings to participation in pride events around the world. So there’s a real kind of, you know, evident increase.  

And we wanted to see to what extent these are actually connected and not just coincidental. One of the tools that we have developed at The Williams Institute is called the Global Acceptance Index. And this is essentially a measure of public attitudes and opinions toward LGBTI people in 175 countries around the world. And because there’s no one public opinion poll that asks the same question in every country about people’s attitudes, we pull on lots of different surveys and, essentially, around 100 different questions that in some way get at attitudes toward LGBTI people. And using that data, we’re able to kind of compare that with measures of democracy. In this case, we use the varieties of democracy index out of Sweden.  

And this is helpful because it takes on a lot of different measures of democracy, not just electoral democracy but also rule of law, respect for minority rights, independence of the judiciary, things like that. And what we found is that actually, there is a very strong relationship between changes in acceptance of LGBTI people and changes in the level of democracy. And when we dug into it further, using some statistical approaches that let us see the kind of sequencing and the way that the relationship between those factors can change over time, what we found is that in some cases attacks on LGBTI people, or changes in the level of acceptance, can be a bellwether of a more fundamental erosion of democratic norms and institutions. And so it really is the kind of canary in the coal mine of broader attacks on democratic institutions.  

And just to kind of flip that too, we also looked at, you know, the sort of positive relationship of these factors. And what we found is that countries that are more accepting, that have stronger protections for LGBTI people, are more economically prosperous, are stronger democracies, in fact. So for us, you know, the kind of takeaway was, you know, this isn’t a niche issue. And it’s not something that you should necessarily pay attention to just because it sort of aligns with your values, or it’s the morally correct thing to do, but actually this makes sound political and economic policy sense. 

YAO: I appreciate that, Ari. 

But, you know, Graeme, you’ve done a lot of work on the proliferation of restriction. And also Ari alluded to what happened in Uganda a little over one year ago, where they enacted one of the world’s harshest anti-LGBTQ+ laws, which allows death penalty for consensual same sex relations. Leaving many, many, many, many people in this community vulnerable to abuse. Can you talk a little bit about the proliferation of restriction and what kind of hostile terrain that we’re currently really quite engaged in globally? 

REID: I think I would start by picking up on something that Maria said, is that the rapid progress that has been made over the past decades. I think it’s always important to bear that in mind, is that there has really been quite extraordinary progress in a number of areas. And we’re living in a particularly challenging time at the moment. And I’m particularly concerned, as you say, with the proliferation of laws and policies that are restricting freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of association.  

In 2013, Russia adopted the gay propaganda law. And in the wake of that, there were a number of copycats legislation, in Eastern Europe in particular. And similarly, laws that outlaw or restrict the so-called “promotion of homosexuality.” These laws are put in place in order to prevent public expression of identity, basically. And according to the latest ILGA report that came out just last month, in May, Laws on Us, there’s some fifty-nine countries that have explicit laws that restrict freedom of expression based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and similarly for freedom of association.  

And oftentimes, the rhetoric that’s used to justify these restrictions is particularly harmful. So the gay propaganda law in Russia began as a law that was justified in terms of protecting children. It’s now been extended beyond that, but initially that association of the need to protect children or to protect the family or, by extension, to protect the nation, that these laws are justified. So it creates a situation in which there is increasing restricted ability of individuals and organizations to advocate for themselves, coupled with a very hostile political rhetoric that’s used to justify the restrictions, that makes vulnerable communities all the more vulnerable as a result.  

And you alluded to, you know, there’s a law pending in Ghana which is extraordinary in its extremity. That merely saying that you are lesbian or gay, or that you supported in any way a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender person, would be a criminal offence. So that’s a really extreme version of what has been taking place cumulatively over the years. So while we see progress in terms of the decriminalization of consensual same-sex relations, almost parallel to that we are seeing an increasing restriction on freedoms of expression, of assembly, and of association. 

YAO: Maria, you know, so much of your work at Outright looks like it’s not just advocacy, but documentation of violations. How does that work? Can you share a little bit about the advocacy angle, and maybe about your new program, GLIDE, so we can all be informed in on that same page on that?  

SJÖDIN: Yeah. I mean, at Outright, our philosophy is that all the work that we do is together with groups in country. Like, we never think that we can parachute rights into another country. So all of our work is done in partnership. And so the advocacy and support organizations typically go hand in hand. And the support is in the form of resources, and money, and grants, but also in the form of trainings and mentorship. And I think, especially when it comes to democracy, I think we have seen that organizations are not as fluent in that as they are in the human rights at this point. So we provide a lot of support to partners, even as they are developing their own thinking about what makes sense for them to do.  

But in terms of the advocacy, it’s really—one of the ways that I look at our GLIDE programming is really that I think it will be a bit of a—kind of like an innovation lab. I think we’re going to see a lot of projects out of it. We’ve just launched four pilots, and we’ll continue to expand this over the next couple of years. But a lot of different projects where I think that groups will also learn a lot from each other. So, I mean, one of—one significant issue is that in many places it’s difficult for trans people to access the right to vote, because maybe their identity cards don’t match the way that they appear, or they get particularly scrutinized as they try to vote.  

So one of the things that we have found is that even people who are not necessarily generally friendly to LGBTIQ people would still agree that every citizen should have the right to vote. So, like, OK, what can we do with that? How can we advance it to make it easier for trans people to vote? One of our pilot programs right now is in Poland. OK, we know Poland had a significant democratic backsliding, and now there’s a bit of an opportunity to hopefully regain some of that.  

OK, so what can the LGBTIQ—and, I mean, the LGBTIQ community has been a particular—was a particular target. I’m sure many of you saw sort of news reports about the towns declaring themselves to be LGBT-free zones. No one can really understand what it means, but they still—because it’s it—honestly, it doesn’t matter what it means. It’s, like, this is a symbol and the signal you’re trying to send to your population. But how can—in the current climate, what are some of the ways that LGBTIQ organizations can engage to—as Poland hopefully can—regain more of its democracy?  

So I really see this as a way of trying a lot of different things. And, I mean, in Taiwan, for example, I mean, they—in this super year of elections, you know, Taiwan already had theirs. And equality for LGBTQ people was part of the political campaign. So how can they use that to push forward even further? I mean, I think it’s important to see that it’s not—not even in—there is not even in a single country—you will never have just one frame or just one rhetoric.  

Even in—I mean, even in Uganda we have declared this law to be the worst LGBTQ law in the world that has passed. And we consider it to be based on a genocidal ideology, where you really try to erase LGBTQ people from the country. But even there, there are ways of making progress. And actually, I have to say that the organizations there are—after so many years—they are quite skilled in trying to push forward in every way possible. So I think there are opportunities everywhere. 

YAO: Yeah. I appreciate it. And also, as we’ve been chatting, you see the progression of these issues. And I think the advocacy, the record of the human rights violations, but then also thinking about the positive components that we’ve talked about. And one thing that The Williams Institute report does mention is a correlation. That acceptance—greater acceptance of LGBTI people tend to have higher levels of liberal democracy. And then you also correlate it with potentially higher GDP per capita.  

And I’m wondering, is this something that has been a strategic positive boon in terms of this reaction to this report? Or are there more criticisms around the some might suggest stretching of that correlation? Or how do you feel about that? And especially thinking about the Gallup poll that came out a couple years ago. In the U.S., 7.2 percent of the population of respondents identify as a person in the LGBTQ community. Yet from the Gen Z, nineteen to twenty-six years old, it’s 20 percent. So this is, you know, remarkably higher. And I just wonder if you want to talk a little bit about the report, and the correlation, but also the next generation, as we think about those who are really in the voting population as we continue to move into a new space. 

SHAW: Yeah. Well, I want to—I think it’s, you know, a fair question. And I definitely want to underscore that these are complex dynamics, right? It’s not necessarily an immediate straight line from attacks on LGBTQI+ people to democratic backsliding. And—(coughs)—excuse me—in the report we also look more deeply at case studies in Ghana, Poland, Indonesia, and Brazil, to try to disentangle some of these dynamics and look more carefully at how these mechanisms sort of connect these phenomena.  

And so, you know, I think it’s important to underscore that. And we—you know, we wanted to kind of introduce this as hopefully the start of a conversation, and to support the conversation that, you know, is taking place through the work that Graeme and Maria are leading, and to provide a sort of data point, again, so that it’s not just based on our sort of anecdotal assumption or observations. But to say, no, no, no, these are kind of empirically linked in the world. And we need to think more clearly about that.  

I think also, you know, in terms of the sort of economic case, we’re also in the report building on a much sort of deeper set of research that has looked at this link between LGBTQI inclusion and economic growth, worked by my colleague, Lee Badgett, who’s an economist, that was done with the World Bank a number of years ago. Looks specifically at the cost of excluding people and communities based on sexual orientation and gender identity from the workforce, essentially, through discrimination in employment, and education, in barriers to accessing health care, and public services. These all have an economic effect by excluding folks and preventing them from sort of achieving their full capability.  

And in one of the studies that that kind of grew out of that there was a potential range of a loss of 1 to 2 percent of GDP to countries that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. And it may not seem like a lot when you kind of say it that way, but the IMF describes a drop in 2 percent of GDP as consistent with a recession. So if you think about kind of the scope of that type of cost, and what that means to an economy, and how much more prosperous it could be by being inclusive and recognizing sort of the full diversity and talent of the population, it’s really staggering. 

I think, you know, to the point about sort of new generations increasingly identifying as LGBT, in part those come together because, you know, in many ways I think businesses, or many businesses, are sort of out in front on kind of recognizing that relationship. Because CEOs have to do what’s good for the bottom line. And they see how critical, you know, inclusive policies are to recruitment and retention of strong employees, and creating a work environment that is going to bring the best talent forward. And I think if we kind of— 

YAO: Not everyone thinks that, but—(laughter)— 

SHAW: Not everyone, of course. Yes. But many. 

YAO: Many-ish. 

SHAW: And I think, you know, kind of extrapolating from that to the sort of macro level, and, you know, by—based on work that Lee and others have done, I think it’s only—it’s only going to be more clear just how much discrimination and exclusion hurts, you know, the us on the economic level, but also more broadly within a sort of political and societal context.  

YAO: Right. Yeah, I appreciate those comments. And we also want to say that we may not all—you know, may not all agree on some of the global dynamics in this space. But, Graeme, how do you feel about highly accepting LGBTI community and higher levels of liberal democracy, and yet we do see that leaders have become more expansive in their executive power. And we’ve talked a little bit about authoritarian populism. I mean, is it—because we see in many of these democracies that isn’t the case, and it’s shifting. 

REID: Yeah. I think that, you know, the point has been made that a lot of the antagonism towards LGBT people is not new. But I think the intensity of it, and the kind of symbolic resonance of it, is something that’s distinct at this time. And it’s so often the case that there’s a vilification of minorities, vulnerable minorities, as part of an authoritarian playbook. It’s very clear. And very often those are LGBT people. Not always. It could be refugees. It could shift over time. But it’s a very common place, that that is part and parcel of that kind of authoritarian playbook.  

And what that means is that LGBTQ issues take on a kind of symbolic resonance. And one’s no longer talking about the thing itself but rather what it signifies. And it’s been, you know, particularly successfully deployed. I mentioned earlier, the—you know, the Russian Federation and the way in which Putin had used this very strategically to consolidate a domestic support base, but to take on also the mantle of defending traditional values globally. And has been very successful in positioning itself in that way.  

So that it becomes an extraordinary situation whereby Putin uses in partial justification for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine the defense of traditional values, in contrast to watch he terms “Gayropa.” Now, you know, how is that even conceptually possible? We need to look at the way in which these particular issues have taken on a specific symbolic resonance in global geopolitics. And that, to me, is very concerning, because it means that the level of hostility and the significance of that hostility is escalated significantly. 

YAO: I would love to open up the conversation to the floor, and then I’ll wrap up a few questions at the end of it. Please state your name and your affiliation. And if it’s your practice to share your pronouns, please welcome you to do so.  

Yes. Here. 

Q: Hi. Nancy Northup, she/her, the Center for—oh, yes. Nancy Northup, she/her, the Center for Reproductive Rights.  

And first of all, yes, thank you to the Council on Foreign Relations for having this important forum today. Really glad to see it. We find in global spaces and at national level in the area of reproductive rights that the critique is often lodged, right, that this—these are Western values. Yet, we also see in the area of reproductive rights, that it’s U.S.-based organizations that are activating and organizing in both the global spaces, in opposition to reproductive rights, also at national level. You know, places like the Alliance Defending Freedom, and so forth. Have any of you studied or do you also see this dynamic or this irony, with both labeling something Western and yet the anti-rights agenda coming out of the U.S. itself? Thank you. 

YAO: Thank you, Nancy. Maria, please. 

SJÖDIN: I mean, I think that is a—that is one of the strongest narratives that they’re using. And I have to say, I mean, it’s—even at the very foundation, around LGBTIQ issues, it’s completely flawed, obviously. Because the ones who are the best at exporting—I mean, almost all of the laws around the world that ban same-sex relations were put in place by the British empire. So the idea that this is somehow something Western is flawed. It’s really the export of homophobia and transphobia has been a Western thing for hundreds of centuries—hundreds of years at this point.  

But it is, I think, a very—it is a very strong argument that is being used. And I think that is—in Outright’s work, that is very much why it’s so important for us to always work with groups in country, because they cannot be dismissed in the same ways. And it’s also one of the counter narratives that we’re using is, of course, LGBTIQ people have obviously existed everywhere in the world since the beginning of time. And many cultures have had ways of recognizing that. You know, cultures that recognize third genders, or Two Spirit, or, like, there are so many different ways. So lifting up and supporting how some of those narratives can become more public knowledge, instead of trying to refer to what they—what they now say, traditional families. I don’t know exactly, like, we’re talking about families that—a family structure that maybe have existed for, like, 100 years.  

It’s not like people hundreds of years ago anywhere lived in nuclear families. I mean, that is just sort of a new thing. But that’s now—that rhetoric is now being used in a lot of different places, to the point that in our U.N. advocacy when we typically try to insert language around—you know, go from, you know, text that says “family” to go to text that says “families,” or “women and girls, in all their diversity.” I mean, these are—I mean, this is—these are kind of the fights that we take. But for some states at this point, it’s, like, as soon as you say “diversity,” they are, like, oh, they’re trying to put in the LGBT people here. As if LGBT people were the only people with any kind of diversity. I mean, it’s kind of ridiculous, but I think this is why it’s so important for us to work in coalition across movements.  

And I have to say that large parts of the women’s rights movement have been among the closest allies to the LGBTQ movement, and still are. But we’re also seeing how forces are trying to drive a wedge between women’s rights and LGBTIQ rights, using, again, going back to some really well thought out narratives around bathrooms. We’ve all heard the public bathrooms debate. Apparently, colleagues are saying now in Bangladesh—which is a country that has had a broad understanding of nonbinary genders for a very long time—Western narratives around how transwomen can be a threat to other women in bathrooms, in public bathrooms, have now become one of the arguments used in Bangladesh.  

And obviously there are lots of other discussions around—that should be happening in Bangladesh about access to public bathrooms and girls being unable to go to school when they menstruate, for example. So it’s, like, but they are really, I think, very, very strategic in what narratives they pick up. and what they consider to be Western or not.  

YAO: Thank you for that question. Other questions from the audience? While you’re thinking—oh, yeah, go ahead. Yeah. 

Q: I’m Aaron Mertz. I’m with the Aspen Institute’s Science & Society Program. 

Ari, could you talk more—you alluded already to some of these factors—but more about getting at causation rather than just correlation between what your report shows or what future work might research about LGBT+ issues and democracy? 

SHAW: Yeah. I mean, I appreciate the question. I think it’s a more, you know, complicated sort of study. And one of the things that we try to do to get at that is to really trace through the processes in the case studies in our report, to show how attacks on LGBTQI+ people are, you know, both sort of done in tandem and also, as Graeme describes, sort of part of these broader antidemocratic moves that usually reflect efforts to restrict freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association. How restrictions on media are often done, you know, in conjunction with or as a kind of pretext for, you know, really trying to silence or to constrain the ability of LGBT activism to take place.  

So, you know, I think it’s a more complicated story, as I was mentioning. And that’s why I think there’s a need for more—for more research, so that we can kind of continue to make that case. One of the challenges in general to doing research on LGBTQI issues is how little data there is that’s collected by national governments, certainly, but even many international organizations. And so a lot of this falls to community groups, or it falls to kind of creative ways of generating data on the experiences of queer people. So I think that kind of, you know, push in parallel for more data collection and better data collection is kind of also a critical part of sort of unpacking this story. 

YAO: Thank you for that. While we prepare other questions, thinking a little bit about the last few responses, Graeme, I was wondering, we—you know, we talk a lot about—when we—when we came in together earlier before the talk, we were sort of joking that you said, oh, we’re back in New York. And there’s kind of, like, it feels like there’s New York and the rest of the country sometimes, or New York and the rest of the world. And sort of suggesting a bit that there’s more acceptance generally in urban areas. I’m wondering, in your—in your work and research, and thinking about Ugandans who have fled and gone to neighboring countries like Kenya, what is the impact potentially on domestic movements but also global migration, as these threats continue to infringe on people’s wellbeing and safety? 

REID: Mmm hmm. Well, yeah, that’s an interesting question. I’ll pick up just on your reference to urban centers being more accepting. 

YAO: Yeah, sure. 

REID: Because that’s not always the case, in fact. And, you know, I’m from South Africa. And a lot of my research was in rural and small-town South Africa. And I was surprised by the level of acceptance in communities, even where there might be a rhetoric that would suggest that people are not that accepting. That in practice, that actually I was struck by the level of integration of clearly queer people within communities. So I think we should also hold that complexity around the difference between rhetoric and practice sometimes in quite difficult settings.  

But to pick up on your point about the impact on migration, again, with reference to South Africa, there are, you know, many people—LGBT people from other parts of the continent who seek refuge in South Africa, precisely because there’s a legal framework in South Africa that’s protective. In practice, the experience is a lot more difficult for people. And, you know, as the doors closed in various parts of the world to migrants in general, increasingly groups who assist LGBT people fleeing from difficult and hostile situations are looking at alternatives, like, for instance, Argentina, South Africa. Looking at places that might be accepting and welcoming of people who are—find themselves in dire situations and in need of relocation to a safe country. 

YAO: Thank you. I appreciate that. Other questions from the audience? Yes, please.  

Q: Hi. My name is Sloane Weiss. I use they/them pronouns. I’m a student at Yale Law School.  

My question is mostly for Ari. You spoke a little bit about the correlation between LGBT acceptance and economic productivity. And I understand the, like, sort of strategic power of that claim, particularly in hostile spaces. But I also have concerns about, you know, who that might leave out, especially, you know, in making the importance of LGBT rights contingent on, like, economic productivity. And so I’m wondering how you, like, navigate that tension. 

SHAW: Yeah. I appreciate the question. I think, you know, one of the reasons we explore that is precisely to kind of raise it, but in conversation with these other, you know, kind of aspects of looking at the relationship between democratic backsliding and acceptance. So we don’t—I wouldn’t say we have a kind of normative or prescriptive agenda with this report to in any way suggest that it’s exclusively about making an economic case. And I should say, you know, as sort of a researcher, I’m not engaged in kind of direct advocacy in that way. But we want to make sure that we’re producing data that can be used by a lot of different stakeholders, who might be engaged in conversation with a lot of different audiences.  

So—(coughs)—excuse me—Graeme and Maria might be able to speak more to this, but, you know, I think there is—there is kind of certain audiences who might be more receptive to the kind of economic case, other audiences that are more receptive to a rights-based argument, and even still others who I think maybe see it through this democracy lens. Which was, again, part of the motivation for kind of thinking through, as Maria laid out, you know, at the top, how we can develop new frames or new ways of thinking about sort of the experience of both progress and sort of, you know, regress in some cases, on LGBTQI rights.  

So I think it’s a fair question, I think, you know, it’s something that we should keep in mind as we’re, you know, ensuring that we’re not sort of diminishing or in any way kind of undermining the fundamental human rights of all these individuals, and not kind of, you know, making it overly materialistic or in any—(coughs)—excuse me—reductive to that kind of economic case. But I think it’s also about appealing to different audiences and different messages. 

YAO: Maria, yeah. 

SJÖDIN: I think—and I’ve grappled with the same question. But I think you can also flip it completely. And you can think about the individual LGBTIQ people who actually are overrepresented in informal economies, and often left out. So from their perspective, I mean, I’ve come to learn, most people are not activists. Most people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, are not necessarily super interested in learning more about human rights sort of in a theoretical way. They want to have a livelihood. They want to feed themselves and their families. They want to have a job.  

And so I think that the economic arguments are—actually, it’s another frame that we haven’t used nearly as much as we should. And LGBTIQ people do not get the same level of access to education as others. In places where your family is your primary safety net, it might come—we know homelessness of youth in the U.S. is quite well studied, but it’s—I mean, I’m sure the numbers are the same across the world when it comes to people being excluded. And also, you know, your parents will only pay for your education if you conform to their norms.  

So I actually think that the economic arguments are vastly underutilized. Really not just because I think it’s a way to discuss with people who may not see the other arguments, but also literally just from the perspective of individual LGBTIQ people who have the same rights. And we know that when we talk about human rights, there is often an understanding that we’re talking only about the civic and political rights. So I think using the economic language specifically is to the advantage of LGBTIQ people and communities across the world.  

YAO: Other questions from the audience? So when we look at—oh, yeah. Go ahead. Thanks. 

Q: Hi there. Sam Lush from KPMG.  

I was just interested, there’s been so much progress made over the last fifty years on this—on this topic, probably from all the bad things the British empire did. And you can probably tell where I’m from. (Laughter.) But the, just on this, you know, there’s been an expansion of all the issues of the sub-elements of all of the rainbow spectrum, you know, brought to life, especially in the last ten years, I would say. And I’m really interested in the panel’s view on the health of the movement. As in, like, if you want to make, like, legislative change, you know, you’ve got to be as a body together. And just wondering within the rainbow movement as a whole, like, how healthy that is at the moment and how much progress can be made there. 

SJÖDIN: Yeah. I mean—yeah, I’m sure you have comments here too. I mean, I think—I think it’s healthy that we are looking—I mean, it used to be—I mean, my organization, Outright International, we were formed in 1990 as the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. And even from the start, we were working on trans and intersex issues, but it was, like—it was kind of, like, assumed. And I’m sure the lesbian was just kind of thrown in. We were founded by a lesbian, so I’m sure that helped. But it used to be, like, the gay movement. It didn’t matter what other identities. Everything was gay. And so I think it is important to recognize that, yeah, of course, you can’t just use one word, or even one acronym, or even—as in the Ghana case—is, what is it, like, LGBTTAA+? Like, we can’t just think of ourselves as, like, boxed in. There are, I think, many advantages to trying to keep movements together, but also recognizing differences. I think there is a time and place for all of that.  

In terms of, like, what is the health of the moment, well, I have to say, our 2023 report that sort of maps where you can legally register an organization if you say what you’re going to do and you’re going to work on LGBTIQ issues, one of the things we also map is what are the countries that have no organization, registered or not, that we can find? In 2018, we had a list of thirty countries without a single organization. In ’23, we had a list—it was down to twenty-five. And so I think there are activists and organizations almost everywhere in the world.  

And, I mean, I’m spending my career being part of this movement focused on it. So, of course, I’m also going to say that without organization pushing for change, you’re not going to get it. And no one can say that—you know, no form of civil society is always going to agree on everything. But I have to say, I think our movements are in a pretty good place, even in the places where they are under enormous pressure. So could it be better? Yeah, definitely. There’s more need for resources, and more needs for allies, and all of that. But I think overall, I think our movements are in a pretty healthy place. And, you know, ready to take on whatever challenges we’re facing. 

SHAW: If I could just add on to Maria was saying. I think in many ways, as you were sort of alluding to at the end, it’s healthy, almost despite being tremendously under-resourced. Some of the data I think that we have is from maybe 2020. The Global Philanthropy Project is one organization that kind of measures global funding for LGBTQI issues. And by last—I think the latest data, that they’re updating soon, has total global spending on LGBTQI issues around $560 million, globally.  

Just to give you a point of reference, the annual revenue that year of the Christian Broadcasting Network was over $600 million. And that’s just one entity that’s part of a sort of broader transnational network of activists, and funders, and researchers that are working to oppose LGBTQI rights, as well as women’s rights, and reproductive rights. So, you know, it’s incredible progress and incredible successes, in in many respects. But almost, I would say, despite—kind of, or even more impressive, given how under-resourced it is.  

Graeme, did you want to add to that? 

REID: Sure. I mean, I think that—I guess the glass-half-full approach would be to see the intensity of the opposition as, in a sense, a measure of success of a movement. But where I do think that there could be improvement would be in working across sectors. I think the opposition is very good at seeing the connections between reproductive rights, between LGBT rights, between a range of different issues. And sometimes we could be working more closely and in closer coalition with other entities. 

YAO: When we look out into this audience, I think the average age is maybe minus twenty what a normal average age is at a Council event. (Laughter.) Am I not right, huh? So I guess I’m—one of my last questions for the panel is, there may be a generational bridge that needs to happen. There may be more allies potentially, I don’t know if you agree with me or not, in the generation that is between nineteen and thirty, let’s just say. How does that impact the overall efforts in your respective spaces? And how do you connect in those ways?  

We haven’t touched on technology at all, but the levers in terms of using technology and different aspects of it, social media also, to create advocacy and allyship. But we’ve talked about a lot of issues. We’ve talked about migration, human rights, economic impact, social unrest. These are all global issues affecting this general—this broader topic. So how do we think about bridging? And is there a very large divide? Is the disparity great? 

REID: I think it’s always context specific, right? And I think there’s sometimes an idea that younger generation is always and invariably more progressive. And that’s not always the case. And in some settings, in fact, some of the strong anti-rights voices are led by young people in some corners of the world. So I don’t think we can rely on that as a model of progress. But in other settings, of course, there’s a much more depth of engagement from young people on a range of issues, including LGBT issues. 

YAO: Ari, what do you think? 

SHAW: I mean, I think, you know, especially being sort of situated where I am at a research institute, kind of going back to the data that you—that you pointed out at the top is sort of helpful and thinking, yes, there is a sort of clear kind of generational shift, both in terms of the number of people who identify as LGBTQ, but also just in terms of the level of public support. This Global Acceptance Index that I mentioned previously, you know, we track that over forty years and are planning to update that again this coming year. And what we see on average is that the trend is toward greater acceptance. But it’s also polarized.  

So we see about a third of the countries continuing to become more accepting, about a third of the countries staying relatively unchanged, and about another—the final third becoming less accepting. And so, you know, kind of to Graeme’s point, I think it depends on the context and shouldn’t be taken for granted that this is about just sort of weeding through generational change and there’s a kind of natural progress or trajectory to LGBTQI rights that’s inevitable. I think it still is very much about, you know, doing the work and providing the evidence that speaks to the challenges facing LGBTQI people, the importance of law and policy reforms, and sort of how that’s connected to the broader push for greater acceptance.  

YAO: Appreciate it. 

SJÖDIN: I mean, I agree with both of you. And I also think it’s important to look at this not just as a—as a generational, but also look at it from the perspective of gender. Because we know that in many places the sort of views of young women and young men are also increasingly polarized. So I do think it’s important to look—I mean, we have to look at this from so many different perspectives. But what I do know is that no one should think that we could just sit back and relax and just wait for younger generations to automatically be wiser and smarter than the rest of us. (Laughs.) 

YAO: (Laughs.) But they are. (Laughter.) 

SJÖDIN: It’s a mix. (Laughter.) Sorry. 

YAO: This group is. 

SJÖDIN: This group, definitely. 

YAO: Any other questions from the audience? I think I have room for one more. Yeah. 

Q: The fact that the freedom rhetoric has been used to oppose LGBTQ rights, freedom of religious exercise, particularly in the U.S., with this Supreme Court, I was wondering how you—how you manage that, the kind of competing freedoms rhetoric? Yeah, especially in light of democracy talk. 

YAO: Yeah, go ahead. 

SJÖDIN: Yeah, I mean, I think that we definitely see that. And it’s not just something in the U.S. It’s used in a lot of different places. So, like, that this idea that freedom to discriminate is somehow—should be worth more than freedom to not be discriminated. I think we have to—we have to use all the tools that we have, again, to combat this, and to say that for—in a lot of situations, we don’t need to sort of—we don’t need to think that we need to rank rights and say, well, this is higher than this. I mean, that is a tool that the opposition is using, but I’m hoping that we don’t need to try to fall into the same trap and say, well, actually, you know, the rights we’re fighting for, they should be on top.  

It’s, like, there are ways to navigate those spaces without necessarily trying to create some sort of hierarchy. But I think it is—and this is where I feel like—and I see we don’t have a lot of time left, so I’m not going to try and open, like, a whole new discussion. But I think it’s important for us as, we’re trying to make the world a better place that is more inclusive of LGBTIQ people, to not just think about, like, what is it that the opposition is doing and what is the anti-rights, and anti-gender, and anti this and that. It’s, like, what is it that we’re for? That they say they are for families. But we’re for families, too. We all come from families. We have families. We create our families. Like, we need to talk about those narratives as well, and not just be responding to what they’re trying to take away. 

YAO: Graeme. 

REID: But I do think that it’s a symptom—the co-option of human rights language, which you’ve used one example, but there are many examples. And I think it’s a symptom of the anti-rights movement being better resourced, more sophisticated, and operating in spaces in which historically they haven’t been present. And so—yeah, to my mind that is a disturbing aspect of the anti-rights movement, the way in which increasingly they couch the work that they do in human rights terms. 

YAO: Additional questions from the audience? There is—I just one ask Liz, are we ending at 1:30 or 2:00? (Laughs.) Oh, 1:30. Sorry. This says 2:00. I guess one final question for our panelists. What would you suggest is the greatest concern that you have, as we continue to do this work? But then, in the spirit of constructive nature, what is the greatest upside that you currently see in your work? 

SJÖDIN: My upside comes from—I mean, my all of my hope stems from activist organizing to push forward. I think the greatest threat is around the polarization and populist very simplistic narratives that are being pushed. And sometimes I think, on our side, a little bit of a difficulty—we deal in facts. And they don’t necessarily always do that. But sometimes we try to just sort of bang people over the head with facts. And I think that sometimes we also need to be able to create some of these more narratives and explain, like, I mean, these are—these are our families, and this is what they look like. And use the humanity of us in a way to advance things because, yeah, I don’t think that sometimes—and I say that as a super nerd. (Laughter.) I struggle with this myself.  

But I think those are—those are the ways that we need to use more to advance. And, I mean, I have no doubt that in the end we’ll be successful, because this isn’t about—I mean, I love that you brought up the resources. It’s quite horrible that that’s the way it is. But it’s, like, this isn’t about—at the end of the day, this is not about our opinions and beliefs. This is about our lives. So if you’re part of this movement, like, I mean, you—there’s no way—how are you going to compromise? Be, like, OK, I’m just not going to live my life. I’m going to live someone else’s life? And I think that’s where—that’s where we have strengths that we can lean into. 

YAO: Yeah. Appreciate it. Graeme. 

REID: I guess I’d end where I started. And that’s that, you know, I grew up in Apartheid South Africa. I saw the transition from consensual same-sex conduct being criminalized to be in a category of protection within the constitution, and unimaginable progress, actually, that’s taken place. So always bear that in mind. And then I would agree that the key challenge is the way in which LGBT issues have become so highly politicized, and the kind of symbolic resonance that that’s taken on, is my source of major concern. 

YAO: Mmm hmm. Great. Ari, finish us off. 

SHAW: I’ll try to one-up Maria’s nerdiness—(laughter)—because, I mean, I live in sort of the world of data and research. And so I think, you know, from that vantage point, it’s particularly misinformation and the way that polarization has just created this sort of, you know, right conditions for the circulation of myths and, you know, flat-out lies and falsehoods about LGBTQI people, and who we are, and what our—what our lives are like. You know, but, again, I guess to end on a positive note, I think for me it also is the achievement of activists who are the frontline defenders doing this work every day. And, you know, we see the progress and, you know, the number of countries that have decriminalized consensual same-sex relations just in the past few years is astounding, given, you know, how entrenched those policies seemed to be. So I do feel, like as my colleagues have said, you know, the prospects are there. It’s just about the fight. 

YAO: We talked about a lot of different issues in this space. I feel that I am much more knowledgeable and informed, and also inspired by the research that each one of you is doing. I’m really grateful to the Council on Foreign Relations for holding this conversation, and to all of you for spending time with us. But please join me in thanking Ari, Graeme, and Maria for their work—(applause)—and for their participation today. And please note that the video and transcript of this session will be posted on CFR’s website. And thank you to Liz and everyone else who planned this. Grateful for it. Thank you so much. (Applause.) 


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