No revolution worth its salt comes without pushback. The fight for gay rights—widely regarded as “the fastest of all civil rights movements” (over a short period of time, 20 nations have come to recognize same-sex marriage and an additional 15 now allow same-sex civil unions)—is no exception. A shooting rampage last June at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, by a terrorist who had expressed loathing for the LGBT community, was the deadliest assault ever on the American gay community and attests to the viciousness of this pushback. But that was only one incident. In recent years, there has been a global backlash against gay rights that runs from the United States, through many parts of the global South, to Russia and other parts of the post–Communist world.
The opposition to gay rights comes in two strains and reflects what the Pew Research Center has called “the global divide on homosexuality.” In Western Europe and the Americas, home to the world’s most democratically advanced states and the largest and most sophisticated gay rights movements, the gay backlash takes the form of a counter-revolution designed to intimidate the gay community and roll back gains in gay rights. Across Africa, the Middle East, and much of the post–Communist world, the parts of the globe where democracy, civil society, and human rights are either in short supply or struggling, the gay backlash consists of a “preemptive strike” meant to stop the gay rights movement before it can gain its footing. This involves passing legislation that criminalizes or re-criminalizes homosexuality and that bans the promotion of homosexuality. Both strains, however, serve to fuel anti-gay violence and discrimination, and have exposed the political, rather than cultural nature of the backlash.