Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on January 23, 2014, at 6:32 a.m. ET
Millions of gay Indians suddenly became criminals when the Indian Supreme Court restored the country's sodomy law in December. But the ruling actually helped set one couple free.
When the ruling was issued, two men from northwest India had spent more than six months in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in El Paso, Texas, waiting for a judge to decide on their petition for asylum. It was a bitter ending to their yearlong journey across more than 10 countries to reach the United States. They had left India after death threats from their family and being targeted for police abuse because of their sexual orientation, though at the time the law criminalizing same-sex relationships was suspended by a lower court ruling. And when they finally reached the country that they expected to protect their rights, they wound up in a facility that felt exactly like prison.
The whole experience had felt cruelly backward to the couple, so it was perhaps fitting that the U.S. released them from detention only when they formally became criminals at home.
A U.S. judge granted the pair asylum on Dec. 20 based on their experience of police abuse and threats from their families to kill them if they returned. But even now they don't feel that much safer than when they left India, which is why they only agreed to speak to BuzzFeed under names they chose for themselves, Manoj and Maninder, rather than their real names.
A cousin in a small city in the midwest paid their airfare to join him, but he kicked them out of his house once they'd worked off the cost of tickets at the restaurant where he works. They were then taken in by the owner of another Indian restaurant, where they now work full days without pay in exchange for shelter. They told the owner they are brothers; if he finds out the truth, they are certain he will kick them out. They could only speak by phone late in the evening, fearing discovery if their boss was around.
They also worried that speaking to the press could lead the U.S. government to retaliate by arresting or deporting them, though their lawyers have assured them this isn't possible. Their abuse in India and harassment while in detention makes it hard for them to believe their ordeal is over. Only Manoj speaks enough English to give a full interview; Maninder was too frightened to give an interview in Hindi.
Manoj and Maninder both group up in Sirsa, a small city about a four-hour drive to the northwest of Delhi. Manoj, who is now 28, is the son of a construction contractor, but as a boy he was drawn to dance and trained to be a choreographer, though his family disapproved. That's how he met Maninder, now 25, who also trained as a dancer.
Manoj knew from a young age that he was gay, but when his parents picked a bride for him at 16, he married her without argument. Two years earlier, he'd watched as his uncle — who was just a couple years older than him — was beaten so seriously that he wound up in the hospital after he tried to run away to escape an arranged marriage.
Manoj still had time to steel himself to consummate the marriage; under local custom, his wife didn't come to live with his family until a few years after they married. But he couldn't follow through when she finally came to live with him after he turned 19. His family said he was shaming them by not producing a child. His wife confided to her sister that they were not having sex; she believed he was instead running around with the girls who passed through his dance classes.
"I don't want to agree [to have sex with her] because I don't have any feeling [for her]," he said in idiosyncratic English. "I'm trying but I can't."
Word spread throughout his community and his family became violent. They "tortured" him, Manoj said, hitting and kicking him, and sometimes neighbors would assault him as well.
Yet in a sense he felt he was getting off easy, he said. Had they known he was gay, he said, "they would kill me at once."
While enduring the trouble at home, Manoj stayed away from Maninder, though they both knew they had feelings for each other. It was simply too dangerous for them to meet somewhere their families could find out.
Then, in 2010, when Manoj was around 25 and Maninder about 22, they found a chance to get away from Sirsa. Their escape came thanks to a reality television show called Dance Premier League, in which teams from across India compete under the tutelage of a celebrity choreographer. Manoj was going to audition in Jaipur, a city a six-hour drive to the south, and he persuaded Maninder to give it a shot as well.
Maninder didn't make the cut, but Manoj did, keeping them in Jaipur for around 10 days. But the prospect of being on television was far less important than the chance to be alone together in a hotel room.
Their time away was so wonderful that the return home was unbearable, Manoj said. "Oh my god, we are feeling … we cannot stay without each other," Manoj said. Back in Sirsa, "we cannot [even] talk openly, we cannot leave [the house], we cannot meet."
So after four months, Manoj came up with a plan to get them out of Sirsa for good. He would rent them an apartment in Chandigarh, a city four hours to the northwest, where they knew no one. To justify the move to their families, they both enrolled in a degree program in animation at a local university.
The freedom they found in Chandigarh was amazing at first; Manoj said they were not apart "even for one minute" while they lived there. They told everyone they were brothers, but their affection for each other was too obvious — their neighbors saw through their cover after a couple of months.
"We both [showed] a lot of love for each other," Manoj said. "People are thinking, Why are they always together like husband and wife?"
When they were discovered, Manoj said, they were "beaten many times," so "we are trying to change address many times in Chandigarh; first, two, three months in this address, then after three months other address." They also took many trips to other parts of India — Uttarakhand, Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh — to try to enjoy some time in a place where they were not known, but "everywhere is discrimination," Manoj said.
But they made do moving from place to place until 2011, when they endured an attack so bad that they lost hope.
Manoj said it was too painful to go into much detail about the incident, but he shared the outlines of what happened. A mob turned on them and held them until police came, who took them to a remote part of town where they "did sexual abuse." When it was over, an officer put a gun to their heads and threatened to execute them if they told anyone what happened.
"We thought we have only just one chance: only suicide," Manoj said. Such a step would not be uncommon; for the past several decades, stories have frequently appeared in Indian newspapers of same-sex couples committing double suicide.
But Manoj's best friend gave them another idea. "He told us suicide is not the last option. He gave us suggestion [to go to] the United States … because the United States has very good protection for homosexuals," Manoj said.
The friend, a businessman, even offered to help pay for their escape. He didn't have enough money to get them directly to the United States, but he could get them away from the reach of Indian police and their families, who they also feared could learn of their relationship at any moment.
"You have to leave India," his friend instructed. "If you will stay here, your family [will] know … you're a homosexual. For sure they will kill you, or the community will kill you, [or] the government will kill you. … You have to leave from here."
So they first went to Cyprus, because they could easily obtain student visas by enrolling in a business administration program in the city of Larnaca on the island's southern coast. The eight months or so that bought them would give them time to pull together the funds and work on getting U.S. visas. But they couldn't find any work. By the time their visas ran out, they still hadn't secured permission to come to the U.S.
They thought about returning to India, but when they spoke with their families on the phone, they threatened to kill them if they returned now that it was known they were gay. Without a U.S. visa, they worked out a long-shot plan with their friend's help: They bought a ticket to Ecuador (via connections in Dubai, Brazil, and Colombia) because the country required no visa. Then the friend would make arrangements for them to be smuggled to the United States.
They spent almost a month in the city of Guayaquil, near Ecuador's Pacific coast, a period in which they were almost totally isolated. Back in Cyprus, Manoj had combed Facebook to find gay English speakers in the city who might help them, and he made a friend who helped them secure a hotel room and get there from the airport. But they didn't see him after he dropped them off and they could hardly communicate with anyone they met.
They survived on potato chips for a few days until they found an Indian restaurant, Manoj said, because even the process of ordering a meal was more than they could manage.
They waited there while their friend negotiated with smugglers over the cost of their transport to the U.S., Manoj said. He didn't have enough money to pay for them to get all the way. Eventually, they worked out that the couple could fly to Nicaragua and go over land from there.
A smuggler met them at the Managua airport and deposited them in a house with others waiting for a ride north. They waited a week until word came from the smugglers' associates in Mexico that they could start making the trip. Manoj and Maninder were packed into the back of a truck. It looked just big enough to hold four or five people, but they crammed in about 20.
They were trapped in there for 30 hours, during which they did not eat or drink; the migrants passed around a plastic bottle when they needed to urinate. They thought they were on the verge of suffocating many times before the doors opened in Guatemala.
They were stashed along with three others at a house in Guatemala while they waited for the next stage of the trip. As the days wore on, they didn't know if anyone was even coming for them — the smugglers threatened to kill them when they tried to ask when they were leaving. They couldn't contact their friend because their phone had been stolen, along with the rest of the possessions taken by the smugglers or other migrants: their laptop, their socks — even their underwear.
And to make things worse, they felt they were to blame for their troubles, Manoj said. "We are just feeling guilty: 'Why we are homosexual, why we always have these kind of problems?' We are asking God, 'Why did you make us like that?'"
After 10 or 15 days — Manoj had lost track — a truck finally pulled up and took them to the bus station. They drove 40 hours across Honduras and El Salvador and into Mexico, where they waited two hours before being loaded onto a truck to Mexico City along with three men from El Salvador. They waited there for another 20 days or so, before they were piled onto a bus to Ciudad Juarez, across the river from El Paso.
When they arrived in Juarez, a woman climbed onto the bus and took them to another house, where they waited for five days waiting for instructions on how to cross the border. Then, Manoj said, she told them they would enter the United States by "going through the jungle and river."
But the couple said they didn't want to sneak across the border. They would walk right up to the border agents and ask for asylum.
"We already broke a lot of rules [to get to the border]," Manoj recalled. "Now we don't want to break rules, we go by bridge… Because we're going to stay in the United States, we do not want to do anything illegal."
As they walked across the bridge on June 8, 2013, a year after they had left India, they thought their ordeal was almost over. All the promises they'd heard about the United States' protections for LGBT people led them to believe they would be quickly ushered to safety.
Instead, it was just the beginning of another ordeal, which recalled their bad memories of dealings with the Indian police. When they told border agents they were seeking asylum because of their relationship, they said they were publicly mocked and outed to other detainees.
"They are using bad comment with each other," Manoj said, remarks like, "You are homosexuals — who's the husband and who's the wife?"
"We didn't expect that. We were thinking, [the U.S. will be] amazing," Manoj said. "But when we got in, oh my god … they [had] this fucking response."
They were separated for their asylum interviews and then taken to a detention center. Though Manoj said they had initially been promised they would be quickly reunited, several days passed before he knew whether Maninder was even in the same facility. For all Manoj knew, Maninder could have been sent back to India.
Finally, a sympathetic guard told him that Maninder was in another unit in the same facility, but said he couldn't be transferred so they could be together. Eleven days passed before they could arrange a meeting — they were allowed worship hours on Sunday, and a guard agreed to pass on the message that Maninder should meet Manoj at the chapel.
They began crying when they finally saw each other— but they didn't dare embrace. They were housed with other Indians, who they feared would attack them if it became known that they were a couple.
"We cannot hug each other because they will have very bad thinking," Manoj said. "I [was] saying to everybody, 'He's my brother.'"
They kept up this pretense as best they could; at first, just a handful of guards knew the truth of their relationship. But word eventually spread through the guards, Manoj said, and some started outing them to other detainees as a form of harassment.
In one incident, Manoj and Maninder were preparing documentation for their asylum case in the facility's library when the guard on duty told other prisoners they were a couple and instructed them to follow the pair to ensure they didn't have sex. For the next two months, Manoj said, he was followed so obsessively that one of the men stood behind him when he went to the urinal.
LGBT detainees frequently report harassment, say immigrant-rights advocates. And several have alleged far more brutal treatment than Manoj and Maninder. In 2011, the Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center filed a mass civil rights complaint on behalf of 13 LGBT detainees whose experience, the organization said, demonstrated that the Department of Homeland Security "is incapable of ensuring safe and non-punitive conditions for sexual minorities." These included allegations of sexual assault by guards and extended punitive periods in the equivalent of solitary confinement under the guise of protecting LGBT detainees from violence.
Manoj and Maninder were never assaulted, though Manoj described at least one three-day period in isolation, locked in "a small room like hell." He firmly believes homophobia motivated their being kept detention in the first place — "This is sure," he said. They were denied parole even after lawyers with Immigration Equality — a group that provides legal assistance to LGBT immigrants — appealed to Washington for their release. (The attorney working on the case, Clement Lee, declined to speculate on the reasons parole was denied, but said that they met all the requirements for parole yet were turned down on four separate occasions.)
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said she could not comment on Manoj and Maninder's experience without knowing their real names. However, she said, much of the treatment they described would be "contrary to ICE policy … [and] counterproductive to the good order and discipline of operating an ICE detention facility." Allegations of harassment and abuse are investigated, and "appropriate action" is taken when corroborated, she said, adding that the agency has had an initiative to improve oversight of detention conditions since August 2009.
Maninder's case came before an immigration judge on Dec. 20, 2013, nine days after the Indian Supreme Court upheld the country's sodomy law. The judgment reversed a sweeping ruling defending LGBT rights by a lower court, shocking LGBT advocates in India and provoking outrage worldwide. They may have had a shot at asylum even without the ruling, but it certainly bolstered their case. They had to demonstrate they could not have found safety in another part of India — cities like Bangalore, Mumbai, or Delhi, hubs of LGBT organizing — to escape persecution.
At the hearing, the judge combined Manoj's case with Maninder's and granted them asylum. They were released the same day and boarded a plane to Wisconsin.
Now, after their 18-month ordeal, their life isn't so much different than it was in India — enmeshed in a small Indian community in the Midwest, the two men are still pretending to be brothers, fearing they will end up homeless or worse if their community finds out the truth.
"We are feeling like homosexuality is a crime everywhere," he told me. "Why [did] we come into the United States? There is not any protection here."
Though he sees the U.S. as a small step up from India, he now doubts there is anywhere in the world they would feel truly safe.
"We have wish to stay in the sky, not here. Not on Earth," he said.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on December 18, 2013, at 12:07 p.m. ET
KINGSTON, Jamaica — Around 11 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 1, police officers led by Cmdr. Christopher Murdock lowered a ladder into an open sewer in New Kingston, the Jamaican capital's financial district. The sewer, damp and strewn with trash, flowed out of the business district housing several banks, large hotels, and shopping arcades. And it was home to a group of youths Murdock wanted gone.
Their alleged crime: stealing. Murdock said he had received more than 30 reports of theft and robbery since the group, ranging in age from teens to early twenties, had moved into the sewer several months before, and he was becoming concerned that the stretch of Trafalgar Road that runs over their makeshift home was becoming unsafe for people to walk.
But Murdock's televised remarks following the Sunday raid left the impression the kids were unwanted for an entirely different reason: "The aim of this operation was to remove men of diverse sexual orientation who continue to plague the New Kingston area."
Jamaica has long been one of the most hostile countries in the Americas for LGBT people. But in recent months, the murders of LGBT people and mob attacks — including fire bombings — on the houses where they live have made headlines with increasing frequency. Activists are not entirely sure what's caused the surge in violence, though it may be due in part to the debate over possibly repealing the country's colonial-era sodomy law, an idea that Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller floated during her 2011 campaign. Her government has not yet taken any action on the proposal, but pro-family groups have mounted a campaign to ensure it never does.
For years, the media in Jamaica have hyped stories about the crimes of "rowdy gays," crafting a distorted image of the LGBT community at large, local activists say. Television stations have refused to run ads promoting tolerance for LGBT people — on Nov. 16, the country's Supreme Court tossed out a lawsuit challenging their decision last spring to reject an ad put together by the organization AIDS-Free World promoting tolerance for LGBT people. The ad featured a gay lawyer named Maurice Tomlinson who left Jamaica in 2012 following several death threats. Many out gay public figures have also gone into exile, while several others have been murdered in the past 15 years; the number of out gay public figures still living in the country can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
The headlines that ran the day after the sewer raid were typical: "Gay robbery suspects arrested in [New Kingston] raid," said the Jamaica Observer in a 660-word feature that focused on the youths' cross-dressing and exhaustion from "partying all night."
Even the group's advocates say the youths are not blameless: They have turned on people who have tried to help them and admitted to some criminal activity — they largely survive on prostitution. But the youths are convinced there is something else motivating the police raids against them.
"They are trying to pin something on us," said one, who gave his name as Michael. (To protect their safety, BuzzFeed is referring to them by aliases they chose themselves.) The police and the press, Michael said, were going after the group for the same reasons the group took shelter in the sewer in the first place: Homosexual conduct is against the law, and Jamaicans are willing to take enforcement into their own hands.
"Because I am gay and it's not legalized in the country, they want to get rid of us," he said.
The situation for LGBT people in Jamaica has been deteriorating since July, when a 16-year-old named Dwayne Jones was hacked to death by a mob in the northern city of Montego Bay after he was outed while dancing with a man who did not know Jones had been born male. Since then, there have been multiple incidents when mobs descended on the houses of people perceived to be gay, including a firebomb attack in October, also in the area of Montego Bay.
It wasn't always this way. "I can remember things were not this bad when I was coming up and coming out," said Lewis, who is 38 and came out to his family at 18, though he only felt safe enough to allow his face to be shown in press reports starting in 2013.
Between 2009 and 2012, the Jamaican Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals, and Gays (J-FLAG), the country's oldest LGBT rights group, counted 231 reports of discrimination and violence. But the worsening violence could be a response to greater visibility by LGBT people, a terrible backlash against modest progress. It has taken its toll on gay and trans youth. (For reasons LGBT activists don't entirely understand, there aren't many known cases of homeless lesbian girls.) "People are coming out younger and younger and being pushed out younger and younger," Lewis said.
Interviews conducted with six of the youths scooped up in the sewer raid paint a scary picture. All told stories of being turned out by their families, exiled by neighbors, and assaulted by classmates or neighborhood gangs.
Michael, who has the blond hair in the photograph above taken days after the raid, left his community three years ago at age 17 after being threatened at gunpoint for being gay. To his right, straddling the ditch, is Fancy Face, who is 23. She said she left home around a year and a half ago when local papers published a picture of her cross-dressing at a party raided by police.
On the far left, holding the pink handbag, is Davel. He was the youngest of the group — 15 — when his siblings forced him out of his mother's house five years ago.
Davel now speaks with a kind of appreciation about the daily beatings his brother used to administer hoping to scare him straight: "He wasn't really beating me to damage me. He was saying, '[This] is Jamaica' … and he [was] showing me that when I get older and other guys come at me, they won't have any mercy."
Davel's story spoke to the difficulty many gay and trans teens have in finding a home in Jamaica. First he went to a "capture house," an abandoned building taken over by gay and trans squatters. Community uproar got the squatters evicted from that house, and from the next house he went to, and the next.
For a time, he had a boyfriend who took him in. But when their relationship faltered, Davel wound up on the streets. In August, he met some of the New Kingston group on Half Way Tree Road, a busy commercial district a short distance away that serves as a gathering spot for LGBT youths in the area.
They took him to the sewer, where he had to climb over a guardrail and lower himself down a 10-foot drop. The "bedroom" was the fetid tunnel running under the busy road. His first night there, he said, was "kind of horrifying."
The Dec. 1 raid — which was followed by another police visit the next day — was just the latest in what the group said has been a three-month campaign of police harassment. On the night of the raid, police burned their few possessions, including food and clothing donated by LGBT rights activists; the gray muck along the bottom of the channel were the ashes, they said. In previous raids they were pepper-sprayed, beaten with batons, and shot with metal marbles fired from slingshots, they said. Murdock denied the group had been brutalized and denied having burned their belongings.
Police are not the group's only problem. "Here in the gully anyone can climb down at any time," Davel said. "You are probably asleep and they come throw stones at your head, catch [you] on fire. Because that's what Jamaica is for and all about with homosexuals."
Like India and many other former colonies, Jamaica's law criminalizing same-sex intercourse is a relic of British rule. It is known locally as the "buggery law."
Justice Minister Mark Golding told BuzzFeed that a proposal to revise the code had been drafted, but not yet put to parliament — there have been too many other contentious issues already on the agenda since this government took office in 2012, he argued. Golding said he hoped to place a broader review of the country's sexual offenses law on the agenda in 2014, believing that might enable discussion of the question in a "more sober" way.
Despite the hope for reform, Golding said violence against LGBT people in Jamaica did not stem from the buggery law, but was rather a reflection of high violent crime rate overall. "It is not illegal to be gay in Jamaica," he said. "Many Jamaicans know that."
Dane Lewis, director of J-FLAG, said homeless LGBT youth face particular challenges in the country: "They're out there because their communities are not at all interested in allowing them in being part of that space. They remain out there because we have a society that says, 'Yes, they are second-class citizens and the state does not feel it needs to provide protection."
They have also posed a challenge for the Jamaican gay rights movement.
In 2009, J-FLAG collaborated with the organization Jamaica AIDS Support for Life to set up a shelter for LGBT youth a short distance from the New Kingston sewer. It housed 11 boys and one girl; all but one or two of whom were HIV positive.
The youths were difficult and scarred — nearly all were victims of physical and sexual abuse, and sometimes they lashed out. When pilot funding ran out in early 2010, the groups were forced to shut the program down and provided aid on an ad hoc basis. The problems only grew. There were altercations with staff and break-ins, and those who felt they were not getting the services they wanted sometimes threw stones at J-FLAG's building. J-FLAG provided meals a few times a week to around 30 kids, but they weren't allowed access to the bathrooms and so they defecated on the property.
When J-FLAG was forced to change location for unrelated reasons in the spring of this year, activists decided to keep their new location secret, which had "a lot to do with" not wanting the youths to find them, Lewis said. Now, he says, the youths have become their own worst enemies.
He sympathized with Murdock, the police commander, saying he "really is challenged because [the youths] have created for themselves a problem [in] the spaces that they would congregate in."
They have also created a problem for other LGBT Jamaicans, he argued. "They have eroded some of the gains that we have made towards greater tolerance," he said. "Some people automatically think — because that's the only representation that they know of gay people — that that's how the majority of gay people behave."
That attitude drew sharp criticism from Yvonne McCalla Sobers, a veteran activist: "It's a damn class thing... The [youths'] bad behavior is processed in a way that puts the blame on the youth, although the youth are not blameless."
She said that activists like Lewis, who are insulated from the threats less well-off gays face on the streets by living in gated communities and driving cars, don't fully appreciate why the youth act out.
"It's safe to assume that those who don't support themselves with prostitution support themselves with robbery, but they have to find some way to survive," she said. "They are pretty battered by the time you meet them."
McCalla Sobers is a 76-year-old former schoolteacher and founder of the anti-police brutality organization Families Against State Terrorism. She was often a representative for J-FLAG in the years when its members were too frightened to be identified as gay in the press. Now, she is helping coordinate an effort to establish a shelter for the youths living in the sewer.
The person pushing hardest for the shelter's creation is Maurice Tomlinson, who brought the lawsuit trying to get the LGBT rights ad on television. Another person who worked closely with the youths, Micheal Forbes, is now seeking asylum following periods of near-homelessness after a mob chased him from his aunt's home in the northern part of the island earlier this year. McCalla Sobers is also getting some help from a newly formed lesbian organization, Quality of Citizenship Jamaica.
They are calling the shelter Dwayne's House, in honor of the trans youth killed in Montego Bay in July, and launched a fundraising campaign this month. They estimate that it will take $150,000 to establish a shelter to house 50 youths and will cost a monthly $450 per resident to keep it running.
Until the shelter is established, however, the youths' situation grows more dire.
Ten days after the police raid, heavy rain accomplished what Murdock could not: Flooding forced the kids to flee the sewer. They have temporarily taken shelter in front of nearby businesses, keeping a constant eye out for security guards, waiting for the rain to subside.
The homeless boy calling himself Michael said, "They just want to get rid of us … but we don't have anywhere to go. We have to stay right there until something is done for us."
J. Lester Feder is a foreign correspondent for BuzzFeed and 2013 Alicia Patterson journalism fellow.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on December 7, 2013, at 8:35 a.m. ET
Bar Picas is a glass and wood cube in Lima's Barranco district that sits in the shadow of a picturesque church with a roof that is slowly collapsing. After he had the bar up and running, its owner, Carlos Bruce, approached the Archdiocese of Lima with a proposal to restore the church and rent it for 10 years as a multiuse space.
They said no.
Perhaps they suspected Bruce would turn the church into a bar like Picas, which hosts regular "fashion shows" featuring muscled boys in boxer shorts and girls in bikinis. Or maybe it was because Bruce was already on adversarial terms with the head of the country's Catholic Church, Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani.
Nightclubs are just a side business for Bruce; his main occupation is politics. Since 2006, he has been a member of the Peruvian Congress. He had a serious shot at becoming the country's vice president when former President Alejandro Toledo asked him to be his running mate in his failed bid to recapture the office in 2011.
Bruce has showed no fear in baiting the Catholic Church in one of the Latin American countries where it has the most political power, and not only by trying to rent one of its churches. Over the past few years, he has emerged as the leading advocate of LGBT rights in the Peruvian Congress. After unsuccessfully championing protections for LGBT people in hate crimes legislation and a failed proposal to create a new kind of contract to allow same-sex couples to secure their joint property, Bruce introduced a bill to allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions in September.
Cardinal Cipriani went nuclear.
"It doesn't seem to me that we have named congressmen in order to justify their own [sexual] preference," Cipriani said during a Sept. 14 television appearance.
Rumors that Bruce — who is divorced and has two adult sons — is gay have circulated for years among both his enemies and his allies. But this is the first time any public figure had so directly said it on the record.
Cipriani's remarks set off a media storm. The front page of the tabloid La Razón blared, "Cipriani pulls Bruce out of the closet." Social media went into a frenzy, circulating a picture of the congressman at his bar with a group of men who look as though they were dressed for a leather party.
A popular comedy show also featured a skit in which an actor portraying Bruce addresses a group of effeminate sailors who refer to him as their "godfather."
At first, Bruce responded angrily to what he termed "personal attacks." He announced his "irrevocable" resignation from La Razón, where he had been a columnist, and said the cardinal's words were "beneath him."
"I will not fall to the level to which the cardinal has descended," he said on RPP Television. His reaction seemed to suggest he thought he was fighting for his political life.
But as Cipriani's statement faded from the news — helped by the fact that the Peruvian church became embroiled in a child sex-abuse scandal — Bruce's public response appeared to grow more confident. Last week, he even crowned the winner of the Miss Amazonas drag beauty pageant in the Amazonian city of Iquitos, which he described as part of his nationwide campaign to promote the civil union bill.
Bruce has managed to carve out a space in Peruvian political life that would have been close to unthinkable in the United States 20 or 30 years ago, when gay rights were as controversial a subject in the U.S. as they are in Peru today. (Congressman Barney Frank would be the closest analog before he came out in 1987, but even he was leery of taking the lead on LGBT rights legislation when closeted.) Bruce believes that being identified as gay would be political suicide, and yet he does very little to dispel the impression that he is. And he has been unafraid to lead on LGBT rights despite its potential to keep him from ever climbing to higher office.
When asked directly whether he is gay, Bruce has a standard answer. "My official response is, 'I don't speak about my personal life,'" Bruce told BuzzFeed during a conversation in the Peruvian capitol building in Lima last year.
There's a big political difference between supporting LGBT rights proposals and being openly gay in today's Peru, he explained.
"If I can imagine a politician saying he's openly gay, for sure he [would lose] 80% of his voters," Bruce said.
Bruce can afford to tackle the issue because his popularity runs deep. He had the second-largest vote total of any member of Congress when he was elected to his first five-year term in 2006, and his tenure in Toledo's cabinet made him a household name.
BuzzFeed/J. Lester Feder
Bruce hadn't set out to be a politician. He was trained as an economist and made his fortune in the seafood business. He began his political career while president of the country's exporters' association. During the 2000 election, many business interests turned against then-President Alberto Fujimori, who had fought ruthlessly against the Shining Path guerrillas during the country's civil war in the 1990s and was then running for a third term in violation of the constitution.
Bruce offered his support to Toledo — Fujimori's leading opponent — and ultimately ran his campaign. Their relationship became even closer after Fujimori recaptured the presidency in a questionable election: Toledo and his team had to go into hiding after the government blamed them for a bombing that occurred during an anti-Fujimori protest. After a week of secretly camping out at the Park Hotel near the U.S. Embassy, it was decided that Bruce would take the risk of leaving the hotel to be the spokesman for the Toledo camp.
Facing widening corruption charges, Fujimori fled to Japan before later being extradited and imprisoned in Peru. Toledo won the election that followed. When he entered office in 2001, he named Bruce to head the Ministry of the Presidency, a position that put him in charge of overseeing all Peru's regional governments and was one of the most powerful agencies in the country. When democratic reforms did away with the agency, Bruce became the first minister of housing.
That's where he won popular affection. He went on television to publicize a program subsidizing the purchase of homes accompanied by the program's mascot, who dressed in a costume like Bob the Builder's and was known as "T-Chito," a play on words: "Chito" is sort of the Peruvian equivalent of "homie," and "techito" means "little roof."
That's the name that stuck to Bruce. Even today, when he walks around Lima, strangers call out to him, "Hey, Techito!"
He rode that popularity into Congress from a district in Lima, a city that remains a center of Catholic and evangelical organizing. Though a handful of jurisdictions have local laws banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, reports of anti-gay hate crimes are frequent (and often horrific) and opposition to LGBT rights is widespread. A 2011 proposal from Lima Mayor Suzana Villarán for an ordinance to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation helped prompt a recall election that she only narrowly survived and cost her party many seats on the city council.
Christians in Lima "do not agree with a mayor that participates in marches of transvestites and sissies [maricas], a pro-lesbian, pro-gay mayor," one of the recall leaders said in a November 2012 interview. "Thanks to … evangelical churches' pro-life and pro-family movements, everything has headed towards [her recall]."
Yet when Bruce's opponents have tried to make an issue of his sexual orientation, it has backfired.
On Jan. 17, 2011 it was reported that Luis Castañeda Lossio, a presidential candidate from Solidaridad Nacional, a center-right party, called Bruce "una loca" during a press conference, a phrase that literally means "crazy" but is used like "faggot." The press pounced, eagerly reporting on the comments and Bruce's denunciation of Castañeda's comments as "homophobic."
It wasn't entirely clear if Castaneda intended the epithet, however. It came while he was responding to a statement Bruce had made that Castañeda was nervous about his standing in the polls. The full quote was, "Esa es una loca — es una loca afirmación," which could be translated, "That is a crazy — that is a crazy assertion." Whether he meant to impugn Bruce's sexuality depends on whether the pause in phrasing was intentional.
Despite the ambiguity, Castañeda came out looking the worse for it, publically criticized for violating decorum and repeatedly forced to deny that he ever called Bruce a "loca" in the first place. Bruce, on the other hand, remained unconcerned about how discussion of his sexuality might affect the campaign — in fact, the encounter may have emboldened him. Just over a week later, the Peruvian equivalent of the "It Gets Better" Campaign, Todo Mejora, posted a video from Bruce in which he seemed to be daring his critics to bring up his sexuality again.
Addressing his remarks to a young gay person who is being bullied, Bruce said that "Many bad people sometimes [spread hatred] against people who are different." But, he said, raising his eyebrows, "I know businessmen, politicians, that are gays. And they are successful people and are very respectable people."
The bullies, he said, are the ones who can't get jobs in later life. But the kids who are bullied wind up more successful and happier than the bullies. "My advice," he said, "is to laugh" at the insults.
Despite the controversy following Bruce's introduction of the civil union bill, it seems like it has a more serious shot of passage than any other recent major LGBT rights legislation. Or, at least, advocates appear to be mounting a better-organized campaign around the bill than they've managed to do around other initiatives in the past.
The Peruvian LGBT rights movement is beset by division, in part because there are many different groups run mostly by volunteers. They disagree on priorities and strategy; there are divisions between, gay, lesbian, and trans interests; and class issues often trump LGBT-specific concerns in their politics.
Peru's oldest gay rights group, the Movimiento Homosexual de Lima, spurned Bruce's ticket in 2011 to endorse the ultimate winner of the presidential race, Ollanta Humala, even though Humala voiced strong opposition to same-sex marriage following a special breakfast meeting with Cardinal Cipriani. Humala's policies were more progressive, explained MHOL's Veronica Ferrari, and, "MHOL is basically of the left."
For the civil union effort, Bruce is collaborating with MHOL, along with the most professional NGO in the LGBTI rights world, the Center for the Promotion and Defense of Sexual and Reproductive Rights, which is known as PROMSEX. A small, relatively new organization, the Secular and Humanist Society of Perú, is also a key player because its founder, the British-educated Lima native Helmut Kessel, has advised Bruce on LGBT issues since his vice presidential campaign and has been instrumental in strategizing behind the scenes.
Congress isn't due to take up the civil union measure until March, but the campaign for its passage is already in full gear. They face an uphill fight — a September poll found 65% of Peruvians opposed to the bill, and 45% said they agreed with a statement by Pope Francis that gays and lesbians are "socially wounded."
The measure's backers have started a social media campaign similar to the one mounted by the Human Rights Campaign before the U.S. Supreme Court's rulings on same-sex marriage in June, having supporters change their avatars to an adaptation of the Peruvian flag that looks like an equals sign.
In late September, the coalition also pulled together an impressive list of almost 200 public figures as signatories for a declaration calling for the law's passage. The list, published in El Commercio, was headed by Nobel Prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa and include the names of 17 members of Congress, plus Bruce. Another important signatory was Diego García Sayán, president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which has two cases in the works that could lead to a ruling that same-sex marriage is a right under international law throughout the Americas.
The civil union campaigners launched their latest initiative this week. They purchased billboards around Lima featuring "Imaginary Couples" — famous straight people posing as same-sex couples alongside the moto, "To love is not a crime." Participants include Congressman Kenji Fujimori (Keiko's brother and Alberto's son) paired with retired footballer Miguel "El Conejo" Rebosio, and comedian Jorge Benavides with boxer Juan Zegarra. The campaign has gone viral under the hashtag #parejasimginarias, and spawned a parallel meme, #parejasreales, featuring actual same-sex couples.
They're keeping their feet on the gas despite the controversy over Bruce's sexuality. In fact, this has proved a boon, said George Liendo of PROMSEX.
"It hasn't [damaged] the image of Congressman Bruce, but rather I think it made it stronger," Liendo said. "If characters didn't exist like the cardinal, members of congress from Opus Dei, or evangelical members of Congress ... with their extremist commentaries like 'homosexuals are sick," "they're damaged goods" … the media debate would not exist."
And since the dust-up over Cipriani's comments, Bruce hasn't seemed all that eager to keep questions of his sexuality out of the media; perhaps he is beginning to think it's to his advantage, as well. At times, he has seemed to actively court the controversy.
In early October, Bruce participated in a segment of a Peruvian news program called "In Private," devoted to the personal lives of public figures. The host, Mónica Delta, broached the topic of his sexual orientation by saying, "I have read or heard that you've said that it doesn't bother you to be called gay."
"Indeed," Bruce confirmed. "Sometimes they direct insults at me or believe they are insulting me by saying, 'You are gay.' But I am here to tell you I don't take that as an insult."
"If you were [gay], would you say it?" Delta gently pressed.
"I think that's an intimate part of a person's life," Bruce said. But he added, "What I would never do is say I am something that I'm not."
"And what is it that you are not?" Delta asked.
"Well, I am not a very disorganized person," Bruce said.
J. Lester Feder is a foreign correspondent for BuzzFeed and 2013 Alicia Patterson journalism fellow.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. He is Diego García Sayán.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on November 9, 2013, at 9:51 p.m. ET
KIEV, Ukraine — In recent weeks, billboards with images of same-sex stick figure couples holding hands began to appear on the streets of the Ukrainian capital. The text warned: "Association with the EU means same-sex marriage."
The group behind the posters is Ukrainian Choice, an organization funded by Viktor Medvedchuk, a wealthy businessman and former parliamentarian who is so close to the Russian president that local media routinely allude to the fact that Vladimir Putin is his child's godfather. Medvedchuk created the organization with the sole purpose of lobbying against Ukraine strengthening its ties with the European Union — and is stirring up opposition to LGBT rights as part of the process.
Since passing the "homosexual propaganda" law this summer, Russian leaders have increasingly used opposition to gay rights — along with an ostentatious embrace of the Orthodox Church — to define the country in opposition to the West. Now its homophobic nationalism is moving west as part of Russia's campaign to retain its influence in the former communist nations being courted by the European Union.
The big testing ground is Ukraine, which is currently in a tug of war between the two sides. The EU wants it to sign an association agreement deepening ties — and has been urging it to release a prominent political prisoner as proof it is ready to move toward the west. Russia wants it to join a Moscow-led customs union instead — and has been warning of dire consequences for Ukraine's "traditions" if it decides to forego integration with Russia in favor of closer ties with the EU. At the end of November, EU and Ukrainian officials are due to meet in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius to sign an association agreement, formalizing bilateral relations with the bloc.
Russia has not been shy about its message. On Thursday, Alexey Pushkov, the outspoken chair of the Duma's foreign affairs committee, tweeted that an agreement with the EU would mean "pride parades will be held instead of Victory Day parades" in the streets of Kiev.
"Now, the fight [is] between East and West, Russia and Europe," said Olena Shevchenko, executive director of the LGBT advocacy organization Insight. "Ukraine is the field of the battle."
Anti-EU protesters in Kiev have zealously seized on the LGBT issue as they rally against closer ties with the West. They have carried signs showing stick figures engaging in anal sex with slogans like, "Homosexuality is a threat to national security." They chant, "v Evropu cherez zhopu," a Russian rhyme that carries the rough meaning of "Fuck you and your Europe." Its literal meaning: "Go to Europe through the ass."
Last week, an NGO called the Parents Committee of Ukraine held a rally in front of the German embassy in Kiev under the slogan "Traditional values—ja!,, Homosexuality, nein!," nominally targeting two German foundations it says promote homosexuality in Ukraine through grants to LGBT rights groups and the promotion of sex education.
Yet it was clear the rally's target was bigger. "We oppose the signing of the association agreement with the EU, because it will lead to the inevitable homosexualizing of Ukraine," said the group's co-head Aleksandr Skvortsov in a statement posted on the group's website. Activists from Ukrainian Choice also joined in the rally, wearing signs that read, "European values are gays, lesbians, and corrupting minors."
Speaking to BuzzFeed at his Kiev office, Skvortsov said that in its current form, the association agreement would establish "the dictatorship of homosexuality in regard to the whole society" in which religious schools would be forced to employ "teachers who are … covered with rainbow flags" and anti-gay parents would be denied the right to adopt. He insisted that his group was not officially calling for the whole agreement to be rejected — it simply wanted amendments that would exempt Ukraine from having to comply with EU rules concerning "public morality."
While it does encourage some reform on LGBT rights, the EU's only explicit requirement in that realm is that countries pass legislation banning discrimination against gays and lesbians in employment as part of a broad package of human rights protections. Ukraine doesn't even have to meet that obligation at this stage — that only comes into play at the next stage of integration, when countries seek to liberalize travel rules to Europe.
Even that is too much for some. Ruslan Kukharchuk, who leads Love Against Homosexuality, another of the most visible anti-gay organizations in Ukraine, said employment protection for gays and lesbians would start a chain reaction that looked like this: next would come a request for civil partnerships, then marriage, then adoption rights, and, finally, the criminalization of those who speak out against gay rights.
This "scheme is implemented in all countries in which they start from this first law," Kukharchuk said. "We are doing everything not to implement this first step."
Under current EU rules, same-sex marriage won't ever come into play — the EU charter restricts it from regulating family law, and many EU member states still do not recognize same-sex marriages or allow gays and lesbians to adopt.
But EU pressure has been critical in keeping Ukraine from following Russia's lead in passing a "homosexual propaganda" ban. A similar bill was first brought up in 2012 and passed an initial vote in the Ukrainian parliament with a vote of 289-61, uniting Ukraine's infamously warring parties like never before. EU officials vehemently opposed it. Štefan Füle, the EU's enlargement commissioner, said at the time that "such legislative initiative … stands in contradiction to the requirements of the relevant benchmarks" for closer ties with the EU. The bill stalled.
Then, this past July, just as negotiators were working out the fine print on Ukraine's association agreement and locked in a tussle over whether President Viktor Yanukovych would release his imprisoned rival Yulia Tymoshenko, a Russian-leaning lawmaker named Vadim Kolesnichenko reintroduced the propaganda ban bill. Support for the bill is broad — it has six co-sponsors from different parliamentary factions, and had support from the Yanukovych's parliamentary representative.
Lawmakers may disagree about whether to side with Europe or with Russia, Insight's Olena Shevchenko joked ruefully, but opposition to LGBT rights is "the only thing that can unite our parliament."
Despite the timing, Kolesnichenko maintained that the bill was not an effort to derail the treaty, nor was it inspired by Russia. "This is an issue of protecting of our society from corruption and from an attack on the foundations of our society's spirituality and an issue of fighting for health — our country's population is dying out," Kolesnichenko told BuzzFeed. "I do not connect in any way with European integration."
And yet, he argued that Europe's desire to spread its pro-LGBT rights agenda masked a deeper desire for conquest: Since "the time of crusades, Western Europe has practically always fought with … Eastern Christianity," Kolesnichenko said. "I do not really believe that in the past 15 to 20 years, Europe has drastically transformed itself and for some reason begun to love Slavic people from Ukraine."
That kind of jockeying appears transparently political to EU officials.
"I don't think the more pro-Western [politicians] would necessarily be that much in favor of LGBT rights," said Ulrike Lunacek, a member of the European Parliament from Austria and co-president of its intergroup on LGBT rights and sits on its foreign affairs committee. "But it's very clear that the more pro-Russian side is using the … propaganda law that [means] you're not allowed to talk about LGBT rights to enhance their political situation in the country. Very often the politicians in these countries … [use] the argument against LGBT rights to cover up problems that exist on the economic level."
Some EU policymakers fear that pushing too hard on a nation like Ukraine could backfire, driving it into Russia's arms and losing the leverage to shape national policy whatsoever. The challenge is evident in nations like Armenia, which abruptly decided earlier this year to walk away from its EU association agreement and join Russia's Customs Union. EU opponents, assisted by the country's church, had run a virulently anti-gay campaign invoking much of the same rhetoric seen in Ukraine.
Yet in places where the government is firmly committed to the EU — or where national economies are far too dependent on Europe to walk away — EU pressure has empowered national LGBT movements far beyond what they could have achieved on their own.
Ukraine's post-Soviet neighbor, Moldova, illustrated this dramatically in October, when it suddenly repealed a law criminalizing any information about "any other relations than those related to marriage or family" that had been enacted in June. The country is also looking to formalize closer ties with the EU in Vilnius.
Desire for EU membership has also helped enable pride parades throughout eastern Europe, activists argue. The government of the former Yugoslavian republic of Montenegro, which is vying for EU membership, mobilized half the small nation's police force to protect the first gay pride parade in its capital city late last month.
"On the road to European integration, the government of Montenegro has shown its democratic capacity, [and the pride march] shows that Montenegrin society is maturing in the protection of all minorities, including members of the LGBT community," Suad Numanović, Montenegro's minister of human and minority rights, told BuzzFeed last month.
Despite Russia's best efforts — which have included economic bullying through freezing Ukrainian imports and withholding gas shipments — the EU still has sway in Ukraine. Polls show that a narrow majority of Ukrainians prefer the EU to Russia.
"For 22 years [Ukraine] has been trying to join the EU," Valeriy Patskan, a member of the pro-European Udar party, who chairs parliament's committee on human rights, national minorities and international relations, told BuzzFeed. He had just come from a meeting with a European delegation on the human rights terms of Ukraine's association agreement and was convinced a gay propaganda ban would never pass. "Adoption of one legislative act in order to disrupt all these 22 years of efforts by the Ukrainian state is not realistic," he said. "Though a number of pro-Russian deputies will, of course, be raising such issues … for their own public relations."
Despite Patskan's optimism, and apparent evidence that EU efforts have helped derail legislative efforts to enshrine anti-LGBT laws, widespread homophobia has continued to grow on a social level, buoyed, activists say, by Russia's rhetoric next door.
Several high-profile hate crimes have recently hit Ukraine's LGBT community, and Amnesty International has accused the authorities of burying the cases. Pro-gay speech is suppressed through vandalism and violence. One video, posted to YouTube by a Ukrainian Choice activist, showed a group of young men spray-painting over posters against the propaganda law posted in a Kiev subway, apparently with the tacit approval of police.
Hate groups similar to ones that have gotten attention in Russia, including Occupy Pedophilia, also operate in Ukraine. And gay rights activists are prevented from holding street protests even without a propaganda ban.
When Insight tried to protest the proposed propaganda law on Dec. 8, 2012, Shevchenko, as its executive director, was suddenly summoned to an administrative court hearing at 10 p.m. on Dec. 7. At the late-night hearing, the court acceded to police demands and banned the protest because "the mass action may be viewed as provocative by conservative-minded citizens and groups which could lead to the threat of conflict."
Organizers pushed back — and moved the protest to another location. Shevchenko was subsequently arrested for violating the "regulations for the conduct of meetings." Seven other LGBT activists were also arrested, along with four counter-demonstrators who assaulted the activists with tear gas and were fined for "hooliganism."
Nevertheless, activists keep hope that the LGBT debate may be inching forward. When a small group of activists defied a court ban to hold a pride parade in May, the police protected them from violent counter protestors. And on Wednesday, an LGBT activist made history by becoming the first openly gay person to address a parliamentary committee.
Bogdan Globa, a member of the LGBT group Fulcrum, told a parliamentary hearing on visa liberalization with the EU, "Today's main appeal to you is, when you vote for the bill introducing the mechanism of non-discrimination on the grounds of 'sexual orientation,' you have to understand that the implementation of the EU demand is not simply [to satisfy] a requirement of the European Commission, it [affects] lives of young guys like me. And this is our chance to live in our country a safe and happy life despite our sexual orientation."
J. Lester Feder is a foreign correspondent for BuzzFeed and 2013 Alicia Patterson journalism fellow.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on October 26, 2013, at 8:54 a.m. ET
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Muern Sarun's parents had turned down several offers of marriage when they asked a motorbike mechanic named Rous Savy to take their daughter's hand.
Rous had taken a liking to Muern after she parked in front of his house in Cambodia's Kandal Province on her way to weave scarves on a friend's loom. Rous began visiting so often that the neighbors began to gossip: "Who would marry [Muern] if there is a man that goes to her house so often?" Rous quickly got the necessary permissions from the police and village chief, who granted the marriage certificate after Rous was able to reassure them that he would be able to support a family. Rous' mother helped organize the wedding, which included blessings from four Buddhist monks.
This would be a fairly typical story about a Cambodian marriage, except that Rous Savy was not born male. He had long dressed like a man and referred to himself in male terms, but he was what is known in Cambodia as a "tom." Gender and sexual orientation categories in Cambodia — as in much of Asia — don't neatly line up with the terms used in the West. Some toms would probably identify as butch lesbians in the West, while others, like Rous, speak about always feeling "like a man" and would probably be considered trans men.
The wedding caused a sensation in Muern's village as gossip rapidly spread about her groom's gender. Muern recalls "4,000 or 5,000 people" came to witness the curious event. Muern had shelled out to hire a special band for the day, but the gawkers showed little interest in the expensive entertainment. Instead, many of the guests were occupied by placing bets on whether Rous was really a man or a woman. Muern remembers many people approaching her to ask: "You are so adorable! Why would you marry someone of the same sex?"
Muern, who was 17 when she married, looks regal in photos from the wedding. Her black hair, swept high on her head, is crowned with a tiara, and her cheeks and lips are painted a rosy red. She wears a beige skirt and a lacy wrap with golden bangles around her wrists, upper arm, and neck. Rous wears a blue double-breasted suit, which hangs loosely on his wiry frame. Though he was a decade older than his bride at the time, in the photos he looks like he could be her kid brother.
What makes their wedding even more remarkable is that it took place in 1993. Same-sex marriage was just beginning to become thinkable in the West; it was only in 2001 that the Netherlands would become the first country to grant same-sex marriages. Cambodia was not particularly advanced, to say the least, on human rights at the time. The country was just emerging from a period as a protectorate of the United Nations, which took control after the country had weathered three catastrophic years under the Khmer Rouge followed by a decade of occupation by Vietnam. The constitution adopted that year expressly banned same-sex marriage, and the country's LGBT movement remains in its infancy to this day.
Muern and Rous were not activists taking a stand with the backing of an organized movement, as so many same-sex couples who sought to marry in the West have been. They were simply a couple who wanted to be together, and they used the only avenue available to them: marriage. They got lucky that their families and local leaders sanctioned the relationship (despite national policy) — family rejection, forced heterosexual marriage, and gruesome violence threaten LGBT people in Cambodia as much as they do in many other countries.
The couple is not entirely unique. The same weekend I met Rous and Muern, I met Peng Sanh and Un Sreyphai, a couple that has been together for 34 years. They fell in love while doing forced labor on a commune set up by the Khmer Rouge. Their commune chief refused to register them as spouses after the Khmer Rouge fell, but did agree to register them as siblings on official documents, thus giving them the right to live together. Hout Kem Hong and Thuch Sreytouch also bribed their commune chief $20 — a hefty sum in one of the world's poorest countries — to register as siblings, and the chief has recently promised to re-register them as spouses after Cambodia's election is settled. (The outcome of the July 28 vote is still in dispute.) Their family book also includes the four children they have raised. Three are Thuch's nephews, the last Hout conceived by having sex with a man so the couple could have a biological child.
These couples owe much of their success in getting some level of official recognition to Cambodia's rampant corruption and lawlessness — local officials can do more or less what they want regardless of national policy. But the past few decades have seen stories of same-sex couples — especially lesbian couples — attempting to formalize their relationships across Asia, from India to Indonesia. In many cases, these couples risk arrest and violence. Many cases end in tragic stories of suicide by couples who have no way to escape being separated.
These stories show that despite the fact that all the countries that have legalized same-sex marriage, with the notable exception of South Africa, are in Europe and the Americas, the West did not invent same-sex marriage. Nor is it a "cherry on the sundae" of LGBT rights, as same-sex marriage has sometimes been described — an important prize, but one that is only worth pursuing after sodomy laws are struck down and other more basic rights are won. Many gay, lesbian, and trans people in Asia live in areas that lack organizations centered on fighting for their rights. Many don't have the money or ability to run off to the city. In much of the world, marriage is an inevitable part of life, something expected and often organized by families. And there are often no imaginable ways for people to support themselves without a family unit. Taking the risk of marrying the spouse of one's choice is the most obvious way to resist being forced to marry someone else.
The modern history of same-sex marriage in Asia goes back several decades. Since at least the 1980s, there have been reports of couples performing marriage rites in secret or even holding large public weddings. Often these stories made headlines because they ended tragically — couples were arrested, kidnapped, and forcefully separated by their families, or even driven to commit suicide.
One of the best-known cases came in 1987 in India's Madhya Pradesh, which made headlines across India. Two police constables named Leela Namdeo and Urmila Srivastava exchanged vows at a Hindu temple in the city of Sagar in a ceremony conducted by a Brahman. The two women took turns placing garlands around each other's necks, a Hindu ritual equivalent to exchanging rings. They went to a photo studio to have pictures taken of the garland exchange, something that would have legal as well as sentimental value; marriages in India do not require government registration, so such photographs are often used as proof in cases where marriages are disputed.
The story of Namdeo and Srivastava might have stopped there if a jealous co-worker hadn't stolen their wedding photo and given it to their police commander. The two women were imprisoned — theoretically for violating the country's sodomy law, though the law only criminalizes sex between men — kept without food for 48 hours, and then fired and forcibly removed to Srivastava's village, supposedly because they were a bad example for other women on the police force. The harassment had been so severe that, within a few months, the couple began disavowing they had ever got married in the first place. They started telling people they were friends who were playing around when they decided to have the wedding photograph taken.
The marriage of Namdeo and Srivastava is just one of dozens of same-sex marriages attempted in India over the past four decades and documented by academic Ruth Vanita in her book, Love's Rites. Many others ended far more tragically.
In 2000, Bindu and Rajni, two twentysomething women from the south Indian state of Kerala, tied their bodies together with a dupatta, a women's scarf, emulating another Hindu wedding custom. They had tried, and failed, to elope a few days earlier. They then threw themselves down a granite quarry.
Similar cases continue to unfold around the region, often in places where the LGBT community is most embattled. At least 11 couples have tried to marry in Indonesia in the past three years, according to Andhanary Institute, a Jakarta-based queer women's organization.
This includes a 2011 case from Central Java, in which a 26-year-old trans man known as Rega wound up in jail after the family of his bride "discovered" he was born a woman on the day of his wedding. His 17-year-old bride, identified in news reports as Siti, claimed she had no idea that her groom was biologically female even though they had had sex repeatedly while they were dating. Rega was charged with fraud and having sex with a minor, and was forced to hold up the sex toys he used to "trick" Siti during the trial. He wound up serving 18 months in prison.
The first Asian nation to legalize civil unions could be Vietnam. The government in Hanoi has already endorsed civil union legislation, which is expected to be voted on by the National Assembly in the spring.
Thailand's parliament is also working on a civil union proposal, though activists involved in the effort say shortcomings in the proposals and disagreements between activists over strategy may derail the legislation. The proposal would only allow same-sex unions, meaning intersex or transgender individuals might still have difficulty marrying. It also doesn't provide adoption rights, and has a higher age of consent than that applied to heterosexual couples seeking to wed. Some activists are still hoping the law will come to a vote to force debate, but others oppose it outright.
Marriage equality could be a point of intersection between Western and Asian activists. And yet the topic of marriage makes Western LGBT activists working internationally uncomfortable: Many frequently warn that marriage is a volatile issue and pushing it abroad can backfire. Their caution is largely borne of the experience where reports or mere rumors of same-sex weddings can provoke anti-gay legislation or lynchings of people suspected of being gay.
There is no doubt this threat exists in many countries, especially in Africa. The most blatant evidence of this at the moment may be the "Anti-Same-Sex Marriage" bill, which has passed the Nigerian legislature and is awaiting the signature of President Goodluck Jonathan. In reality, it would increase penalties for same-sex relationships of any kind and even criminalize advocating LGBT rights and public displays of affection.
But the rhetoric of many LGBT rights activists often suggests that marriage is a concern to a narrow portion of the world, while the rest of the world pays for that desire.
After the U.S. Supreme Court decided to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act in June, Jessica Stern, the executive director of the New York–based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, said the move made them "rejoice." She then quickly tempered her enthusiasm:
In countries where discrimination against LGBT people is high, the decisions are likely to be used dangerously against LGBT individuals, organizations and human rights defenders…Over the last decade, allegations of "gay marriage agendas" and/or "gay weddings" have been used to crack down on social gatherings attended by LGBT people and to crack down on free speech, assembly, and access to life-saving information on HIV/AIDS.
Alistair Stewart, assistant director of the London-based Kaleidoscope Trust, was more blunt. "Gay Marriage and Other Wins for LGBT People Here Are Making Life Worse for Gays and Lesbians in Developing Countries," he titled his Huffington Post July column.
Inside the countries where same-sex couples have tried to marry, these concerns also exist — particularly in countries like Malaysia, where Islamists have considerable sway, adding to fears that raising the issue could do more harm than good.
Yet other concerns exist: in countries as varied as India, Thailand and Singapore, many lesbians and feminists argue that marriage shouldn't be a goal because it is associated with practices like forced marriages, child marriage, and domestic violence.
"I don't believe in marriage as an institution, especially marriage as it is in India," Sumathi Murthy, a queer feminist activist in Bangalore who helped found the organization LesBIT, said in a recent interview. "There are lots of other issues: Even now lesbians are committing suicide, trans people are facing severe violence, and discrimination is going on with a very heavy hand."
Yet throughout much of Asia, it appears that women and trans men who most frequently try to access the institution. There are a handful of cases involving gay men or trans women, such as a 2011 Indonesian case in which a trans woman known as Icha was jailed after her husband claimed she had lied to him about being a woman and tricked him into marriage, presumably because he was afraid their relationship would be discovered. And in Taiwan, a marriage case involving two men was headed to the country's top court until they abruptly dropped their lawsuit last winter.
But most of the cases — at least those that make headlines and come to the attention of activists — seem to involve women and trans men. This may be because men in many of these countries have far greater freedom to manage, or avoid, family pressure to marry. Men often have the option of leaving home, living on their own, or marrying a woman and having sexual relationships outside their marriage. Women's life choices are frequently far more constrained, especially if they are poor, uneducated, and live in rural areas: Many jobs are off-limits to them, their sexual behavior is closely monitored by friends, and their physical safety is constantly at risk.
Men "have the luxury of going to a completely different city and being themselves — their family will never know," said Sunil Babu Pant, founder of Nepal's Blue Diamond Society, one of Asia's most successful LGBT organizations. "But for girls, living at home, you must give explanation. Only when they get desperate and they leave [to marry another woman], then it becomes a case."
Pramada Menon, who helped found the New Delhi–based feminist human rights organization Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action, said that most of the lesbian couples who have tried to marry in India show "marriage per se … is the only visible way in which [most] people can actually live together and that is the only understood framework," though she is also no big fan of the institution.
Six weeks after the Supreme Court struck down DOMA, I was in Phnom Penh and met Hout Kem Hong and Thuch Sreytouch, two women who had been together for 26 years and had adopted three kids, but had only decided to have a wedding ceremony in 2011.
I thought perhaps they had heard about marriage equality victories abroad and decided they could have a ceremony too. But when I asked, they answered just like Muern and Rous had: They said they didn't know same-sex marriage was legal anywhere — they hadn't even heard about the Supreme Court ruling a few weeks earlier or the marriage equality laws passing in Britain and France.
Their decision to marry was much more simple. "We celebrated [a wedding ceremony] because we wanted to live with each other by following Cambodian tradition," Hout said.
J. Lester Feder is a foreign correspondent for BuzzFeed and 2013 Alicia Patterson journalism
A recent study found almost one in 10 women who have sex with women in southern Africa is HIV-positive, but homophobia and the stigma of the disease among lesbians make it difficult to confront.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on Jul 16, 2013
Shortly after dawn on April 13, dozens of women gathered on a sandy street between shacks of raw wood and corrugated metal in the Khayelitsha township outside Cape Town, South Africa. Many wore the T-shirts of Free Gender, a local black lesbian rights organization. They were there to bury one of the group's members, Nomawabo Mahlungulu, who was known to her friends as Wawa. She died of AIDS on March 30.
Just after 7 a.m., the undertaker brought Mahlungulu's body from where a family member had watched it through the night, in keeping with Xhosa tradition. A group of men carried the simple wooden casket down the narrow lane to her family's house, which had metal walls painted a pale pink. An unframed 8-by-10 snapshot of Mahlungulu hung opposite her casket. Mourners crowded into the windowless room, which seemed to grow darker as the hot sun climbed in the sky. Many others spilled into the alleyway, dancing during the songs that punctuated the speeches and sermons in Xhosa.
The speeches contained a good deal of recrimination, and not just for the members of Mahlungulu's family who had shunned her. The deep stigma against HIV in South Africa has a particular bite among lesbians, and many who knew Mahlungulu believe this cost her the support network needed to help her fight the virus.
Mahlungulu had been HIV-positive for 10 years and had been active with the national organization Treatment Action Campaign, which campaigns for the rights of those with HIV and AIDS. Yet she had mystifyingly stopped keeping up with her medical treatment.
"One thing that I become worried [about] is our behavior as lesbians," said Funeka Soldaat, Free Gender's founder who's been an advocate in the township for more than 20 years, during an interview before the funeral.
A recent study found that around 10% of women who have sex with women in four southern African countries are HIV-positive. The study suggests that the main source of infection among lesbians is likely rape. Women are sexually assaulted in South Africa more often than almost anywhere in the world, and lesbians are often targeted out of the belief that it will "cure" them of same-sex attraction. And their trauma is often compounded when they seek help from police or health care workers after they've been attacked, keeping them from getting tested or treated for HIV.
But despite this fact, HIV also raises suspicion among lesbians that a woman has betrayed the community by choosing to have sex with men. And this can cause the support network women have struggled to build to evaporate.
Lesbians in her community, Soldaat said, feel they "can have that support system that's so great when your people assume that you are [HIV-]negative, and when you are [HIV-]positive you can't get that system anymore."
Muhlungulu's death raised concerns for lesbian activists across the country.
"She's left us with a lot of questions," said Nokhwezi Hoboyi during an interview in Johannesburg. Hoboyi has held leadership positions in the Treatment Action Campaign and helped found its LGBTI-interest caucus. She now works with the Forum for the Empowerment of Women.
Hoboyi was not close with Mahlungulu nor did she know the details of how she died, but her story echoed the experience of other lesbians Hoboyi knew fighting HIV.
"Understanding the stigma within lesbian relationships attached to being HIV positive... [I wonder,] what if the circle of lesbian women she was around were not the kind of women who understood that a lesbian woman could have HIV?" Hoboyi said. "Maybe she was scared to take her pills among her friends, maybe she was not comfortable, she had not disclosed her HIV status... I've got a lot of what ifs."
Rape occurs more frequently in South Africa than almost anywhere in the world, with more than 54,000 cases reported to police each year in a country with a population of less than 50 million. (Thousands more likely go unreported.) Lesbians are often targeted for what is often called "corrective rape." Although there are no accurate statistics on how frequently this occurs in South Africa, almost one in three women surveyed by the HIV study reported having been survivors of "forced sex" and these women were more likely to be HIV-positive.
Clinic workers and police often share the same homophobic attitudes as the attackers in these cases — a survey by the Human Sciences Research Council found 80% of South Africans disapprove of homosexuality even though the country has some of the world's most extensive legal protections for gays and lesbians. With those attitudes so prevalent in the country, rape survivors often are afraid to go to clinics to get medication to prevent contraction of HIV immediately after their assault and sometimes avoid getting tested at all.
Women who participated in a "Health Dialogue" sponsored by the Cape Town-based, LGBTI-services organization the Triangle Project reported being mocked by clinic workers or even being assaulted when they sought treatment.
"They said lesbians deserve this... I won't go back," said one woman, according to meeting notes taken by the group's acting director, Sharon Cox Ludwig, and told to BuzzFeed. The woman reported that clinic workers said to her, "[Lesbians] are from the devil. God did not make women for this. We are not acting like women."
But other sex with men may also be contributing to HIV. Though it is sensitive to talk about, the HIV study found that sex with men was not uncommon even among those who describe themselves as lesbians. In this survey, 76.2 percent identified themselves as lesbians. But almost half said they had engaged in consensual sex with a man at least once; one out of five said they'd done so in the last year.
This doesn't necessarily mean all these women experience opposite-sex attraction. They could have sex with men out of pressure to be straight; one in 10 of the women surveyed are married to men or have been in the past. And 18.6% of the women surveyed reported having engaged in "transactional sex," the trading of sex for money, food, or something else.
These circumstances push that sexual activity underground, lesbian activists say, making it harder to get them to engage in safe sex.
"They don't talk about it—they hide it from their friends," said Ntsupe Mohapi, who heads the grassroots LGBT organization EPOC — the Ekurhuleni Pride Organizing Committee — in a township outside of Johannesburg. "It's hard to practice safe sex … if you do something behind close doors."
Mohapi adds that the problem is compounded by the fact that transactional sex often occurs when women are most vulnerable and unable to insist on protection — when they are supporting a drug or alcohol habit or have no money for food.
There is also a lot of hostility toward women who are bisexual, said the Forum for the Empowerment of Women's Hoboyi, who has had relationships with both men and women. Some believe that bisexuals make lesbians more vulnerable to rape because they confirm the perception that even women who date women are secretly attracted to men.
"Especially now in an era in South Africa where there's a lot of hate crimes, some lesbian women feel that women who date men and women, or who are attracted to men and women, are the ones who [cause] men to target lesbian women," Hoboyi said.
Mohapi said she sees the same in her township.
"The problem that we're facing even now is that in the gay community [bisexuals] are not accepted very easily," she said. Lesbians may turn their backs on them saying, "You're going to put us in danger."
The layered issues that HIV raises makes it harder to get lesbians to practice safe sex with their female partners. Those who know their status may be afraid to tell their partners, and asking someone to use protection may imply you suspect they have been choosing to have sex with men.
Even those who want to practice safe sex can have a very hard time getting protection. Dental dams and other safe-sex supplies for lesbians are very hard to come by and can be expensive. Free condoms are widely available and can be cut into barriers for oral sex, but lesbians open themselves up to humiliation by asking for them at public clinics.
"There's a lot of, 'Why, what are you gonna do with it?'" from clinic staff when a lesbian asks for safe-sex supplies, said Hoboyi. "That's why lesbian women are very reluctant to go to clinics and ask for any protection."
The climate makes life very difficult for lesbian and bisexual women and very frustrating for lesbian, bisexual, and HIV activists.
These women regularly bury women who have lost their lives in homophobic assaults and fighting an incredibly difficult campaign to try to get authorities to take the threat of hate crimes seriously. They are burying still more whose lives are cut short by HIV. At the same time, though, many of those HIV-related deaths seem to result from the stigma that remains not confronted within their own community.
Just as lesbians ask their families and communities to be accepting of them, they must be accepting of those who are HIV-positive, Soldaat said during Mahlungulu's funeral.
"The reality is lesbians are HIV-positive," she said. "The reality is lesbians are so in denial."
J. Lester Feder is a BuzzFeed contributor and a 2013 Alicia Patterson Foundation journalism fellow. Additional reporting and translation contributed by Martha Qumba.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on Jun 16, 2013
APE TOWN, South Africa — When the reigning Mr. Gay Namibia married his Botswanan partner in South Africa in April 2013, Zimbabwe's ZimEye.org declared, "History [made] as Africa witnesses second gay wedding." The first, said the website, happened a week earlier when two men married in a Zulu ceremony in the South African town of KwaDukuza.
Of course, these were neither the first nor second same-sex weddings in Africa. Many couples have married in South Africa since the country legalized same-sex marriage in 2006. But because South Africa has sizeable white and Asian minorities, its same-sex marriages are dismissed by many opponents of LGBTI rights as a foreign import on a continent where 38 governments still criminalize homosexuality. (In South Africa and many other parts of the world, the preferred acronym is LGBTI—Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex.) These weddings may take place in Africa, but they are not "African" weddings.
Mr. Gay Namibia, whose name is Ricardo Raymond Amunjera, and his husband, Marc Omphemetse Themba, have vivid memories of when South Africa passed its same-sex marriage law. So they were surprised when news of the private ceremony in a Johannesburg office of the Department of Home Affairs started making headlines around the globe.
"I'm proud that my union to Ricardo and … the wedding itself [have] actually made a bold statement … to the world out there that we are here, we are authentic, and we exist," Themba said. "Homosexuality has never been 'un-African.'"
Themba and Amunjera are lucky. Though homosexuality is illegal in both their countries, they have not been arrested. Nor have they been attacked or forced to leave their home, unlike other couples that have attempted to celebrate their unions on the continent. Both of their families even came to the wedding reception at the Hilton Hotel in the Namibian capital of Windhoek.
"Marc's family accepted me; my family loves him. It was every gay man's dream come true," said Amunjera.
Even still, they are making plans to move to South Africa, which they speak of as a promised land where they can live together with full rights.
"As much as I love my country, I want to be able to live in a country where my marriage is legitimate," Amunjera said.
Yet for those inside South Africa, the value of same-sex marriage legalization is far less clear. For some, it has transformed their lives in exactly the way Amunjera and Themba believe it will for them. But it hasn't wholly transformed South Africa.
Same-sex marriage was made possible because South African leaders embraced a radical vision of equality to excise the scars of apartheid. But opposition to homosexuality remains deep despite what the law says. Eighty percent of citizens regard homosexuality as "always wrong," according to a survey by the Human Sciences Research Council. This homophobia, along with the divisions created by apartheid, keep South Africa from living up to its promises to LGBTI citizens even seven years after same-sex marriages first became legal.
Black gays and lesbians in the township slums set up by the apartheid regime live under the constant threat of violence. Conservative Afrikaners, whose politicians criminalized same-sex relationships along with interracial ones, have left a legacy of ongoing homophobia for those families who once benefited from apartheid's privileges. Gays and lesbians from the country's longtime Asian communities and newly arrived immigrants alike are fighting not only to find a place in South Africa, but also confront strong homophobic currents from abroad.
South Africa is a paradox. The radical commitment to equality following apartheid made possible marriage equality well before many countries in Europe or the Americas. But it is also shaped by the some of same homophobic currents that are so powerful in other parts of Africa. Depending on where you live, your race, and your income, it can be one of the best places to be a same-sex couple, or it can be uncomfortable and dangerous.
Patting his country on the back in an LA Times op-ed last Thursday, Albie Sachs, the former Constitutional Court justice who authored the 2005 opinion legalizing same-sex marriage wrote, "It seemed so simple, so obviously right that a couple who loved each other could marry…. Today, such unions are commonplace in South Africa."
But the real experience of South African couples shows that there is nothing "commonplace" about same-sex marriage. Though the law makes it easy for same-sex couples to wed, many marriages are stories of struggling to turn an ideal of equality into a reality against a history of division and cultural hostility more powerful than law. And often, they don't have a happy ending.
Same-sex marriage became legal in South Africa in 2006 through legislation the government was forced to pass under a 2005 order from the Constitutional Court. It wasn't the result of some groundswell of demand or years of building a grassroots movement; it was the product of a decade-long litigation strategy led by a handful of activists.
When their work began, in the years after the country's first post-apartheid constitution was adopted in 1993, it wasn't necessarily clear that marriage would be on the agenda. Even the man who wrote the blueprint for the strategy, Edwin Cameron, said he wasn't too enthusiastic about the issue.
"It took me a long time to come around to marriage equality," he said. He used to rationalize this ambivalence with the argument that marriage is a heteronormative and patriarchal institution. But now he thinks it came from something deeper.
"In brief and crude terms, I think that it was internalized homophobia," he said. "I hadn't fully internalized the entitlement" that same-sex relationships deserve the same legitimacy as heterosexual relationships.
Cameron is now a justice of the Constitutional Court, and the only out gay and the out HIV-positive person in national office. In 1994, he was a law professor and activist who proposed what became known as the "Shopping List," a step-by-step litigation strategy to turn the constitution's LGBTI rights protections into enforceable law. It began with decriminalization of sodomy—achieved in 1997—and moved on to items like winning nondiscrimination protections in the workplace. Marriage was the final item, "the cherry on the sundae," in the words of another activist.
Cameron's own ambivalence isn't the only reason the Shopping List might not have included marriage. When he wrote it, marriage wasn't the central part of the LGBTI rights agenda that it has become. It would be another six years before the Netherlands became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. The leading gay-rights groups in the United States did not even want to discuss the issue. They had just lost the battle over "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and were seeing the beginnings of the backlash against same-sex relationships that would lead to the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, plus more than a decade of ballot initiatives enshrining marriage discrimination into state constitutions. Sodomy laws were still in place in many U.S. states with the full blessing of the Supreme Court—a decision not overturned until 2003.
Putting marriage on the Shopping List meant believing the principles in South Africa's post-apartheid bill of rights—the first in the world to explicitly protect LGBTI rights—demanded a level of equality greater than any other country had achieved. And it was obvious to Cameron that this included marriage, even if he wasn't comfortable with the institution.
"You can't say, 'I just want you to make marginal accommodations,'" Cameron said. "You've got to say in the end this is about complete normalization and equality."
But LGBTI activists established same-sex partnership rights piecemeal. Led by the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality, they won a case guaranteeing immigration rights for the same-sex partners of South African citizens in 1999. They won a case requiring same-sex partners be included in employee benefit plans, and then another requiring insurance companies to allow gays and lesbians to collect on their partners' insurance policies.
They were still waiting to challenge the marriage law directly when two women without ties to the inner circle of LGBTI legal activists beat them to it.
In 2002, Marié Fourie and Cecelia Bonthuys sued for the right to marry. But their lawyer was unprepared for this kind of case, and it was tied up for years because of technical problems with their suit. In 2004, they won a favorable ruling from Cameron, who was then a judge of the Supreme Court of Appeals. The Constitutional Court then took up the question, and it agreed.
In his ruling, Chief Justice Albie Sachs argued that the principles that brought the country out of apartheid demanded equality for same-sex couples. He had powerful credibility when he spoke; he had been an anti-apartheid activist who lost an arm in a 1988 assassination attempt by the government's security forces.
"The acknowledgement and acceptance of difference is particularly important in our country where for centuries group membership based on supposed biological characteristics such as skin colour has been the express basis of advantage and disadvantage," Sachs wrote in the December 2005 decision. "At issue [in this case] is a need to affirm the very character of our society as one based on tolerance and mutual respect."
But his ruling did not settle the issue. The Constitutional Court did not simply order that the language of the existing marriage law be made gender neutral. Instead, he gave the parliament one year to pass legislation to grant same-sex couples equal rights.
This opened a bitter fight and exposed deep homophobia and racial tensions. Opposition to legalizing same-sex marriage was led by the National House of Traditional Leaders, who held meetings around the country in which homosexuality was decried as "un-African," displeasing to ancestors under traditional African beliefs, and a perversion of whites and Asians. Christian leaders also aggressively mobilized to try to block legalization.
The opposition was so fierce that the legislation first introduced in parliament would only have allowed civil partnerships, not marriage. But the leadership of the African National Congress shared Sachs's view of what the constitution demanded. It enforced the strictest party discipline to pass legislation that would open "marriage" to same-sex couples, just weeks before the deadline set by the court passed.
The battle over this issue is not entirely over. The National House of Traditional Leaders is still fighting to put marriage equality to a referendum, and many LGBTI activists worry that the commitment to protecting marriage rights may atrophy as the generation of leaders who brought the country out of apartheid fade away.
But the most active front in the LGBTI movement is no longer in the courts and legislature. It is in the townships and other places where homophobia is most raw. Black lesbians, spurred largely by an epidemic of rape and other hate crimes, are making an especially visible case for giving teeth to the protections won on paper.
"For so long as we have constitutionalism and the rule of law, gay and lesbian equality will be part of the commitment," Cameron said. "The visibility of black gays and lesbians makes the issue irreversible."
Funeka Soldaat isn't so sure how much the protections people like Cameron have worked for are worth.
"All things that are in the constitution, here they don't mean anything, they don't translate to our daily lives," Soldaat said, standing on a dusty street between rows of wood and corrugated-metal shacks in the Cape Town township where she has been a lesbian activist for more than 20 years. "People are being killed."
She was attending the funeral of a woman who was active in the group that she founded, Free Gender, as well as the HIV advocacy group, the Treatment Action Campaign. Soldaat, who has survived a stabbing and a gang rape, has buried many friends. Even now she was helping to organize a pride march in the nearby township of Nyanga—where at least two lesbians were murdered in the past year.
Just a couple weeks earlier in Khayelitsha, the township where she lives, a 23-year-old gay man was assaulted by a group of men as he walked home at 5:30 in the afternoon. They knocked him unconscious with an iron rod and pieces of bricks before stripping him to see if he had undergone the Xhosa community's circumcision rites of initiation into manhood. When they saw that he had been initiated—which some believe should prevent a man from developing same-sex attraction—they shot him, taking off a piece of his ear.
Soldaat made her comment about the meaningless of the constitutional protections when asked her about her wedding ring.
Once marriage was important to her as an activist. She married for the first time in 1998, well before it was recognized under South African law, in what she described as a big "white wedding."
"It was like the first time that it was happening in the township, it was full, everybody was … coming." She said. "I think for me at that time it was also a little bit of activism, saying that this can happen" for African people.
She married for the second time three years ago. This time, they married in a bureaucrat's office. The symbolism was not important to her. Soldaat just wanted to make sure that her wife had a claim on their house in case she dies. Otherwise, Soldaat feared, her family would throw her wife out.
And she didn't want to put her wife in danger by making a statement with their wedding.
"I don't want [her to] be exposed too much to what I'm doing," Soldaat said. "I know if people can hurt me they may hurt her."
For her wife, who asked to be referred to only as Thando, the wedding had greater meaning as a symbol of their commitment to one another. But she has her own reasons for keeping their marriage quiet. Her seven-year-old son lives with Thando's parents, and she was afraid her parents would cut her out of his life if she is too public about her relationship with a woman.
"If I go ahead with telling them [I'm married]… They will say, 'No, you can't raise a child in that environment because a child needs a mother and a father.'" Thando said. "They will turn him against me."
Anti-gay attitudes within the African community generally get the most attention. But it persists among those who benefited from apartheid, too. The Dutch Reform Church—a denomination so closely aligned with the apartheid regime that it was once famously referred to as "the National Party at prayer"—still does not recognize same-sex marriages despite South Africa's legal evolution.
Judith Kotzé didn't feel "oppressed" by apartheid. In fact, she remembers the year she and her sister spent in the South African army in 1988—when "the country was burning" beneath the uprising against apartheid—as "the year of our lives."
They lived "in a bubble," Judith said while driving to her office in a beat-up white pickup. Their family had Afrikaner ancestors who'd arrived in the country in 1680, many of whom were Dutch Reform ministers. That was what Judith and her sister, Hanti, wanted to be, too, though the church barred women from the pulpit.
Their "bubble" began to crack in 1990, when they were finally able to enter seminary at Stellenbosch. That year, the church opened for women. Its leaders had broken away from their support of apartheid. And the sisters started to become aware of their sexuality, which could dash their chances to be ministers just as it had become possible.
Judith's sister, Hanti, came out first. She had gone to the Netherlands to study feminist theology, and there met the women who would later become her wife. When she told their parents she was in a relationship with a woman in 1998, their mother curled up into a fetal position and moaned in Afrikaans, "Why must the devil take the cream?"
"It gave me such a fright," Judith said. Hanti was always the one who was more aware of their inner emotions. If Hanti was a lesbian, Judith thought, there was a good chance she would discover the same about herself.
Her fear was compounded by her father's reaction to Hanti's coming out. Though he remained far calmer than her mother, his words cut deeper.
"The moment you bring sexuality into [relationships with women], you draw a line through your credibility and authority as a spiritual leader," he had said.
It took Judith several more years to figure out she was also a lesbian and work through its implications. She wrote her thesis on Christian lesbians, not because she thought she was one, but because she said she wanted to find "the most silent voice I can think of [in the Dutch Reformed Church]…. and let that voice speak" through her work.
After she finished her degree and was credentialed as a Dutch Reformed minister, she continued this work as an employee of Inclusive and Affirming Ministries, an organization founded by another Dutch Reformed minister in 1995 to make South African's Christian churches more gay-friendly. She never did work as a Dutch Reform minister, but she has found her calling at IAM, which she now heads. She is also qualified to perform same-sex marriages through the Metropolitan Community Church.
The legalization of same-sex marriage in 2006 came as a "miracle," she said. Not because the legal recognition was so earth-shaking, but because the rituals around her wedding gave the opportunity to heal the wounds within her family.
Her parents had stayed home when Hanti married her wife in the Netherlands in 2002. And though they at first said they would stay home when Judith married her longtime partner, Surita, in 2007, they thawed as the planning progressed.
Her mother gave tips on what music they should play and how to arrange the flowers. When they learned that Surita's parents were going be there, they decided they would come as well. When the ceremony began, Judith's mother was playing "Jesus, Joy of Man's Desires" on the organ. Her father witnessed the union with his signature.
The fact that the wedding—a real, legal wedding—helped her family come "through the other side," Judith said, showed that God was at work.
"Something more happened than just what the eye could see," she said.
Muhsin Hendricks was making wedding dresses in Johannesburg when he developed a crush on a waiter in an Indian restaurant near where he went to buy fabric.
After he did his shopping, Hendricks said, "If I had some change left I would spoil myself at this restaurant where he was working—just to go and watch him."
Hendricks hadn't trained in fashion. He had followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, leader of the Lansdowne mosque in Cape Town, and studied at a madrassa in Pakistan. He moved to Johannesburg after coming out, leaving behind teaching positions at several mosques as well as a wife and three children. While supporting himself with wedding dresses, he was raising money to start an organization for gay and lesbian Muslims.
Hendricks had known since he was five that he was gay, but he had hidden "behind religiosity," fearing that he was going to hell. His pious life was driven by the desire to figure out "what does the Quran say about me," he said.
"I couldn't believe that the very merciful God that you hear about in the Quran would create me like this … and then send me to hell," he said.
He was in his late twenties when his struggle brought him to the point of crisis. He sequestered himself for three months on a friend's farm, fasting while living in a room next to the stables. By the end, he had resolved "to use my own conviction and my own understanding of the scripture" to help other gay and lesbian Muslims.
That project would lead to the creation of The Inner Circle, which describes itself as an organization for "sexually diverse Muslims to reconcile Islam with their sexuality." And as he prepared to launch it, he kept up an 8-month vigil at the Indian restaurant without ever working up the courage to speak to the waiter.
Finally, the waiter broke the silence when he needed to vent about another customer.
The waiter, who asked to be referred to only as Sam, is the son of a Hindu pandit, and he had left India for South Africa just a year before he met Hendricks. He said he left because his native Punjab was too hot. Knowing next to nothing about South Africa except that it was cooler than where he was born, he bought a ticket to Johannesburg with a friend. They arrived without knowing where they would stay or where they would go. His friend burst into tears at the airport, overwhelmed by the large and dangerous metropolis, and ultimately went back home. But Sam found his way to an Indian neighborhood, got the job at the restaurant, and stayed.
He hadn't seen a movie in that time because he didn't have a car, and Johannesburg is a dangerous place to get around without one. Sam said he would buy tickets for a Bollywood movie if Hendricks would drive.
When they were sitting in the car on the way there, Hendricks told Sam he was gay.
Sam asked if he had a boyfriend. Hendricks said no.
"Ok, I'll be your boyfriend," Sam remembered responding, though he said he hadn't ever thought of himself as gay up to that point.
The money for The Inner Circle came through a month later, which required Hendricks to return to Cape Town. Sam surprised him by asking if he could go with him.
They married after settling in Cape Town in a ceremony that Hendricks describes as "very Bollywood" because of its elaborate mix of Muslim and Hindu elements. But it couldn't have happened in India nor Pakistan nor elsewhere in Africa. South Africa's laws made it possible, and Hendricks felt its global resonance.
He wanted to show that his faith did not have to be patriarchal or homophobic as it is taught in much of the Muslim world. To underscore this point, the couple was married by a woman imam who came all the way from Indonesia.
The Inner Circle now spends much of its time using its relatively safe location in South Africa to support LGBTI Muslims in more embattled parts of the world, "arguing for human rights through theology."
"Homosexuality is [regarded as] as 'un-Islamic' as it is 'un-African'," Hendricks said. "The fact that our work is currently largely international shows that it's not just a thing we can solve over here."
Charlie's desire to marry brought him to South Africa in 2008. But not because he was going there to get married. He was fleeing the mob that almost burned down his house in Kenya because he and his boyfriend, Rob, were planning a marriage ceremony. The mob had also beaten Rob nearly to death. Charlie last saw him while he was recovering from his injuries in a Nairobi hospital. These are not their real names; the two men still worry about their safety.
The people who attacked their home weren't strangers. They were friends and neighbors, people who had shared meals with the couple in their house. With the exception of the occasional name-calling in the street, Charlie and his boyfriend hadn't had any problems in their neighborhood.
But that all changed when they decided to formalize their union with a wedding. That was a step too far even for friends who were willing to tolerate the fact that they were gay.
The mob came to their house two weeks before the ceremony.
"They were attacking us at night," Charlie recounted. "They were throwing stones and calling names, like, 'Gay! We kill you people!'"
As they cowered inside the wooden house, they could see that the mob was lighting fires in the street. Some were holding crude bombs fashioned out of bottles filled with petrol and paraffin.
The mob likely would have killed them if a woman who lived nearby had not slipped into their backyard. The couple jumped out a window and followed her to her house. She wouldn't hide them inside for fear the mob would look for them there. So she put them in the hutch where she kept her chickens. The birds squawked so loudly they feared they would give them away.
Charlie snuck out of the chicken coop around 5:00 the next morning, the usual time he left for work. Their attackers must have been asleep, because he made it there safely.
But they were waiting for Rob when he left a couple hours later. They beat and stabbed him, and probably would have killed him if the police hadn't intervened.
Charlie learned of the attack from the neighbor who'd saved their lives before. After work he went to the hospital, though this was risky. If the police were still there, they could have arrested him for violating Kenya's law against homosexuality. And the neighbors who attacked them could have been lurking around the hospital waiting for him to visit.
After visiting Rob, Charlie went immediately to his mother's village outside Nairobi and made plans to leave the country. He had heard that South Africa's laws meant that he could get asylum because he was gay; he already had one friend who had relocated to Cape Town. He called this friend, who connected him with a lawyer who arranged for him to fly to South Africa on a tourist visa. He would apply for refugee status once he arrived.
Charlie returned to Nairobi just to say goodbye to Rob, who was still in the hospital.
Charlie got lucky when he arrived in Cape Town. He had no problem getting refugee status based on what happened to him. Many other LGBT refugees are not so fortunate; even though South African law should guarantee them asylum rights, they often encounter resistance from homophobic immigration officials, as a recent report by the group People Against Suffering, Oppression, and Poverty documents.
But South Africa was no promised land. Charlie was rail-thin as he spoke in PASSOP's offices in Cape Town's Southern Suburbs in March of 2013, having been out of work for many months. He lost his composure while explaining how he was days away from being evicted from his home in the township because he couldn't come up with the $30 to pay the rent. And while he says he hasn't been harassed for being gay, he is constantly abused for being a foreigner—sometimes, local shop owners won't sell him bread because he can't speak the predominant local language, Xhosa.
His instability was part of the reason that Rob never joined him as they'd planned. Once he'd recovered from his injuries, Rob had first gone to another country bordering Kenya. There he found a boyfriend with a good job and decided to stay.
"I regret everything all the time," Charlie said.
But South Africa did save his life. And even as Charlie is struggling to survive, South Africa represents the hope that human rights are possible for gays and lesbians even in Kenya and other African countries that are even more hostile.
Marriage "is something to be talked about, and it's very important to me," he said. But, it's not just about marriage, or even the laws themselves. It's also about living their lives. "They should allow these people to have their own rights—the equality of all."
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on Mar 22, 2013
WASHINGTON — Days before moving furniture into their new house in D.C.'s LeDroit Park neighborhood, Fabrice Houdart and Roy Daiany were still arguing about where to put the master bedroom.
Roy was leaning toward the large front room on the second floor, which had a view of the newly refurbished Howard Theater on the other side of Florida Avenue. Fabrice wanted to turn the third floor into a master suite. This would give them a little space from the nursery on the second floor. In just a few months, they would be fathers.
"I'm planning to raise the children the French way," Fabrice joked. "They can come visit for a while and then come back downstairs with the nanny." Plus, the room on the third floor was closer to what Fabrice had dubbed the RuPaul's Drag Race room. It was the only spot Roy would be allowed to watch the program or another favorite, Mob Wives.
They didn't have a whole lot of time to get the house ready. They were surprised to learn five months earlier that their surrogate mother was pregnant. They hadn't expected the process to work on the first try. It often takes many tries to get an embryo to implant, and their egg donor had given them a disappointingly small number of eggs to work with. But the surrogate was not only pregnant — she was carrying twins. One is Fabrice's biological child; the other is Roy's. They are due in May.
The process of getting pregnant was miraculously easy compared with the legal nightmare that preceded it. It required consulting lawyers on three continents and spending twice what they had expected on the process. There are many more hurdles for a same-sex couple trying to build a family than just getting their union recognized, they found.
Fabrice, who is French, grew up in an upper-crust Parisian family and now works in the World Bank's Washington headquarters. His fair features make him look much younger than his 34 years. On the day they gave me a tour of their house, he was wearing a white waffle shirt and a pair of Diesel jeans with a six-inch rip in the crotch. He'd locked himself out of the house that morning and ripped his pants trying to get back in by jumping over the 8-foot-high wooden fence separating their backyard from the funeral home next door.
Roy is a 32-year-old American who grew up in New York and Tel Aviv. He is dark and stubbly and was dressed that afternoon every bit like the hipster Google employee he is: blue hoodie, plaid shirt, Converse sneakers. He liked the idea of having the master bedroom just on the other side of the nursery's door. "I want to be near my babies," he said.
Decorating the rest of the house caused less debate. A friend suggested they paint the nursery a light green rather than blue — they didn't want to oppress their sons if they turned out to be transgender. (The color would also accent the tile work around the fireplace.) Fabrice wanted to paint the front door black and strip the banisters down to their original wood; Roy didn't care — his domain was the granite-countered kitchen.
For those gay couples who want to be biological parents, they must navigate a shifting patchwork of laws governing surrogacy and in-vitro fertilization, technology that is banned or denied to same-sex couples in many places. France is one of these countries, with a law so strict that it will not grant citizenship to the children of French citizens born in countries where surrogacy is legal. Fabrice and Roy had planned to work with a foreign surrogate because the process abroad costs a fraction of what it does in the U.S. But there was a risk they would never be able to get the child out of the country of its birth if Fabrice was the biological father.
They ultimately found the resources to have the child in Pennsylvania. But their struggle reflects that once same-sex marriage is a reality, much harder questions will remain about what equality really means for same-sex couples. Does biological parenthood remain a right for same-sex couples even thought their biology makes that impossible? Will restrictions on certain types of assisted reproduction one day be regarded as fundamental barriers to full equality for gays and lesbians the way same-sex marriage has become?
Roy had long dreamed of being a father. When he was coming out at age 17, he believed he would probably have to give up on getting married. But he never thought he would have to sacrifice having a family.
"For me, really having a family and being a father was always and absolute, I always wanted it, I knew it was going to be part of my life — I never wanted to give up on that dream because I was gay," Roy told me in a boutique coffee shop across the street from the couple's new house. And though he has a lot of respect for those who adopt, he always wanted biological children. "I always dreamed of having biological children of mine and my partner's," he said.
But marriage still seemed a little weird to him.
"I never thought about myself getting married because I'm a gay man. One of the things that I gave up on is marriage," he said. The test of a mate was not whether he could imagine one day exchanging rings with him — it was whether "you can picture your life in 20 years with you and him, sitting in the living room, reading the newspaper while the kids run around."
Before Fabrice started dating Roy, he didn't think either fatherhood or marriage was in his future. When he came out to his parents at 24, he recalls his father saying, "Well, it's very easy to be gay when you are young, but when you are old … you age alone." Much of his family remains chilly toward his relationship to Roy; his grandfather recently marched in the protests against France's impending legalization of same-sex marriage and then posted pictures of it on Facebook.
When I met Fabrice one afternoon in the atrium of the World Bank's glass-and-metal headquarters by the White House, he told me he'd believed that a long-term relationship "was not something that was in the cards." He had a hard time imagining a future, even after he started dating Roy in 2008.
"I have been a very unhappy gay man for years, and I thought my life would be over at 30," Fabrice said. His struggle with these doubts delayed their plans to start a family. But by New Year's Eve of 2012, the couple felt ready to move ahead. "He was feeling better and healthier, and [it seemed like] he felt like he was in the best place of his life," Roy remembers.
Roy ultimately did ask Fabrice to marry him. He surprised him on his birthday with a ring with three interlocking gold bands modeled on the one French poet Jean Cocteau gave to his lover.
"That's the only day that I really started to really relax," Fabrice said; he could count on a future with Roy. And having children on the way has gone further in erasing the shame he felt about being gay. "I'm so proud," he said.
Fabrice and Roy have had to postpone their wedding — they'd picked out a date in May before they learned that was when their twins would be born. By the time they finally tie the knot, same-sex marriage could be fully legal in both the United States and France.
But many of the roadblocks to parenthood that they've encountered will remain even if their marriage is given the force of law.
Assisted reproduction pushes many of the same buttons as abortion in some countries. While in-vitro fertilization is legal in most countries, several, like France and Italy, only allow married, heterosexual couples to access the procedure. Gay male couples who need a surrogate to carry a biological child face even greater restrictions. Countries like China and Germany ban surrogacy outright, and several more make it illegal to pay a woman for carrying a child.
The landscape isn't simple for those who want to work with a surrogate in the United States, either. Fabrice and Roy could technically have faced jail time if they had hired a surrogate in their hometown. The District of Columbia is the only jurisdiction where contracting a surrogate is a criminal offense, but such contracts are banned or unenforceable in several others. They also couldn't have worked with a surrogate in Virginia. Like many other states, including Texas and Utah, Virginia only allows surrogacy for married heterosexual couples.
"Surrogacy in general, it's very state-by-state, country-by-country," said Meryl Rosenberg, of ART Parenting, a Maryland attorney who specializes in surrogacy arrangements. "You have to be really, really careful."
Fabrice and Roy went into the process assuming that they would work with an Indian surrogate. It costs less than half what surrogacy costs in the United States, and they knew other couples had gone this route. But they decided India was too risky after consulting with their lawyers. If the child was Fabrice's, France would not grant the child citizenship and Roy wouldn't be able to get the child U.S. citizenship either, because the U.S. government wouldn't recognize him as a parent. There was a possibility that India might also refuse to recognize the child as an Indian citizen too, which could mean an even more serious legal headache.
"I had to really ask if there was a really a big risk [that] my kids [could] not have any nationality or be stuck in India in an orphanage until I find a way to get them out of there," Fabrice said.
Being unable to use an Indian surrogate may have been a blessing in disguise. India recently enacted rules barring same-sex couples from going there to have a child. But unless they were willing to only use Roy's sperm — and they wanted chance to decide who would be the father — having the child anywhere outside the country was going to be risky. Fabrice could still technically face problems getting his child French citizenship if the child is born in the U.S., which is important the child ever wanted to live in Europe or study at a French university. But Fabrice's lawyer expects the French government will ultimately defer to the U.S. government's recognition of his paternity.
Couples who live in countries where surrogacy is illegal are not so lucky. In February, a couple from Israel got worldwide attention when they put a video online asking for contributions to help them continue finding a way to have a child around Israel's bans on surrogacy and adoption. They had spent $120,000 in their seven years of trying to become fathers without success.
Despite their difficulties, Fabrice and Roy have been incredibly fortunate. Not only were they able to come up with the more than $100,000 to hire a U.S. surrogate, but, they joke, they're getting two kids for the price of one. They had the money to buy a house when they realized the second child meant their apartment would be too small. And child care will be considerably easier and cheaper because Fabrice's visa status gives him the right to hire a live-in nanny from abroad.
They are also fortunate to work for employers that will give them generous paternity leave. The World Bank even has a specific policy for surrogate parents granting them 70 days of leave, the same amount of time given to parents of newborn biological children.
However, Fabrice is still frustrated where he perceives unequal treatment. World Bank employees who give birth to more than one child are entitled to an additional 20 days of leave, and he is fighting to access that benefit. Bank spokesman David Theis said this is a separate medical benefit for mothers who give birth to twins and its application has nothing to do with sexual orientation; a lesbian mother would be able to access it and a straight couple having children by surrogate would not.
But Fabrice says it's discriminatory to create a benefit that a gay couple can't access. Plus, they've had plenty of unique difficulties in having their twins, and the Bank should take that into account.
"My point of view is that it's very hard to create your own family as a gay man, and you're already starting from a pretty low point," he said. "The reaction of my parents, the reaction of society … and plus the emotional journey of surrogacy, which is a difficult one."
Although there isn't a lot of data on how common families like Fabrice and Roy's are, they seem to be growing in number. A recent study by UCLA's Williams Institute found that 27.4% of all lesbian couples and 10.6% of gay male couples are currently raising children. The percentage is even higher among couples who consider themselves married: 34.5% of lesbians and 27.9% of gays. International surrogacy is also a booming trend: A recent survey of five surrogacy agencies reported a 1,000% increase in international arrangements in just the past four years.
Fabrice doesn't expect the dispute over the additional leave to be resolved until after the kids are born. Right now they're mainly just scrambling to get the house ready. Any improvements they want to make to the house have to be done before their children arrive, and they have to do the work themselves.
After the cost of the surrogacy and the house, Roy said, "We don't have any money left to pay someone to do it. When we were making the down payment, we held the couch upside down and shook the change out — we were paying the down payment with change."
Fabrice has claimed a room at the back of the house, just off Roy's kitchen, for his library. He's planning to use it to enjoy an indulgence he had given up to save for the kids: his newspaper subscription.
While the kids run around, he said, "I'm going to take a subscription to The Washington Post and sit in here reading."
J. Lester Feder is a BuzzFeed contributor and a 2013 Alicia Patterson journalism fellow.