- Interview by
- Rama Salla Dieng
In this interview, Rama Dieng talks to the four founding members of the LBQ Gathering about the challenges and promises of queer feminist organizing offline in Ghana, as well as on insights on how allies and comrades can join them to speak truth to power in the context of hostile civic spaces.
Thanks for accepting to be part of this interview series. I am grateful to have met you on social media. Can you please introduce yourself and tell us more about the LBQ Gathering (The LBQG henceforth) and its members? How did you guys meet?
Thanks for having us on your interview series, Rama. The LBQ Gathering is a collective organized by four queer Ghanaian feminists namely Rita Nketiah, Sheila Adufutse, Golda Gatsey and Fatima Derby.
Our activism focuses on building a community of queer Ghanaian women and non-binary people where we support one another to unpack and navigate our queer identities and experiences in ways that are empowering and restorative. We do this by hosting workshops, dialogues and panel discussions that center Black/African women and non-binary people and are informed by feminist theory and praxis.
We met through the cracks of feminist and queer women’s organizing spaces in Accra. We felt that there was a gap that needed to be addressed in both spheres, and wanted to create a space that could articulate, celebrate and support queer women and non-binary folks in the city. We also wanted to resist the NGOization of women’s rights work in Ghana, by not defaulting to the typical structuring of social justice collectives. It’s a political choice that we are still articulating as we grow.
How is the LBQ gathering organized in terms of decision-making, accountability, leadership structures?
In terms of decision-making, accountability and leadership structure, the power dynamics that influence the way that we organize means that we don’t have a hierarchy where there’s one person who is the “Leader”, and another person to whom we are accountable to. We hold each other accountable in our politics and in the implementation of our tasks. Our decision-making process is based on shared responsibility and conclusions that we all come to together. And this is again a function of our resolution to not default to conventional structuring of activist groups.
Can you tell us more about your LGBTQIA+ advocacy campaigns and activities?
We have hosted a few social gatherings in the city, where we discuss various topics that affect the community. Usually, we take turns facilitating discussion. It is our feminist principle that we try to make these gatherings as low cost as possible. Instead of money, we ask that each participant contributes food or drinks as their offering to the space. We see The Gathering as a space where we can build community and encourage participants to think more critically about the importance of feminist praxis in our relationships with each other.
Last year, we were fortunate enough to participate in The Adventures festival entitled “Decentering the D,” where we facilitated a discussion on women exploring pleasure with other women. We continue to be amazed by how much support and interest there is for these spaces, and we hope to organize similar events in the future.
Aside from these events, we all actively participate in feminist spaces across the city (and online).
What are the main challenges queer and non-binary people face in Ghana in general? And during the pandemic? What are the priorities to address these?
The main challenges that affect queer and non-binary people in Ghana are similar to the issues that affect many queer and non-binary Africans such as discrimination, targeted violence, lack of access to safety and legal protection, inability to find paid employment, inability to access healthcare and the fear and anxiety that comes with living in a sexist and homophobic climate. Increasingly, mental health, substance abuse and intra-community violence are also key issues plaguing the community. All of these issues are further exacerbated by the pandemic as lockdown orders and restrictions force queer people to be isolated with homophobic family members/guardians/friends. Many queer people also lose access to safe spaces and community.
The priorities to address this lie in eliminating the systemic inequalities that enable violence against queer people. Oftentimes, the onus to correct these structural problems is pushed to civil society, NGOs and other activist groups. But the reality is that there is only so much we can do. Protecting queer people and upholding LGBTQIA+ rights is the job of the state. We can offer insights, data, ideas and so forth, but we think that the actual correction of these problems should also be the state’s priority. In Ghana’s context, that means changing colonial era sodomy laws that are currently used to persecute LGBTQIA+ people and addressing our structural discrimination across society.
So you are organizing both online and offline? I wonder how challenging is it to do so and to engage with your community about your vision, activities and political positioning?
At the moment, we predominantly organize offline, but we’ve also just set up a Twitter and Instagram page, where we hope to start engaging queer people who are not necessarily based in Accra or who cannot or don’t feel comfortable to attend our meetings. The queer community in Accra is growing both in terms of numbers and political consciousness. Unfortunately, because of lesbo/biphobia, there aren’t a lot of options for public spaces that we can use for our events. At the moment, we mostly organize out of our homes, or we ask for support from community members. Because of this, we are often limited by how many people can attend our gatherings each time.
Generally, we have received massive interest from the community. Feminism is not a new concept in Ghana, but it is still a fairly recent praxis in the queer LGBQT communities here. Women, trans and non-binary folks tend to have less visibility in movement building in Ghana and we see it as part of our contribution to encourage more leadership amongst these groups. One of the reasons why we started The Gathering is because we recognized that many of us had internalized patriarchal values, which often shows up in our relationships with each other. It isn’t uncommon to hear queer women talk about the femme/stud dynamic which, in its worst form, mirrors the gender roles found in heteronormative relationships (i.e. femme = feminine, submissive, domestic, emotional and stud = dominant, breadwinner, aggressive and unfeeling). As feminists, we want our sisters to challenge the violence that comes with those rigid gender roles, because we believe that we will all be more liberated for it.
One of our main recommendations to share would be for allies to be aware of their privilege and to be mindful of not speaking over queer people. Allies should be committed to confronting their own biases and doing the work of unlearning, rather than pushing that labor on to queer people.
Also, within feminist spaces/movements, allies should be more intentional about creating and holding space for queer women to provide leadership, rather than just being voices in the background.
We think also that allies should be willing to stand up for and defend LGBTQIA+ folks from discrimination and violence at all times, and not only when it is convenient for them to do so. We get that being an ally can come at great risk but that risk pales in comparison to the violence that queer people are subjected to daily. It is in the interest of our collective freedom that we stand with and stand up for those who face other forms of oppression that we don’t.
What is the role and place of compassion in this online feminist engagement?
While we are not yet actively engaging online as a Collective, we do recognize the importance of compassion in online feminist engagement and we have some thoughts on what its role and place is. Although the internet has been a useful tool for organizing and mobilizing people and resources, it can also be limiting in many ways. Twitter’s 240- character limit for instance, is grossly insufficient for any kind of comprehensive feminist analysis and it’s very easy for a lot of nuances to be overlooked. There is also the challenge of not being able to hear or see people in real time and this can affect the way messages are received and interpreted. When you are speaking to someone face to face, you are able to pick up on body language—facial expressions, a nod of acknowledgement here and a sigh of impatience there. These non-verbal cues give us an idea of how our message is being received and whether to adjust our communication tactics.
In online engagement, many of these things get lost because we can only see names and profile pictures and it can be hard to empathize with an “abstract” voice, so to speak. And this is particularly the role that compassion plays because the tendency to dehumanize one another is much higher if we’re thinking of one another as “social media accounts” rather than as people. Compassion in online feminist engagement means that we can hold space for one another to have dissenting opinions on how to achieve collective liberation, while still recognizing that our privilege and patriarchal conditioning creates blind spots which might exclude other marginalized women and visit violence upon them.
Last year, one of your members had written a compelling article: “How Social Media is Impacting African Women’s Liberation.” What are the main challenges and promises you are facing while articulating your campaigns online? Do you have to endure the same hostile and vicious commentaries that many feminists, especially queer feminists, do online?
At the moment, we don’t have a strong online presence, because our work is mostly rooted in offline in-person engagements. However, given the current global pandemic, we are having to re-think the ways in which we organize queer women in the city, and the online space is definitely one of our targets. As individuals, some of us are quite active in the online space and we are well aware of how hostile that space continues to be for queer people. Some of the challenges we face with online advocacy include online harassment and threats of violence.
There are some promises too. Many young queer people are becoming visible online, taking up space and having open conversations on their experiences. We have observed people move from a place of homophobia to a place of allyship. The online space also provides a chance for us to identify and engage with other queer activists that we could collaborate/organize with.
Also in 2019, one of your members went undercover for two days to investigate the anti-LGBT “hate movement”: The World Congress of Families (WCF). Can you please tell us more about what must have been a very traumatic research experience? What were your main findings, and what can be done to speak truth to power while minimizing harm for queer researchers and activists?
The WCF event was one of the strangest experiences that I’ve encountered. Certainly, as a queer person, you have to make daily choices about your safety vis a vis “outing” yourself. So, to willingly choose to be in such a hostile environment in order to capture the violence of this group was something that I didn’t take lightly. In fact, I’m sure there are parts of me that are still recovering. What I discovered is that we still have a long way to go in realizing social justice for queer people in Ghana/Africa. There are still far too many people out there who think that we are an abomination and that we are destroying the very fabric of African society simply by daring to exist. I was also reminded that the fight for queer liberation is an anti-colonial fight. It means uprooting the colonial frameworks that continue to bring homophobia to the African context. It is no coincidence that the same religious forces that colonized us have returned (did they ever really leave?!) to spread their message of hate and violence. Homophobia exists in Ghana because we never really decolonized, culturally. We may have been given a flag and a parliament, but our psychological shackles are still deeply seated. WCF’s rise to prominence in Ghana and across Africa is evidence of this. They are a white western evangelical hate group that has lost the war on LGBT rights in America, and as usual, they have decided to exploit Africans for their cause.
I also discovered that the work of queer activists in Ghana has not been in vain. The fact that homophobes can organize big conferences in our honor (lol!) shows that we have managed to shake the table across this continent. We must continue in our pursuit of truth and justice.
I know that most of the founding members of your collective are “veteran activists” well-versed in civic and feminist movement-building in West Africa. If you were to share three main lessons you have learnt on the changing landscape for feminist activists in Ghana, what would those be?
Actually, we’re all fairly young in our activist journeys. (Our oldest member is 33!) Queer women’s activism in Ghana is quite new. We see our work as contributing to contemporary grassroots movements in the city such as Sisters of the Heart, Courageous Sisters, DramaQueens and Young Feminist Collective. While we are still learning our lessons, we do have some observations about the contemporary landscape for feminist activism:
- There is a growing visibility of queer and younger feminist activists in Ghana, but unfortunately, many of us are still working in silos. We need to create more opportunities for collaboration, understanding and political solidarity across our various movements.
- Queer women’s issues are still not fully incorporated in mainstream feminist organizing in Ghana. We have yet to fully recognize that all women must be brought to the table to affect transformation in gender relations. For example, during a recent Supreme Court Judge vetting process, feminist professor Dr. Henrietta Mensa-Bonsu was asked about her stance on LGBT rights in Ghana, and she suggested that while it was important to protect queer people, this could not be done “at the expense of the majority.” Such framing has the effect of suggesting that queer people’s demands for basic human rights and social justice could somehow pose a threat to the majority heterosexual world. Last year, when one of our members attended the WCF event, one of Ghana’s prominent feminist activists was not only in attendance, but chaired one of the key panels. We seriously need to talk about the complicity of straight feminists in institutional and societal homophobic violence in Ghana.
- There is still a need to address class and classism within the feminist and queer activist movements in Ghana. Let’s start thinking more about who is in the room, who is left out and what are the consequences? How we organize is political: the venues that we choose, the language that we speak, and where we promote our events (online) all have political consequences for who shows up. What we want to avoid is a movement that is solely for the elites of this country. As a collective, we recognize that when we address the issues of the most marginalized, we’re tapping into our shared humanity. The feminist movement mandates that we bring everyone along. None of us are free unless all of us are free.
Members of your collective have recently shared that you (and many other young feminist activists) have sometimes been faced with the unfortunate assumption that “your feminism is incomplete because you haven’t read enough feminist theory.” How can we challenge such a partial view?
First, we want to acknowledge that there is a long legacy of feminist literary activism in Africa—much of which is currently available in the online space and some of which, has not always been accessible. As avid readers, we recognize the transformative power of learning and reading about feminist activism on this continent. We also recognize that far too many women still don’t have access to mainstream ivory tower theory—even the kind that is created by African feminist academics.
But, we also think that care should be taken not to assume that all feminist activists particularly prioritize knowledge of feminist theory as a marker of feminist identity. We think in some ways that that raises questions as to the relationship between feminist theory and the evidence and insights acquired from grassroots organizers. Feminist theory is embodied theory. It comes out of the reality of our lives. It’s important to counter the elitist narrative that theory is something that is only practiced or developed by academics. We engage in theory by creating art, listening to each other and building community space. We create language for our movements as we build them.
Fatima, you are a contributing writer on the award-winning blog, Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women, and Rita, you are a writer. How do you manage to juggle these different creative activities with your research/activism and other hobbies?
I see myself as a scholar-activist, so my writing/research life is part of my activist life. However, activism (in the sense of “grassroots organizing”) also demands a very different set of tasks that can become quite time-consuming. The LBQ Gathering is unpaid and voluntary labor that we love. One of the things that I am quite proud of is that while we recognize the enormous weight of the work that we are doing, we encourage each other to engage the work with kindness and compassion for ourselves. This means taking breaks, knowing when to ask for help and remembering to center our self-restoration at the heart of this work. I cannot be of service to others if I am depleted.
I don’t think my writing and my activism are mutually exclusive of each other. Most of my writing both on the Adventures blog and in other places are informed by observations and thoughts which come out from my interactions with queer women and other feminists and from my experiences with organizing.
In terms of managing the individual components of writing vs activism, I often write in the early hours of the morning or very late at night when it is quiet and still. I spend my daytime hours doing my day job while I do the work for the LBQ Gathering work over the weekends or at other dedicated times during the week.
What acts of radical self-care do you practice?
Rest. Full stop. No qualifiers.
Setting and enforcing boundaries.
Going on spontaneous road trips with friends. Turning off all social media app notifications and listening to music.
My acts of self-care entail my mind fighting for what my being needs to thrive well. I resort to answering messages when I can make space for thorough answers. This comes with its consequences but I would rather give off my most authentic full self when I feel ready. Masturbation has been doing a lot of great things to my body in recent times. It makes me feel full, whole and not dependent. My body tends to feel well taken care of and I am more attentive to the peculiar needs of my body as a result. A conscious activity that I love to indulge in is sharing space (virtually and physically) with my self-chosen sisters. Time with them reminds me of my core self and re-energizes me in a way that makes me feel settled and celebrated. I also made a conscious decision to get on social media only on weekends and seldom on weekdays. This is my way of managing outside influence and also helping me focus and be more productive.
I take time to think and avoid chastising myself for being a sporadic thinker and feeler. I allow my mind to do what it does best and filter the thoughts where need be. Essentially, my acts of radical self-care looks like just being—in the most organic way.