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RIGHTS: ‘Gay Acceptance Related to Income’

David Cronin

LEUVEN, Belgium, Jul 11 2008 (IPS) - The past few months have seen victories and setbacks in the international struggle for gay rights. In June, Norway became the latest country to legislate in favour of allowing same-sex marriages. In May, however, Gambian President Yahya Jammeh issued homosexuals with a 24-ultimatum to leave the West African country, threatening to decapitate those who remained.

The European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency, meanwhile, recently found that 11 of the EU’s 27 countries “appear hostile” to the recognition of gay marriages. Just three EU countries – Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain – provide homosexuals with the right to wed. But if gays and lesbians who marry in those countries move to another EU state, there is a risk that they will not be considered spouses, according to the Vienna-based agency, which monitors various forms of discrimination.

Public attitudes to homosexuality across the world was one of the themes addressed by the International Academy of Sex Research (IASR), during its annual meeting Jul. 9-12 in Leuven, Belgium.

Theo Sandfort, a science professor at New York’s Columbia University, said it is “reassuring to know that worldwide acceptance of homosexuality is increasing,” judging by the results of various opinion polls that have been undertaken since the early 1980s.

These surveys indicate that the societies of the Netherlands, Sweden, Iceland and Denmark are the most tolerant towards homosexuality and that Bangladesh, Pakistan and Jordan the least tolerant.

Data relating to how homosexuality is viewed has been gathered from a range of polls stretching from a World Values Survey in 1981 to one by the Pew Global Attitudes Project last year. Their findings, said Standfort, appear to support theories that attitudes to homosexuals are more favourable in countries that prefer equality over inequality and where acting as an individual is preferred over acting in a group. Sweden, which has a strong emphasis on secularism and self-expression, is more tolerant than Zimbabwe, where “survival values and traditional values” persist, he said.

“You don’t have to be a Marxist,” he suggested, to work out that there is a strong link between economic factors and social values. As a result, improving acceptance to homosexuality “can’t be seen as an independent goal,” he added.

In 1996, South Africa became the first country to enshrine rights based on sexual orientation into its national constitution. This marked a break from the apartheid era, during which same-sex relations were outlawed.

Yet an anti-gay bias still prevails in much of South African society. Only a small number of employers confer the same benefits on gay couples that their heterosexual counterparts enjoy.

“Very often, there is brutal repression of those who don’t conform,” said Juan Nel from the Centre for Applied Psychology at the University of South Africa.

At its most extreme, such repression has involved murder. In February 2006, 19-year-old lesbian Zoliswa Nkonyana was beaten to death by a mob in Khayletisha township in Cape Town. The following year, another two lesbians – political activist Sizakele Sigas and Salome Masooa – were found dead in Soweto, Johannesburg. Both were shot and, according to some reports, raped.

Nel cited a study of almost 2,000 gays and lesbians in South Africa, about half of whom were black, 40 percent white and the remaining describing themselves as coloured or of Indian ethnicity. It found that both black and white gay men are at risk of being victimised, yet black men are more likely to suffer from racism than white. Among lesbians who suffered abuse, over 20 percent believed they were abused because they were female.

An article published by the Psychological Society of South Africa in 2007 indicated that homophobia is closely linked to sexism. “Patriarchy is of particular importance regarding sexual orientation as it places lesbian women under a double burden of discrimination, both as women and as lesbians,” it said. “Patriarchy is also particularly vicious towards gay males who pose a strong subversive threat to the patriarchal ideals of aggression and dominance.”

Although some fundamentalist organisations view homosexuality as unnatural and perverse, there is a growing body of scientific evidence to suggest that males can be gay from birth.

In 1993, the geneticist Dean Hamer published a paper suggesting that some human genes predispose males towards being gay. Among the studies that Hamer has carried out were a sampling of 40 pairs of gay brothers. He found that in 33 of the cases the brothers had the same DNA sequence.

Michael Bailey from Northwestern University in Illinois is among a team of researchers conducting follow-up research to Hamer’s work. A project which is likely to yield results in the autumn involves studying blood and saliva samples from 1,000 pairs of gay brothers in the U.S., Canada, Britain, Australia and Ireland.

Bailey said that genetic science is important in resolving the “nature versus nurture” debate of whether males can be born gay or decide to be attracted to members of the same sex because of an experience that they have.

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