LGBTQ individuals are more vulnerable to threats and exposed to violence. They do not have the many common protective mechanisms that most other individuals enjoy around them, the first of which is family.
From the outset, it seems like open season on the LGBTQ community. Across the globe, people are being killed, tortured, harassed, bullied, and discriminated against for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or non-conforming. Especially in the past few years it seems that more and more LGBTQ individuals are being subjected to abuse, violence, and death perpetrated by both state and non-state actors. The range of victims, methods, and perpetrators is very broad when it comes to such cruelty. In trying to grasp the magnitude and causes of such violence, this article presents some data and analysis of the state of the global LGBTQ community. However, this is just barely scratching the surface of the issue given how LGBTQ people remain one of the most marginalized and persecuted minorities in the world.
How many violent attacks on LGBTQ individuals take place every year around the world?
It is difficult to understand the full picture of the violent attacks causing serious harm to LGBTQ individuals around the world due to an acute shortage of reported data. In many countries around the world, crimes against LGBTQ community are often reported under various other pretenses, if they are ever reported. UN Free & Equal, a global public information campaign by the UN, reports that “relatively few countries have adequate systems in place for monitoring, recording and reporting homophobic and transphobic hate crimes.” The report also notes lack of trust in the police or legal authorities and the lack of sufficient sensitization of these authorities to properly record such instances of crime. In some cases, the person under attack may not even identify as LGBTQ, as merely the perception of a person’s gender and sexuality can cause an attack, as the report notes.
In the absence of accurate global data, it is difficult to truly understand the situation. In such a case it is possible perhaps to understand the trends from localized focused data. For example, in a report covering between 2013 and 2014, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) reported that at least 770 acts of violence took place, leading to the death of 594 persons who were LGBT or were perceived to be LGBT in 25 members states of the Organization of American States (OAS). In an analysis in 2011 of the FBI hate-crime statistics, Mark Potok of Southern Poverty Law Center found that LGBT individuals are more than twice as likely to be a victim of violent crime than Jews or black people in the USA, and he added that the majority of these attacks were perpetrated by individuals who were not members of organized hate groups. As recent as 2014, a majority of American people said that they believed gay sex was morally unacceptable.
Approximately 11% of the 140,000 European LGBTI individuals surveyed in 2019 by European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights said that they were physically or sexually attacked in the past five years. 51% of these attacks took place in a public place. Deutsche Welle reported that the number of violent LGBT+ hate crimes in Germany rose from 50 in 2013 to 94 in 2018 and had the possibility to surpass that number in 2019. It quoted a German politician saying that the increase in violence is not a coincidence as it emerges from a social climate that puts minorities under renewed pressure. The politician added: “The terrible incidents like the one in Chemnitz in 2018, where a gay man was tortured and killed by neo-Nazis, shows that the issue is of utmost importance”. And in the UK, the Home Office reports that in England and Wales in the 2018/2019 period, nearly 14,500 hate crimes connected to sexual orientation were recorded, and among them more than 5% was violence against a person with physical injury. Deaths of LGBTQ people due to knife attacks are reported almost every year in the UK, the recent being in Reading on 20 June 2020 where three gay men were killed.
According to the Trans Murder Monitoring Report published between 2008 and 2019, a staggering 3314 trans individuals were reported to be murdered around the world. There were 331 murders just in 2019. It goes without saying that many incidents go unreported, or reported under other categories, or are simply covered up.
The numbers presented above are from some of the more supportive countries that have legal measures to fight LGBTI discrimination and violence. Needless to say, it is not even possible to comprehend what the numbers would be in more repressive countries around the world. One could argue that in a repressive country, the forced invisibility and erasure of LGBTQ community will safeguard individuals from threats and violence. Yet, that does not really stand as an argument because so many people are attacked just because they are perceived to be LGBTQ.
Furthermore, it must be noted that these numbers appear to be violence conducted by non-state actors – individuals or groups within a country. In many countries around the world the state mechanism is amongst the biggest sources of violence towards LGBTQ people. There are reports that more than 100 individuals were detained by the Chechen authorities since 2017, and many were killed. State sanctioned violence and oppression of LGBTQ community in the Middle East and North African region has been reported for many years, but the full extent of it is not yet known. Activists have reported violence and persecution by state sanctioned entities in Nigeria, and the situation is same in various other African countries. There is no comprehensive data set that captures these incidents of violence against LGBTQ communities in the countries where LGBTQ lives are criminalized and marginalized.
What are the causes for this large amount of violence towards the LGBTQ individuals around the world?
Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the UN Independent Expert on Protection against Violence and Discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, discussed in an interview in 2019 the various root causes of violence and discrimination against LGBTQ people. He argued that a main cause is the notion that “societies are structured around certain power relations, which have been designed in relation to a person’s sex. He argued that all forms of violence and discrimination come from a defense of these power relations and mechanisms that protect these power relations. The idea that a person’s role in society is determined by their genital configuration, as argued by Madrigal-Borloz, supports the existing Feminist arguments that patriarchy, macho culture, and male ego formulate and perpetuate the power dynamics in societies around the world.
Such attempts of societal control can be observed in Poland or Russia, and perhaps in many others around the world. In July 2020 BBC reported that “Poland’s Andrzej Duda rides wave of ‘sacred tradition’”. The report stated that President Duda’s party’s politics is strongly influenced by the Catholic traditions and that he vowed to protect the “inviolable tradition” of Poland and it’s families that is “sacred to all” from the “imported LGBT Ideology” that is trying to “aggressively sexualize Polish children”. In Chechnya, government officials have repeatedly said that Chechen families could not tolerate gay men and that gay men would be afraid of their families more than the authorities.
In Latin America, the rise or hardening of fundamentalist, religious discourse by evangelical Christian groups who are critical of gay rights and believe marriage should be only between a man and woman have stymied efforts to change public attitude. Violence against the LGBTQ community is common, and a regional network of gay rights groups reported in 2019 that four LGBTQ people are murdered every day in Latin America and the Caribbean. Their data showed that mostly 18 to 25-year-old gay men were killed, often in their own homes, followed by transgender women who were killed in the streets, and that nearly 12% of all killings were carried out by people who were known to the victims.
To quote Victor Madrigal-Borloz again: “Sexual orientation has always been a more challenging notion of a traditional binary, hetero-parental family as the nucleus of the society, and this has been recognized in public discourses and in the law”. He also noted criminalization and demonization of LGBTI lives. Such criminalization happens not only by the legal mechanism of a country but also by traditional culture or tribal norms, village practices, and rules. Certainly one of the more known and somewhat global level of criminalization of LGBTQ lives is the ‘Unnatural Act’ or ‘Buggery Law’ imposed by the British colonial powers during the Victorian period on its colonies, dominions, and territories that stretched from the Solomon Islands to Jamaica and beyond. However, it is important to add that criminalization through national legal instruments take place in many other countries that do not have a British colonial legacy; for example, in the Aceh province of Indonesia and in Algeria, traditional Islamic law is upheld to criminalize LGBTQ lives. Demonization of LGBTQ lives takes place in many societies around the world. In South Asia the demonizing of Hjra community with the allegation that they will steal young children and ‘convert’ them is rampant. Recently in the USA, one of the Evangelical Christian groups propagated that, “the homosexual agenda is the moral iceberg”, and further continued the attempts of demonizing the LGBTQ community.
In his full report submitted to the UN in 2019, Madrigal-Borloz noted the “powerful role of organized religion in the dynamics of social inclusion or exclusion”. While discussing the political aspect, he noted: “All over the world, in instances too frequent to cite, political campaigns, referendums, policy and parliamentary debates and public manifestations outside courthouses reveal social prejudice and misconceptions about the nature and moral character of LGBT persons”. He added that, incitement to violence, hatred, exclusion, and discrimination are also aided by representations in the media and cultural channels. He further highlighted that the rise of ultraconservative and ultranationalist groups reclaiming ‘identities’ at the expense of sexual and gender minorities has challenged advances and prevented the development of laws and policies inclusive of LGBT people in several countries.
But why LGBTQ individuals?
Several possible answers could be discussed for this question, and some of them are mentioned in the above section. However, one short but important answer is because to the perpetrating group or individuals, LGBTQ people are the ‘soft targets’. Soft target alludes to the fact that a target is easy to find, reach, and act upon. While still many LGBTQ individuals are forced to live in the closet, those who want to live an open life in the public often stand out among the crowd. This is particularly the case if a couple shows any display of affection in public. Beyond the matter of dressing up in a certain way or showing affection, many violent attacks are committed because the perpetrator perceived an individual to be LGBTQ due to various outwardly reasons – mannerism, style of speech, way of walking, the style of hair, the choice of friends etc.
LGBTQ individuals are more vulnerable to threats and exposed to violence. They do not have the many common protective mechanisms that most other individuals enjoy around them, the first of which is family. Around the world, the structure of family creates a collective that is able to shield and protect its members from various outward threats and dangers. This ancient mechanism is often unavailable to the members of LGBTQ community, who are either unable to live with their families or are kicked out by the families. The fact that 40% of the homeless youth in the USA identifies as LGBTQ is a telling picture of the rejection and violence from the immediate family.Describing the large number of LGBTQ murders in Latin America, Marcela Sanchez, who heads the LGBTIQ rights group Colombia Diversa, said that many of these deaths do not matter to anyone, not even to their own families.Many LGBTQ individuals also lack in social capital – friends and networks that they can rely upon to find support and access resources.
In addition to this, these LGBTQ ‘soft targets’ live in an environment where many do not have the support of the state protection mechanism nor any recourse to justice after an incident. While it is still illegal to be gay in nearly 70 countries around the world, many others do not provide enough legal mechanisms to keep the community safe.In Europe, only 21% of the LGBTI individuals who faced attacks reported such incidents to police or any other organization – a 2019 survey of 140,000 European LGBTI individuals by European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights showed.
Furthermore, it is easily possible to get away with committing violent action on these ‘soft targets’. The larger society either creates an environment of impunity or fails to establish justice in these cases. In Paraguay, which is considered as one of the most sexually conservative countries in Latin America, the Education Minister banned classes about sexual diversity in schools and volunteered to help burn all books related to the subject. In Indonesia, the Defense Minister described efforts to recognize LGBTQ rights as a “proxy war to brainwash Indonesians” and “worse than nuclear warfare”. Pew Research Center published a global attitude survey on Homosexuality conducted in 2019, where they claimed that public opinion on the acceptance of homosexuality in society remains sharply divided by country, region, and economic development, and also is a function of religious and political attitudes.
Often various oppressed groups are compared too quickly and too easily with the horrific suffering and violence the Jewish people faced under the Hitler regime. While the visible numbers and the scope of global LGBTQ suffering is nowhere at that level, there is at least one similarity between these two scenarios. The persecution and potential extermination of the Jewish people by Hitler’s regime was not the end of their policy or ambition; it was only a means to instigate something with a much larger goal – that is the domination of the entire Western World and over all the people that lived there, not only the Jews. In a very similar way, those groups and individuals who are committed to causing violence against LGBTQ people around the world, they will not just stop there. Violence against LGBTQ lives are a means for them to forward their agenda of controlling the larger society in general. Examine closely and it will be evident that all of these groups and individuals also attempt to restrict and curtail the rights of many other human beings – be it women, indigenous people, religious minorities, or progressive voices. They pick on LGBTQ lives first because it is easy to do so to the group of people who constantly remain vulnerable to abuse and attack in a hostile society.
Asheque Haque is a political and security researcher. His interests include societal change, identity politics, global security, and violent extremism. He can be reached on Twitter: @Ashequeh