As legislation to protect and grant LGBTQ+ people equal rights had a positive impact on social attitudes, the opposite will inevitably also be true. Recent anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is fuelling societal hostility towards the LGBTQ+ community.
By Hannah Gargini • 13th August 2023
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Mental Health Research Analyst
The last few decades have seen social acceptance of LGBTQ+ people rising exponentially with the legalisation of same-sex relationships, and the introduction of equal marriage rights, anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination laws, and gender-affirming care in many western countries. Research shows that the introduction of equal marriage rights across Europe had a subsequent positive impact on social attitudes across the continent. Today we are witnessing the reverse; a growing number of Western countries are introducing anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. As legislation to protect and grant LGBTQ+ people equal rights had a positive impact on social attitudes, the opposite will inevitably also be true. Anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is fuelling societal hostility towards the LGBTQ+ community.
Social acceptance of sexual and gender minorities tend to increase significantly following introductions of pro-LGBTQ+ laws and political statements. For example, in the United Kingdom homosexual acts were legalised in 1967, inspiring “the development of far more radical transformative gay activism”, followed by a rise in popularity among LGBTQ+ musicians such as Freddie Mercury and David Bowie, pushing sexuality and queerness into the mainstream and promoting acceptance in the Western world. Same-sex marriage was legalised in the United Kingdom in 2013, sparking a nationwide celebration with rainbow flags across the country as the UK government sent a powerful message that said “you are equal’ whether straight or gay” Policies that recognise same-sex couples have shown to significantly improve attitudes toward sexual minorities. The British Social Attitudes survey have recorded the percentage of British participants who agree that same-sex relations are “not wrong at all” from 1983 to 2018, showing a significant increase in acceptance following the introduction of pro-LGBTQ+ campaigns and laws.
Across the Atlantic, same-sex marriage became fully legalised in the United States in 2015, influencing a significant increase in global online support. The #LoveWins trend saw the public, politicians and celebrities come together to show their support for the LGBTQ+ community. Spreading awareness online about issues impacting the LGBTQ+ community encourages people to read up and reflect on them, often changing attitudes in a positive direction.
Whilst social attitudes in the UK and the US improved alongside the introduction of pro-LGBTQ+ legislation, in other countries the opposite was true. Zambia has outlawed male homosexuality since the 1930s, referring to homosexual acts as a “crime against the order of nature”. This law was expanded to also outlaw female homosexuality in 2005. In recent years, same-sex relationships have been increasingly condemned by the Zambian government and news media. Zambian authorities have arrested many activists for defending human rights, charging several with the crime of “promoting homosexuality”, and “instilling fear across Zambian society”, sending a strong message to the people of Zambia that same-sex relationships should not be tolerated in any capacity.
“Acceptance of homosexuals as neighbours” decreased from 6.3% in 2014-2016 to 4.3% in 2016-2018, showing that public acceptance of homosexuality continues to diminish. The Global Acceptance Index (GAI) score for Zambia has unsurprisingly dropped over the past two decades, illustrating that social attitudes have worsened as a result of government led anti-LGBTQ+ campaigns and laws.
Elsewhere in India, same-sex relationships were legalised for the first time in 2009. However, according to the Global Acceptance Index, LGBTQ+ acceptance dropped in India from 4.7 (2004-2008) to 4.2 (2009-2013), possibly due to an initial period of backlash against the LGBTQ+ community. Following this period of slightly lower social acceptance, India re-criminalised same-sex relationships again in 2013. Following the reinstatement of the gay-sex ban, outrage saw thousands of people take part in spontaneous protests across the country, and interestingly, the Global Acceptance Index was raised in India from 4.2 (2009-2013) to 4.5 (2014-2017). In 2018, India ruled that same-sex relationships were legal once again, with the new judgement being said to have changed the perspective of the society, increasing acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, reflected in GAI scores that would then increase to a record high for India in the following years (as illustrated in below graph).
In recent years, once-progressive countries' laws and political statements have begun to change their tone, raising concerns about the future of LGBTQ+ inclusion and acceptance. Countries that once fought ambitiously for equality and inspired global progress are now displaying a drop in momentum and, in some cases, harrowing steps backwards.
The United Kingdom had a history of being ranked #1 for LGBTQ+ rights in Europe, but the last time Britain could declare that title was in 2015. Since 2016, Malta, Sweden, Germany and Ireland, among many more, have overtaken the UK in the ranking of equality, knocking the UK down to rank #17 on the list it once dominated. While other countries in Europe progress and promote equality further, the UK has stagnated. European countries such as Malta and Germany have fully banned conversion therapy and legally recognise intersex or non-binary gender identities, while the UK has done neither.
Social acceptance of same-sex relationships fell for the first time in more than three decades in 2018. The percentage of people who agreed that same-sex relationships were “not wrong at all” decreased by 2% within one year, said to show the country had reached a point of plateau (see British Social Attitudes Survey 2018 graph earlier in the article).
In 2022, the UK government passed a new law that only partially banned conversion therapy, with the exclusion of gender minorities. Soon after the current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was recorded mocking transgender people. This is not the first time a recent Prime Minister has peddled transphobia. In 2022 Boris Johnson defended the idea to ban trans women from competing in sports during a period that led to several MPs resigning from the government due to an “atmosphere of hostility for LGBT+ people''. In the last few years, the UK has seen a rise in hate crimes towards all minority identities with discrimination towards LGBTQ+ people seeing the highest increase. Sexual orientation hate crimes increased by 41% between 2021 and 2022, and transgender identity hate crimes increased by 56%. It is clear that both the UK government and the British public are becoming increasingly hostile towards the LGBTQ+ community, in particular transgender people.
The UK is unfortunately not the only European country with a growing hostility problem. A wave of anti-LGBTQ+ political movements is currently sweeping many parts of the western world, with trans rights issues often taking centre stage. Out of 520 anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced in the USA in 2023 alone, 220 specifically target transgender people. Among the states labelled as the “most aggressive”, Tennessee has enacted a law that allows teachers to intentionally misgender transgender and non-binary students, and Texas is in the process of passing a law that will ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth. The environment in the USA is forcing at-risk transgender people to flee states with anti-LGBTQ+ laws, some resorting to seeking help from organisations such as TRANSport, which aims to help transgender people leave the United States to find a safer life in a more accepting country.
Social attitudes are divided in the US, sparking regular protests for and against LGBTQ+ rights across the country. An anti-LGBTQ+ protest was held outside an elementary school in California in June 2023, with protestors accusing educators of trying to groom students. This accusation stems from a recent conspiracy theory that the LGBTQ+ community are paedophiles and want to groom children. Harmful and damaging smear campaigns of this kind are increasingly popular with the far-right movement in the United States, with members of the republican party and the media spreading false propaganda to instil homophobia and transphobia into the public’s opinion. And it's working.
According to a poll conducted by Gallup in 2023, the percentage of Americans agreeing that same-sex relationships are morally acceptable has dropped by 7%. Americans belonging to the Republican political party showed the highest drop in acceptance, down by 15%.
In a similar vein, Eastern Europe is dealing with its own share of rising trans- and homophobia. In Poland, over 100 authorities set up “anti-LGBT zones” between 2019 and 2020, during a period of the Polish government introducing anti-LGBTQ+ resolutions. Polish queer people have shared that prior to this, the public would just ignore them, but since these recent measures, there has been an increased intolerance towards LGBTQ+ people. In anti-LGBTQ+ zones where intolerance has been adopted in law, people are more likely to believe that being LGBTQ+ is something terrible and unnatural.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has increasingly targeted gay rights, passing a law in 2021 to ban children from being educated about LGBTQ+ identities in schools, or watching movies and TV shows that feature gay characters, or even a rainbow flag.
The Hungarian LGBTQ+ community is struggling while living under a government that is actively repressing its existence. In February 2023, the deputy prime minister of Hungary proposed a bill to “reprimand” same-sex families, and later in April 2023, the Hungarian parliament approved a law to allow people to report those who challenged the “role of marriage and the family”, or children’s rights to an “identity appropriate to their sex at birth”, threatening same-sex families and transgender youth. A recent survey found that just 31% of Hungarians had favourable views toward same-sex marriage, while 64% opposed it. When comparing the results of this study to the results of Ipsos' 2021 Global survey, there is a noticeable decrease in support for same-sex marriage since 2021, when 46% supported it and only 38% opposed it.
Elsewhere in Europe, Italian state prosecutors have recently demanded that birth certificates of children born to lesbian couples must be cancelled to remove the name of the non-biological mother, only months after the Italian government told Milan to stop registering same-sex couple’s children. IVF is only available to heterosexual couples in Italy, and surrogacy is completely illegal. However in July this year, the Italian government approved a new law to ban Italians from seeking surrogacy abroad. With recent crackdowns on same-sex parenting and Prime Minister Meloni's statements against "LGBT lobbies," her recent political movements have been termed a "great weapon of mass distraction," while LGBTQ+ people are concerned that the government is pushing towards eroding their rights.
LGBTQ+ people in Italy are increasingly living in fear, with instances reported of neighbours breaking into their houses and harassing them. Again, a rise in anti-LGBTQ+ politics is influencing the social attitudes towards LGBTQ+ individuals, fuelling the stigma and discrimination sexual and gender minorities are having to deal with on a daily basis.
Whilst the last few decades have seen considerable progress in LGBTQ+ rights and equality in what some have called the fastest of all civil rights movements, the last few years have seen considerable effort from governments in many western countries to dismantle some of this progress. The UK has not yet removed any LGBTQ+ rights but recent anti-LGBTQ+ statements from the government suggest that we might be heading down a similar path to the United States, Italy and Hungary. As recent polls in those countries have shown, social attitudes are volatile and can change fast.
In a global environment in which governments are desperate to find scapegoats, LGBTQ+ people are easy targets. Once the majority of a population has turned indifferent to LGBTQ+ lives there is nothing stopping a government from stripping us of all of our rights. The time to stand up and take action is now, before it's too late.