Lgbtq+ People

International Perspectives

Various countries have criminalized some or all sexual acts between men and some sexual acts between women. It is often difficult for these jurisdictions to prosecute consensual same-sex couples, but these laws contribute to the harassment and stigmatization of non-heterosexual people.

Laws criminalizing LGBTQ+ people tend to criminalize sexual acts, rather than individual identities. The language is intentionally vague and unclear, allowing law enforcement and judicial actors to interpret the provisions as they see fit, permitting personal biases and beliefs to play a role in enforcement. Police officers can decide to arrest individuals based upon either real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, even when no prohibited act has been proven. In some countries, law enforcement has arrested LGBTQ+ people under the guise of other arbitrarily applied public order provisions.

Origins of LGBTQ+ Criminalization 

The LGBTQ+ community has faced persecution for centuries; however, colonialism increased the global breadth of criminalization. British law during the colonial era expressly criminalized same-sex sexual activity, and thus, many British colonies adopted the same laws. Of the countries that criminalize LGBTQ+ people today, more than half can trace the source of their laws to Britain’s colonial rule. Britain not only exported laws that criminalized the LGBTQ+ community, but also the overarching system of sexual offenses imposed on colonized states has been and remains discriminatory towards other marginalized groups, such as women, children, and individuals with disabilities. 

Colonial France and Spain found basis for their legal systems in the Napoleonic Code, which did not criminalize same-sex sexual activity. Today, LGBTQ+ individuals in places colonized by France and Spain are not criminalized for same-sex sexual activity. 

Many countries that criminalize LGBTQ+ people have adopted Islamic laws and follow a strict interpretation of Sharia law. While these countries are less numerous than those colonized by Britain, the penalties in these countries tend to be more severe, with the death penalty imposed or legally possible in eleven Muslim-majority countries. 

Extent of Criminalization and its Effects 

Across the globe, 65 countries criminalize private, consensual, and same-sex sexual conduct. Most of these jurisdictions explicitly criminalize sex between men, calling these crimes of ‘sodomy,’ ‘buggery,’ and ‘unnatural offences.’ Of this total, 41 countries also criminalize sexual conduct between women for ‘lesbianism,’ ‘sexual relations with a person of the same sex’ and ‘gross indecency.’ In other jurisdictions without these specific laws, lesbians and bisexual women have been arrested or subjected to the threat of arrest because the presence of anti-LGBTQ+ laws provokes both state and non-state actors to harass and blackmail LBGTQ+ people. In most instances, lesbians and bisexual women are arrested based on suspicion of their sexuality, not because of known same-sex contact.

Fourteen countries criminalize the gender identity and/or expression of transgender people with ‘cross-dressing,’ ‘impersonation,’ and ‘disguise’ laws. In numerous other countries, transgender people are often targeted for arrest and prosecution with a variety of laws that criminalize same-sex activity and public order offenses. 

The criminalization of LGBTQ+ people has numerous damaging effects. Most notably, criminalization results in the arrest, detainment, and prosecution of LGBTQ+ people solely based on who they are.  When detained, research has shown that LGBTQ+ people are especially vulnerable to verbal, physical, and sexual violence from fellow prisoners and corrections staff, and are often denied access to healthcare and legal representation. These statutes perpetuate stigma and prejudice by providing a justification for violence and discrimination.

As Punishable by Death 

There are twelve countries in which the death penalty is actively imposed, or could be imposed, for consensual same-sex sexual contact: Afghanistan, Brunei, Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, United Arab Emirates, Uganda, and Yemen.

Map Courtesy of Human Dignity Trust

In Iran, homosexuality is illegal and carries the possibility of a death sentence. The death penalty is not used for same-sex relations between women, but lesbians and bisexual women are often punished with lashings and fines. In Nigeria, the Criminal Code Act and the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act 2013 imposes a 14-year prison sentence for homosexuality; however, a dozen states in northern Nigeria have adopted Sharia law. Thus, many northern states penalize homosexuality with death or flogging. It is not common practice in northern Nigeria to sentence someone to death for homosexuality, but gay men are often targeted, tortured, and extorted by law enforcement and community members. Transgender individuals may also face persecution under Sharia law.  

Saudi Arabian law holds that homosexuality must be treated the same as adultery – death by stoning. All sexual activity outside of marriage, including same-sex sexual contact is criminalized for both men and women. Transgender individuals and others gender non-conforming individuals can also be punished by imprisonment, corporal punishment or forced ‘conversion’ therapy. Somalia’s Penal Code 1962 criminalizes sexual acts with a person of the same sex, carrying a maximum sentence of three years imprisonment. However, through the operation of Sharia law, same-sex sexual activity can be punished with a sentence of death. In Yemen, Penal Code 1994 criminalizes acts of ‘homosexuality’ and ‘lesbianism.’ Under this code, both men and women may face the maximum punishment of death by stoning. 

In Afghanistan, same-sex sexual activity is prohibited under the country’s Penal Code 2017. ‘Sodomy,’ ‘inciting sodomy,’ and other intimate acts carry a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment for both men and women. The Afghan Penal Code allows for the implementation of Sharia law, under which same-sex sexual activity is punishable by death. In Brunei, same-sex sexual contact is prohibited under the country’s Penal Code 1951 and Sharia law. The maximum penalty under each code is death by stoning for both men and women. Transgender people in Brunei may face up to one year imprisonment and a fine for ‘posing at the opposite sex.’ There is incomplete evidence regarding use of these laws in recent years, but reports show that the criminalization of trans people is more common. In 2019, Brunei announced a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. 

Mauritania Penal Code 1983 criminalizes same-sex sexual contact as ‘acts against nature.’ This statute carries a maximum penalty of death by stoning for both men and women; however, Mauritania operates a de facto moratorium on the use of the death penalty. In Pakistan, same-sex sexual activity is prohibited by the Penal Code of 1860, which criminalizes acts of ‘carnal knowledge against the order of nature,’ and carries a maximum punishment of life imprisonment. Under the Hudood Ordinance of 1979, all sexual activity outside of marriage is punishable by death, including same-sex sexual activity. Qatar’s Penal Code 2004 expressly prohibits same-sex sexual contact for both men and women, which carries a maximum punishment of seven years imprisonment. Since the Constitution of Qatar holds Islam as the country’s official religion, Qatar also operates under Sharia law. Thus, the death penalty may also be applied to those convicted of same-sex sexual activity. 

In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), same-sex sexual activity is criminalized under the Criminal Codes of the Emirates of Abu Dhabi, which criminalizes ‘unnatural sex with another person,’ and Dubai, which criminalizes sodomy. These statutes carry a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment for both men and women. There is no evidence that the death penalty has been used against LGBTQ+ people in the UAE. In Uganda, same-sex sexual activity is prohibited under the Penal Code 1950 and carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. The Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023 was enacted in May 2023 and significantly expands the criminalization of LGBTQ+ people in Uganda. Included in this law is a new offense, ‘aggravated homosexuality’ which carries the death penalty for ‘serial offenders.’