We have a US president who supports gay marriage, and now a pope who, if not exactly signing up to equality for all, is at least starting to talk in language less inflammatory than his predecessor. "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?" he told an assembled group of journalists on the papal plane back from his tour of Brazil. Then he went on to criticise the gay "lobby" and said he wasn’t going to break with the catechism that said "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered". Still, for a brief moment it looked like a minor breakthrough.
Then you weigh it against a raft of anti-homosexuality legislation that is coming into force in countries across the world. In Russia, gay teenagers are being tortured and forcibly outed on the internet against a backdrop of laws that look completely out of step with the rest of Europe. In what is being described as rolling the "status of LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] people back to the Stalin era", President Putin has passed a number of anti-gay laws, including legislation that punishes people and groups that distribute information considered "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations". The country also now has powers to arrest and detain foreign citizens believe to be gay, or "pro-gay". It has led to the boycott of Russian vodka brands by gay bars and clubs in solidarity, started by writer and activist Dan Savage and taken up by bars in London.
In many African countries where homosexuality is already illegal, more draconian anti-gay laws are being passed and violence against LGBT people is increasing.
Is there a link between growing rights in some countries and worsening or removal of rights in others? "There are really complicated links between the two. If you look at the history of the advancement of LGBT rights in the UK, every advance is accompanied by a backlash," says Alistair Stewart, assistant director of the Kaleidoscope Trust, a UK-based organisation that supports international LGBT rights. "To a certain extent that’s happening on a global scale now – the advances that are being made in some parts of the world encourage a backlash in other parts of the world. The struggle for even basic human rights for LGBT people – freedom of association, freedom from violence – becomes harder to achieve when the opponents can point to something like gay marriage, which isn’t even on the books for most of the countries we’re talking about and make the argument that ‘if we give these people even the most basic of human rights, next they’ll be asking to get married in our churches’." Jonathan Cooper, chief executive of the Human Dignity Trust, is less sure they are related: "The further persecution is already happening."
The Human Dignity Trust challenges laws to end the persecution of LGBT people around the world. "Most countries sign up to international human rights treaties. If you take Belize as an example, it has ratified all the key UN human rights treaties and in their constitution they have a right to a private life, to equality, to dignity. And so basically to criminalise homosexuality is a violation. To bring a legal challenge against that takes a very brave individual." It has been supporting Caleb Orozco, the gay rights campaigner who launched a legal challenge to overturn Belize’s criminalisation laws. "We’re still waiting for the judgment. They said it would be out by the end of July but obviously it’s not coming now."
Orozco’s case has prompted a backlash in Belize against him, and Unibam (the United Belize Advocacy Movement). A report last week from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the US civil rights organisation, highlighted the influence US hardline religious groups had in Belize and other countries. "Many of these American religious-right groups know they have lost the battle against LGBT rights in the US, and they’re now aiding and abetting anti-LGBT forces in countries where anti-gay violence is prevalent," said Heidi Beirich, author of the report. "These groups are pouring fuel on an exceedingly volatile fire."
It’s the classic missionary model, says Stewart, "where money and resources and organisation are set up in the countries that they are targeting". It’s also worth remembering which country is responsible for the legacy of persecution faced by millions of LGBT people today. There are more than 75 countries where homosexuality is still criminalised: "Forty-two of them are former British colonies so we can see where the legacy comes from," says Cooper. To see which countries are getting worse in terms of gay rights makes grim reading, but Stewart is cheered by the support he sees. "One of the reassuring things that has come out of the response to the Russian laws in particular is there is a growing international apprehension. One of the last great undone pieces of the civil rights movement is to address the rights of LGBT people, and there does seem to be a growing international support for change."