At an international conference on Black portraiture, imagery and depiction in Johannesburg, South Africa last November, I gave a presentation about the state of LGBT rights across the African continent. I told participants that I’d just come from New York, where, at the UN, the African bloc had spearheaded an effort to torpedo the work of the first-ever independent expert investigating violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
They wanted to halt the work of Vitit Muntarbhorn of Thailand, a human rights expert who had completed a tour of duty in Syria, and was appointed to the post of Special Raconteur in September. He had already begun his work, but the group objected to his mandate, which was to investigate abuses directed against LGBTI people. With so much state-sanctioned abuse on the continent this wasn’t exactly a big surprise. However, the African nation bloc said it wanted a delay because “there is no international agreement on the definition of the concept of ‘sexual orientation and gender identity.’”
This assertion was so off the mark that the American ambassador at the time, Samantha Power, described it as patently false. She would later assert that violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity are “well established,” and have been referred to repeatedly in UN statements and resolutions, including in the General Assembly and Security Council. “In reality, this amendment has little to do with questions around the definition of sexual orientation and gender identity,” she said. “Instead, this amendment is rooted in a real disagreement over whether people of a certain sexual orientation and gender identity are, in fact, entitled to equal rights.”
During my presentation, I posed the same question to the scholars and participants in the room that Botswana, on behalf of the African group of nations, had posed to the UN General Assembly: “Should sexual orientation and gender identity be included in broader issues of human rights concerns?” Then I gave them the unsatisfying response that Botswana’s ambassador, Charles Thembani Ntwaagae, gave to the UN: “Those two notions are not, and should not be, linked to existing international human rights instruments.”
I told the audience that while the African bloc’s response was totally unsurprising, what stung was South Africa not raising an objection. I said that being in South Africa, with its great constitution that outlaws discrimination, was bittersweet at the moment because they had not done anything to halt this, but instead had gone along with their reactionary neighbors.
The world is coming to the view that discrimination has no place in the 21st century. A month later, at a second hearing, and in a second attempt to quash the appointment, the African bloc, with their supporters in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, saw their efforts dashed for good as more nations rallied round to vote in favor of it, particularly countries from South America. The defeat was a clear sign that, while divisions remain, the world is coming to the view that discrimination has no place in the 21st century.
And this time South Africa broke ranks with the African bloc and made its position very clear to the world. Jerry Matjila, the South African ambassador said, “We will fight discrimination, everywhere, every time. We cannot discriminate against people because of their own lifestyle or intention. That we cannot do in South Africa.”
His words give me hope. And back home in Nigeria I am filled with hope when a leading Nigerian online publication, Pulse.ng, calls out Nollywood, our robust film industry, opining that the ‘representation of homosexuality in most Nollywood movies is at best a caricature attempt at bad comedy.’ I have to admit that I used to be of the mindset that, even if it is a poor depiction, at least there is one, especially since many habitually say we gay people do not exist in Nigeria, and in all the years that Nollywood has been churning out films – movies that are sought after all over the continent – we have rarely been seen. But the depiction of Nigerian gay men as bearded effeminates sporting bright red lipstick and making exaggerated arm movements is not funny, nor is it remotely the norm, and I now feel that if Nollywood is going to depict us, then they had better do it right. We are not going to be the butt of their jokes. And clearly the editors at Pulse don’t recognize the caricatures on screen either.
Nigerian gay men and women may not be having pride marches, but their friends and neighbors are actually starting to see them. Nigerian gay men and women may not be having pride marches, but their friends and neighbors are actually starting to see them, and see the quiet dignity many of us display in the face of constant onslaught. Pulse has seen fit to call out these directors for their lazy caricaturing, and I am heartened. Judging by Nigerian gay Twitter usage, the baby steps of coming out are growing into purposeful strides. Google points out that Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana routinely top the lust list for searches online for gay porn, giving the lie to claims we don’t exist. This too gives me hope.
I’m hopeful when my young male mentees in Ghana show up for my dinner parties with their boyfriends. They know it’s a safe space, and that any others in attendance who are not gay will be nonjudgmental. Despite the charade these young men engage in in public, using the modern tactic of putting pictures of the many ladies who are their pals on their Facebook walls to create the impression they are lotharios, I’m hopeful. They are inching closer to living, if not out loud, at least openly. While they may say to office colleagues that the guy who calls them every day is “my cousin” rather than “my lover”, I know their moment will come. I’m hopeful.
Though such things are still regrettably rare I was very hopeful when I read a report of the Ghanaian police arresting several men in Accra for blackmailing and extorting two young gay men—men the criminals forced to strip naked, and used the photos they took of them to extort money. The gay guys reported what happened to the police, a rarity in these cases, and the police did in fact lie in wait for the blackmailers and promptly put them in handcuffs.
But in March 2017, during exam week at the esteemed University of Nigeria, Nsukka, at least five students, some of them friends, were brutally beaten and then robbed of their smartphones, cash, computers and even generators by a marauding band of homophobes who had gone on a manhunt of suspected gays. All the while taunting them with chants of ‘homo’. What was so shocking was that the four ringleaders were fellow students who felt they could beat up, steal from and blackmail their contemporaries with impunity. And they used the tactic of going through their victims’ phones and WhatsApp contact lists to target others.
Their three-day rampage caused terror among their classmates, yet even after beating one to a pulp and demanding he pony up fifty thousand naira (about $170), what the thugs didn’t expect was that some of their victims would not just report the assaults to the university authorities, but also to the police. And when several of the perpetrators were arrested, they immediately blamed their victims, saying they found out these guys were gay, and found evidence on their phones, so…
One even told the police he saw no evidence, but simply was told they were gay so he joined the mob. Gay bashers bank on fear, on the victims being too scared to report violence for fear of being ridiculed or even being arrested themselves. And of course once one makes a report, one has outed oneself. In this instance the Nigerian police in Nsukka gave me hope. They arrested the thieves and got them to return the phones and computers to their classmates. Though the assailants got out on bail, they are to make restitution for the items they could not return. It is unclear if the university will sanction them, expel them, or just graduate them.
At time of writing, the university authorities have done nothing to punish the offending students; one of the victims has successfully graduated. Is this premier institution of higher learning going to turn out rabid homophobes as alumni, or brilliant, open-minded world citizens? The police and the few university faculty members who responded to the students are to be commended, and in a bleak landscape they give me hope.
“I’m sure to the outside world it seems like, ‘Oh my god, gays in danger here,’ but in Lagos we will carry on as we always have.” And in Lagos, gays aren’t exactly all in hiding. As my girl Kainene points out to me, gays and lesbians will continue to gingerly step out. “I’m sure to the outside world it seems like, ‘Oh my god, gays in danger here,’ but in Lagos we will carry on as we always have. People will get over themselves. I am not going to be tar-and-feathered and driven out of Lagos. That’s not going to happen. Nobody cares, but that would be so long as I don’t go on TV and say, ‘I’m gay’. But that applies to everything here. You just don’t wear your heart on your sleeve here, and you don’t fly your rainbow colors out in public. I don’t feel the need to hide, but I don’t feel the need to make a big statement either.”
I know that a lot of work needs to be done to build standing and tolerance in our world, but the fact that Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Djibouti, Guinea Bissau, Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, Mali, Lesotho, Mozambique, São Tomé, the Seychelles, Rwanda, the two Congos, the Central African Republic and South Africa don’t criminalize their gay citizens leaves me hopeful. It doesn’t mean they are all gay-friendly, but at least the state isn’t using the law to hunt gay men down.
Sign up for the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief — the most important and interesting news from across the continent, in your inbox.