While 15 countries have legalised same-sex marriage, some amidst controversy, a new survey finds broader acceptance of homosexuality in the US, South America and Europe, and widespread rejection in Russia and Africa, as well as in parts of Asia and in predominantly Muslim nations.
In response to the question, “Should society accept homosexuality?”, over 70% of the participants in most European countries said yes (except for Greece, 53%), whereas 90% of the participants in Sub-Sahara African countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and Senegal said no.
Within this context, EuropeAid organised a session on “Discrimination against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersexual People (LGBTI)” during the recent European Instrument for Democracy & Human Rights (EIDHR) forum, where participants from Latin America, the Arab world, Sub-Saharan Africa and China shared their views on how best to defend LGBTI rights.
The Forum also provided the opportunity for Marina Marchetti, Head of Sector for Gender and Non-Discrimination at EuropeAid, to present a new EU call for proposals relating to combating LGBTI discrimination.
The call is aimed at projects which improve LGBTI rights in developing countries, with € 5 000 000 of available funding (between € 300,000 to € 1 million per proposal).
The key problem to access and operate funds, participants said, is the difficulty to register LGBTI organisations in countries where homosexuality is illegal.
Georges Azzi, from the Arab Foundation for Freedom and Equality, an organisation based in Lebanon, said that there are great differences in status for gay people within Arab countries.
“Homosexuality is not banned in Algeria, Tunisia and Somalia; lesbianism is banned in Kuwait and the Gulf countries, while homosexuality in general is actively persecuted by, among others, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Mauritania, where it can lead to death penalty,” he reported.
The main challenge for their defendants, he added, is the security issue. “In many Arab countries, it is illegal to register as a non-profit organisation (for gay rights), therefore we cannot access funding. This creates a lack of organisational capacity and prevents larger recognised rights groups from addressing gay issues,” he said.
Facing a similar problem of recognition, a delegate from a Ugandan organisation (whose name is retained for security purposes) called for the EU to provide complementary funding to ensure medical, legal and social support, as well as evacuation or relocation of LGBTI when needed.
In Cameroon, where same sex intercourse can be punished with a five-year jail sentence, a vibrant civil society stands up against anti-LGBTI laws using films, trainings of rights defendants and defending homosexual people in court, some of such actions with EU-support.
Alice Nkom, a leading lawyer, has successfully defended over 50 LGBTI in court since the creation of her organisation, “Association for the Defence of Homosexuality”. She blames the Catholic Church for spreading discrimination against homosexuals in Cameroon.
“Nowadays, every prayer at the church ends by an extra sentence asking God to save us from the curse of homosexuality. People have become so religious that when a prosecutor or a judge is in court, he still has the words of his church leader in mind.
“When defending homosexuals in court, I use the international texts that protect minorities and human rights to which Cameroon has adhered and that prevail from national laws, including homophobic ones,” she said over the telephone from Cameroon.
“However, I sometime have to use the Bible and old Cameroonian traditions to deconstruct their approach. Church leaders say that homosexuality was imported by the West to colonise Africa. I tell them that homosexuality existed in our ancient tradition, as shown by many researchers, and that since Africans are the first humans, we are the ones who have exported homosexuality!” she said.
At the EIDHR forum, LGBTI defenders from countries that have recently granted gay people with more rights shared how they managed to achieve change, revealing a pattern of similar strategies such as building partnerships with other minorities and getting accepted through their involvement in the anti HIV-related struggle.
For example, Federico Graña from Ovejas Negras, a gay rights organisation in Uruguay, where the right to marry and adopt children was extended to LGBTI in April 2013, said that solidarity was key to foster change, and proved essential both at national and international levels.
At a national level in Uruguay, the LGBTI have been “part of an articulation within civil society that addresses many discrimination related issues, such as discrimination against women, against indigenous groups and against gays. We showed solidarity for other’s causes, and they showed solidarity toward us in exchange,” he said.
Importantly, to achieve rights to equal marriage, the LGBTI organisations have pushed for a change of the filiation related laws, allowing all children to choose between the name of the father and the name of the mother, instead of receiving the name of the father automatically.
“This change has been crucial in paving the way for same-sex marriage,” he explained.
Solidarity has also been key at an international level, he continued.
“Change has been possible thanks to the support of LGBTI organisations from Spain and Argentina, which have already achieved same-sex marriage. Now, we in turn support organisations in Colombia and Chile, which are less advanced on the rights front,” he said.
In Sub Saharan Africa, change is also starting to occur thanks to the influence of countries where more gay rights have been achieved, explained a representative from an organisation in Malawi.
“For example, the President of Malawi is now open to hear about LGBTI right-related issues, thanks to changes that have occurred in South Africa, the super-power of our region” he said.
Visibility has also helped to foster change in perception. For instance, in Uruguay, the LGBTI movement started as a student movement in an environment that was more open to it than the rest of society and therefore achieved a rapid visibility.
“In the 2005 gay pride parade, only 500 people took part. In 2012, 20,000 people joined,” Graña explained. “This visibility has helped us mainstream gay rights,” he said.
Many of the defendants at the forum said that a struggle for health related issues has helped gain recognition from state actors. In Malawi, where 21,4% of the gay adult population is HIV positive, LGBTI right groups have been able to influence HIV aids policy. “We have promoted the idea that each citizen is able to enjoy the right to HIV prevention, this is how we were able to talk about LGBTI,” explained a gay rights group leader from Malawi.
In China too, where until 2001 homosexuality was considered as a “mental disorder” by the government, the Aibai Culture & Education Center focused mainly on providing medical and legal information to LGBTI.
“We are using the fact that our constitution guarantees equal rights to all citizens, this is how we manage to defend LGBTI rights,” explained a defendant from China.
“We have started distributing condoms and we have finally managed to stop homosexuality being considered a mental disorder. Now we want to extend our role and achieve more rights for LGBTI and we want the EU to play a complementary role,” she added.
When it comes to the role that the EU could play, a defendant said that the political commitment from the EU in Brussels could have a better reach if there was a stronger sensitisation of EU Delegation staff.
Note: some names of LGBTI rights defendants have been retained at their request for security purposes.