The history of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) rights laws is marked by a mixture of impressive advancements and frustrating setbacks. Across the world, members of the LGBT community have vastly different experiences due to the spectrum of legal restrictions and freedoms that various countries have adopted.
The timeline of LGBT rights legislation has been drastically different depending on the government structure and social attitudes of individual countries. These differences have led to a broad scale of legal responses that are constantly undergoing changes and setting precedents.
Laws pertaining to LGBT rights fall under two general categorisations: advancements and setbacks for improved equality. The legalisation of same-sex marriage and the enactment of anti-discrimination laws are hallmark examples of major advancements in the LGBT rights movement. Many setbacks such as the criminalisation of homosexual activity and banning of specific group memberships have been both precursors and consequents of these advancements.
In countries where homosexual activity is criminalised, the punishing sentences range between one-time fines and the death penalty. Pakistan and Bangladesh have outlawed same-sex relations since 1860 and charge a maximum sentence of life in prison. Other countries like Kenya and Iran have more recently adopted legislation outlawing homosexual conduct in 2012 and 2013 respectively. In Saudi Arabia and Iran, punishment is based on the circumstances of homosexual activity and can be treated as a capital crime warranting the death penalty.
These examples demonstrate the different contexts of criminalisation across the world. Some countries have long-standing laws with extreme sentences that have not been reviewed since their enactment while others have updated pre-existing legislation to amend sentencing and offense definitions. In many cases, punishments are circumstantial based on the specific type of homosexual activity and the gender of those involved.
While the laws mentioned above outline some of the harshest realities for members of the LGBT community around the world, there have been considerable advancements in LGBT legal representation, especially in recent years.
Since 2000, 30 countries have legalised same-sex marriage via court rulings or enacted legislation. The Netherlands was the first nation to legalise same-sex marriage at the turn of the century. By 2010, six more countries had followed suit. The United Kingdom passed legalisation bills throughout the next decade (England and Wales in 2013, Scotland in 2014 and Northern Ireland in 2019). In 2015, the United States legalised same-sex marriage at a federal level. In 2019, Taiwan became the first Asian country to legalise same-sex marriage. Most recently, Costa Rica legalised same-sex marriage in 2020, becoming the first Central American country to do so. It is important to note that in many countries, there were cases of previous local laws allowing same-sex marriage before it was legalised nationally. In the US, for example, same-sex marriage had been legal in the state of Massachusetts since 2003.
Beyond marital recognition, the LGBT rights movement focuses on the importance of fighting against discrimination. From workplaces to educational institutions, members of the LGBT community have advocated for equal protection and treatment.
Anti-discrimination laws are not always LGBT-specific. In many cases, the legislation also specifies age, gender and religion, among other identifiers. Six years before its landmark legalisation of same-sex marriage, the Netherlands introduced the Equal Treatment Act 1994 which protected members of the LGBT community from differential treatment.
In the United Kingdom, legislation such as the Equality Act 2010 classified sexual orientation as a "protected characteristic" and granted those that identify as LGBT legal protection everywhere from home-ownership to public transportation. On the other hand, judicial interpretations have brought LGBT anti-discrimination measures into law. Starting with 2015’s Obergefell v. Hodges the United States Supreme Court has issued a number of rulings relating to LGBT discrimination which led to the introduction of the Equality Act to Congress. As of 2021, the bill has passed the House but has yet to be voted on by the Senate. Other countries such as Australia have reviewed their original equality legislation and passed amendments to further protect members of the LGBT community in particular. This process of responding to court cases and formal complaints of LGBT discrimination by thorough review and amendment of preceding law demonstrates that anti-discrimination is still actively being navigated in many parts of the world.
Outside of the 30 countries which have legalised gay marriage, LGBT individuals face disparate levels of civil rights protections and legal disenfranchisement. In the most extreme instances, the criminalisation of homosexuality presents the most significant legal barrier to LGBT civil rights. While significant progress for LGBT rights has been made in many countries, ongoing judicial review, new legislation and amendments to existing legislation indicate that the history of LGBT civil rights laws is far from over.