Where Gay Is Criminal: The Definitive Guide to Countries Where Homosexuality Is Illegal
While India, the second largest country in the world, recently decriminalized gay sex, homosexuality is still illegal in roughly 71 other world countries. But the histories and nuance behind these laws remain largely unknown by most people. So as part of Hornet’s efforts to #DecriminalizeLGBT, we’ve put together this quick and handy guide to countries where homosexuality is illegal (mostly because of anti-sodomy laws).
In this handy guide of countries where homosexuality is illegal, we’ve only included countries with laws on the books that imprison adult men for consensual sex with another adult male — usually forbidden under the charges of sodomy, buggery, unnatural offenses or crimes against nature. Unless otherwise stated, each nation’s prison sentence runs anywhere from one to eight years.
It’s also important to point out that countries without anti-sodomy laws can still be intensely homophobic and violent against LGBTQ people. China, Russia, Egypt, Nicaragua, Iraq or Indonesia are all good examples: None of them have anti-sodomy laws, but all of them have police and extra-governmental forces that harass, detain and sometimes torture or kill LGBTQ people.
Often those same countries persecute LGBTQ people under other laws. In Russia‘s Chechen Republic, for example, gay men are often detained under trumped-up drug charges. In Indonesia, they’re arrested as sex workers. In Egypt, it’s for “debauchery.” China detains LGBTQ activists as anti-government dissidents. In Nicaragua and Iraq, roving hate militias target queer people for beatings and execution in the streets.
To uncover these countries where homosexuality is illegal, we used data from the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association 2017 report on State Sponsored Homophobia, the Kaleidoscope Trust’s 2015 report on LGBTQ Rights Across the Commonwealth and Louis-Georges Tin’s encyclopedic volume The Dictionary of Homophobia: A Global History of Gay & Lesbian Experience.
Countries where homosexuality is illegal: Algeria, Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Comoros, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Liberia, Libya, Malawi, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe
Of Africa’s 54 countries, the bulk of them criminalize consensual same-sex sexual encounters, mostly thanks to British-era colonial laws and American evangelicals like Scott Lively who export their homophobia abroad. African politicians often decry LGBTQ identity as a decadent Western import even though gay sex and even same-sex marriage were prevalent in many pre-colonial African tribes.
These days, Africa’s anti-sodomy laws come in a variety of proper-sounding criminal guises like “crimes against the order of nature,” “unnatural carnal knowledge” and “attempted unnatural offense.” Many of these laws conflate homosexuality with bestiality and seven African countries allow police to use forced anal exams to “confirm” suspects’ homosexuality even though the exams are basically just a form of legalized rape that can’t actually confirm the past occurrence of anal sex.
Africa’s anti-LGBTQ laws leave queer citizens open to various abuses including harassment, assault, eviction, unlawful termination and so-called “corrective rape.” LGBTQ victims in these countries where homosexuality is illegal are hesitant to ever go to the police, lest they get thrown in jail themselves just for being gay.
Many African nations lack national LGBTQ rights groups to help protect LGBTQ citizens. Harsh anti-LGBTQ laws also worsen the continent’s HIV epidemic by discouraging HIV-positive LGBTQ people from seeking treatment for fear of outing themselves.
Tanzania and Uganda both punish sodomy with life in prison. In Nigeria, gay sex comes with a 14-year prison sentence; in Zambia, it’s 15 years. In Ethiopia, prison sentences for “homosexual acts” can be extended from three to 15 years if the convicted person used “coercion or trickery,” transmits an STI or if their partner later commits suicide.
In Algeria, anyone who commits a homosexual act or even possesses or creates any image or meeting “in breach of modesty” can get two months to three years in prison and a fine. In Botswana, propositioning someone of the same sex can get you five years in prison — actual gay sex gets you seven. Malawi’s laws allow for corporal punishment on top of prison time.
Islamic countries typically instate harsher punishments. Muslim men in Mauritania and Nigeria can legally be executed for having gay sex. In Nigeria, anyone who shows an images of a same-sex encounter, hosts a gay club or attends a same-sex marriage can get 10 years in prison. In Sudan, sodomy will get you 100 lashes and five years in prison. Gambia, where laws are taken verbatim from Uganda’s “Anti-Homosexuality Act,” punishes gay oral sex with 14 years in prison. “Serial offenders” of “aggravated homosexuality,” including HIV-positive people who try to get laid or who use alcohol or drugs with their sex partners, can go to prison for life.
Egypt is particularly onerous because while homosexuality isn’t illegal there, LGBTQ people are still arrested for a variety of offenses such as “incitement of indecency,” “scandalous act,” “practicing incitement to debauchery” or even “propagation,” which means anything that could disrupt “national unity or social peace.” Punishments for propagation range from one to three years imprisonment. An estimated 500 LGBTQ Egyptians have been sent to jail under these laws. Even without imprisonment, an LGBTQ person can still be abused, raped and extorted by police.
On a positive note, Kenya‘s high court could overturn the country’s anti-sodomy laws thanks to a recent court case. That ruling could also help change the laws in other African countries where homosexuality is illegal.
The Caribbean and South America
Countries where homosexuality is illegal: Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago
Thanks largely to Inquisition-era Spanish conquerors and British colonizers who implemented religious-based anti-sodomy laws pretty much everywhere they settled, numerous Caribbean regions and the South American country of Guyana remain among the countries where homosexuality is illegal.
Long after Spain and Britain left their shores, Caribbean locals still justify their anti-sodomy laws by citing Christian and moral beliefs needed to protect children and public health. As a result of the long-engrained demonization of LGBTQ people, anti-LGBTQ violence in the Caribbean and Central and South America remains high, despite their thriving LGBTQ communities.
In many of these island nations, LGBTQ people say that police allow anti-queer violence or harassment to occur. Queer people often won’t file police reports for fear of threats, discrimination and blackmail.
Barbados, for one, punishes buggery with life imprisonment and “serious indecency” (any sexually arousing act the court doesn’t approve of) with 10 to 15 years in prison. Trinidad and Tobago punish buggery between adults with 25 years in prison (though its law is currently being challenged in the courts). The laws of Saint Kitts and Nevis equate sodomy with bestiality.
Among the Caribbean countries where homosexuality is illegal, western media has largely focused on Jamaica, citing the island nation’s numerous human rights violations, health care discrimination, violent assault, mob attacks and corrective rape against LGBTQ citizens. Anyone convicted of buggery or gross indecency there must register as a sex offender.
Asia and the Middle East
Countries where homosexuality is illegal: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei Darussalam, Gaza, Indonesia, Iran, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Syria, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Yemen
During the 19th and 20th centuries, British and French colonial law installed anti-gay laws throughout the Middle East, punishments for which were made even harsher by the rise of Islamic fundamentalist clerics in the 1980s and then by deadly extra-governmental militias during the 21st century. Meanwhile, Islamic fundamentalism has influenced other East Asian countries where homosexuality is illegal, leading to harsh anti-LGBTQ laws there as well.
Some LGBTQ Asians and Middle Easterners flee their countries for fear of persecution. In some countries, national governments refuse to recognize LGBTQ groups, denying them any legal standing, access to government redress and other social benefits. This is also a problem in the other world regions mentioned in this article as well as in Eastern Europe.
Saudi Arabia doesn’t have laws forbidding same-sex sexual contact, but strict Islamic Sharia law says men who have gay sex can be whipped or stoned to death. Police have reportedly harassed LGBTQ people there too.
Similarly, Iraq doesn’t have any such laws, but local militias still persecute LGBTQ individuals with torture and murder. Iraq does have a law forbidding any “obscene or indecent” broadcasts. So do Pakistan, Lebanon and Kuwait, though Lebanon and Pakistan both punish gay sex with a year or two in prison, respectively. Kuwait’s law also forbids “appearing like the opposite sex in any way” (cross-dressing and trans identity).
Iran punishes men who engage in receptive anal sex (bottoms) with death. Tops only get 100 lashes, unless they’ve used force or coercion, which is then punishable by death. Just putting your penis between a man’s thighs or buttcheeks in Iran can get you 100 lashes — if the penis belongs to a non-Muslim man, the punishment is death. Just kissing or sexually touching a member of the same-sex is punishable with 31 to 74 lashes.
Sharia law in Afghanistan punishes same-sex sexual activity with death. Despite this, clerics look the other way for high-ranking men who keep bacha bazi — teenage sex partners typically ranging from 14 to 18 years in age. Yemen punishes married men caught having gay sex with death by stoning.
In Qatar, merely flirting or propositioning a same-sex partner is punishable with one to three years in prison.
Malaysia punishes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” with 20 years in prison and whipping. Gaza, Brunei Darussalam, Myanmar and Sri Lanka punishes gay sex with 10 years in prison, Maldives with eight.
While Indonesia isn’t technically one of the countries where homosexuality is illegal, it has begun a particularly harsh anti-LGBTQ crackdown of late, despite the fact that gay sex is only illegal in its Aceh and Sumatra provinces. Both these provinces also forbid the establishment of any LGBTQ groups.
Countries where homosexuality is illegal: Cook Islands, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu
Isolated throughout the south Pacific Ocean, anthropologists have long regarded Oceania’s many island nations as a sort of “laboratory” of cultural diversity, rich with different same-sex sexual practices and gender constructions, particularly sexual coming-of-age rituals between older and younger members of warrior tribes.
During the colonial age, 11 different western countries colonized various Oceanic islands, installing similar brands of religious homophobia and toxic masculinity and banishing same-sex practices into the cultural closet.
Many Oceanic islands now allow charges for “attempted buggery,” a vague term that allows queer men to be persecuted under the impression that their actions constitute a possible attempt to have gay sex.
Kirbati, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu all equate sodomy with bestiality and punishes it with 14 years in prison. Papua New Guinea has the same punishment.
Samoa punishes any attempt to commit sodomy with five years in prison and, if you own a “place of resort for homosexual acts,” you can get seven years in prison.
Tonga, the small island nation made famous for its shirtless flag-waver in the 2016 and 2018 Olympics, punishes sodomy with 10 years in prison and whipping.