JOHANNESBURG -- After Mr. Gay Ethiopia entered the Mr. Gay World contest, his father cut off all communications. Mr. Gay Zimbabwe withdrew, fearing the publicity was making life difficult for his mother.
But Mr. Gay Namibia's family accompanied him to the airport for a warm send-off when he left for the competition, which culminated for him and 21 other men late Sunday in the finals at a Johannesburg casino.
"Bring the trophy home," Namibia's Wendelinus Hamutenya said his mother told him.
In the end, New Zealand's Andreas Derleth, a 32-year-old manager for a chain of stationery stores, was named Mr. Gay World. A disappointed Hamutenya said he would nonetheless return to Namibia to fight "for gay rights and human rights."
Hamutenya said his experience shows that Africans and Africa can change. On the continent, gay rights activists have been vilified, threatened and killed. Laws in dozens of African countries ban homosexual acts. Prominent African politicians ridicule gays and minor politicians grab headlines by proposing even tougher anti-gay laws.
"I hope and I believe that Namibia will be the second country in Africa to recognize the rights" of gays, Hamutenya said in an interview.
The first country is South Africa, also the first African country to host Mr. Gay World, which debuted in 2009 in Canada. The bill of rights adopted after apartheid ended in South Africa in 1994 explicitly bans discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. Same-sex couples can marry and adopt children in South Africa.
Teboha Maitse, acting chairman of South Africa's Commission for Gender Equality, said she fought white racist rule alongside openly gay comrades, and that experience made her and others aware of the need to enact legal protections for gays. But she said when she travels farther north, "people say, 'You South Africans, you don't behave like Africans.'"
Maitse, whose government-appointed commission regularly speaks out in support of gay and lesbian rights, acknowledged in an interview that even in South Africa gays, lesbians and others who don't fit a traditional definition of the sexual norm do face discrimination and worse.
Of particular concern in recent years have been attacks on lesbians sometimes called "corrective rapes." Maitse said gay men often suffer in silence, sometimes committing suicide to escape taunts. She said poor, black gays and lesbians are particularly vulnerable because the communities in which they live are conservative.
South Africa's Mr. Gay World contestant, Lance Weyer, is white. Weyer, a psychologist who recently won office on a city council in southeastern South Africa, said gays like him have the education and money to fight back when their rights are violated. That makes it all the more important, he said, for successful gays and lesbians to speak out, both to be role models for others and to shake up conservative attitudes.
Weyer was named first runner up Sunday. Neither of the black African contestants made it to the final 10.
"We look for the best man, whether he's white or black or any other color," said Tore Aasheim, one of the Mr. Gay World organizers, adding he hoped more contestants from Africa would participate in future contests.
It isn't just African gays who face difficulties. The Chinese contestant was unable to come to Johannesburg because of anti-gay pressure there, organizers said. Representation was thin from Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East – all regions where gay rights are under threat.
In the United States, projects like It Gets Better reach out to young homosexual to help them cope with harassment, a reminder that even in the West, gays are vulnerable. The American Mr. Gay World contestant, Kevin Scott Power, is an elementary school teacher who said even young children experience anti-gay bullying.
Power, who finished fourth on Sunday, said he was not nervous at coming to Africa, despite its homophobic reputation.
"We're all representing the people that don't have the power to stand up," Power told reporters in Johannesburg.
Coenie Kukkuk, Africa's director for Mr. Gay World, said the contest produces a spokesman and role model for gays, particularly in Africa. Previous winners of the contest have gone to schools and universities to speak out about human rights. Prizes include $25,000 in travel vouchers to enable the winner to spread his message around the world.
Kukkuk said he has struggled to get more black South African and other African contestants. Mr. Namibia's story helps illustrate why that has been difficult, but also gives reason for hope.
Hamutenya, who herded cows as a young boy in remote northern Namibian, realized when he was in his teens that he was attracted to men. He confided to his father when he was 16. His father called the police and had them take his son to a mental hospital.
Hamutenya escaped from the institution and lived with friends. Eventually, he and his father reconciled. Hamutenya went on to study nursing in South Africa, and returned to work as a midwife in his home region.
Hamutenya said villagers respect him because of his work, and because his family is prominent and known for its piety. Hamutenya himself once considered becoming a priest.
Since becoming Mr. Gay Namibia, Hamutenya has lobbied for a repeal of his country's anti-sodomy law. And he says politicians have been receptive to his arguments.
Hamutenya was badly beaten in Windhoek, Namibia's capital, after winning the Mr. Gay Namibia contest last year. He believes the attack was a mugging, not a hate crime.
Organizer Kukkuk insisted that Mr. Gay World is not a beauty pageant.
Mr. Gay World includes an essay test on the history of the gay rights movement. But the swim suit competition counts for more, according to the judges' handbook. The seven judges are from around the world and include journalists and an actor.
Cary Alan Johnson, executive director of the New York-based International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission, worries such glitzy contests feed stereotypes that could cement the view, often heard in Africa, that homosexuality is un-African.
"Most of us are of color, poor, don't look like we go to the gym regularly," Johnson said in a telephone interview. "Class does matter. It is poor men who experience the most oppression."
He gave Mr. Gay World credit for drawing attention to discrimination against gays, particularly in Africa. But Johnson said that during a recent visit to Johannesburg, he was dismayed to find the advertising featured two white men – the South Africans who won Mr. Gay World in 2011 and 2010.
"The one thing they ought to do is change that poster," Johnson said. "Have one black guy up there with no shirt on. Cater to a diverse audience."