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Gay rights no longer a fringe issue

Rights of homosexuals are being debated in every corner of the world.

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 Of the 192 member states of the U.N., several have repealed all major legal inequalities against gays, including Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden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.