Home The Washington Diplomat January 2012

Sidebar: Perils of Being Gay Around the World

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In 2010, some Saudi Arabian diplomats squirmed when one of their own, recently discovered to be gay, pleaded for the United States to save him from his own country.

Ali Ahmad Asseri, a Saudi national representing his country in a Los Angeles consulate, had gone into hiding after his coworkers found out he was gay (and that he was close friends with a Jewish woman). He asked for U.S. asylum contending that his life was in danger because Saudi Arabia, which had called him back to the Middle East, outlaws homosexuality. The punishments for gay sex in the kingdom can include death by lashing, and men can also be flogged for "behaving like women."

"If I go back to Saudi Arabia, they will kill me openly in broad daylight," Asseri wrote in the letter he sent to various news outlets, including the New York Times, after receiving death threats following his request for asylum.

The defection renewed attention on the discrimination, and life-threatening dangers — from lashings to lynching to lengthy jail sentences — that gays and lesbians face around the world.

Saudi Arabia is hardly alone in having anti-homosexuality laws on the books (even some U.S. states have vestiges of them). In late 2010, Foreign Policy magazine highlighted the policies of some of the most anti-gay countries in "The Global Gay Rights Battlefields," including Iran, Nigeria, Malaysia, Uganda, Jamaica and Senegal. Many had anti-sodomy laws that carry punishments of prison sentences that range from a decade to life, or even the death penalty.

Africa has many harsh anti-homosexuality laws on the books. Uganda grabbed headlines in 2009 when a parliamentarian introduced a bill that would have not only put anyone engaging in acts sodomy in jail for life, but also executed gay people with HIV/AIDS. The bill died at the close of the legislative session in 2010, though homophobia in the country remains rampant. More recently, Nigeria's senate passed a bill calling for 14-year prison sentences for anyone convicted of homosexuality, drawing condemnation from countries like Britain, which has threatened to withhold aid from Nigeria.

Iran has frequently attracted sharp criticism from human rights advocates for hanging gay men solely because of their sexuality. Being gay in Malaysia can get you locked up for 20 years (opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has perpetually had to battle sodomy charges, which he says are politically motivated).

Writing in the Population and Development Review, Joseph Chamie, former director of the U.N. Population Division, and Barry Mirkin, former population policy section chief at UNPD, point out that while private homosexual acts between consenting adults are legal in some 100 countries — 60 percent of the world's population — more than 70 countries, the remaining 40 percent of the world's population, criminalize such behaviors.

Same-sex marriage strikes an even more contentious chord around the world, and not surprisingly is only recognized by a small number of countries, although that number is rising. Chamie and Mirkin conducted a study that found only 32 countries representing 15 percent of the world's population legally recognize same-sex couples in some form. Some of those, oddly enough, are a growing number of traditional conservative Catholic nations in Latin America such as Brazil, Argentina and parts of Mexico.

Chamie and Mirkin write that, "In the coming years, same-sex marriage will remain a controversial and salient part of the legal, political and cultural landscape locally, nationally and internationally."


About the Author

Rachael Bade is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on June 12, 2014