Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on December 29, 2016, at 10:24 a.m. ET
As the rights of transgender people became a major political issue in the US with fights over bathroom access, many other countries around the world have been locked in fundamental debates over gender identity.
In 2016, Norway joined a small but rapidly growing number of countries where changing your legal gender is as simple as filling out a form, and a committee of the British Parliament called on the UK to follow suit. Lawmakers in India are weighing laws that would ban discrimination and establish affirmative action for transgender people in response to a Supreme Court order. And a global effort to remove being transgender from the catalog of mental illnesses kept by the World Health Organization has gained ground and appears poised for victory when the list is updated by 2018.
To get a sense of global attitudes on transgender rights, BuzzFeed News and the polling firm Ipsos partnered with UCLA Law School’s Williams Institute to conduct a first-of-its-kind survey of 23 nations asking about everything from bathroom access to sex reassignment surgery.
We ranked support for trans rights in countries surveyed based on how respondents answered six policy questions. The questions concerned access to bathrooms, sex reassignment surgery, marriage, parenting, and protection from discrimination.
Spain and Sweden — both of which have long been at the vanguard of LGBT rights in Europe — rank at the top of our list.
Sweden was the first country in Western Europe to adopt a procedure to allow people to change their legal gender marker in 1972, and its gender identity law became a model for other nations. Argentina, which comes in third in our ranking, set a new gold standard with a “self-determination” gender identity law adopted in 2012: For the first time in the Western Hemisphere, individuals could change their legal gender by simply filling out a form — no surgery or doctor’s permission required. Four countries in Europe have since adopted self-declaration laws modeled on Argentina’s, and at least 18 more countries are considering similar proposals, according to the advocacy group Transgender Europe.
Russia ranks last on nearly every measure in our survey, perhaps because of the anti-LGBT campaign around passage of the so-called gay propaganda law in 2012. The lawmaker who conceived of that provision — St. Petersburg state legislator Vitaly Milonov — is reportedly at work on legislation that would open the door to prosecutions against doctors who perform sex reassignment surgery.
Unfortunately, technical and financial constraints meant we couldn’t do a survey that would be truly representative of all parts of the world. We focused primarily on countries with high internet penetration, where online surveys tend to more reliably represent the general population. As a result, less developed nations, especially in Africa and Asia, are underrepresented in our sample.
We conducted online surveys in 16 countries with widespread internet access. We also surveyed six countries with somewhat lower internet penetration, where the results provide a clue about what people think but might not be broadly representative of public opinion. Additionally, in India we commissioned surveyors to conduct in-person interviews because of the country's low internet penetration. Ipsos considers the results of these surveys to be accurate within a window of 3.1 to 4.5 percentage points, depending on the size of the sample in each country. (You can read more about our methods here.)
Because the word “transgender” (or its equivalent in other languages) is not widely known in many places, we asked respondents about their attitudes toward people “who dress and live as one sex even though they were born another.” We also used the word “sex” rather than “gender” throughout the survey, because many people don’t understand the difference and because many languages don't distinguish between the two.
In nearly every country we surveyed, less than half of the respondents said they believe that individuals should have total control over their own legal gender designation:
Spain was the only country where a majority of our sample support allowing people to change their legal gender designation without restriction, and 48% of our sample support the idea in Argentina, where it is the law. In most countries, a substantial portion of respondents said people who want to change their legal gender should first be required to have sex reassignment surgery or get permission from an official, such as a judge or doctor. (If you want to read up on requirements for changing legal gender designations around the world, check out this new report from the advocacy group ILGA.)
Twenty-four percent of respondents in the United States said that legal gender reassignment should not be allowed under any circumstances, meaning respondents in the US are the most opposed of any country we surveyed — even slightly more opposed than Russian respondents.
Most respondents in two-thirds of these countries said transgender people should be “allowed to use the restroom of the sex they identify with.” Support was over 70% in Spain, Argentina, and India. This group includes some countries that score toward the bottom on our measures of support for transgender rights, including Turkey and Peru.
In the United States — where bathroom access has become the primary battleground over transgender rights — just 47% said transgender people should be “allowed to use the restroom of the sex they identify with.” Other countries where less than half of respondents support bathroom choice include Brazil, Japan, and Russia.
Most respondents don’t know a transgender person.
People who said they personally know someone who is transgender are substantially more supportive of transgender rights in nearly every country we surveyed. In some countries, people who know a transgender person were 30% more supportive on the scale calculated by BuzzFeed News.
Less than 3% of respondents identify as transgender in almost all the countries we surveyed — the only country where the score was higher was the United States, where 5% said they “dress and live as one sex even though they were born another.”
Our sample wasn’t large enough to precisely measure such small groups, so our findings don’t really tell us how many people identify as transgender. We combined these respondents with people who said they have a transgender friend, family member, or acquaintance to calculate how familiar people in different countries are with transgender people. And we found a huge range.
Brazil came in first on this measure, where 50% of respondents reported familiarity with a transgender person, but the country ranks 14th on our combined measure of support for transgender rights. This visibility is especially notable because Brazil records some of the highest rates of anti-trans violence in the world.
In Spain, our most trans-supportive country, just 25% of respondents reported being familiar with a trans person. The percentage of people who reported being familiar with a transgender person in our most anti-trans country, Russia, is statistically equivalent to the percentages we find in countries like the UK, India, and Germany — all between 16% and 20%. Respondents in Japan appear to be the least familiar with transgender people, even though a 2003 law made the treatment of transgender people a concern of the national government.
People are more comfortable with gay people than transgender people in some countries.
To get a sense of how attitudes toward transgender people might play out in the real world, we asked respondents how they would feel about having different types of people as neighbors. In many countries, the number of respondents who said they wouldn’t want a gay neighbor or a transgender neighbor were about the same. But in several — including the United States — respondents said they are far more opposed to having a transgender neighbor than a gay or lesbian one. Gay and lesbian neighbors are also far more acceptable to respondents in some countries than neighbors of a different race or ethnicity, especially in Europe.
Majorities in nearly every country said they believe transgender people “should be protected from discrimination by the government.”
In most of the world, you need a psychiatric diagnosis to change your legal gender designation. But majorities in most countries surveyed don’t consider being transgender to be a form of mental illness.
Except in the handful of countries with self-determination gender identity laws, you usually need a doctor to diagnose you with “gender identity disorder” or “gender dysphoria” if you want to change your legal gender markers. Many transgender rights supporters and health professionals say this promotes discrimination against transgender people — just as labeling homosexuality a mental illness used to do — and have been pushing medical associations to stop calling transgender people “disordered.” They are poised for a big victory: A draft of the next edition of the World Health Organization’s list of diagnoses deletes the term “gender identity disorder” and no longer classifies being transgender as a mental health issue.
We found only a few countries where a majority of respondents said they think transgender people “have a form of mental illness”: Russia, India, and Turkey. Russia and India were also the only countries where majorities of respondents said they believe transgender people “have a form of physical disability.”
Many countries require sterilization for people who want to change their legal gender designation, but majorities in most countries believe transgender people have a right to be parents.
The fact that a majority in Turkey support allowing transgender people to conceive children is especially notable, since Europe’s top human rights court ruled last year that its sterilization requirement violated international law.
One of the world’s most important gender identity debates is now happening in India.
Legislation is now pending in India that would provide protections to transgender people in the country, home to 1.25 billion people.
Centuries-old communities of transgender women — most commonly known as hijras — were criminalized under laws passed when India was a British colony, and today often make a living as beggars or sex workers. India’s Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that the government must enact broad reforms to correct this history, including outlawing discrimination on the basis of gender identity, creating affirmative action for transgender people in employment and schools, and giving them welfare benefits. A law to comply with the order unanimously passed the upper house of the Indian legislature in 2015, but the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced its own watered-down version of the legislation earlier this year that transgender activists have widely condemned.
Our in-person survey in India — which was conducted just before the government rolled out its legislation in August 2016 — found overwhelming support for the original Supreme Court ruling, with 47% saying they “strongly agree” with the decision and an additional 35% saying they “somewhat agree.” Support for individual provisions of the ruling ranged as high as 80%, and 64% said they also support reserving seats in the legislature for transgender people the same way there are seats specifically allocated for women. (This idea was not included in the court order.)
But responses in our survey suggest that Indians are still conflicted about the place of transgender people in society. The long history of transgender communities and religious beliefs that they bring blessings is reflected in the fact that more than 60% of Indians said transgender people have “a special place in society” and 48% said they believe they “have unique spiritual gifts,” more than any other country on both measures. But 55% also said transgender people “are violating the traditions of [their] culture” and 49% said they are “committing a sin” — comparable to Russia on both measures.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on June 29, 2015, at 8:58 a.m. ET
SEOUL — The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that same-sex marriage is a question of basic equality before the law is not only the end of the long political battle in the U.S., but is also a tipping point in the global conversation over whether LGBT rights are human rights.
This is not because the United States has raised the bar of what LGBT equality means — it is well behind more than 20 countries in Europe and Latin America in crossing the marriage equality finish line. Nor is it because now that the U.S. has accepted marriage equality, the rest of the world will follow — the wave of anti-LGBT legislation adopted in countries like Uganda and Nigeria in 2014 were in part a reaction to marriage wins in the West, and some countries may intensify their anti-LGBT rhetoric in response to this decision.
But once its full implications are understood, the decision will push the global debate over what it means for countries to fully protect the human rights of gays and lesbians into a new phase. Before the Obergefell decision, even many campaigners trying to get international human rights institutions to treat LGBT rights kept marriage at an arm's length out of fear that asserting it as a fundamental right would intensify opposition to any LGBT rights protections in many parts of the world. After Obergefell’s statement that this is a clear question of equality for gays and lesbians, it seems impossible to exclude partnership rights from the list of fundamental rights that same-sex couples are entitled to regardless of what country they live in.
You won’t hear many LGBT rights organizations saying this, at least not yet — the reality of the decision is still sinking in, and those organizations based in the U.S. and Europe that work globally have treaded carefully or steered clear on this issue for years. But the U.S.’s own trajectory on marriage equality — and the personal trajectories on the issue of President Barack Obama and his first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton — make it clear why it seems impossible for it to stay on the margins.
Obama and Clinton were the essential figures for making LGBT rights a serious part of the global human rights discussion. Before Obama took office in 2009, the U.S. was one of the most important opponents in blocking an LGBT rights push at the United Nations. In 2011, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed its first resolution addressing LGBT rights with U.S. support, and Clinton gave what was considered a groundbreaking speech in which she declared, “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”
But at the time, Clinton herself was on record as opposing marriage equality. So was President Obama, who announced his support for marriage equality only six months before the 2012 election. It would be hard for the U.S. to endorse anything that suggested marriage was a universal right in 2011 — far more U.S. states banned recognizing same-sex couples’ marriages than established marriage equality.
So when the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released its first global survey of LGBT rights — a report ordered by the 2011 resolution — it barely considered partnership rights, focusing instead on the criminalization of same-sex relationships, free speech rights for LGBT activists, and hate crimes.
This sometimes put U.S. diplomats in awkward situations as the global battles over marriage equality intensified at a breakneck speed. Ahead of a 2013 vote on a marriage equality ban in Croatia, for example, the State Department’s then-top officer for human rights, Uzra Zeya, said in a press conference at Europe’s largest annual gathering of LGBT activists that “the U.S. government does not advocate for or against same-sex marriage in other countries.” Instead, she said, it limits its promotion of “rights for LGBT persons” to countering criminalization of “LGBT status,” combating hate crimes, and “other core issues.”
When asked by BuzzFeed News why she said marriage was not a “core issue” for LGBT rights, she said, “I’m not saying it’s not a core issue. I’m just telling you what our focus is.”
In less than two years, the State Department went from the confused position Zeya presented to a strong statement from Secretary of State John Kerry, thanks to the clarifying effect of Obergefell.
“The Court’s decision also sends a clear message to every corner of the globe: no law that rests on a foundation of discrimination can withstand the tide of justice,” Kerry said in a statement released following the judgement’s announcement. He also noted that he’d recently appointed “the first-ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons, Randy Berry” — himself a married gay man with two children — “who is fighting every single day so that people all over the world have the rights they deserve.”
The U.S.’s symbolic status and soft-power clout has given its steps toward marriage equality huge weight even though it has never been at the vanguard. The first European nation to establish marriage equality, the Netherlands, passed its law in 2000, and today the only two major EU members in Western Europe without marriage equality are Germany and Italy. In the Americas, marriage equality has been the law in Canada since 2005, in Argentina since 2010, and in Brazil since 2013. Mexico’s Supreme Court has been ruling state bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional since 2012, taking an additional important step toward establishing universal marriage equality earlier this month.
And the global impact of Obergefell is so significant in part because the conversation has already progressed so far in other corners of the globe. In some ways, the symbolism of Ireland becoming the first nation in the world to enact marriage equality by popular vote in May was more powerful than Obergfell in countries like Australia or Italy — the lopsided vote refuted the argument from conservatives that marriage was being imposed by ruling elites over the will of the people. And the shift at U.N. was detectable weeks before Obergefell — in his 2015 version of the LGBT human rights report, the high commissioner for human rights said partnership protections were necessary to protect gays and lesbians’ human rights.
More countries could very well enact marriage equality before 2015 is over. Opposition parties in Australia began making a serious push for a vote on a marriage equality law following the Irish vote, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott has shown signs that he might allow members of his ruling coalition to vote for it despite his personal opposition. The proposal’s sponsors are expecting a vote to happen this fall.
The U.S. Supreme Court decision may have its most direct impact in Colombia, which has a marriage equality case currently pending before its constitutional court. Colombia and the U.S. are joined under the human rights system of the Organization of American States, and the Colombian court takes into consideration foreign rulings (even though the United States explicitly does not follow foreign precedent).
Mauricio Albarracín, head of the Colombian LGBT rights group Colombia Diversa and an attorney who has worked on the litigation, told BuzzFeed News that, just as the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1955 ruling on racial discrimination in Brown v. Kansas Board of Education has influenced law throughout Latin America, Obergefell “is a beacon for our national debates [on marriage equality]."
Of course, the number of countries that have marriage equality are still a small minority — just over 20, as compared to the around 80 countries that criminalize homosexuality. They are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Americas and Western Europe, lending ammunition to LGBT rights opponents in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe who say they’re standing up for national customs against “cultural imperialism” from the West. The celebrations in Ireland and the United States feel very far away in countries like Morocco, where two men were sentenced to jail on charges of embracing in public, or Turkey, where police shut down a pride march on Sunday with tear gas and water cannons.
“Maybe Korea will follow the U.S. ruling, but never in our time,” a 22 year-old student named Jang Hyun-joon told BuzzFeed News on Sunday at a pride march in the South Korean capital Seoul, which was almost banned in the face of opposition from Christian groups.
But the ground for the debate has shifted, and it could change faster than even people like Jang expect. A BuzzFeed News/Ipsos poll conducted this spring found 53% of South Koreans support legal protections for same-sex couples. And the country’s best known politician, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon — who polls show would easily be elected if he decided to run for president of South Korea in 2017 — sounded an awful lot like John Kerry when he spoke about the Obergefell decision on Friday.
The ruling “marks a great step forward for human rights in the United States,” Ban said during a ceremony in which he was presented a medal for his work promoting LGBT rights. “When the time comes to look back on my tenure, I will feel enormous pride in the fact that I have been the first U.N. secretary-general to push hard for equal rights and respect for LGBT people around the world.”
Obergefell is a turning point for the LGBT movement, not only because the United States has crossed what many now view as the clearest litmus test over whether LGBT people are equal citizens. It will change how LGBT rights campaigners talk about their own agenda on the global stage.
It’s hard to imagine any politician — or government — maintain that marriage equality is not a “core issue” while maintaining that “gay rights are human rights” ever again.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on June 4, 2015, at 12:24 p.m. ET
Around the world, being close to someone who has had an abortion makes people substantially more likely to support unrestricted abortion.
That's among the findings about abortion in a new BuzzFeed News/Ipsos poll of 23 nations. We looked at the marriage equality results from the survey in a post last week. In at least 10 of these countries, people who are close to someone who has had an abortion were over 50% more likely to support abortion without restriction.
The survey was conducted online over a two-week period ending May 8. We have the clearest picture of attitudes in 16 countries where the internet is widely accessible because it is possible to get an online sample that is representative of the country as a whole. These are concentrated heavily in Europe and North America. There are obviously large parts of the world that aren't represented in this survey, but unfortunately data collected online in these countries simply wouldn't give us an accurate look at the overall feel of a country because so many people lack internet access or local laws make it hard to poll on social issues.
But we included some data from seven additional countries — Mexico, Brazil, China, South Africa, India, Turkey, and Russia — because they appear to reflect broader public opinion based on comparisons with other public opinion surveys. They're marked with an asterisk as a reminder that these figures may not be truly representative.
This is what we found.
Several countries that we surveyed in Western Europe had widespread support for allowing abortion “whenever a woman decides she wants one” — essentially unrestricted abortion. In other parts of the world, we found widespread support for allowing abortion with restrictions, like in cases of rape or when pregnancy could cause the death of the mother.
Even in countries where opposition to abortion was strongest, a majority still favored allowing abortion in at least some circumstances. Total opposition to abortion was strongest in Brazil*, but even there we only found roughly 18% of our sample saying they believe the procedure should be illegal without exception.
Pollsters have long found that people who know someone who is gay or lesbian makes them much more likely to support same-sex marriage. To test whether there was a similar effect on opinions about abortion, we asked respondents if they had ever had an abortion or if they were “close to someone who has had an abortion.” We found a substantial impact in every country we surveyed — sometimes dramatic ones.
In Russia*, for example, people close to someone who has had an abortion were nearly three times more supportive of unrestricted abortion. In Ireland, Poland and Australia, they were around twice as supportive.
Russia* appears to top this list, probably a reflection of the fact that abortion was used essentially as a form of birth control under communist rule. High numbers in China* are possibly due to the country’s one-child policy, a 1979 law which prohibited families from having a second child. Mothers who became pregnant again were often forced by the government to abort their pregnancy. (The policy was relaxed in 2013 to allow for two children in most households.)
That last chart doesn’t simply reflect how common abortion is in each country — it also hints that in some countries, it’s much more common for women who have had abortions to talk about it.
Compare China* and and the United States, for example: Data from the United Nations shows that about the same percentage of women have had abortions in both countries, around 2% of women of childbearing age as of 2010.
Support for unrestricted abortion is highest in Sweden, France, and Great Britain, ranging from 78% to 66%. But these three countries fall solidly in the middle of the pack when we rank how common it is for people to be close to someone who has had an abortion, ranging from 38% to 31%. This puts them alongside — or even well below — several countries with far more conservative views on abortion where more people report being close to someone who has an abortion.
There may be other factors that explain this — like different ways people interpret the question — but it's notable that these measures don't line up. Mexico* is a particularly interesting example: 39% of people reported being close to someone who has had an abortion, giving it the fourth-highest figure on that question. But it appears to be the second-most anti-abortion country in our study, where more people said they favored a total ban on abortion (16%) than supported unrestricted abortion (14%).
Take a look at South Africa*, where only 21% of people in our survey said they support unrestricted abortion — even though South Africa has one of the most liberal abortion laws in the world. First-trimester abortion has been unrestricted in South Africa since 1996, and second-trimester abortion restrictions are seen as very liberal because they include concerns like mental or socioeconomic harm to the mother from her pregnancy.
Roughly 90,000 women in South Africa had abortions in government clinics in 2012–2013, according to the most recent years of data available from South African health officials, but experts estimate that the real total could be even higher: Around 50% of the abortions performed in South Africa are done illegally, because of backlogs in service at public hospitals.
Ireland’s social policy is in the spotlight after it became the first country in the world to establish marriage equality by popular vote last month. While our poll does not show that Ireland is also moving rapidly to the left on abortion — only 37% of the population currently supports unrestricted abortion — there is a solid majority in favor of allowing abortion in circumstances now prohibited under Irish law.
Ireland had a total ban on abortion before two years ago, when the law was changed to allow abortion only when a mother’s life is in danger. This was the result of a court ruling following the death of an Indian woman named Savita Halappanavar who miscarried and then died in an Irish hospital after being refused an abortion.
In addition to the 37% of people who favor no restrictions on abortion, our survey found 38% of Irish voters said “abortion should be permitted in certain circumstances, such as if a woman has been raped.” Only a total of 15% said they favor the existing life exemption or support a total ban on abortion.
We took a look at this chart in our story last week on global attitudes on marriage equality, but it’s worth another glance. While Catholic countries in the Americas and Europe either have majorities supporting marriage equality or are heading in that direction — with the notable exception of Poland — support for unrestricted abortion remains very low in many of them, especially outside Western Europe. And a couple of countries that appear liberal on abortion — Turkey* and Hungary — don’t show any signs of embracing marriage equality anytime soon.
*The seven countries asterisked throughout this post have too many people without internet access for us to be sure that our online survey was truly representative of the country as a whole. We only included ones where we believe our findings appear likely to still reflect broader public opinion based on data from other sources, but we can’t be 100% sure that the data for these countries are truly representative.