Zanele Muholi has a long story of activism. A member of black lesbian organizations during the '90s, in 2002 the South African photographer co-founded the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW), which is "the only black lesbian organization that has lasted for long in South Africa, if not Africa as a whole."
Five years later, she left FEW to advance her knowledge at Ryerson University in Toronto, where she worked on the thesis "A Visual History of Black Lesbians in Post-Apartheid South Africa." One thing is for sure: The picture is grim. Lesbians often suffer "curative rape"—an assault that is supposed to change them into heterosexual women—"from gangs, from so-called friends, neighbors, sometimes even family members," explains Muholi, who fights for lesbian rights through art. "Some of the curative rapes are reported to the police, but many others go unreported."
Despite its gay-friendly legislation, South Africa continues to struggle with homophobia. The abolition in 1991 of apartheid, a segregationist, racist, sexist and homophobic regime instituted in 1948 by the white minority, did not put an end to violence against gays and lesbians. Nor did the 1996 constitution, which prohibits any kind of discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation. As a result, gay people, or those perceived to be gay, continue to experience discrimination, stigmatization, and verbal or physical attacks—sometimes lethal.
And South Africa is not an exception within the global community. Homophobia continues to flourish in other countries that don't criminalize homosexuality. And then there are the 80 countries worldwide that actively punish those who engage in homosexual relationships: The typical penalty is a fine or prison sentence, but in nine countries—Nigeria, Sudan, Yemen, Mauritania, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran—members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community may face the death penalty.
It was "in order to create a global day of awareness about LGBT issues" that French activist Louis-Georges Tin launched the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) in 2005. (In 2009, IDAHO became the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, after its sensitization campaign to combat violence against transgender individuals.) It was no easy task. "I spent more than 2,000 hours working on this project," he says. "But people were really enthusiastic about the idea, and it became a very inspiring initiative."
IDAHO is still not well-known in the United States. There are some individual initiatives, such as in San Francisco and New York, but nothing has been organized at the national level. Although the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force was asked to help spread the idea, Tin says, "They said yes but never did, unfortunately."
It's a situation that makes American journalist Doug Ireland angry. "Our national LGBT organizations continue to refuse to join hands with our queer sisters and brothers abroad who are fighting to achieve the right to love that we, in America, have increasingly come to take for granted," he wrote in a recent article for gaycitynews.com. "Neither of the two largest national gay organizations—the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force—has joined in this international manifestation of solidarity … nor has the New York-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission organized any event to participate in IDAHO."
Support of IDAHO comes from activists eager to have gay rights recognized and respected, but also from high-profile personalities. A 2006 petition that the IDAHO committee launched for universal decriminalization of homosexuality was signed by Nobel Prize winners Bishop Desmond Tutu, Dario Fo, José Saramago, Amartya Sen and Elfriede Jelinek; entertainers like Meryl Streep, Elton John, David Bowie and Victoria Abril; and many intellectuals, including Judith Butler, George Chauncey, Bernard-Henri Lévy and Taslima Nasreen.
"We were fortunate enough," adds Tin, "to find support in the French government, though it is rather conservative. Rama Yade, former French secretary of state for human rights, supported our campaign and brought the text to the U.N. General Assembly in December 2008, which became a statement on sexual orientation and gender identity." Sixty-six out of 192 U.N. member countries ultimately signed the declaration, a landmark in LGBT history.
Despite progress in combating homophobia, there is still plenty of work to be done. Decriminalizing homosexuality is a crucial step but not enough in itself. Indeed, activists maintain that the weakest link may be the lack of education about sexual rights, as well as religious bias.
"That's why we are asking religious leaders not to approve of homosexuality but to disapprove of homophobia," says Tin, referring to the campaign's current theme: "Religions, Homophobia, Transphobia." "We don't want to discuss theology, which is not our concern, but we are asking theologians to discuss human rights, which is a concern for all."
There is little chance that the Vatican will hear the message. In response to the pedophilia scandal within the Catholic Church, top cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said in April, "Many psychologists and psychiatrists have demonstrated that there is no relation between celibacy and pedophilia. But many others have demonstrated, I have been told recently, that there is a relation between homosexuality and pedophilia. That is true. … That is the problem."
If Tin expresses no surprise at the statement, referring to it as "an ordinary device of homophobic rhetoric," he sees reasons for hope. "In the whole world, people said how shocked they were. The French ministry of foreign affairs clearly criticized the Vatican for this declaration. A few years ago, who would have been shocked, apart from a few militants? Now such a declaration creates an international scandal. For homophobic people, this is bad news!"
Habibou Bangré is a writer living in France.