Patria Jimenez stands out in Mexico’s Catholic, conservative, male-dominated society. Not only is she a woman, feminist and Zapatista activist. She is also Latin America’s first openly gay MP, winning her seat in 1997 for the centre-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD).
‘I waged a campaign focused particularly on the issue of gay and lesbian oppression. I held public meetings in a dozen different cities, I ploughed through Mexico’s gay bars, meeting halls and so forth, presenting my candidacy and encouraging discussion.’
Much needs to be done in the fight for equality: ‘There’s a serious climate of intolerance, particularly in the police and judicial system. There have been several killings in which police were involved, in Chiapas state and elsewhere.’ But gay issues are talked about openly within the Chiapas-based Zapatista movement, she says.
A seasoned campaigner with a taste for outrage, she is also co-founder of a lesbian feminist group called ‘Sister Juana’s Closet’ – named after a seventeenth-century Mexican nun and poet, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz. And weaving together different political strands seems to come naturally to Patria. Speaking at Tijuana’s 1998 gay pride parade she said: ‘This march is... also a protest against homophobic, misogynist and genocidal governments... No-one will be free until all of us are free.’1
Born Yaron Cohen to immigrant parents from Yemen, Dana International hit the headlines when she won the 1997 Eurovision Song Contest for Israel. Not such a big deal perhaps – someone had to win it. But Dana is a transsexual and the very idea of her representing the country sent Israel’s powerful religious Orthodox figures into a spin. Some even considered trying to topple the Government over the issue.
‘I feel shamed,’ said Rabbi Shlomo Benizri of the religious Shas party, ‘because during all the generations the Jewish people sent light to the world, and now we send darkness to the world.... God is against this phenomenon. It’s a sickness you must cure and not give legitimacy to.’
The thousands who openly celebrated on the streets of Tel Aviv did not agree. ‘Winning the contest was a sign of changing times,’ Dana euphorically claimed. ‘We are all equal. I represent the regular Israelis, all the Arabs, the Christians – everyone who wants to be represented by me.’
Dana, who first became known as a female impersonator in Tel-Aviv night clubs, underwent a sex-change operation in London in 1993. Since the song contest she has continued to challenge prejudice, collaborating with Amnesty International.2
Omar Nahas is a careful, soft-spoken man. If he is a taboo-breaker he does so in the most gentle, understated manner possible. Homosexuality is very much a taboo subject in most Islamic communities. Some gay Muslims react by simply rejecting their religion. Others work to re-interpret holy texts from a more tolerant viewpoint.
But Syrian-born Omar has quite a different approach: he talks to imams (religious leaders) about homosexuality. So far, most of his work has taken place within Muslim communities in the Netherlands where he lives and works for the YOESUF foundation, an organization that provides information about Islam and male and female homosexuality.
‘Homosexuality is a sensitive subject among Muslims. Only with a great deal of patience, respect and careful choice of words can you get people to talk about it,’ says Omar.
He believes that when a society has a high degree of intolerance, simply theological debates do not suffice. ‘First, you will have to create basic circumstances so that people tolerate your debates on creating tolerance towards homosexual people. These basic circumstances are best created from inside the religion itself. Only then are people willing to accept your debates.’3
Poliyana Mangwiro was 14 years old when she realized she was ‘a woman who loved women’. But she didn’t tell anyone. ‘I was not sure what was going on with me. I didn’t know this word “lesbian”. Nobody in the rural area where I lived would have known it.’
So she did what most rural girls do – got married. By the time she was 17 she’d had two children. But when she was 20 she ran away from her husband. ‘I thought: “I don’t love this man. So let me move myself.” She went to Harare and in 1989 joined a newly formed lesbian and gay organization called GALZ (Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe).
Then in 1996 all hell broke loose. She had been volunteering at a GALZ stall at the Harare International Book Fair when it was attacked by an anti-gay group, attracting sensational homophobic press coverage. She began receiving threats. But when she tried going back to her village, the community, including her family, rejected her. ‘They said I did not belong there because I was gay and that was for white people.’ She does not blame them now: ‘They didn’t know. These days they are beginning to realize that a lesbian is a human being like any other.’ Her two sons, now aged 16 and 18, live with her father in Harare and are ‘very supportive’. For Poliyana rural outreach work is a priority. ‘We need to let people know we are here and that being gay or lesbian is part of our culture. There is even a word in Shona for it: ngochani.’4
‘You don’t need genitals for politics. You need brains.’ This unusual but true slogan came from Shabna Nehru, the first eunuch politician to run for Parliament in India.
She did not get in, but her record as a municipal councillor for Hisar is exemplary. She has outshone her peers at getting water, sewer lines and roads for her district, a transformed slum. ‘I used to entertain people by dancing,’ says Shabna, whose husky voice contrasts with her attire, a delicately draped sari in the colours of the Indian flag – saffron, white and green. ‘Now I entertain them by doing good, humanitarian deeds.’
The councillor’s unlikely path to public service started in the southern city of Bangalore. The child of an upper-caste business family, she was born a eunuch, she says, declining to elaborate or to disclose her age. ‘I belong to both genders, but I was raised as a girl.’
When her mother died, she was taken from her family by a gang of eunuchs. Notorious for crashing weddings, singing raunchy songs and dancing until paid to leave, they rank lower than the untouchables in society.
Shabna and a handful of sister eunuch politicians are proof that eunuchs – or hijras, ‘impotent ones’ – long ostracized as freaks, are starting to gain mainstream respect. Some people even suggest that, without children or family, eunuchs are the perfect antidote to India’s political corruption and nepotism. And in March 2000 another eunuch, Shabnam Mausi (pictured left), became the first to be appointed to India’s Parliament.5
1 Rex Wockner
2 Jerusalem Post, 19 May 1998 and http://.ma.huji.ac.il
3 Omar Nahas, Separation of Faith and Hate Conference, Rome, 3 July 2000 and Amnesty International, Gay Rights Special magazine, July/August 1998.
4 Interview with Vanessa Baird, May 2000
5 The Tribune, Chandigarh, 13 March 2000; Jonathan Karp, Wall Street Journal, 24 September 1998.