“The love that dare not speak its name”
A strong global movement has improved respect for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people around the world. However, at least 70 countries have national laws criminalizing same-sex relations between consenting adults. In addition, at least nine countries have national laws criminalizing forms of gender expression that target transgender and gender nonconforming people. This series of maps provides a global overview of those laws.
Legal sanctions against same-sex conduct vary in scope and application. In some countries, only specific sexual acts are punished, while in others the laws are more general, often vague and open to varying interpretation. Sentences range from fines to life imprisonment and even the death penalty. In some countries, law enforcement agencies aggressively pursue and prosecute people suspected of being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. In others, the laws are rarely enforced but nonetheless have severe consequences for LGBT people, serving to justify discriminatory treatment and impeding LGBT people’s access to employment, health services, and police protection.
Among countries that expressly forbid expression of transgender identities, at least three, Brunei, Oman and Kuwait, have national laws that criminalize “posing as” or “imitating” a person of a different sex. Saudi Arabia has no codified law, but police routinely arrest people based on their gender expression. Malaysia also criminalizes “posing as” a different sex, not in its federal criminal code but in the Sharia codes of each of its states and its federal territory. Nigeria criminalizes transgender and gender nonconforming people in its northern states under Sharia.
In South Sudan, such laws only apply to men who “dress as women” and in Malawi, men who wear their hair long. Tonga prohibits any “male person” from presenting as a female while “soliciting for an immoral purpose, in a public place with intent to deceive any other person as to his true sex.”
In the United Arab Emirates, laws prohibit men “posing as” women in order to enter women-only spaces. The UAE has used this law to prosecute gay and transgender people even in mixed-gender spaces. Other countries with similar laws on “women-only” spaces have not done so, to our knowledge, and are not included in these maps.
The maps addressing criminalization of same-sex conduct include the 70countries with national laws forbidding same-sex conduct. But others bear mention. The UAE has no federal law against homosexual conduct, but several emirates, do in their own penal codes, including Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sharjah. The UAE’s federal penal code includes a vague ban on any “indecent or disgraceful act,” without further explanation. In Indonesia, Aceh province is semi-autonomous and criminalizes same-sex conduct under Sharia (Islamic law).
In South Korea, the military criminal code punishes same-sex conduct with up to two years in prison, even though criminal sanctions for same-sex conduct do not apply to the civilian population.
The Central African Republic has no blanket ban on same-sex conduct, but its criminal code includes sanctions on homosexual conduct –but not heterosexual conduct – in public.
Human Dignity Trust has reported that 15 countries maintain unequal ages of consent, with a higher bar set for same-sex couples than different-sex couples, or for anal sex as compared to vaginal sex. This includes several countries that otherwise have progressive laws on sexual orientation and gender identity, such as Canada and Chile.
In 11 states of the United States, unenforceable laws prohibiting consensual same-sex conduct remain on the books despite a 2003 Supreme Court decision that found such laws unconstitutional.
The fact that we have not included a particular country in these maps does not mean it is in compliance with international human rights law. Russia and Lithuania, for instance, do not criminalize same-sex acts or forms of gender expression, but they prohibit so-called “propaganda” in support of LGBT rights, in an effort to silence activists. Many other countries have erected barriers to freedom of association and assembly for LGBT groups, as documented by OutRight Action International.
Laws are constantly changing, and we intend to update this resource annually to reflect such changes. In June 2019, the Botswana High Court struck down laws prohibiting same-sex conduct, as did the Supreme Court in India and the High Court in Trinidad and Tobago the year before. The Caribbean Court of Justice in 2018 invalidated a Guyana law prohibiting some forms of gender expression. Angola in January 2019 issued a new penal code that no longer penalizes homosexual sex. In contrast, in July 2019 Gabon became the latest country to criminalize same-sex conduct, and Brunei enacted a new sharia code in April 2019 introducing new laws against sex between women and gender nonconformity alongside appalling punishments, including death by stoning, for anal intercourse.
Click on the country bubbles for a snapshot of each country's laws. For more information and Human Rights Watch reporting, click on the country name in the black pop-up box.
Type of Anti-LGBT Laws
This map examines two different types of anti-LGBT laws. The red dots indicate countries that outlaw same-sex relations between consenting adults.1 The blue dots indicate countries that criminalize forms of gender expression, such as “imitating the opposite sex.” 2
- laws that outlaw same-sex relations
- laws that criminalize forms of gender expression
Laws Criminalizing Same-Sex Relations, by Type of Offense
Legislation prohibiting same-sex conduct is frequently vague, euphemistic, and selectively enforced. “Buggery” is specific to anal sex, while “sodomy” can refer to anal or oral sex. Neither term is not specific to same-sex relations, but arrests of heterosexual couples under such laws are exceedingly rare. Most laws promulgated in former British colonies punish “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” or “gross indecency,” grouped together here as “unnatural/indecent acts.” “Against the order of nature” has been interpreted by courts to mean oral or anal sex and is theoretically applicable to different sex couples. “Gross indecency” laws are broad enough to include any same-sex intimacy between men and, in some jurisdictions, sex between women. This map classifies offenses according to the following categories :
- homosexual acts
- unnatural/indecent acts
- laws including a range of offenses
Laws Criminalizing Same-Sex Relations, by Sentence
Criminal sentences for consensual same-sex conduct may range from fines or several months in prison to life imprisonment and even, in several countries, the death penalty.3 This map breaks down sentences by length, as follows:
- 0-10 years
- 10-years to life
- the death penalty
- lashes / corporal punishment
- unspecified sentences
Laws Criminalizing Same-Sex Relations between Women
Many countries only criminalize same-sex relations between men. However, at least 38 countries criminalize same-sex conduct regardless of sex or expressly criminalize sexual conduct between women. At least 10 countries have, since 1986, explicitly enacted laws that criminalize sex between women as well as men, sometimes perversely framing this as a gesture toward equality.
This map shows countries that:
- criminalize same-sex relations between both men and women, including through language like “gross indecency,” which appears to be gender neutral4
- criminalize same-sex relations between men
- use vague language such as “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” that in some contexts is understood as anal sex or other sex between men, but that could also be used against women.5
State & Country Profiles
Special thanks to our partners who have provided information, in particular the International Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), OutRight Action International, Human Dignity Trust, Amnesty International, and Dr. Paula Gerber of Monash Law School and the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law in Melbourne, Australia.
1 Countries that criminalize same-sex conduct are: Algeria, Antigua & Barbuda, Bangladesh, Barbados, Bhutan, Brunei, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Comoros, Cook Islands, Dominica, Egypt, Eritrea, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Grenada, Guinea, Guyana, Iran, Jamaica, Kenya, Kiribati, Kuwait, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Myanmar, Namibia, Nigeria, Occupied Palestinian Territory, Gaza Strip, Oman, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Qatar, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and The Grenadines, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Tanzania, Tonga, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Tuvalu, Uganda, Uzbekistan, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe
4 Countries that explicitly criminalize sex between women are: Algeria, Antigua & Barbuda, Barbados, Brunei, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Comoros, Dominica, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Grenada, Iran, Liberia, Libya, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Morocco, Nigeria, Oman, Qatar, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and The Grenadines, Senegal, Solomon Islands, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, Yemen Zambia