BOSTON -- I was standing within a few feet of Robert Mugabe when he launched a vicious attack on Zimbabwe's gays.
Mugabe's hateful vitriol, in which he denigrated gays as "worse than pigs and dogs," became one of the defining issues of his repressive rule. Before that moment I questioned whether gay rights were a crucial issue for a developing democracy like Zimbabwe. It was then that I learned that gay rights were a litmus test for human rights everywhere.
Mugabe launched his bitter tirade at the opening of the 1995 Zimbabwe International Book Fair, where the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe set up a stand to distribute pamphlets for safe sex and counseling.
"I find it extremely outrageous and repugnant to my human conscience that such immoral and repulsive organizations, like those of homosexuals, who offend both against the law of nature and the morals of religious beliefs espoused by our society, should have any advocates in our midst and elsewhere in the world," shouted an angry Mugabe, in front of a group of schoolchildren, who appeared confused by the president's fury.
"Are you saying that gays have no legal rights?" I asked Mugabe after his speech.
"No, they have absolutely no rights in whatsoever," said Mugabe, grabbing my arm for emphasis and shoving me. My head banged into the television camera behind me as Mugabe got into his Mercedes limousine and sped off.
It was the start of Mugabe's campaign against gays in which he denounced homosexuality as "un-African" and urged citizens to denounce gays to the police for arrest. Mugabe also promoted new anti-gay legislation.
Even then Mugabe was battling against declining popularity and many Zimbabwean analysts said he calculated that a crusade against gays would win him widespread popularity.
Mugabe's youth militia burned down the stand of the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (Galz) at the book fair, but overall the campaign fizzled. Zimbabwean society is conservative, but tolerant, and Mugabe failed to stir up popular anger.
An unexpected consequence was that Mugabe's invective galvanized the country's gays who, far from cowering in the closet, became more public and assertive. At first some Zimbabwean human rights groups were reluctant to champion the cause of gays, because many of their supporters were members of church groups. But soon almost all accepted that the country's gays deserved the fundamental rights of all other citizens. Today the issue of gay rights is firmly in the Zimbabwe's human rights camp.
In neighboring South Africa, gays fighting against apartheid demanded that the African National Congress include their rights as part of its liberation platform. At first the ANC said that the end of apartheid should come before other issues like gay rights but the party was convinced by its gay members that their rights were part and parcel of the country's liberation.
Thanks to the backing of the ANC, in 1996 South Africa became the first country in the world to adopt a constitution that guarantees the rights of gays and lesbians. The recent murder of a lesbian soccer player has tragically highlighted that the South African constitution is ahead of the conservative beliefs of many South Africans.
The struggle of Zimbabweans and South Africans for gay rights has been repeated across Africa and indeed around the world. Their battles are daunting.
"More than 70 countries continue to outlaw homosexuality with penalties ranging from one year in jail to life imprisonment," says Peter Tatchell, a British activist who campaigns for gay rights internationally. "Six Islamist states impose the death penalty, including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan. In parts of Nigeria and Pakistan, Shariah law stipulates that 'sodomists' can be stoned to death. Under the new 'democratic' Iraqi penal code, those who murder homosexuals to defend the honor of their family are exempt from punishment."
International law gives little protection, according to Tatchell. "No international human rights convention explicitly acknowledges sexual rights as human rights," he says. "The right to love a person of the same sex is not specifically recognized in international law. There is nothing in U.N. conventions that explicitly prohibits homophobic persecution and protects lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people."
In most of the world legal discrimination against homosexuals remains. Gays are forced to hide their sexuality, fearing abuse, ostracism, discrimination, imprisonment, torture and even murder. Some of this violence is perpetrated by vigilantes, including right-wing death squads in countries like Mexico and Brazil.
But there have been significant gains. Of the 192 member states of the U.N., several have repealed all major legal inequalities against gays, including Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the U.K. Activists like those in Zimbabwe and South Africa are determined to carry on in their crusades.
Gay rights are not limited to Europe or the U.S. or Africa. The debates are in the news in India, Mexico, Senegal and Spain.
The worldview of gay rights has changed. Leaders who rant against gays, such as Robert Mugabe and Fidel Castro, are defined as dictators. Countries that make being gay a crime are widely viewed as repressive. Gay rights are no longer viewed as a frivolous or fringe issue, but one that is central to human rights.
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