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Mr Gay world comes to South Africa

AFTER Mr Gay Ethiopia entered the Mr Gay World contest, his \nfather cut off communication between them. Mr Gay Zimbabwe withdrew, fearing the publicity was making life difficult for his mother. But Mr Gay Namibia’s family accompanied him to the airport for a warm sendoff when he left for the competition, which culminated in him and 21 other contestants being late for the finals at a Johan- nesburg casino on Sunday.

Avatar of Alessia Valenza

11th April 2012 14:58

Alessia Valenza

“Bring the trophy home,” Namibia’s Wendelinus Hamutenya’s mother told him.
In the end, New Zealand’s Andreas Derleth, a 32-year-old manager for a chain of stationery stores, was named Mr Gay World. A disappointed Hamutenya said he would nonetheless return to Namibia to fight “for gay and human rights”.

Hamutenya said his experience in the competition showed that Africans and Africa can change. On the continent gay rights activists have been vilified, threatened and killed. Laws in dozens of African countries ban homosexuals. Prominent African politicians ridicule gays, and politicians grab the headlines by proposing tougher anti-gay laws.

“I hope and believe that Nami- bia will be the second country in Africa to recognise the rights of gays,” Hamutenya said. The first country to recognise the rights of gays was South Africa. It was also the first African country to host Mr Gay World, which debuted in 2009 in Canada. The Bill of Rights, that was adopted after apartheid ended in South Africa in 1994, explicitly bans discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Same-sex couples can marry and adopt children in South Africa.

Teboha Maitse, acting chairperson of South Africa’s Commission for Gender Equality, said she fought white racist rule alongside gay comrades, and that experience, she said, made her and others aware of the need to enact legal protection for gays. But she said that when she travels north, people say: “You South Africans, you don’t behave like Africans.”

Maitse, whose government-appointed commission regularly speaks out in support of gay and lesbian rights, acknowledged that even in South Africa, gays, lesbians and others who don’t fit a traditional definition of the sexual norm, face discrimination and, sometimes, worse.

Of particular concern in recent years have been attacks on lesbians, which are sometimes called corrective rapes. Maitse said gay men often suffer in silence, sometimes committing suicide to escape taunts. She said poor black gays and lesbians are particularly vulnerable because the communities in which they live are conservative.

South Africa’s Mr Gay World contestant, Lance Weyer, is white. Weyer, a psychologist who recently won office on a city council, said gays like him have the education and money to fight back when their rights are violated. That makes it all the more important for professionally successful gays and lesbians to speak out, both as role models and to shake up conservative attitudes.

Weyer was named first runner- up on Sunday. None of the African contestants made it to the final 10.
“We look for the best man — whether he’s white or black or any other colour,” said Tore Aasheim, one of the Mr Gay World organisers, saying that he hoped more contestants from Africa would participate in future contests.

It isn’t just African gays who face difficulty. The Chinese contestant was unable to attend the competition in Johannesburg because of anti-gay pressure in China, organisers said. Representation was thin from Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, which are regions where gay rights are under threat.

In the United States, projects like It Gets Better reach out to young homosexuals to help them cope with harassment, a reminder that even in the West, gays are vulnerable. The American Mr Gay World contestant, Kevin Scott

Power, is an elementary school teacher who said even young children experience anti-gay bullying.Power, who finished fourth, said he was not nervous about coming to Africa, despite its homophobic reputation.

“We’re all representing people who don’t have the power to stand up [for themselves],” said Power.

Coenie Kukkuk, Africa’s director for Mr Gay World, said the contest produces spokespeople and role models for gays, particularly in Africa. Previous winners have gone to schools and universities to speak out about human rights. Contestant prizes include $25 000 in travel vouchers to enable the winner to spread his message.

Kukkuk said he has struggled to get more black South African and other African contestants to enter. Mr Namibia’s story helps illustrate why this has been difficult, but it also gives one reason for hope.

Hamutenya, who herded cows as a young boy in remote northern Namibian, realised when he was in his teens that he was attracted to men. He confided in his father when he was 16. His father called the police and had them take his son to a mental hospital.

Hamutenya escaped from the institution and lived with friends. Eventually, he and his father re-conciled. Hamutenya went on to study nursing in South Africa, and returned home to work as a midwife. Hamutenya said villagers respect him because of his work, and because his family is prominent and known for their piety. Hamutenya once considered becoming a priest.

Since becoming Mr Gay Namibia, Hamutenya has lobbied for a repeal of his country’s anti-sodomy law. He says that politicians have been receptive to his arguments. Hamutenya was badly beaten in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, after winning the Mr Gay Namibia contest last year. He believes the attack was a mugging, not a hate crime.

Kukkuk insists that Mr Gay World is not just a beauty pageant as the competition includes a test on the history of the gay rights movement.

But the swimsuit section counts for more, according to the judges’ handbook. The seven judges are from around the world and include journalists and an actor.
Cary Alan Johnson, executive director of the New York-based International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission, worries that such glitzy contests feed stereotypes that could cement the view, often heard in Africa, that homosexuality is unAfrican.

“Most of us are of colour, poor and don’t look like we go to gym regularly,” Johnson said. “Class does matter. It is poor men who experience the most oppression.”

He gave Mr Gay World credit for drawing attention to discrimination against gays, particularly in Africa. But Johnson said that during a recent visit to Johannesburg, he was dismayed to find that the copetition advertisement featured two white men — the South Africans who won Mr Gay World in 2011 and 2010.

“The one thing they ought to do is change that poster,” Johnson said. “Have one black guy up there with no shirt on. Cater to a diverse audience.” — Sapa-AP.