May 17 is the 8th annual International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO), an occasion to remember those facing daily homophobia in one of the 78 countries that criminalise same-sex sexual acts.

IDAHO is also an opportunity for us to take a sober look at the threats and challenges facing the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and Intersex (LGBTI) community in South Africa.

In addition to the hundreds of events being held around the world to mark IDAHO, the day sees the release of the updated 5th edition of the annual ILGA (International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association) State-Sponsored Homophobia report on the legal realities facing lesbian and gay people worldwide.

The report reveals that despite efforts by the United Nations to advance LGBTI equality, in too many countries around the world being lesbian or gay remains a crime. (Download the report here.)

According to ILGA, 78 countries still criminalise same-sex sexual acts committed by consenting adults, up from 76 in the previous year. Five of these countries have laws that can be used to put people to death for being gay or lesbian.

(Download a global map of the status of state-sponsored homophobia around the world.)

Sadly, Africa is by far “the continent with the worst laws on the books when it comes to homosexuality and other sexual minorities” says the report’s author, Lucas Paoli Itaborah.

“Thirty-six countries in Africa have laws criminalising homosexuality, some with the death penalty, and many more with harsh jail sentences. More than 50% of African governments have taken action and steps to formally criminalise same-sex unions,” Itaborah notes.

The report further makes the point that “the struggle against HIV/AIDS is also undermined by criminalisation of same-sex relationships” in Africa’ and that “African LGBTI people have been struggling to have access to public health services, the level of double discrimination faced being fuelled by state-sponsored homophobia”.

(Download an African map outlining the status of state-sponsored homophobia on the continent.)

In South Africa we cannot be complacent, despite our exemplary legal and constitutional protections. The scourge of ‘corrective rape’ of lesbian women remains a reality; the much-heralded hate crimes task team has yet to bear any fruit – a year after it was announced.

The mysterious murders of at least eight gay men in Gauteng in the last two years are still unsolved and the LGBTI community continues to be left in the dark about these cases.

In recent weeks, LGBTI South Africans were shaken by news that The House of Traditional Leaders proposed the removal of “sexual orientation” from section 9 (3) of the Constitution, which prohibits unfair discrimination. The misguided belief that being part of a sexual minority is “un-African” continues to plague our country.

While it appears that the proposal will not get very far, there is genuine outrage and shock that it was even proposed and then considered by the Constitutional Review Committee. Protests will be held this weekend in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth to express the community’s anger towards the proposal.

South Africans have been urged to sign an online petition demanding that the Constitutional Review Committee immediately halt efforts to consider removing sexual orientation protection from the Constitution.

On a more positive note, the ANC has been congratulated for taking a clear stance against the proposed constitutional amendment. Internationally, in the last year, there have also been some major success for the LGBTI global community.

South Africa was behind the historic debate on LGBTI rights by the United Nations Human Rights Council as well as the release of the ground-breaking first-ever United Nations report on the state of the human rights of LGBTI people.

World leaders including Navi Pillay, the South-African born UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; British Prime Minister David Cameron and U.S. President Barack Obama have repeatedly expressed their support for LGBTI equality.

The International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia reminds us that we can never take our rights for granted and that many of our brothers and sisters continue to live under unfair, oppressive and sometimes lethal laws – simply because of who they love.

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