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As governments demonize LGBTQ+ rights, children lose the most

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Recent laws in countries like Uganda, Ghana, Russia, and the US are curtailing LGBTQ+ rights under the guise of protecting children, writes Human Rights Watch's Ryan Thoreson.

In recent months, LGBTQ+ rights have faced significant setbacks in many countries, with populist and authoritarian governments passing draconian laws curtailing LGBTQ+ rights.

Countries as varied asUganda, Ghana, Iraq, Russia, Hungary, and theUnited States, among others, have sought to limit the fundamental freedoms of expression, association, and assembly of LGBTQ+ individuals.

They have done so by suggesting that the mere existence of LGBTQ+ people in the public sphere poses a threat to children, misusing the rhetoric of protecting children to restrict fundamental human rights. This tired and offensive stereotype is damaging to the LGBTQ+ community, who are demonized in the public imagination and deprived of basic human rights.

It also harms all children, who are deliberately kept in the dark about essential topics in the world around them, ranging from family diversity to current events to comprehensive sexuality education. But most of all, these laws harm LGBTQ+ children, who are made to feel alone and kept from seeing how they might flourish as they grow up.

Many of the laws that pretend to protect children are downright draconian. Uganda enacted its Anti-Homosexuality Bill in 2023 under the guise of "protecting children and youth." In actuality, the law did nothing to address genuine concerns that children face in Uganda, including high rates of poverty, child labor, and barriers toeducation and health care. However, the law has been used to curtail the private lives of LGBTQ+ adults. This included making consensual same-sex activity among adults punishable with life in prison, imposing the death penalty for "aggravated homosexuality," and making LGBTQ+ advocacy a crime punishable with up to 20 years in prison.

Legislation passed by Ghana's Parliament, similarly, claims to "provide for the protection and support of children" with wildly repressive restrictions. The bill also criminalizes LGBTQ+ advocacy campaigns deemed to be aimed at children with up to 10 years in prison. Still, it goes far further in criminalizing the formation and support of LGBTQ+ organizations more generally and – in a particularly extreme provision – the mere fact of identifying as LGBTQ+.

Russia, which years ago banned positive or even neutral portrayals of LGBTQ+ people that might be seen by children, expanded that ban and effectively prohibited any acknowledgment of LGBTQ+ people or rights in public life. Russia's laws have been used tointimidate and punish LGBTQ+ people and organizations, encourage discrimination, andcut off education and health services for LGBTQ+ children to the detriment of their mental health and well-being. The situation worsened in 2024 when Russia's Supreme Court declared LGBTQ+ activism "extremist,"with prison time and other penalties simply for belonging to an LGBTQ+ organization.

Other countries have taken similar steps down this path. Hungary has cracked down ondepictions of LGBTQ people in the media, including a law that bans depictions of LGBTQ+ people in educational materials or television programs aimed at youth. In 2024, it adopted absurd new regulations restricting where and how toys like rainbow blocks can be marketed and sold.

In the United States, lawmakers have insisted they protect children as they zealously pass laws that make children's lives harder. Like Russia or Hungary, several states limit or ban discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, and a few more restrict whether and how same-sex activity can be discussed in schools. These laws prevent children from learning about diverse sexual and gender identities, with little regard for the harmful effects that isolation and invisibility can have on young people who do or will identify as LGBTQ+.

Many other laws have been passed under the pretext of safeguarding cisgender, heterosexual youth that unjustly target and stigmatize transgender children, denying them access to sports, barring them from appropriate facilities, and outing them to family members. Nearly half of US states prohibit transgender children fromobtaining gender-affirming medical care, which is often lifesaving care that alleviates gender dysphoria and helps many to feel comfortable in their bodies. These bans are similarly passed with an almost singular focus on children who might someday decide that they are not transgender, with little regard for the many transgender children and adults who need access to this care and whose lives will be made much more complex and painful without it.

Thousands of LGBTQ+ youth and their families have testified to lawmakers that these bills do immediate and demonstrable harm. Apoll from the Trevor Project in 2023 found that 71 percent of LGBTQ+ youth polled and 86 percent of transgender and nonbinary youth reported that laws restricting their rights had adversely affected their mental health.

Although children are telling us that these laws are unfair and stigmatizing, lawmakers are not listening.

LGBTQ+ children have the same needs for safety, privacy, health, education, and a sense of belonging as other children do, and governments are consistently failing them. What would law and policy look like if we prioritized the needs of all children?

One guiding principle from international human rights law is a concern for the best interest of the child – and not only cisgender, heterosexual children but LGBTQ+ children as well. Viewed through that more holistic lens, many recent laws and policies are insufficient and discriminatory at best.

LGBTQ+ children deserve the same rights and opportunities as their cisgender, heterosexual counterparts. Governments should safeguard their well-being with inclusive curricula, resources and support, and access to quality health care. By acknowledging and supporting LGBTQ+ children, we can dismantle discriminatory attitudes and foster a more inclusive society for all children to have access to thoughtful care that meets their needs.

Ryan Thoreson is a specialist in the LGBTQ+ rights program at Human Rights Watch.

Voices is dedicated to featuring a wide range of inspiring personal stories and impactful opinions from the LGBTQ+ and Allied community. Visit Advocate.com/submit to learn more about submission guidelines. We welcome your thoughts and feedback on any of our stories. Email us at voices@equalpride.com. Views expressed in Voices stories are those of the guest writers, columnists and editors, and do not directly represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.

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