A revealing map of the countries that are most and least tolerant of homosexuality

January 31, 2015

The Pew Research Center, as part of a fascinating new report on global attitudes toward homosexuality, asked people in 39 different countries a deceptively straightforward question: “Should society accept homosexuality?” People could answer yes, no or decline the question.

The “yes” answers are mapped out above. In red countries, less than 45 percent of respondents said homosexuality should be accepted by society. In blue countries, more than 55 percent said it should be accepted. Purple countries fall in that middle range of about half.

We’ll dive into the data below, but first a few important caveats. The first and most obvious is, as we’ve mentioned before, a phenomenon we might call the political correctness effect. It’s possible, for example, that while 80 percent of Canadians say that society should accept homosexuality, maybe some proportion of those people don’t actually believe it but simply feel that they shouldn’t admit their true feelings out loud. Of course, this is still a kind of tolerance, but it’s not the same as earnest acceptance. Another caveat is that definitions of who counts as homosexual are not necessarily the same in all countries; sexuality, like race, is a social construct, which means that it can vary across countries. So a Ugandan and a Chilean might be thinking of different sorts of people when they answer this question.

Perhaps most importantly, there’s no definition of what the question means when it asks if society “should accept” homosexuality; respondents are left to decide for themselves what constitutes acceptance. It’s entirely plausible, for example, that respondents in France were polled during their country’s debate over gay marriage, and so may have naturally considered marriage rates to be the metric for accepting homosexuality. Or maybe Ugandans assumed “accepting homosexuality” would mean rejecting a controversial bill in the country that, if passed, would prescribe harsh penalties up to and including the death penalty for homosexuality. The point is that Ugandans and French would have approached the question differently and so their answers are not perfectly comparable. Still, whatever self-defined metric the respondents used for accepting or rejecting homosexuality, perhaps just as important as that metric is whether or not the individual respondents thought that they themselves met that definition. If someone says they accept or reject homosexuality, that decision is as potentially important as the way that measure it.

OK, now that the caveats are out of the way, here are a few takeaways:

(1) Sub-Saharan African and Muslim-majority countries are the least accepting of gays.

It’s not even close. While there’s wide variation in places like Latin America and Europe, Africa is almost uniformly anti-gay. Nigeria is the only surveyed country where just one percent say society should accept homosexuality; 98 percent said society shouldn’t. Results are under 10 percent for almost the entire continent, including sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa, which has closer cultural ties to the Middle East. The important exception is South Africa, famous for its gay rights movement, where a still-low 32 percent answered “yes.”

Muslim-majority countries tended to reject homosexuality, with results under 10 percent for Islamic societies from Africa to Southeast Asia to the Middle East. The only exception is Lebanon, although the country is only about two-thirds Muslim. Only 2 percent of Pakistanis and Tunisians – who are generally considered cosmopolitan by Mideast standards – said society should accept gays.

To be clear, though, some Christian-majority countries also overwhelmingly say that society shouldn’t accept homosexuality: Ghana and Uganda, both in sub-Saharan Africa.

(2) Western and Latin American countries the most accepting of gays.

As with the data we examined earlier on racial tolerance, European, Anglophone and Latin countries seem to be the most accepting. In fact, only one country outside of those three categories had more than half of respondents accepting homosexuality: the Philippines (more on this later).

The two most accepting countries are Spain and Germany, with 88 and 87 percent, respectively, answering “yes.” Generally, tolerance seems to decline further East in Europe, with about half of respondents in Greece and Poland accepting homosexuality.

Russia, infamously weak on gay rights, scored below Lebanon, with only 16 percent saying gays should be accepted. It doesn’t take long to find anecdotal evidence. On Saturday, a Russian official announced that the country would ban same-sex couples from adopting children out of the country’s notoriously over-filled and sometimes dangerous orphanage system. On Monday, a Russian airport official was beaten to death for being gay.

The U.S. also lags behind much of the Western world by this metric, with only 60 percent answering “yes.” Interestingly, with so many U.S. states now allowing same-sex marriage, those states are ahead of much of Europe on gay rights despite the overall low score on this survey.

(3) Acceptance is rising in the U.S., Canada and South Korea.

Here’s an interesting detail from Pew’s report:

Attitudes about homosexuality have been fairly stable in recent years, except in South Korea, the United States and Canada, where the percentage saying homosexuality should be accepted by society has grown by at least ten percentage points since 2007.

It’s actually grown most quickly in South Korea, where’s it’s more than doubled from 18 to 39 percent. That’s still lower than you might expect, though; South Korea is the least accepting of homosexuality among the world’s rich, developed countries. Japan, at 54 percent, isn’t much better.
(4) Religious countries tend to be less accepting of gays.

Pew put together this chart of religiosity versus tolerance of homosexuality, for which they found a pretty clear correlation. (Each of those little dots represents a country; dots further to the right represent more religious countries; dots further to the bottom represent countries that are less accepting of homosexuality.)

The Pew report notes that “countries where religion is less central in people’s lives” also tend to be “among the richest countries in the world,” hinting at the possibility that wealth (which often means, for example, more robust public education) rather than religiosity is what determines acceptance of homosexuality.

But, before we get too carried away with the idea that religiosity makes people less tolerant of homosexuality, there are three very important outliers: China, Russia and the Philippines. These are all hugely populous countries, so they represent a much larger share of humanity than their three little dots indicate.

China, of course, is avowedly atheistic but appears here to be not very tolerant of homosexuality. (Japan is also highly areligious and unusually intolerant, given its high development.) “Because of Confucianism” tends to be a poor explanation for complex social attitudes in East Asia, but it’s worth considering the possibility that this non-religious belief system’s prescription of rigid social roles might have something to do with the low tolerance in China, South Korea and Japan.

The Philippines is perhaps the most interesting outlier here; a devoutly Catholic nation that also includes a very religious Muslim minority. I’m not sure what might explain this statistic, but I looked into the academic literature on Filipino LGBT issues and it turns out that the country has a long tradition of accepting a third gender, who are referred as “bakla” and might identify in the West as something like transgender. Bakla refers to physiologically male Filipinos who are attracted to other men, cross dress and/or identify as women. (The literature also identifies a female equivalent, loosely translated as tomboy.) It’s possible that this traditional acceptance of bakla translates into a broader acceptance of homosexuality.

The counterpoint to the bakla, though, might be the hijra of South Asia: physiological males who identify as women, cross dress and, in many cases, opt for castration. The hijra, once accepted in South Asian society, are now outcasts who often subsist by begging and sex work. While there are hijra in Pakistan, they’re most associated with India, which is why it’s too bad that Pew says they had to throw out their India data over methodological concerns.

I’ve reached out to an anthropologist who studies attitudes toward homosexuality in sub-Saharan Africa for her thoughts on the report and on why African nations score as so intolerant. Check back.

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