MONTREAL - The International Day Against Homophobia, initiated by a Quebec organization, will be celebrated in more than 50 countries Sunday, decrying discrimination against gays and lesbians.
"There are 192 countries at the UN, and half of them still ban homosexuality, notably most countries in Africa, in Asia and Arab countries," said Laurent McCutcheon, president of Quebec's Emergence Foundation, an activist group behind the annual fete.
Five countries punish homosexual acts with death, said its website.
In 2003, Emergence launched a national day against homophobia in Canada, which caught on internationally in the past three years.
May 17 was chosen because it was on this date in 1990 that the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. The acronym IDAHO is often used to delineate this day.
"These last three years, we've seen new initiatives all over the place," McCutcheon told AFP.
"But there's still a lot of work to do," he said.
Only 67 countries signed the first ever statement on sexual orientation and gender identity at the UN General Assembly last year, sponsored by France and the Netherlands.
"The Vatican didn't even want to sign it," McCutcheon noted.
"Russia also seems to be a hard nut," he said, noting a series of violent attacks on gays, lesbians and transgender people in the country.
Earlier, Russia upheld a ban on gay pride celebrations set to coincide on Saturday with the Eurovision Song Contest finale in Moscow, leaving the door open to more violence.
Previous bans in 2006 and 2007 led to clashes between young ultra nationalists and gay rights protestors.
May 17 provides a rallying point for the world's supporters of gay and lesbian rights, McCutcheon said, expressing his hope that it would some day be endorsed by the United Nations.
Emergence, he said, has received requests for promotional materials and announcements of festivities from groups in countries such as Albania, Germany, Australia, Belgium, France, Italy, Britain and the United States.
In France, where several demonstrations are expected and where a conference on gay rights was being held Friday, the international day of celebration would highlight "transphobia" or discrimination against transgender individuals.
Emergence, meanwhile, is touting for its 2009 campaign a message that homosexuality has no borders, as it exists in all countries. The campaign targets primarily Canada's immigrant communities.
A new poll conducted for the organization showed children of immigrants have a more positive view of homosexuality than their parents. "It's reassuring to see that second-generation immigrants adhere to Quebec values," McCutcheon said.
Next year, the organization will tackle homosexuality in sports. "It's a challenge," said Quebec's immigration minister Yolande James, who participated at a press conference hosted by the group.