Gay Rights Championed Around the World

California Gov. Gray Davis, in a surprise move, recently promised to approve greater legal rights for same-sex couples. While it is too soon to tell how this bold action will affect Davis' chances in the recall election, governments and politicians around the world are finding it to their advantage to champion lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights.

Leaders of formerly totalitarian central and Eastern European regimes are striking down discriminatory laws against minorities and gays. In most cases, these countries must get rid of anti-sodomy and other persecutory laws in order to qualify for and enjoy the economic and political benefits of membership in the European Union.

Croatia and Slovenia are taking matters a step further and creating laws that guarantee rights for same-sex couples. On July 25 the Croatian government became the latest country to offer legal and economic rights for homosexual couples on a national level.

In Romania, however, politicians still have a hard time going public with their support for gay rights. With its application into the European Union pending, Romania repealed an anti-sodomy law it enforced until a year ago, but that's as far as it's willing to go.

"Every time an election came around, the issue of repealing the sodomy law was postponed," says Sara Moore, program associate for Eastern Europe/Central Asia at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in San Francisco. "In the West, LGBT rights can be debated openly. In many other countries, a liberal candidate will be more discreet in their handling of their openness to LGBT issues and is more likely to sneak it in later."

In Brazil, on the other hand, defending gay rights has become part of a larger movement to strengthen democracy and expand the rights of people of color and of mixed-race citizens. The government has long confronted prejudices in the multiracial and predominantly Catholic society, calling on constituencies like women and homosexuals to project strong voices on controversial issues such as AIDS. The Brazilian government is leading the charge in an extensive HIV-prevention campaign that uses openly gay spokespersons. Brazilians have elected transgender governors, mayors and lawmakers.

In Mexico, Patria Jimenez, the first openly homosexual member of Mexico's legislature, campaigned on a platform of greater HIV prevention and LGBT and human rights when she won office in 1997. Her victory marked a turning point for Mexico -- it weakened the stronghold of the ruling conservative National Action Party and firmly placed the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolutionas agenda on the map. She and her party have pushed for AIDS prevention legislation previously stymied by the pervasive Catholic Church influence in government.

Indeed, in Mexico, LGBT rights quickly became integral to a much larger movement against authoritarian rule. Today, a handful of openly gay members serve in the Mexican congress or are mayors or governors of Mexican states. Little is made of their sexual orientation, and they are seen mostly as liberal symbols of democracy.

Last April, Mexico also became just the second Latin American country (after Ecuador) to pass a national anti-discrimination law protecting sexual orientation. Today, single men are allowed to adopt children. The law is not portrayed as a way to further the rights of gay men, but rather as a way for children to have the fundamental right to a family.

Traditionally conservative Singapore is also making a complete about-face. In June, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong gave the nod for gays to serve in government positions. Not too long ago, LGBTs were regularly rounded up in gay bar raids and their names and faces were published in the local newspaper to incur public humiliation. Today, the country's growing gay-friendly tourist industry is reaping substantial returns and the government hopes to attract more gay foreign business people as well as those who left for freedoms of the West to boost the country's lagging economy.

It is still unclear how Singapore will reconcile its newfound acceptance of LGBTs with decades of censorship and discriminatory practices. Gay rights activists are also quick to point out that there is still an anti-sodomy law on the books that could be enforced at any time, especially if gays were to become overtly political.

Still, in their effort to obtain greater economic and political gains, politicians in many countries are finding that pushing for gay rights can be a valuable, albeit self-serving, tool.

Pueng Vongs (pvongs@pacificnews.org) is the editor of ncmonline.com, an association of over 600 ethnic media organizations founded in 1996 by Pacific News Services and members of ethnic media.

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