A woman and a man make love. It's tender, warm, giving. The next day, still glowing in their passion for each other, they step out into the street. Unashamed, they do not mind the world knowing their feelings - which they would have difficulty hiding, anyway.
From tomorrow, however, in seven countries this couple could face execution - just because they are together. In 18 or more countries their act of love will be punished by separation and imprisonment - for life, in some places. Arrest, flogging, fining and public shaming may await them in a further 60 or so countries.
In some 60 other countries their love will not be illegal, but they will still be denied basic legal and civil rights that others may take for granted - rights relating to employment, parenting, pensions, inheritance, housing.
In just three countries in the world is discrimination against them for being heterosexual outlawed and equality enshrined in the constitution - Ecuador, South Africa and Switzerland.
These are facts (see facts page) - bar a couple of amendments. Replace the word 'tomorrow' with 'today'. Oh - and for 'heterosexual' substitute 'homosexual', so 'a man and a woman' becomes 'two women' or 'two men'.
Soaps and tolerance
It's easy, if you live in a relatively tolerant environment, to be unaware of the scale and extent of discrimination against sexual minorities.
Recent decades have seen a growing social acceptance of same-sex relationships between consenting adults. Lesbian and gay culture has, we are told, 'entered the mainstream'. What soap opera or TV sit-com - those barometers of 'ordinary life' and contemporary mores - is complete without its lesbian or gay character or 'event' today? Transgender issues too have found their way into Brazilian tele-novelas.
In the Netherlands gay people 'marrying' or having their partnerships legally recognized is no longer news. 'Out' lesbian and gay politicians are more common too, be they in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Canada, Australia or Britain. Transgender people are fighting and winning cases to keep their jobs during and after sex-change treatment. And more lesbians and gay men are becoming parents. Things appear to be heading in the direction of tolerance and equality.
Then something happens to shatter that appearance. For me - as for many other gay people living in Britain - it was the bombing of a packed gay pub, the Admiral Duncan, in London's Soho in April 1999. Three people were killed, scores were left with horrific injuries.
The next day the equality campaign group Stonewall received a record number of phonecalls. Callers were not expressing sympathy or outrage but approval of the bombing. 'They should have got the lot of you,' was their overwhelming message.
The hostility was reinforced during the following months when attempts to get rid of a law (commonly known as Section 28) that specifically discriminates against gay people and their children twice failed in the House of Lords, Britain's second chamber. The law, which forbids the 'promotion' in schools of the notion of homosexuality 'as a pretended family relationship' - effectively silencing any positive discussion of homosexuality - was kept in place thanks largely to a well-heeled right-wing campaign backed by the Christian Institute.
It's odd really, considering what's at issue. One: acts of love between consenting adults. Two: being honest about who you are.
But in all corners of the world sexual minorities are grappling with responses to them that are cruel, bizarre, illogical. Take the case of Nepali teenagers Maya Tamang, aged 18, and 17-year-old Indira Rai. The girls, who have known and loved each other for several years, finally declare their feelings and their intention to live together. A male relative reports the matter to the police. The girls are arrested and as the news spreads, both are threatened with mob violence. From the police station the girls issue a statement for their family and community. It reads: 'No-one will separate us, and no-one will stop us from loving each other.' But fears for their safety arise after the girls are described by neighbours as 'garbage' that must be removed.1
In Algeria a gay man goes to the police for protection because he has received death threats from local Islamic fundamentalists. The police beat him up. He flees the country, finally gaining asylum in France - one of the lucky few.2
Vanesa Ledesma is not so fortunate. The Argentinean transvestite dies in police custody in the city of Cordoba under suspicious circumstances. Human-rights activists highlight the increasing frequency and ferocity of attacks on transgender minorities.1
Tragic though these cases are, the fact that we now know about them at all is a real sign of progress. Up until recently getting any such information from parts of the Majority World was almost impossible. For many homosexuals silence was a strategy of survival. The notion that homosexuality did not exist or had no place in African or Asian culture was widely believed - and is still echoed by many politicians and religious leaders. According to Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe, 'homosexuality is against all norms of African society and culture. We don't believe [homosexuals] have any rights at all.' This view is echoed by presidents Museveni in Uganda, Arap Moi in Kenya and others.
But such leaders are now challenged by their own lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender compatriots. Scores of sexual-minority groups have sprung up across the global South in the past decade. The International Lesbian and Gay Association now has 350 member groups on all five continents.
The most remarkable success stories have come from South Africa and Ecuador, where inspired and tireless activists have managed to turn illegality into constitutional equality. In South Africa gay rights were part of the anti-apartheid struggle (see article). In Ecuador links were made with the indigenous rights movement. In both cases activists made strong cases for those two magic words 'sexual orientation' to be included in equality and anti-discrimination clauses that covered ethnicity, gender, creed and so forth.
As Irene León from Ecuador explains: 'It means a great deal in practice. Now if someone tries to take children away from a lesbian mother - which used to happen a lot - she can refer to her constitutional rights and keep her children.'
The AIDS organization she has been involved with for 11 years, FEDAEPS, now works in schools to counter negative stereotypes. It is also involved in drawing up a national human-rights code. 'Sure there is still repression and prejudice, as there is anywhere, but we now have something we can defend ourselves with,' she says.
Photo: Vanessa Baird
William and friends
A huge boon to activists in the South has been the development of the Internet - especially in countries where repression is greatest. This may give the impression that sexuality activism in the South is predominantly middle class. But William Hernández and Entre Amigos ('Between Friends'), the organization he co-founded in El Salvador, are living proof to the contrary. A cheerful, outgoing man in his late twenties, William comes from a working-class background. After leaving home at 14 he fathered two children - twin girls with whom he has a close parental relationship. 'At that time I considered myself bisexual,' he explains. In fact he was already in a relationship which was to last several years with a Catholic priest.
For William two things are central to the ethos of Entre Amigos: diversity and social inclusion. 'We have lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transvestites, transsexuals - everything except intersexuals. Though I'm sure we'll have some of those in time. The people who use our centre are some of the city's most marginalized. They include prostitutes, drug addicts, thieves...'
The political and social environment in which Entre Amigos operates is hostile to say the least.
'Over the past two years twenty of our comrades have been murdered,' says William. Only two of those deaths were investigated by the police. The killings, he says, bear the hallmarks of paramilitary death squads.
When the office of Entre Amigos was ransacked and William received death threats, he did a strange thing. He went to the police to ask for protection.
The police told him they could not be expected to protect people like him. No officer would be prepared to do it. William made a formal complaint. The police officer in charge then said he could offer protection if William provided him first with a list of gay police officers. He didn't, of course.
Finally, William contacted human-rights organizations Amnesty International in London and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in San Francisco, who launched 'urgent action campaigns' on his behalf.
It worked. William now has two police bodyguards - both straight women. 'They have become like friends to us.' He insisted on women officers, he says, 'for my own protection'. Sexual harassment of gay men and transsexuals by supposedly straight male police officers is almost as commonplace as blackmail.
But when I ask him what he thinks is the main threat to sexual minorities in the region he does not talk about death squads, or the police, or macho culture. Without hesitation he says: Opus Dei.
Opus Dei - 'the work of God'- is a secretive movement linked to the extreme right wing of the Catholic church. The organization is growing in power worldwide.
Closely connected with the Vatican's Secretary General, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, it operates by hand-picking intellectual high-fliers and making links with centres of power. It is also known to be deeply homophobic and has been instrumental in silencing pro-gay clergy.
In South and Central America close links between church and state have been steadily re-established during the past decade - with adverse results for sexual minorities. In 1992, following a visit from Pope John Paul II, the then Nicaraguan President Violeta Chamorro passed a new law making homosexuality - and the 'promotion' of it - illegal. All over the continent left-leaning clerics, inspired by liberation theology, have been silenced and replaced by right-tending ones with Opus Dei connections. One of them, Lima's Archbishop Juan Luis Cipriani, recently used a televised sermon to the nation to denounce homosexuality as 'diabolical'. Such statements are increasingly common. Even the Pope, not previously given to comment on the issue, recently declared homosexuality unnatural and 'disorderly' as he tried to get July's International World Pride March in Rome re-routed.
Photo: Vanessa Baird
An array of Christian churches and well-funded groups in North America have joined the global backlash. For example the Ex-Gay Movement is a kind of 'alcoholics anonymous' for gay people, helping them to 'change' and become heterosexual through 'Christ', 'therapy', or both. Though US in origin, it is now an international network with 'missions' in Peru, Hong Kong and Brazil, employing professional psychologists and therapists.3
Intolerance is on the increase within other faiths too. The use of extreme forms of Shari'a law to execute homosexuals is increasingly a feature of fundamentalist Muslim states and communities (see article). Saudi Arabia recently executed six men who Amnesty International believes were convicted 'primarily because of their sexual orientation'.4
Hindu fundamentalists, meanwhile, have turned their ire against lesbians (see article).
Some pro-gay or sexual-minority people within the major faiths are responding by stepping up their efforts to confront prejudice - working either to change attitudes within established churches or setting up new branches of their own.
Order and transgression
But why should variations from the heterosexual norm inspire such anger in the first place? Why do people want to excise homosexuality - either by killing the person, punishing the act or trying to banish the 'condition'?
No one explanation seems really to suffice or account for the strength of feelings involved. A common psychoanalytical explanation is that sexuality is not absolute. Homophobia - defined as 'an irrational fear of and discrimination against homosexuals' - is caused by the individual's anxieties about their own latent homosexuality. One way of attacking the homosexuality in yourself is to attack others who manifest it. Thus, perhaps, you can distance yourself from it and give a clear message to others - a syndrome dramatically illustrated in the recent film American Beauty. There are other factors though. A study of gay-bashing youths in the San Francisco Bay Area found that many saw gay people as 'a socially acceptable target' in a way that other groups were not.5
Religion is often invoked morally to condemn lesbian and gay lifestyles. For some people it's almost as though their moral universe were threatened by the very existence of gay people. And yet few of the world's main religious texts have anything much - or at all - to say about homosexuality. What is there is open to various interpretations. There are some customary objections, as there are to eating certain types of food. And there is, especially in Jewish traditions, an emphasis on procreativity and not wasting semen.
Ironically, perhaps, the Pope provides the best clue when he condemns homosexuality as 'disorderly'. Ideological homophobia and the insistence on heterosexual nuclear 'family values' does seem to be about keeping order. This helps explain why authoritarian regimes, regardless of their political stripe, have tended to come down so heavily on sexual minorities. Interestingly, repressive China prosecutes homosexuality under laws for hooliganism; 37 gay men were arrested on this charge recently.6 Authoritarian states keep order in a number of ways - but the traditional family with clearly marked gender boundaries is seen as a manageable social and economic unit. Sexual minorities are perceived as blurring and subverting these gender boundaries in a 'disorderly' way.
But there is another possible explanation for homophobia which has actually nothing to do with sex or sexuality. It's just that sexual outcasts are very convenient scapegoats. Hitler, Thatcher, Castro and Mugabe are just a few of the politicians who have resorted to this tactic. Most often scapegoating occurs to divert attention from, say, an economic crisis, loss of political popularity, or an unpopular war. Sometimes homophobic laws are used simply to get rid of political opponents: Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad has recently managed to have his arch-rival Anwar Ibrahim's prison sentence extended by nine years on 'sodomy' charges.
What's to be done?
Those who believe that we can tolerate bad laws as long as they are not used, or that there is no need for anti-discrimination legislation as long as there's a decent choice of gay cafés, may be partying on borrowed time.
Laws have to change in nearly all countries of the world before any semblance of equality is achieved. First and foremost, capital punishment, imprisonment and torture and extra-judicial killings of sexual minorities contravene a number of clauses in the UN Charter of Human Rights. But so do other forms of legal discrimination. In technical terms, the changes are easy. For 'family law' all you need to do is refer to a 'person' or 'persons' rather than specify a gender. In other cases it may just be a question of inserting the words 'sexual orientation' into existing anti-discrimination policies.
But the law is not everything. The best guard against prejudice of any kind is knowledge. Homophobes often have little or no regular personal contact with people they know to be gay. This is another reason why it's so important for sexual minorities to be able to be 'out' and honest about who they are. Authoritarian attempts to silence them or thrust them back into the closet need to be resisted not only for the sake of minorities, but for the majority too. And the tide of anti-gay repression that is gathering momentum worldwide represents a fundamental attack on freedom of expression and civil liberties that can affect anyone. It's worth remembering that homophobic bullying is often turned against straights too - to frighten, control and hurt the individuals targeted.
Last year 'gay pride' marches took place in 38 countries around the world. That's great. But I long for the day when to be 'proud' of being gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender will seem as relevant as being proud of the colour of your eyes.
First sexual minorities need basic human rights - to life, to dignity, to equality - on exactly the same basis as the sexual majority. Until then, pride is indispensable.
1 International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC): www.iglhrc.org
2 International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) World Survey: www.ilga.org
3 Surina Khan speaking at IGLHRC conference The Separation of Faith and Hate, World Pride Rome, 2000.
4 Amnesty International, Urgent Action 14 July 2000.
5 Karen Franklin, 'Assault on Gay America' Frontline, 2000: www.pbs.org
6 The Independent 5 July 2000.
This special report appeared in the out south: sexual minorities in the majority world issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.