Zoie Ha was 21 when she made her first posting on an online forum for Palestinian lesbian women. Organized by the group Aswat, which means “voices,” the online community quickly became a lifeline for Ha, who says that it wasn’t until she was 19 that she even knew the Arabic word for lesbian, “mithlya.” In her insular Bedouin village outside of Nazareth, Israel, being gay isn’t something you talk about, let alone something you act on.
Finding the Aswat forum was life changing. Suddenly, Ha had a group of friends with whom she could honestly and openly discuss their shared experiences as lesbian women in Palestinian society. And yet, each time she visited the site, she worried about what would happen if she were discovered by her brother, whose computer she had to use to access the Internet, or by her father, a devout Muslim passionately opposed to both homosexuality and women accessing information online.
When her father found out that she was visiting the forum, he mistakenly assumed she was talking to boys—and he beat her.
“If my father hit me because of a boy, he’ll kill me because of a girl,” she told World Pulse. “I am sure he would kill me if he found out. Nothing else. He would kill me.”
Last year, desperate for a way out of her father’s house, Ha exchanged marriage vows with a man. She scoured the Internet and eventually found a gay Palestinian man who lived in Los Angeles and who also faced pressure to wed.
After a lonely year in Los Angeles, Ha made the difficult decision to leave her husband and go back home this March. Although she is staying only a half hour away from her family, they don’t know that she has returned.
“When I’m walking down the street,” she told oral historian Shimrit Lee, “I don’t take buses. I always have glasses on, I dye my hair, I cover my face with my scarf.” If her family finds out she is no longer living with her husband, she will be forced to again live in her father’s home.
Like many lesbian women around the world, Ha walks a narrow line between the desire to live her life freely, to demand rights and acceptance from her community, and the need for protection and safety. Each time she and her friends log on and shed their disguises to share stories, resources, and even poetry with each other; they are strengthening their voices and nudging their society toward equality.
A Global Struggle
Currently, at least 80 countries criminalize same-sex intimacy, and those who desire people of the same gender face increasingly harsh punishments ranging from fines to imprisonment. In seven of those nations—Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, and Mauritania—homosexuality is a crime punishable by death.
But even in many countries where there is little threat of legal action, gay and lesbian individuals face persecution in their communities, families, and workplaces. Labeled “unnatural,” “un-Christian,” “un-Islamic,” “un-African,” or “the family secret,” their lives are silently erased from public view.
But now, as a global movement that recognizes sexual orientation as a human right gains ground, and as the Internet opens up new possibilities for connection, women like Zoie Ha are finding power in the realization that they are not alone. They are organizing locally and internationally, creating funding networks, founding advocacy groups, shelters, and support lines. They are connecting to larger movements, sharing information and resources, and helping each other imagine and create a reality in which they might live their lives without fear.
And in some places, activists are making advances toward equality.
This April, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists in the Netherlands celebrated the 10th anniversary of legal gay marriage in their country. Last July, Irish President Mary McAleese ignored protests from senior bishops and signed into law the Civil Partnership Bill, which legally recognizes same-sex relationships and offers couples certain protections, such as pension rights. In June 2010, Iceland’s parliament voted unanimously to legalize gay marriage, and Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir and her partner became the first couple to marry under the new law. Argentina and Mexico City followed soon after. In Indonesia, a majority Muslim country with a secular constitution, human rights advocates are working to reform the 1974 Marriage Law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. And in February, US President Barack Obama declared that the government can no longer defend the constitutionality of a federal law banning same-sex marriage. That law, the Defense of Marriage Act, has been at the heart of peaked debates between conservatives and liberals, since it effectively trumps laws in five states that allow for same-sex unions.
Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
But even as steady progress is made, LGBT human rights activists are finding that it’s not just about changing laws. Often when legal protections are in place, they aren’t enforced, and in many cases, societies with progressive laws on the books have failed to protect their gay and lesbian citizens.
In Indonesia, where LGBT individuals enjoy a greater amount of freedom and legal protection than many other Muslim countries, a mob of hardline Islamists stormed a hotel in East Java last year, attacking delegates at an international gay and lesbian conference.
Ade Kusumaningrum, a 39-year-old Indonesian movie publicist, says it is particularly hard for lesbians to be open about their sexuality in her country—in part because, as women, they already face so many challenges. Like many countries, sexual identity in Indonesia is rooted in a culture that views women with sexual desires as promiscuous.
“You can pardon men for being gay because it’s just men being naughty,” says Ade. “But if you’re a lesbian it’s a sin. It’s not excusable…[We’re] invisible here but that’s because of the fear we plant in our own hearts,” she says, flicking ash from the end of her cigarette.
In Uganda, international pressure has led the legislature to drop anti-gay legislation that would impose the death penalty on those who are HIV positive or who engage in same sex acts, but one of the bill’s most outspoken critics, David Kato, was murdered in late January in what human rights activists say was a targeted attack on gay rights campaigners in a country that has ignored discrimination faced by LGBT people. (In October, Kato’s photograph appeared on the cover of the Ugandan tabloid Rolling Stone, under the headline “Hang Them.”)
In South Africa, one of the first countries in the world to legalize gay marriage, and the only African country to do so, a surge in violence against sexual minorities is sending many people back in the closet. Some South African groups have estimated that 10 lesbians are raped or assaulted every week in Cape Town alone.
For gender and HIV/AIDS activist and Positive Women’s Network founder Prudence Mabele, the grisly statistics have hit too close to home.
In 2007, she returned from a women’s rights conference to the news that one of her colleagues, Sizakele Sigasa, and her partner Salome Masooa, had been brutally raped and murdered because of their sexuality.
As one of the very first African women to go public with a positive HIV status, Mabele has spent much of her career combating the conventional wisdom that AIDS only affects gay, white men. She is used to being the loudest, and sometimes lone, voice for justice. But in this case, she had no words. She couldn’t stomach the thought that the very hatred Sizakele had been working against had ended her life.
Every time Mabele glanced at a newspaper she saw her friend and colleague dead, her dreadlocks yanked from her head. “I couldn’t even form a press statement,” she told World Pulse. “It was just too big.”
Although Mabele has redoubled her commitment to her work to honor her friends’ memory, she remains haunted by the fact that the young men who committed this hate crime, though identified, have never been brought to justice.
Need for Protection
Pouline Kimani, an activist in East Africa who has been attacked and arrested for being a lesbian, says that even in regions where same-sex relationships are not criminalized, LGBT activists require protection.
“Every six months I change houses,” Kimani told World Pulse. “I never stay long enough for people to become familiar with me. Sometimes it becomes like you’re running, but you don’t know what you’re running from.”
The 25-year-old Kenyan says it’s the government, her neighbors, and her distant family who pose the greatest threats in a country that provides a false sense of safety to people in the LGBT community. Relationships between women are legal in Kenya, and there is no law against marriage, but blackmail, extortion, and violent stigmatization are common.
But Kimani isn’t giving up. She currently helps nonprofit groups build resources to support the region’s burgeoning LGBT network. And she and her friends regularly hold queer parties to raise awareness about HIV and sexual health in the queer community, and she continues to look for ways to combat discrimination.
“Homophobia establishes itself in our hearts,” she says. “If we question how we’ve been socialized to relate to each other then we can start a conversation.”
Women Out Front
For Aswat, the organization behind the Palestinian online forum for lesbian women that Zoie Ha frequents, activism is not about pride parades and coming out. They are still working to create a language amongst themselves in a society where even talking about sexuality is taboo. As a group, they are breaking taboos very carefully. The faces of members do not appear in the photo section of their website, and their recently published anthology does not reveal the real names of writers. They actively work to hide the identity of members while, as a collective, they struggle to make their rights visible.
In Burkina Faso, lesbian rights activist Mariam Armisen created an online network similar to Aswat’s forum, called the Queer African Youth Networking Center. Its purpose is to unite lesbian gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex youth so that they can connect and provide support for each other.
“The image of gay people in Africa is very caricatured,” she said. She founded the center in 2010 to provide what she calls “real” information about gender identity and sex education to youths in Africa. “It was not a choice for me to be open in Burkina Faso. You learn very fast as you come out that you also have to stay in the closet.”
While no law in Burkina Faso criminalizes relationships between two women, Armisen says society does. “Women are often assaulted or sexually abused to rid them of lesbian urges. You get called sir more than ma’am, and it’s very common for men to take a lesbian to church and rape her.”
The level of violence can debilitate those who live amidst it. But like Armisen, Prudence Mabele, the South African activist, wasn’t going to be silenced. After Sizakele and her partner were killed, Mabele threw herself into the details of the memorial service to honor their lives. And today, her activism continues to pay tribute. “If you’re going to nurse your feelings now you are letting the perpetrators victimize the struggle. You’ve got to be out there and do what you have to do,” she told World Pulse. “And then you fall apart later.”
These courageous women are part of a movement of LGBT activists across the globe who are fighting back. And they are finding safety—and success—in numbers.
In December, Luleki Sizwe, a small group of South African activists, started a petition against corrective rape—the rape of lesbian women in order to “cure” them of their sexuality. In just three months the campaign gained 170,000 supporters from 163 countries, jammed the Ministry of Justice email system, and drew international media attention to their cause.
Backed by global allies, they marched on South African Parliament and successfully convinced the same officials who had for years ignored their pleas to commit to developing an action plan to address hate crimes against the LGBT community.
In Kyrgyzstan, the organization Labrys—named after a double-sided axe used by Amazon warriors and later adopted by lesbians as a symbol of power and independence—provides shelter, employment, and counseling for the LGBT community. As their country, which once outlawed homosexuality under Soviet rule, becomes more democratic, Labrys has started reaching out to LGBT communities in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where governments still exert strict control over personal freedoms.
Regional publications such as Africa’s Behind the Mask, and the Lebanon-based English/Arabic language publication Bekhsoos, are giving LGBT activists a collective voice strong enough to counter the silence of local media. And with the protection and support of a globally expanding movement, individuals all over the world are finding the freedom to express their demands for dignity and justice.
Back in Israel, Zoie Ha holds out hope that her family and community will find a way to support her decision to continue her studies and to live independently with her girlfriend. But she knows this best-case scenario isn’t likely. For Ha, the stress of her double life and the pain of alienation from her family and community are eased only by the knowledge that her Aswat friends—her adopted family—will always be there for her. And as they work together to fight for their basic human rights and freedoms, they are speaking the same language, in a strong and unified voice.