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Global LGBTQ acceptance more polarized, new research finds

Average levels of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender acceptance have increased globally since 1980, but this acceptance has become more polarized.

Average levels of acceptance for LGBTQ people and their rights have increased globally since 1980, but acceptance has become more polarized, according to new research from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.

The research, which was broken down into a trio of reports, used data compiled from global and regional public opinion surveys from 141 countries between 1980 and 2014. The main report used the Williams Institute’s new “Global Acceptance Index” to measure and compare LGBTQ acceptance globally, and two additional reports analyzed the effects of LGBTQ inclusion on nations’ political environments and economic performances.


The first report, “Polarized Progress,” found 80 countries (57 percent) experienced increases in LGBTQ acceptance, 46 countries (33 percent) experienced a decline and 15 countries (11 percent) experienced no change.

As the title implies, the results indicated an increasing polarization of countries over the past three decades when it comes to LGBTQ acceptance. Iceland, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark were found to be the most accepting countries, and they were also the countries that made the greatest strides in terms of LGBTQ acceptance since 1980. The converse also holds — many of the least accepting countries, among them Saudi Arabia and Ghana, tended to become less accepting over the same time period.

Contrary to popular belief, “we are not necessarily seeing that every country is improving on its attitudes towards LGBT populations,” Andrew Flores, the lead author of the reports and a visiting scholar at the Williams Institute, told NBC News.

Flores said until recently, it has been difficult to gauge cross-national public opinion toward LGBTQ people. The various ways surveys ask about acceptance creates “inconsistency” when trying to draw comparisons, he explained. It’s for this reason that Flores and his fellow researchers developed the new “Global Acceptance Index.”

“The Global Acceptance Index provides a consistent and comparable way to measure attitudes and attitude change, which could better understand inclusion of LGBT people in many areas of social, economic, and political life,” Flores said in a statement published along with the reports.

Research indicates that social acceptance of LGBTQ people influences their physical and mental health, employment outcomes and political participation. Social exclusion of LGBTQ people, however, can lead to bullying, violence and harassment.

“Regrettably, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons are excluded from society in many countries,” a 2017 United Nations report stated. “The marginalization and peripheralization are part of a vicious cycle that gives rise to a host of other problems. The atmosphere that excludes people from the sociocultural environment inevitably lends itself to violence and discrimination.”

Ryan Thoreson, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, an international advocacy organization, stressed the importance of having an accurate picture of the global LGBTQ acceptance landscape.

“It is easy to slip into a progress narrative” when it comes to global LGBT rights, he said. However, in reality, “there can be trends in both directions.”


The Williams Institute’s second report, “Examining the Relationship Between Social Acceptance of LGBT People and Legal Inclusion of Sexual Minorities,” found a strong relationship between LGBTQ acceptance and what the report calls “legal inclusiveness.” Legal inclusiveness, according to the report, refers to the extent to which pro-LGBTQ policies — like decriminalization of homosexuality, relationship recognition and employment protections — have been adopted.

Flores noted there are “multiple pathways countries may take to be inclusive” in a legal sense. Each path, he said, begins with the decriminalization of homosexuality and proceeds to either economic rights, such as employment nondiscrimination protections, or family rights, such as recognition of same-sex relationships.

The research also found that greater press freedom correlated to greater LGBTQ legal inclusiveness, suggesting a possible role for the media.

While the Williams Institute’s legal inclusion report notes that public attitudes and legal frameworks typically align, Thoreson cautioned that it is not always the case.

“Namibia, Mauritius, Botswana and Singapore have more friendly attitudes [toward LGBTQ people] than South Africa does,” he said. “Yet those are countries that criminalize homosexuality, whereas South Africa has one of the better frameworks for LGBT rights transnationally.”


The third report, “Links Between Economic Development and New Measures of LGBT Inclusion,” found a positive relationship between LGBTQ inclusion and economic performance.

Though it stops short of claiming LGBTQ inclusion leads to higher GDP per capita, the report does suggest the absence of a legal framework ensuring LGBTQ people can participate in economic and public life may have a dampening effect on economic growth.

"Programs that are designed to reduce violence, discrimination, and stigma against LGBT people will remove barriers to full participation in the economy, giving LGBT people — and the overall economy — the opportunity to realize their full economic potential,” the report’s conclusion states.