Responses to LGBTI in Africa

Gay flag

I’m writing this post in response to number of articles on the prevalence of homophobia in Africa and to try and give some perspective and historical context.     In the last six months we have seen the expression of homophobia with the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill; the arrest of gay Malawian couple, Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, for getting married;  most recently the appointment of homophobic journalist,  Jon Qwelane as South Africa’s ambassador to Uganda.   All of these are well documented so I’m not going to go into detail.   What I think is important, particularly with regards to the Ugandan Bill and the homophobic campaign that preceded it, is that it has been successfully internationalised by LGBTI activists on the continent, many who have put their lives at risk in letting us know what is happening.  [For the best in depth and regularly updated commentary and analysis on Uganda, see Gay Ugandan].  The international response has been impressive,  though as this report shows not wholly reliable. Religious leaders, government ministers, international human rights organisations and bloggers condemning the Bill.  The disgust around the Bill, has to some extent forced Ugandan President Museveni to retract the worst aspects of the Bill – the death penalty.  However I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw a piece of paper and the pressure to drop the Bill completely will need to be maintained.   Fro example the  “million person Anti-Gay march” is  still planning to go ahead in Kampala next month.

Uganda’s National Pastors Task Force Against Homosexuality*, chaired by Ssempa has resolved to support the Bill with amendments that include reduction of the sentence from death penalty to 20 years for aggravated homosexuality and the inclusion of a provision of “counseling and rehabilitation  [by the church] to persons experiencing homosexual temptations.”

Ssempa maintains that homosexuality is illegal, breaks the laws of God and that it breaks the laws of nature which stipulate that a male goes with a female. According to him it is a Taboo for same-sex people to be in relationship and he basis his assertion on African culture, tradition and Religion.

The Ugandan Bill has also exposed the working relationship between some Christian fundamentalist churches in the US, in particular the organisation known as “The Family,” and religious leaders in Uganda.   The ideology behind the  “The Family” appears to be about power and influence as well as religion – and the poor will not be the ones to  inherit the earth if they have anything to do with it.

The case of the gay Malawian couple  gives us an idea of what will happen if the  Ugandan Bill is passed only it would be worse, much worse.  They have been denied bail and if found guilty could  face up to 14 years in prison.    On Friday I spoke with Cameroonian LGBTI activit, Joel Gana of “African Men for Sexual Health & Rights,  who along with Victor Mukasa of SMUG and  IGLHRC are in Malawi to give personal and strategic support to Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza.   In addition there are a number of other human rights defenders who have been arrested or whom are wanted by the police.

Although there is no doubt a long struggle ahead for the couple we were both reminded of the case of the Cameroonian nine who were arrested on 21st May 2005 on charges of sodomy.  After a 12 month campaign by human rights defenders / LGBTI activists across the continent the men were released and acquitted without charge.  The case of the Cameroon nine went along way to solidify the movement as Joel pointed out.

The case in the Cameroon helped solidify the movement and this could happen here.  The movement is not out but it could do the same.  Because you know the organisation in Cameroon came out of that movement to fight for the rights and thats how the “Alternative Cameroon” was founded and why they are so strong now.

There have been other victories over the past five years.   The two Nigerian Bills – the Same Sex Marriage Bill and the The Same Gender Prohibition Bill have both been shelved despite the backing of both bills by religious leaders such as the Nigerian Anglican Primate, Bishop Peter Akinola.   This is not to say they will not rise again especially if the Ugandan Bill gets passed but preventing both of them from being passed was a victory for Nigerian and international human rights activists.    In December 2008, after three and half years, Ugandan activist, Victor Mukasa won his case against the Ugandan attorney general

From the momentum created by the Ugandan LGBTI Human Rights Court Case, the numbers of people involved in advocating for the protection of the basic human rights of LGBTI people have continued to grow in Uganda. Although the 30-day “Let Us Live In Peace” Ugandan LGBTI Human Rights Media Campaign led by Sexual Minorities Uganda in August and September 2007 was met with great controversy and hostility, greater awareness and understanding of the need for protection of the basic human rights of kuchus was built among large segments of the general population in Uganda. Publicity around one of the key aspects of the case, inhuman treatment and discrimination based on gender identity, has helped to foster openness and courage in many transgender individuals in Uganda.

In September 2009, Eudy Simelane finally received a measure of justice after her murderer and rapist was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.   However, two other men involved in the crime were acquitted on the basis they were there but did nothing,  a judicial position which campaigners will be working towards changing.  The campaign around Eudy’s trial was not an easy one and was fought with very little resources despite the international media interest in the crime and trial.

It’s a relief for everyone — family and friends of Eudy to have finally received justice. The campaign around Eudy’s case has been central to raising awarness of hate crimes against lesbians in South Africa and for that we must acknowledge the work of The Lesbian and Gay Equality Project and it’s director, Phumi Mtetwa who worked tirelessly to make sure the case was given the highest possible profile. Recognition must also go to all the friends and supporters who attended the court hearings despite the lack of funds to transport and accommodate them during the endless postponements and delays.

Most recently in Decemeber last year,  the Rwandan government changed it’s mind on the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill with the Minister for Justice following pressure from African and International LGBT organisations declaring.

“The government I serve and speak for on certain issues cannot and will not in any way criminalize homosexuality; sexual orientation is a private matter and each individual has his or her own orientation – – this is not a State matter at all,” said Karugarama.

The Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill remains in place.  it will set a dangerous precedent across the continent if it gets passed on any level let alone with the death penalty.   It could influence and encourage those behind the Nigerian Bill as well as the governments in Gambia, Senegal, Malawi, Kenya and Zambia which have all taken a draconian stance towards same sex relationships in their countries.   What I wanted to do in this post, was to also return  to and  emphasise some of the victories African LGBT activists have achieved over the years – sometimes on their own with very little resources, sometimes with the help of international human rights organisations.
Links:

Boycott the 2010 World Cup

Open Letter to President Zuma

Statement by Equality Project

Statement on Gender & Sexuality – South Africa

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