LGBTQ organizations cannot legally register in 55 countries around the world, according to a new report released on Tuesday.
In a recently released survey of 194 countries, OutRight International found that just 56 percent allowed LGBTQ groups to formally register with the government. More than a quarter (or 28 percent) of world nations — including Nigeria, Russia, Singapore, and Tanzania — do not permit advocacy organizations or community resource groups to operate openly.
Meanwhile, 15 percent of countries surveyed did not have any organizations working to further LGBTQ rights — whether registered or unregistered.
The most impacted region was Asia, where just eight percent of LGBTQ organizations (40 in total) were sanctioned by their country’s government. In contrast, 74 percent of queer and trans community groups — or more than 380 — had not been given legal permission to exist.
It can also be difficult for LGBTQ advocates to operate in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, where just 16 percent and 22 percent of groups have, respectively, been able to register with the government.
Of countries that do not allow LGBTQ organizations to register, these nations fall into two categories.
Some governments have laws on the books formally banning queer and trans advocacy. In Malaysia, same-sex intercourse is illegal under Section 377A of the Penal Code, while a 2015 law passed in Russia permits the government to ban any nongovernmental organization (NGO) deemed a threat to national security.
While Russia does not explicitly outlaw LGBTQ groups, the “undesirable organizations” codes are vaguely worded enough that authorities can take action against any organization they like. The Kremlin has primarily used it to target queer and trans advocacy under its 2013 “propaganda” law banning the spread of information on “nontraditional sexual relationships” to minors.
Other countries, though, block LGBTQ organizations despite having no clear legal basis to do so. Singapore technically permits community groups working for queer and trans rights to register under its Societies Act, but OutRight noted that none have successfully registered to date.
Singapore criminalizes “any act of gross indecency” with up to 10 years in prison.
OutRight International Deputy Executive Director Maria Sjödin claimed policies banning LGBTQ advocacy have a “very dampening effect” on the global movement for queer and trans rights.
“Wherever progress has happened across the world, it has largely come at the efforts of activists organizing and pushing for change,” Sjödin claimed in a phone interview. “It’s not like our communities get progress and benefits automatically anywhere. It is a big threat to the rights of LGBTQ people everywhere when organizations cannot register.”
Sometimes the impact on registration laws on LGBTQ organizing is direct and extreme.
In Nigeria, the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act prohibits “the registration, operation, and sustenance of gay clubs, societies, organizations, processions or meetings.” Any individual caught in violation of the 2015 law could spend up to 14 years behind bars as a result.
Civil society leaders tell OutRight the law’s passage “created a state of fear in the minds of LGBTQ people.” If LGBTQ organizations are not shut down, they experience “state violence on service users and on their staff.”
In order to continue their work, community groups must “go under the radar,” frequently change locations, or move abroad.
But even organizations that don’t experience specific attacks from government officials or local law enforcement face extreme challenges due to anti-LGBTQ registration laws. For instance, foundations and charity groups may not be permitted to offer funding to NGOs that aren’t recognized by the government.
Some countries won’t even allow non-registered groups to open bank accounts.
“The resource base — which in this field is already strained — becomes even more difficult,” Sjödin claimed. “In some countries, it’s illegal to hold meetings and convenings unless you’re registered. The very core of what you want to do might not even be legal.”
OutRight claimed lack of government recognition also has implications for LGBTQ groups are viewed by the rest of civil society.
“You’re seen as less formal, less structured, or less important because you’re not registered,” Sjödin said. “In the eyes of other civil society groups or others that you want to advocate for, they might not take you as seriously if you’re not registered.”
Some LGBTQ groups have successfully fought the government for recognition, as in the cases of countries like Botswana and South Korea. Others are forced to misrepresent their cause in order to avoid being blocked by authorities — claiming they are youth organizations or focused on women’s empowerment.
While Sjödin claimed advocates are “very innovative” about getting around the restrictions, they have no other choice but to get creative. When LGBTQ civil society is silenced, it severely harms the everyday lives of queer and trans people.
Since Indonesia began cracking down on its LGBTQ population in recent years, rates of HIV/AIDS have skyrocketed. Over an eight-year span, the number of new HIV transmissions among MSMs have increased fivefold — from five percent of gay and bisexual men in 2007 to 25 percent in 2015.
A year after 141 men were arrested on a raid on a gay spa in Jakarta, Indonesia flirted with the passage of a law officially criminalizing homosexuality in February. For now, the bill has stalled in the country’s parliament.
Advocates say increased attacks in countries across the world are a “response to heightened visibility” on the part of LGBTQ organizers.
“If we had done this report 10 years ago, there would have been many more than 30 countries where we couldn’t find a single organization,” Sjödin claimed. “But people are now organizing everywhere in every corner of the world. When we advance our basic human rights and demand to be allowed to exist, that is threatening to many governments.”
That’s why OutRight is calling on world governments to do exactly that: permit LGBTQ groups to exist. The group urges the 55 countries named in the report to drop their laws blocking queer and trans community organizations from registering.
In the meantime, LGBTQ advocates will keep fighting.
Sjödin claimed NGOs working for queer and trans rights in Lebanon register with the federal government every single year hoping they will finally be recognized. While they could lie about what their organizations do in order to avoid the restrictions, registering as an LGBTQ group carries a tremendous amount of symbolic weight.
“[These groups] want to fight so that when they are successful, they want that victory,” she said. “They don’t want to be pretend to be something else.”
You can read an executive summary of the report here.
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