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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  1. #1 Peter Nkosi 18 Dec 13

    ’ ... in Malawi you can witness a gay and trans couple being sentenced to 14 years in prison ... ’

    That statement is typical of how foreign LGBT activists take the greatest liberty with facts in order to support their cause.

    It is true that two men were convicted of something (incorrectly) deemed to be illegal and sentenced to 14 years imprisonment. However, it is also true that:

    1. They were pardoned and released shortly after conviction.

    2. Thiers is the only case of consensual,. same-sex acts ever to have been tried in Malawi. (There was no justification for their trial. It was stupidity by the authorities who were trying to make a stupid point.)

    3. In May last year the new President said at the state opening of Parliament that she wanted to see the ’same-sex’ laws repealed. Despite what foreign activists will try to tell you, Government has said that it is not interested in going after the LGBTs.

    4. The Judiciary, perhaps prompted by the Executive, are currently looking at how the ’sodomy’ section in the Penal Code sits with the Constitution which guarantees human rights. The Judiciary is serious enough that a bench of seven judges, sitting as a Constitutional Court will look at the issue, and hopefully rule that it is not valid.

    I would like to see consensual, same-sex acts decriminalised here in Malawi. However, unjustified statements by foreign activists are very irritating and do not help in getting LGBTs to be accepted here.

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About the author

Sokari Ekine a New Internationalist contributor

Sokari Ekine is a Nigerian social justice activist and blogger. She writes an awardwinning blog, Black Looks, which she started in 2004, writing on a range of topics such as LGBTI Rights in Africa, gender issues, human rights, the Niger Delta, Haiti and Land Rights. She is a IRP 2013 Fellow.

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