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South Africa has long stood as a beacon of hope for gays and lesbians on a continent where hostility toward them is the norm.

The country is known as the “Rainbow Nation” because of its embrace of diversity and universal equality since the fall of racial apartheid in 1994.

It was the first in Africa both to grant constitutional protections to its citizens based on sexual orientation and to legalize same-sex marriage.

And with large and active gay communities in its two biggest cities, Johannesburg and Cape Town, it feels a world away from countries like Nigeria and Uganda, both of which imposed tough new laws targeting gays and their supporters earlier this year.

Uganda’s constitutional court recently struck down that country’s new law imposing sentences of up to life in prison for homosexual acts, saying it was passed improperly, However, homosexuality remains illegal there under an older, anti-sodomy statute.

But South Africa, a country of 52 million people, is a paradox.

From the outside, it sets the gold standard as a legal safe haven for gays. Inside the country, though, gays are increasingly divided and hunkered down. Many gay people here don’t get to take advantage of the groundbreaking rights and freedoms granted to them.

Anti-gay violence, including a string of highly publicized killings and “corrective rape” attacks in poor, black townships aimed at “curing” lesbians of their homosexuality, has imposed a climate of fear in the country.

Add to that a host of other struggles, from an HIV crisis affecting 6 million people to a violent-crime epidemic to lingering racial mistrust among the black majority, whites, mixed-race and Asian people that make up the general population.

Even before the death in December of revered anti-apartheid leader and former President Nelson Mandela, activists who pioneered the gay-rights movement in that country were fretting.

“There is nothing ‘rainbow’ about this ‘Rainbow Nation,’ and that’s clear,” the Johannesburg-based lesbian activist and filmmaker Bev Ditsie says.

In 1990, she and her friend, the legendary late activist Simon Nkoli, led the first-ever gay-pride parade on the African continent in Johannesburg. The demonstrators, some wearing paper bags over their faces to remain anonymous, were from a mix of racial backgrounds, from the urban center as well as segregated townships.

Class, race split

Ditsie says that sense of common cause among gays has all but vanished.

Gay-pride celebrations in Johannesburg have become segregated along race and class lines in recent years. Two years ago, advocates for black-township lesbians famously disrupted the big mainstream pride event by lying in the middle of the parade route and holding a “die-in,” forcing partyers to confront the safety issue.

With the split among factions, it’s harder to push the government for more action on the lesbian-rape issue, on the need for more education about gay-rights protections in culturally isolated townships or for more gay-sensitivity training of police and other civil servants, Ditsie warns.

But Eugene Brockman, a white gay activist living in Johannesburg, says that among his peer group, “people just don’t seem to care” about issues affecting gays who are still struggling.

“In that 20 years of practicing our freedom,” Ditsie explains, “we failed to keep conscientizing people about what it means to be free.”

If Pookie Keith ever needs a reminder of how much worse the situation is in his home country of Zimbabwe, all he has to do is take a look at the scar on his left leg.

Speaking at the offices of Passop, an organization in Cape Town that offers services and advocacy to gay and lesbian refugees who’ve fled to the relative safety of South Africa, Keith pulls up one side of his slacks to expose a nasty burn mark on his leg.

He got the injury when people back home in Zimbabwe poured a scalding-hot, porridge-like brew on him for being effeminate.

“You don’t deserve to be alive,’” Keith recalls one of the attackers saying to him.

Keith ran away, eventually settling in the Delft township of Cape Town.

Zimbabwe is among 38 of Africa’s 54 countries that have criminalized homosexuality with sentences as severe as life in prison or execution.

Harassment rises

Since the new anti-gay laws in Nigeria and Uganda have passed, the harassment and arrest of gays in those countries have skyrocketed, driving many gay activists underground, human-rights groups report.

Guillain Koko, a Congolese human-rights attorney and support coordinator at Passop, tells of desperate lesbians having to sell their bodies to freight-truck and bus drivers in exchange for a ticket out of their countries, and of a gay couple whose house was burned down by an angry mob while one of the pair burned to death inside. The other person fled to South Africa.

But South Africans often view immigrants from Africa, gay or straight, with suspicion.

Job and housing discrimination against gay asylum-seekers, who are legally free to live and work in South Africa, are rife, according to a report released by Passop in January. Some new arrivals support themselves as sex workers, unable to find work in a country also burdened with soaring unemployment.

South African President Jacob Zuma, who won re-election in May, has been criticized for failing to condemn new laws in Nigeria and Uganda, and for what is seen as his lackluster support for gay rights in South Africa.

His appointment of a lesbian to a Cabinet post this spring — a first in this country — was greeted with only guarded praise.

Other members of government, however, have expressed outright opposition to gay rights. One key parliament member recently proposed removing protections for gays from the constitution.

Edwin Cameron, South Africa’s openly gay High Court justice, and the only openly HIV-positive public official anywhere in Africa, agrees his country and the continent face serious problems but he remains cautiously optimistic.

“What makes me hopeful about Africa is that all across the continent, gays and lesbians are actually coming out,” Cameron says. “They’re saying they will not put up with being suppressed and oppressed and imprisoned and tortured and attacked and killed anymore.”

Keeping promise alive

Back in Cape Town, two people from different walks of life are doing their part to keep South Africa’s promise alive.

Imam Mushin Hendriks is founder of The Inner Circle, a nonprofit in a blue-collar, immigrant district of Cape Town that works to reconcile faith and sexuality in South Africa’s Muslim-minority gay community. There, local gay Muslims can practice Islam — and also get married, as nine couples have done since legalization took effect seven years ago.

Hendriks, South Africa’s first openly gay Islamic cleric, leads one-hour prayer services in a plain conference room lined with silk pillows. Anywhere from a handful to 20 people, mostly gay but some straight, attend the gatherings.

He teaches that the Koran’s emphasis on compassion is entirely compatible with the spirit of South Africa’s gay-rights protections.

Across town in the city’s gentrified, upper-income “gay village,” Odidiva, a popular black drag performer who grew up under apartheid in the nearby Nyanga township, performs socially conscious shows inspired by South Africa’s remarkable transformation in front of mostly white locals and international tourists.

The 36-year-old, whose real name is Odidi Mfenyana, later leads a tour of his old township stomping grounds far removed from the manicured city center, down roads dotted with tin and wooden shanties, small businesses set up in freight containers and curbside barbecue restaurants.

At Mzoli’s, an-open-air barbecue restaurant, live DJs spin infectious South African house-music beats to a racially mixed crowd of straight and gay patrons, a small bastion of unity and safety.

A young, mixed-race transgendered woman and her friends set up shop next to Mfenyana. Nearby, two black gay men embrace and slow-dance sweetly out of time with the music. Adventurous whites from the city center party at a couple of long picnic tables.

“Cape Town is twisted,” Mfenyana says with a grin. Scenes like this are moving, but they are often hard to find in the Rainbow Nation.

What South Africans are learning, Mfenyana says, is that progress comes at a price that is never fully paid.

Tyrone Beason: tbeason@seattletimes