On May 21, a member of the opposition Democratic Alliance, Zakhele Mbhele was sworn in to the South African National Assembly. He is currently the 203rd openly gay Member of Parliament worldwide, since Coos Huijsen became the first in the Netherlands in 1976. This event becomes even more poignant when it is recognised that he has been elected on a continent where laws designed to discredit gay people have affected countless lives.
Although in recent years there have been many advances in gay rights all over the world, homosexuals still face extreme prejudice, violence, social ostracism and even legal repression in many countries. In more than 80 countries, homosexuality remains illegal and the death penalty can be the consequence in five of these. Brunei introduced a law this month in which conviction for same-sex acts would bring death by stoning. However, South Africa is considered to have one of the most progressive constitutions in the world when it comes to gay rights, but the distance between legal binds and the reality of daily life can be very wide.
Andrew Reynolds for the Washington Post suggests: "It is no shock to learn that knowing someone who is gay affects the way people think about homosexuality and gay rights. Indeed, the number of Americans who support same-sex marriage in the U.S. has tracked closely the number of people who say they know a gay person […]Simply having a single LGBT legislator in parliament is correlated with national laws that are up to 20 percent more inclusive of gay rights." Openly gay legislators send a clear message to their heterosexual colleagues that if they chose to vote against such legislation then they are voting directly against their homosexual co-worker, which is a much more real opposition than the faceless gay community. The visibility of gay leaders is tantamount to pro-gay legislation as they smash the fear created by the myths surrounding their invisibility.
Other examples of forerunners in the representation of the homosexual community around the globe are: Louisa Wall, who brought marriage equality to New Zealand; Sunil Babu Pant, who persuaded the Supreme Court of Nepal to recognise the 'third gender' community as a specially protected minority group; British Lord Waheed Alli, the first gay Asian and Muslim Member of Parliament in the world. Lord Alli helped engineer the most comprehensive overhaul of gay rights in the history of democracy by overturning the unequal age of consent in 2000, amended Section 28 in 2003, introduced Civil Unions in 2004 and ultimately same-sex marriage in 2013.
Zakhele Mbhele follows in the footsteps of these influential members of the homosexual community and although he will be challenged from many sides - if the evidence of the last 40 years suggests anything - rapid progress follows a tipping point of social change. The simple presence of an openly gay office-holder in South Africa hopefully heralds a change in the attitudes and behavior toward the minority.
Pictured: Zakhele Mbhele, right, before his swearing-in ceremony. (Zakhele Mbhele Twitter account )