Activists condemn "state-sponsored" homophobia

Human Rights and gay activists have accused some southern African leaders of singling out gays and lesbians as "scapegoats" for their countries' problems.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) on Wednesday released a 298-page report documenting harassment and violence against sexual minorities in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

"Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people have been vilified by presidents and political leaders, which has led to a culture of intolerance," Paula Ettelbrick, executive director of IGLHRC, said in a statement. "These attacks are just the first step in creating a climate in which all rights are at risk."

The report, "More Than a Name: State-Sponsored Homophobia and its Consequences in Southern Africa", documents verbal attacks, police harassment, official crackdowns, and community violence aimed at lesbian and gay people. Victims have been assaulted, imprisoned, expelled from schools, fired from jobs, denied access to medical care, evicted from their homes, and driven into exile or, in some cases, to suicide, the statement said.

"When Southern African political leaders like President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe make speeches saying that gays and lesbians are 'worse than dogs and pigs', it should be no surprise that violent attacks follow," said Scott Long of HRW, co-author of the report.

In one of the published testimonies, Joyce, an HIV-positive South African lesbian, described the abuse she endured as punishment for her openness about her sexuality and HIV-status.

"My daughter was raped when she was six because of my coming out and telling people about HIV. They were trying to shut my mouth. But they didn't stop me. I was only happy that she was not infected, although she was young. It makes me angry but I'm working on that...

"In Soweto when you come out and say, 'Hey, I'm a lesbian,' ... they're always asking 'Where are they from? They're not from here, we don't see people like this.' Then you find out that it's because of their sexuality why women are being raped."

HRW and IGLHRC called on the governments of all five countries to refrain from promoting intolerance and inciting
discrimination and abuse.

Other recommendations include: repealing laws, such as "sodomy laws" which violate human rights, including rights to privacy and freedom of expression; enacting positive protections against discrimination; publicising and promoting awareness of rights protections and how to use them; and creating mechanisms to address discrimination and abuse of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.