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This week, Dev Patel and I released a new study that finds that just as social attitudes toward gays and lesbians have changed rapidly in the developed world, these attitudes are also changing in the developing world.

Improving rights for gays and lesbians is a critical human rights issue. In some countries, people are still imprisoned and even killed because of their sexual orientation. Even where it is not illegal, gays and lesbians face violence, discrimination, and social stigma. But our research makes clear that in the developing world as a whole, both laws and attitudes are changing for the better, and that legal change is not only a positive step in itself, but it can also help shift attitudes too.

Legality of homosexuality across the globe

Number of countries where homosexuality is legalWhere is homosexuality illegal?

In fact, our research suggests that the changes in social attitudes often follow and are caused by changes in government policy toward gays and lesbians. To find this, we used public opinion data on this issue from the Gallup World Poll and the World Values Survey and matches changes in attitudes over time with the timeline of laws concerning same-sex decriminalization.

Here are some other key findings from our study:

  • As of May 2017, there were 124 countries without any legal penalties for homosexuality, compared with 72 countries that criminalize same-sex sexual activity.
  • In the last three decades the proportion of the world that report they do not want to live next to a gay or lesbian individual has dropped by about ten percentage points.
  • International social norms influenced social norms in developing nations. For example, looking at Eastern European Block nations, eyeing admission into the European Union and the international community, attitudes changed quickly to match the EU consensus on gay and lesbian equality.
  • When examining differing colonial origins of developing nations, former British colonies lag behind in legalizing homosexuality. While 56 percent of countries where homosexuality is illegal are former British colonies, 71 percent of former British colonies criminalize homosexuality.
  • As law change so do social attitudes and norms. That means that those advocating for policy changes are playing an enormous role—changing not just laws but attitudes as well across the globe.