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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. This weekend, men from 22 countries travel to Johannesburg, South Africa to compete in the Mr. Gay World pageant. It's not a new competition, but it is the first time the pageant has been held on African soil and it's the first time black Africans have participated.
Reporter Anders Kelto got a firsthand look at the Mr. Gay World pageant.
ANDERS KELTO, BYLINE: At a gulf resort in suburban Johannesburg, men in tiny swimsuits surround a pool. They cheer as a group of competitors races around a grass field to the sounds of "Yellow Polka Dot Bikini."
This is Sports Challenge Day at Mr. Gay World 2012. Mr. Gay World is a five day competition that includes a wide range of events - fitness tests, quizzes about LGBT rights and, of course, evening wear and swimsuit competitions.
Coenie Kukkuk is a cofounder of Mr. Gay South Africa and organized this year's event. He says it's not about finding a pretty face or rock hard abs, though neither of those hurt.
COENIE KUKKUK: This is not a beauty pageant. It is the search for an LGBTI representative and an ambassador.
KELTO: Kukkuk says the organizers were excited to hold the event in Africa and hope it will bring attention to the challenges that gays and lesbians here face.
KUKKUK: In 37 countries in Africa, it is still illegal just to be gay.
KELTO: Wendelinus Hamutenya is a 23-year-old midwife from Namibia. He's one of just two black Africans in the competition. He says it's difficult for gay African men to participate in the pageant and still be accepted at home.
WENDELINUS HAMUTENYA: When I told - same time I told my parent that I'm gay, I have to be taken to the mental institution.
KELTO: He snuck out of the mental institution and his family eventually supported him, but the other African delegate, an Ethiopian student named Robel Hailu, hasn't been as fortunate. He didn't tell his family he was gay. He instead let them read about the pageant in the newspapers.
ROBEL HAILU: I'm fighting with my family. I don't have any communication with them. My relatives, my best friends, I lost all of those people.
KELTO: He fears that, if he returns to Ethiopia, where homosexuality is illegal, he'll be imprisoned. Around the continent, some African governments are cracking down on homosexuality. In November, Nigeria banned same-sex marriages and made it illegal to recognize or assist LGBT groups. Uganda is considering legislation that would impose lengthy jail sentences. And, in South Africa, where homosexual rights are strongly protected, gays and lesbians are often victims of hate crimes.
But Graeme Reid, the director of the LGBT Rights Program for Human Rights Watch in New York, says there are also signs of growing tolerance.
GRAEME REID: Kenya, for example, is more open to protecting human rights. I think Botswana is open and we might see some move towards decriminalization there.
KELTO: He also mentions Liberia, Rwanda and Mozambique as countries that have taken steps to protect gays. South Africa has also introduce a UN resolution that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and Reid says African nations are facing new pressure from Latin America and Asia, not just from the West.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)
KELTO: Back at the pageant, the finalists stand on stage awaiting the final announcements, white sashes draped over their suits.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mr. Gay World 2012 is New Zealand.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)
KELTO: After the show, Robel Hailu of Ethiopia says he's disappointed he didn't win, but he says he'll continue fighting for LGBT rights in Ethiopia, even if he has to do so from abroad.
For NPR News, I'm Anders Kelto in Johannesburg, South Africa.