By Ramon Johnson
Last week, I attended a panel discussion held by None On Record, a sound documentary project that collects the stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Africans from the African Continent and the Diaspora. The talk, moderated by activist and non-profit consultant Kim Ford, profiled the experiences of Selly Thiam, None On Record Executive Director and queer identified Senegalese woman born in Chicago; Notisha Massaquoi, a Canadian writer of Sierra Leone descent; Pape Mbaye, a Senegalese entertainer refugee; Point Scholar and playwright Nick Nanna Hadikwa Mwaluko; and Nigerian-American Kemi Ilesanmi.
Little of the experiences of queer people in Africa and of African-descent is known outside of occasional wire reports highlighting imprisonment or threats against LGBT Africans. When in fact, many queer Africans continue to live in fear, battling against local anti-gay laws and customs that more closely follow traditional gender roles. Queer-identified Africans are left with a strong African identity, but few (if any) opportunities to commune with other queer Africans or express their sexual and gender identities.
Pape Mbaye sat in the corner of the small room at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, meek, yet highly expressive with the aura of an entertainer. The artist is well-known in his home, Senegal, where it is illegal to engage in homosexual acts or even attend queer functions. Rumors of his attendance at an underground gay ceremony ran in a local hometown tabloid leading the authorities to Mbaye's location. He fled under threat of being killed, eventually being granted asylum here in the States. Mbaye lost all of his land and property in Senegal.
Playwright Nick Nanna Hadikwa Mwaluko was born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania but raised in neighboring Kenya. He has always identified as a man, even before his transition. However, traditional gender roles in his home town prevented him from fully expressing himself. He had friends that welcomed him as a brother, but lived in extreme discomfort. In Kenya, men and women do not commune without romantic intentions. Mwaluko lived in both worlds, unable to reconcile his gender identity with his ability to express it. He is now a fellow at Columbia University and has written four epics about the queer black experience, specifically as a FTM African.
Selly Thiam, a first generation Senegalese queer activist, had never heard of or seen first hand a lesbian African before she read of the brutal murder of Fanny Ann Eddy, an out lesbian activist in Sierra Leone. The incident inspired Thiam to begin chronically the lives of queer Africans through audio documentary. The product of her oral histories is the None On Record project.
These stories are few of the many eye-opening accounts of queer life as a person of African-descent–voices that often go unheard around the world. The None On Record project gives insight into the state of LGBT rights in places other than our own backyard. As some are battling for marriage and immigration and adoption; others fight for their lives or, at a minimum, their livelihood. And as Thiam expressed at the talk, None On Record is a way for herself and other queer people to connect with, relate to and share with other queer-identified Africans at home and in the Diaspora.