The LGBTI Movement and Social Media in Africa

Sokari Ekine

Homosexuality is presently criminalized in 38 countries in Africa, with sentences ranging from fines to imprisonment (3 months to 14 years), while in some Islamic states it is punishable even by death. Over the past 6 years the campaign for LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Intersex) rights and decriminalisation of same sex relationships has been aggressively pursued by an increasingly visible community of activists from across the continent. In presenting this overview of the LGBTI movement in Africa, three overlapping questions come to mind. How have national governments reacted to the increased visibility? How has the LGBTI movement responded to the challenges they face? How has the movement been presented by the “Gay International” and mainstream media? The last question is important because it allows us to examine homophobia and LGBTI rights within a global and historical context rather than problematising it solely in an African context.

Uganda’s “Anti-Homosexuality Bill”
The responses by governments to the increased visibility of activists ranges from intimidation, arrests, torture, a broadening of existing legislation to increasingly harsh penalties such as life imprisonment and even death. The most draconian legislation presently under discussion is the “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” [September 2009] proposed to Uganda’s Parliament by MoP David Bahati. Homosexuality is already a criminal offence under Ugandan legislation, based on British colonial penal code, so why the need for further legislation? For this purpose it may be useful to bear in mind that at the heart of the Bill is the notion of religious morality, of the “protection of the family”. It aims at extending existing legislation to include anyone “who witnesses, supports or associates with people involved in same-sex relationships”. The Bill thus increases in scope both the definition of “homosexual acts” and the punishment. Originally, the death penalty was proposed for repeated offenses, those who are HIV-Positive and for same sex acts with anyone under the age of 18. Human rights activists and organisations working in the area of sexuality as well as HIV/AIDS organisations are in a perilous position as under the law they will all be criminalised. Although the death penalty has since been removed, the law institutionalises the discrimination of LGBTI people. They will have no redress either morally or under law, if they are physically attacked, raped or discriminated against. Women will be even more vulnerable to rape as rapists will be able to accuse the woman of being a lesbian and therefore deserving of rape. Even to touch someone in a “gay” way is punishable.

Discrimination and anti-LGBTI propaganda in other African countries
The Ugandan Bill is not the first to further criminalise homosexuality in Africa. Two Nigerian Bills had been proposed in 2005 and 2007 - the Same Sex Marriage Bill and the Same Gender Marriage Bill respectively. However the Nigerian Bills did not include the death penalty and following an intensive campaign by Nigerian human rights activists both Bills have since been shelved. The death penalty does exist under Sharia law in the north of Nigeria for men but as technically Sharia law is unconstitutional, it would be difficult to actually carry out such punishment under Federal law.

In the past five years there have been a number of same sex related legal cases on the continent. In 2005 nine Camerounian men were charged with sodomy and refused bail for committing homosexual acts. After a year in prison, their case was dropped and they were released but not before leaving them traumatised and stigmatized by the experience. Similarly, in Senegal a number of men who were part of an HIV/AIDS advocacy organisation were convicted of sodomy and sentenced to 14 years in prison but the judgment was overturned on appeal. In Northern Nigeria, in turn, eighteen men were arrested on being caught cross-dressing. As in the other cases, they were charged with sodomy. In December 2009, at last, a Malawian gay couple who attempted to get married were arrested and charged with “unnatural offenses” and “indecent practices between men”. The couple, who are presently awaiting trial, were medically examined without their consent, a direct violation of their human rights.

The imprisonment of the Camerounian men has been instrumental in politicising the LGBTI movement in that country and has led directly to the formation of Alternative Cameroun which is now very active in campaigning for LGBTI rights in the country. It is quite possible that a similar move will take place in Malawi with the support of activists groups who are providing counseling and legal representation for the couple. In other words, the intimidation and arrest of LGBTI people has become the driving force behind the campaign for sexual rights and decriminalisation. At the same time, the Malawian and Nigerian cases are interesting to the extent that in the first the charge of homosexuality contradicts the Malawian constitution which protects against all forms of discrimination. Whilst in northern Nigeria there is a history of cross-dressing amongst men that prior to this case was accepted within the society. There have also been anti-LGBTI statements from religious and political leaders in Zambia, Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

South Africa: An allegedly save haven for queer people
In South Africa, although LGBTI people are protected under the constitution, homophobia remains extremely widespread. Black lesbians living in the townships are especially vulnerable to rape, physical violence and sometimes even murder - as in the case of football star Eudy Simelane. Eudy finally received a measure of justice in September 2009 after her murderer and rapist was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. The campaign around Eudy’s trial, led by the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project, was not an easy one and was fought with very little resources despite the international media interest in the crime and trial. Nonetheless it has been central to raising awareness of hate crimes against lesbians in South Africa.

The Western view on homophobia in Africa
There are indeed serious human rights violations under international and national human rights legislation and in the case of Uganda urgency is required to stop the Bill passing. However, the claims by sections of the international media including bloggers and international LGBT organisations that “homophobia is sweeping Africa”, or worse “There is a new form of hatred and intolerance sweeping across the black continent” are alarmist and mis-informed. Statements like these are in danger of racialising homophobia, presenting it as something intrinsic to Africa: Black and Muslim / Middle Eastern / POC (person of colour). Africans engaged in same sex desire and gender variance are presented as victims of an indigenous homophobia and religious intolerance whereas in truth both of these exist outside of the continent, and increasingly are being conducted in conjunction with US evangelical Christian right which is reaping havoc across the global south and in Uganda in particular. Other problematics in the representation of African same sex desire and gender variance is that they often ascribe western Eurocentric identities and explanations of same sex desire which do not accurately represent the numerous expressions both historic and contemporary of such desire amongst people of colour outside the global north.

Achievements of the LGBTI movement
Very much underreported are the achievements, the campaigns and judicial successes by African LGBTI / Human Rights Defenders over the past five years, the most fundamental of which is the increased visibility of LGBTI people. Visibility has cost lives and continues to be a high risk activity especially for lesbians and transgender men and women. LGBTI activists believe the higher the visibility the more they are able to challenge the mantra by religious and political leaders that same sex desire and gender variance are “unAfrican”. The increased visibility has also led to public discussion in the media, an easier access to information and it has forced people to think about the effect of exclusionary rights in their society.

One of the ways in which LGBTI people have increased their visibility is through the formation of national and Pan-African organisations working at grassroots level in the struggle for decriminalization and sensitising their respective communities. Organisations such as SMUG (Sexual Minorities Uganda) and the CAL (Coalition of African Lesbians) have been at the forefront of the campaign for LGBTI rights in Uganda and in preventing the passing of the Ugandan “Anti-Homosexuality Bill”. One particular high profile case took place in Uganda in 2005 when the home of Ugandan activist and founder of SMUG, Victor Mukasa, was raided by the police and documents removed from the house. Victor chose to fight the case and sued the Attorney General of Uganda. In December 2008, after three and half years of being in hiding, repeated disappointments, limited funds and at much detriment to his physical and emotional health, Victor won his case against the Ugandan Attorney General. The judge in the case stated that the actions of the police were “unconstitutional, inhuman, and should be condemned, and said it was important to respect Human Rights laws and protect them in the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood.”

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. This is a common theme throughout the continent: Whenever there is a criminal case against LGBTI people the more activists come on board and the stronger the overall movement becomes.

Transgender politics have also come to the forefront through the work of Gender Dynamix in South Africa. In 2008, the first “African Trans Workshop” was held in Cape Town, South Africa, with Transgender activists participating from across southern Africa. This was a landmark meeting, an empowering and visionary moment for transgender people on the continent. Other organisations such as AMSHeR (African Men for Sexual Health & Rights) focus on HIV/AIDS to ensure that men who have sex with men (MSM) have open access to relevant information and antiretroviral medication. One of the outcomes of the LGBTI Rights movement is that it is they who have to a large extent placed the issue of human rights on the political agenda in many African countries and framed the discussion in the media.

Campaigning through social media
The use of social media as a campaign strategy by African LGBTI groups is still in its relative infancy. Most of the organisations do have a website presence but the content is fairly minimal and limited to organisational information rather than campaign issues. Two exceptions are the dedicated news sites Gender Dynamix, which acts as a resource and news portal on Transgender and Transsexual issues, and Behind the Mask, which is a Pan-African LGBTI news and resource site. It is the social networking site Facebook which has become the primary space for campaigns, news and debate. The creation of “Pages” “Groups” “Petitions” and “Notes” is used extensively by activists in addition to the personal profiles of artists, writers, photographers, filmmakers all engaged in the African LGBTI movement. The level of activity is high and there has been a conscious effort to internationalise campaigns through the features of Facebook. Other social media such as Twitter have hardly been used and there are still only a few blogs such as Gay Uganda, African Activist and Black Looks which discuss African LGBTI issues on a regular basis. However, one of the major challenges facing African LGBTI activists who are relatively small in number, is how to manage online campaigns and information as well as focus on the extremely important work at national governmental and grassroots level.

The campaign for LGBTI rights in Africa needs to be framed within a global context of growing homophobia and transphobia, particularly from religious institutions and those on the political Right. Yes, there is a long struggle ahead not just to decriminalize homosexuality but also to sensitize communities into understanding same sex relationships as part of the spectrum of human sexuality. However activists have actively engaged with national governments challenging the expansion of criminalisation legislation as well as the many instances of intimidation and arrest of LGBTI people. They have increased their visibility through the formation of grassroots campaign groups and the use of social media such as Facebook despite the personal risks to their safety. The campaign to shelve the Ugandan “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” is an excellent example of collaborative activism across the continent. Through the work and courage of African LGBTI activists it is my feeling that at best the Bill will be shelved and at worse it will be passed but with significant modification if only to save face of those who tabled it in the first place.


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