Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Video Remarks at the 2014 USAID UNGA LGBT Event

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Reflections on the State of LGBT Activism in Africa

by Dr. Cheikh Eteka Traore

In 2014 at an annual summit of the African Union, Joachim Chissano – former head of state of Mozambique – made a declaration in which he called African nations to uphold the rights of all citizens, including sexual minorities, and consider the decriminalization of certain forms of sexual relatioCheikh-01nships between consenting adults. The speech may have caused a stir in that assembly room in Addis Ababa, but it hardly made headlines outside of Lusophone Africa. One year later, Mozambique would be amongst the first African countries to decriminalized homosexuality by removing penal sanctions inherited from its former Portuguese colonizer.

Despite the good news from Mozambique, many African governments continue to either ignore the issue of sexual discrimination amongst its citizens, or actively enact repressive policies and laws to punish sexual relationships between people of the same gender. The debate has become an internationally polarizing one, playing out in mainstream press, and in settings such as the United Nations General Assembly or the Human Rights Council. Sometimes eclipsed by the debates going on in these high profile arenas, it is worth noting that positive steps towards LGBT rights are also happening locally across the continent.

Contrary to what the international media would have you believe, there have been narrow windows opening for LGBT Africans in the past decade. These changes have occurred in legislation, judiciary decisions, courts, health policies and more importantly in shifting public opinions among the youth. There are lessons to be learned and numerous Africans to be praised for championing change.

In Botswana and Kenya, after years of challenges by local activists, court authorities have given LGBT organizations permission to operate within civil society. In 2004, Cape Verde decriminalized consensual relations between adults under the leadership of Pedro Pires, and Sao Tome & Principe also decriminalized homosexuality in 2013. In Rwanda, politicians and President Kagame himself have refrained from supporting a bill to criminalize homosexuality, unlike their immediate neighbours.

Gay pride events, which constitute the visible side of LGBT political mobilization in the West, are still an extremely rare occurrence on the continent (with the exception of South Africa). However, activists in countries such as Uganda and Mauritius have held Pride events in recent years (albeit in covert ways). In Cape Verde, the city of Mindelo now holds an annual street party where LGBT people and allies celebrate together.

The work of local LGBT groups and human rights defenders is crucial in spearheading the policy changes that we are beginning to witness. A growing number of LGBT organizations are documenting cases of violence and discrimination occurring in communities. In Nigeria for instance, human right defenders publish data on violations against LGBT people occurring in workplaces, families, police stations, housing, schools or healthcare institutions. This evidence is then used to lobby national human rights institutions — often with little success – as most national human rights institutions do not recognize LGBT rights as priority. However, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) has started to take note of our work. In 2014, it broke its silence on the matter by issuing its first ever resolution LGBT rights. Resolution 275 explicitly condemns violence against LGBT people noted across the continent, and calls for states to protect human rights defenders working with sexual minorities. Another notable win was the formal offer of observer status granted to the Coalition of African Lesbians this year.

Africa’s response to AIDS is also gradually giving attention to LGBT issues. Most countries now specify in their AIDS policies, the need to target men who have sex with men as priority groups. However, public health efforts are hampered by punitive laws against homosexuality that exist in 38 African countries. Negative public opinion further drives gender and sexual minorities underground and creates a climate of fear.

Training sessions on gender and sexual diversity are now delivered in the health sectors of most African countries. These programs often explore the impact of apathy, prejudice, stigma and discrimination toward sexual minorities. Among the health officials and providers taking part, it is common to see professionals struggling to name a single ally of LGBT people in their country. Gender experts admit that they have never met transgender people from their country. They readily admit that the root of stigma and discrimination — and the laws which entrench them — are rooted in ignorance, and the strict gender norms which prevail in our countries. This is at least a step forward.

The visibility of LGBT people comes at a high price, and many activists still fear to speak openly. But recent surveys show that attitudes are shifting. For example in Nigeria, one survey showed that acceptance of LGBT people is far higher among younger Nigerians. New ways of resistance are flourishing in the arts as well; writers like Abdallah Taia, Binyavanga Wainaina, Chimamamnda Ngozi Adichie, photographers like Zanele Muholi and poets like Diriye Osman are breaking boundaries and giving voice to previously hidden narratives. African scientists are also now joining the debate, The Uganda Academy of Sciences now recognizes that gender and sexual identity are “part of a continuum and that no positions on this spectrum are “unnatural”” – despite what President Yoweri Museveni and a proposed Ugandan law have claimed. The point is, Africa has always been a place of resistance to all forms of oppression. And beyond what the mainstream media would have you believe, the current direction of LGBT rights dialogues in several African countries should give us reason to hope for a better and more positive future for Africans of all stripes.

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The Importance of Visibility to LGBT Rights Advocacy in Nigeria

Sexualities expression is an integral part of the effective functioning of any individual. However, in certain part of the world, this expression is shrouded in secrecy and fear. Localizing it to the African continent more than 40 countries are with draconian measures regarding sexualities expression on grounds of rashidisame sex orientation. In this context, we explore the relationship of visibility to the emancipation of the LGBT community in Nigeria, its clamour against homophobia and contextualizing it within the fundamental freedom of the right to expression, guaranteed by the 1999 constitution. For the purpose of this article, visibility is defined as the degree to which an issue or a people have attracted attention.
Since the early 2000, LGBT people started organizing for their political, social and economic space in Nigeria. This was at a time when no one could say here goes a homosexual person. I remember vividly at this point in our history as a community, that you could count the people who expressed their sexuality openly. However, the tides were to change for the community when the government introduced the Same Gender Marriage Prohibition Act on grounds of being embarrassed by international activists. That step by the government brought national attention on an issue rarely discussed. Thus the government gave us the first step on the visibility ladder and we have not looked back since then challenging the government on issues of discriminatory policies and even going beyond to contribute to the discourse of the 1999 Constitutional Amendment in 2009.
Foremost, as citizens of Nigeria, the pertinence of change in current legislation from discriminatory to that enabling people to seek redress of injustice on grounds of their sexual orientation and or gender identity cannot be achieved by keeping a low profile. Discriminatory laws and policies have changed for the better in jurisdiction where the tempo for the visibility of the issue and the people affected have been sustained. From apartheid in South Africa to racial discrimination in the United States, visibility for the issues close to the heart of the people kept glowing until the authorities were compelled to change the laws. Connecting that to LGBT advocacy, the laws would not be expunged if we sat comfortably in our corners, not showing the nation how discriminatory laws on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity connects with other sphere of national life. One could assert, in two ways, that it was the lack of visibility that prompted the former minister of foreign affairs, Ojo Madueke to tell the world that gay people were not existing in Nigeria and thus no need to change the status quo. But it was to a greater extent intellectual naivety. If we want the laws to change we must become more visible, first as individuals, secondly as a community and thirdly as a national issue. We did prove Ojo Madueke and indeed the evangelicals that we did exist with the call for the respect of our constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms.
There can be no separation from wanting a change in legislation to actively participating within the political space of our nation. Thus, our visibility as a community of same sex loving individuals is our political power, to be wielded in favour of groups with propensity for human rights respect and recognition not grounded in statuses. Using example from developed nations (forget that western invention thing, it is an evangelical rhetoric), LGBT visibility have forced the government of countries such as the US, UK and Canada to take a decisive foreign policy inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity. Other factors can be called into play but the power of visibility cannot be underestimated. Back to Nigeria, the imperativeness of LGBT visibility is a matter of political power for our community. If we keep up the tempo of visibility and connect our issues to broader national issues, we are not far from being a political force in the country. So that even if we use the 1950’s statistics (Alfred Kinsey research on sexualities) we would know the political power that lies in the hand of our community. 1% of 170million is whooping! What political party does not want the vote of this community putting aside that there may be dissenting voices regarding politics amongst LGBT people? Our Visibility is our political power. Little wonder if 1.7million people had poured into the streets chanting against the draconian Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act the government would not have itched in its seat for a systemic review of obnoxious laws. Visibility is our political power and we must wield it if we earnestly yearn for a legislative change in the nearest future.
Stop and consider the label the media put on us as individuals and community. There is stark distinction between pedophilia and homosexuality. But most times, the media exchange it. Visibility can conquer this stigmatizing exchange. The socialization of same sex loving people to conform to heteronormative standard, this writer, believes that our visibility as a community of same sex loving people can change the paradigm. Our visibility as a community also remains a strong evidence for our struggle against fundamentalism, oppression, impunities and stigmatization. It is the lifeline of our advocacy. The lower the visibility, the lower the attention we bring to our issues. And need say that putting and keeping our issues our there is part of visibility. We give the people something to talk about and we are not just sitting idly, but also engaging in the conversation to change minds.
In closing, it is essential to distinguish between coming out and visibility. A rigid diffserence can be placed along the lien of communities and individuals. Coming out is an individual agenda. Visibility embodies the notion of collectivism. The potency in visibility to effect changes in the lives of LGBT people, especially on issues that pertains to legislation is sacrosanct. Visibility must be encouraged across board. Starting from the gatekeepers of the community to the very person who identify as LGBT. Changing the status quo means being visible. Conquering stigma and discrimination means taking the visibility bull by its horns. The public needs to see what it means to be LGBT. In being visible as individuals and a community, we challenge heteronormativity and normalize our sexual identities and choices. We trash norms that disenfranchise not just the community of LGBT people but every other population that feels and bear the weight of discrimination and marginalization.