By Leon Drouin-Keith
The Associated Press
BANGKOK (AP) — China’s government considered homosexuality a mental disorder until 2001. Mobs in Senegal have disinterred bodies of men they believe were gays and dragged them through the streets. In Egypt, laws prohibiting “shameless public acts” have been used to imprison gay men.
While gay-rights activists hailed President Barack Obama’s support for same-sex marriage as a symbolic victory, for many around the world the idea of legal unions between homosexuals is a distant dream. Gay people in many countries would settle for simply getting to be themselves without fear of being attacked or thrown in prison.
In China, “the government treats homosexuality like it does not exist,” said Xiong Jing, an activist who volunteers in gay support groups in Beijing.
China’s authoritarian government shows little tolerance for activism of any kind, and sodomy was a crime until 1997. Xiong welcomed Obama’s support for gay marriage, but cautioned that legalizing it in China would be unrealistic and impossible.
“If he, as president, was able to not just express his own personal opinion but to support policies on this, that would be even better,” she said Thursday.
America’s role as a global agent of change is exactly what worries people like Ibrahim Ali, an independent member of Malaysia’s Parliament and leader of a rights group for the country’s majority Malay Muslims.
“They can practice this in America if they want, since it’s their right, but we are still very concerned, because whatever America practices, it often wants other countries to follow suit,” he said.
The concern was echoed in the African nation of Cameroon.
“When you think that the U.S.A. is the most powerful country in the world, then you can expect other countries will want to toe the line,” said Dovan Bogning, a cartoonist at Le Popli newspaper. “What will homosexual marriages positively contribute to humanity?” he said.
With the exception of South Africa, much of Africa harbors a deep stigma against homosexuality. Violence has been rising against gays in the continent, and there have been cases of mobs digging up bodies from cemeteries in Senegal, allegedly of homosexuals, and parading them in the streets.
“I really like Barack Obama as a president, but not this latest declaration,” said Mohamed Gueye, who sells Obama pencils alongside French conjugation guides at his bookstall in the Sandaga market in Dakar, the Senegalese capital.
Gladys Okai, a Ghanaian woman, was attacked for being a lesbian.
“My understanding of democracy is that everybody’s right is guaranteed. President Obama is proving to be a proper believer in democracy … he knows that people with other sexual orientations also have rights,” she said.
Homosexuality also remains taboo in India, despite large gay pride parades recently in New Delhi and other big cities. Only this year, the government accepted a court ruling that struck down a British colonial-era law banning gay sex, and the Supreme Court is now hearing appeals.
Malaysia, another former British colony, rarely enforces its sodomy law. Still, it was used twice against Anwar Ibrahim, a leader of the opposition party who went to prison after a conviction in 2000 and was acquitted in a separate case early this year. Anwar denies being gay and says the charges were a trumped-up effort to remove him from politics.
Gays who speak out commonly become targets of abuse, such as Azwan Ismail, who drew anonymous death threats and criticism from Islamic officials when he spoke about his sexuality in a YouTube video in 2010.
In the overwhelmingly Catholic Philippines, the only country in the world apart from the Vatican where divorce is illegal, the issue of gay marriage is not even on the agenda of gay rights groups because some of their members oppose it.
“We have some members who are religious, and their belief and devotion to God is there and is the biggest hindrance for them,” said Goya Candelaria, spokesman of Pro Gay association.
Religious mores tend to be the most-frequently invoked objection by opponents of gay marriage around the world, especially in countries with strong Catholic and Muslim traditions.
“This is unacceptable, because it is against religion, traditions and against God,” said Shady Azer, an engineer in Cairo. “God created Adam and Eve. He didn’t create two Adams or two Eves.”
The Vatican, a strident opponent of gay marriage, did not immediately comment on Obama’s announcement, but politicians tied to Pentecostal and Catholic churches in Latin America spoke out strongly against it.
“Barack Obama is an ethical man and a philosophically confused man,” said Peruvian congresswoman Martha Chavez, a member of the conservative Catholic Opus Dei movement.
“Marriage is a natural institution that supports the union of two people of different sexes because it has a procreative function.”
There are other places where Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage was a ho-hum affair.
Many European countries, as well as Canada, Argentina and South Africa, already allow gay marriage. So do six U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
Lance Weyer, an openly gay city councilman in South Africa, said Obama had made “a very important statement not just for people in the United States, but worldwide. Obama is a world leader. His ideas and perceptions are listened to by people worldwide.”
South Africa’s 1996 constitution outlaws discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and a 2006 law made South Africa the first country in Africa to legalize same-sex marriage.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister, John Key, broke his long silence on gay marriage and said his government may consider allowing it “at some stage.”
But in Australia, where polls show that most people support gay marriage, the left-leaning Prime Minister Julia Gillard said Thursday that she remains opposed, and three bills in Parliament that would allow same-sex couples to marry are unlikely to be passed.
France also has a population largely in support of gay marriage and a head of state who opposes it, but that is about to change. Francois Hollande, who defeated President Nicolas Sarkozy in elections Sunday, made “the right to marry and adopt for all couples” part of his campaign platform, and has set legislative passage for no later than June of next year.
“I was starting to lose hope in fighting for gay marriage legalization in Thailand,” said Natee Teerarojjanapongs, a Thai activist, “but now Barack Obama’s endorsement is rekindling my fire and is giving me the encouragement to go on.”
Obama’s relatives in Kenya declined to comment.
Malik Abongo Obama, the president’s half brother, said simply, “It’s not for me to say.” (end)