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Friday 8 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C
beacon of light

Where in the world is it hardest to be gay? (And what can Ireland do to help?)

We have an awful lot of work to do…

Ireland Gay Marriage Associated Press Associated Press

LAST SATURDAY EVENING, after the resounding success of the same-sex marriage referendum, Taoiseach Enda Kenny was asked whether Ireland was “the best small country in which to be gay.”

“Well certainly for those who are gay and lesbian, it’s much better than yesterday,” was his response.

After we became the first country to legalise gay marriage by popular vote, Health Minister Leo Varadkar said Ireland was now a global “beacon of light.”

But where are the world’s darkest corners for LGBT people? And, metaphors aside, how can Ireland actually help them?

The darkest corners

LGBTmap Map: Doug Coldwell Map: Doug Coldwell

(To view this map as a larger image, click here).

There are still 76 countries in the world where homosexual acts are illegal, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA).

Their annual report on state-sponsored homophobia, released a few days before Ireland’s referendum vote, offers a detailed overview of gay rights throughout the world.

It found seven countries where homosexuality is punished by execution, including Mauritania, parts of Sudan, parts of Somalia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.

The legal situation is uncertain in Iraq, but it’s horrifyingly clear from recent events that the dominance of ISIS there and in parts of Syria, means there is a de facto death penalty in place.

Legislation on homosexuality doesn’t tell the full story, however. Even in countries where homosexuality is legal, or punishable by a prison sentence, the number of deaths of LGBT people is shockingly high.

Uganda Gay Death Penalty Associated Press File photo of Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato, who was murdered in 2011. Associated Press

The high-profile murders of activists like David Kato in Uganda, and Eric Lembebe in Cameroon, were poorly investigated by police, and Lembebe’s killer or killers still haven’t been brought to trial.

Late last year, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights counted 594 murders of LGBT people in the previous 15 months, in North, South and Central America alone.

Nearly half of the victims were trans women.

Equally, the spectrum of gay rights is a wide one, with many points of progress between full marriage equality and adoption rights on the one hand, and court-ordered execution, on the other.

ILGA’s 2015 report goes into great detail about employment discrimination, incitement to hatred, and equality of the age of consent, among other issues.

An analysis of figures by, however, reveals Ireland has an enormous amount of work to do, if we want to achieve greater LGBT equality throughout the world.

Against the law in 40% of the entire world

LGBTpeopleLEGAL Avatars: Shutterstock Avatars: Shutterstock

Using data from ILGA’s recent report, and cross-referencing it with population statistics from the CIA World Factbook, the conclusions are startling.

  • Some 2.9 billion people live in countries where homosexual acts are illegal, including places where they are punishable by death.

Assuming the prevalence of same-sex attraction is roughly the same across the world, this means:

  • 40% of gay and lesbian men and women are forbidden by law from expressing that essential dimension of their identity.

Of course, many still do, and in some states, legislation banning homosexual acts is not enforced.

It’s also worth noting, however, that even in countries that don’t expressly forbid homosexuality, gay people face pervasive intolerance, discrimination and persecution.

Russia, for example, has drawn fierce international condemnation for laws banning “the promotion of non-traditional values to minors” – which is widely perceived and used as a tool to oppress gatherings and demonstrations by LGBT activists.

Attitudes within Russian society are also overwhelmingly hostile to LGBT rights, despite the legality of homosexual acts, as well as laws allowing for adoption by gay individuals, and recognition of change of gender.

As an interesting point of comparison, Russia decriminalised homosexuality in 1993 – the same year as Ireland.

LGBTpeoplechart Avatars: Avatars:

A further breakdown of the figures shows that while some gay men and women have reached the heights of equality and acceptance that Ireland did last Saturday, similar numbers are languishing.

As shown in the graph above:

  • The proportion of gay people who are legally entitled to marry (5.4%) is almost the exact same as those who live under “propaganda” laws (5%) that ban them from publicly expressing their identity, or visibly lobbying for greater equality.

According to ILGA, such laws are currently in place in four countries: Russia, Nigeria, Algeria, and Lithuania.

Here’s another statistic that puts Ireland’s referendum vote in a global context.

While the number of people living in countries that allow marriage equality is 384 million, the number living in places where homosexual acts are illegal is 2.9 billion.

This means:

  • For every two people of the same sex who can fully express their love and commitment by marriage, there are 15 somewhere else in the world who are forced to keep it a secret, or risk being thrown in jail or put to death.

What role can Ireland play?

oda Irish Aid Irish Aid

After Uganda introduced a harsh new anti-gay law in December 2013, the country and its president Yoweri Museveni faced a strong backlash from the international community.

The legislation brought in life sentences for certain homosexual intimacy, and made it a crime to not report suspected gay men and women.

American President Barack Obama called it “odious,” and the US later cut development aid to Uganda, and cancelled military training exercises.

Sweden cut funding to Uganda in response to the law, as did Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands.

Ireland, however, did not.

In 2013, the most recent year where figures are available, Ireland spent close to €24 million on Bilateral Overseas Development Aid to Uganda, which is one Irish Aid’s nine “key partner” countries.

A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs told

Ireland has not provided funding support through government systems in Uganda since 2013, preceding the introduction of the Anti-homosexuality Act. Support is provided to NGOs [non-governmental organisations].

This shift from funding government to funding organisations, however, was unrelated to Uganda’s anti-gay law, and was prompted instead by “a substantial fraud at the Office of the Prime Minister.”

The largest part of that year’s funding went on health programmes, especially in the area of HIV/Aids, followed by governance.

Eamon Gilmore, then Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, condemned the legislation, and said he had personally told President Museveni:

The enactment of this draconian legislation would affect our valued relationship with Uganda.

He added that:

Ireland is committed to ensuring that the people of Uganda do not suffer violence or discrimination on the grounds of their sexual orientation.

North South Ministerial Council meeting Niall Carson / PA Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan. Niall Carson / PA / PA

There was no cut to aid, however, with then Secretary General of the Department of Foreign Affairs saying it would not be “appropriate” to do so.

Whatever about the action of the government, we do not feel that it would be appropriate to cut off our assistance that is going to directly to [the Ugandan] people.
We have come a long way in this country over a short period. It’s a matter of education and bringing people along…I don’t think our reaction should be that we would cease aid.

The law was annulled in 2014, following a court ruling that not enough MPs were present in the Ugandan parliament when it was passed, but an almost identical bill, supported by 261 of 375 MPs, is under consideration.

To put things in perspective, Irish Aid spent €323 million in 2013 on Bilateral ODA to 34 different countries, including Palestine.

Of those, 19 are listed by ILGA as outlawing homosexuality, albeit in 2015.

In Sudan, where Irish Aid spent just over €5 million, homosexual acts have, since 1991, been punishable by anything between 40 lashes and execution.

Nigeria also banned making a “public show of same-sex amorous relationships” in 2013, the same year Ireland spent €1 million on development aid there.

Responding to queries from, the Department of Foreign Affairs said:

Good governance and human rights are key elements of our overseas development programme, Irish Aid.
In addition to providing assistance to organisations promoting human rights, our Embassies in our nine key partner countries work directly, and in cooperation with other EU member states, to engage with Governments on a range of governance and human rights issues, including the rights of LGBTI people.

Speaking at the UN Human Rights Council in March, Minister Charlie Flanagan said:

It is one of the greatest shames of the modern world that States continue to deny individuals their human rights because of who they are or whom they love.
Our own national experience illustrates the breadth and pace of change that is possible, where there is political will.


There are other ways, of course, for Ireland to help LGBT people in the rest of the world.

One is the sheer example set by last week’s resounding, democratic endorsement of same-sex marriage.

On Monday, Brian Sheehan from the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN), said representatives from ILGA-Europe had come to Dublin for the vote, and been “inspired” by what they saw.

The association’s director, Evelyn Paradis, told

Ireland is sending a real signal that change is possible. I think [the referendum] is going to be a real game changer for many countries in Europe.

On voting day, hashtags related to the referendum were trending across the world on Twitter, including Russia.

Compared to the strategic deployment and withdrawal of development aid, culture might seem trivial. But it can’t be dismissed.

A fortnight ago, Oxfam Ireland produced this powerful video of two gay rights activists in Zimbabwe watching and reflecting on Panti’s Noble Call speech about homophobia.

Oxfam Ireland / YouTube

This is the kind of cultural exchange that could provide courage and solidarity to oppressed and brutalised LGBT people around the globe.

One moment, however, offers a sobering perspective. After Panti describes being the target of homophobic verbal abuse on the street, Carol responds:

Sometimes if someone shouts at me, I’m kind of grateful. At least they just talked, and didn’t beat me up…

If Irish people and political leaders are really serious about building on last week’s historic achievement, and becoming “a beacon of light”, there’s an awful lot of darkness to be filled.

Read: ‘Ireland is sending a real signal to other countries that change is possible’>


Our coverage of LGBT rights throughout the world>

Our coverage of Ireland’s same-sex marriage referendum>

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