The Rainbow Struggle: A Primer for the Global Gay Rights Battle

10/03/2011 04:36 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

LGBT advocates face a hulking, well-funded force that fights with religious fervor. But by most tallies, they're winning.

This June the U.N. Human Rights Council narrowly passed its first-ever resolution calling for universal gay rights, with the support of more than 80 countries. It was an historic milestone, a global recognition that gay rights and human rights were finally synonymous, at least on paper here in New York at the world body.

How these rights play out in the real world is a very different story, and it is the subject of this GlobalPost "Special Report," which will examine the rights of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) through a series of reports over the next two months from every corner of the world.

In South Africa, for example, the very country that introduced the successful resolution, there is a domestic crisis of rampant, gender-based violence. That violence includes a uniquely horrifying brutality known as "corrective rape," which is a targeted sexual attack against lesbians. The full extent of this disturbing phenomenon is not known, but human rights advocates have reported 10 cases per week in Cape Town alone.

And in response to the effort of the "Rainbow Nation" at the UN, several African nations admonished it for allying with Western countries on homosexuality -- often painted as non-native to Africa.

Such is the incongruous nature of what GlobalPost has dubbed "The Rainbow Struggle." It is an international movement that has achieved enormous social and legal victories in the past 10 years -- spanning from the Netherlands' landmark gay marriage legalization in 2001 to the end of the U.S. military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in September. But it is a human rights movement facing a counter-movement for "traditional values" that is better funded and equally fervent, tending to see homosexuality not only as a threat to humanity but also humanity's relationship with the divine.

The result is a global culture war steeped in religion and politics, and it is a battle that is now at a critical juncture.

One one hand, Christian anti-gay advocacy groups like Abiding Truth Ministries are relatively unknown in the United States but carry great weight in countries like Uganda, Latvia and Russia, where it has established outposts and partnered with local religious leaders.

In the global struggle for gay rights, according to these activists, God is the LGBT movement's greatest opponent. And in Abiding Truth president Scott Lively's opinion, gays are winning.

"The homosexual agenda represents an existential threat to Christian civilization, and we're in the final phase of the war, losing badly," Lively believes.

But men like Jose Mantero, the Roman Catholic priest who was removed from the priesthood in 2002 shortly after becoming the first Spanish priest ever to come out as gay, disagrees wholeheartedly.

"I have seen the anguish that homophobic sermons can cause gay people who are perfectly good Christians," Mantero says.

In coming out, he confronted a hulking assembly of political and religious bodies -- ranging from the Vatican, which oversees the world's 1 billion Catholics, to the worldwide Anglican Communion, which presides over the churches of some 100 million Anglican (or Episcopal) followers, to the Organization of the Islamic Conference and various groupings of Orthodox Judaism.

These larger established religious organizations devote literally hundreds of millions of dollars annually to their mission. And from the pulpit in churches, mosques and synagogues, they promote their traditional view of religion, which views homosexuality as a grave sin.

Key battlegrounds in the "Rainbow Struggle" include much of Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Although much of Western Europe, Asia, and the Americas have moved away from criminalization of homosexuality toward greater rights, countries like Iran, Uganda, Nigeria, Russia and Saudi Arabia are moving in the opposite direction.

On the other side of the fight is a formidable LGBT rights movement that has plugged itself into mobile technology at an accelerating rate, connecting demonstrations in Moscow to those in New York City and Buenos Aires, and sending representatives from city to city in a highly flexible operation. Entrenched organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have helped globalize the battle, spotlighting cases of abuse against LGBT people and funneling resources toward efforts to change policy.

International activists like Lt. Dan Choi, the face of the successful movement to overturn the U.S. military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, Moscow Pride founder Nikolay Alexeyev and Australian gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell have formed a loose but effective alliance, serving as international foot soldiers. Organizers in Cuba, Montenegro, Russia, China and the Czech Republic have hosted sanctioned gay pride parades for the first time over the past two years.

It is a highly decentralized movement, its leaders say, and its funding base pales in comparison to that of large religious activist groups like the American Family Association and the Family Research Council.

"If you take the budgets of the top 20 American LGBT organizations and combine them, it's still less than Focus on the Family," said Julie Dorf, senior advisor at the Council for Global Equality. The organization reports an annual budget around $100 million. "The right wing's budget so far outweighs gay organizations that it's amazing we make progress at all."

And yet, she believes, the American gay rights movement is winning. Dorf cited May 2011, the first time that a majority of Americans said they favor legalizing gay marriage in a Gallup poll. And many LGBT rights advocates say the tide is turning even among American conservatives, who have gay friends and family members.

Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, agrees with Dorf.

"Anti-gay ideas are losing currency in the U.S. -- no question," Potok said. "The religious right is losing the battle and the field is shrinking, but there is a huge open field in Africa and elsewhere."

To read the full version of this piece, click here.

GlobalPost will be publishing stories from its Special Report, "The Rainbow Struggle: A global battle over gay rights" weekly in partnership with The Huffington Post between Oct. 3 and Nov. 30. Upcoming stories originate in South Africa, Turkey, Spain, China, Sweden and Argentina.