NewsSpecial ReportUncertainties over LGBTQ rights in Africa

Physical and sexual violence. Arbitrary arrests. Torture in detention. Lengthy prison terms. Societal assault. Denial of family rights. Threats and extortion. State-sanctioned executions. These are what lesbians, gays, and transgender men and women in Africa risk – because of who they love, how they look, or who they are.

Steven Kabuye, the co-executive director of Coloured Voice Uganda, a non-governmental organisation that advocates for the rights of LGBTQ+ persons in the East African country of Uganda, puts the blame on religion and culture. “The hostility towards LGBTQ+ persons in Africa can be attributed to a combination of cultural, religious, and political factors,” Kabuye told The West African Pilot News.

“Many African societies have deep-rooted traditional beliefs and cultural norms that do not fully accept or understand sexual and gender diversity. Additionally, certain conservative interpretations of religious teachings contribute to the stigmatization and marginalization of LGBTQ+ individuals.”

On the premise that African culture is antithetical to such, therefore, African leaders push hateful legislation targeting the LGBTQ+ community in their countries. Nigeria’s Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, SSMPA, of 2014, for instance, is not foreign to LGBTQ+ Nigerians.

A legacy of ex-President Goodluck Jonathan, the SSMPA not only voids intimate relationships with a member of the same sex but also bans the organisation and membership of gay rights groups with penalties of up to 14 years in prison. A 2016 report by Human Rights Watch said the law “made a bad situation much worse for Nigeria’s beleaguered lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community” by effectively authorizing abuses against LGBTQ+ persons.

Nigerian transgender woman and human rights activist Empress Cookie, as she wants to be referred to, told The West African Pilot News that she has been the victim of many of such legitimized abuses. “I have been sexually harassed and humiliated in public; authorities have stripped me naked and filmed me in a public space accusing me and calling me an abomination,” says Cookie, “I have been beaten bloody. I have narrowly escaped death many times, which has affected my mental health.”

People like Cookie continue to suffer from stigma and discrimination, as well as widespread threats and violence in African countries that preach homophobia and transphobia. Kabuye also fears that Uganda’s new anti-LGBTQ+ legislation signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni will foster “an environment of further discrimination and persecution against LGBTQ+ individuals, violating their human rights and impeding their ability to live openly and freely.”

Yet, Nigeria and Uganda are not the only countries in Africa that have poor reputations when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights. Homophobia and transphobia remain widespread in 32 out of 54 countries in Africa, despite the efforts of the United States and other Western nations where LGBTQ+ advocacy is gaining traction to engage with countries on the continent on the need to adopt more inclusive policies.

In a proclamation designating June as Pride month, U.S. President Joseph Biden derided what he called “hateful laws” targeting the LGBTQ+ community, and in a statement to celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia, he noted that “everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity and equality – no matter whom they love, or how they identify.”

But most African leaders are not ready to embrace the “alien culture” no matter how hard the West pushes. President Museveni of Uganda once called lesbians, gays and trans people “deviants”, advising Western countries to “stop wasting the time of humanity by trying to impose their practices on other people.”

And because of this striking stiff opposition to LGBTQ+ rights in Africa, LGBTQ+ persons flee their countries to other countries that are more accommodating. But there’s a glimmer of hope…

A growing number of African countries now offer legal protections for lesbians, gays and trans people. South Africa, for example, was the first country in the world to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. The South African policy helped to pressure some of its neighbors, including Angola, Botswana and Mozambique into rolling back anti-LGBTQ+ legislation.

Also, it is believed that the crowning of Rikkie Valerie Kolle, a 22-year-old transgender woman as Miss Netherlands last month will boost the advocacy for the recognition of LGBTQ+ rights in Africa and globally. “It is a very big win to the trans community globally,” Cookie said, referring to Kolle’s win, “and especially Nigeria too because it’s part of the resilient spirit that will keep inspiring and motivating the trans community in Nigeria with hope.”

LGBTQ+ persons in Africa only want one thing: to live – to exist freely, enjoying their fundamental human rights. And it is hoped that in the coming years, Nigeria, Uganda, Namibia and other African countries where laws are presently being strengthened against people who identify as LGBTQ+ because it is considered “contrary to cultural norms”, will turn around and guarantee equality for gays, lesbians and other members of the LGBTQ+ community.

By Ezinwanne Onwuka (Senior Reporter)
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