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June is a festive time for LGBTQ communities around the world. From Toronto to Budapest, parades are being held to mark Pride Month and celebrate the freedom of queer people to express themselves. While there are Pride celebrations at other times of the year, June was specially chosen to be the month of LGBTQ pride gatherings as a tribute to the riots at the Stonewall Inn in June 1969, when New York’s gay community resisted police harassment.
The Stonewall riots helped propel the gay rights movement in the US, and despite the hurdles thrown at them by organisations and politicians who relentlessly propagate falsities, demonising LGBTQ people in an attempt to discredit them, the movement has made significant progress on gay rights. Since 2015, gay couples in all fifty states have enjoyed marriage equality, and in January President Biden signed an executive order reversing Trump’s ban on transgender soldiers – a meaningful development in the protection of queer people from employment discrimination.
The experiences of the US LGBTQ community have undoubtedly generated plenty of achievements to commemorate in this month of Pride. But there is no reason why they should be the sole stories forming the mainstream gay liberation narrative in which Pride celebrations are rooted.
Samuel Huneke highlights the problem in the Washington Post:
Before the German reunification, queer activists in Western Germany collaborated with policymakers to make reforms, permitting the rise of gay bars and saunas. Whereas in East Germany – a communist state – activists were able to mobilise and put pressure on the regime, even intimidating the secret police. The government finally yielded to their demands, allowing gay servicemen and the screening of the first gay movie among others. Neither of them may have shared “the same triumphal moments or catastrophic setbacks as the American version, but [they] nonetheless forged a kind of liberation no less real than that in the United States.”
This then calls for an appreciation of milestones in the LGBTQ rights movement beyond the US experience, particularly in Asia and Africa where liberation is considered limited in comparison to other regions.
In 2019, Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage. The year before that, India’s Supreme Court dismantled the world’s oldest bans on consensual gay sex and expanded the protections of the Constitution to include gay Indians. And recently, the Thai cabinet approved a same-sex-partnership draft bill which, if passed into law, would make Thailand the third country in Asia, after Israel and Taiwan, to recognise same-sex unions. Even so, few governments in Asia have made great strides in their commitment to liberating and protecting the sexual minority population. Homosexual relations remain illegal in at least 16 countries such as Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia, and most countries are still behind in adopting bans on anti-gay discrimination.
Indeed, progress towards equality for gay people in the region appears to be slow. But since Asian countries’ political, social and cultural environments vary greatly from those in the US, the LGBTQ communities in Asia naturally achieve relatively moderate and somewhat different progress.
In Singapore, where homosexuality is outlawed and public discussions about gay rights are heavily repressed, Capell and Elgebeily identified that Singaporean activists “have found success in promoting their cause by calling against actions committed by authorities that failed to follow due process or established policies.” This has enabled some gay people to overturn arrest charges made against them without having to refer to gay rights. Furthermore, a Singaporean gay dad won an appeal to adopt his surrogate son in 2018 – a decision reached not in the endorsement of same-sex relationships but due to considerations for the child’s welfare. It was nevertheless a momentous victory in Singapore’s LGBTQ history.
In Nepal, fed up with the unresponsive government, gay activists turned to the Supreme Court and won fundamental equality for all sexual minorities in 2007. But real change has not come easily. One of the activists, who eventually became a member of the parliament, went to pressure the bureaucracy, even threatening prosecution, to finally have a third gender included on the country’s federal census, which was a first for the world.
Angola was the most recent country to decriminalise same-sex relations, and with further enactment prohibiting discrimination based on sexuality, the country’s LGBTQ community is optimistic that greater reforms will come as they continue to push forward. A few other countries such as Mauritius, Seychelles, Mozambique and Botswana, also provide legal protection against discrimination, though to various extent. But 32 out of 54 African countries still outlaw homosexuality, and many LGBTQ people are subjected to prosecution and persecution. Currently, South Africa is the only African country that has legalised gay marriage (since 2006) and issued a constitutional ban on sex-based discrimination.
In the face of restrictive laws and violent opposition from the authorities, many queer activists in Africa have trudged different avenues in their pursuit of liberation. Through creative mediums like art, film, and literature, activists share their stories of growing up queer in hostile environments and aim at eliminating stigma against LGBTQ. In their work, writers Chinelo Okpranta and Richard Akuson featured queer characters and expressed their criticisms of homophobic views prevalent in African societies. A filmmaker also endeavoured to destigmatise HIV and AIDS in South Africa, which was often seen as a “gay” disease.
Other activists use digital platforms to build communities that transcend regional boundaries. They create online spaces for gay people to express themselves freely without fear of harassment. They provide legal education to one another, especially on how to reduce the risk of arrest, and initiate workshops giving advice on digital security to avoid police monitoring.
Queer activism is therefore not just about legal battles and political action. African activists have used different means to bring about liberation for the community. They normalise queer lifestyles and provide a supportive and instructive space online, reaching queer people living in African countries where homosexuality remains illegal. This has helped empower many and boosted cross-border alliances, generating a greater force for their fight for equality.
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