African participants in the world's biggest gay beauty pageant faced violence and intimidation ahead of yesterday's final, with Zimbabwe's representative forced to withdraw after his family received death threats.
Nevertheless, the South African organisers of the four-day Mr Gay World final, which declared its winner last night in Johannesburg, claimed the event had marked a major step in the battle against homophobia in Africa.
Lawyer Coenie Kukkuk, director of operations for the event, said it had emboldened many Africans who faced discrimination. "It has made South Africans proud of our country's constitutional recognition of sexual rights and same-sex marriage,'' he said.
Non-heterosexual lifestyles are in different ways ranked criminal in 38 out of 54 African countries. Mauritania, Sudan, and northern Nigeria explicitly allow death penalty sentencing for homosexual acts.
Recent developments around the continent – including moves by MPs to broaden anti-gay legislation in Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda – have tended to suggest a hardening of homophobic attitudes.
Last month, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe repeated his oft-quoted phrase that "gays are worse than dogs and pigs''. As part of that country's constitution-drafting process – a public consultation seen as crucial to the holding of free elections – even the modernising Movement for Democratic Change party spoke out against same-sex marriage.
In South Africa, campaigners for the rights of LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) people say the constitutional protection they enjoy rarely translates into acceptance by society. Murders of gay men go unsolved and lesbians have been subjected to so-called corrective gang rapes. Twenty-two men, including three from Africa, took part in this year's Mr Gay World final, which had previously been staged in Canada, Norway and the Philippines. Originally, delegates from seven African countries qualified but the winners of heats in Tanzania, Ghana and Kenya failed to raise enough money to travel. Zimbabwe's candidate, Taurai Zhanje, withdrew after his family received threats thought to have come from the government's Central Intelligence Organisation.
Namibia's representative, 24-year-old Wendelinus Hamutenya, was hospitalised after being attacked in early December. Ethiopian contestant Robel Hailu, a 25-year-old student in South Africa, received death threats and was disinherited by his wealthy family. South Africa, which won the contest in 2010 and 2011, was represented by a white local councillor from the Eastern Cape, Lance Weyer. "The African delegates are very brave. No one in the West or even in South Africa can get close to understanding the extremely high levels of persecution on this continent. I am proud to be part of a generation of Africans that is prepared to stand up for who we are,'' said 24 year-old Mr Weyer.
Mr Gay World is classed as a beauty pageant but the South African organisers were at pains to stress that the event was more about advocacy than abdominals. The contest had no upper age limit and the top prize was a fairly modest 50,000 Rands (£4,000).
Over four days, contestants were tested on their knowledge of LGBTI issues, put through a wildlife drill, invited for cocktails at the Belgian embassy and put through the rigours of a swimsuit contest. They spent an afternoon doing HIV outreach work before last night's gala finale at the Gold Reef City casino in Johannesburg.Reuse content