LGBTIQ+ oppression and resistance across Africa

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On 26 June 2022, the Melbourne branches of Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women teamed up to host a Stonewall celebration discussing LGBTIQA+ oppression and resistance across Africa. The event heard from Kenyan born socialist feminist, Nita Okoko, and veteran queer liberationist and managing editor of the Freedom Socialist Organiser, Alison Thorne. This is an edited version of Thorne’s speech.

Africa is a vast continent with a rich and diverse LGBTIQ+ community, who are living, loving and resisting.

In Ghana in West Africa, Alex Kofi Donkor opened the country’s first LGBTQ+ community centre in January last year, only to have it shut down by the cops a month a later! Since then his hashtag — #QueerGhanianLivesMatter — has become a rallying cry for equality. In Egypt in the Northeast, Dalia Al Faghal was the first woman to come out publicly. Although she copped death threats, her bravery sparked a much needed open discussion of LGBTIQ+ rights. Nigerian actor, Bisimi Alimi also became an activist after coming out on national TV. The West African gay man lost his job and had to flee. But this experience made him more determined — he is now a key organiser of Pride events in his hometown, Lagos. In the East African country of Uganda, Cleopatra Kambuga, who was born intersex, had a win last year when she received her new national ID card with her preferred gender and name. Her “difficult” and “intrusive” struggle inspired a documentary, The Pearl of Africa. She is eager for her win to be “multiplied.”

Radical trailblazers. Contemporary activists have some awesome role models. Simon Tseko Nkoli is one the most significant African radical queer pioneers. In 1992, the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women hosted a reception in Melbourne for Nkoli, an inspiring example of the leadership of the most oppressed.

Born in Soweto, Nkoli lived with his grandparents, who worked for white landowners in apartheid South Africa. The teen rebelled — quickly becoming a leading anti-apartheid activist in the 1970s — after the landowner demanded that he leave school and work on the farm. In 1984, after a rent boycott rally, he was jailed with 21 other activists and faced the death penalty for treason. Before his arrest, Nkoli had become involved with the Gay Association of South Africa. But the predominantly white organisation, claiming to be apolitical, not only refused to support the campaign for his release, they kicked him out!

After Nkoli’s release he went on to form the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW), which champions Black leadership. In 1990, with the support of GLOW, Simon and his friend, Black lesbian Beverley Palesa Ditsie, organised South Africa’s first Pride March.

Nkoli was also one of the first gay men in Africa to identify as HIV positive. His influence as an out, proud leader in the anti-apartheid movement was immense. He met with Nelson Mandela and was instrumental in making sure that the prohibition of discrimination against LGBTIQ+ people was entrenched in the post-apartheid constitution. He was also a key advocate behind the anti-gay laws being repealed in 1998, the year Nkoli died from an AIDS-related illness.

Nkoli understood that there would be no liberation for him in apartheid South Africa — he refused to seperate his fight against class oppression, racism and homophobia. He famously said: “if you are Black and gay in South Africa, then it really is all the same closet…inside is darkness and oppression. Outside is freedom.”

Still fighting. In 2006, South Africa was the fifth country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage. On paper, the country leads the way in terms of rights, thanks to the efforts of Ditsie, Nkoli and all who like them understood the importance of organising a mass movement that takes up the fight for the entire LGBTIQ+ community, refusing to leave behind people of colour, women, trans and gender diverse people and the vast poor and working class population. Still, life is difficult.

South Africa remains the epicentre of the HIV epidemic, made worse by COVID. Unemployment and poverty are rife, as is sexual violence. This includes the horrendous practice called “corrective rape,” a hate crime targeting lesbians and trans men. The term was coined after the rape and murder a Eudy Simelane, an LGBT activist and a footballer in the South African national team. Hostility towards LGBTIQ+ people remains pervasive. A spate of murders rocked the country last year, sparking mass protests demanding an end to homophobic and transphobic hate crimes.

The South African experience highlights that while it is important to repeal anti-gay laws and win reforms such as the constitutional protections and marriage equality, the struggle to eradicate homophobia and transphobia permanently and to win full emancipation for all is ongoing and revolutionary.

Resistance in Uganda. Queer liberationists in Uganda face even greater challenges. Repression runs deep. Laws which criminalise same-sex attraction for both women and men still exist as a post colonialist hangover of British rule. In 2014 an extreme anti-homosexual bill was enacted that also criminalised promotion of homosexuality and advocacy for LGBTIQ+ rights. The bill was promoted by parliamentarians heavily influenced by United States evangelicalism. Although the law was ruled invalid six months later by the Constitutional Court, the homophobia it unleashed lives on.

Gay Ugandans risk their lives. David Kato is acknowledged as the first openly gay person, having served as advocacy officer for Sexual Minorities Uganda Group (SMUG). Kato, who worked as a teacher, was bludgeoned to death in 2011. This June, two SMUG members went to a Kampala police station to report being threatened. But instead of their report being investigated, the activists were placed under arrest! It is not unusual for members of the group to face blackmail, threats of exposure in the media and police harassment.

In 2019 Brian Wassa, a 28-year-old gay and gender non-conforming activist, was also killed. He was a much-loved peer educator with the AIDS Support Organisation. Just months earlier, a group of motorcycle taxi drivers beat to death a young trans woman near the capital, Kampala. The climate of homophobia is worsening as politicians make increasingly hostile comments and threaten to reintroduce a version of the 2014 bill, known colloquially as the “kill the gays bill,” because it would allow for the death penalty. The reactionary politicians pushing this argue that homosexuality is “unAfrican” and was imposed on Uganda by the “decadent West.”

Sylvia Tamale, a prominent Ugandan feminist, demolishes this argument. She describes this myth as “sad” and “tired,” noting, “historical facts demand that this fable be debunked once and for all.” Tamale is the author of many books that are rich with evidence of pre-colonial societies embracing gender and sexual diversity.

In 2017, Kampala police shut down a queer film festival. In 2019, patrons socialising together at a queer friendly bar were arrested. Sixty-seven were held without bail and charged with common nuisance. To be LGBTIQ+ in Uganda is very tough, and those who speak out and organise resistance are heroes.

Imported bigotry. The attitudes which stigmatise those who are same-sex attracted or gender non-conforming and the laws reflecting this intolerance are alien to traditional African culture. Legalised homophobia was brought to the African continent by the earliest colonisers and reinforced by imperialism. Today, nearly half the countries in the world where homosexuality is outlawed are in Africa, where these alien colonial era laws persist in 34 jurisdictions.

Most of the African continent’s wealth enriches multinationals. Imperialism plunders the resources of Africa. And it imposes a neoliberal capitalist order by enriching a tiny layer of wealthy African clients, while the majority of people remain impoverished. Populist anti-LGBTIQ+ crusades peddle hate in many countries. This scapegoating is a strategy to sow disunity and keep the politicians in power, who will uphold the capitalist status quo. Of course, these manufactured divisions are not limited to gender and sexuality. In Uganda, Rwandan refugees have also been used as handy targets to detract from the real source of people’s problems — the global imperialist order. This kind of scapegoating is also common in South Africa. When the fallout from the global financial crisis hit South Africa in 2008, Black “foreigners” were blamed for unemployment. Amongst those doubly hit were undocumented queers living in the country, having fled virulent homophobia in the hope of a better life.

Sex and gender before the invasions. Marxist feminism is built on the knowledge that pre-private property societies bore no resemblance to what exists today. Women were respected leaders, sexuality was free, there was no rigid gender binary, and everything was shared.

Most of human history took place in Africa where, for thousands of generations, societies were matriarchal and women respected leaders. Human beings lived with fluid notions of masculinity and femininity amongst the wide diversity of cultures across the continent. There are huge volumes of evidence which supports the existence of gender fluidity and same-sex eroticism in pre-colonial Africa, like the ancient cave paintings created by the San people depicting men having sex with men. Same-sex sexuality sometimes had a spiritual dimension, such as amongst the Shona of Zimbabwe, the Azande in Sudan and Congo and the Tutsi in Rwanda and Burundi. In Angola and Namibia, same-sex eroticism was thought to have magical powers, encouraging bountiful crops and good health.

Many languages have terms describing same-sex relationships, which pre-date colonialism. For example, the Shangaan (of south-eastern Africa) use the term inkotshane, meaning “male wife”. In Wolof, (Senegal), the term for homosexual is gor-digen. In Yoruba (Nigeria), it is adofuro. Among the Basotho of Lesotho, women could engage in socially approved erotic relationships called motsalle, which means “special friend.” Among the Langi of northern Uganda, the mudoko dako, or “effeminate” males, were treated as women and could marry men.

Amongst the Nuer people in Sudan and the Igbo in Nigeria, marriages between women for economic or diplomatic reasons were unremarkable: woman-to-woman marriages existed in more than 30 different African societies. Also amongst the Igbo, sex and gender did not coincide — women could become men and vice versa. Igbo and Yoruba did not assign gender to babies at birth, instead taking a more developmental approach. Transpeople were recorded in many other places, including Ethiopia and Madagascar.

Early colonists recorded examples of non-binary gender and same-sex eroticism. Most viewed traditional practices with disgust, born of their religious prejudices. An English traveller in the 1590s, wrote that the indigenous people of Angola, “…are beastly in their living, for they have men in women’s apparel who they keep amongst their wives.” Portuguese missionaries wrote about the “unnatural damnation” of male-to-male sex in the Congo and called for “Christian cleansing.”

When the annexations began, the emergence of a surplus and the gradual erosion of women’s status in some parts of Africa was already proceeding; European colonisation simply accelerated the shift. In other parts of the continent, the disruption was more abrupt, as capitalist property relations up-ended millennia of matriarchy. With the colonisers’ patriarchal economic system, came laws, religion and culture to enforce the new order.

Inspiration for liberation. Bold LGBTIQ+ activists across the continent held events this June to celebrate the 53rd anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. South African cities, such as Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban and Pretoria, held huge marches. In Uganda, where they celebrated Pride for the 10th year in a row, participation required great bravery and courage.

These bold queers come from societies, where evidence of pre-dating private property is all around them. There is nothing inevitable about homophobia, transphobia or sexism. They are a product of the rise of private property.

This understanding is at the heart of the socialist feminist theory embraced by Radical Women and Freedom Socialist Party. It is why we are revolutionary feminists. Without the economic system that fuels oppression, there would be no material basis for sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia. And nothing could stop the complete liberation embraced by those Stonewall pioneers becoming a reality.

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