At least 80 countries criminalize same-sex intimacy, but a growing movement to change that is gaining ground.
Zoie Ha was 21 when she made her first posting on an online forum for Palestinian lesbian women. Organized by the group Aswat, which means “voices,” the online community quickly became a lifeline for Ha, who says that it wasn’t until she was 19 that she even knew the Arabic word for lesbian, “mithlya.” In her insular Bedouin village outside of Nazareth, Israel, being gay isn’t something you talk about, let alone something you act on.
Finding the Aswat forum was life changing. Suddenly, Ha had a group of friends with whom she could honestly and openly discuss their shared experiences as lesbian women in Palestinian society. And yet, each time she visited the site, she worried about what would happen if she were discovered by her brother, whose computer she had to use to access the Internet, or by her father, a devout Muslim passionately opposed to both homosexuality and women accessing information online.
When her father found out that she was visiting the forum, he mistakenly assumed she was talking to boys—and he beat her.
“If my father hit me because of a boy, he’ll kill me because of a girl,” she told World Pulse. “I am sure he would kill me if he found out. Nothing else. He would kill me.”
Last year, desperate for a way out of her father’s house, Ha exchanged marriage vows with a man. She scoured the Internet and eventually found a gay Palestinian man who lived in Los Angeles and who also faced pressure to wed.
After a lonely year in Los Angeles, Ha made the difficult decision to leave her husband and go back home this March. Although she is staying only a half hour away from her family, they don’t know that she has returned.
“When I’m walking down the street,” she told oral historian Shimrit Lee, “I don’t take buses. I always have glasses on, I dye my hair, I cover my face with my scarf.” If her family finds out she is no longer living with her husband, she will be forced to again live in her father’s home.
Like many lesbian women around the world, Ha walks a narrow line between the desire to live her life freely, to demand rights and acceptance from her community, and the need for protection and safety. Each time she and her friends log on and shed their disguises to share stories, resources, and even poetry with each other; they are strengthening their voices and nudging their society toward equality.
A Global Struggle
Currently, at least 80 countries criminalize same-sex intimacy, and those who desire people of the same gender face increasingly harsh punishments ranging from fines to imprisonment. In seven of those nations—Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, and Mauritania—homosexuality is a crime punishable by death.
But even in many countries where there is little threat of legal action, gay and lesbian individuals face persecution in their communities, families, and workplaces. Labeled “unnatural,” “un-Christian,” “un-Islamic,” “un-African,” or “the family secret,” their lives are silently erased from public view.
But now, as a global movement that recognizes sexual orientation as a human right gains ground, and as the Internet opens up new possibilities for connection, women like Zoie Ha are finding power in the realization that they are not alone. They are organizing locally and internationally, creating funding networks, founding advocacy groups, shelters, and support lines. They are connecting to larger movements, sharing information and resources, and helping each other imagine and create a reality in which they might live their lives without fear.
And in some places, activists are making advances toward equality.
This April, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists in the Netherlands celebrated the 10th anniversary of legal gay marriage in their country. Last July, Irish President Mary McAleese ignored protests from senior bishops and signed into law the Civil Partnership Bill, which legally recognizes same-sex relationships and offers couples certain protections, such as pension rights. In June 2010, Iceland’s parliament voted unanimously to legalize gay marriage, and Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir and her partner became the first couple to marry under the new law. Argentina and Mexico City followed soon after. In Indonesia, a majority Muslim country with a secular constitution, human rights advocates are working to reform the 1974 Marriage Law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. And in February, US President Barack Obama declared that the government can no longer defend the constitutionality of a federal law banning same-sex marriage. That law, the Defense of Marriage Act, has been at the heart of peaked debates between conservatives and liberals, since it effectively trumps laws in five states that allow for same-sex unions. . . .