Psychology in action: My country, my closet: The role of psychology in the growing international divide over GLBTQ rights

Sharon D. Horne, PhD, discusses the relevance of psychological science to GLBTQ issues during pride month.

By Sharon G. Horne, PhD

It’s June, the month in which most gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (GLBTQI) people in the U.S. and around the world gather to celebrate their families and communities, and to take an affirmative stance toward recognizing the rights and dignity of GLBTQI individuals. Rainbow flags are hoisted from many city halls across the U.S. and elsewhere as pride celebrations are held to commemorate the stand taken by GLBTQI people following a police raid on a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, in NYC in June, 1969. Significant for being the most overt and public stand following decades of harassment and police brutality, the riot that spilled into the streets is considered the beginning of the GLBTQI rights movement in the U.S. Fast-forward 45 years and it’s hard to fathom the changes from the Stonewall era to the one U.S. GLBTQI are living in today. Marriage is legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia, and many states are overturning past bans on same-sex marriage. Many federal benefits have been extended to same-sex couples regardless of where they live or were married. GLB people can openly serve in the armed forces and significant steps are being taken to include protections for gender identity as well. Although many areas of the U.S. continue to experience significant setbacks and obstacles to full equality for GLBTQI citizens, the immense progress for GLBTQI people should be acknowledged and celebrated. This progress is shared by people in other countries around the world — same sex marriage is legal nationally in 16 other countries, in Europe (Belgium, Denmark, France, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, U.K.), Latin America (Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay), Oceania (New Zealand), North America (Canada) and Africa (South Africa), and in many jurisdictions in Mexico. 

But while we prepare for our pride festivals, put the finishing touches on our parade floats and don our rainbow feather boas to commemorate this important month in GLBTQI history, other pride celebrations around the world are being stifled or banned. The gay pride parade scheduled for early June in Seoul, South Korea, has been officially cancelled, as has the Belgrade Pride Parade due to “security reasons.” Crimea, recently annexed by Russia, also has banned pride celebrations to stay congruent with Russia’s gay propaganda bill passed in 2013 that prohibits the promotion of nontraditional sexual relationships to minors. This bill threatens to alter the political positions throughout postcommunist countries, promising penalties and sanctions for people and organizations who communicate any GLBTQI-positive information that could influence minors. Moscow, Russia has banned gay prides for the next 98 years, and China cancelled events associated with the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia in May without explanation. Traditionally among the most welcoming of nations for GLBTQI individuals, Canada this week denied visas to 10 Ugandan activists planning to attend the World Pride Conference in Toronto due to concerns these activists may seek asylum. Uganda is among more than 80 countries that criminalize homosexuality, and in February this stance became even harsher with the passage of a law that punishes up to life imprisonment for homosexuality as well as jail sentences for people found to not have reported gay people. Propaganda bills similar to the one Russia passed are being considered in Lithuania, Kyrgyzstan and other countries. Most alarming, Brunei has just passed a law this past month phasing in the death penalty for gay sex.

The role of psychology in the growing international divide over GLBTQ rights.

Sharon D. Horne, PhD, attending a GLBTQI-related conference in Moscow. 

With 19 countries in the past few years amending their constitutions to ban marriage between same-sex couples and the recent proliferation of imprisonment and death penalty sentences for same-sex sexuality in many nations, it is imperative for psychological associations and communities around the world to advocate for the mental health needs and supports for GLBTQI people. The International Psychology Network for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex Issues (IPsyNet), a network of 17 national psychology associations (including APA, and national associations in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, the Philippines, South Africa and the United Kingdom) and regions (Association of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Psychologies Europe, the Latina(o) Psychological Association) is working to increase psychological knowledge pertaining to sexual orientation and gender identity among psychologists internationally, and to apply psychological knowledge to support the well-being and human rights of people of all sexual orientations, gender identities, gender expressions and sex characteristics. 

As one of two APA IPsyNet representatives to this network, I believe our psychological communities can have tremendous impact on national policy and debate on GLBTQI issues. Psychologists can dispel myths and propaganda that are being spread about GLBTQI people and can use psychological research and theories to bolster support for GLBTQI people. For example, the use of fears associated with homosexuality to spur on a sense of “moral panic” in order to garner political support has been used in the past with other stigmatized groups and is being successfully employed again as leaders who support these initiatives experience boosts in their popular support (Cohen, 1999; Wilkinson, 2013). 

Psychologists can help by destigmatizing GLBTQI identities and situating current anti-GLBTQI initiatives within the current sociopolitical contexts (APA, 2009). Research with GLBTQI people and their families can raise awareness of the experiences and similarities of GLBTQI people to others, and the role of stigma, heterosexism and transphobia in mental health concerns. For example, IPsyNet drafted a letter to President Museveni on the eve of the passage of the Ugandan anti-Homosexuality bill and is now actively working on a policy nondiscrimination statement that psychology associations can sign on in support for future anti-GLBTQI legislative initiatives. There are many ways for psychology associations and individuals to become involved with international GLBTQI concerns. We welcome other psychology associations and GLBTQI divisions or subgroups of other associations to join the efforts of IPsyNet.

In addition, we can bring light to psychological processes related to advocacy and activism. For the past year, our research team at the University of Massachusetts Boston has been interviewing GLBTQI activists in high and medium risk countries about their psychological development as activists and their experiences advocating for GLBTQI rights. Activists from places as diverse as Belize, Thailand, Kyrgyzstan, Colombia and Nigeria describe the increasingly negative climate for GLBTQI individuals, even as policy strides are made on some issues and in some regions. For example, one activist from Lithuania described how they won the right and subsequently held a Baltic Pride festival for the Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia), however, this feat spurred on renewed efforts to limit GLBTQI rights. In his words:

And we will see what will be later … but we have to say that maybe another side of the moon, a dark side of the moon came after, after we won, we did this Baltic Pride … one step forward and two steps back because our politicians, I mean, our parliament, members of parliament, they introduced five homophobic amendments in the parliament and I think it’s kind of … a reaction to success … Our victory mobilized them [anti-GLBTQI efforts] too.

— Lithuanian activist

As more GLBTQI people “fight with their feet” and leave homophobic and transphobic countries, psychologists can play important roles by serving as witnesses for asylum seekers, assisting with mental health services for GLBTQI people who are escaping extreme violence and rampant discrimination and adjusting to new communities, as well as advocating for psychological communities and associations to support and protect GLBTQI people’s rights and mental health concerns. In the words of one Russian activist, “We are now fighting to save our voice, at least save our voice, because they want to make us invisible ... they want to prohibit our existence.” Given decades of psychological research and advocacy on behalf of GLBTQI concerns that have supported the equal rights of sexual and gender minority individuals in the U.S. and many countries, psychology is now in a position to share our accumulated knowledge to better support global efforts to achieve similar aims. So celebrate pride if you live in a place where pride is happening. Let’s attend the parades and cheer on local activists who have fought for recent gains. At the same time, toast those people, near and far, who are not at the celebration yet — for whom such a celebration may seem a distant dream indeed. And pledge to offer some time, some words of support, to extend a hand so that they may celebrate with us next year. 


American Psychological Association Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation (2009). Report of the Task force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Cohen, S. (2002). Folk devils and moral panics: The creation of the mods and rockers (3rd Ed.). London: Routledge, 2002.

Wilkinson, C. (2013). Russia’s anti-gay laws: The politics and consequences of a moral panic. The disorder of things.

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