Johannesburg — For the first time ever, Mr Gay World featured two black African men. This year's edition of the annual competition meant to empower gay men and champion homosexual rights was also held on African soil, in Johannesburg.
Wearing traditional clothing, 24-year-old Robel Hailu from Ethiopia walks onto the stage and introduces himself. He is one of the smaller participants, less muscular than other 'delegates', as they are known, who have come from Mexico, the US, France and the Philippines, among many other countries. It's clear he is a novice at strutting for an audience.
Hailu is also new at this in another way. In his home country, being homosexual is illegal. It can send someone to prison. Since deciding to participate in Mr Gay World, Hailu has received threatening anonymous phone calls and online death threats. His parents only learned of his sexual orientation via media reports about their son joining the event. The family has cut him off completely.
Hailu anticipated negative reactions. But he didn't expect his family to turn their backs on him. Now living in South Africa, where he studies, he thinks he can never return to Ethiopia. But unlike one candidate from Zimbabwe who withdrew his participation after negative reactions stirred fears for his family's safety, Hailu wasn't deterred by the backlash. He says he wants to tell how difficult it is to be gay in his country.
Mr Gay World 2012 also cast the spotlight on 25-year-old Wendelinus Hamutenya. Seven years ago, the contestant from Namibia came out to his family. His dad called the police, who, in turn, took Hamutenya to the psychiatric department of a hospital in Windhoek. Though no longer enforced, Namibia has a law which prohibits sodomy. Hamutenya later reconciled with his father, whom he says is proud of his participation.
Hamutenya was eager to take the title home. His main aim is to show that there are black African men who are gay. "African politicians often say that being gay in un-African," he says. "That it is something we got from the West. But I am a black African that is born here. It is part of us."
Controversy on the continent
Hailu's and Hamutenya's participation in Mr Gay World is controversial on a continent where homosexuality is, in the majority of countries, illegal. The contest's host nation is, on paper anyway, the most tolerant of all. In South Africa's constitution, discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited. Gay marriage is permitted. Still, there is homophobia and the country has been shaken up by hate crimes on lesbians.
"Five years ago Mr Gay World was founded with the goal to create a more positive image of gay men and an annual ambassador who can work on gay rights," explains Coenie Kukkuk, the event's Africa director. He insists it is not a beauty pageant. Kukkok notes that the contest includes a test on the history of the gay rights movement and an interview with judges. The swimsuit competition is there to attract attention, he says.
The delegates stand on the stage. Bright lights shine on their nervous faces. The 22 will be cut down to ten. Names of the selected ten are called. Hailu doesn't make it. Neither does Hamutenya.
Hamutenya sits in the dressing room backstage and doesn't want to speak. "Why didn't they at least include one African in the top ten?" he wonders aloud. Hailu questions what the event really is about. Wasn't his story powerful enough? The organisers say it is a lack of experience - their lack of being sufficiently articulate and confident - that didn't award the African delegates a spot in the top ten.
Still, they clap when the winner is announced. Mr New Zealand, a muscular guy with a wide smile, takes the title.
And they won't give up, both say. Hailu and Hamutenya will keep on fighting for gay rights - maybe not across the world, but at least in Africa.
Elles van Gelder is working on a series of articles on homosexuality in Africa. The project is supported by a journalism fund of NCDO. Later this year, a short documentary will be released on the journey of Hailu's and Hamutenya's participation in Mr Gay World 2012.