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Anti-gay laws, attitudes hold sway in many regions

Friday - 1/17/2014, 12:50pm  ET

DAVID CRARY
AP National Writer

While gay-rights activists celebrate gains in much of the world, their setbacks have been equally far-flung, and often sweeping in scope.

In Russia, a new law against "gay propaganda" has left gays and lesbians unsure of what public actions they can take without risking arrest. In India, gay-rights supporters were stunned by a recent high court ruling re-criminalizing gay sex. A newly signed law in Nigeria sets 10-year prison terms for joining or promoting any gay organization, while a pending bill in Uganda would impose life sentences for some types of gay sex.

In such countries, repression of gays is depicted by political leaders as a defense of traditional values. The measures often have broad support from religious leaders and the public, limiting the impact of criticism from outsiders. The upshot: A world likely to be bitterly divided over gay rights for years to come.

Globally, the contrasts are striking. Sixteen countries have legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, including Canada, South Africa, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and New Zealand as well as 10 European nations, and gay marriage is legal in parts of the United States and Mexico. Yet at least 76 countries retain laws criminalizing gay sex, including five where it's punishable by death.

Here's a look at major regions where the gay-rights movement remains embattled or marginalized:

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AFRICA:

According to human rights groups, more than two-thirds of African countries outlaw consensual same-sex acts, and discrimination and violence against gays, lesbians and transgender people is commonplace. While many of the laws date to the colonial era, opposition to homosexuality has gained increasing traction as a political tactic over the past two decades.

In 1995, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe -- who's still in office -- denounced gays and lesbians as "worse than pigs and dogs." He has since been joined by political and religious leaders continent-wide calling for punishments ranging from arrest to decapitation.

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni has said he opposes a bill passed by lawmakers that calls for life imprisonment for gays -- though he also characterized homosexuals as "abnormal," and said they should be rehabilitated.

Africans promoting anti-gay legislation have expressed alarm about gains made by sexual minorities in the United States and Europe. They say laws such as the one newly signed in Nigeria can serve as a bulwark against Western pressure to enshrine gay rights.

In Liberia, for example, a religious group called the New Citizen Movement has spent the past year collecting signatures urging President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to sign a law banning same-sex marriage -- even though, as in Nigeria, there has been no local movement to legalize it.

Rev. Cleopatra Watson, the group's executive director, said Nigeria's law was "a prayer answered" that could lead to the passage of similar legislation in other African countries.

From afar, Nigeria's new law has drawn harsh criticism from human rights groups, Western governments, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. However, support for anti-gay legislation presents few domestic political risks for African leaders, with polls suggesting most citizens believe sexual minorities are not entitled to basic civil rights.

In Cameroon, gay men are routinely sentenced to prison for gay sex, and in July a prominent gay activist, Eric Ohena Lembembe, was tortured and killed in an attack.

Gay-rights supporters nonetheless hold out hope for long-term change, suggesting that recent anti-gay rhetoric and laws were a response to an emergence of sustained gay-rights activism.

"If there weren't an increasingly effective movement, there would not be such a virulent backlash," said Neela Ghoshal, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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ASIA:

The world's largest continent, Asia is a mixed bag when it comes to gay issues, due to vast differences in culture, religion and history. Though no Asian nation yet allows gay marriage, Thailand has a government-sponsored campaign to attract gay tourists, while China, Vietnam and Taiwan, among others, are increasingly accepting of gays and lesbians.

However, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Pakistan outlaw gay sex and, for the moment, so does India, following the recent decision of its high court to revive a ban on gay sex that had been quashed by a lower court in 2009. The high court said it's up to lawmakers, not judges, to change the law.

Amid the legal wrangling, gays and lesbians have gained a degree of acceptance in parts of India, especially in big cities where gay-pride parades are now a fixture. Many bars have gay nights, and some high-profile Bollywood films have dealt with gay issues.

In most of the country, however, being gay is seen as shameful, and many gays remain closeted.

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