At least 73 countries, or about 40% of all countries, still criminalize homosexuality, and an increasing number of countries are now adding laws specifically banning sex between women in the name of “equality.”
A total of 44 countries specifically criminalize sex between two women, according to a report released in May by the Human Dignity Trust, an organization of international lawyers who provide pro bono legal assistance to queer people in countries with anti-LGBT laws.
The report also reveals that at least ten countries that once only criminalized gay male relationships recently added amended their laws to ban sex between lesbians and bisexual women, too.
Many of the original male-specific laws are holdovers from British colonial penal codes, and the expansions are being made in a misguided attempt to make them more legally sound and “equal” in response to international criticism.
Human Dignity Trust explains:
Ironically, such amendments are often made on the inaccurate premise of ensuring non-discrimination in the State’s treatment of male and female homosexuals.
A Botswana court found that a gross indecency law that only applied to male homosexuals, and not female homosexuals, was discriminatory, but that the discrimination was rectified when the provision was made gender-neutral.
Similarly, a court in Solomon Islands found that the male gross indecency law was discriminatory since women were not criminalized, but found that this would be rectified by removing the word “male.”
The effects of criminalizing sex between women can be especially devastating in patriarchal societies, where “corrective rape” and forced marriage are commonly employed as “antidotes” to same-sex attraction between women. The report also notes that the combined discrimination lesbian and bisexual women experience due to both their gender and sexual orientation make them especially vulnerable to human rights abuses.
In countries where women are systematically forced to be economically dependent on men, for example, it can be nearly impossible for lesbian and bisexual women to live independently without a male family member. Women forced into sham marriages with men as a result likely have less control over their bodies than gay men in similar situations, especially since marital rape remains legal in many countries with anti-gay laws.
Other laws that disproportionately affect women—including those that permit child marriage and criminalize adultery, and those that ban or limit access to birth control and abortion—also often exist in countries with laws criminalizing homosexuality, further compounding the issues faced by lesbians and bisexual women.
The Human Dignity report points out that much of the research, advocacy, and legal discourse around the criminalization and persecution of LGBT people worldwide has “inadvertently focused on gay and bisexual men.”
The report also highlights the fact that countries with greater gender equality are less likely to have any form of anti-gay laws on books, and urges international organizations working to end LGBT criminalization and those working to advance gender equality to address the specific needs of lesbian and bi women.