The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling June 26 on same-sex marriage is interesting in the context of other countries. Ireland in May became the first country to sanction marriage equality via a popular vote. However, LGBT rights seem to be losing ground in countries such as Russia. Here’s a cross section of world views on gay marriage and equal rights.
Progress Slow, but South Africa Offers a Beacon
According to America’s Human Rights Campaign, homosexuality is illegal in 35 of Africa’s 54 countries — and is punishable by death in four of them.
With legislators in much of Africa cracking down on homosexuality in recent years, filmmakers addressing LGBT themes face a raft of challenges, from anti-gay laws and censorship boards to conservative popular opinions. When the Kenyan arts collective the Nest last year released “Stories of Our Lives,” about that country’s LGBT community, it was banned for promoting homosexuality, “which is contrary to (Kenya’s) national norms and values.”
Helmer Jim Chuchu, however, notes that popular opinion in Kenya is often difficult to gauge. “The climate is very reactive,” he says. “If gays are in the news, the debate happens. When the news cycle is over, so is the attention.”
In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, tapping into public opinion is a hallmark of the $5 billion-a-year Nollywood film industry. Though Nigeria is one of the African countries that criminalizes homosexual conduct, gay love affairs are not uncommon onscreen — even if they’re hardly a harbinger of a more tolerant society. In their 2010 study “The Video Closet: Nollywood’s Gay-Themed Movies,” researchers Lindsey Green-Simms and Unoma Azuah note that films which managed to make it past the country’s censorship board were those “in which the consequences and immorality of homosexuality are made clear from the beginning.”
Meanwhile, South Africa, the first African country to legalize same-sex marriage, remains a beacon for many on the continent. Helmer Oliver Hermanus, who explored the illicit love life of a closeted married man in 2011’s “Skoonheid,” says he was privileged as a South African, because he was “legally allowed to make that film.” Still, he cautions, “the law isn’t the society.”
Despite critical acclaim and a Cannes premiere, “Skoonheid” has never been picked up by South African television networks. “There’s no question that it’s (considered) too inappropriate for viewers,” Hermanus says.
— Christopher Vourlias
Changing China Moves Slowly on Gay Rights
China’s business practices are a fascinating, sometimes frustrating, mix of the traditional and the hyper-modern. Confucian values sit side by side with entrepreneurialism and the global-village immediacy of smartphones.
China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997, and stopped classifying it as a mental illness in 2001. But the government doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages or civil unions, and operates a policy of “three no’s”: no approval, no disapproval and no promotion. Big-city society may be more tolerant — Beijing has several gay nightclubs — but wider Chinese society is still disapproving. Most gay men hide their sexuality, and millions enter into legal marriages with women to avoid scrutiny.
Others move to Hong Kong, the Chinese “special administrative region,” which has its own jurisdiction over civil and business matters.
While the territory, too, does not recognize same-sex marriages or civil unions, discrimination is not permitted on the grounds of race, gender or sexuality. Instead, Hong Kong worships meritocracy, money and success. And in practice, many people, including entertainers, live openly LGBT lives.
Hong Kong may also be home to thousands of gay people who choose to live there rather than in Singapore, the socially conservative country which holds itself up as a role model for China. Male homosexual activity is illegal in the city-state — police occasionally run sting operations to entrap people — and gay marriage is forbidden.
Singapore’s Media Development Authority is entrusted to promote creative industries, like film, even as it acts as a censor. Its mandate requires elimination of all content that “in any way promotes, justifies or glamorizes … lifestyles such as homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexualism, transsexualism, transvestism, pedophilia and incest.”
Lesbians are more likely to be ignored than gay men in Singapore, but not always. Taiwanese star Jolin Tsai’s hit song “We’re All Different … Yet the Same,” which has a video showing Tsai and actress Ruby Lin wearing wedding dresses and sharing a loving kiss, was recently banned. Last year, another Taiwanese singer, A-mei was not allowed to perform her pro-LGBT song “Rainbow” at a concert in Singapore.
— Patrick Frater
Progressive Lawmakers Lead, Entertaiment Lags
In 1989, Denmark became the first country to create a registered partnership law. Norway and Sweden followed with similar legislation, paving the way for a same-sex marriage law in 2009.
Politicians, however, have been ahead of entertainers on the issue. “While Danish TV drama is celebrated globally for (its) strong female characters and progressive images of the Nordic welfare model, LGBT representation in Danish TV (offers few positives),” critic Katrine Hornstrup Yde wrote recently in Danish newspaper Politiken.
Entertainment in Sweden is slightly more advanced. Pubcaster SVT’s “Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves,” a 2012 series about the impact of AIDS in the 1980s homosexual community, adapted by popular gay author Jonas Gardell from his own trilogy, was a big success, and reached a general audience. Within popular cinema, though, homosexual protagonists are rare, and comedy seems to play better than drama. Alexandra-Therese Keining’s 2011 “Kiss Me,” about a young woman’s affair with the lesbian daughter of her stepmother-to-be, earned critical plaudits but little box office love.
Ester Martin Bergsmark’s “Something Must Break,” about the relationship between a straight man and a self-abusive man who wants to be a woman, won the Tiger Award at last year’s Rotterdam fest, and earned transgender lead actress Saga Becker a Guldbagge — a first — but also failed at Swedish cinemas. Yet Ella Lemhagen’s 2008 comedy-drama “Patrik Age 1.5,” which revolves around a gay couple misplacing the decimal in their adoption papers and winding up saddled with a homophobic teenager, was a commercial success, and even played briefly in the U.S.
— Jon Asp