Because the cause of gay rights has made recent rapid progress in a growing number of Western nations, it is easy to lose sight of the bleak conditions that still exist in many corners of the world.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni offered a stark reminder of this on Monday when he signed into law a bill that significantly stiffens penalties against gays in Uganda, a country where homosexuality was already considered illegal. The new law makes some acts — labeled “aggravated homosexuality” — subject to life in prison. It also criminalizes the “promotion” of homosexuality, a major setback to gay rights activism. The original 2009 version of the bill, included a death penalty clause, but was shelved after Western nations threatened to withdraw foreign aid.
Shortly after Monday’s announcement, President Obama warned that the new law would hurt relations between Uganda and the U.S., one of its largest donors.
Uganda is the latest in slate of nations that have recently cracked down on homosexuality. Last month, Nigeria enacted a similar, though slightly less repressive, law that imposes a 14-year prison term for anyone entering same-sex unions and a 10-year term for running gay clubs or organizations. The law triggered an outbreak of anti-gay attacks in some parts of the country.
In more of a surprise move, India — the world’s largest democracy — recently reinstated an 1861 ban on gay sex that imposes 10-year prison sentences. And last June, Russia also took steps to curb gay rights, enacting a “gay propaganda” law that places fines on anyone distributing gay rights material to minors.
77 countries in the world have national laws criminalizing homosexuality, according to a 2013 report by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Assocation. In 10 of those nations, homosexuality can be punishable by death.
Aside from India and a few other Asian nations, state-sanctioned repression of homosexuality is largely concentrated in majority Islamic countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. In the Western Hemisphere, it is illegal only in Belize and Guyana.