Suntosh Pillay
Suntosh Pillay

In 76 countries, love is still a crime

Where are the gay couples in Valentine’s Day advertising?

February 14 is another reminder that even the most intimate aspects of our lives continue to be controlled by enduring social, religious and political forces that are reticent to fully embrace sexual and gender diversity. While most criticism is against the commercialisation of love this time of year, many people simply seek the right to love.

The gut-wrenching murder-suicide of two gay men in Pietermaritzburg last week was a miserable reminder of how gay couples choose to live veiled lives. Their romance was scandalised in the media as parents dealt with the double shock of discovering their murdered son was gay. For whatever reason their relationship was a secret, this is a tragic love story on all accounts.

In the US navy this week, when an openly gay couple made history by publicly kissing, it was a bittersweet moment. Heart-warming in its powerful symbolism, an antidote to the shadowed lives others bear; it also served to remind us that two men kissing still makes the headlines.

Love dominates our media and advertising for Valentine’s Day, yet the taken-for-granted universal emotion of love persists as a contested site of struggle and strife for millions of people. The right to feel love, to show love, to receive love, to reciprocate love, or to even desire love are legally bullied in 76+ countries, using bizarre laws to serve an anti-human rights agenda.

South Africa remains a bastion of hope and pride as the first country to protect sexuality and the human rights of LGBTI people in its progressive Constitution. But, like the perverse apartheid government of old South Africa, politicians globally continue to obsess today over the sexual and romantic affairs of its citizens. The voyeurism is weird; it’s consequences worse so. The result is legalised discrimination, indignity, stigma and – eventually – genocide of “others”.

Fortunately, progress is being made. The popular All Out Campaigns, organised by New York based All Out Action Fund, is mobilising millions of people to build a world where no person will have to sacrifice their family or freedom, safety or dignity, because of who they are or who they love. Recent success stories are making visible the hidden struggles that continue to relegate sexual minorities into the margins.

AFP

AFP

For example, last month Google agreed that it was using offensive synonyms for “gay” in its translations and search function and fixed the issue. In March 2014, 80 000 people pushed telecoms company Orange™ to stop advertising in Red Pepper, a Ugandan tabloid that “outed” LGBTI people against their will. Then in July, All Out secretly helped fund a Ugandan pride parade and helped launch the first ever LGBTI magazine in the country. In November more than 10 000 people convinced city officials in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to provide protection for its gay pride parade.

Still, ignorance continues to have its champions, and the zeal of anti-gay American politicians is worrying, despite strides in equality in 2014, which saw the number of US states legalising gay marriage double just last year.

The power of protest, even online petitions, has proven extremely useful and effective, when combined with a strong media and physical presence. In May 2014 an American charismatic Christian leader who supported Uganda’s “kill the gay” Bill was dropped from a conference in Switzerland after 70 000 people protested.

The biggest move in sports came in September 2014 when the Olympics Committee amended the wording of the Olympic Charter to strengthen protection for LGB athletes. This was hot on the heels of Russia hosting the Olympics despite Vladimir Putin’s rampant homophobia.

Last month, 160 000 people got the US state of Virginia to stop an anti-gay law that would have allowed doctors, teachers, and all companies to deny service to LGB people under the guise of “religious and moral convictions”. Imagine being denied education or emergency healthcare because of who you choose to love?

South Africa’s challenge is that sexual and gender diversity is not as socially visible as it ought to be, despite our emancipatory legal framework. Visibility is about recognition – an acknowledgement that “I see you, I respect you”. Popular media images or role models of gay couples remain few and far between, and conversations between religious groups and activists often remain stuck in deadlocked dialogue. But, as these international examples show, activism continues tirelessly.

These victories showcase a changing narrative and a growing understanding that consensual intimacy will not be policed, that people should not have to hide their relationships or wait 45 years to get married, and if Cupid has a boyfriend named Carl, just let them be!

@suntoshpillay

Image – A gay couple kiss during their ceremonial “wedding” as they try to raise awareness of the issue of homosexual marriage, in Wuhan, in central China’s Hubei province, March 8, 2011. Homosexuality was considered a mental disorder in China until 2001. Today, gays face crushing social and family pressure and many remain in the closet as a result, despite gradual steps towards greater acceptance. (AFP)

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