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Interconnected Struggles: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Queer and Intersex (LGBTQI) activism in Africa

FRIDAY FILE: LGBTQI individuals in Africa face numerous civil, political, economic, social and cultural barriers. AWID spoke to Hakima Abbas, the Executive Director of Fahamu about the challenges of LGBTQI activism and how the politics of foreign aid impacts the struggle.

This article is part of a series of Friday Files to explore some of the issues and debates related to the AWID 2012 Forum theme and draw the connections between women’s rights issues and economic power. For more information related to sexuality click here.

By Kathambi Kinoti

AWID: There are currently many setbacks to LGBTQI rights in Africa, what are the greatest risks at this time?

Hakima Abbas (HA): The risks for LGBTQI persons, human rights defenders and social justice activists working on LGBTQI equality and liberation are huge. The threat or reality of violence, social and economic repercussions - loss of housing, expulsion from institutions of learning, alienation from family and faith. There is incalculable psychological trauma in living in an environment where oppression and violence against LGBTQI persons and the privileging of patriarchal-capitalist heterosexuality has been normalized, is pervasive in language, cultural representation, education systems, public institutional practices and governance.

We need to pay close attention to growing fundamentalisms and oppression in our communities, states and continent. It is not just an LGBTQI concern but a concern for every marginalized and vulnerable group. We cannot afford to ignore the persecution of any group of people.

AWID: Please elaborate on how the economic and social rights of LGBTQI individuals are affected.

HA: When we talk of LGBTQI Africans we are talking about a majority of people who are economically oppressed and who are denied range of economic and social rights, including the right to education, housing and basic health services, as a direct result of perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. This is compounded by other factors such as class, ethnicity or race. Therefore they are subject to multiple oppressions.

Continued criminalization and State-sponsored oppression against them encourages widespread impunity. Police, laws, and courts continue to perpetuate and reinforce oppressions against them, so LGBTQI individuals do not seek recourse to justice.

Through the consistent violent rhetoric of African political leaders and supposed leaders of religious or cultural institutions, African LGBTQI individuals and communities are denied the cultural identity of being African, are disappeared from the history of their cultural, linguistic and ethnic communities or are condemned as sinful and alienated from their faith. But African LGBTQI resisters are reclaiming these identities, telling their own stories of existence and contribution, countering interpretations of text, going beyond tolerance to demand liberation, and creating cultural expressions and forms to testify to their multiple identities.

AWID: What progress has been made in promoting and protecting the rights of LGBTQI individuals?

HA: It is difficult to measure the contribution of the movement towards its end, since it is not enough to change laws and policies, or to win rights for LGBTQI communities or individuals in isolation of the multiple identities of African LGBTQI persons. Prioritizing one freedom over another does not work. As women we waited while we won national liberation, and today we are still fighting patriarchal oppression.

But there have been tremendous gains in Africa in the struggle for LGBTQI equality. The South African constitution creates a framework for uniting struggles. The Uganda civil society coalition has deepened broad based coalitions against democratic regression in the targeting of LGBTQI individuals and communities through repressive and murderous legislation. Kenyan movements have gained significant visibility setting agendas for change.

A progressive pan-African front recognizing the Queer question as being at the vanguard of left political framings is continuing to grow and is developing collective strategies to counter the conservative and fundamentalist assault. Presently, resistance is clear and visible. In most countries, there is an ever-decreasing likelihood of attack without an African response and action. These gains have been hard fought for by tenacious LGBTIQ activists and allies across Africa.

Unfortunately gains tend to be fragile and vulnerable to the impulse of, for example, politicians with little other leverage, or of bad journalism seeking sensationalism. To consolidate these gains, the movement must continue to build solid allies amongst diverse African people and social justice movements.

AWID: How can allies support the movement for LGBTQI rights in Africa?

HA: Genuine solidarity is based on a belief in linked fate - nobody is free until we are all free. Support must enable the LGBTQI movement to dictate the form, content and direction of solidarity and to call allies to action.

The African feminist movement and other African social justice allies have been key to supporting the LGBTQI movement, but more can be done to connect struggles. There continue to be questions about why human rights discourse should include issues considered to be LGBTQI. Still, there is a growing realization that the targeting of LGBTQI communities and persons happens as part of a broad democratic regression and fundamentalist advance.

Critical consciousness processes and political education can help shape the conversations with a broad range of allies who are key to shifting attitudes and behavior. Similarly, as the contributions of LGBTQI activists and communities in struggles that are considered to be outside of the gamut of LGBTQI issues such as struggles for sanitation and adequate housing, struggles of unemployed persons and for food sovereignty, become more visible and recognized, alliances and solidarity will grow thus strengthening movements. Some great cross-movement action is taking place such as the recent protests and action against kanjo brutality in Nairobi.[i]

Regarding transnational solidarity with organisations in the Global North, we seem to have lost the practice of examining and assessing solidarity on the basis of Samora Machel’s definition.[ii] The development paradigm tends to create disjointed action and suggests ‘consultation’ with those most affected. Yet a necessary condition for genuine solidarity is the leadership and full participation of those affected. Solidarity cannot reinforce oppressive power dynamics. [iii]

AWID: What is the role of foreign aid in supporting LGBTQI rights movements?

HA: Foreign aid and support has funded many LGBTQI organizations and actions on the continent. But a very small proportion of total foreign aid has gone to LGBTQI issues, movements or actions. The LGBTQI movement in Africa faces the same funding dilemmas as all of our progressive movements and has made significant gains with relatively little funding.

According to “The Global Gaze” study conducted by Funders for LGBTQI Issues in 2010 only about USD11 million from private foundations, bilateral donors and others, went to LGBTQI issues in Africa (not necessarily to African organizations as this includes projects on Africa by Global North organizations). There tends to be a lot of attention to grandiose pledges of support but little impact or visibility of those funds at the grassroots in Africa. Yet there is a widespread misperception, which reinforces the false homophobic assertion that ‘homosexuality’ is a western import and that huge funds are being channeled for LGBTQI related work.

According to the same study, 52% of total LGBTIQ funds to the Global South and East went to human rights work while HIV/AIDS received the second largest distribution of dollars (14.9%). What is also very much needed for LGBTIQ persons in Africa is education and employment opportunities (in a wide range of fields) and access to a range of social and health services (not only sexual health). Grassroots community organizing, direct action work, legal activism and solidarity building are very under-funded.

AWID: Recently the UK Prime Minister and the US Secretary of State implied that aid could be cut to countries that do not respect LGBTQI rights. What is your comment on this?

HA: An analysis of whether or not aid can be used as a carrot or a stick for human rights protection and promotion has to start from whether aid itself is in the interest of the people for whom the conditionality seeks to serve. Given that the aid and debt crisis in Africa has crippled economies, social services and self-determination, the aid and development architecture itself must be questioned on its systemic violation of the rights of the ‘poor and vulnerable’. The dependency created by this global system means that aid still serves as a crutch in Africa. Whether aid conditionality can be a lever to ensure state compliance with human rights standards and obligations seems paradoxical. Given the amount of funding we seem to be talking about, the question also remains how effective the aid withdrawal approach would be.

The question of whether or not aid withdrawal should be used must be determined by the African LGBTQI community and there should not be sweeping unilateral pronouncements.

African activists expressed concern about the use of aid conditionality as an incentive for protecting LGBTQI rights, these include:

  1. The decision to cut aid disregards the role and agency of African movements and creates the risk of backlash against LGBTI people;

  2. Donor sanctions reinforce disproportionate power dynamics between Global North and South;

  3. Singling out LGBTI issues emphasizes the idea that LGBTI rights are special rights and reinforces the notion that homosexuality is a western interest;

  4. The approach does not acknowledge the history of colonialism and sexuality;

  5. Aid cuts will have an impact on all Africans (no matter how ‘targeted’) and especially on the marginalized and vulnerable such as LGBTI people.

[i] The harassment of street people and hawkers by Nairobi City Council paramilitary officers.

[ii] The first President of Mozambique said: “International solidarity is not an act of charity: It is an act of unity between allies fighting on different terrains toward the same objective.”

[iii] See statement by Raha Iranian Feminist Collective: