As Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced on Sunday that the country would repeal a colonial-era law criminalizing sex between men, LGBTQ+ rights activists across the country celebrated a long-awaited victory.
The law, which does not apply to women, has not been enforced for more than 15 years, but its long-standing presence has helped to stigmatize and discriminate against gay people in Singapore, activists said.
“Sex between consenting men should not be criminalized. There is no justification for prosecuting people for it, or making it a crime,” the prime minister said.
A similar law criminalizing consensual same-sex relations dating back to British colonial times was struck down in India in 2018 when the Supreme Court ruled the ban “irrational, indefensible and patently arbitrary”.
But in India and Singapore, the abolition of these laws has not translated into full support for LGBTQ+ rights, as same-sex marriage remains illegal in both countries.
“Let me reassure everyone that in dealing with the issue, the government will continue to regard families as the building blocks of society,” the Prime Minister of Singapore said on Sunday. “We will keep our family and marriage policies unchanged and maintain the prevailing social norms and values in our society.”
Despite increased acceptance of LGBTQ+ rights around the world over the past two decades, there have also been backlashes and setbacks in many countries – and in 67 countries that are part of the United Nations, homosexuality is still persecuted as a crime.
Countries where it is illegal to be gay
A map produced by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersexual Association (ILGA) in 2020, seen above, shows countries where homosexuality is still criminalized.
Since the report was published, Bhutan and Antigua and Barbuda have decriminalized consensual same-sex sexual relations between adults, respectively, in 2021 and 2022.
Nearly half of the countries where homosexuality is still criminalized are in Africa. These are the 67 UN countries with laws that prohibit same-sex relations (65 by explicit provisions of law, 2 de facto):
- Brunei Darussalam
- the cook islands
- Egypt (de facto)
- Iraq (de facto)
- Papua New Guinea
- Saint Kitts and Nevis
- St. LUCIA
- Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
- Saudi Arabia
- Sierra Leone
- solomon islands
- south sudan
- Sri Lanka
- United Arab Emirates
In these countries, the penalty for those who engage in consensual same-sex relations ranges from a minimum of two years in prison to a life sentence (in countries such as Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia in Africa and the Barbados and Guyana in the Caribbean).
In six of the UN member states listed above – Brunei, Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria (12 northern states only), Saudi Arabia and Yemen – ILGA has legal certainty that homosexuality is punishable by death sentence. In five other states – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Qatar, Somalia and the United Arab Emirates – sources suggest the death penalty could be imposed for same-sex relations.
Despite these discouraging figures, the countries cited above are in the minority. More than 64% of UN member states do not criminalize same-sex sexual acts.
Progress has also been made in recent years in improving LGBTQ+ rights around the world.
In Mozambique, same-sex sexual acts became legal in 2015, followed a year later by Seychelles, which banned a rule that made sex between two men illegal and punishable by up to 14 years in prison. The country has also banned discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation.
Trinidad and Tobago struck down laws criminalizing gay sex in 2018, while in 2019 Botswana’s appeals court voted to uphold a ruling that criminalizing homosexuality was unconstitutional.
In February 2021, Angolan President Joao Lourenço approved a revision to the penal code allowing same-sex relations and prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Gabon repealed a law criminalizing homosexuality that made same-sex sex punishable by six months in prison and a heavy fine in June of that year.
In December 2021, Chile approved a bill legalizing same-sex marriage and allowing same-sex couples to adopt, while Switzerland introduced marriage equality in July 2022.