Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
But even as steady progress is made, LGBT human rights activists are finding that it’s not just about changing laws. Often when legal protections are in place, they aren’t enforced, and in many cases, societies with progressive laws on the books have failed to protect their gay and lesbian citizens.
In Indonesia, where LGBT individuals enjoy a greater amount of freedom and legal protection than many other Muslim countries, a mob of hardline Islamists stormed a hotel in East Java last year, attacking delegates at an international gay and lesbian conference.
Ade Kusumaningrum, a 39-year-old Indonesian movie publicist, says it is particularly hard for lesbians to be open about their sexuality in her country—in part because, as women, they already face so many challenges. Like many countries, sexual identity in Indonesia is rooted in a culture that views women with sexual desires as promiscuous.
“You can pardon men for being gay because it’s just men being naughty,” says Ade. “But if you’re a lesbian it’s a sin. It’s not excusable…[We’re] invisible here but that’s because of the fear we plant in our own hearts,” she says, flicking ash from the end of her cigarette.
In Uganda, international pressure has led the legislature to drop anti-gay legislation that would impose the death penalty on those who are HIV positive or who engage in same sex acts, but one of the bill’s most outspoken critics, David Kato, was murdered in late January in what human rights activists say was a targeted attack on gay rights campaigners in a country that has ignored discrimination faced by LGBT people. (In October, Kato’s photograph appeared on the cover of the Ugandan tabloid Rolling Stone, under the headline “Hang Them.”)
In South Africa, one of the first countries in the world to legalize gay marriage, and the only African country to do so, a surge in violence against sexual minorities is sending many people back in the closet. Some South African groups have estimated that 10 lesbians are raped or assaulted every week in Cape Town alone.
For gender and HIV/AIDS activist and Positive Women’s Network founder Prudence Mabele, the grisly statistics have hit too close to home.
In 2007, she returned from a women’s rights conference to the news that one of her colleagues, Sizakele Sigasa, and her partner Salome Masooa, had been brutally raped and murdered because of their sexuality.
As one of the very first African women to go public with a positive HIV status, Mabele has spent much of her career combating the conventional wisdom that AIDS only affects gay, white men. She is used to being the loudest, and sometimes lone, voice for justice. But in this case, she had no words. She couldn’t stomach the thought that the very hatred Sizakele had been working against had ended her life.
Every time Mabele glanced at a newspaper she saw her friend and colleague dead, her dreadlocks yanked from her head. “I couldn’t even form a press statement,” she told World Pulse. “It was just too big.”
Although Mabele has redoubled her commitment to her work to honor her friends’ memory, she remains haunted by the fact that the young men who committed this hate crime, though identified, have never been brought to justice.
Need for Protection
Pouline Kimani, an activist in East Africa who has been attacked and arrested for being a lesbian, says that even in regions where same-sex relationships are not criminalized, LGBT activists require protection.
“Every six months I change houses,” Kimani told World Pulse. “I never stay long enough for people to become familiar with me. Sometimes it becomes like you’re running, but you don’t know what you’re running from.”
The 25-year-old Kenyan says it’s the government, her neighbors, and her distant family who pose the greatest threats in a country that provides a false sense of safety to people in the LGBT community. Relationships between women are legal in Kenya, and there is no law against marriage, but blackmail, extortion, and violent stigmatization are common.
But Kimani isn’t giving up. She currently helps nonprofit groups build resources to support the region’s burgeoning LGBT network. And she and her friends regularly hold queer parties to raise awareness about HIV and sexual health in the queer community, and she continues to look for ways to combat discrimination.
“Homophobia establishes itself in our hearts,” she says. “If we question how we’ve been socialized to relate to each other then we can start a conversation.” . . .