The Global State of LGBTIQ Organising: The Right to Register

It has become increasingly difficult for community-based organizations to operate, a phenomena frequently referred to as shrinking space for civil society. Yet, to fully understand the impact of new laws restricting organizations’ access to funding, laws equating human rights with the corruption of youth, and laws written to equate activism with threats to national security, it is important to analyze exactly how LGBTIQ organizations are specifically impacted. LGBTIQ movements globally are relatively young, and so many LGBTIQ organizations have had little time to institutionalize. Are LGBTIQ organizations at heightened risk in the current environment, and what can be done to safeguard these young movements?

OutRight Action International’s report, The Global State of LGBTIQ Organizing: The Right to Register, seeks to answer these questions and determine the possibility of legal registration for LGBTIQ organizations globally. OutRight’s research finds that legal registration for LGBTIQ organizations is severely restricted globally and the result is that LGBTIQ human rights defenders work with fewer resources and face more danger.

In a survey of 194 countries, OutRight found that only 56%, 109 countries, permit LGBTIQ organizations to legally register as LGBTIQ organizations. In just 28%, 55 countries, LGBTIQ organizations exist but they cannot legally register as LGBTIQ organizations. In these countries disclosing an intention to serve LGBTIQ people sets up a barrier to legal registration. Thus, many organizations pursue registration using more neutral language about their aims and objectives that do not identify that they work with LGBTIQ people. In 15% of the countries studied, OutRight could not identify any organizations working on LGBTIQ issues, whether registered or unregistered. In these countries, LGBTIQ people don’t have an organization operated by and for the community that can advocate for their rights. OutRight is concerned that LGBTIQ people in these countries may be at higher risk of discrimination and violence.

The study collected data on thousands of organizations across 5 global regions and determined the registration status of a set of 864 organizations in Asia and the Pacific, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. This report includes a summary of legal analysis undertaken in 41 countries to determine the laws allowing Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to register. In certain countries, the law does not explicitly deny the existence of LGBTIQ organizations but authorities still find ways to reject registration applications and deny equal rights of recognition. Thus, the homophobic and/or transphobic biases of authorities can impede organizations from registering. Finally, the report provides in-depth case studies from Belize, China, Lebanon, Germany, Nigeria, Russia, St Lucia, Singapore, Tanzania and Tunisia on the experiences of 22 LGBTIQ organizations who have sought or obtained legal status in those countries.

The case studies reveal that registration enhances organizations’ abilities to further the rights and well- being of LGBTIQ populations. Registration improves their standing with other organizations and the general public. Registered organizations feel they benefit from greater legitimacy in the eyes of the donor community, inclusive of private philanthropy and government donors. Funding permits them to provide social services as well as create and provide local employment. Depending on the context, registration can also allow organizations’ leaders to have more opportunities to meet with officials and other political stakeholders and thus advance policy engagement and advocacy on behalf of LGBTIQ people. In addition, registration is a legal identity which permits practical functions like leasing an office and opening a bank account.

From the organizations OutRight interviewed around the world, both registered and unregistered, the lack of registration is perceived as a barrier to reaching maximum capacity for effecting change and serving more LGBTIQ people. Many LGBTIQ organizations that cannot legally register may face serious consequences. They may be less credible within broader civil society coalitions, have limited sources of funding, and be forced to work at a slower pace because of lack of resources.

Importantly, in contexts where there is a violent backlash against civil society activism, LGBTIQ organizations, both registered and unregistered, have experienced state surveillance, indiscriminate arrests and threats of deregistration.

LGBTIQ communities and LGBTIQ civil society leaders are strong and resilient. Yet, this data represents entrenched restrictions on LGBTIQ civil society’s rights. While legal registration is not right for every community-based organization, when it is desired, it should be available without discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or sex characteristics. Any restrictions based on these factors amounts to discrimination in the fundamental human rights to expression, association, and assembly.