Creating a Safe Space for LGBTQ Life in Uganda: The Pride Munyonyo Project

Acram Musisi is a strikingly handsome young man. His looks may not be classically beautiful, but they have an intelligent, soulful intensity that is fascinating. As a maker of portraits, I would love to photograph him.

Acram is also an LGBT activist in Uganda. And yes, that is his real name. Like many Ugandan activists, he is not scared of going public about his sexuality and his activism, despite living in a legal and cultural environment notoriously hostile to sexual and gender diversity.

Is this because the dangers of living in what the BBC called “the world’s worst place to be gay” are exaggerated by the media and, as some claim, by activists seeking attention – and donor funding?

Even some Ugandan activists and allies criticize what one has called the movement’s habit of “crying wolf.” And despite the laws and the underlying homophobia, tens of thousands of LGBT Ugandans manage to live, work, and love.

Yes, most Ugandans think homosexuals and trans people are abominations – or worse – and the “anti-gay law” is brutal, probably the most repressive in Africa and one of the worst anywhere in the world.

But like anywhere else, most people are too busy with their own problems to poke their noses into their neighbours’ lives, and the police usually have more urgent things to do than hunt “the gays.”

So most LGBT Ugandans, like LGBT Africans generally, get by. As long as they take precautions and keep their heads down, much like LGBT people in the West did until fairly recently.

But activism demands more than this. Rightly so. No one should have to live in shame and fear.

So people like Acram do face real dangers. Ugandan homophobia is not really about eradicating homosexuality and gender diversity – any sensible person knows that’s not possible – it’s about silencing the activists who want to bring sexual and gender diversity into the open and end the culture of shame and fear.

Like most, Acram has very personal motivations for fighting this cuture. He is one of those who learned very early that failing to hide can make being gay in Uganda, as he told me, “the most dangerous thing you can imagine.”

Acram explains that he discovered his sexuality at a boys’ boarding school. Like such environments anywhere, the homosocial overlapped with the homosexual. “We used to date as fellow boys, writing letters and romantic messages to each other,” Acram recalls. “Everybody had to have a ‘best friend’.”

For most boys (and girls), the feelings involved in these early romantic friendships are short-lived, but for a few, like Acram, they persist and deepen. “When I went on to high school,” he explains, “I never dated a girl. All my feeling stayed towards my fellow boys, and this was when I realized I was gay.”

But being gay in Uganda, as the teenage Acram already knew, “is seen as evil, ungodly, and an abomination to our cultural values, which claim a man can only love a woman.” In his second year of high school, Acram met his first real boyfriend, Byekwaso.

They were classmates, but Acram can’t remember how the relationship started, only that “when we became lovers, it was with a lot of fear and trauma, not wanting anybody to know our secret.”

Despite the fear of being discovered, Acram says the relationship was “amazing.”

“We lived in fear of the teachers and other students, but we were seriously in love. We were both scared, but we used to meet secretly at night in dark corners of the school, and we managed to steal some romantic times during the holidays in different spots outside.”

Boarding schools are hard places to keep a secret, especially a scandalous sex secret. Somehow Acram and Byekwaso managed to keep theirs for almost three years, but once the rumours started, “everybody was against us.”

Mocked and shunned, they were helpless against the insults and bullying. “We felt like hyenas,” Arcam told me. “None of our friends wanted to be seen with us, and the rest of the school treated us like thieves.”

A few days later, they were called to the headteacher’s office and expelled on the spot, though not before being “whipped like animals,” as Arcam describes the ordeal.

Without any resources of their own, and no one to turn to except their families, they had no choice but to carry their shame home, and since Byekwaso came from another part of the country, no choice but to go their separate ways, alone and in disgrace.

Acram, understandably, doesn’t want to talk about his feelings during this nightmare. All he will say is that on reaching home and handing over the expulsion letter from the school, he was brutally beaten by his father and then by his uncle before being chased from the house and told never to return.

“I was a shame in the village. My father was highly respected and valued there, but homosexuality is considered a curse and an evil omen. The only way to save my family from disgrace was to send me away forever.”

Abandoned and homeless, Acram had no choice but to hike to the nearest large town and live on the streets. “I never saw my first love again,” he reflects. Eventually he made his way to Kampala, Uganda’s chaotic capital city, and survived there in the Kisenyi informal settlement, popularly known as Little Mogadishu, by begging and any casual labour he could find from day to day.

Besides the struggle just to get enough to eat, he had to hide being gay from the other street people. Everyone faced constant harassment from the police. “I used to sleep under the ditches with one eye open. Night raids, beatings, and arrests by the police were common, and gangs of thieves were always ready to take anything the police did not.”

“I had been living one year on the streets of Kisenyi when a good Samaritan who knew me from my village – and knew what had happened to me – helped me find a job as a cleaner in a factory. He spotted me by accident when I was begging. He recognized me and called my name. It felt like a miracle.”

At the factory, one of Acram’s jobs was to clean the office of the company secretary, Justin. Though still young – he was only a few years older than Acram – Justin was doing well and starting to climb the corporate ladder. But he was also gay.

Like a lot of closeted gays, Acram and Justin sensed the other’s interest but couldn’t openly acknowledge it. Finally, Justin approached Acram after work one day and offered him some extra “piece jobs” at his home. Acram started working there every Saturday, and gradually he and Justin “understood one another” and then became lovers.

But workplace romances are as hard to keep secret as high school ones.

Acram has no idea what gave them away. Maybe someone saw or heard something, or maybe people just put two and two together, but at some point their relationship became known.

Acram knew something was wrong from the way co-workers were looking at him, whispering and laughing whenever he went by. But he had no idea that more was going on until “one good friend warned us that a plot was being hatched against us by other employees. They had actually gathered huge sticks and stones and were ready to beat and stone us to death!”

The friend took the initiative and called the police. They rescued Acram and Byekwaso from the factory only to turn around and arrest them for “homosexual practices.”

The friend’s intervention is a good example of how important informal LGBT networks can be in a place like Uganda. He not only warned Acram and Byekwaso about the plot against them and called the police, probably saving their lives, but when they were arrested, he contacted one of the few organisations that could help them.

Ugandan Gay on Move does more than just “advocate.” It gives practical help to people persecuted for their sexuality or gender identity and was able to get Acram and Byekwaso out of jail, have the charges dropped (best not to ask how), and provide temporary shelter.

Acram says, “they turned our lives around. We were so dejected, so tired of the community that was failing to accept us, so fed up with finding ourselves back in trouble every time we seemed to have a chance of happiness, that we had almost decided to commit suicide.”

Telling this part of his story makes Acram so emotional that tears come easily. “It happens whenever I remember what I’ve gone through, and all the other LGBT people who have been victims and even lost their lives because of this hate and persecution.”

Byekwaso passed away from HIV-related causes a year or so later. Acram and he had already separated by then, because Acram wanted a monogamous relationship and Byekwaso wanted to date other men too. Still, they parted on good terms, and Acram remembers Byekwaso fondly. “He loved and cared for me. He was a great man.”

Acram’s own project, Pride Munyonyo Resource Centre, is both a tribute to Byekwaso and a testimony to his and Acram’s experience of rejection, struggle, and love, and the similar experiences of other LGBT Ugandans. In the whole of Uganda, Acram tells me, there is no safe space where people can drop in for LGBT-friendly counselling, non-discriminatory health care, free legal advice, or just relax, read LGBT literature, watch LGBT-themed films and TV, organize discussions, or socialize without worrying about harassment, blackmailers, or police raids.

Pride Munyonyo aims to be the first centre of this kind. Acram and his team are now raising funds and recruiting professional volunteers (counsellors, doctors, nurses, trainers, lawyers, etc.) to staff the centre once it’s up and running.

The greatest danger to LGBT people in Uganda, according to Acram, is simply the climate of fear, ignorance, and prejudice, and the constant danger of “mob justice” that these emotions fuel – whether perpetrated by an actual mob or by the police, who are scarcely more rational in how they deal with anyone who flouts the strict Victorian gender and sexual “morals” that Uganda inherited from colonialism.

For many years Ugandan LGBT activists have been struggling to cure this colonial hangover. The Pride Munyonyo Resource Centre will be an important step in this fight, but only if it gets the support that it needs.

To find out how you can help with funding or your skills, visit: http://pridemunyonyo.org/

 

Photos courtesy Pride Munyonyo Resource Centre, except Kampala market scene by J Stimp, “Shopping at Owino Market” (www.flickr.com)

Botswana’s LeGaBiBo puts film at the centre of African LGBTQ activism

The fifth instalment of Botswana’s pioneering annual Batho ba Lorato (“People of Love”) LGBTQ film festival opens in Gaborone on February 22. Organized by LeGaBiBo, the southern African country’s national LGBTQ rights organization — and with a powerful lineup of African and African-American features and shorts headlined by the continental premiere of multi-Oscar contender Moonlight — this year’s festival will set new audience records and put the festival right at the centre of African queer cultural activism.

In 2013, Batho ba Lorato was the first queer film festival to be held in Africa outside South Africa. It developed out of a series of informal film screenings organized by Martin Roohan, an Australian expat.

Over time these “queer video nights” raised local awareness of LGBTQ-themed film and TV and created an audience and a demand. A film festival was the next logical step. It only remained to find a venue, connect with the LGBTQ festival network, and spread the word in the Botswana queer and allied communities.

A group of film buffs and activists got together in  Martin’s living room, made a plan, divided up the tasks, and a few months later, on Valentine’s Day, 2012, the Batho ba Lorato “romance” began. Against the odds, and in the face of many predictions that “nothing new in Botswana lasts long,” the festival has survived, prospered, and grown.

After the first year, which was a huge success despite an almost total lack of funding, the festival was adopted by LeGaBiBo and got access to more funding and some professional staff. LeGaBiBo’s Communication and Documentation Officer, Bradley Fortuin (pictured at the first festival in this post’s headline image) is Batho ba Lorato’s dynamic and super-efficient coordinator and was a key member of the original living-room group!

Thanks to Bradley’s dedication and assistance from the Canadian High Commission — the festival is now held in a real cinema (and a popular one) instead of the university auditorium of the first couple of years, there’s a budget for publicity, money for copyright fees, and (thanks to that) a lineup of important new releases.

These include multi-award winning Nigerian entry Hell or High Waters (Asurf Films, 2016) by Oluseyi Amuwa, a meteoric Nollywood director who learned his craft watching YouTube filmmaking tutorials and now leads one of the most respected film and video production companies in West Africa. Hell or High Waters focuses on one of the most controversial issues in contemporary Africa: the intersection of religion and sexuality.

Lost in the World (Blackweather and Hand Drawn House, 2015), a short from South Africa, looks at the raging southern African epidemic of “corrective” rape from the unusual angle of an action/revenge thriller.

Eudy Simelane: A Life Cut Short (Doti Producxionz, 2016), also from South Africa, examines the tragic but galvanizing life and death of the lesbian football star whose brutal homophobic murder shamed her community and mobilized a movement.

Another South African entry, LIT The Documentary (Siyacharmer Productions (2016) uses the most familiar of LGBTQ genres, the coming out story, to explore not the usual gay man’s odyssey but the journey of a young intersex “woman” as s/he transitions into manhood.

The short drama The Story of Sebonta is the only locally produced film in this year’s lineup, but it is a major event for the fledging Botswana film industry.

Winner of the 2016 Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Short Film awards from the South African School of Motion Picture Medium and Live Performance, it is a riveting exposé of the toxic cult of bonna (macho masculinity) that drives much of the homophobia and transphobia in Botswana.

Two African-American feature-length films, both of which are making huge waves in the American indie scene, round out this year’s festival. In Naz and Maalik (Pecking Wilds 2015) two closeted African-American Muslim teens find themselves — and their intense and beautiful romance — tested to the limits by a paranoid “national security” system that is both homophobic and Islamophobic.

The blockbuster of the festival, Moonlight (A24 2016), is a complex coming of age saga that will have its African premiere at the festival. Set in inner-city Miami during the disastrous, racist American “War on Drugs” of the 1970s and 80s, Moonlight created a sensation at the 2017 Golden Globes, taking Best Motion Picture (the first queer-themed film to win this top award) and has now been nominated for eight Oscars. It is sure to take Batho ba Lorato 5 by storm.

But what’s an Oscar after all? It’s just a symbol, and movies can’t change any oppressive, homophobic laws or policies, can they?

It’s true that in struggles for the rights of minorities, activists usually see media representations as secondary, “soft” targets. We prioritize legal and political reforms and tend to believe, with Kwame Nkrumah, that if we “seek first the political kingdom, all else shall be added.”

Maybe so. Yet the political kingdom doesn’t rise and fall in isolation. Its fortunes depend — increasingly in our hyperconnected world — on public opinion. Former President Festus Mogae was jeered in 2010 for saying he would have liked to decriminalize homosex in Botswana, except that he didn’t want to lose the next election. But he was right. Unless we change people’s attitudes to sexual and gender diversity, legal reforms will remain political dynamite, and politicians will be scared to act.

This is where film and other media come in. In an age when media molds our views on everything, we can profoundly change how people see LGBTQ people by changing how we are pictured and spoken about in books, newspapers, and magazines, in popular songs and music videos, and on film and television.

These media have been the main creators of our “spoiled” identities, but they can also repair those identities.

So pioneering festivals like Batho ba Lorato — which now has counterparts in Uganda, Kenya, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique — and other forms of LGBTQ cultural production — poetry, fiction, theatre, dance, photography, painting — not only grow African queer consciousness, they also seed the ground for the LGBTQ political revolution that is coming.

Q-zine, Africa’s first and only magazine of African LGBTQ arts and culture — online at issuu.com —  has been documenting and promoting this trend since 2012. Our recent collaboration with African women’s collective Holaa! is a sign of the broadening of the movement.

Q-zine’s forthcoming special issue on African LGBTQ photography and film will highlight the role of festivals like Batho ba Lorato as well as of individual filmmakers and photographers in the ongoing African LGBTQ Renaissance.

Meanwhile, if you are in Botswana, be sure to catch Batho ba Lorato from 22-25 February at the New Capitol Cinema, Riverwalk Mall. Entrance to all screenings is free!

Times and details of the movies are at the festival’s Facebook page.

Endotica participates in pioneering book of Botswana LGBTIQ stories

Endotica is proud to have edited (and contributed some artwork to) Botswana’s first published collection of LGBTIQ stories. These are personal testimonies from a wide range of queer Batswana. Endotica edited the texts to preserve and highlight the individual voices of the contributors both because this was vital for the authenticity of the book and because that’s what good editing does.

Here’s what we said about the book before it was officially launched.

It’s ironic – though a bit sad – that a lot of African LGBTIQ writing has been meant, not for Africans, but for outsiders. Like me.

The reason is as simple as it is regrettable. The movement for LGBTIQ acceptance in Africa, which is still less than twenty years old in most places, has been driven mainly by Western examples and Western money. This has meant that the audience for writing about LGBTIQ issues on the continent – at least, the audience that mattered – has mostly been “out there.”

In fact, until recently the most common types of African LGBTIQ writing have been funding proposals, project reports, and sectoral studies meant for donors in the West. African activists have therefore had to tailor most of their writing to Western expectations and ideas.

This is now starting to change. Thanks to years of pioneering work by community-based organisations like LeGaBiBo, there is a growing audience in Africa for texts that reflect the lived realities of LGBTIQ Africans. This audience wants stories that reflect (and reflect on) African cultures and sensibilities.

And because organisations like LeGaBiBo have been working so hard to reach out to the straight community as well as the LGBTIQ community, this audience includes increasing numbers of straight people who want to understand more (and better) about their LGBTIQ family members, friends, neighbours, workmates, and fellow Batswana.

In fact, LeGaBiBo has been one of the leading African organisations in pioneering both authentic, indigenous approaches to LGBTIQ activism and inclusive ones involving the broader community.

From workshops with health workers, police officers, teachers, and many others – even traditional leaders – to radio interviews and talk shows to the annual Batho ba Lorato film festival featuring mostly local and regional productions, LeGaBiBo has designed events and messages that simultaneously build pride and solidarity in the LGBTIQ community, reach out to the straight community, and challenge the false belief that alternative sexual and gender identities are “unAfrican.”

The organization has also not been shy to challenge homophobic authorities. Earlier this year, after a long legal struggle, LeGaBiBo won its case against the government’s unconstitutional refusal to register it as an NGO. The victory is a historic precedent not just for Botswana but for every African country with a similar legal system and will hopefully be the first of many similar victories across the continent.

Dipolelo tsa Rona (Stories of Us) is the latest initiative by LeGaBiBo to challenge homophobia and transphobia and tell the simple truth about the Botswana LGBTIQ community. But it is a very important step in LeGaBiBo’s journey, because it is a book of stories and testimonies by LGBTI Batswana for Batswana

Dipolelo tsa Rona is a book for Batswana. It is not tailored for donors or foreign journalists or international human rights NGOs. It doesn’t harp on the injustices the LGBTI community faces nor does it sugar-coat how that community lives. These are honest, unpretentious accounts of the lived realities of LGBTIQ Batswana in their own words.

Dipolelo tsa Rona is a first for Botswana (and one of only a handful of similar texts in Africa), but we hope it will be the beginning of many more publications and, in the future, audio and video productions telling the true stories of LGBTIQ lives for everyone willing to understand and appreciate them.

You can download your free copy of Dipolelo tsa Rona from:
https://legabibo.files.wordpress.com/2016/10/dipolelo-tsa-rona.pdf

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? A CALL FOR CRITICAL REFLECTION ON QUEER/LGBTIA+ ACTIVISM IN AFRICA

By John McAllister, Mariam Armisen, and Liesl Theron

In the informal discussions that happen at the margins of African queer/LGBTIA+ workshops and conferences and in activist social spaces, we increasingly hear acknowledgments that, despite impressive growth in the numbers and capacities of queer/LGBTIA+ organizations, there has been little impact on the everyday lives of African queer/LGBTIA+ individuals and communities. Discriminatory laws and policies remain stubbornly in place in almost all countries, and hostile public perceptions of queer/LGBTIA+ identities seem as pervasive as ever. At the same time, stories of heartache, frustration, ennui, and burnout are rife within the activist community, while competition and antagonism among activists, together with stories of mismanagement, favoritism, and outright corruption, bedevil attempts to create effective collaborations.

We hope to provoke a more focused discussion of the malaise in current queer/LGBTIA+ organizing and encourage more research and reflection on what lies behind it, and especially on ways out of it, by bringing together some of the key questions and complaints we keep hearing from activists and funders. We are therefore proposing a collection of essays on the issues behind the malaise, and this is a call for contributions to the collection from activists, academics, community members, allies and grantmakers.

To provide some context for this call, we briefly outline below the key issues we are personally most familiar with and conclude with a list (not exhaustive) of questions on other pertinent issues that may be of more interest to potential contributors. A more detailed discussion of the issues can be found here in the full version of the call. This call and the full essay are also available in French.

On personal and political agendas. Most queer/LGBTIA+ groups and organizations in Africa emerge from informal community-building, when individuals motivated by personal experience of stigma, discrimination, or abuse join together in response to some particular event or concern. Social justice activism around sexual and gender rights in Africa is stressful and unremunerative compared to comparable work in government or the private sector, and no activist can sustain the work for long without this personal commitment. However, activists’ motivations are rarely simple or completely altruistic. Self-interest, egotism, and ambition are always parts of the mix, and as we grow in the movement, our commitment inevitably becomes tied to other factors, especially through the opportunities to travel, enhance qualifications, and build a career that activism provides. However, the same opportunities can also disconnect us from grassroots community members. As a result many activists who initially got involved out of a personal commitment to grassroots action evolve to have either no or weak roots in their communities. Moreover, when we make our living from activism, especially in resource-poor environments where other jobs are scarce, we may be more vulnerable to outside pressures and demands, particularly from donors, at the expense of the needs of our communities.

Questioning our ways of organizing. Almost all existing queer/LGBTIA+ initiatives in Africa have adopted a broadly similar organizational model based on global-north, non-profit management practice. To what extent is the almost universal adoption of this top-down organizational model to blame for the disconnect between activists and their grassroots communities? Does this model encourage managerialism and accountability to donors and sponsors to take precedence over the needs and interests of the grassroots? Does it lead to the predominance of donor-driven agendas focusing on legal and policy reforms and formal, bureaucratic interactions with state agencies, to the neglect of grassroots-driven work?

The managerialism encouraged by the default organizational model certainly creates huge amounts of administrative and reporting work. It also requires leaders and officers trained to professional standards in accounting, documentation, human resource management, public relations, and corporate communication. This arguably creates an elitist organizing space in which the skills and contributions of activists who are not formally educated or who do not speak one of the dominant colonial languages are marginalized. The work of activists with class privileges also tends to get more support and visibility, and there is a disproportionate number of MSM and gay men in leadership positions and an underrepresentation of queer women and trans* people. Despite supposedly working to challenge dominant ideologies, queer/LGBTIA+ organizing as a movement has yet to engage in a thoroughgoing gender analysis. The realities of queer women continue to be subsumed into general LGBTIA+ issues, while the particular issues of underage and older queer/LGBTIA+ persons and issues of violence against trans men, along with their sexual health and reproductive rights, remain largely invisible in discourse and program activities. Our overwhelming adoption of a globalized queer/LGBTIA+ rights-based framework has contributed to invisibilize the lives of previous generations, as well as the realities of indigenous same-sex loving communities who do not recognize themselves in our terminologies and strategies.

Reproduction of existing structural inequalities in groups and their work. While solidarity and collaboration remain some of the most frequently used words by queer/LGBTIA+ activists, in practice, a model of organizing that foregrounds the role of managers, coupled with fierce competition for limited resources, has created an organizing space that is disconnected from the grassroots and can be oppressive and exploitative. Genuine, productive collaborations (as opposed to notional, paper ones to attract donor funding) are extremely rare in current African queer/LGBTIA+ organizing space. Work is happening in silos, and when the potential for collaboration emerges, mistrust, self-interest, and turf wars get in the way of developing strong, trusting relationships.

The African queer/LGBTIA+ movement has yet to connect the dots between the various theories of change developed at organizational level in order to create a collective picture of how the movement as a whole envisions change and how to achieve it. Existing regional networks and coalitions have enough knowledge and experience to do this but instead have become gatekeepers fighting for funding and influence among themselves. The disconnect between the various networks and coalitions, between grassroots members and leaders, and between activists and donors prevents or sabotages coordinated collective actions that could be transformative in both scale and scope.

Meanwhile, very little of the work we do creates space for (re)imagining identity or for healing. The rates of alcohol and substance abuse, dysfunctional relationships, emotional illness, burn-out and suicide in African queer/LGBTIA+ communities are alarmingly high, but these issues are hardly addressed by activism except in a human rights/access to health services context. The stress faced by activists and organizations attempting to comply with donors’ reporting and M&E requirements, especially in the context of non- or underfunding of overheads by the same donors, is a further burden.

On ways out of it. All of this is common currency in the off-the-record discussions that take place wherever activists gather, but they are hardly ever raised in official, on-the-record discussions. With that in mind – and in order to encourage a more focused discussion of the malaise in current queer/LGBTIA+ organizing and of ways out of it – we are proposing a collection of essays on any of the issues raised above or on related issues we have not had space to mention. Some of the questions we are interested in include:

With whom should queer/LGBTIA+ groups and organizations be working with and for?

What should be the roles of queer/LGBTIA+ organizations in our communities?

Who are being left behind by current ways of organizing? What can be done to include them?

Do our current ways of working deconstruct or reinforce the stereotypes about the political homogeneity and vulnerability of queer/LGBTIA+ Africans?

When queer/LGBTIA+ organizing is mainly led by young, educated people in urban areas, how can organizing be done in ways that cross generational, class, geographic, ethnic, and race divisions?

When advocacy is primarily done in one of the colonial languages, what messages are we sending to those who do not speak those languages? What space, if any, are we creating to develop indigenous languages to frame and foster common understandings of our struggles?

Do our organizational structures and practices accurately reflect and promote our politics or betray and undermine them?

Can we redefine good management and accountability to make our organizing more inclusive and creative, and less bureaucratic, without encouraging anarchy or waste?

How do we develop the capacity and commitment to deal with deep-rooted differences and to tackle vested interests among us?

How do we develop new approaches to knowledge production that will galvanize a new majority?

How is our current way of organizing addressing the human needs of both activists and community members? How can we ensure that care, compassion, empathy, and mutual support are embedded values of the movement?

This is a far from comprehensive list of pertinent questions that can be asked. We hope to receive contributions on other issues we have not considered. We welcome contributions from academics, activists, grantmakers, and anyone interested in the movement for queer/LGBTIA+ rights in Africa.

Please send a brief email by June 1, 2016, outlining your proposed contribution to: lgbtqiactivism.africa@gmail.com.

Contributions are welcome in English and French by July 1, 2016.

Major new arts award announced for African LGBTI writers and photographers

A major new annual arts award has been announced for African writers and photographers working in the areas of gender, human rights, and sexuality. The Gerald Kraak Award, in honour of the pioneering South African LGBTI activist and philanthropist, is open, unusually, to journalists, academics, and bloggers as well as poets, fiction writers, and photographers and carries a substantial first prize of 25,000 rands.

The best work submitted will also be spotlighted in a book-length anthology to be published by Jacana Press in South Africa in collaboration with a network of other independent publishers throughout Africa, including Africa World Press (Ethiopia), Amalion (Senegal), FEMRITE (Uganda), Kwani (Kenya), Weaver Press (Zimbabwe) and Wordweaver (Namibia).

Any writing or photography by an African citizen who lives and works on the continent is eligible as long as it “explores, interrogates or celebrates” the intersections of gender, sexuality, and human rights and “tells a story or illustrates an idea.”

The Gerard Kraak Award is part of a surging wave of cultural LGBTI activism in Africa that is augmenting (though not supplanting) the more conventional forms of activism that have dominated the movement until recently. The growth of cultural LGBTI activism over the past several years — with LGBT film projects and film festivals, artists’ collectives, writers’ workshops, theatre festivals, photo projects, and dance companies appearing in almost every corner of the continent — signals a new maturity in the movement.

Cultural activism is also the best way to change ordinary people’s attitudes towards gender and sexual rights, and changing attitudes is the prerequisite for changing laws and policies. As a way of encouraging and rewarding the best work of emerging African LGBTI writers and photographers, the Gerard Kraak Award seems certain to be an important catalyst in the continuing growth of cultural LGBTI activism on the continent.

Endotica urges all young African writers and photographers to submit their work and spread the word about the award and the anthology in their networks.  Full details of eligibility, submission guidelines, deadlines etc. are in the press release below and at http://www.jacana.co.za/awards/gerald-kraak-award-and-anthology

Gerald Kraak Call for submissions PR

Gerald Kraak Call for submissions PR 2

Endotica Contributes Foreword to Pioneering Collection of Trans*-themed Poetry from Botswana

Endotica Senior Editor John McAllister is very pleased and proud to have been invited to write the foreword to Botswana trans* poet Kat Kai Kol-Kes’s first published collection, … On About the Same Old Things. Here is what he had to say about this groundbreaking work.

Everyone is different. This is one of the earliest things we learn – that differences make society diverse and healthy, and that everyone has a right to be true to themselves. That’s the theory.

The reality is that some differences are less welcome than others. And when they threaten our core beliefs, they are not welcome at all.

Gender norms are some of our most cherished core beliefs. For thousands of years they have been used to police manners, control sexual relations and family life, organize work, and, above all, privilege men. The ubiquity of gender norms makes them look natural, instead of what they really are – social fictions to protect male privilege.

What is it like to be different in ways that threaten this privilege to its core?

In these poems Kat Kol-Kes explores this question in the four domains that matter most to her – faith, politics, family, and love. Familiar headings, as the title of the collection ironically admits. The “same old things,” yes, but Kat’s vision is new and comes out of an experience of difference and exclusion that most of us can hardly imagine.

“Naturally boys beat girls,” she notes at the end of the powerful opening poem ‘Order of Nature,’ where the “natural” gender rules that torture the different child are exposed as a fabrication of “shame and deceit.”

Artificial barriers, rules begging to be broken, attitudes hardened into dogma, hearts and minds trapped in delusions of their own making. These are the themes – and the sometimes tragic, sometimes comical dilemmas – interrogated in this remarkable debut collection.

Remarkable not just because it mocks and exposes a society’s best-loved delusions so boldly, but because it does this with such skill and assurance. Readers will be glad that Kat did not behave like the cynical anti-hero of ‘Rippers and Saints’:

when the truth rings at
the door you tell it to
‘go find another sucker’….

Truth-telling is the soul of poetry – or should be. These poems, announce the arrival of a major truth-teller on gender, culture, and living your truth in Botswana. But as Kat warns:

Watch out! You might
trip over a heart or
fall into silky satin
thoughts of where my
hands have been.

At the heart of these poems is a paradox that challenges readers to engage with the texts at a profoundly spiritual level. In ‘Baby Steps’, a poem about awakening to one’s true voice, Kat says:

i am learning
with untied tongue
to
fall
through
silence.

Truth and silence look like natural enemies, but sometimes poetry can carry the reader to a place of silence truer than words “… somewhere between heaven’s silver /lining and epithets /shooting from her eyes…”

When I taught poetry in Botswana, I often got manuscripts to review. A lot were awful, a few were very good, but this is the first collection I ever felt truly excited about. I hope you will share that excitement.

Katlego-Cover

…On About the Same Old Things is published by Bahati Books and is available as an e-book (FREE for a limited time) from their site or from Amazon.

Major Report on West African LGBTQ organizing

Endotica recently partnered with the Queer African Youth Network (QAYN), based in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, to produce the first comprehensive survey of the state of LGBTQ organizing in West Africa.

The report, We Exist: Mapping LGBTQ Organizing in West Africa, gives an overview of LGBTQ organizing in a large and diverse region, drawing upon a wide range of perspectives and experiences of local activists and organizations. Until recently, funding for LGBTQ activism in West Africa has focused mainly on gay men and other men who have sex with men (MSM), but the report shows that more broad-based LGBTQ organizations are now emerging led by queer-identified women and gender non-conforming people.

The report is part of an ambitious process to build a new, activist-led fund and is unique in bringing together viewpoints from both Francophone and Anglophone countries. It analyzes the roles that local technical assistance providers and international organizations have been playing and sheds light on the achievements of a growing movement that has received little attention until now. The report concludes with wide-ranging recommendations for the priorities and management of a pioneering new fund led by West African LGBTQ activists themselves.

We Exist cover

The report can be downloaded from http://www.awid.org/publications/new-report-maps-west-african-lgbtq-organizing

BOTSWANA PIONEERS NEW WAVE OF LGBT “CULTURAL” ACTIVISM

On Mar 16, LeGaBiBo, the national LGBT rights organization in Botswana, succeeded finally in compelling the state to grant it legal registration. After a four-year legal battle, the country’s highest court dismissed the state’s argument that Botswana’s constitution does not “recognise homosexuals” and that registering the organisation would be “prejudicial … to peace, welfare, or good order.” The court ordered the Director of Civil and National Registration and the Minister of Labour and Home Affairs to register LeGaBiBo immediately.

The ruling made international headlines, something that rarely happens with news from this rather sleepy southern African country. But there hasn’t been a lot of good news on LGBT rights out of Africa lately, and the LeGaBiBo case was celebrated as a major victory for Botswana and Africa as a whole.

It will enable LeGaBiBo, which until now has had to operate under the legal cover of another organization, to raise funds and campaign for the rights of Botswana’s LGBT communities much more effectively.

The ruling is also a precedent that may make it harder for other African states with similar constitutions and legal systems to deny registration to LGBT organizations. But in itself it will do nothing to change most Batswana’s hostile view of their LGBT fellow citizens. It could even do the opposite, at least temporarily.

Faces, Names, Hearts, and Minds

However, another, much simpler event that happened a few weeks after the court ruling may be the beginning of a trend that will do a lot more to change people’s attitudes. This was the publication in local newspapers of a full-page advertisement under the headline “Say No to Stigma and Discrimination of LGBT,” with the names, faces, and personal statements of a cross-section of LGBT-friendly Batswana.

Reversing the usual homophobic exposé
Reversing the usual homophobic exposé

Why do I think this is so significant, more significant even than a constitutional ruling by the Court of Appeal?

Because all the court rulings in the world won’t fully protect the dignity and lives of African LGBT people until the homophobic prejudices and false beliefs of ordinary people are dismantled. If you need proof, look at the continuing (some say increasing) violence against LGBT people in South Africa despite its array of constitutional and legal protections.

This is where LGBT activism in Africa runs up against its biggest obstacle. Not authoritarian governments or oppressive legal systems, but the hostility to homosexual and transgender rights of most heterosexual citizens.

True, we don’t have fully reliable information on this. Polls can’t be completely trusted in places where reaching all sectors of the population is difficult or where dodgy official statistics make segmenting uncertain. But even so, the notorious 2013 Pew Poll on “the global divide on homosexuality” leaves little doubt about the breadth of anti-LGBT feeling in five of the six major African countries that were surveyed. The poll found such enormous homophobic majorities (90-98 percent) that even a margin of error a lot higher than the five percent Pew claims wouldn’t make a fundamental difference.

In any case, the anecdotal evidence is too strong to deny. Even if the media’s focus on bad news exaggerates anti-LGBT preaching, propaganda, political rhetoric, harassment, and violence, it’s clear that in most African countries, fear and hatred of LGBT people runs very broad (if not necessarily all that deep – more on that in a future blog). Nothing stirs up public outrage or rescues a failing politician better than the spectre of “gayism.”

Some blame “traditional African values” for this homophobia. Others trace it back to the prudery of European colonialists or to current American evangelical “culture warriors.” But whether homophobia in Africa is intrinsic or imported, the challenge it poses for LGBT activism is enormous.

Politics of Fear

It’s one thing to persuade health ministries to include LGBT populations in public health programmes, get sexual orientation and gender identity protections added to labour regulations, or compel state registrars to legally recognize LGBT organizations — all of which have been happening. It’s another thing altogether to change the homophobic public attitudes that drive the new anti-homosexuality laws and anti-LGBT pogroms in Uganda, Nigeria, Senegal, and other countries, not to mention the harassments, evictions, disownments, and violence that seem to occur everywhere.

Having worked with human rights and LGBT organizations in Africa for more than a quarter century, I know that government officials are often surprisingly progressive. Even many politicians are not unsympathetic (never mind the sizeable number who are secretly LGBT themselves).

But they’re terrified of coming out in support of LGBT rights. They know it would be career suicide. Even just repealing the obviously outdated colonial “sodomy” laws — only the basic first step in the long road to LGBT emancipation — is out of the question in most places as long as governments fear public opposition. The LGBT-friendly former president of Botswana, Festus Mogae, stated bluntly in 2010 that he “could not change the law because that would be … stirring up a hornet’s nest. I was not willing to lose an election on behalf of the gays.” Mogae argued that because “the majority of our people are still opposed … I [would have to] convince them first before changing the law …” But how do you get to that point when 90 percent of the electorate thinks homosexuality is “unacceptable?”

Reaching “Critical Mass”: Culture and Public Opinion

It may be true, as a lot of activists responded to Mogae, that leaders ideally should lead, not wait for the electorate to catch up, but in practical terms there has to be a “critical mass” of public support before politicians will risk taking the initiative.

Reaching that critical mass requires a different sort of activism than the high-level lobbying and workshopping that most African LGBT organizations spend the best part of their time doing. It needs activism that focuses on people’s feelings rather than policy frameworks and on cultures rather than constitutions.

LeGaBiBo’s advertisement may be just one page in a newspaper, but in an environment where public support for LGBT rights is rare and risky, it is a breakthrough. I hope it’s the beginning of a trend both in Botswana and elsewhere of appealing directly to the hearts and minds of the people.

And in fact, in a few days time at the popular Maitisong Arts Festival, Botswana’s Sky Blue Dance Company will debut their new contemporary dance performance “One” about “a transgender person living in Botswana and the challenges they face in order to make it day by day.” Like the newspaper advertisement, this is another first for Botswana, and probably for Africa (outside South Africa).

Sky Blue Dance Hub presents "One"
Sky Blue Dance Hub presents “One”

By telling stories about LGBT people’s lived realities, initiatives like these humanize and “normalize” LGBT lives and issues. They appeal to people’s emotions and natural sympathies, not to abstract legal and moral principles, and make it harder for audiences to see LGBT people as freaks and monsters instead of who they really are: ordinary folk like themselves with normal human needs .

I’m not saying LGBT organizations should abandon conventional forms of activism. But more of this kind of “cultural” activism is needed, and after years of policy lobbying, the time is ripe for adding a cultural focus to activist strategies. Conventional activism won’t get very far until politicians and policy-makers feel safer making the political and policy changes we need. That requires shifting the perception of LGBT identities in the public mind.

Maybe Botswana will lead the way…