Producers say Africa’s first explicitly homosexual-themed billboard, measuring 4.5 meters by 18 meters, is meant to help bring gays come out into the open in a sometimes intolerant society.
The advertisement – for this year’s Mr Gay World competition – went up over one of the busiest motorways in Johannesburg, the continent’s economic hub, featuring two smiling former winners of the contest, both wearing white T-shirts.
The contest, which will be held in Johannesburg in April, will for the first time have black African participants – some of whom have been attacked for their openness about their sexual orientation.
“The billboard says, by implication, ‘Gay is OK,’” says Coenie Kukkuk, one of the South African organizers of Mr Gay World.
At least 33 states out of 54 African countries have outlawed homosexuality. In three the death penalty is applied. Brutal attacks on gays and lesbians are not uncommon.
“The main message is hope – to give hope to the legions of LGBTI people in Africa that someday it will change. It will get better,” Kukkuk said, using the acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.
Highlighting the pressures, Mr Gay Zimbabwe, Taurai Zhanje, was forced to withdraw from the April competition after he came under intense criticism at home.
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe last week repeated his assertion that gays are “worse than pigs and dogs” – but then corrected himself, saying his dog would be offended. The country is not alone.
Zambia’s government this week rejected calls by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to relax colonial era laws against homosexuality. In Uganda, gays have begun to flee the country as the government cracks down on the small, beleaguered community.
Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, recently moved to ban gay marriages – even though same-sex unions were never before recognized.
“I said to our African delegates – Zimbabwe, who had to withdraw due to relentless pressure, Ethiopia who received death threats and still does, and Namibia who was attacked last year – that they are very brave men,” Kukkuk told dpa in an interview.
“Acceptance will happen only if positive role models and examples of successful gay men are shown to exist,” the organizer added.
Members of Africa’s burgeoning out-of-the-closet gay community have taken heart from Ban’s recent intense lobbying for equal rights and from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s address to the UN late last year.
“Gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world,” Clinton said in Geneva. “Being gay is not a Western invention. It is a human reality.”
Her remarks were targeted at leaders who say homosexuality is “un-African.”
The US, along with Britain and other Western donors, are putting pressure on developing nations to better respect human rights, including gay rights, if they want aid flows to continue.
While South Africa legalized same-sex marriage in 2006, the country still suffers from homophobia, particularly in rural areas and in the impoverished townships. Black lesbians in the townships are under particular threat of violence, according to rights groups.