Gay Rights: A Shifting Consensus


On the night of March 2, Daniel Zamudio, a clothing store assistant in Santiago, Chile, was tortured and left to die by a group of individuals who allegedly singled him out for being gay. Zamudio was found the day after his attack with multiple broken bones, cigarette burns, and swastikas carved into his body. Human rights observers in Chile called the incident one of the most gruesome hate crimes in Chile’s modern history, and news of Zamudio’s death triggered massive protests in cities across the country.

Reaction to Zamudio’s death has been swift and determinedly pro-gay rights highlighting fundamental shifts taking place in public perceptions of homosexuality. A staunchly Catholic country, Chile has long lagged behind its neighbors on gay rights. Since Chile’s Congress shot down anti-discrimination laws in each of the seven years prior to 2012, few observers expected the scene in the capital on the day of Zamudio’s funeral procession. Throughout Santiago, individuals wore shirts and waved banners bearing the face of the slain 24-year-old. Chilean President Sebastian Piñera asserted that his government is “not going to tolerate any kind of discrimination against Chilean citizens based on their … sexual orientation.”

The impact of Zamudio’s attack also reverberated beyond Chile’s borders. Rallies were held throughout South America, and the United Nations released a statement calling for anti-discrimination laws. On the night of April 4, Chile’s Congress passed its stalled anti-discrimination measure, but only by a two-vote margin and after a contentious debate that stretched late into the night.

An increasing number of South Americans believe that homosexuals deserve an equal place in society. Zamudio is already being called “Chile’s Matthew Sheppard,” a reference to the Wyoming college student whose 1999 murder triggered a massive wave of protests across the United States. Not unlike the public fury that led to the introduction of the Matthew Sheppard Act (which was approved by Congress in 2009) the anger sweeping Chile echoes a growing opinion that anti-gay rhetoric is increasingly anachronistic. Across the globe, human rights groups are launching campaigns to end anti-gay discrimination and persecution.

As recently as 2000, the gay-rights movement was seen as a platform with no foreseeable benefits. Support for homosexuality was increasing only modestly—and even then only in certain Western countries. China and India both listed homosexuality as a mental disease while fourteen U.S. states had laws declaring same-sex acts illegal. In 2000, no country or territory in the world recognized gay marriage either.

Fast-forward to 2012. Gay-rights organizations are a sweeping international movement. In many Western countries, support for homosexuality is either at or close to reaching majority-level support. Ten countries worldwide allow same-sex marriage. The United States Supreme Court has struck down the country’s remaining sodomy laws. Other countries, however, have seen no progress. Most African nations have done little to decriminalize homosexuality. On the entire continent, only South Africa grants protection to homosexuals.

The Middle East and Asia have not done much better: In Iran, homosexuality is punishable by death, and the Russian city of St. Petersburg recently passed a law barring the distribution of any print or media materials that reference homosexuality.

This dichotomy between Western and non-Western countries is one of the main hallmarks of the international gay-rights debate, but one that can be more fully understood by analyzing key nations in various geopolitical regions.


United Kingdom and Australia

What the UK and Australia lack in geographical proximity they compensate for in political similarity. In 2012, both nations’ governments voiced support for marriage equality. Recent polls have pegged support for same-sex marriage anywhere from 47% to 61% in the UK and from 53% to 62% in Australia. The two nations already offer major antidiscrimination protections and equality provisions in sectors like employment and healthcare, and both rank as some of the highest gay-friendly countries in the world.

Because these countries are relatively secular, outside observers widely expect one, if not both, to recognize same-sex marriage in the coming years. Most battles in these two nations will be fought in the public sphere — both gay-rights and anti-gay groups will fight to win over public opinion. Any ultimate result will be watched closely: many experts consider the two nations good litmus tests of how developed nations will address gay rights.


Uganda and Iran

If Australia and the UK represent one end of the gay-rights spectrum, Iran and Uganda constitute the opposite end. In Iran, a theocracy that binds church to state, religious opposition to homosexuality is codified in law. Furthermore, many Middle Eastern countries perceive homosexuality as a construct of Western civilization, a fact that many human rights groups say makes it hard to increase awareness of homosexuality in the area. In 2005, Iran caused an international uproar when it executed Ayaz Marhoni and Mahmoud Asgar, two teenagers convicted of engaging in sexual acts with one another.

Pictures showing the teens crying in a truck before their execution created particular furor, yet Iran did little to alter its position on homosexuality. Iranian President Muhammad Ahmadinejad summarized his view on same-sex attraction in a 2009 speech to students at Columbia University: “In Iran,” he said, “we don’t have homosexuals like you do here in America.”

Uganda is frequently considered the most anti-gay country in Africa. In 2009, Uganda passed a law punishing homosexual activity with death. The law also included a provision that made it illegal not to report a homosexual to the authorities. A 2007 poll by the Pew Research Center showed great opposition to same-sex activity throughout Africa. When asked their opinions on homosexuality, a mere 3% of respondents in Uganda, Senegal, Kenya, Ethiopia replied that same-sex activity should be accepted by society. Few observers expect change in Uganda, Iran, or their surrounding areas any time soon.


China and India

Though Beijing and New Delhi frequently clash over policy, they agree more on the issue of homosexuality. Neither country persecutes homosexuals to the extent Iran does, but neither one offers significant protections. Societal attitudes towards homosexuality do not indicate widespread support either: less than 20% of people in China and India think homosexuality should be accepted by society. China decriminalized same-sex acts in 1997 and since then has gone on to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses and diseases. India decriminalized homosexual acts in 2009. Beyond those provisions, the status of gays and lesbians remains uncertain.

India does not prohibit discrimination based on sexuality, but neither does it explicitly forbid homosexuals from adopting children. China is said to have a “Three-nos” policy on gay rights: no approval, no disapproval, no promotion. The ambiguity displayed by China and India is a situation similar to other Asian countries like Japan, where homosexuality has never been addressed at the national level.


Mexico and Russia

Mexico and Russia are two countries with relatively similar levels of development but vastly different gay rights scores—13.5 and 6.5, respectively. Furthermore, gay rights in the two countries appear to be moving in opposite directions. Net approval (% approval minus % disapproval) of homosexuality in Mexico stood at 29% in 2010, whereas Russia polled at -36%. Several of Russia’s northern provinces have banned the word “gay” from publication, saying it “introduces children to destructive influences.” By contrast, human rights groups in Mexico have been ticking off wins in recent years, culminating in the legalization of gay marriage in Mexico City in 2010.

Placed into a broader context, Russia’s position on gay rights highlights a growing disparity: nations making progress on gay rights are doing so quickly, but other countries have seen little or no change recently. In places like Chile, incidents like Daniel Zamudio’s death serve as game-changing moments for fledgling gay-rights campaigns.

In nations like Iran, the deaths of men like Ayaz Marhoni and Mahmoud Asgar do little to arouse significant public emotion. As long as nations in the Middle East and Africa continue to see homosexuality as an issue of Western moral corruption, change will not come easily. Gay rights activists are hoping to change the conversation even in those areas, although they acknowledge that significant change will take years, if not decades, to occur.


Rod Cuestas is a freshman in Pierson College.


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