On October 04 2010, a pink closet set upon the University of Cape Town (UCT) campus as part of the ‘Pink Week’ awareness campaign was torched after being on display for just a few hours. The closet was intended to highlight prejudice against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people and encourage discourse on issues affecting the LGBTI community. Its malicious destruction spotlighted this prejudice and stood as a strong example of the pervasiveness of homophobic attitudes across the social spectrum of South African society. While the continuous violence against black lesbians certainly is the most brutal manifestation of hate crimes against LGBTI people, the notion that they are confined to the streets of townships is simply not true.
The incident also serves as a reminder that despite having successfully fought for one of the most advanced gay-right laws in the world the struggle for equality of LGBTI people in South Africa is, like in the rest of the African continent and indeed the world, an ongoing one.
Homosexuality is outlawed in 38 African countries. In some countries offenders can be punished with death and in many more with harsh jail sentences. Recent developments have attracted international attention and once more underlined the precarious human rights situation of LGBTI people on the continent. In Uganda, an
Anti-Homosexuality Bill was tabled in parliament, proposing to broaden the criminalisation of homosexuality and to introduce the death penalty under certain circumstances, including for people who have previous convictions of the “offence of homosexuality” or have same sex relations while being HIV-positive. In Malawi, a gay couple was sentenced to 14 years hard labour and only freed after international condemnation.
Fuelled by homophobic utterances of political and religious leaders, opposition to homosexuality is often embedded in tradition, religion and culture. Ignoring factual history, non-normative sexual orientations and gender identities are dismissed on the basis that they are Western imports and “un-African”.
The Heinrich Böll Foundation has aimed to empower LGBTI organisations to participate in public life and express the concerns of LGBTI people in the region for many years. It is hoped that this issue of Perspectives will help LGBTI activism in its struggle towards changing Africa into a continent where LGBTI people enjoy the full range of human rights.
What is clear from the articles gathered here is that despite the myriad of challenges and hostile environment there is an ongoing engagement and growing movement towards equality for LGBTI people throughout the continent. So while there may be a long journey ahead, we remain optimistic.
Struggle for equality: Sexual orientation, gender identity and human rights in Africa