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No pride in prejudice: How anti-LGBTQI+ laws fuel corruption

With anti-LGBTQI+ laws on the rise, it is crucial to explore the connection between discrimination and corruption so that no one gets left behind

Image: Transparency International

Guilherme France

Research and Advocacy Manager at Transparency International Brazil

Where there’s discrimination, corruption follows close behind. For the LGBTQI+ community, the cruel effects of discriminatory corruption are nothing new.

Like other groups that experience marginalisation; lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender, queer, intersex and other gender-diverse folks (LGBTQI+) have limited control over their destinies depending on the country they were born. Many countries continue to criminalise LGBTQI+ persons just for existing, and some have gone so far as to legalise violence against our community.

In several parts of the world, simply living and loving authentically remains a challenge and many people are forced to hide who they truly are. In cases like these, corruption aggravates homophobia and transphobia, leaving LGBTQI+ individuals even more vulnerable to violence and abuse.

As laws that target LGBTQI+ individuals continue to sprout around the world, there is growing concern that such laws fuel corruption – especially in the security services and law enforcement. They also negatively impact people’s trust in these institutions, and ultimately violate their human rights.

What do we mean by “discriminatory corruption”?

In 2021, Transparency International partnered with the Equal Rights Trust to develop a ground-breaking study, Defying Exclusion. The report demonstrates the many ways that corruption and discrimination exacerbate each other.

Discrimination and corruption intersect and conspire to harm people who are marginalised in four key ways:

  1. Discrimination renders groups that experience discrimination more vulnerable to corruption.
  2. Corruption can take forms, such as sextortion, that are intrinsically discriminatory.
  3. Discrimination results in the effects of corruption being unequally experienced across society.
  4. Discrimination raises barriers to prevent victims of corruption from seeking justice, while corruption can inhibit efforts to investigate and overcome discrimination.

Another rise in anti-LGBTQI+ legislation

Despite some advances, insufficient progress has been made in combating discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression and sexual characteristics (SOGIESC). According to the LGBTI Global Acceptance Index, which measures the relative level of acceptance of LGBTQI+ people around the world, more countries (57) have seen a decrease in the acceptance of our community since 1980 than countries (56) saw improvements. Another 62 countries experienced no change in the acceptance levels of LGBTQI+ individuals over the past 40 years.

Recently, we’ve witnessed some disturbing setbacks. Uganda joined six other countries where the death penalty is one of the legally prescribed punishments for sexual acts between same-sex individuals. According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, the death penalty may be imposed on gays and lesbians in five additional countries, while more than 60 countries worldwide criminalise homosexuality. Moreover, the Human Dignity Trust has found that transgender people are criminalised in 15 countries for gender identity or expression.

Anti-LGBTQI+ laws create the perfect conditions for the institutionalisation of extortion. That’s because discriminatory legal regimes that criminalise people on the basis of their sexuality seal off pathways for them to report wrongdoing and seek justice. The heightened obstacles LGBTQI+ individuals encounter when seeking effective remedies and redress can create a perverse incentive for corrupt officials to specifically target our community for extortion. The lower likelihood of exposing their corrupt behaviour further contributes to this risk.

In other words, part of LGBTQI+ folks’ heightened vulnerability to corruption stems from the fact that they are less likely to report abuse – and for good reason. Reporting an incident – such as having been extorted by police officers – to the authorities may be construed to imply admission of a “crime” related to their sexuality, expose people to revictimisation at the hands of the police, or at the very least, bring risks of public exposure. It is little surprise then, that in Nigeria 94 per cent of LGBTQI+ individuals who survived blackmail and extortion did not report the incident to the authorities.

Even when their abusive behaviour does come to light, officials may have little reason to fear being punished if they have only preyed on individuals from groups that experience marginalisation, like LGBTQI+ people, as abusing these communities may be socially acceptable.

As such, widespread and legally codified discrimination against LGBTQI+ individuals makes it easier for corrupt officials to extract bribes from and make other illicit demands on them.

Colourful illustration, a protest scene and stickers (Be You; Proud and Loud; We're Here, We're Queer, We Riot)

Corruption and discrimination impeding global LGBTQI+ equality

Due to stigma against them in many countries, LGBTQI+ people are at a greater risk of becoming victims of coercive corruption. LGBTQI+ people are also often unable to challenge the discriminatory corruption they face as a result of the same reasons that make them vulnerable to it in the first place.

Learn more

Power and control

Police corruption was at the centre of events that sparked the Stonewall Riots, which originally prompted Pride month celebrations. To circumvent discriminatory legislation that targeted gay customers, bar owners would pay bribes to police officers in exchange for being tipped off before the usual raids. After failing to pay the bribes, police raided the Stonewall Inn. The raid led to clashes between customers and the police, and sparked widespread riots in New York City. This significant historical moment gave rise to the modern LGBTQI+ civil rights movement in the United States.

Even after more than half a century, a recurring pattern persists globally: police officers and security forces frequently intrude upon the limited safe spaces where the LGBTQI+ community gathers. This is motivated not solely– or even primarily – to enforce the law, but rather to extract bribes and instil fear, particularly in countries where the existence of our community is criminalised.

In the past, LGBTQI+ friendly bars, nightclubs and other spaces were the primary targets of corrupt law enforcement officials. Recently, the focus has shifted to dating and messaging apps. These apps have outsized importance to the LGBTQI+ community, as they provide opportunities for connection, empowerment and expression. They are especially important in countries that criminalise LGBTQI+ individuals, as they are one of the few available tools for building relationships.

This is a global phenomenon, with an increasing number of reported cases around the world. Police officers and their associates use fake profiles on these apps to lure LGBTQI+ individuals, and then typically threaten to expose, imprison or inflict harm on them unless a bribe is paid. Additionally, individuals whose gender identities or expressions diverge from socially acceptable norms are frequently targeted by corrupt police officers in public spaces.

While most reported cases involve gay men, there are many instances of lesbians and transgender individuals being affected by coercive forms of corruption. For example, Poder Ciudadano, our chapter in Argentina, reported how trans people often suffer different forms of extortion and violence at the hands of police officers.

Even in countries without discriminatory anti-LGBTQI+ laws, social stigmatisation of LGBTQI+ people provide opportunities for police officers to extort bribes. Criminal offenses that are not directly related to SOGIESC, such as loitering, disorderly conduct, prostitution, lewdness and false identification are often used to target them. Selective enforcement – when government officials use discretion in deciding whether to charge a person for a crime – is a form of abuse that disproportionately affects LGBTQI+ folks, leading them to be subjected to demands for bribes at higher rates.

According to the F&M Global Barometers LGBTQI Perception Index, over 30 per cent of the LGBTQI+ population worldwide fear being arrested, harassed, or blackmailed by security forces and the police because of their SOGIESC. In the Middle East, North Africa, and South and Central Asia, more than half of the LGBTQI+ population live with this fear.

Illustration depicting various slogans: United Against Racism, Be You (rainbow flag), My Body My Rules, Trans Rights are Human Rights, Never Too Young To Change the World

Double harm when corruption meets discrimination

Can corruption be a form of discrimination? Does discrimination open doors for corruption? We have just released the first examination of these crucial questions, in partnership with the Equal Rights Trust and dedicated community groups around the world, featuring the first-hand experiences of people affected by corruption and discrimination.

Learn more

LGBTQI+ rights are human rights

Additional research is needed to fully comprehend the impact of anti-LGBTQI+ laws on systemic corruption, especially regarding security and police forces. However, there is sufficient evidence that shows how frequent cases of street-level bribery and extortion can justifiably have negative impacts on the overall integrity of the police. This can also influence the public’s trust in institutions (or lack thereof), which play a significant role in democratic societies.

This is not to say that discriminatory laws should be abolished simply because they increase corruption risks but rather because they are wholly incompatible with fundamental human rights. However, in places where the anti-corruption agenda has social support and political momentum, the negative impacts of anti-LGBTQI+ laws should be highlighted to foster coalitions between anti-corruption campaigners and anti-discrimination activists, as well as weaken the resolve of homophobic and transphobic forces.

Every time an anti-LGBTQI+ law is approved, individuals are pushed further into the margins of society. When this occurs, they are increasingly vulnerable to extortion and blackmail by corrupt officials. In countries that criminalise LGBTQI+ individuals, discriminatory corruption exposes our community to additional abuses and deprives them of their right to a dignified life.

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