Africa’s quiet LGBT revolution

Across much of Africa, LGBTs are gaining crucial liberties despite intense—and often institutionalized—homophobia.
Across much of Africa, LGBTs are gaining crucial liberties despite intense—and often institutionalized—homophobia.
Image: Amanda Baeza for Quartz
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Sometimes, it’s enough just to be seen.

And other times it’s just a start. Get yourself seen. Then heard. Then assert yourself as part and parcel of the community that’s been blind to you forever. Surely, the tone-deaf comments and embarrassing situations will begin to be chipped away as you are seen and heard?

Maybe even the kidnappings and beatings? Once people realize you are everywhere all around them?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I got a bird’s eye view in how visibility goes a long way in changing perception. I saw, not just crowds grow from one June to another at New York’s annual Gay Pride festivities, but how it seemed the entire region got in on it.

Today, mayors, senators, wanna-be politicos, their families, police officers, everyone, it seems unfurls a rainbow flag and dances down Fifth Avenue on Gay Pride day.

Decades before, brave queer folks—as they were dubbed then—had to angrily fight back to stop the violence directed at them, often chanting “We’re here. We’re Queer. Get used to it.” That anger helped open the door to today.

Pride celebrations commemorating the full spectrum of the human family—LGBTs and the friends and families who support them—are now de-riguer in global cities. And marriage equality is now legal in much of the Western world and Latin America.

Yet in many parts sub-Saharan Africa, we’ve got a ways to go. But we are making slow progress.

It’s been longer than a decade since I’ve attended the Big Apple’s Pride events, as I’m often in Ghana for the American summer.

But from my flat in Accra, I beam when I see my fellow Nigerians proudly marching in New York, a bold act of defiance that could lead to long term imprisonment and entrapment back home and, indeed, in much of Africa.

Despite having the cradle of humanity on the African continent, we remain behind most of the world in embracing our LGBT families. Homophobia forces many LGBTs in Africa to flee and build up other societies where they are left alone and finally appreciated.

Many of our leaders gin up antigay sentiments for political gain, after all when electricity, pipe-borne water, and sound healthcare are tough to provide—one can simply demonize gays to distract.

It is routine. And sometimes borders on the absurd. As Kingsford Sumana Bagbin, the deputy speaker of the Ghanaian parliament did when he recently claimed homosexuality is worse than an atomic bomb.

Even though gays have been the fabric of society in Ghana for eons, political leaders and their religious counterparts would like you to think they were an anomaly or just pure evil.

Nonetheless, in the face of such onslaught, in many parts of Africa, the mentality of “retreat and be quiet” to save LGBT lives is finally becoming a thing of the past.

In South Africa, they may have laws protecting all—and legalizing same-sex marriage—citizens but still some want to silence anything perceived as gay. Earlier this year when the acclaimed South African film Inxeba (The Wound) was released, local censors fought to keep it out of movie theaters. The film tackles Xhosa manhood rites and is a tender love story that depicts wonderfully complex African men on screen.

It was controversial because it displays homosexual love in a heterosexual, hyper-masculine rural mountainside setting. I beamed with pride when this film—shortlisted for an Academy Award, and the first South African film to stream on Netflix—was allowed back in regular theaters, after the courts sided with the filmmakers’ legal challenge.

In Nigeria, I’m also often beaming with pride knowing that even with the relentless attacks and assaults on writers, poets and others who dare speak and write their truth, the works keep coming to critical acclaim.

These brutal attacks have spawned new voices, homegrown operators demanding representation in culture and politics with zero tolerance for homophobia. They’re fighting back daily and staying visible; some have even formalized their struggle through the very public #HowIResist campaign, which chronicles their struggles for survival on social media.

We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.

In Kenya, gays are resisting government humiliation and marginalization by challenging their continued victimization in court even though the president, Uhuru Kenyatta, continues to claim to the world that their rights are a nonissue.

“I will not engage in a subject of ‘no’ … it is not of any major importance to the people and the Republic of Kenya. This is not an issue, as you would want to put it, of human rights, “ he told CNN’s Christianne Amanpour in April.

But his LGBT constituents are staying visible and not cowering. And, they are winning court challenges against humiliating injustices—most horrifically, Kenya’s anachronistic “anal exams.” Most of these activists are homegrown, but some like Nguru Karugu are folks who lived abroad and returned to do the work they were doing in America for the homeland.

He’s now a director with Public Health Innovations, and engaged with marginalized communities. “The Kenyan LGBT movement has continued to exert itself … groups have gone to court to challenge these laws on their own determination to secure their rights.”

So their first step? End those brutal anal exams. Next step, end criminalization of their relationships, which are currently punishable by 14-year jail term.

I’m beaming.

And when the Kenyan Film Board, bans Rafiki (Friend) a Kenyan love story between two women from playing in movie theaters because they say it has a “clear intent to promote lesbianism” it is sad. But then the film goes on to become the first Kenyan film invited to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

I’m beaming with pride, knowing that Kenyans and Africans all over will ultimately see this film, regardless of censorship.

Gay and lesbian activists attend Uganda’s first gay pride parade at the Entebbe Botanical Gardens in Kampala, Uganda.
Gay and lesbian activists attend Uganda’s first gay pride parade at the Entebbe Botanical Gardens in Kampala, Uganda.

In Uganda, home of the botched “Kill the Gays” bill, pride commemorations—albeit small ones—are already happening; though each year like clockwork, the government clamps down on LGBT cultural events (or really any cultural event they deem has a gay component). But year in year out, the events keep happening and more and people take their first public baby steps.

In Tanzania, the brutal onslaught by the government continues as they bully prominent activist—even as it impacts their own society’s health needs, particularly around HIV/AIDS.

Over in the tiny southern nation of eSwatini (Swaziland), where the absolute monarch has been known to deride gays, the LGBT citizens are beginning to come out of hiding and are planning a Pride commemoration to coincide with New York.

Will we, in Sub-Saharan Africa, have our pride moment? I’d say despite all it all, we are already having it. Marches may come and go, but we keep moving forward. And I beam with pride at every small step.

This story is part of our series on Global Pride.