Inside the fight for LGBTQ+ rights in Africa

April 6, 2023

The National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC) gained a historic win at the Kenyan Supreme Court, on February 24. It was finally able to register as an official nongovernmental organisation (NGO), after a 10-year legal battle in a country where homosexuality is outlawed.

However, the LGBTQ+ community’s celebrations were cut short by a wave of backlash. A day later, local organisations reported an immediate rise in “verbal and physical attacks”, and in coastal cities, large anti-LGBTQ+ demonstrations were held.

Similar battles are currently being waged across Africa over what count as legitimate ways of loving and whose persecution is justified. Queerphobic rhetoric is used by politicians for narrow political gain. Ghanaian anti-LGBTQ+ campaigner Sam George said that “Ghanaian culture forbids homosexuality” and Kenyan MP Farah Maalim characterised existing as a person who is LGBTQ+ as being “worse than murder.”

Colonialism and neoolonialism

Old colonial laws that criminalised same-sex activity and gender variance were left intact after countries gained independence. Many Africans remained ignorant about precolonial Africa where queerness was present and regularly celebrated, because those histories were maligned. Today these colonial-era laws are still used to oppress LGBTQ+ Africans, who receive no state support and also find their attempts to support each other hindered by bigotry.

In the 21st century, Western influence has intensified state-sponsored homophobia in Africa. This form of neocolonialism mimics the initial colonisation of Africa through Christian missionaries. Since 2007, at least $54 million from right-wing US churches has flooded the continent to fight “against LGBT rights and access to safe abortion, contraceptives, and comprehensive sexuality education”. Prominent anti-LGBTQ+ politicians such as Ugandan Minister of State for Trade, Industry, and Cooperatives David Bahati have received $20 million to campaign heavily for more draconian legislation. It is perhaps no surprise then that in Uganda on March 21, a new law was passed that will “make homosexual acts punishable by death.”

Other sources of money are being levied positively to support LGBTQ+ people. The Trans and Queer Fund (TQF) is a hopeful example of grassroots organising grounded in socialist and abolitionist values in Nairobi, Kenya. The fund was founded in March 2020 by Mumbi Makena, a feminist writer and organiser whom I spoke to two days after the NGLHRC win. She formed TQF with her friends during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among left working-class movements in Nairobi, some TQF team members noticed many viewed “queerness as a distraction” from other socioeconomic issues and there was repeated hostility toward queer and women organisers. While weakening economic growth in Africa affects everyone, mainstream organisations were not ready to grapple with how LGBTQ+ identity further marginalised some Kenyans, nor reach out to them specifically.

Grassroots organising

However, TQF was committed, and it initially set up a mutual aid system to provide relief funds for LGBTQ+ people whose livelihoods disappeared due to mandated lockdowns. Makena explained that many queer and transgender Kenyans work in the service and hospitality industries, which are more accepting of them. During the pandemic, LGBTQ+-friendly NGOs were constrained by donors and could not repurpose previously allocated funds to COVID-19 relief. However, TQF was able to be agile and responsive from the start, working in an unbureaucratic, nonhierarchical way. TQF works on a volunteer basis online through Twitter and Instagram accounts and distributes funds through mobile money.

Over three years, TQF has raised and disbursed an impressive $50,000 and assisted over 1000 individuals. It supports its community in inventive ways — covering bus fares for people to attend marches and managing furniture donations for those creating transgender safe houses.

The ease of accessing the TQF means LGBTQ+ people have somewhere to turn if they get disowned by their families or need money for medical treatment after experiencing homophobic violence. The mutual aid relies on contributions coming largely from individuals within Kenya, but also from Canada, the US, and Britain. It describes its initiative as “working toward a future where all people are free from imperialism, capitalism, cisheteropatriarchy and ethnonationalism”. It encourages everyone who comes into contact with TQF to try to understand it as a commons, a collective resource.

The next step for the group, Makena says, is political education, so both fundraisers and beneficiaries can “start to form radical analyses of what is happening in the world.”

NGOs have been instrumental in achieving some successes on behalf of LGBTQ+ Africans. For example, they spearheaded advocacy that led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Botswana and Angola, in 2019 and 2021, respectively. But the law has its limitations. Without a shift in social attitudes, societies like South Africa, home to what is described as “the most progressive constitution in the world”, still suffer from homophobic violence and discrimination. In 2019, NGOs tried to get the Kenyan Supreme Court to rule that sections 162 and 165 of the Penal Code, which criminalise homosexuality, were unconstitutional, but the legal petition was unsuccessful.

Solidarity is key

As Makena points out, solely changing the law doesn’t automatically make LGBTQ+ people safer. She warns against narrowing queer liberation to a liberal rights framework that does not address the everyday realities faced by working-class LGBTQ+ people. Makena remarks, “We must forge greater solidarities within left movements in Kenya but also with LGBTQ+ people overseas who are often notably silent on the intersections between anti-imperialism and our fight for queer dignity and safety.”

A ripple effect of homophobic laws is that they can eliminate support for those with HIV/AIDS and sex workers, two groups that sometimes overlap with the LGBTQ+ community. Any outreach may be misrepresented as promoting homosexuality, and in the case of the new Uganda law, anyone “abetting homosexuality” will be punished. With a continent already facing the repercussions of the “global gag rule” that decreased overseas funding for sexual and reproductive health and rights, this will certainly affect health care for both LGBTQ+ and heterosexual people alike.

Due to the severe consequences of foreign interference, it becomes even more crucial for African countries to fund their own welfare systems. While intolerance of LGBTQ+ Africans endures, efforts to organise to meet their needs through initiatives like mutual aid endure. TQF encourages others to set up similar mutual funds to strengthen community. “Long-term,” Makena says, “we don’t want LGBTQ+ people to only be passive beneficiaries of the funds or deradicalised; we want people to reflect on TQF and be active participants in their own liberation, collectively defining the agenda.”

It is long past time that African communities learned to be more accepting of diversity and acknowledged that all our fates are linked. It is worth “returning to the source” to rediscover Indigenous African cultural traditions around gender variance to enable more flexible responses to gay and transgender people today. Freedom in its fullest sense includes the right to privacy, and the right to love and build family structures of one’s choosing. LGBTQ+ Africans, like every other group, should be allowed to organise for their own freedom. We will continue to despite the daily challenges to our humanity.

[This article was produced by Globetrotter. Efemia Chela is an editor and researcher at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research who manages publishing at Inkani Books. She has an MA in development studies from the University of the Witwatersrand and bylines in publications including the Continent and the Johannesburg Review of Books.]

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