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Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Why Dan Savage and others should shut up about African politics

Dan Savage speaking at Bradley University in P...Image via Wikipedia
Source: San Diego Gay & Lesbian News

By Paul Canning

Personal opinion of the Editor

Dan “Rush” Savage is a big fat idiot ... and he's not the only one.

The comparison with Rush Limbaugh, famously skewered by Al Franken in his best-selling book with the same title as this piece, is apt because they both have a history of running their mouths off.

Savage's latest is eye-wateringly idiotic. Reacting to the jailing of the gay couple Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga in Malawi on Thursday, he said aid should be withdrawn.

He's not the only one. The comment threads have been full of such calls in both the UK and the USA. Joe.My.God, the influential blogger, made Savage's comment the Quote Of The Day.

On Huffington Post, Ben Cohen says "Dan Savage Needs to Shut up About Malawi" and points out that what Savage demands would directly lead to the deaths of thousands of people (unless some other country came in and replaced American aid). Others have pointed out that the USA doesn't aid the kleptomaniac government – “foreign aid” goes to non-government organizations - making Savage's point literally idiotic.

But surely for god's sake, actions taken by us (the West/North) because of the jailing of Malawian gays should be taken which will actually benefit Malawian gays?

Savage, and others, assume that - magically - the USA waves a big stick and Malawi complies. Generously, I'll suggest that he seems to be unaware of the potential for backlash, which could see Malawian gays actually suffering even more than they currently are.

This isn't the first call for aid withdrawal and it's a major topic of debate in Africa. Near universally Africans say “f--k you and your aid, we're independent now, we make our own decisions.”

Last year, similarly “outraged” American gays called for a boycott of Jamaica and its products because that government either turns a blind eye to or its police actually carry out murders of gays (they claim Jamaican gays murder each other).

Jamaican gays told these “activists” that a boycott would be extensively covered in Jamaica's media (in small countries any mention of them overseas is inevitably picked up), this would lead to a backlash and it would put them at serious risk. The Americans said they knew better and a boycott would force the Jamaican government to change. Fortunately that boycott call went nowhere.

Now for a re-run with Africa.

The people who know how change will happen in Africa are Africans, not know-it-all, patronizing American commentators.

The sorts of strategies gay Africans have pursued are incremental. In Kenya, which I know a lot about from friends in their LGBT movement, they need to build community and capacity, they reach out to and work with civil society organizations like the Kenyan Human Rights Commission (KHRC), and they put a priority on education of key people like religious leaders.

In March, there was a near-pogrom of gays in a town on the Kenyan coast. The local police actually stopped it and saved many gay men from being savagely murdered. Kenya's gay organizations, with KHRC, sent in lawyers and they sent in educators to talk with imams and priests. It has worked, cross fingers, thus far. The promised follow-up mob attacks haven't happened.

In Malawi, there is also some civil society support and even within the churches. African gays have made efforts to engage with both. This is how progress happened in the West and this is how it's happening in Africa: slowly.

But go too fast and the people who suffer are gay Africans. Incredibly brave gay Africans.

Now it is true that pressure on governments can help. There is little doubt that pressure on Uganda's dictator from Western governments has helped stop - we hope - the progress of their “Kill the Gays” bill. But it has been diplomatic and subtle, and it has played on Musceveni's interest in building up Uganda's economy and trade. The impression that Uganda is “backward” on this issue doesn't help trade with the West. But Musceveni has a homophobic constituency, so the bill is being very gently, quietly pushed into the long grass.

Alternatively, if any of the very public and unsubtle aid withdrawal threats had actually been carried out, there is no doubt in my mind that the law would have been on the statute books and Musceveni would have been under domestic pressure to start making arrests.

This is why there is not a single call from any African gay group for aid withdrawal - with one gay activist exception - to be used supposedly for their benefit.

But presumably it would make the likes of Savage feel better and as if they've actually done something for those poor Africans.

What should be happening and what Savage SHOULD be doing is - firstly - calling for support for the couple. Peter Tatchell of Outrage! has been in direct contact with them from the beginning and is coordinating food and other support as well as funds for legal help. You can find out how to donate, and how to send them messages of moral support, at the end.

As I type, there is a serious discussion happening internationally on what else should happen. For myself, I think the call should be for the Malawian dictator to pardon them and for them to get sanctuary in one of the countries condemning Malawi as they wouldn't be safe there out of jail. Secondly, practical support needs to be given to Malawi's nascent gay community as it has been to Kenya's and Uganda's so they can organize and get change for themselves using the strategy they think is best for their country - not what know-it-all Westerners think is best for them.

Savage and other well-known bloggers have a position of influence. If they want to actually help African gays, then maybe it's time they started listening to them, to what they say would help improve their situation and then act on it. Otherwise, as Ben Cohen puts it, it would be better for African gays if they just shut up.

How to help

Send a letter or postcard of support to Steven and Tiwonge. In this difficult time, they need to know that people around the world love and support them. Get all your friends to do the same. Write to:

Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, Prisoners, Chichiri Prison, P.O.Box 30117, Blantyre 3, Malawi

Make a donation by post or BACS electronic transfer to OutRage!'s Malawi Defense Campaign. OutRage! will use all money donated to support Tiwonge and Steven with food parcels, medicine, clothes, blankets, etc. and to help fund the campaign for their release.

By BACS electronic transfer:

Account name: OutRage!
Bank: Alliance and Leicester Commercial Bank, Bootle, Merseyside, GIR 0AA, England, UK
Account number: 77809302
Sort code: 72-00-01

For electronic transfers from overseas (outside the UK), please add this code:
IBAN: GB65ALEI72000177809302

By check:

Write a check payable to “OutRage!” and send to OutRage!, PO Box 17816, London SW14 8WT. Enclose a note giving your name and address and stating that your donation is for the Malawi Defense Campaign.
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