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Fight­ing for equal­ity in the West African coun­try

Not a week goes by with­out a news re­port de­tail­ing yet an­other vi­cious at­tack on mem­bers of Africa’s LGBT pop­u­la­tion. These hate crimes are not con­fined to just a few African coun­tries but can be found across the con­ti­nent, even in pro­gres­sive South Africa. Al­though in 2006 South Africa be­came the first, and to this day the only, African na­tion to le­galise same­sex mar­riage, so- called “cor­rec­tive” rapes have be­come preva­lent.

Rapes and other vi­o­lent crimes are not un­com­mon in South Africa. How­ever, “cor­rec­tive” rapes specif­i­cally tar­get les­bians, in an at­tempt to change their sex­u­al­ity; the at­tack­ers be­lieve vic­tims will be “fixed” by the rape and be­come straight. Gangs of men usu­ally com­mit these crimes and of­ten trans­mit Aids and other dis­eases. Les­bians who live in Jo­han­nes­burg’s af­flu­ent Sand­ton neigh­bor­hood will have a dras­ti­cally dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence from those who in­habit one of Cape Town’s town­ships. Les­bians in poorer South African town­ships bear the brunt of these as­saults and then are left to fend for them­selves due to the lack of po­lice – or the prej­u­dice they face when re­port­ing their in­juries.

Nige­ria has be­come a ma­jor eco­nomic power: the West African na­tion re­cently over­took South Africa to be­come the largest econ­omy on the con­ti­nent. But this rapid fi­nan­cial de­vel­op­ment has not been matched by progress to­ward so­cial eq­uity for the LGBT com­mu­nity. Be­ing out and open in Nige­ria is ex­tremely dif­fi­cult due to the many so­cial, politi­cal and eco­nomic bar­ri­ers, but coura­geous les­bian or­gan­i­sa­tions that aim to ad­dress sex­ual and re­pro­duc­tive health con­cerns are emerg­ing in the coun­try.

Akudo Oguaghamba, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Women’s Health and Equal Rights Ini­tia­tive ( WHER), is at the fore­front of the call for equal rights for Nige­ria’s LGBT cit­i­zens. “In the wake of the anti-ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity cru­sade, there have been a lot of push-backs in ad­vo­cacy ef­forts. These neg­a­tive re­ac­tions also tough­ened up LGBT ac­tivists in these ar­eas, as our worst fears be­came re­al­ity and we are left with no other choice than to be strong and


de­ter­mined,” ex­plains Oguaghamba.

“In Nige­ria, af­ter the Same Sex Mar­riage Pro­hi­bi­tion Act was en­acted, a great deal of aware­ness was raised around LGBT rights and what it means to be a ho­mo­sex­ual. We have con­tin­ued to ed­u­cate the Nige­rian peo­ple care­fully to un­der­stand that we are hu­mans too and de­serve to reach our full po­ten­tial, re­gard­less of sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and gen­der iden­tity.”

While the LGBT rights move­ment over the past few decades has achieved a great deal of suc­cess in West­ern coun­tries, the same can­not be said in Africa. There is no sim­ple an­swer as to why gay rights in Africa have been so hard to at­tain, but the roots of mod­ern-day ho­mo­pho­bia in many African coun­tries can be traced back to the im­pact of colo­nial­ism. Many of the 19th cen­tury Bri­tish anti-sodomy laws were ex­ported to the African coun­tries that were part of the then Bri­tish Em­pire, leav­ing a legacy of ho­mo­pho­bia that has been dif­fi­cult to erase.

Zim­babwe’s con­tro­ver­sial pres­i­dent, Robert Mu­gabe, has scape­goated gays and les­bians for a range of prob­lems the coun­try is deal­ing with, has called ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity “un-african”, and has even claimed that colonists brought over this “im­moral cul­ture”. Of course, ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is far from a colo­nial im­port and there is ev­i­dence dat­ing back thou­sands of years show­ing that in Africa, as in any­where else in the world, ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is an in­trin­sic part of hu­man his­tory. For ex­am­ple, an­cient cave paint­ings by the San peo­ple of Zim­babwe de­pict ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, and Su­dan’s Zande tribe saw les­bian­ism prac­ticed.

Com­ments like those made by Mu­gabe sound out­ra­geous and un­be­liev­able, but un­for­tu­nately these views are widely held. A poll con­ducted by Noipolls in part­ner­ship with The Ini­tia­tive for Equal Rights ( TIERS) and the Bisi Alimi Foun­da­tion in 2015 dis­cov­ered that anti-gay sen­ti­ment in Nige­ria is very high. One of the most dis­turb­ing find­ings was that 90% of Nige­ri­ans agreed with the state­ment “Nige­ria would be a bet­ter coun­try with­out ho­mo­sex­u­als” and 87% held the opin­ion that “ho­mo­sex­u­als should be im­pris­oned for 14 years for hav­ing a same-sex re­la­tion­ship or liv­ing to­gether”.

Nige­ria’s eco­nomic as­cent, paired with stun­ning nat­u­ral scenery, has made the coun­try a promis­ing travel des­ti­na­tion. Nev­er­the­less, les­bo­pho­bia is still a ma­jor con­cern for vis­i­tors trav­el­ing to Nige­ria and has the po­ten­tial to de­ter mem­bers of the LGBT com­mu­nity from ex­pe­ri­enc­ing this di­verse na­tion.

“Be­cause same-sex mar­riage, same-sex re­la­tion­ships and LGBT or­gan­is­ing are crim­i­nalised in Nige­ria, it is im­por­tant for les­bians trav­el­ing through Nige­ria to re­frain from in­dulging in ac­tiv­i­ties that will pub­licly brand them as les­bians,” says Oguaghamba. “In some parts of Africa, the sit­u­a­tion might be anec­do­tally dif­fer­ent, but the lived ex­pe­ri­ences end up be­ing the same. I would ad­vise that any les­bian trav­el­ling to any coun­try in Africa con­sult the peo­ple on the ground to un­der­stand their con­text and also to have sup­port on the ground.”

Rather than en­dors­ing LGBT rights, Nige­ria’s pres­i­dent, Good­luck Jonathan, re­cently signed the Same­Sex Mar­riage Pro­hi­bi­tion Bill, which rep­re­sents a con­sid­er­able set­back. This dra­co­nian piece of leg­is­la­tion not only out­laws same-sex mar­riage but also makes it a crim­i­nal of­fence for same­sex cou­ples to pub­licly dis­play af­fec­tion and to carry out LGBT ad­vo­cacy. Some coun­tries, in­clud­ing the United King­dom, have threat­ened to cut aid to coun­tries that ac­tively dis­crim­i­nate against gay peo­ple. How­ever, procla­ma­tions by West­ern na­tions call­ing for gay rights fur­ther prop­a­gate the widely held no­tion that ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is a West­ern im­port.

Former Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s vo­cal sup­port for LGBT rights on his 2015 visit to Kenya and Ethiopia also gen­er­ated a de­fen­sive re­ac­tion from those on the con­ti­nent who be­lieve that the US is at­tempt­ing to im­pose its cul­tural val­ues on Africa.

“Change has to come from within African so­ci­eties and be led by Africans. This is why it is so im­por­tant to pub­li­cise, sup­port and em­power African LGBT ac­tivists. Train­ing for African jour­nal­ists in LGBT is­sues would help re­duce me­dia ho­mo­pho­bia, which of­ten stirs hate and vi­o­lence,” says Peter Tatchell, a hu­man rights cam­paigner and the di­rec­tor of the Peter Tatchell Foun­da­tion. “Churches also need to speak out against the vic­tim­i­sa­tion of LGBT peo­ple, which is of­ten driven by re­li­giously mo­ti­vated prej­u­dice.”

Africans them­selves are the only ones able to re­v­erse anti-gay laws and change public opin­ion; how­ever, this bat­tle for ba­sic rights is mon­u­men­tal. It is ex­traor­di­nar­ily dif­fi­cult for African LGBT ac­tivists to openly cam­paign for equal rights, as they are be­ing tar­geted and their cause is be­ing sen­sa­tion­alised by the me­dia and ho­mo­pho­bic mobs.

The Ugan­dan weekly tabloid Rolling Stone pub­lished pho­to­graphs of 100 gay Ugan­dans in 2010, un­der the head­line “Hang Them”. One of the peo­ple named in the ar­ti­cle and pic­tured on the front page was David Kato, a prom­i­nent hu­man rights ac­tivist who had re­ceived a num­ber of death threats be­fore the re­port was pub­lished. A few months af­ter be­ing named, Kato was beaten to death with a ham­mer in his home.

Clearly, this en­vi­ron­ment dis­cour­ages many Africans from speak­ing out in favour of LGBT rights, and the sit­u­a­tion is de­te­ri­o­rat­ing. “In most African coun­tries, anti- LGBT at­ti­tudes have wors­ened, and in Nige­ria, Gam­bia, Cameroon and Uganda le­gal re­pres­sion has in­ten­si­fied. This has hit all LGBT peo­ple, but les­bians have suf­fered par­tic­u­larly badly by be­ing sub­jected to the bru­tal­ity of cor­rec­tive rape,” says Tatchell. “There is much ig­no­rance, fear and hate to­ward les­bians in Africa. Men feel es­pe­cially threat­ened by les­bian [and straight] women who have bro­ken away from the shack­les of of­ten pa­tri­ar­chal tra­di­tional cul­tures.”

At the mo­ment, it may seem im­pos­si­ble to over­come such per­va­sive prob­lems and for gays and les­bians to live openly and freely, but the will of LGBT peo­ple in Africa re­mains strong. “There is hope – we have seen tremen­dous or­gan­is­ing and com­ing out by gay and les­bian peo­ple in coun­tries where even such de­plorable con­di­tions ex­ist, such as Egypt and Ethiopia. There is strong or­gan­is­ing in East and Southern Africa, which is a strong bea­con that self- or­gan­is­ing, self- de­ter­mi­na­tion by gay and les­bian Africans may in­deed change the tide,” con­cludes De­nis Nzioka, a lead­ing sex­ual and gen­der mi­nori­ties ac­tivist based in Kenya.

“As our worst fears be­come re­al­ity, we are left with no other choice than to be strong”

Love not hate: ac­tivists in Lon­don protest in sup­port of LGBT peo­ple in Nige­ria

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