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Study: Attack on LGBTI rights indicates democratic backsliding

LGBTIQ pride march in Timor-Leste, 2019. Photo by Tanushree Rao on Unsplash

In a recent study titled “Democratic Backsliding and LGBTI Acceptance”, researchers from the Williams Institute at the Los Angeles School of Law of the University of California find that the erosion of democratic institutions worldwide has been accompanied by a rise in rhetoric and policymaking targeted against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people and communities. 

As highlighted by the study, “attacks on LGBTI people and their rights can be a precursor to democratic backsliding.” In a piece summarizing their research, the Director of International Programs at Williams Institute, Ari Shaw, noted that “politicized backlash against sexual and gender minorities” is a warning sign for rising authoritarianism.

Democratic backsliding is defined in the report as the gradual “state-led debilitation or elimination of any of the political institutions that sustain an existing democracy.” According to the study, which uses data from the LGBTI Global Acceptance Index (GAI) and the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute, we are witnessing the highest proportion of democracies under threat since 1997, with 80% of the world’s population living in a country facing some form of restrictions on freedoms. This parallels a trend of increasing intolerance towards LGBTI communities. 

Backlash against sexual and gender minorities a warning sign for rising authoritarianism

The study finds that countries with high levels of LGBTI acceptance also have high levels of liberal democracy and tend to have higher levels of GDP per capita. This can be explained by the foundational aspects of liberal democracy, such as civil liberties and minority rights, which are crucial to guaranteeing acceptance. Inclusive societies may also be more conducive to economic prosperity. 

Mechanisms of association between liberal democracy and LGBTI acceptance. Source: Figure 1 in the report “Democratic Backsliding and LGBTI Acceptance”

Case studies: Indonesia, Brazil, Poland and Ghana

The report zooms in on four country case studies—Indonesia, Brazil, Poland, and Ghana. Each country has experienced periods of democratization followed by a period of democratic backsliding, alongside a surge in anti-LGBTI rhetoric. 

Indonesia’s democratization journey, which began in 1998, opened avenues for LGBTI organizations to actively promote LGBTI rights. However, the study suggests that LGBTI acceptance started to take a turn for the worse after Joko Widodo was elected president in 2014. Democracy began to decline as Widodo dismantled checks and balances, and restricted freedoms of speech and association. This backslide, in parallel with growing anti-LGBTI rhetoric within the government, led to a worsening of LGBTI acceptance in Indonesia. 

Correlation matrix relating the LGBTI Global Acceptance Index to country indicators. correlation coefficients are statistically significant at p < .05. Source: Figure 2 in the report “Democratic Backsliding and LGBTI Acceptance”

In Brazil, the relationship between democracy and LGBTI acceptance started to erode in 2010 and turned negative after Jair Bolsonaro’s presidential victory in 2019. Bolsonaro used his executive power against marginalized communities, openly opposing the LGBTI community. Damares Alves, a former Minister in Bolsonaro’s administration, led the effort to remove LGBTI people as a minority that shall be protected within the ministry of Family, Women, and Human Rights. As such, the Bolsonaro administration undermined equal protection of human rights, a key element of liberal democracy. 

Democratic backsliding alongside a surge of anti-LGBTI rhetoric

Unlike Indonesia and Brazil, the report reveals that Poland’s decay in LGBTI acceptance predates its democratic backslide. Still, intolerance towards LGBTI communities has grown since the electoral victory of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in 2015. The report suggests that the PiS has contributed to a weakening of democratic institutions, for instance by granting the executive power over the media. Poland has seen explicit anti-LGBTI acts, notably in 2022, when nearly 100 local government units established “LGBT ideology free zones”. 

Ghana presents a unique case as LGBTI people are excluded in the law, with same-sex conduct being classified as a criminal offense. The report suggests that the lack of LGBTI acceptance is more so an ingrained societal stigma than a product of democratic backsliding, as same-sex conduct has been criminalized in Ghana since 1960, before democratization, and nothing has changed since. However, similar to the other countries, Ghana too experienced backslide and concomitant stigmatization of the LGBTI community.  

Common thread: weaponization of anti-LGBTI rhetoric 

A recurring theme across these country cases is the weaponization of anti-LGBT rhetoric. 

For instance, in Indonesia, the Minister for Technology, Research, and Higher Education demanded a prohibition of LGBTI student associations within university campuses, asserting that LGBTI people “[corrupt] the morals of the nation”. Similarly, in Brazil, Bolsonaro claimed that the left were trying to undo the structures of gender and family by introducing “gay kits” and “gender ideologies” at schools. The report highlights that expressions such as these are methods used by politicians to cast LGBTI advocacy as a threat to the fabric and identity of a nation. In doing so, leaders such as Bolsonaro in Brazil and Andrzej Duda in Poland aim to harness anti-LGBTI sentiments as a strategy to mobilize voters.   

In conclusion, the study points out that it “does not aim to establish a causal relationship” between democracy indicators, socio-economic indicators, and LGBTI acceptance. It recommends that future research should examine this further. However, it is safe to say that attacking, denying and undermining LGBTI rights is incompatible with democracy, an important element of which is the protection of minorities. Further, it is incompatible with a global citizenship identity, which builds on respecting and valuing diversity.

Nelleke Dekkers
Nelleke is a graduate of the MSc Development Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is volunteering with Democracy Without Borders UK and the World Federalist Movement.