people protesting on a pride parade with colorful balloons.
Pride Month celebrates achievements and takes a stand for LGBTIQ+ rights, yet backlash intensifies worldwide. | Image: Ano Tome via Unsplash

Backlash Against LGBTIQ+ Rights in Peacebuilding: Raising Awareness During Pride Month

June is celebrated as pride month worldwide. It highlights the achievements that have been made regarding the rights of people with diverse sexual orientation, gender identity and expressions, or sex characteristics. It also raises awareness about ongoing structural discrimination, inequality and violence. In peacebuilding contexts, individuals with diverse SOGIESC encounter severe backlash from anti-feminist actors aiming at the reversal of achievements as well as resistance from those trying to maintain the status quo.

Celebrating Successes while Worrying about the Future

June is Pride Month, a time for colorful parades and open celebrations of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities, expressions, and sex characteristics (SOGIESC). While it is essential to highlight achievements regarding the rights of lesbian, gay, bi, transgender, intersex, and other queer communities (LGBTIQ+), it is crucial to be cautious about the intensifying backlash against SOGIESC issues worldwide. Backlash is concerned with the reversal of rights, policies, and norms, but most importantly is often accompanied by threats of violence or actual violent attacks against LGBTIQ+- people.

ILGA World regularly publishes reports on the progress and regression concerning SOGIESC. The most recent report from June 2024, “Laws on Us”, reveals an increase in laws and legal protections but with unrelenting resistance and opposition as a constant companion. It stresses that not all SOGIESC or LGBTIQ+ communities enjoy the same protection or face equally severe forms of backlash. Additionally, discrimination based on other identity categories such as race, ethnicity, or class can intersect, making some communities and individuals even more vulnerable to discrimination.

Importantly, anti-feminist actors cause backlash in all parts of the world, no matter how well established a democracy may be. Moreover, backlash severely affects post-conflict societies and impacts the field of peacebuilding by introducing an additional form of vulnerability. Backlash in peacebuilding settings still attracts too little attention despite being a site where gender sensitive human rights, including LGBTIQ+ rights, are highly contested.

This article therefore focuses on the analysis of LGBTQI+ rights from the PRIF project Backlash against and resistance to feminist peacebuilding by portraying two cases of extreme backlash in Yemen and Uganda. It emphasizes, firstly, the multi-layered violence to which LGBTIQ+ people and human rights defenders are exposed daily, and secondly, the need to center their experiences and needs, a necessity that is often ignored, even in feminist peacebuilding research and practice.

Backlash against Gender-Sensitive Human Rights in Peacebuilding

Peacebuilding sites have been the focus of the aforementioned project at PRIF. We examined how feminist peacebuilding actors perceive backlash against and resistance to the implementation of gender-sensitive human rights. Gender-sensitive human rights include sexual and reproductive rights, protection from domestic and conflict-related sexual violence, women’s land rights, and LGBTIQ+ rights, and recognize gender differences and gender-specific needs while considering different identity categories such as race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality. Applying a broad understanding of peacebuilding that includes human rights advocacy, peace and mediation processes, or reconstruction activities, we interviewed 33 gender experts, including feminist activists and individuals working for non-governmental, regional, or international organizations.

Actors from whom backlash originates can be summarized under the notion of an ‘anti-gender or anti-feminist movement’, which covers conservative, religious, and anti-democratic groups and governments. Using the populist term ‘gender ideology’, they devalue feminist efforts for gender justice, stir up hatred against queer communities, and aim to maintain traditional understandings of gender and family values. For this, they attack “LGBTIQ+ rights, reproductive rights, sexuality and gender-sensitive education in schools, and the very notion of gender”. While attention mostly concentrates on openly anti-feminist actors, backlash against LGBTIQ+ rights also exists within the feminist community. Trans* persons in particular face severe contestation within certain exclusionary feminist spaces. Additionally, backlash and resistance from individuals and family members were reported in the interviews.

Backlash in Yemen

Our interview with a Yemeni feminist peace activist revealed severe backlash against LGBTIQ+ rights in the country. Yemen has been affected by war for 10 years and recently experienced a conflict escalation. The activist shared that the violations against women’s rights in Yemen are severe but for LGBTIQ+ rights the situation is even worse. Examples include the arrest of transwomen who “were in jail, and they were flogged 80 times, and they were tortured.” In line with those insights, Amnesty International recently declared the need to stop the “persecution of people based on their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity” in Yemen after Houthi courts convicted individuals to imprisonment, flogging and even death. The violence directed against LGBTIQ+ communities in the country has intensified through the ongoing conflict, justified “as a means to both purify the society and eliminate dissent”.

However, backlash in the form of violence is not only stemming from the conflict parties. Public opinion and the media stir up hateful and wrong demonizing narratives. Our interview partner reported that gay men are generally portrayed and seen as rapists, a child raised by homosexual couples “cannot become a good person”, while others think that homosexual people are “sick” and “need treatment”.

Backlash in Uganda

In our interviews, we were also told a story from Uganda where, in 2014, an NGO supporting migrants and refugees was shut down because it lobbied against the Homosexuality Bill. The NGO was accused of “promoting homosexuality”. One way they were thought to be doing so was by working with male survivors of sexual violence, who were assumed to be homosexual. The backlash was fueled by national media, portraying the organization as the gayest in Uganda, leading to threats and harassment against employees. One employee had to relocate due to neighborhood threats, while drivers faced threats when driving cars with the organization’s logos. We learned that the backlash activities of the Ugandan government also affected UN officials within the country who were perceived as “too pro-gay”. The government made clear that they would never ground refugee status on sexual orientation or gender identity, despite ample precedent in international refugee law.

While this is a story from 2014, the country is currently experiencing further restrictions against LGBTIQ+ rights through the Anti-Homosexuality Act from 2023, which criminalizes same-sex acts and introduced the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”. It has unleashed even more radical public homophobic sentiments and violent attacks such as rape and torture. LGBTIQ+ people report severe psychological pressure over the fear of being outed – they do not feel safe anywhere. LGBTQI+ organizations are criminalized under the new law, which means that they are no longer able to provide vital services for their communities.

The Influence of Underlying Power Structures and International Politics

These severe examples of violent backlash against the rights and existence of LGBTIQ+ people are accompanied by institutional and individual resistance, sometimes openly expressed and in other cases subtle and difficult to uncover. LGBTIQ+ rights are often not even considered and are ignored outright in peacebuilding strategies. Regarding the design of LGBTIQ+ inclusive peacebuilding policies, the lack of basic and adequate knowledge around SOGIESC issues, experiences of violence, and related challenges is perceived as individual resistance while no institutional mechanisms to advance knowledge exist. In post-conflict situations, LGBTIQ+ issues are neglected in favor of other topics deemed more important, such as providing infrastructure. This can be understood as a “hierarchization of the value of human rights”. While many forms of resistance are embedded in peacebuilding institutions, resistance also stems from individuals with homophobic and misogynist attitudes or ignorance towards LGBTIQ+ needs. Both forms of resistance hinder progressive developments and maintain the status quo.

To understand the whole spectrum of resistance and backlash, it is important to consider the structural dimension of the issue. Peacebuilding is embedded in unequal and discriminatory patriarchal, racist and colonial power structures. In former British colonies, for example, many laws against LGBTIQ+ communities can be traced back to the colonial history as colonial powers imposed their at-the-time strictly homophobic legal system on other societies with different sex and gender norms. This is why the peacebuilding system is often critiqued for failing to consider the knowledge and needs of local actors and marginalized groups and the historical continuities of the respective context.

The cases of Yemen and Uganda highlight the need to link international politics to national peacebuilding contexts. Our Yemeni interviewee described how governments in the Arab world instrumentalize the argument from decolonizing movements that the West is imposing gender equality and queer politics. This means that LGBTIQ+ rights become the target of an ‘othering’ process arising from anti-Western sentiments. In the same vein, the anti-feminist movement in Uganda argues that homosexuality is imposed from outside, against Ugandan culture and beliefs. While this article does not deny the ongoing hegemonic influence of the US and Europe, gender equality and LGBTIQ+ rights are fought for, defended, and resisted around the world. Moreover, authoritarian governments feel supported in their activities due to the rise of anti-feminist narratives, actors, and governments in Europe, the US, and Russia. This shows the complexity of the issue and the reciprocal effects of resistance and backlash on different levels.

Countering Resistance to and Backlash against LGBTIQ+ Rights

Confronted with this broad spectrum of backlash and resistance that lead to violence, feminist peacebuilders apply different strategies and express demands towards partners and policymakers—detailed in our report—but also beyond.

I emphasize here the need for strategic and inclusive allyship and strong coalition-building between actors and groups that share the same feminist values. The feminist and queer critique of the peacebuilding system and the WPS agenda should be taken seriously by the international peacebuilding community. The experiences and needs of people with diverse SOGIESC should be included in peacebuilding efforts while considering the “do no harm” approach and developing context-specific programs with those affected. For this, more research and concrete data are needed to better understand the needs and challenges of people with diverse SOGIESC in the context of peacebuilding and armed conflict. Policymakers and persons in positions of power should use their influence to advocate for the inclusion of issues around SOGIESC, using the Yogyakarta Principles plus 10 as a binding foundation to hold peacebuilding actors accountable. It is important to build knowledge within peacebuilding organization and institutions on all levels, to create spaces for reflection and learning as well as to raise awareness about the unique experiences of LGBTIQ+ communities

In the face of rising anti-feminist sentiments around the world, which lead to severe forms of violence against LGBTIQ+ people in particular, it is especially important to advocate for the recognition of human rights for all individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics. Pride Month can be a month for us all to take a stand for human rights, practice allyship, expand our knowledge through research and practice, and share resources with our families, friends, and colleagues.

Clara Perras

Clara Perras

Clara Perras ist wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin und Doktorandin im Programmbereich „Internationale Sicherheit“ am PRIF. Ihr Forschungsinteresse gilt feministischen Ansätzen in der Friedens- und Konfliktforschung, insbesondere zu internationaler Cybersicherheit, Gender, Frieden und Sicherheit und feministischer Außenpolitik. // Clara Perras is a doctoral researcher at PRIF’s „International Security“ research department. Her research interests include feminist approaches to peace and conflict studies, especially International Cybersecurity, Gender, Peace and Security and feminist foreign policy.

Clara Perras

Clara Perras ist wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin und Doktorandin im Programmbereich „Internationale Sicherheit“ am PRIF. Ihr Forschungsinteresse gilt feministischen Ansätzen in der Friedens- und Konfliktforschung, insbesondere zu internationaler Cybersicherheit, Gender, Frieden und Sicherheit und feministischer Außenpolitik. // Clara Perras is a doctoral researcher at PRIF’s „International Security“ research department. Her research interests include feminist approaches to peace and conflict studies, especially International Cybersecurity, Gender, Peace and Security and feminist foreign policy.

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