The moral arc of history bends toward justice. Right?
Not necessarily, especially when it comes to justice for LGBTQ people and other sexual and gender minorities. Here in the United States, recent gains are now imperiled by the upcoming Trump presidency. And around the world, there are many places where, contrary to Dan Savage’s popular video series, it is steadily getting worse.
Consider three very different examples: Brazil, Indonesia, and Nigeria. Three continents, three different cultural and religious contexts, different forms of government with different kinds of leaders. And yet, in all three, a steadily worsening situation for LGBTQ people.
For sexual and gender minorities, Brazil has long experienced the best of times and the worst of times. The country is cosmopolitan, libertine, and legally progressive, with laws against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI in international human rights parlance).
But Brazil is also the deadliest place in the world to be gay. An astonishing 1,600 people have died in anti-LGBTQ hate attacks over the last four and a half years—nearly one person every day. And those are just the figures officially tabulated by police; the actual count is likely higher. Transgender women have been disproportionately targeted, making up 40 percent of victims.
One reason for this appalling level of anti-LGBTQ violence is Brazil’s violence in general, with street crime of all sorts plaguing Brazil’s cities. Another reason may be a backlash to same-sex marriage, which Brazil’s high court legalized in 2013.
But a primary reason is the export of U.S.-based homophobia. Evangelicals have risen from 5 percent of the Brazilian population in 1970 to nearly 25 percent today, and their leaders—many trained in the United States—have exported the U.S. Christian right’s extreme homophobia to the Brazilian context.
They are also in Brazil’s congress. The “parliamentary coup” that removed liberal president Dilma Rousseff from office was accomplished with back-benchers affiliated with evangelical Christian groups. Indeed, the investigation against her was initiated by Congressional Speaker Eduardo Cunha, who had a history of anti-gay remarks (and called on Congress to establish “Heterosexual Pride Day”) before he was forced out of office as bribery charges were filed against him.
Now, with the conservative government led by Michel Temer (and his all-male cabinet), those factions are in power. Investigative journalist Joao Ximenes Braga told The Daily Beast that the Temer government has already shut down human rights programs in the country and that members of his coalition have called for a repeal of laws protecting LGBTQ people. It’s no surprise that Brazil’s LGBTQ community, led by groups like Grupo Gay da Bahia, has strongly protested against Temer, both before and after the impeachment.
But with Brazil’s right wing in power, the precarious situation of LGBTQ people in the country is threatened still further.
Indonesia is half a world away and threatened by right-wing Islam, rather than right-wing evangelical Christianity—but some of the patterns are eerily familiar.
According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, 2016 has marked a turning point in the country. “Beginning in January 2016,” the report said, “a series of anti-LGBT public comments by government officials grew into a cascade of threats and vitriol against LGBT Indonesians by state commissions, militant Islamists, and mainstream religious organizations. That outpouring of intolerance has resulted in proposals of laws which pose a serious long-term threat to the rights and safety of LGBT Indonesians.”
The severity and swiftness of the persecution—it would be wrong to call it a backlash, as there were no advances being lashed back against—is particularly surprising for Indonesia, which prides itself on its moderate form of Islam. In the past, anti-LGBT acts were largely confined to militant Islamists, even though anti-gay sentiment is widespread. (In 2013, 93 percent of Indonesians said society should not accept homosexuality.)
But this was different. Government officials have called for LGBT organizations to be banned from campuses and for LGBT people to be banned from holding office. One minister called being LGBT “a disease of the chromosome, and it should be treated.” Another called LGBT equality a “proxy war.” And yet another noted that “having more than one wife for a man is still normal… but LGBT is another issue.”
Meanwhile, a group of conservative law professors has filed a court case attempting to force the criminalization of same-sex sexual behavior. A paramilitary training program with 1.8 million participants declared homosexuality to be one of the nation’s enemies. A school for transgender girls—waria as they are known in Indonesian culture—was shut down after threats by Islamists. And a public opinion poll conducted in August showed that LGBT people were now the most disliked group by Indonesian Muslims, even ahead of communists and Jews.
Some moments have bordered on the surreal. One mayor told parents that feeding infants instant noodles or baby formula would make them gay. And the government’s communication ministry demanded that instant messaging apps remove emojis depicting same-sex couples. (Line agreed; WhatsApp has thus far refused.)
What’s behind the flareup? Activists say the abrupt shift in government rhetoric is “cower[ing] in the face of militant Islamists.” And indeed, the rightward drift in Indonesian political life—not entirely unlike that in Brazil—appears to be part of the reason for the change in official rhetoric, with the attendant consequences felt in the streets of Jakarta. Ironically, Indonesia’s relatively tolerant indigenous form of Islam is being supplanted by fundamentalist Islam brought in from outside—yet the Islamists claim to be protecting Indonesian culture.
Whatever the factors behind the sudden shift, however, the situation in Indonesia is in flux, and each day seems worse than the previous one.
Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa, with 173 million people. And in 2014, it passed one of Africa’s worst anti-gay laws, the so-called Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act.
On paper, the SSMPA merely prohibits anything that could support same-sex marriage. In reality, however, it’s known as the “Jail the Gays Law” and has been used as a pretext for horrifying violence, state-sanctioned or state-tolerated, against LGBTs.
“The reality of LGBT people in Nigeria is getting worse,” said Adebisi Alimi, who fled his country after being beaten within inches of his life. “The many organizations in the country working to preserve the rights of LGBT people are working under a very difficult and challenging environment.”
Alimi (who last year participated in The Daily Beast’s Quorum: Global LGBT Voices program) said that since the law was passed, watchdog groups have recorded two mass arrests and dozens of acts of violence. In 2014, the group Solidarity Alliance recorded 45 cases of abuse against LGBT people—with nearly three-quarters coming from their friends or family members. The week Alimi spoke with The Daily Beast, a young man was stripped naked by a mob for allegedly “cross-dressing.”
Western media coverage recently has managed to make a bad situation even worse. Last December, The New York Times published an error-filled and poorly sourced article claiming that U.S. support for LGBT equality had led to a backlash around the world, particularly in Nigeria.
In fact, as The Daily Beast reported at the time, most Nigerian LGBT activists welcome any support they can get, and the Times article misstated the amount of U.S. aid by at least an order of magnitude.
Nor was the SSMPA a backlash against the United States—or to same-sex marriage, which no one has advocated for in Nigeria. Rather, Christian LGBT activist Davis Mac-Iyalla told The Daily Beast, the real battle is religious in nature. African Anglican Church leaders, “tainted” by the Episcopal Church’s support for LGBT people, took a hard line in order not to seem more lenient than Muslims (Sharia governs 12 Nigerian states and punishes homosexuality by imprisonment, caning, or stoning).
Said Mac-Iyalla, “The very first bill to further punish Nigeria homosexuals was an executive bill sponsored by the government in 2006, with the full blessing of the Church of Nigeria Anglican Communion.”
One thing is for sure: The situation of LGBT people in Nigeria grows more precarious every day, and now, with the likely ending of U.S. support for LGBT issues around the world, they will lose their greatest advocate.
“It is time the international community take a pause on its relationship with Nigeria,” Alimi said, “and demand a detailed evaluation of the Nigeria human rights record as it concerns LGBT people. The picture is more bleak than we imagined.”