Gay Is Global

Three decades after Stonewall the movement it spawned has become a worldwide symbol of freedom

Thirty years ago this week, a motley crew of queers got mad as hell and wouldn't take it anymore. The riot they started in Greenwich Village gave birth to gay liberation, a movement that flowered in the fertile climate of the sixties. Three decades later, it is still germinating, but the seed has spread far beyond American soil.

As ambitious as gay liberation was from the start— nothing less than the overthrow of the patriarchy and the missionary position would do— its creators never expected their movement to become a global phenomenon. Yet, just as feminism has resonated around the world, gay liberation reverberates across wildly different cultures. Whether they're called ah chauk(in Burma), eshengi(in Bantu), or homoim(in Israel), gays and lesbians have won a measure of freedom that, in some places, surpasses that of the United States.

Antigay laws have been nullified in more than a dozen nations, though they still exist in 19 American states (including Texas, where two men were arrested last year for having sex in their bedroom). Same-sex unions may be a sign of the Antichrist in Congress, but they are winning official recognition in Europe and Canada. While American courts fret about whether the 14th Amendment applies to homosexuals, South Africa has enshrined the rights of gay people in its new constitution. And the United Nations has intervened successfully for the first time on behalf of a gay plaintiff, forcing the Australian state of Tasmania to drop its sodomy law. Will the home of George W. Bush be next?

Of course, in much of the world, gay people still struggle to survive. In Zimbabwe, an activist who went to the police to complain of being blackmailed was instead arrested for sodomy. Comparing gays unfavorably to pigs and dogs, Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, urged citizens to tie them up and bring them to the police. Meanwhile in the New World, paramilitary death squads gun down transvestites in Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil. In Chile, prisoners with HIV are refused medication and isolated in their cells. In Costa Rica, a busload of gay tourists was recently attacked by a mob. And back in the land of Vlad the Impaler, the Romanian parliament responded to pressure from the Council of Europe by revising its sodomy law, but only to make "promoting" homosexuality— say, by placing a personal ad or cruising someone on the street— a crime.

But the mere fact that dictators and divines are forced to account for their bigotry is a sign that gay lib has made its mark on the planet. A nation that imprisons homosexuals stands to be condemned by Amnesty International, which began calling persecuted gays "prisoners of conscience" in 1991 at the behest of a Turkish transvestite who fought back against harassment by the police.

Meanwhile, a nongovernmental organization called the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission has been granted status by the UN. This group monitors homophobic outbreaks and mistreatment of people with AIDS around the world. Every year, IGLHRC hands out awards named for Felipa de Souza, a Brazilian woman killed by the Portuguese Inquisition in 1591 for making love to other women. Among the first Felipa winners was Demet Demir, that Turkish trannie who dared to do what the nelly queens at Stonewall did: stand up to the Man.

This year, Felipas went to activists from Korea and Burma, as well as a 27-year-old, HIV-positive South African woman whose crusade to have her relationship recognized may make her the first African to legally wed someone of her own sex. "We've had our hardships," says Prudence Mabele. "It's challenging to be a married lesbian, and to be HIV-positive and black. But I don't sit in the victim block, accepting things as they are. I'm moving on."

Asked what she thinks of when she hears the word Stonewall, Mabele doesn't hesitate to answer. Never mind General Stonewall Jackson, the Civil War hero whose stern statue overlooks the bar that still carries his name. To a lesbian from a South African township, Stonewall means "people fighting with stones. It's a place of warriors. The Stonewall people help us as Africans to be able to say, if it happened there, it means we're not aliens. This thing exists in all of life."

That primal discovery— I am not alone— is a hallmark of gay liberation all over the world. It resonates in South Africa, where parents expect their daughters to marry and receive a labola(dowry), no less than in Korea, where a person who doesn't wed is likely to be accused of being impotent rather than gay. In this nation of Confucian as well as Christian traditions, there has never been a sodomy law. "There is no legal concept of homosexuality," notes Hee Il Lee, founder of the gay-male group Chingusai. "So there is no prohibition, but also no protection. On a conscious level, there is no acknowledgment at all."

It has been only two years since the first gay parade in Seoul, and though the response has never been violent, it is uncomprehending enough. To many, it seems impossible to be both Korean and gay. This was never a problem in the West, where homosexuals were demonized but not regarded as bearers of an alien identity. In Korea, however, the very concept of gaynessas a way of life is foreign. So, for that matter, is being single. All sorts of benefits hinge on the formation of a family with a man in residence. A single woman risks her ability to earn a living. For years, notes Kim Song, a founder of the lesbian group Kiri Kiri, such women had only one career option: driving a taxi. So the women's cabbie association became a crypto-lesbian nation.

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