The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling June 26 on same-sex marriage is interesting in the context of other countries. Ireland in May became the first country to sanction marriage equality via a popular vote. However, LGBT rights seem to be losing ground in countries such as Russia. Here’s a cross section of world views on gay marriage and equal rights.
Progress Slow, but South Africa Offers a Beacon
According to America’s Human Rights Campaign, homosexuality is illegal in 35 of Africa’s 54 countries — and is punishable by death in four of them.
With legislators in much of Africa cracking down on homosexuality in recent years, filmmakers addressing LGBT themes face a raft of challenges, from anti-gay laws and censorship boards to conservative popular opinions. When the Kenyan arts collective the Nest last year released “Stories of Our Lives,” about that country’s LGBT community, it was banned for promoting homosexuality, “which is contrary to (Kenya’s) national norms and values.”
Helmer Jim Chuchu, however, notes that popular opinion in Kenya is often difficult to gauge. “The climate is very reactive,” he says. “If gays are in the news, the debate happens. When the news cycle is over, so is the attention.”
In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, tapping into public opinion is a hallmark of the $5 billion-a-year Nollywood film industry. Though Nigeria is one of the African countries that criminalizes homosexual conduct, gay love affairs are not uncommon onscreen — even if they’re hardly a harbinger of a more tolerant society. In their 2010 study “The Video Closet: Nollywood’s Gay-Themed Movies,” researchers Lindsey Green-Simms and Unoma Azuah note that films which managed to make it past the country’s censorship board were those “in which the consequences and immorality of homosexuality are made clear from the beginning.”
Meanwhile, South Africa, the first African country to legalize same-sex marriage, remains a beacon for many on the continent. Helmer Oliver Hermanus, who explored the illicit love life of a closeted married man in 2011’s “Skoonheid,” says he was privileged as a South African, because he was “legally allowed to make that film.” Still, he cautions, “the law isn’t the society.”
Despite critical acclaim and a Cannes premiere, “Skoonheid” has never been picked up by South African television networks. “There’s no question that it’s (considered) too inappropriate for viewers,” Hermanus says.
— Christopher Vourlias
Arab World Continues to Lag Far Behind on Rights
Being gay is tough all over the Arab world, where same-sex acts are not socially or legally accepted. However, varying degrees of tolerance exist in the culture, and there are indications of progress in combating the widespread homophobia.
The only Arab public figure to have come out as gay is Omar Sharif Jr., grandson of the Egyptian star. He has become a spokesperson for gay rights and for gays’ recognition in the Arab world, with his grandfather’s support.
There is also just one official advocacy group fighting homophobia in the region — Beirut-based Helem (Dream) http://www.helem.net. That doesn’t mean homosexuality is legal in Lebanon, though it is more tolerated: Lebanon is the only Arab country that did not ban Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” from theatrical and homevideo release.
As for Arab films, it’s rare for homosexuality to be a theme, but not unheard of.
In 2014, tyro helmer Hany Fawzy’s “Family Secrets” was billed as the first Egyptian movie whose central theme is homosexuality. However, Variety’s Jay Weissberg called the film “a pro-gay conversion-therapy tale in which the poor chump is told his ‘disorder’ can be cured.” He added, “It could be worse — at least the protag is meant to be sympathetic.” Still many movie theaters in Egypt refused to release “Secrets,” says film analyst Alaa Karkouti, who heads Cairo-based distribution and marketing outfit MAD Solutions.
Karkouti also notes that pay-TV network OSN, the biggest in the Arab world, canceled its airing of “Behind the Candelabra,” even though it had been announced in print and on digital. OSN does release films and TV shows without censorship, he adds — some with gay characters, like “Game of Thrones” — but when it comes to an entire movie about gays, “then it’s different story,” he laments.
But Karkouti also notes that “even in 2015, women do not have full rights in the Arab world. And he reserves his harshest criticism for Saudi Arabia, which he calls “the worst country ever for both women and homosexuals.”
— Nick Vivarelli
Changing China Moves Slowly on Gay Rights
China’s business practices are a fascinating, sometimes frustrating, mix of the traditional and the hyper-modern. Confucian values sit side by side with entrepreneurialism and the global-village immediacy of smartphones.
China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997, and stopped classifying it as a mental illness in 2001. But the government doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages or civil unions, and operates a policy of “three no’s”: no approval, no disapproval and no promotion. Big-city society may be more tolerant — Beijing has several gay nightclubs — but wider Chinese society is still disapproving. Most gay men hide their sexuality, and millions enter into legal marriages with women to avoid scrutiny.
Others move to Hong Kong, the Chinese “special administrative region,” which has its own jurisdiction over civil and business matters.
While the territory, too, does not recognize same-sex marriages or civil unions, discrimination is not permitted on the grounds of race, gender or sexuality. Instead, Hong Kong worships meritocracy, money and success. And in practice, many people, including entertainers, live openly LGBT lives.
Hong Kong may also be home to thousands of gay people who choose to live there rather than in Singapore, the socially conservative country which holds itself up as a role model for China. Male homosexual activity is illegal in the city-state — police occasionally run sting operations to entrap people — and gay marriage is forbidden.
Singapore’s Media Development Authority is entrusted to promote creative industries, like film, even as it acts as a censor. Its mandate requires elimination of all content that “in any way promotes, justifies or glamorizes … lifestyles such as homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexualism, transsexualism, transvestism, pedophilia and incest.”
Lesbians are more likely to be ignored than gay men in Singapore, but not always. Taiwanese star Jolin Tsai’s hit song “We’re All Different … Yet the Same,” which has a video showing Tsai and actress Ruby Lin wearing wedding dresses and sharing a loving kiss, was recently banned. Last year, another Taiwanese singer, A-mei was not allowed to perform her pro-LGBT song “Rainbow” at a concert in Singapore.
— Patrick Frater
Region Re-defines Itself Politically and Culturally
When Ireland became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage via a popular vote, radio host Sean Moncrieff tweeted, “So, turns out we haven’t re-defined marriage. We re-defined Ireland.”
The country has been dominated for centuries by the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church, and the change in attitude has been mirrored by inclusion of LGBT characters and issues in mainstream entertainment, such as film comedy “The Stag” (titled “The Bachelor Weekend” in the U.S.), starring Andrew Scott. “The climate has changed a lot,” says Noel Sutton, director at Gaze LGBT Film Festival in Dublin. “Having LGBT characters within these productions helps normalize things. You see gay characters living a normal life. This has changed people’s perceptions.”
Sutton says the entertainment sector should focus more on ending homophobic bullying among young people. “That’s where we need to be targeting, and start sending positive messages in films that we produce: that it is OK to be different.”
In the U.K., there’s been a sea change since the 2003 abolition of the country’s Section 28 law, passed in 1988, which prohibited government agencies from “promoting” homosexuality, and labeled gay family relationships as “pretend.” In the past decade, the nation has seen measures such as the legalization of same-sex marriages and adoption by gay and lesbian couples, and the passage of hate-crime legislation.
Within the entertainment business, says Brian Robinson, programmer of BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival, “The overall picture is extremely positive, but there is much more to do.” Last fall, the British Film Institute launched its Three Ticks diversity initiative to link production funding to projects whose cast, crew and onscreen characters reflect the diversity of the U.K. population, including those from the LGBT community.
Another BFI measure is its LGBT Film Mentorship program. One concern is follow-through: “Where is the lesbian feature filmmaker who has made four feature films?” Robinson asks. “Somehow it seems like careers get stalled.”
In terms of audience engagement for LGBT titles, Ollie Charles, with distributor Peccadillo Pictures, points to a trend that has seen dramas like Andrew Haigh’s 2011 gay romance “Weekend” and last year’s “Appropriate Behavior,” about a young hip, bisexual woman, break out among diverse audiences. Charles adds that it helps that LGBT filmmakers have broadened their approach. Rather than following the traditional coming-out storyline, often with a tragic ending, they are venturing into a wide range of genres, such as horror movies and romantic comedies.
— Leo Barraclough
Under Putin’s Watch, Time Marches Backward
Homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia in 1993, but recently, the legal situation for LGBT citizens is moving backward, making the idea of marriage equality in the nation remote. In 2012, the conference and festival Moscow Pride was banned — for 100 years — by city courts and, in 2013, President Vladimir Putin outlawed “propaganda” that promoted “nontraditional sexual relations” to children.
The law, which is said to protect children, is vague, but with regards to cinema, it means that any advertising for a film dealing with LGBT themes must carry an “18+” logo, and only adults can watch the pic. Religious extremists and right-wing groups have sent teens under 18 into screenings of gay movies to enable prosecution of theater owners, who must check ID’s. Despite these tactics, films with LGBT themes, such as “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” continue to be distributed.
Funding for Russian productions with LGBT subjects is tough to find. The government-run Russian Cinema Fund is unlikely to provide money, and it would be difficult to convince private investors that such films would be commercially viable. “Because of the limitations, theaters would be unlikely to take them — not because they are not allowed, but because they want to stay clear of trouble,” says Sam Klebanov, who distributed “Warmest Color,” and will release the U.K. film “Pride,” about a coalition between gay activists and mine workers in support of a miners strike.
Moreover, it is difficult to sell TV rights for such movies, as most major stations are controlled by the Kremlin. Klebanov can recall only one Russian film with an LGBT theme, 2013 festival darling “Winter Journey,” about the relationship between a gay opera singer and a petty thief, being released in recent years.
Klebanov sees no opposition from the entertainment business to the government’s anti-gay stance. “Basically, I don’t think the industry thinks this issue is worth fighting for,” he laments.
— Leo Barraclough
Progressive Lawmakers Lead, Entertaiment Lags
In 1989, Denmark became the first country to create a registered partnership law. Norway and Sweden followed with similar legislation, paving the way for a same-sex marriage law in 2009.
Politicians, however, have been ahead of entertainers on the issue. “While Danish TV drama is celebrated globally for (its) strong female characters and progressive images of the Nordic welfare model, LGBT representation in Danish TV (offers few positives),” critic Katrine Hornstrup Yde wrote recently in Danish newspaper Politiken.
Entertainment in Sweden is slightly more advanced. Pubcaster SVT’s “Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves,” a 2012 series about the impact of AIDS in the 1980s homosexual community, adapted by popular gay author Jonas Gardell from his own trilogy, was a big success, and reached a general audience. Within popular cinema, though, homosexual protagonists are rare, and comedy seems to play better than drama. Alexandra-Therese Keining’s 2011 “Kiss Me,” about a young woman’s affair with the lesbian daughter of her stepmother-to-be, earned critical plaudits but little box office love.
Ester Martin Bergsmark’s “Something Must Break,” about the relationship between a straight man and a self-abusive man who wants to be a woman, won the Tiger Award at last year’s Rotterdam fest, and earned transgender lead actress Saga Becker a Guldbagge — a first — but also failed at Swedish cinemas. Yet Ella Lemhagen’s 2008 comedy-drama “Patrik Age 1.5,” which revolves around a gay couple misplacing the decimal in their adoption papers and winding up saddled with a homophobic teenager, was a commercial success, and even played briefly in the U.S.
— Jon Asp