One of the most successful LGBTQ campaigns in recent years was the It Gets Better project, founded by Dan Savage and Terry Miller in 2010. The campaign was founded in response to the heartbreaking suicides of young LGBTQ people. One of the features of the campaign was to showcase messages from older LGBTQ people, urging young people to hang in there, to stay strong, that “It Gets Better…”
“It Gets Better” is a great message of hope and a testament to resilience. However, a simplistic interpretation of that message is that in your everyday life, and in the world in general, we’re on a linear journey towards happiness, peace, equality, and enlightenment. That we’re moving away from darkness towards light, away from fear and towards hope. But, the reality is that the world doesn’t work like that. Evolution is not linear. Mutations are impossible to predict. Chaos theory rules.
It’s sometimes helpful to construct linear narratives to help simplify an experience. For example: LGBTQ people in the United States today are better off than LGBTQ people in the United States in 1960 - homosexuality is no longer considered a mental disorder, homosexual sex is now legal, there is now marriage equality, and you won’t be discharged from the military if people know that you’re queer. However, the experience of a white gay man in the United States is not universal. The narrative for black gay men is very different, and the experience of trans women is different again.
But where that linear construct falls apart most dramatically is when you overlay a geographic lens. What’s the experience of LGBTQ people in Chechnya? In Syria? In Egypt? What’s the experience of trans women in Brazil? What’s the experience of lesbians in Indonesia? You don’t have to look to hard to find violence, persecution, or discrimination being inflicted on people simply because of their sexuality.
What quickly becomes apparent is that the experience of LGBTQ people is better in some places of the world than others, but it’s also not linear - things get better, then they get worse, they might eventually get better again, but there’s no guarantee of how long “better” will last. Anti-discrimination protections can be removed. Public opinion can change. There might be political benefit to be gained by demonising a minority. One minute we’re living in Berlin during the Weimar Republic, suddenly it’s the Night of the Long Knives.
I spoke with René Mertens at the Centre for the Studies of Discrimination based on Sexual Orientation – the CSDSO – to try and get some perspective on what’s happening around the world. Located in Berlin, the CSDSO was established in 2007 to explore the causes and consequences of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. The aim of the CSDSO is to bring rationality to the discussion about values, operating as a counterweight to the irrational prejudice that often leads to violence and discrimination.
Are we seeing an increase in incidences of discrimination based on sexual orientation?
Globally we can say that discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is one of the biggest human rights topics in our time.
While many same-sex couples in the US and other European countries have gained the right to marry, the situation of lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and intersex people in other parts of the world is still unbearable.
As a consequence of a mostly European colonial legislation, homophobia is often state-sponsored and deeply rooted in post-colonial cultures and societies. At the same time, religious leaders and churches have a huge influence in this climate of homophobia and human rights violations and add fuel to the fire.
At a global level, human rights violations on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity are becoming more and more becoming visible.
What are some of the factors that might contribute to a rise in discrimination based on sexual orientation?
One of the most important factors is still religion and post-colonial structures in societies. Furthermore, the lack of education and the insufficient implementation of human rights and the principles of equality and dignity promote homophobia and transphobia.
In countries where civil society or non-governmental organisations are oppressed, where discrimination of minorities happens every day, there we find also discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
What are some of the factors that might contribute to a decrease in sexual discrimination based on sexual orientation?
From our point of view, the key for the fight against homophobia and transphobia are the promotion and application of human rights standards, the focus of education which promotes a climate of equality and non-discrimination, and the strengthening of the civil societies. On the other hand, it’s fundamental that we have a continuous dialogue at all political and social levels on how to protect the human rights for all people, regardless of their real or supposed sexual orientation or gender identity.
In addition to that, we need activists who fight at the grass-roots level for equality, academics who contribute their investigations to the dialogue, and we also need artists who can often achieve more change with their projects than ten years of meetings and resolutions can.
Is the research of the CSDSO revealing any new trends or developments around the world?
In recent times, the influence of religion is growing – especially the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church in eastern Europe, American Evangelistic churches in Africa, and strong Islamic groups. These religious organisations are opposing the emancipation of LGBTQ people in a very aggressive way.