LGBT Acceptance

It Gets Better—but Mostly if You Live in a Rich, Democratic Country

Public approval of homosexuality around the world is increasing at .86 percent annually, according to a new study.

11.11.14 2:00 PM ET

Is it getting better?

For most LGBT people in the United States, yes. Not just same-sex marriage laws but public opinion continues to shift in the favor of sexual and gender minorities. A decade ago, gays were a wedge issue used by Republicans to energize the base. This past election, they were hardly mentioned by Republicans fearful of alienating moderates.

Outside the United States and Western Europe, however, the picture is decidedly mixed. By now, most of us are familiar with horror stories from Uganda and Russia. There are even worse ones, though less reported, from places like Cameroon, Kyrgyzstan, and Egypt. But attitudes toward sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI is the acronym of choice outside the United States) vary throughout the world. It hasn’t gotten better or worse, exactly—it’s gotten complicated.

Two reports released Tuesday contain some surprising new conclusions about why some countries are more accepting of sexual minorities than others. It’s not quite religion, and not quite homophobia. It’s the economy, stupid.

The first report, “Public Attitudes about Homosexuality and Gay Rights Across Time and Countries,” was produced by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law and NORC at the University Chicago, and is essentially a survey of surveys, ultimately comprising 2,000 individual survey questions. (Data are much better for Europe and Latin America, and frustratingly uneven for Africa and much of Asia.) Here are some choice gleanings, from an advance copy provided to The Daily Beast:

The global public approval rate of homosexuality is increasing at .86 percent per year. But around the world, says the report, “cross-national differences are enormous.” For example, only 1 percent of Nigerians say “society should accept homosexuality.” Eighty-eight percent of Spaniards do.

Between 82 percent and 90 percent of countries are moving in the direction of greater approval of same-sex behavior, depending on the data set. (Overall, however, the percentage of people comfortable with a gay person in “the highest elected office” has decreased 1.6 percent per year.)

In Latin America and Europe, 67 percent of respondents agreed that “gays should be free to live their own lives.” But these regional designations may be too broad. Rates are much lower in Eastern Europe (81 percent of Swedes favor same-sex marriage, for example, but only 19 percent of Poles), and Latin America is extremely varied (57 percent of Uruguayans support same-sex marriage, but only 12 percent of Guatemalans).

Best European countries for gays: Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Norway. Worst: Latvia, Romania, Ukraine, Croatia. It gets worse further east. Only 25 percent of Russians think that “gays should be free to live their own lives.” Only .1 percent of Georgians think homosexuality is “always justifiable.”

What factors correlate with acceptance of sexual diversity? Higher per capita income, longer histories of democratic stability, legal status, and religion. Buddhist or Jewish dominant countries are more accepting than Christian or Muslim dominant ones.

What factors don’t correlate? A country’s overall educational level (though an individual’s does), type of Christianity (Catholic v. Protestant v. Orthodox), or specific cultural traits.

Age matters almost everywhere. In 98 percent of countries, adults under 30 are more likely to be pro-gay than those over 65. In Europe, the generation gap is 20 percent; in Greece, it’s 40 percent. An exception is Kenya, where the generation gap is -6.5 percent.

And yes, religion matters, too. In 93 percent of countries, those who attend religious services less than once a year are 23 percent more supportive of LGBT equality than those who attend services weekly.

But economic development seems to matter most. According to Andrew Park and Andrew Flores of the Williams Institute, “Residents of countries whose economies that are in the top quartile are on average twelve times more likely to be supportive of homosexuality than residents of countries who economies are in the bottom quartile.”

The second report, “The Relationship between LGBT Inclusion and Economic Development: An Analysis of Emerging Economies,” was produced by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, this time in partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and studied 39 emerging economies.

It, too, shows an overall increase in pro-LGBT policies. Using the Global Index on Legal Recognition of Homosexual Orientation (GILRHO), a new metric of eight categories of legal protection created by Dutch law professor Kees Waaldijk, it finds that the average number of SOGI rights went from one in 1990 to more than three by 2011.

And again, money matters. In a neat statistic, the report shows that each additional right in the GILRHO is associated with approximately $320 in GDP per capita.

But which is the chicken and which is the egg? Intuition would suggest that economic development is the cause, and pro-gay policies are the effect. The more affluent a society, the more educated, the more democratic, the more networked, and so on.

But the report also suggests that anti-gay policies may harm economic development. The discrimination against, marginalization of, and criminalization of LGBT people removes them from the job market, among other things. “This research delineates the macro- and micro-level costs of not having an LGBT-inclusive workforce,” said Stephen O’Connell, USAID’s chief economist.

Whether correlation or causation, it is striking that even more than religion and culture, economic development seems to predict best a country’s attitudes toward sexual and gender minorities. In some ways, these new data validate LGBT activists’ claims that LGBT rights are part of human rights more generally and depend on the same economic and political conditions. And they would argue for a more “intersectional” approach to promoting human rights, one that focuses less on cherry-picking anti-gay laws in particular and more on helping emerging economies develop and prosper in general.

Who knows? With enough sustained attention and investment, maybe gay people in dangerous environments wouldn’t have to settle for .86 percent a year.