Most struggles for LGBTQI+ rights play out at the national level. However, the question of sexual and gender minorities’ rights periodically appears as a point of friction in international relations as well. This article analyses the question of international efforts to defend LGBTQI+ rights in countries of the Global South, with a particular focus on Western countries’ endeavours in Africa. Combining policy analysis, critique and recommendations, it asks how and when international actors should and should not intervene. It recognizes that motives for intervening can be problematic and the means often counterproductive, especially when exhibiting neo-imperialist tendencies and constituting ad hoc reactions to events in the media. Countering essentialist arguments about ‘authentic’ African culture and values, influenced by religious beliefs, is also a significant challenge. I argue that more fruitful efforts should instead be centred on local rights defenders’ perspectives and supporting their priorities and initiatives, based on concerted, long-term, principled strategies. International actors, however, are reluctant to adopt such approaches because of a desire for short-term visible action, even if less effective or not effective at all. This conundrum is a fundamental problem in the area of foreign aid writ large, as greater impact often requires less visibility on the part of international actors, but donor countries want domestic and international recognition of their efforts. The article distils key lessons learnt and principles for action that have emerged over the past 15 to 20 years, brought together in one place for the first time. It aims to stimulate discussions among practitioners and academics. It should be of particular interest to human rights practitioners, especially those who are involved or contemplating getting involved in defending the rights of sexual and gender minorities internationally.