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Freedom of Expression

Freedom of Expression for sexual and gender minorities was chosen by activists worldwide as the main focus issue for the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia 2014. Hundreds of actions took place to promote LGBTI Freedom of Expression, in 66 countries, around May 17, 2014. But Freedom of Expression remains a key concern. Laws criminalising ‘homosexual propaganda’ continue to shape the lives of LGBTI communities in many countries today. But even in relatively free contexts, LGBTI communities still often face routine barriers to express themselves and their identities freely – at work, in schools, in their local neighbourhoods, within faith communities, and amongst their families and friends.

In this article, you will find a brief round-up of arguments for action around Freedom of Expression, as well as links to further resources, and posters for sharing on social media.

Arguments for Action

The right to freedom of expression of members of sexual and gender minorities should be universally respected as part of the most fundamental human rights, as is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Yet, in the 81 countries in the world where same sex relationships are criminalized, any positive expression on the issue of sexual identity is censored, putting an initial barrier to the possibility of advocating for change, or to start addressing the stigma that sexual and gender minorities face. In many additional countries, freedom of expression around sexual orientation and gender identity issues is heavily restricted by abusive laws which equate information about sexual and gender diversity to pornography, or deem them intrinsically harmful to children and/or offensive to society at large.

Our analysis reveals that at least 70% of the world population live in contexts where their freedom of expression on issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity is systematically being violated. While a scarce 0.06% lives in countries providing explicit (but not always enforced!) legal protection against homophobic hate speech


This includes either countries where same sex relationships are outright illegal, or those like Russia which explicitly restrict freedom of expression on sexual orientation and gender identity issues, and also those which use other laws, like pornography or public morality laws, to systematically censor information related to sexual orientation and gender identity (as in China and Turkey, for example).

Worrying trends

The Russian Federation has indeed recently provided the most notorious case of violation of freedom of expression for sexual and gender minorities through the banning of so-called ‘homosexual propaganda’ towards children, which actually results in the prohibition of any public discourse about sexual orientation and gender identity or expression; a case which has sparked international outrage.

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LGBTI activists perform “Gay Propaganda” outside the National Assembly of the Republic of Bulgaria in the capital, Sofia. May 17, 2014. Source: Bilitis group

But this cloaking of repression in the language of children’s rights and public morality has also become a very popular tactic for conservative constituencies in contexts where the direct and total criminalization of same sex relationships is not an easy political option, which is the case in many of the Council of Europe countries and in much of Latin America. Bills were tabled recently in Ukraine, Costa Rica, Hungary, Lithuania and Latvia (and discussed by authorities in Armenia and Kyrgyzstan), and while largely unsuccessful for now, this trend casts a dark shadow over the future. Many organizations working with sexual and gender minorities are fearing that restrictions on Freedom of Expression and information will continue to constitute their upcoming battleground.

Even in the most progressive countries on this issue, censorship on grounds of child protection is a constant concern, especially in regards to children’s literature and school curricula. Freedom of expression also includes the freedom to seek, receive and impart information. Nevertheless, some UK faith schools were recently revealed to have banned the promotion of gay issues; an echo of the ‘Section 28’ legislation of the 1990s, which banned any positive information on homosexuality in schools.

The right to free Gender Expression universally violated

In almost no country in the world can trans people freely express their true gender identity without having to face extreme violations of their human rights. Progressive legislation, guaranteeing people’s rights to self-determine their gender identities and expressions, lags far behind sexual orientation focused legal progress in all world regions.

In Europe, for example, 16 countries deny trans people the rights to change their name and gender on official documents. And 23 of the 33 countries which do allow it, require forced sterilization as a pre-requisite for such changes. 19 countries require divorce. In all too many cases, doctors and psychiatrists remain the final decision-makers on how trans people will be allowed to access their rights.

Less than a handful of governments worldwide have legal provisions in place for non-binary identifying individuals to have their gender expressions formally recognised. Interestingly, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan provide recognition of ‘third gender’ on national identification papers. The rest of the world lags far behind, and only a handful of national medical authorities do not categorise trans or gender non-confirming identities in terms of mental health conditions.

Where LGBTI people are censored, all people are deprived of their freedom of expression

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“I am LGBTI and I have the right to express my personality with freedom” – May 17, 2014 in Caracas, Venezuela. Source: Venezuela Diversa A. C.

The censorship of sexual and gender minorities issues acts as a powerful indicator of the general level of respect of human rights. Not surprisingly, the heaviest crackdowns on sexual and gender minorities come from contexts where there is equal pressure on advocates for democracy, right to freedom of religion or belief, women’s rights, minority groups rights, etc.

Repeatedly, as in recent developments in Turkey and Armenia, gender equality measures are being cast – and effectively smeared – as enabling the promotion of homosexuality, attacks on traditional values, and the breakdown of established families. Where LGBTI people are censored, all people are deprived of diverse and important viewpoints.

Defending freedom of expression of sexual and gender minorities is therefore not only to defend particularly vulnerable groups of people, it is also a strategic move; to stand in solidarity at the forefront, often referred to as the ‘last frontier’, of the defence of human rights. It is therefore a concern to all human rights organisations campaigning for freedom of expression rights for all people.

Further Reading

Posters (in higher resolution and more here)