Life

This activist built himself a website to track global LGBTQ+ laws. Now the UN uses it too.

Equaldex founder Dan Leveille
Equaldex founder Dan Leveille Photo: Dan Levielle

In 2008, Dan Leveille, 35, was studying web development at the Rochester Institute of Technology when California voters passed Proposition 8, eliminating the right of same-sex couples to marry in the state. It was a sucker punch to the queer community, including Leveille, who found himself wanting to bring order to how he thought about LGBTQ+ rights in the US.

His solution was Equaldex, a passion project that visualizes the state of queer rights not only at home but around the world. The site has become a trusted resource for governments, the media, and LGBTQ+ travelers everywhere.

LGBTQ Nation spoke with Leveille about Equaldex from his home in Los Angeles.

LGBTQ Nation: What inspired you to come up with an LGBTQ+ rights visualization tool?

Dan Leveille: When the Prop 8 stuff happened, I got pretty interested in it. And then there were a lot of states that were legalizing same-sex marriage, and a lot of laws were changing. And I remember at some point I was like, “Wait, did that state legalize it? When did that happen?” And I’m like, “Wow, I wish there was like some sort of site that showed all of these changes, like, a map.”

I launched it in 2014.

LGBTQ Nation: How did you envision it being used by others as you were building it?

DL: I first imagined it for my own use just tracking all the changes. But the number of countries that criminalize being gay, the number of countries that, you know, jailed people or even have the death penalty, that stuff is really compelling. And maybe the LGBTQ activists know this, but the general public might not. And I think bringing to light those facts is very important. This could kind of put pressure and visibility on the parts of the world that aren’t progressing.

LGBTQ Nation: What are some of the unexpected ways that Equaldex has been used since you put it up?

DL: One thing that is very obvious, probably, but just didn’t occur to me is how it’s used as a travel guide. That wasn’t immediately obvious to me, but it makes perfect sense. There’s been a lot of interest from travel agencies so that travelers will know, “Oh, this country you’re visiting, these laws, you might want to be careful or reconsider.”

General Electric, they use Equaldex data for some of their internal systems for traveling for employees. It makes sense because companies want to be careful about where they’re sending their employees, especially if there are laws against being gay.

LGBTQ Nation: Does General Electric throw you some bucks for using Equaldex?

DL: No, it’s generally not really a big deal to me. If a company wants to apply this data, I don’t have any issue with it. I like keeping the service free, just in principle.

LGBTQ Nation: GE could make a donation for your trouble.

DL: Yeah, for sure.

LGBTQ Nation: What’s the most LGBTQ+-friendly country on the planet?

DL: Currently I have this system on the site called the Equality Index, which ranks legal rights and public opinion. It’s a newer metric that I added. The countries with the highest ranking right now are Iceland, as number one, and Denmark and Norway. Malta, the Netherlands and Canada are up there.

LGBTQ Nation: And what’s the country you identify as the most hostile to LGBTQ+ identity?

DL: If you’re looking at the Equality Index, the Middle East and Africa are generally the worst in terms of both the laws and the public opinion there.

The LGBT Equality Index on Equaldex
Dan Levielle The LGBT Equality Index on Equaldex

LGBTQ Nation: You’re looking at the data pretty much every day. What are some of the trends that you can point out?

DL: That’s a good question. Outside of the Middle East and Africa, there’s definitely a lot of progress being made overall. I focus a lot on the US, and polling has shown overwhelmingly that, you know, things are moving positively in terms of the public opinion. Even Republicans and religious groups, they’re moving to being more open.  

LGBTQ Nation: In the US, do you see the wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in red states as an anomaly, or is there anything in the data that indicates maybe those right-wing Republicans are on to something?

DL: Some of the US polls have shown that while it is becoming more accepted, it also is starting to polarize the more people are being exposed to it. So they have a lot of opinions on it. You know, you see things like drag queen bans and all those book bans and stuff, so people might form an opinion, whereas before, maybe they didn’t have an opinion. It’s interesting. We’re seeing a lot of progress in the US, but there are definitely some laws that are going backward. Hopefully it doesn’t continue that way.

LGBTQ Nation: The site would be a big undertaking for anyone, let alone somebody who’s just doing it as a passion project. Did you ever think, “I’m way over my head on this?”

DL: Yeah, definitely. Especially with big publications and even some governments and organizations that reference Equaldex. So when I see, like, the UN referencing it in one of their reports, I’m like, God, it’s a lot of pressure. Fortunately, I built Equaldex in a way where I don’t need to change everything myself, with such a big community of users who are contributing.

LGBTQ Nation: Tell us about those volunteers.  

DL: When I first started Equaldex, there were a lot of people who were very interested in the project, and I got a handful of people who were just super passionate about it. They were super crucial in the first six months to a year of the site. Like, we had all these countries with no data, and people were just going in, adding all the laws. We’ve added a Discord community, as well, that has been really great at attracting editors and moderators.

LGBTQ Nation: Who pays for all of this?

DL: I pay for it myself. It’s not super expensive to run. And I share the cost with a pretty successful gaming app I run called Dododex, which is a companion app for the game ARK. And that helps to pay for software and Chat GPT to help program and stuff.

LGBTQ Nation: What’s the participation rate in some of those red countries for people who help out with the site?

DL: It’s very low. It’s challenging, especially when there are language barriers, too. But in really red countries, those users probably don’t want to publicly join a service like Equaldex, for reasons you can imagine. Fortunately, there are a lot of international organizations, research organizations who dig into the laws and maybe expose some of the things that are happening there, and we do have a handful of contributors who are from countries more familiar with those places.  

LGBTQ Nation: Who are some of your go-to’s for the information you’re putting up?

DL: When we’re sourcing laws we try to get to the actual government site that shows what the law is. Unfortunately, sometimes what the government is saying is different than what they’re actually doing. We reference some big LGBT organizations like ILGA. The UN has some great resources exposing things in these homophobic countries. And of course, you know, reputable sources, the BBC, CNN, sites like yours who are reporting.

In terms of like, public opinion, there are a lot of really great organizations like Gallup that are always our go-to’s in terms of public opinion data.

LGBTQ Nation: What’s new on the site?

DL: I am working on a new feature that will — I hate to call it, like, a Yelp for LGBTQ rights, but it’s kind of that same idea where you’ll be able to share your opinion of the state or the province or the country that you lived in and share how comfortable you were about being open in public. What are politicians like? Are there out celebrities? Things like that. If you’ve lived there you have more experience, and it helps people who are traveling, so they can be like, “Okay, definitely don’t hold hands with my partner in public.”  And even like, hotel reservations. In some countries you shouldn’t reserve a single bed with your partner in the same room. Stuff like that is good to know, and you might not think of it.

LGBTQ Nation: What’s been the most satisfying part of Equaldex for you so far?

DL: I think seeing the big publications and organizations use the site. There are a bunch of Ivy League schools that reference Equaldex for their students when they’re traveling. The UN, the UK Government, the US government, they’ve all read it and reference it. It makes me really proud, like, “Wow, this is something that people are very interested in.” So it kind of validates the work I’ve been doing for many years.

At a more personal level, hearing that people use it and it’s super helpful is super validating. When people say, like, “Oh, I always use it. Make sure to check Equaldex before you travel,” it’s really rewarding to hear it’s helpful to people in that way.

*Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified Leveille’s major as computer science. It has been updated to reflect he majored in web development.

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