LYNN NEARY, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. This week, it came out that Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan quietly signed into law one of the most repressive anti-gay measures in the world. The law punishes violators with up to 14 years in prison. The development got us thinking about just how difficult it is to be homosexual in so many different parts of the world. To hear more about this, we've reached Jonathan Cooper, the chief executive of the U.K.-based gay rights organization Human Dignity Trust. Thanks for joining us.
JONATHAN COOPER: It's a pleasure to be here.
NEARY: Let's start with this law in Nigeria. As I understand it, one of the things that it makes illegal is for gay organizations to hold meetings at all. So, can you explain a little bit more about that.
COOPER: Yeah. The law in Nigeria basically does two things. It criminalizes gay marriage or same-sex marriages and it also criminalizes association rights of gay and lesbian people. And so therefore it is at a criminal offense now to set up a gay or lesbian organization in Nigeria. And it is also now a criminal offense to attempt to marry somebody of the same sex in Nigeria.
NEARY: Yeah. And pretty much as soon as this was signed into law, people were beginning to be arrested, I think the day after. I mean, how is this going to affect the whole gay rights movement or gay rights community in Nigeria?
COOPER: Well, we're hearing reports of dozens of people being arrested. There's even some suggestion that those people who are arrested are subject to all kinds of inhuman, degrading treatment in order to try to persuade those people to give details of other gay men. It's principally gay men that are being kind of rounded up at the moment. And the reality is if there's any suggestion that you may be gay, you are very, very vulnerable now in Nigeria. And we do need to put this whole issue into context. Most of sub-Saharan Africa that were under British colonial rule have laws that criminalize homosexuality. And we need to kind of understand the history of this. And the reality is it's a curious consequence of British colonial rule, that the British left a legacy of these laws that criminalize gay sex. It was an obsession of the British in the 19th century to criminalize gay sex. You have this extraordinary statistic that out of 53 commonwealth countries that there are, 42 of those countries criminalize homosexuality. And that just gives you a sense of the extent to which this is a British colonial legacy.
NEARY: Let me ask you about Russia, 'cause there's been a lot of international protests leading up to the Olympics, which are being held there in just a few weeks. Because of Russia's laws against homosexuality, how do things stand right now, and are these international protests having any effect?
COOPER: Well, the Olympics are taking place and the sponsorship is still in place and those sponsors are the great companies that we all rely on day in and day out. So, are the protests making a big impact? I'm not sure. I think the Russian authorities and Putin have settled in behind this particularly odious law. If there's an attempt to somehow promote or pretend that homosexuality is as valid a relationship as heterosexuality, or the heterosexual family, then you are committing and administrative offense. But the reality is you can cause an administrative offense but it is also in all intents and purposes a criminal offense. I mean, there is the ultimate sanction if you refuse to pay your fine or imprisonment. And so, you know, Russia is a serious problem.
NEARY: What about countries where progress is being made. I understand in Latin America, for instance, there are a number of countries that have laws protecting gay rights. And in Asia, Vietnam may become the first Asian country to legalize gay marriage.
COOPER: Yeah. I mean, we should be celebrating movements towards full equality. And we're seeing that in South America and in Central America and as you point out in pockets of Asia. But then you get other parts of Asia - Singapore, for example, where there was a recent challenge to the criminal laws there, and the Singapore upheld the legality of those criminal laws. And there are examples of prosecutions in Singapore.
NEARY: Jonathan Cooper is with the gay rights group Human Dignity Trust. He joined us from the BBC in London. Thanks so much for joining us, Jonathan.
COOPER: It's been a pleasure. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.