On March 28, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation that effectively bans discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida’s schools. The so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill creates new restrictions on classroom speech around LGBT people and same-sex families and empowers parents to sue a school if the policy is violated, chilling any talk of LGBT themes lest schools or teachers face potentially costly litigation.
This bill is the latest in a record-setting year of legislation targeting LGBT people: in 2022 alone, more than 200 anti-LGBT bills have been introduced in state legislatures across a range of issues, with a majority targeting transgender individuals. In addition to efforts to regulate school curricula, lawmakers have sought to limit trans students’ participation in school athletics, restrict access to bathrooms that align with their gender identity, and deny life-saving gender-affirming medical care. Despite legal advances over the past decade and growing public support for LGBT rights—a recent PRRI poll found that 79 percent of Americans favor laws that protect LGBT people from discrimination—opponents continue to push legislation that denies fundamental rights and enshrines discrimination and stigma against LGBT people.
The current wave of restrictions and rollbacks on both LGBT rights and spaces for advocacy overlaps with a larger global trend toward illiberalism and democratic backsliding, including in the United States. The Economist’s 2021 Democracy Index found that measures on a range of indicators of democracy have fallen to an all-time low. Likewise, Freedom House finds that authoritarian rule is expanding as leaders become more effective in co-opting democratic norms.
It is no coincidence that LGBT rights are being rolled back at the same time that authoritarianism is on the rise. Research by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law has found that countries with laws and policies that are inclusive of LGBT people are strongly associated with democracy and the rule of law. Conversely, autocracies were found to be less inclusive even in the presence of public support for LGBT rights.
In many countries, anti-LGBT laws are framed as efforts to combat “gender ideology.” This term, initially adopted by the Vatican to cast advocacy by LGBT and feminist movements as subverting traditional notions of the family, has been taken up by a range of authoritarian public officials and right-wing activists to promote anti-democratic measures. Autocrats pose the very existence of LGBT people in opposition to conceptions of national identity in order to justify repressive policies. In Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro has publicly condoned violence against LGBT people, elected officials and community members have worked to restrict “indoctrination” through discussion of comprehensive sex education in schools despite laws that require instruction on sexuality and gender. Last year, a bill in Ghana sought to further criminalize LGBT people by, among other things, imposing a ten-year prison sentence for promoting LGBT rights. The current Polish president, Andrzej Duda, successfully campaigned for office by criticizing “LGBT ideology,” calling it “even more destructive” than communism. And in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s governing Fidesz party has banned the promotion of content regarding homosexuality and transgender people in an echo of Russia’s infamous anti-propaganda law from 2013.
LGBT rights are the canary in the coal mine of democratic backsliding. Authoritarian leaders may target LGBT people precisely because their rights are seen as less institutionalized than other groups. Homophobic and transphobic attacks provide ready-made rhetorical tools for deflecting attention from undemocratic activities or economic downturn, and leaders may feel emboldened to target LGBT people because they feel they will not incur costs for doing so. In a February 24 speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin even argued that his military invasion of Ukraine was partly justified by the need to combat “false values” such as LGBT rights that lead to “degradation and degeneration…contrary to human nature.”
The deployment of anti-LGBT policies and rhetoric does not find refuge in authoritarian states by chance. A transnational network of governments, religious organizations, and civil society—many based in the U.S.—are diffusing backlash to LGBT rights and helping to promote illiberal policies in other countries. Research by the Global Philanthropy Project finds that US-based organizations associated with the “anti-gender” movement received more than $6 billion between 2008 and 2017. Moreover, what is promoted abroad has now found its way back to the US. Even Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill was explicitly modeled after similar efforts in Hungary.
Against this backdrop, we should recognize the propagation of anti-LGBT laws in the U.S. for what it signifies: an existential threat to our inclusive democracy. At the Summit for Democracy last December, President Biden asked whether “we [will] allow the backward slide of rights and democracy to continue unchecked? Or will we together…[have] courage to once more lead the march of human progress and human freedom forward?” It was a call to action for attendees from around the globe, but the imperative must fall as much on the United States as on the rest of the world. To lead on the promotion of democracy and human rights abroad, we must ensure that democracy and rights—including LGBT rights—are preserved and promoted here at home.