Queer eye for the WSF
For me, one of the real achievements of this WSF has been the wonderful turnout of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex (LGBTI) activists here (particularly from Africa). The Q-Spot, a venue setup by GALCK (the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya), was one of the most popular hangouts in the stadium. Numerous workshops, trainings, debates, film screenings, exhibits, and poetry readings were well attended and there was a real buzz about the place. ‘Sexual rights’ as a concept has really captured people’s imaginations as both straight and gay alike were able to connect with and rally behind the simple yet powerful assertion that all human beings have the fundamental right to express their own sexuality and be free from persecution.
There was also a two-day forum within the forum, (officially titled the Fourth Social Forum on Sexual Diversity) which seeks to position sexual diversity: ‘broadly within social movements’ debates and actions within the WSF, asserting the right to self determination, and inviting all social movements to make this struggle and this vision of diversity their own, not only because of an affinity among our causes and ideas, but because respect for diversity is and should always be a guiding principle as we search for the political, social and economic alternatives to the exclusionary models.’ If that’s not what the WSF is all about, I don’t know what is!
The Q-Spot also gave people a chance to learn about a range of issues from human rights law in different countries to HIV/AIDS treatment campaigns and cultural and social change work. Even Bible/Koran-quoting yet inquisitive WSF participants could be found there engaged in discussion with LGBTI activists. ‘At least people were talking to us even if we didn’t see eye-to-eye,’ Sokari Ekine, a Nigerian activist and editor of Pambazuka News told me. ‘That’s a rare thing, and important, even if sometimes it feels like you’re talking to a brick wall.’
A number of excellent sessions dealt with a range of issues, including sexuality and the law, strategies for dealing with religious fundamentalism, sexual orientation and gender, class consciousness, social justice and more. Southern representation was refreshingly robust with a majority of participants in most workshops coming from Africa, Asia and Latin America.
All this buzz of activity is remarkable given that same sex relationships are prisonable offences in Kenya and can, in some cases, prompt a jail sentence of up to 14 years. Homophobia in the country is also said to be widespread according the LGBTI activists here. Perhaps this may explain some of the reception one activist received when she spoke about sexual rights and diversity at the closing ceremony of the WSF, a public event in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. Kasha Jacqueline, a Ugandan human rights activist, is reported to have been abusively heckled and booed by some members of the audience. Jacqueline, of the group Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), is also said to have been temporarily denied access to the stage by WSF officials as she sought to speak about sexual rights and diversity, even as other speakers were apparently speaking vaguely about ‘rights for all’.
Jacqueline is no stranger to harassment and intimidation. The Chair of her organization, Juliet Victor Mukasa, had her home raided and a friend of hers from Kenya was imprisoned. Mukasa told IPS News: ‘They raided my house and arrested my friend. They manhandled her and undressed her to confirm her gender, and detained her for hours. This was humiliating. In addition, they took the organization's documents which have all the information about our activities.’ The police threatened to broadcast the information they obtained on radio and television which could have jeopardized the safety of many LGBTI persons in Uganda. Mukasa was forced to go into hiding for fear of her life and is now suing the Ugandan Government over the incident. Homosexuality is punishable by life imprisonment in the country. But even though Jacqueline may have been accustomed to such extremely difficult and homophobic environments at home, she probably did not expect to see such a display at a WSF event.
It is unfortunate that the WSF should end on such a sour note, as most LGBTI activists I spoke with have been very positive about the way things have gone for them this week. Still, perhaps we need to be reminded that there is still some way to go before the notion of sexual rights can be fully realized. It also remains to be seen to what degree the treatment of Jacqueline was representative of WSF organizers and participants’ views.
I hope to speak with Jacqueline directly in the next few days to find out more. Until then, here’s an inspiring quote of hers: ‘When Ugandans hear that we are advocating for gay rights they imagine we want more or extra rights, but NO; we want what belongs to us which was robbed from us; EQUAL RIGHTS which we are entitled to just like any other Ugandans.’
Meanwhile for more information on LGBTI issues in Africa check out:
The excellent Black Looks weblog.
and the wealth of information at Behind the Mask.
Pambazuka have also produced two podcast interviews with African LGBTI activists.
The second one is a conversation with activsts Fikele Vilakazi and Vanesha Chitty about their work on sexual rights in Africa.