Reflections on the state of LGBT activism in Africa

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 relationships 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 future for Africans of all sexual orientations.

Further Reading

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What was behind the assassinations in the 1980s of two key anti-apartheid figures: Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme, and senior ANC official, Dulcie September?