A Snapshot of Global LGBT Rights, From New York to the United Nations

New York's not the only place where equality is spreading--but being gay is punishable by imprisonment in dozens of nations.

By Michelle Chen, Stokely Baksh Jun 27, 2011

New York became the largest state in the U.S. to legally recognize same-sex marriages over the weekend, a dramatic development that reshapes the debate over LGBT equality in the U.S. But New York’s not the only place where the rights of LGBT people are expanding this month. The United Nations Human Rights Council has also widened the scope of debate over global human rights on June 17 when it approved a new declaration on rights related to gender identity and sexual orientation.

The Council’s unprecedented resolution "Express[es] grave concern at acts of violence and discrimination, in all regions of the world, committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation and gender identity." It also calls for a commission to investigate the issue and study "how international human rights law can be used to end violence and related human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity."

The resolution reflects the political foment on LGBT equality that has now touched every continent. The week the resolution passed, Ugandan Unitarian minister and activist Rev. Mark Kiyimba spoke to an audience in Louisville about the dangers posed by a proposed "anti-gay" bill that would severely criminalize homosexuality. Meanwhile, halfway around the world, Nepal prepared to host its first lesbian wedding ceremony in South Asia. (The happy couple, two forty-somethings from Colorado, added yet another international dimension to the event).

According to the latest data from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, however, being gay could be punishable by imprisonment in at least 75 nations. Worldwide, 53 countries have laws that prohibit anti-LGBT discrimination in some way.

Even within the U.N., barriers persist. Some activists noted that a separate resolution on violence against women conspicuously omitted a reference to attacks on lesbians. Meghan Doherty of the Sexual Rights Initiative stated that the organization hoped the new LGBT rights resolution would "facilitate the integration of the full range of sexual rights throughout the work of the UN."

The resolution builds on an joint statement issued earlier in this session that "called on States to end violence, criminal sanctions and related human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity." Another statement delivered by Nigeria on behalf of African countries called for the elimination of laws criminalizing homosexuality.

"Do I think homosexuality will be decriminalized tomorrow as a result of the resolution? No," said Jessica Stern, director of programs with the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission. "But I know activists in both LGBT-friendly and homophobic and transphobic countries that are dialoguing with their governments about how they voted on the resolution and what it means at the domestic level. This resolution just passed, we’re all still celebrating, but now the real work of figuring out implementation at the domestic level must begin."