Queer Africa

Despite state repression and persecution, LGBT organizing has taken off across the continent and diaspora.

By Almah LaVon Rice May 16, 2007

On the night of September 28, 2004, the most prominent lesbian activist in Sierra Leone was working alone at the offices of the Sierra Leone Lesbian and Gay Association in Freetown. Fanny Ann Eddy, the group’s founder, had addressed the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva only months before, calling for the commission to “break the silence” that LGBT Africans endure for fear of their lives. On that late September evening, Eddy would lose her life, allegedly at the hands of Emmanuel Sankoh, a janitor who Eddy had fired a week before. She was raped, stabbed, and her neck was broken. It is still not clear whether homophobia, vengeance, or money was the motivation behind the crime. What is clear is that Eddy’s brutal killing sent shock waves through African LGBT communities within the continent and beyond.

Selly Thiam felt the impact all the way in Chicago. To the first generation Senegalese queer activist, Eddy’s murder hit home.

“The murder of Fanny Ann Eddy was a transformative moment for me. I learned more of her in death than in life. That seems to be the way we make history,” Thiam explains. “Fanny Ann represents in some ways the place I am from but have never called home. She is part of what feels like an extended family.”

Thiam was thus inspired to begin work on None on Record, an audio documentary project dedicated to exploring the lives of queer Africans. The project’s name comes from her interview with John Ademola Adewoye, a former Catholic priest. When Thiam asked the gay Nigerian if he knew any Yoruba words for LGBT people, he responded, “I have none on record.”

The Internet and technology have played an integral role in assuaging that isolation for LGBT Africans. Blogs, forums and listservs have forged an array of alliances. “Because of communication technologies, we have managed to create listserves to reach out to many members in Uganda, share information and even get partners,” reports Jacqueline Kasha, cofounder and chairperson of Freedom and Roam Uganda, a LGBT organization based in Kampala. According to Kasha, its members would not have been able to locate information about sexually transmitted infections, domestic violence in same-sex relationships, or align with international human rights defenders to lobby the Ugandan government without the Internet.

However, not everyone in Africa has access to the Internet, at home or at work. “One must keep in mind a very big amount of people in South Africa and [in Africa overall are] not employed,” notes Liesl Theron, founder and CEO of Johannesburg-based Gender DynamiX. The cost and inconvenience of going online via Internet cafés, in addition to the computers’ slow connections, make it difficult to access much information on the web. Cell phones, she says, are a much more accessible means of communication, even for those living in remote rural areas.

Cary Alan Johnson of the Africa Specialist at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in New York, lauds web-based communication for giving LGBT Africans “a sense of their own personal identity…To me, any kind of political or social organizing has to start with an individual having a sense of him or herself as a part of a larger community,” says Johnson, adding, “It allows people to be sort of virtual members of a movement.” The anonymity of connecting via the Internet also offers some protection from surveillance from the family, church and the police. Yet he acknowledges that “virtual activism” has inherent limitations.

The very problems that LGBT Africans log on to avoid follow them into the virtual realm. According to Kasha, the specter of blackmail haunts online conversations. “Many pretend to be part of us and infiltrate our listserves and [take our discussions] to the authorities,” she says. According to Johnson, a man is often lured offline to meet what he thinks is another man interested in a romantic and/or sexual connection—only to be greeted with several men who beat him up, take his money and demand more in exchange for not outing him. Going to police may not be an option, because they, too, are often implicated in the web of harassment and extortion.

Alexandra Kwizera, who left her native Burundi to find a more welcoming place to live as a transwoman, was arrested in a Nairobi restaurant because she looked “suspicious.” She has since been released and has settled in South Africa, with the help of Gender DynamiX, the only trans-specific organization in Africa. Last year an intersex person was assaulted by police officers in a South African police station, adds Theron. It’s a major struggle to “[get] the state to protect our rights,” says Thuli Madi of the Johannesburg-based Behind the Mask .

Women who love other women in Africa often have to deal with what is called “corrective” or “curative” rapes.

Lesbians—according to Muholi, “butch” women are often targeted—are raped to supposedly make them “real women.” Muholi, who is also co-founder of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women, is involved in the Black lesbian NGO’s campaign “Roses Have Thorns,” which trains service providers, offers public education workshops and provides self-defense lessons for lesbians.

The authorities often do not consider these assaults, sometimes executed by family members or other groups of men, to be crimes at all. “Many times even the mother of a lesbian will ‘organize’ a boyfriend for the woman, just to make sure she is not bringing shame over the house anymore,” Theron says. “There is such a [large] amount of Black lesbians with kids…and often from different fathers as a result of these rapes.” Some lesbians end up with HIV/AIDS because of these violations, as well.

In Uganda, forced marriages are common, along with rape of lesbian and transgendered women, says Kasha of Far-UG. Many queer Ugandan women are poor and homeless because they were expelled from school at an early age and driven from their homes. Organizations dedicated to supporting sexual minorities cannot help much, Kasha laments, because “we lack financial assistance to put such facilities, like dormitories, resource centers…in place to reach out to those helpless and hopeless.” Another affront is that since homosexuality is illegal in Uganda, there is no national HIV/AIDS policy that considers the needs of the LGBT population. “And when some of us go out there to be counted, we are simply ignored and told to go die since [homosexuality is] a foreign thing,” she adds.

All of this is enough to make some women-loving women turn to suicide, if they are not murdered. Last July in Kampala, to no public outcry, claims Kasha, a teacher beat a student to death who was rumored to be a lesbian. Another secondary school student committed suicide after it came out in a school assembly that she had received love letters from other girls. When a Far-UG representative condemned the school’s actions on a radio program, the radio station was warned that it would be closed down if Far-UG was hosted again.

LGBT persons in Africa are often accused that their “aberrant” sexual and gender identities harm themselves and others. One of Thiam’s None on Record interviewees was told that his sexuality would bring drought to his village because it was “against tradition.” According to Theron, sangomas (traditional herbal healers) might attempt to “cure” the supposedly foreign scourge. In North Africa, queer people are also considered culturally out of step. “People do still see homosexuality as an external, white, European thing,” maintains the gay Moroccan-born Kamal Fizazi. But Thiam counters that same-sex relationships are as old as Africa. “The behavior we have imported is homophobia. Either through missionaries or legislation created to break us from our traditional ways,” she argues.
Nurturing an indigenous LGBT activism may be one way to address charges of cultural inauthenticity. But there is no consensus about what LGBT activism is, says Zethu Matebeni, a lesbian doctoral student in Johannesburg. “We are all from [such] different classes, race groups…that we cannot have one loud and strong voice,” she contends. “Some of us were fighting for the right to marry, and yet many live in rural and traditional areas where marriage ceremonies and traditions can only take place between people of opposite sexes.”

Racism and classism have also shaped the contours of Africa’s LGBT movements. Kasha and Muthoni say that class has had more impact than race in Uganda and Kenya, respectively. Fizazi says that, in the Maghreb region, gay people are more likely to form coalitions across social, economic, regional, ethnic and religious divides than in mainstream society. But in southern Africa in particular, the leadership of most LGBT organizations have historically been white. BtM’s Madi, says, “South Africa is still largely racially divided, even though there’s some traceable transformation taking place in the LGBT sector.”

Being transgender and/or same-sex loving in a hostile climate is one of many issues impacting survival across Africa. Keith Goddard, who is based in Harare and is the director of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe, points out that their concerns differ from U.S. middle-class gays and lesbians organizing in the 1970s.  “The issues facing most LGBT in Africa are not primarily those relating to the right to privacy and freedom of expression…but more basic in terms of poverty and personal security and having a place to live,” he explains. “In the West…there was a trend to form gay and lesbian ghettos and separate oneself physically from family, but in Africa, where family means survival, this is not always possible or advisable.” In fact, his organization often helps evicted members reintegrate into their family homes.
However, some queer people not only leave their homes, but their homelands. Muthoni left Kenya over five years ago. She says the move was motivated by her gender and sexual identity. “I no longer felt safe as a woman to walk through the streets of Nairobi. I felt stifled and afraid. However, I did also realize that I need to find a safe haven for my queer self,” acknowledges Muthoni, who now is an online banking support representative in Dallas, Texas.

“Even though I have always known about being gay—or, twin spirit—it took my traveling to the States to fully embrace my selves. [But] I wish I didn’t have to do it here.”

Listen to an excerpt from None on the Record

LaVon Rice is a freelance writer in New Mexico.