At a golf resort in suburban Johannesburg, South Africa, a group of men lounged by the pool. They cheered as five competitors sprinted around a grassy field — in Speedo swimsuits — to the sounds of Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.
This was sports day at Mr. Gay World 2012.
Gay men from 22 countries took part, and this year’s competition was noteworthy because it was the first time it was held on African soil. It addition, it also marked the first time that black African men participated, though there were just two.
Mr. Gay World was a five-day competition that includes a wide range of events. They included physical fitness tests, interviews, and of course, the night wear and swimsuit competitions.
Looking For A Global Representative
Coenie Kukkuk, a co-founder of Mr. Gay South Africa who helped organize this year’s event, said it’s not about finding a pretty face or rock-hard abs — though that doesn’t hurt.
“This is not a beauty pageant,” he says. “It is a search for an LGBTI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex] representative and an ambassador. There’s no age limit, they have to do written tests, and have knowledge, even in part of the sports challenge today, the clues were questions about LGBTI history and LGBTI rights.”
Kukkuk says the organizers were excited to hold the event in Africa, and hope it will bring attention to the challenges that gays and lesbians here face.
“In 37 countries, out of the 52 in Africa, it is still illegal, just to be gay,” he said.
Wendelinus Hamutenya, a 23-year-old nurse and midwife from Namibia, was one of just two black Africans in the competition. Wendelinus says it’s difficult for African men to participate and still be accepted at home. His own family refused to believe he was gay for a long time.
“The first time I told my parents that I am gay, I [was] taken to the mental institution,” said Wendelinus, who was a teenager at the time.
He snuck out of that institution, and his family eventually decided to accept him, and gave their full support for his participation in the competition.
Ethiopian Contestant Fears For His Safety
The other black participant, an Ethiopian graduate student named Robel Hailu, hasn’t been as fortunate. Rather than telling his family he was gay, he let them read about the pageant in the newspapers. That was nearly two months ago.
“I don’t have any communication with them,” he said. “Not only my family, my relatives, my best friends, a lot of people.”
And he says he’s scared to return to Ethiopia, where homosexuality is illegal. He fears he’ll be imprisoned by the government or worse.
“If I go back home, they arrest me,” he says. “I don’t have the right to go back home.”
Africa wasn’t the only region that had thin representation. Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe had a noticeable lack of competitors, all of them regions where gays are still stigmatized.
Around sub-Saharan Africa, some governments are taking a stand against homosexuality.
Nigeria recently banned same-sex marriages, and made it illegal to work with LGBT groups — a move that could hamper AIDS prevention efforts.
Uganda removed the death penalty from a proposed anti-gay bill, but may still impose lengthy jail sentences.
And in South Africa, where homosexual rights are strongly protected, many gays and lesbians are still highly stigmatized, attacked, and even killed.
Hints Of Growing Tolerance
But Graeme Reid, the director of the LGBT Rights Program for Human Rights Watch in New York, says there are also signs of growing tolerance.
“I think Rwanda’s a good example in which, when there was a proposal to introduce discriminatory legislation, that the minister of justice stood up very clearly,” he said. “Kenya, with its new constitution, is more open to protecting human rights. Botswana is open to new dialogue and discussion.”
At a U.N. meeting in Geneva last month, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon sent a powerful message to LGBT people around the world.
“To those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, let me say, you are not alone,” Ban said. “Your struggle for an end to violence and discrimination is a shared struggle.”
Meanwhile, South Africa has introduced a resolution that would force countries to provide equal rights to all, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
Graeme Reid from Human Rights Watch says the fact that South Africa introduced the resolution has made a huge difference.
“Because here’s this African nation, leading this discussion around sexual orientation and gender identity,” he said. “It’s a very different dynamic than if it was a former colonial power, for instance, initiating the discussion.”
He says African nations are also feeling pressure from Latin America and parts of Asia — places that used to abstain from such discussions.
Back at the pageant, the five finalists stood on stage in suits, sashes draped over their shoulders. Then came the announcement that the winner was … Andreas Derleth, 32 of New Zealand.
Robel Hailu of Ethiopia didn’t make the finals, but says he’ll continue fighting for LGBT rights.
“I have a [big] job to do for Ethiopia, and for African LGBT rights,” he says.
But getting back into his country — and staying safe — could be a challenging first step.