17 May activists chose to highlight the LGBT rights issues in three African countries – Uganda, Kenya and Malawi – as part of the city's third annual observation of I.D.A.H.O., International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
About 50 marchers held a picket in front of the city's popular Millennium Park interacting with rush hour commuters, several of whom joined the event.
A featured component of Chicago's I.D.A.H.O. was an address by John Adewoye of Courage-Nigeria, an LGBT rights group composed of African immigrants. Adewoye detailed the recent history of anti-LGBT repression in several countries on the continent.
Another speaker read out statements by a Malawi gay couple, Steven Monjeza (26) and Tiwonge Chimbalanga (20), whose words were recently smuggled out of prison after they were arrested for engaging to be married to each other.
Chimbalanga said, "I love Steven so much. If people or the world cannot give me the chance and freedom to continue living with him as my lover, then I am better off to die here in prison. Freedom without him is useless and meaningless."
"We have come a long way," said Monjeza, "and even if our family relatives are not happy, I will not and never stop loving Tiwonge."
The statements were transmitted to British human rights activist Peter Tatchell, who has played a key role in drawing world attention to Chimbalanga's and Monjeza's struggle as they potentially face long prison terms in one of the world’s poorest countries.
Highlighting the importance of I.D.A.H.O. events around the world, speakers at Chicago's rally pointed to the value of earlier international solidarity actions, such as the worldwide boycott of apartheid South Africa, in helping people in other countries win their struggles for freedom. Tiwonge's and Chimbalanga's own words noted the value of this solidarity:
"All the support is well appreciated," said Monjeza. "We are grateful to everybody who is doing this for us. May people please continue the commendable job….it makes such a huge difference between life and death, as prison life is very difficult. With the small money sent us we are able to buy some extra food to supplement our intake of the much needed vitamins and proteins.”
"We are thankful for the people who have rallied behind us during this difficult time," said Chimbalanga. “We are grateful to the people who visit and support us, which really makes us feel to be members of a human family; otherwise we would feel condemned."
Today a Malawi court found Chimbalanga and Monjeza guilty of "gross indecency" and "unnatural acts," for which they face up to 14 years in prison. Their attorneys say they will attempt to appeal the conviction to the country's highest court.
Organizers with the Gay Liberation Network, who along with activists in a few other cities first brought I.D.A.H.O. to the United States three years ago, emphasized that the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender movement in the U.S. is too narrowly focused on LGBT issues only within the U.S. GLN's Andy Thayer noted the irony of such narrowness when contrasted with the fact that U.S. troops occupy bases in over 130 countries around the world and that U.S. activists could learn a great deal from LGBT movements in other countries who have won the full LGBT legal equality that is still so sorely lacking in the United States.
"In the U.S., most LGBT activists are 'gay rights only' activists, yet they complain when they fail to get the support they want from other movements when they are facing things like California's anti-gay Proposition 8. By contrast, in South Africa, most LGBT activists were also heavily involved in the struggle against racist apartheid, with the result that when that country won majority rule, full LGBT legal equality was ensconced in the country's new constitution. This is an important reason why LGBT activists in this country also need to be energetically supporting 'other' movements for human freedom such as for immigrant rights, against U.S. wars, and so forth."
Other speakers noted that the national narrowness of many U.S. LGBT activists is not reflected in our opposition. United States-based right wing evangelicals have played a central role in promoting anti-gay campaigns in other countries. Proposition 8 supporter Rev. Rick Warren, who gave the invocation at President Obama's inaugural, is widely seen as a mentor for Uganda's David Bahuti, the legislator who introduced legislation calling for the death penalty against gays in some circumstances. While under heavy pressure Warren has since distanced himself from Bahuti's bill, the fact that he and other wealthy U.S. evangelicals promote the notion that LGBT people are "sinners" serves to dehumanize us, and thus pave the way for discriminatory legislation in the countries where they run missionary operations.
Finally, Thayer noted recent news out of Uganda that shows that the worldwide campaign against Bahuti's bill is having an effect. Last week the New York Times reported that a special Presidential committee has condemned Bahuti's proposed legislation as “unconstitutional” and "redundant." As a result, the Times reported that Ugandan President Mwesige "said he expected the full Parliament to vote down the bill within weeks." While we cannot afford to be complacent while the bill is still pending, this is indeed good news and shows the value of international solidarity protests.
Yesterday's event was part of the Harvey Milk Week of Action, a series of activities designed to honor the birthday of the late 1970s activist gunned down by an anti-gay assassin.
Other activities this week include a 12 noon, Thursday flash mob at Federal Plaza, a Friday night open mike, and a march and rally beginning at 1 pm, Saturday beginning at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Congress Parkway.
For more information about Harvey Milk Week of Action events, go to http://chicagomilkweek.wordpress.com/