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LGBTQ Policy Journal

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

LGBT Rights on the International Stage: An Analysis of Diplomatic Practice

Over the last decade, LGBTQ rights have developed a strong presence within international diplomacy, yet support remains subject to debate within the international community. International bodies such as the United Nations have passed measures to support LGBTQ rights, but official statements typically face resistance from member states unwilling to address their own records on the issue. Due to this division, LGBTQ rights do not have official recognition within the world’s most prominent diplomatic body. Instead, LGBTQ rights are represented by informal groupings such as the LGBTI Core Group as well as individual UN agencies. As well as examining the United Nations, this paper will examine the role of LGBTQ diplomacy among individual states. Case studies of Brazil, the United Kingdom and the United States demonstrate that LGBTQ rights often remain at the whims of domestic politics and can be endangered even following positive gains. This analysis explores the variability of support for LGBTQ rights internationally as well as the vulnerability of support even where LGBTQ rights have previously been established.


Following the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016, the United Nations Security Council issued a rare statement condemning the attack for “targeting persons as a result of their sexual orientation.”[1] The statement represented the first time the UN Security Council addressed issues of sexual orientation and even included support from notoriously anti-LGBT countries such as Russia and Egypt.[2] Nevertheless, this statement of condemnation masks the strong opposition to advancing LGBT rights exhibited by several UN member states. As recently as 2017, Egypt represented several UN member states in declaring that LGBT rights constitute “controversial notions outside the internationally agreed human rights legal framework.”[3] Despite recent progress, LGBT rights remains subject to continued debate within international diplomacy.

This article seeks to examine the state of LGBT rights internationally, with particular focus on recent developments, both positive and negative, that have influenced the status of LGBT rights as a human rights norm. It includes an analysis of LGBT rights within the United Nations system as the primary arena for international diplomacy. This is followed by an examination of individuals states, with a close look at the alarmingly regressive trends in countries that have previously secured LGBT rights. Although LGBT rights are considered a human rights norm by several UN bodies, powerful blocs within the UN have attempted to halt or delay its formal recognition. Even in countries ostensibly committed to advancing LGBT rights, this norm is now weakening as new governments adopt policies that curtail previous gains.

Vitit Munarbhorn, UN independent expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, stated in his report before the General Assembly that “more than 70 states still criminalize same-sex relationships” and noted that the death penalty may be applied in certain African and Asian countries.[4] His report also notes that several countries criminalize transgender individuals based on their gender identity and expression.[5] International calls for LGBT rights are increasingly opposed by the domestic politics of individual states. There is often internal debate within countries that reflects their policy shifts regarding LGBT rights as governments change hands. This trend has led to increased uncertainty about the status of LGBT individuals in countries where they may have previously felt secure.

LGBT Rights at the United Nations

In 2008, a group of 66 countries issued a statement before the UN General Assembly affirming their support for LGBT rights.[6] The statement referenced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in condemning human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity.[7] It was opposed by Russia, China, the United States under the Bush administration, The Holy See, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the last of which issued its own statement accusing the 66 countries of attempting to “undermine the international human rights framework by trying to normalize pedophilia, among other acts.”[8] The 2008 statement was followed in 2011 by a UN Human Rights Council report documenting discrimination faced by LGBT individuals in both law and society.[9] It was updated in 2015 with a second UN Human Rights Council report concerning violence against LGBT individuals relative to commitments under international law.[10]

Despite efforts by UN agencies to advance LGBT Rights, countries opposed to such reform constitute a strong faction with the ability to halt or delay progress. In his final year in office, former Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon stated that his advocacy for LGBT rights often put him at odds with powerful member states.[11] Although he affirmed LGBT rights as an “institutional commitment,” he regarded his efforts as mostly unsuccessful.[12] This is reflected in the final version of the Sustainable Development Goals, the UN’s global development agenda, which failed to include any mention of LGBT rights.[13] Calls for specific language protecting LGBT persons faced opposition from “a bloc of countries, including Russia and most of Africa, Middle Eastern, Asian and Caribbean countries, as well as the Vatican and religious groups.”[14]

Nevertheless, on 29 September 2015, a mere four days after the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, a group of 12 UN agencies (ILO, OHCHR, UNAIDS Secretariat, UNDP, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNHCR, UNICEF, UNODC, UN Women, WFP, and WHO) released a statement declaring their intention to end violence and discrimination against the LGBT community.[15] The statement, Ending Violence and Discrimination Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex People, frames discrimination against LGBTI individuals as a violation of international human rights law and an impediment to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.[16] Its specific recommendations include recognizing LGBTI status as grounds for asylum, repealing laws that criminalize people “on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression,” and “prohibit[ing] discrimination against LGBTI adults, adolescents and children in all contexts—including in education, employment, healthcare, housing, social protection, criminal justice and in asylum and detention settings.”[17] Several UN member states maintain power to influence UN resolutions against the inclusion of LGBT rights, but they have been unable to fully impede the efforts of those countries seeking reform.

LGBT rights at the UN are represented by the LGBTI Core Group, an informal assembly of countries and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) committed to addressing LGBT rights outside of formal UN bodies.[18] Established in 2008, the Core Group supported both the General Assembly’s 2008 statement and the Human Rights Council’s 2011 statement on LGBT rights but failed to secure specific protections within the Sustainable Development Goals.[19] Despite this setback, the Core Group has promoted cooperation between the Global North and Global South, including representation from both Western countries and Latin America and even including Albania as its first Muslim-majority observer state.[20]

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights joined the Core Group in 2010, with Charles Radcliffe, senior advisor to the High Commissioner, describing the Core Group’s policy aim as such:

The political landscape has changed markedly in the past 10 years at the UN when it comes to human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity — in part because of the work of the Core Group. . . . That helps to create the political space you need if you want to make progress, it makes it easier for the UN Human Rights Office and other parts of the UN to step up their efforts to promote and protect equal rights for members of the LGBT community.[21]

Due to opposition from certain member states, the UN’s formal institutions face obstacles in securing widespread support for LGBT rights. The LGBT Core Group, as an informal assembly, works around these barriers to coordinate policy among countries and NGOs committed to establishing LGBT rights as a human rights norm.

In 2016, the UN Human Rights Council established an independent expert to examine global violence and discrimination against LGBT individuals.[22] Several Western and Latin American countries in the LGBT Core Group supported the measure, which was adopted with a close vote of 23 to 18.[23] The establishment of an independent expert formalized the work of the LGBT Core Group within official UN institutions.[24] Its mandate included assessing; raising awareness of global discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity; working with states to institute anti-discrimination policies; and consulting states, NGOs, and UN agencies on issues of anti-LGBT violence.[25]

The Human Rights Council ultimately selected international law professor Vitit Muntarbhorn for the post.[26] Following Munarbhorn’s first report to the Human Rights Council, an Egyptian delegate claiming to represent Russia, Belarus, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation minus Albania stated the following:

We do not recognize the mandate of the independent expert and therefore are not in a position to engage, interact or cooperate with the mandate holder. . . we believe that the resolution establishing the mandate adopted by a margin vote is highly divisive. Moreover, the introduction and imposition of controversial notions outside the internationally agreed human rights legal framework contradicts the fundamental universality and would lead to polarization.[27]

Security Council members China and Russia voted against the measure, as did all Islamic countries besides LGBT Core Group observer Albania, with all African countries besides South Africa also voting no or abstaining.[28]

LGBT Rights in Individual States

Increased recognition for LGBT rights is also exemplified in the actions of individual countries. Efforts to overturn laws barring homosexual activity have appeared in Botswana, India, Kenya, and Trinidad and Tobago.[29] In Taiwan, the Constitutional Court issued a 2018 ruling declaring that same-sex marriage is a legal right.[30] Although two referendums failed to approve legislative changes to the existing Taiwanese Civil Code, they have no effect on the court’s prior ruling.[31] According to André du Plessis, executive director of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, “We’ve seen a lot of exciting changes. . . . Progress has been slow but steady.”[32] Reform and decriminalization have appeared in Africa, Asia, and even the Middle East, reflecting the global nature of the LGBT rights movement.

Several countries such as Botswana and India have retained anti-LGBT laws as a legacy of imperialism.[33] At a special UN event in 2015, former president of Botswana Festus Mogae declared same-sex activity “the most basic of rights” and commented on the need for LGBT Rights to combat the African AIDS epidemic.[34] At the same forum, Frans Timmermans, vice president of the EU commission, “apologized on behalf of Europe for having brought ‘homophobia and discrimination’ to Africa.”[35] The High Court of Botswana is scheduled to hear a case in March 2019 challenging Botswana’s penal code regarding the sections criminalizing same-sex activity.[36] In September 2018, India’s Supreme Court decriminalized same-sex activity in a unanimous decision.[37]

Despite advancements in the LGBT rights frameworks of non-Western countries, violence and discrimination remain a norm for LGBT individuals in over 70 countries barring same-sex activity.[38] The sobering reality of violence against the LGBT individuals in these countries is beyond the scope of this article. Instead, this section examines a surprising shift that endangers LGBT rights internationally: over the past few years, Western countries have faced increasing challenges to previously achieved gains in LGBT rights. This is manifest in Brazil, at times a strong supporter of LGBT equality internationally; in Britain, which is currently debating reforms to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act; and even in the United States under the Trump administration.


Brazil’s large LGBT community represents a significant force in the Brazilian economy and contributes to the country’s status as an LGBT tourist destination. According to corporate advisory firm LGBT Capital, Brazil’s LGBT market has an estimated value of R$300 billion, or US$133 billion.[39] In 2017, the Brazilian Association of LGBT Tourism announced that LGBT tourism in Brazil was growing at a rate of 11 percent per year, more than triple the 3.5 percent growth rate for conventional tourism.[40] This growth is reflected in the image Brazil projects internationally, with former Rio de Janeiro mayor Eduardo Paes declaring that “Rio is a city without prejudice. . . . It is an open city that accepts everything with an open heart.”[41] Sao Paulo boasts the world’s largest pride parade, with 2018’s festival attracting more than three million people.[42]

LGBT rights in Brazil have also experienced significant progress during the last decade, with the National Council of Justice legalizing gay marriage nationwide in 2013.[43] In 2018, the council removed restrictions requiring transgender individuals to undergo surgery or judicial review in order to change their names or gender markers on identification documents.[44] Internationally, Brazil presented a 2003 resolution to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations entitled “Promotion and Protection of Human Rights,” which addressed human rights violations due to sexual orientation.[45] Discussion of the resolution was postponed, but it served as a precursor to the 2008 statement and 2011 declaration of LGBT rights before the General Assembly.[46] As recently as 2015, Brazilian Ambassador to the UN Guilherme de Aguiar Patriota expressed a strong desire to implement “more progressive language” regarding LGBT rights in the UN Sustainable Development Goals.[47]

Yet these positive developments mask the high rate of violence experienced by Brazil’s LGBT community. Brazil has the highest rate of LGBT homicides in the world, with an LGBT individual murdered near daily.[48] Anti-LGBT attitudes are fostered by evangelical Christianity, a movement imported from the United States that has grown from 5 percent of the Brazilian population in 1970 to nearly 25 percent today.[49] The influence of evangelicalism has taken root in Brazilian politics to such a degree that Jean Wyllys, Brazil’s only openly gay congressman, expressed a belief that evangelicals have “taken over congress.”[50] Nowhere is this influence more apparent than in the election of President Jair Bolsonaro.[51] Bolsonaro has expressed deep personal opposition to LGBT rights and has inspired his supporters toward anti-LGBT violence.[52] Despite attempts by Brazilian politicians and cultural organizations to position the country as an LGBT-friendly destination, anti-LGBT violence and discrimination remain a serious concern.

The United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, debate over reforms to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act have revealed rifts within feminism and between UK and US political norms. The act became the first in the world to allow for self-identification of gender without requirements such as medical transition to amend legal status.[53] In October 2018, the Government Equalities Office opened a consultation to address concerns of bureaucratic inefficiency in the process of legal gender change.[54] The consultation’s description states that “trans and non-binary people are members of our society and should be treated with respect.”[55] Nevertheless, the proposed reforms sparked debate between trans activists and anti-trans campaigners.[56] Responding to this debate, The Guardian UK published an editorial that attempted to highlight instances of conflict between “trans women and other women” such as in rape support services or women’s prisons.[57] The editorial was criticized by Guardian US journalists who described it as advancing “transphobic viewpoints” reflective of attacks on transgender rights in America.[58]

British mainstream politics is home to so-called trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), a group of whom disrupted the 2018 London Pride parade stage in anti-trans protest.[59] In a New York Times editorial, feminist theorist Sophie Lewis relays the history of TERFism, a movement vastly different in origin from American evangelicalism yet still committed to similar anti-trans policy aims.[60] Dr. Lewis declares that “many prominent figures in British journalism and politics have been TERFs; British TV has made a sport of endlessly hosting their lurid rudeness and styling it as courage; British newspapers seemingly never tire of their broadsides against the menace of ‘gender ideology.’”[61] According to this history, TERFism is a product of American cultural feminism and British movements against postmodernism.[62] While American feminism became tempered by discussions of race, gender, and class, middle- and upper-class White feminism remained unchallenged after its importation to Britain.[63] Although the British government retains a positive stance on LGBT rights, British society and media continue to debate their validity.

The United States

In 2011, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced before the UN that “gay rights are human rights,” signaling a strong commitment by the Obama administration to protect LGBT rights both domestically and internationally.[64] This pronouncement represented a wider initiative by the Obama administration for all US agencies to “promote and protect” LGBT rights.[65] The State Department created a new position of US special envoy for the human rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender persons, a role established to promote LGBT rights internationally.[66] To further this effort, the administration utilized LGBT rights as a diplomatic tool, tying access to foreign aid with a country’s commitment toward decriminalizing same-sex activity.[67] US embassies played a vital role in LGBT diplomacy, joining local pride parades and promoting LGBT rights in hostile countries such as Poland and Nigeria.[68] Domestically, the Obama administration expanded rights for LGBT workers, such as adding gender identity as a protected class under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and expanding health care access for LGBT federal workers.[69]

However, the election of President Donald Trump brought a reversal of these pro-LGBT trends both domestically and internationally. Coinciding with his inauguration, the White House website removed all references to LGBT issues, an early sign that LGBT rights were not a priority for the administration.[70] In January 2019, the Supreme Court upheld the Trump administration’s ban on transgender people from serving in the military.[71] With US troops stationed in nearly 150 countries, the removal of transgender visibility constitutes the loss of a powerful tool in advancing on-the-ground LGBT rights diplomacy.[72] The Trump administration has also denied visas to the same-sex partners of foreign diplomats and UN employees.[73] Although the administration justified the new policy as aligned with the Supreme Court’s approval of same-sex marriage, the policy change imposes difficulties for foreign officials from countries where same-sex marriage remains illegal, and who may face punishment if they marry in the United States.[74] By retreating from LGBT diplomacy, President Trump has signaled a strong opposition to the human rights priorities established under President Obama.


LGBT rights diplomacy has the power to transform societies and establish international human rights norms in countries that have previously been averse to their adoption. The increasing awareness of LGBT rights in Caribbean, African, Asian, Eastern European, and Middle Eastern countries inspires belief in an arc of history toward progress. Yet narratives of a progressive West and Latin America versus a regressive rest of the world mask a deep complexity within each society regarding LGBT rights and acceptance. Brazil, the UK, and the United States are but three examples of countries whose governments have displayed formal commitments toward LGBT rights yet have seen a regression of these commitments due to changes in both society and domestic politics. For LGBT rights to become a worldwide reality, countries must honor their human rights commitments domestically while advocating for change on the international stage.


[1] Tanya Mohn, “The Shifting Global Terrain of L.G.B.T.Q. Rights,” The New York Times, 21 June 2018,

[2] Mohn, “The Shifting Global Terrain.”

[3] “LGBTI rights Defending the United Nations Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity,” International Service for Human Rights (blog), 27 October 2017,

[4] Protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (doc. no. A/72/172, 72nd session, United Nations General Assembly, 19 July 2017).

[5] Protection against violence and discrimination.

[6] Letter Dated 18 December 2008 from the Permanent Representatives of Argentina, Brazil, Croatia, France, Gabon, Japan, the Netherlands and Norway to the United Nations addressed to the President of the General Assembly (doc. no. A/63/64, 63rd session, United Nations General Assembly, 22 December 2008).

[7] Letter Dated 18 December 2008.

[8] Neil MacFarquhar, “In a First, Gay Rights Are Pressed at the U.N.,” The New York Times, 18 December 2008,

[9] Discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity (doc. no. A/19/41, 19th session, United Nations General Assembly, 17 November 2011).

[10] Discrimination and violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity (doc. no. A/HRC/29/23, 29th session, United Nations General Assembly, 4 May 2015).

[11] Stephano Gennarini, “UN Bureaucracy to Push ‘LGBT Rights’ Despite Tensions,” C-Fam (blog), 1 October 2015,

[12] Gennarini, “UN Bureaucracy to Push ‘LGBT Rights’.”

[13] HRC Staff, “Op-ed: What Does the UN’s Agenda 2030 Mean for LGBT People?” Human Rights Council (blog), 30 September 2015,

[14] HRC Staff, “Op-ed.”

[15] Ending Violence and Discrimination Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex People (Joint UN Statement, 29 September 2015) [PDF file].

[16] Ending Violence and Discrimination.

[17] Ending Violence and Discrimination.

[18] Raymond A. Smith, “Keeping LGBT Rights Active on the UN Agenda,” PassBlue (blog), 8 December 2015,

[19] Smith, “Keeping LGBT Rights Active on the UN Agenda.”

[20] Smith, “Keeping LGBT Rights Active on the UN Agenda.”

[21] Smith, “Keeping LGBT Rights Active on the UN Agenda.”

[22] Mark Leon Goldberg, “For the first time, LGBT rights will be formally institutionalized into the human rights mechanisms of the United Nations,” UN Dispatch (blog), 1 July 2016,

[23] Goldberg, “For the first time.”

[24] Goldberg, “For the first time.”

[25] “Independent Expert on sexual orientation and gender identity,” United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (blog), n.d.,

[26] “Vitit Muntarbhorn,” United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (blog), n.d.,

[27] “LGBTI rights Defending the United Nations Independent Expert.”

[28] “LGBTI rights Defending the United Nations Independent Expert.”

[29] Mohn, “The Shifting Global Terrain.”

[30] Staff Writer, with CNA, “Marriage law ‘cannot contradict’ ruling,” Taipei Times, 30 November 2018,

[31] Staff Writer, “Marriage law ‘cannot contradict’ ruling.”

[32] Mohn, “The Shifting Global Terrain.”

[33] Mohn, “The Shifting Global Terrain.”

[34] Gennarini, “UN Bureaucracy to Push ‘LGBT Rights’.”

[35] Gennarini, “UN Bureaucracy to Push ‘LGBT Rights’.”

[36] Katlego K. Kol-Kes, “Botswana High Court to hear decriminalization case in 2019,” Washington Blade, 10 December 2018,

[37] “India Court Legalizes Gay Sex in Landmark Ruling,” BBC News, 6 September 2008,

[38] Protection against violence and discrimination.

[39] Anderson Antunes, “A Look At Brazil’s Booming (Yet Closeted) Multi-Billion ‘Pink Dollar’ Gay Market,” Forbes, 6 July 2013,

[40] Justin N. Froyd, “LGBT Tourism in Brazil Grows 11% – Above the Sector’s Average,” TourismReview, 26 June 2017,

[41] Tom Phillips, “Rio de Janeiro aims to become world capital of gay tourism,” The Guardian, 11 July 2011,

[42] Gwendolyn Smith, “São Paulo just hosted the world’s biggest Pride parade in history,” LGBTQ Nation, 7 June 2018,

[43] Anthony Boadle, ed. David Brunnstrom, “Brazil judicial panel paves way for gay marriage,” Reuters, 15 May 2013,

[44] Graeme Reid, “Brazil Boosts Transgender Legal Recognition,” Human Rights Watch (blog), 14 March 2018,

[45] Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (doc. no. E/CN.4/2003/L.92, 59th session, United Nations, Economic and Social Council, 17 April 2003, [PDF file].

[46] Anonymous, “UN 2004 – Brazilian resolution,” ILGA world, 10 January 2009,

[47] Stephano Gennarini, “Breaking News: No Abortion, No Gays in Massive New UN Development Goals,” C-Fam (blog), 3 August 2015,

[48] Andrew Jacobs, “Brazil Is Confronting an Epidemic of Anti-Gay Violence,” The New York Times, 5 July 2016,

[49] Jacobs, “Brazil Is Confronting an Epidemic.”

[50] Jacobs, “Brazil Is Confronting an Epidemic.”

[51] Marina Lopes, “‘More than fear’: Brazil’s LGBT community dreads looming Bolsonaro presidency,” The Washington Post, 26 October 2018,

[52] Lopes, “‘More than fear’.”

[53] “The Guardian view on Gender Recognition Act: where rights collide,” The Guardian, 17 October 2018,

[54] Government Equalities Office and The Rt Hon Penny Mordaunt MP, “Reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004,” Gov.UK, last updated 19 October 2018,

[55] Government Equalities Office, “Reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004.”

[56] “The Guardian view on Gender Recognition Act.”

[57] “The Guardian view on Gender Recognition Act.”

[58] Sam Levin, Monica Chalabi, and Sabrina Siddiqui, “Why we take issue with the Guardian’s stance on trans rights in the UK,” The Guardian, 2 November 2018,

[59] Yas Necati, “The anti-trans protests at Pride were the latest in a long history of transphobia in the LGBTQ+ community,” The Independent, 15 July 2018,

[60] Sophie Lewis, “How British Feminism Became Anti-Trans,” The New York Times, 7 February 2019,

[61] Lewis, “How British Feminism Became Anti-Trans.”

[62] Lewis, “How British Feminism Became Anti-Trans.”

[63] Lewis, “How British Feminism Became Anti-Trans.”

[64] Mira Patel, “The Little-Known Origin of ‘Gay Rights Are Human Rights’,” Advocate, 8 December 2015,

[65] Elise Labott, “Clinton, Obama promote gay rights as human rights around the world,” CNN, 7 December 2011,

[66] Oren Dorell, “Exclusive: First diplomat for LGBT rights speaks out,” USA Today, 26 April 2015,

[67] Office of Press Secretary, “FACT SHEET: Advancing The Human Rights Of LGBT Persons Globally,” White House of the Obama Administration, 24 June 2014,

[68] Associated Press in Warsaw (2014) ‘Obama uses embassies to push for LGBT rights abroad,” The Guardian, 28 June 2014,

[69] Sohaela Amiri, “LGBT Rights Advocacy: The Quintessential U.S. Public Diplomacy Tool,” CPD Blog (blog), 13 November 2014,

[70] Omar G. Encarnación, “Trump and Gay Rights,” Foreign Affairs, 13 February 2017,

[71] Adam Liptak, “Supreme Court Revives Transgender Ban for Military Servic,” The New York Times, 22 January 2019,

[72] “U.S. military personnel by country,” CNN, n.d.,

[73] Colum Lynch, “Trump Administration to Deny Visas to Same-Sex Partners of Diplomats, U.N. Officials,” Foreign Policy, 1 October 2018,

[74] Lynch, “Trump Administration to Deny Visas.”