New Internationalist

LGBTIQ Africa: we are here and we are many!

Gay Pride South Africa [Related Image]
Gay Pride in South Africa, 2013. Niko Knigge under a Creative Commons Licence

Sokari Ekine, editor of the Queer African Reader, explains the book’s significance at a time of social transformation.

Along with Hakima Abbas, I recently edited a book called Queer African Reader. The book is an extraordinary and timely intervention by African LGBTIQ and feminist activists, academics, writers and artists. Caught between Western imperialism, African patriarchy and religious fascism, the continent’s gay community needs a strong, articulate set of voices. This is a work of African resistance that boldly states: ‘We are here, and we are many!’

The existential question African Queers and trans folk ask themselves is: ‘Do I matter, does my life matter, when every single day and in many ways we are told we are irrelevant, useless and dangerous?’ Africans may not be thought of as philosophers or thinkers – but they are; the world needs to heed their voices.

It is by no means a definitive book on the Queer African experience. There are no contributions from the Magreb or Egypt, and only one from Francophone Africa (Senegal). Nonetheless, it is an important and necessary intervention. At the time of its conception, it seemed as if everybody knew about the Queer African experience – everyone except the collective Queer African community itself. This was also a time of transition, when activists and academics began to question the role and usefulness of NGOs, asking whether they were stifling creativity and whether they were generally counter-productive. To quote Kenyan queer academic Keguro Macharia:

‘I want to resist the “African homosexual” as an empirical figure waiting to be discovered or, through NGO and international interventions, to be created and saved.’

The Queer African Reader offers the reader other ways of seeing, other ways of being. It is a powerful response to and resistance against homogeneity. It is a celebration of multiplicity, of a shared humanity and identity as Queer Africans. Queer Africans are the new thinkers, the new critics, and in many ways they are at the cutting edge of political and social transformation on the continent and its diasporas.  

One of the themes the book considers is homophobia as a spectacle. Kenne Mwekia writes: ‘In Uganda you can watch Martin Ssempa’s “poo poo” video; in Malawi you can witness a gay and trans couple being sentenced to 14 years in prison; in Nigeria, touching becomes criminalized, and in South Africa you can watch young lesbians being corrected through rape.’ But as Keguro Macharia points out, we must also be mindful that ‘homophobia as a spectacle’ is just one example of how homophobia manifests. Kenya, for example, has chosen exclusion and silence around sexual orientation and gender identity, rather than rampant media hype and anti-gay legislation.

Another issue dealt with in the book is whether to frame the struggle in terms of rights, or whether to try to build organic collaborative movements and engage across issues away from single-issue identity politics. Closely connected to this is the issue of Western interventions and the Gay International. For example, Sibongle Ndsashe questions the use of sanctions to force LGBTI rights that damage relations with other civil society movements and further ostracizes LGBTI communities. In my own essay, ‘Contesting Narratives of Queer Africa’, I argue that Western interventions seek to impose Western narratives while suppressing local needs. In short, the struggle is not only about decriminalization; it’s a struggle in which we seek to reassert our own narrative and reclaim our humanity.

The Reader includes fictional pieces and the works of portrait artist Gabrielle Le Roux and photographer Zanele Muhole.Together they make a strong argument for the prominence of the creative arts in bringing about transformational change by creating new dialogues, proclaiming the transgressive and, especially through the work of Zanele and Gabrielle, disrupting normative visual codes. More than anything, creative work provides us with a much-needed African reading of representations of Black queer subjectivities.

The book opens with a chapter by the late David Kato, who was murdered in his home in Kampala on 26 January 2011, and closes with a dedication to Busi Sigasa, a young South African lesbian poet. Busi, a diabetic who contracted HIV through being raped, insisted on working despite the struggle of the daily journey from Soweto to Johannesburg. On 27 March 2007, she returned home from work exhausted, fell into a diabetic coma and passed away.   

David and Busi remind us that, despite the horrific tragedy of their deaths, their lives were courageous, meaningful and beautiful. They continue to inspire us in our own struggles.

More information on the Queer African Reader [2013] and purchasing details can be found on the Black Looks website.

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