Stonewall 50

Where next for LGBT+ lives?

When Tree Sequoia joined hundreds of LGBT+ people rioting in downtown New York 50 years ago, same-sex relations were illegal in more than 100 countries and every U.S. state had anti-sodomy laws.

"(The police) came in nasty," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation outside the Stonewall Inn where the modern LGBT+ rights movements began on June 28, 1969, after a police raid.

"They pushed the wrong person and that person pushed them back and before you know it, they were beating up the cop and that started the whole rebellion."

Fast forward half a century and gay sex remains illegal in 69 countries and can be punished with death in seven nations.

A framed amalgam of the New York Daily News’ coverage of the Stonewall riots is seen in this screengrab taken from video. Filmed in New York on June 23, 2015. Credit: Reuters

A framed amalgam of the New York Daily News’ coverage of the Stonewall riots is seen in this screengrab taken from video. Filmed in New York on June 23, 2015. Credit: Reuters

Exclusive data analysis by the Thomson Reuters Foundation showed while more countries are using legal clout to recognise LGBT+ rights, the pace of change has stalled in many countries amid an escalating conservative and religious backlash.

"There is a great danger in being complacent," said Eric Marcus, author of "Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights, 1945-1990".

Campaigns for LGBT+ rights meet resistance, particularly in countries where conservative religions sway politics such as in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America .  

Analysis of data from LGBT+ rights groups ILGA, Lambda Legal, Stonewall and external sources found 13 countries decriminalised gay sex in the 1970s and 26 in the 1990s.

But this dipped to five nations in the 1980s as the global HIV/AIDS epidemic dissuaded countries from action.

"This hindered the progress which we were making at the time towards social acceptance," said Matthew Hodson, executive director of NAM aidsmap, a British HIV/Aids information charity.

Twelve countries removed laws punishing same-sex relations in the 2000s, and 13 have lifted bans since 2010.

But it remains illegal to be gay in 32 of 54 countries in Africa. In the Asia-Pacific region, 18 countries outlaw same-sex relations and it is illegal to have gay sex in 10 Middle East nations.

The analysis found in Europe progress has slowed amid a conservative backlash highlighted by anti-gay rhetoric in some campaigns during European Union elections in May, such as Spain's far-right Vox party challenging LGBT+ rights.

"Sadly, this year we see concrete evidence of roll-back at political and legislative levels in a growing number of countries," said Evelyne Paradis, executive director of ILGA-Europe, a network of about 600 LGBT+ organisations.

The challenges remain 50 years after that night when  Sequoia, then 30, was dancing in the Stonewall Inn and police raided the bar.

Debate rages still over who threw the first punch or first bottle, but for the first time the gay community fought back.

A parking meter was ripped out of the ground and used as a battering ram to get to the police. A rock was thrown through the window of the Stonewall Inn, followed by a lit garbage can, and the numbers of protesters grew and grew.

"There is the potential for what happened here to inspire people around the world," said Marcus.

Thousands marched in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco in 1970 to mark the first anniversary of the riots - and today more than 60 countries hold annual Pride marches.

Participants in the Christopher Street Liberation Day march in 1970. The march commemorated the Stonewall riots the previous year, and developed into the modern-day Pride March. The LGBT Community Center National History Archive/Leonard Fink

Participants in the Christopher Street Liberation Day march in 1970. The march commemorated the Stonewall riots the previous year, and developed into the modern-day Pride March. The LGBT Community Center National History Archive/Leonard Fink

However, the Trump administration ruled this month that the rainbow freedom flag should not be flown on U.S. embassy flagpoles during Pride Month in June.

"The gay pride flag is offensive to Christians and millions of people of other faiths, not only in this country but around the world," Franklin Graham, president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, wrote in his Facebook page welcoming the decision.

The battle in the global west has moved onto surrogacy and adoption laws, and intersex and trans rights, say campaigners. While in Asia and Africa, more fundamental battles for legalisation of gay sex and marriage equality are underway.

The past 12 months have been indicative of a growing split in how countries treat LGBT+ citizens.

This year Botswana and Angola decriminalised same-sex relations while Ecuador and Taiwan voted to allow same-sex marriage, following in the footsteps of 26 earlier nations.

But in May, Kenya upheld a ban on same-sex relations and Brunei announced it would impose the death penalty for gay sex, only overturning its decision after a global outcry.

Within a year, marches were
held in New York, Los Angeles,
San Francisco and Chicago.