Societies polarised by rising profile of homosexuals

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The Independent Online

Widespread acceptance of homosexuality in many areas of society has been accompanied by a rise in the number of countries where it is punishable by death and a polarisation of attitudes elsewhere, according to a new book.

Widespread acceptance of homosexuality in many areas of society has been accompanied by a rise in the number of countries where it is punishable by death and a polarisation of attitudes elsewhere, according to a new book.

Although gay and lesbian people are more prominent in society than ever before, the price of this attention is that they are now being persecuted in many parts of the world where they were previously unnoticed.

The book, Sex, Love and Homophobia, by Vanessa Baird and published by Amnesty International, is an overview of the history of gays and lesbians and their current status around the world.

In the foreword, Archbishop Desmond Tutu says the persecution of people for their sexual orientation is every bit as unjust as the crime against humanity that was apartheid. "This is a matter of ordinary justice," he says. "We struggled against apartheid ... because black people were being made to suffer for something we could do nothing about - our very skins. It is the same with sexual orientation. It is a given."

Acknowledging the opposition among the African churches to homosexuality, he adds: "I could not have fought against the discrimination of apartheid and not also fight against the discrimination which homosexuals endure, even in our churches and faith groups. For me, this struggle is a seamless rope.''

In 1996, South Africa, became the first country in the world to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in its constitution, although the ruling African National Congress has been reluctant to pass the relevant legislation. In Europe, the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights both prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Although at least 20 countries around the world have enacted legislation allowing legal recognition to same-sex couples, including Canada, France, Germany and Holland, opinion within gay and lesbian communities is still divided over whether it is simply conforming to heterosexual norms.

On the negative side, the book says homosexuality is still illegal in 80 countries and punishable by death in nine, including Afghanistan, Sudan, Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Prominent gay rights activists and groups have recently suffered persecution in El Salvador, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe, whose President, Robert Mugabe, has condemned homosexuality as a crime. The targeting and killing of transgender people, says the book, has become an "epidemic" on the streets of some South American countries - Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela - despite the progressive attitude towards gay rights of some local authorities in the first two countries. Jamaica is also said to be experiencing a rash of homophobic beatings and murders. The book also points out that after the nail-bomb attack on the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho in 1999, which killed three people and for which a man was later convicted, the gay rights group Stonewall received more homophobic calls in a few hours than it had received in the previous six months.

Polarisation of attitudes is also increasing in many countries, says the book. While San Francisco has the largest openly gay community of any city in the world, anti-homosexual movements in Kansas, Ohio and Colorado advocate the rejection and, in some cases, killing of gay people as a Christian duty. Right-wing talk-show hosts and fundamentalist Christian groups all attack gays and lesbians, using the Bible as evidence that homosexuality is wrong.

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