LGBTIQ+ communities and the anti-rights pushback: 5 things to know

Recent decades have marked major advances for the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ+) people1 in many places, including the legalization of same-sex relations, legal recognition of gender identity on the basis of self-identification, better access to essential healthcare, restrictions on interventions on intersex minors, and increased protections against discrimination and hate crimes. 

Nevertheless, significant discrimination persists. An estimated 2 billion people live in contexts where consensual same-sex relations are criminalized, with at least 42 countries specifically criminalizing consensual same-sex relations between women. Transgender people, and especially transgender women, are criminalized under these and other discriminatory laws. 

State and non-state actors in many countries are attempting to roll back hard-won progress and further entrench stigma, endangering the rights and lives of LGBTIQ+ people. These movements use hateful propaganda and disinformation to target and attempt to delegitimize people with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities, gender expressions, and sex characteristics. 

Here are five things to know about this pushback. To learn more about how to stand for equality for LGBTIQ+ people, visit the UN Free and Equal campaign website.  

LGBTIQ+ communities and the anti-rights pushback: 5 things to know

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Participants are seen at a Pride march in Timor-Leste on 29 June, 2017.
Participants are seen at a Pride march in Timor-Leste on 29 June, 2017. Photo: UN Women/Felix Maia

Anti-rights movements are on the rise

Transnationally, people opposed to equal human rights for LGBTIQ+ people have acted in social movements and governments to exploit social, economic, and political instability by attempting to bring reactionary beliefs into the mainstream and reverse gains for members of marginalized groups.

According to one study in the United States, anti-LGBTIQ+ hate crimes increased by 42 per cent in 2021. The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA)-Europe organization reported in 2023 that it had seen an increase in the frequency and brutality of violent acts against LGBTIQ+ people across 54 countries, with 2022 found to be the most violent year in the 12 years since the organization began such reporting. 

ILGA-Asia has also documented that events have been canceled, LGBTIQ-friendly businesses have been attacked, and trans people have seen their legal protections threatened and restricted throughout the region.

While the contexts and motivations of these movements are distinct, they often overlap in retaliation against what they view as “gender ideology”: a term used to oppose the concept of gender, women’s rights, and the rights of LGBTIQ+ people broadly. 

There is a long tradition in which anti-rights movements frame equality for women and LGBTIQ+ people as a threat to so-called “traditional” family values. Movements encompassing “anti-gender”, “gender-critical”, and “men’s rights” have taken this to new extremes, tapping into wider fears about the future of society and accusing feminist and LGBTIQ+ movements of threatening civilization itself. 

Anti-rights movements have pushed for overtly discriminatory policies and restrictions on essential services, and even for the criminalization of people based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

These movements play on stereotypes and engineered anxiety

Anti-rights groups have mobilized political support by creating and fostering a moral panic that falsely associates LGBTIQ+ people with mental illness and perversion.  

These actors depict LGBTIQ+ movements as indoctrinating influences that seek to corrupt and sexualize young people. Such allegations have rallied opposition to comprehensive sexuality education in countries from all regions around the world. From the media to the policy sphere, anti-rights movements are increasingly using both street and digital organizing to attack the fundamental freedoms of LGBTIQ+ people, often targeting transgender women in particular.

Indeed, not all LGBTIQ+ people are affected in the same way. Studies show that LGBTIQ+ women, girls, and gender-diverse people, including transgender men and women, who experience multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination—such as Black and Afro-descendant or Indigenous LGBTIQ+ women, migrant and refugee LGBTIQ+ women, and LGBTIQ+ women with disabilities—are at a greater risk of rights violations.

LGBTIQ+ rights are wedged into existing ‘culture-war’ narratives

Media and political campaigns have positioned the rights of LGBTIQ+ people as negotiable and debatable. Some try to frame the human rights of transgender people as being at odds with women’s rights, even asserting that trans women do not face gender-based discrimination or that they pose a threat to the rights, spaces, and safety of cisgender women. 

While they vary by cultural context, these campaigns often portray the push for LGBTIQ+ people’s rights as merely a generational dispute, part of a so-called “culture war”, or in some cases an imperialist agenda. 

Many such narratives position trans and non-binary gender identities as new or Western concepts, ignoring the rich history of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities, gender expressions, and sex characteristics across cultures and within the global South in particular.  

Falsely portraying the rights of LGBTIQ+ people, and particularly of trans people, as competing with women’s rights only widens divisions in the broader gender equality movement. This has given anti-rights actors space to advance rollbacks on sexual and reproductive health and rights, comprehensive sexuality education, and other critical issues.

LGBTIQ+ organizations and human rights defenders are being defunded and excluded from civic spaces  

LGBTIQ+ movements, especially those focused on women, are facing reductions in already inadequate funding. A 2021 report by the Global Equality Fund found that governments around the world were increasingly cutting funding for civil society organizations, including LGBTIQ+ rights organizations, and placing more restrictions on the use of funds that remained.

Heightened scrutiny has made many donors more hesitant to support LGBTIQ+ causes. Meanwhile, private funding for reactionary movements is on the rise. A 2021 report by the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) found that funding for global anti-rights movements—primarily from a small number of wealthy donors—had increased by 50 per cent since 2012, with anti-gender movements receiving more than triple the funding as LGBTIQ+ movements between 2013 and 2017.

At the government level, some states have passed laws prohibiting so-called LGBT or homosexual “propaganda”, making it nearly impossible for LGBTIQ+ organizations to operate without state interference. Other countries have made it increasingly difficult for LGBTIQ+ organizations to register, organize, and receive foreign funding for their work under laws prohibiting “foreign influence”. Some governments have gone so far as to ban all LGBTIQ+ events under the guise of “protecting security”.  

The narrowing of civic spaces, including online, has exacerbated this. As the survival of mainstream human rights organizations is challenged, some have become reticent or unable to support smaller organizations or explicitly LGBTIQ+ focused work.

LGBTIQ+ human rights defenders operate in extremely difficult and perilous circumstances. Their vulnerability is exacerbated by a lack of public support, funding, or space to advocate for themselves. They also frequently face arrest, harassment, torture, and murder. Additionally, LGBTIQ+ women, girls, and gender-diverse people especially remain locked out of key decision-making processes around the world.   

LGBTIQ+ voices are frequently absent from the “debates” on issues affecting them in media and politics, and their contested position in many countries means that they are unable to participate in essential decision-making processes where their voices should be heard.

Working for LGBTIQ+ people’s human rights is indivisible from working for women’s rights and gender equality

The groups promoting the human rights of women and LGBTIQ+ people share the same goals of achieving safe and fair societies. In doing so they are intrinsically connected to countering patriarchy, white supremacy, racism, colonialism, ableism, classism, and other systems of oppression.  

Building coalitions among those experiencing anti-rights pushback is crucial for resisting it. This requires countering disinformation that seeks to paint individuals as at odds with one another.

By pooling resources and power, and employing intersectional, intergenerational, multi-stakeholder allyship models, such coalitions can challenge both specific reversals on rights, as well as wider reactionary campaigns and movements. LGBTIQ+ movements have long worked alongside and as part of the roots of women’s and pro-democracy movements. 

The feminist goals of intersectional justice and gender equality can only be achieved if all women and all LGBTIQ+ people are included as part of a broad, intersectional feminist movement rooted in the universality and indivisibility of human rights. 

Feminist and women’s rights advocates and organizations, rather than stepping back, must push forward and act collectively to protect and promote LGBTIQ+ people’s equality and rights, with the understanding that all our human rights will either be upheld or rolled back together.