In December 2021, LGBTIQ activists celebrated the adoption of the resolution “Strengthening the role of the United Nations in the promotion of democratization and enhancing periodic and genuine elections” during the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly. The resolution includes an explicit reference to sexual orientation and gender identity. Why was this a milestone, and how does access – or lack of access – to elections affect LGBTIQ people?
Participation in elections can take multiple forms that contribute to the realization of democracy as well as of civil and political rights of all. To participate in elections includes more than the right to vote and to run for office, as people’s access to public election services and information, freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of association, and non-discrimination rights are all implicated.
The full and meaningful participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) persons in elections is hindered by gender inequality, criminalization of same-sex relations and gender non-conformity, pathologization of LGBTIQ identities, and violence and discrimination against LGBTIQ people. Structural barriers also prevent LGBTIQ people from achieving full civic and political participation, including “familial and social disapproval, threats of violence, challenges in finding and maintaining employment, poor access to health services, bullying and other ostracization in schools […], challenges finding secure and private housing and challenges in establishing and building relationships and a network of supportive friends.”
In places where the human rights of LGBTIQ people are not guaranteed, taking part in electoral processes can be unsafe. Trans and gender non-conforming people face particular risks at all stages of the process. Moreover, the lack of collection of disaggregated data on LGBTIQ persons and their participation in voting and in other political processes makes it hard to measure the real level of inclusion of this population in civic and political spaces.
Despite all of the existing difficulties, some governments and political parties have implemented good practices in order to include LGBTIQ persons in election processes and political spaces. At least two political parties in different countries have adopted quotas in their candidate lists aimed at ensuring sexual and gender diversity. The Peoples' Democratic Party in Turkey adopted a 50% quota for women and a 10% quota for LGBT candidates in the 2015 legislative elections, and in Queensland, Australia the Labor Party established a minimum quota of 5% in winnable seats for LGBTIQ persons in their party rules.
In relation to voter registration and identification, trans and non-binary persons encounter particular difficulties in countries without gender identity recognition laws, where their official voting documentation may be at odds with their gender expression. Nepal, one of a growing number of countries that officially recognizes a third gender, ensures that voter registration includes three categories: “female”, “male” and “third gender.” In Brazil, the Superior Electoral Tribunal (Tribunal Superior Electoral) allowed trans voters to register with the gender identity and social name of their preference, even when their other official identification documents have not been updated.
State actors, including gender focal points and polling officers from electoral managing bodies, should receive proper training to develop their capacities to fully include LGBTIQ persons. Mexico’s National Electoral Institute adopted a protocol establishing that all trainings for polling officers should integrate content on trans people’s right to vote, implemented for the first time in the 2018 federal elections. In Guatemala, in the lead up to the 2015 elections, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (Tribunal Supremo Electoral) developed a handbook for polling station members that included a section on trans voters, and provided trainings to relevant staff on the topic.
International observation missions should also be trained to identify and address electoral issues that affect LGBTIQ populations. In some of their reports, European Union election observation missions have addressed human rights issues faced by LGBTIQ persons in their participation in elections.
Ensuring that LGBTIQ people have access to effective and equitable participation in elections is essential in upholding the integrity of elections. Equally important is that States combat hate speech and attacks against LGBTIQ populations during the electoral cycle. In some cases, anti-LGBTIQ hate speech and incitation to violence by candidates or political parties has resulted in an increase of attacks against LGBTIQ populations, especially during election periods. To monitor these situations, civil society groups in Serbia monitored candidates’ and political parties’ positions on LGBT issues and published their findings to inform voters.9 States should prohibit and rigorously monitor for incitation to violence on grounds related to sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex characteristics, especially during election periods.
States must take all appropriate measures to ensure that every citizen has the effective right and opportunity to participate in elections on an equal basis, and this includes LGBTIQ persons. By guaranteeing the right to fully participate in elections, states and other stakeholders succeed not only in combatting marginalization but also in strengthening democracy.