When it comes to gay rights, South Africa is something of a paradox. Legally progressive, the country allows gay marriage and, in its Constitution, prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Gay groups flourish — soccer clubs and church organizations included — and middle-class gay men and women live relatively openly.
But in some parts of the country, particularly in rural areas and townships, the progressive laws collide with deeply traditional views of homosexuality as un-African and as an import from the decadent West.
In the South African township of Kwa-Thema, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, a young lesbian woman who dressed like a man and played soccer as well as one was found dead in an alley on Easter morning, having been stabbed with broken glass, battered with bricks and apparently raped with a broken bottle. Two other openly gay women have been murdered in the township since 2008, and some gay men and women report having been raped by attackers who claimed to be teaching them a lesson.
The violence in South Africa is a reminder that the struggle for gay rights is a global one. A gay rights demonstration in Moscow was disrupted last month by counter-protesters, and Russian security forces detained people from both sides of the protest. In Jamaica, homophobic lyrics in dancehall music have been blamed for violent attacks on gay people.
On the other hand, some countries have progressed further faster. A decade ago, the Netherlands became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage. Since then, nine more have followed — and the U.S. was not one of them. In addition to South Africa, they are Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. So has Mexico City, a handful of U.S. states and the District of Columbia. The European Union has adopted statutes banning discrimination against gays. The Brazilian Supreme Court recently ruled that same-sex couples are legally entitled to civil unions.
But as in South Africa, paradoxes exist. Although the United States has made much progress on gay rights, Human Rights Watch last month picked American pastor Scott Lively, an outspoken critic of homosexuality, for its homophobia "Hall of Shame," along with the Ugandan legislator who authored a bill that would impose the death penalty for some homosexual acts. (The bill has been temporarily tabled.)
While the progress is encouraging, the brutal violence in South Africa is a reminder of how much still needs to be done worldwide to show not just governments but communities that equal protection for gay people is not a Western convention, not a modern fashion, but a human right.