Gay Africans ‘under siege’

News24 reports:

Fran Blandy

Cape Town – Matuba Mahlatjie is gay, African and married, an unheard of status beyond the borders of liberal South Africa, where governments are clamping down on homosexuality across the continent.

Gay pride parades, same-sex marriages and the famously gay-friendly pink city of Cape Town puts South Africa way ahead of countries such as nearby Malawi, where a gay couple was last week thrown in jail for trying to marry.

But scratch the surface and sexual intolerance and hate crimes still plague the continent’s powerhouse.

"We still have hate crimes perpetrated against gay and lesbian people in our communities. The legalisation of same-sex unions did not make our life any easier," said Mahlatjie who feels gays are still "under siege" in the country.

Laying down the law

Across Africa governments are laying down the law against homosexuality and 38 out of 53 countries have criminalised consensual gay sex, in what Human Rights Watch says is a method of "political manipulation".

Uganda has come under fire for the tabling of a bill against the "sinful lifestyle" that would toughen penalties for gays and also punish anyone who "promotes" homosexuality.

In Malawi, where discussing sex is taboo, the attempt by the gay couple to get married was labelled a matter of "gross indecency". A judge is expected to decide next week whether they will face trial.

In Nigeria, northern Muslim states have the death penalty for homosexuality, while anti-gay incidents have flared in Senegal, where bodies of gay men have been exhumed and tossed out of Muslim cemeteries.

Mugabe manipulation issue

Scott Long, Human Rights Watch director for gay issues, says anti-gay sentiment in Africa soared about 15 years ago when Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe started "manipulating the issue for political gain".

Mugabe, who has called gays "worse than dogs and pigs", latched onto the issue to "distract attention from economic and political crises and shore up political support", Long said.

"It was very successful in bringing together different groups," said Long, adding this trend had spread across the continent to countries such as Nigeria, where it also proved a rare unifier among the Muslim north and Christian south.

Mahlatjie says that even in liberal South Africa, legal protection has not made way for social acceptance.

Lesbians raped

"It is difficult everywhere. We have white South Africans disowned by families because they are gay. We have black lesbian women raped and battered by people in their neighbourhood in a bid to ‘cure’ them."

South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution ensures equal rights for gays, but the government was forced by the courts into recognising same-sex marriage with a 2006 law, after months of protests by both the gay community and thousands of opponents.

Unlike many gay Africans, Mahlatjie says he was never forced to take a girlfriend to conform to societal expectations, but "my wedding band shocked a lot of people".

While South Africa now has a prominent gay judge on its Constitutional Court, President Jacob Zuma was forced to apologise in 2006 for saying that same-sex marriages were "a disgrace to the nation and to God".

South Africa was "not necessarily more advanced than the rest of Africa," said Dawie Nel, director of the gay-rights group OUT. He said it’s "still a very homophobic society".



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