Are gay rights a development issue?

Next week I am speaking at an event jointly organised by LGBT groups and development campaigners to consider whether legal reform drives social change. While there is patchy evidence from India that decriminalisation can spark some changes in social attitudes, the activist who filed the original legal challenge with the Delhi High Court thinks her victory has done little to shift social norms and reports suggest that over 70% of Indians would like to see it overturned. In Brazil the 2011 Supreme Court victory on partnership rights took place the year after 260 LGBT people were murdered in the country while South Africa, which boasts some of the most comprehensive gay equality laws in the world, has become globally famous for the “corrective rape” of lesbians.

Meanwhile Britain’s laws are so progressive that the UK has been recognised as the best place in Europe to be gay, but researchers put the huge shifts in British social attitudes down more to pop culture than hard fought legislative change. Public opinion in the United States is slowly (but not smoothly) heading in the right direction, but the marriage amendment battles across the country are opening up new fronts in the culture war, like the viral hit “two lesbians raised a baby and this is what they got”.

So the big question for international campaigners is this: if the national law-makers of a country can’t reliably bend its public opinion, do any of us have much hope of winning hearts and minds from afar? One approach has been the mobilisation of a global transnational movement, modelled on Avaaz.org.  All Out is a global campaign supported by over a million people (half of them straight) who have organised online to highlight everything from ‘gay cure’ church services in Europe to the arrest of a gay man for sending a romantic text in Cameroon. Another new initiative is The Kaleidoscope Trust which focuses on providing funding and practical support to organisations on the ground, while The Human Dignity Trust connects multi-national law firms with lawyers bringing human rights cases against their own governments.

But perhaps of greatest interest to the development campaigners in the room will be the role that donor governments can play. A recent spate of high profile anti-gay initiatives in Africa caused Prime Minister Cameron to use a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting last year to draw explicit links between continued British aid and respect for gay rights while President Obama instructed USAID to factor a country’s gay rights record into its allocations.

That raises all sorts of difficult questions. Is aid a ‘reward’ for good human rights behaviour, or solely an instrument of poverty reduction? If it is the former, how and why would we measure gay rights performance compared to, say, protection of ethnic minorities or the disabled? And if it is the latter, how do we manage the transition from direct budget support if the evidence suggests that it has the greatest impact on poverty in the country concerned? There is a question too about whether perceptions of outside ‘interference’ do more harm than good and encourage some governments to increase persecution of gay people as an assertion of independence.

Notwithstanding the great work being done by all the organisations above, I haven’t been able to find much analysis of how these competing justice claims can be reconciled, nor very comprehensive evidence about when external pressure has been the decisive factor in a gay rights victory. I’d love reading and watching suggestions if you have them, so please leave in the comments below.

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About Kirsty McNeill

Kirsty McNeill is the founder of ThembaHQ and a strategy consultant to the chief executives and senior management teams of some of the world’s leading charities and campaigning organisations. She was a Downing Street adviser for three years. She has written on politics, campaigning and international affairs for outlets including The Telegraph and New Statesman and is on the boards of the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. You can see more of her writing at www.kirstymcneill.com.