The best and worst of times for gay rights

The change in attitudes to homosexuality is one of the wonders of the modern world. But have its speed and the very visible recognition of gay rights provoked a backlash in some countries?

Englishman Ray Cole and his Moroccan male partner thought they were doing no harm as they strolled along the streets of Marrakech, but some passing police disagreed. They arrested the pair for the crime of being homosexuals, and a judge sentenced them to four months in prison after finding the ‘proof’ of private pictures and texts on their phones.

Ray was forced into a ‘horrific’ overcrowded barbed-wire cell and fed boiled vegetables once a day. He was released last week after intense pressure from the UK government. His partner has just been granted bail.

Many Britons were deeply shocked by Ray’s arrest. In the last 20 years a seismic shift in attitudes has occurred in the West, making homophobia socially unacceptable. Since the Netherlands first legalised same-sex marriages in 2001, 35 countries have followed suit, with the UK joining them last year. In much of the world, there has never been a better time to be gay.

Yet many countries appear to be going backwards. Last month, Nigeria’s president outlawed displays of same-sex affection, using an attack on homosexuals to distract voters from the government’s poor response to militants. In 2009 Uganda tried to introduce the death penalty for gay sex, and last year Russia banned ‘propaganda’ against ‘non-traditional relationships’, which is in practice anything that suggests homosexuality is acceptable.

Attitudes are generally moving in the right direction. While China’s homosexuals faced deportation to labour camps in the 1980s, gays live almost trouble-free in today’s big cities. While gay sex is illegal in India, small gay pride marches occur regularly in urban areas.

But as the West increasingly champions gay rights, its dealing with homophobic states is becoming a problem. While tolerance spreads at home, it becomes harder to turn a blind eye to abuses abroad.

Tolerating intolerance?

When Uganda dabbled with introducing the death penalty, the US and other Western supporters cut off aid and military assistance in protest. Its president soon backtracked. Some say the West should do the same with homophobic states and limit trade and cooperation until they reform. A commitment to gay rights should mean actively supporting them across the world.

Yet others say this direct approach could backfire and lead to greater persecution, and many countries already accuse the West of having a patronising, colonialist attitude. Overall, the world is becoming more tolerant, and the West must be patient. The West’s greatest strength is its cultural power, and if more internationally respected footballers and actors would come out, homophobic countries would start to realise there is nothing wrong with homosexuality.

You Decide

  1. Should the West impose sanctions and cut off trade with homophobic countries?
  2. Why is homophobia a problem for some countries in the world?


  1. In pairs, make a poster on gay rights across the world for your school.
  2. Imagine you are gay and living in a country and culture that does not accept you. Write a piece for Westerners explaining what your life is like.

Some People Say...

“The West should stop preaching to the rest of the world.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What makes people homophobic?
Psychologists and sociologists think it has a lot to do with a fear of difference. For many living in closed societies, homosexuality can appear mysterious and threatening. Yet once a country makes some progress towards gay rights, it seems that tolerance quickly spreads. In the West, homosexuality was mostly illegal just 50 years ago and even in the 1990s gay marriage was highly controversial.
Is religion a big factor?
A study of 39 countries by the Pew Research Group found that religious countries tend to have the least tolerance for homosexuality. This is most apparent in Africa and the Middle East. However, there are exceptions to the rule. Brazil, the US and the Philippines are strongly religious yet relatively tolerant.

Word Watch

The Islamist group Boko Haram continues to terrorise Nigeria. It kidnapped almost 300 schoolgirls earlier this year and the president, Goodluck Jonathan, has been widely criticised for failing to find them.
Russia was widely criticised for the laws, especially as the country was about to hold the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. The city’s mayor said that homosexuals were welcome at the games so long as they ‘don’t impose their habits on others’.
The law introduced the death penalty for homosexual acts by someone with HIV or with a disabled person. After the US put diplomatic pressure on the aid-reliant country, the law was declared unconstitutional.
Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, accused the US of acting like a colonial power in trying to impose its values on Africa.
Big cities seem to help homosexuals as they provide a degree of anonymity that towns and villages lack. Half the world’s population currently lives in cities, but this will increase to two thirds by 2050.

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