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Thursday, 10 February 2011

New Dawn: How Africa is changing for the better on LGBT rights

Rwandan UN Ambassador Olivier Nduhungirehe

Source: Gay Times

By Paul Canning

Last December something rather historic happened in New York. The world voted in favour of the most basic gay right of all - the right to life.

A month earlier a group of Islamic and African countries had struck out 'sexual orientation' from a United Nations resolution on extrajudicial - non-state - killings. It had been in a long list of groups deserving protection.

The United States then announced they would try to get the vote reversed and 20 December it was. By a landslide.

Despite the vote being cast in apocalyptic terms (the delegate from the West African state of Benin said that "this vote determines the very future of humanity!" and that it would "go down in the annals of history") over a quarter of member states positively changed their votes - including a third of Africa.

Rwanda voted for gays and in an astonishing speech the delegate Olivier Nduhungirehe said it was not because of lobbying or threats but because of the lessons learned from the genocide that country had suffered.
"Whether or not the concept is defined or not, whether or not we support the claims of people with a different sexual orientation, whether or not we approve of their sexual practices – we must deal with the urgency of these matters and recognize that these people continue to be the target of murder in many of our societies, and they are more at risk than many of the other groups listed. This is unfortunately true, and recognizing this is not a call to give them special rights; it’s just recognition of a crime, that their fundamental rights, their right to life should not be refused. But to refuse to recognize this reality for legal or ideological or cultural reasons will have the consequence of continuing to hide our heads in the sand and to fail to alert states to these situations that break families."

"Believe me, sir, that a human group doesn’t need to be legally defined to be the victim of execution or massacre, since those who target their members have previously defined them. Rwanda has experienced this sixteen years ago indeed, and for this reason our delegation will vote for the amendment, and calls on other delegations to do likewise."
American support

The US move topped a year in which much has been achieved by Hillary Clinton's State Department. She announced in a speech marking LGBT History Month last June, standing beside four African LGBT activists, that America's international efforts for LGBT would concentrate on Africa.

America has been quietly funding numerous groups and bringing activists to the US so they can hone their skills. Obama's comments on Uganda's bill which would in some cases lead to gays being executed made headlines across Africa.

The Europeans as well have been supporting LGBT across the continent. In November Germany also brought a group of activists to see how LGBT are treated in the West. Uyapo Ndadi from Botswana wrote that he was "amazed by the level of political involvement in advancing the rights of sexual minorities."

The Dutch and Norwegians fund groups, the EU funds a group fighting viscous oppression of gays in the West African country of Cameroon.

For some time the EU has been trying to get 'sexual orientation' included in the text of aid and development agreements with what's often called the 'Global South' - 79 developing countries which includes most of Africa.

In December the European Parliament passed a resolution 'reminding' Africa that “the EU is responsible for more than half of development aid and remains Africa's most important trading partner” and that "in all actions conducted under the terms of various partnerships” that sexual orientation is a protected category of non-discrimination.

Reports have suggested that Malawi has suffered rejection of aid funding due to its active persecution of LGBT

It is the threat to aid that is believed responsible for Malawi's President Bingu Wa Mutharika pardoning Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, both given 14-year jail terms last May after being convicted of 'gross indecency and unnatural acts'.

Similarly, in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has faced open threats by Germany to stop its aid because of the 'kill the gays' bill. Aid is about half Uganda's government's budget, a situation replicated across the continent.

But Museveni is caught like many African leaders between immense anti-gay feeling among the general population and a recognition that development, trade and aid are all now affected by government treatment of LGBT. Western governments are also affected by their populations attitudes and any viewing of comments on Africa's approach on this issue shows consistent calls to withhold aid until the situation improves.

The Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangeri spent 2010 telling local gays one thing and the country's media another. Odinga, his counterpart in Kenya, made a bizarre threat to 'arrest all gays' at a rally in December which he then had to walk back.

Former leaders have more political space and in October the former president of Botswana Festus Mogae said that homosexuality shouldn't be illegal because that would make the fight against HIV/Aids difficult.

He leads a group of prominent Africans calling themselves Champions of an HIV-Free Generation that include former Zambian leader Dr Kenneth Kaunda and former Vice-President of Uganda Dr Speciosa Wandira

The current Zambian President Rupiah Banda told Mogae that he 'understood the need not to criminalise homosexuals'.

Allies and the role of religion

Kenya has a strong civil society which local LGBT have strategically partnered with. In fact, throughout Africa LGBT have made gains on the back of growing civil society, freer media, democracy and acceptance of scientific approaches to tackling HIV which mean engagement with - not dismissal of - them. Women's groups as well have increasingly advocated in support of lesbians and transgender people, including at the highest international levels.

In Kenya, local LGBT have also strategically engaged with religious leaders. It was this work which stopped a follow up after an anti-gay riot in the town of Mtwapa, near Mombassa on Kenya's coast, last February.

A local talk radio station had broadcast an untrue rumour that a 'gay wedding' was going to happen at a hotel. Gay people are relatively visible in this tourristy area and there has been agitation around 'sex tourism' by Westerners.

As elsewhere in Africa, it was religious leaders - a local Bishop and a local Iman - who stirred things up and only the actions of local police, demonstrating how embedded civil development is in Kenya, saved the lives of a number of gays from the mob.

The religious leaders threatened more riots but LGBT along with civil and health groups and some local politicians actively sought out pastors, priests and Imans and ordered local media to stop incitement and calmed things down.

This positive development was barely reported whereas the 'riot over a gay wedding in Kenya' story got reported all around the world. Even when it was confirmed that there was no wedding, that it was a rumour probably started by the radio station, Western news outlets including the BBC and the New York Times refused to make a correction (I know because I asked them). Yet another 'dark heart of Africa' story and characteristic of how the Western world through its media often misreads an entire continent.

The Kenyan pro-gay forces had support from another Western force quietly changing things on the ground: Western gay Christians. A little known Missouri based group 'Other Sheep' in particular has recruited a number of heterosexual African religious leaders and sent them out to 'minister' to others.

Inspired by the example of Bishop Desmond Tutu, Ugandan Bishop Christopher Senyonjo is one of many who have preached tolerance and acceptance.

But they face well-funded and determined opposition.

America's culture war moves to Africa

Much has been reported about how American evangelicals have transferred their culture war against gays to Uganda. Their propaganda lines - we're a threat to children, homosexuality can be 'unlearned', homosexuality is 'un African', any 'concession' means 'special rights' - can be heard repeated by pastors and, perhaps ironically, Imans.

Being viciously anti-gay is immensely profitable. Bizarrely, in Uganda, it has even led to the so-called 'pastor wars' with one supposedly accusing another of being gay in order to steal their flock and the income that comes from it and from American and other Western evangelical support.

Right-wing American evangelicals are losing at home. Seven million evangelicals preferring Obama over McCain. Huge numbers, especially amongst the young and so-called social justice evangelicals, now support gay marriage. So they have consciously taken their fight overseas.

It's not just Uganda. Western funded evangelical Christians are behind a move to criminalise homosexuality in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In Ghana, evangelicals allied again with Muslims have provoked riots over homosexuality-related stories in tabloid media. In Nigeria again it is evangelical Christians, there led by Anglican leaders, who have proposed anti-gay legal moves like those in Uganda. In Malawi they've pushed to criminalise lesbians. In Sudan and Somalia Islamists have targeted gays for punishment including execution.

Western reports about gay marriage are all over the African media and it is this specter more than any other which has been raised in the backlash - even though it is nowhere on the agenda of African gays.

But more than that it is simply visibility and increased organisation (groups now exist all over Africa and leaders like Kenyan Senate candidate David Kuria have emerged) drawing a backlash. And this has been covered in most countries by a much more professional media covering LGBT issues with less prejudice.

Cary Alan Johnson of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission told me in June that the progress of African LGBT movements is astounding:

"Movements are more professionally run, politically smarter, more accountable and transparent, and more diverse. In almost every country, there are emerging organisations and political spaces for queer women, transpeople, those who want to be political, those whose interests are more social. Community centres and safe spaces are emerging continent-wide.

"In the face of much adversity and homophobia, it's actually quite a heady moment."


The United Nations vote should be seen as a watershed.

South Africa was the first country in the world to put LGBT rights in its constitution. It did this because the African Nation Congress knew that gay people had been part of the fight against apartheid, brave, early fighters like Simon Nkoli as well as many in the international movement like Peter Tatchell.

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, Nkoli wrote an open letter to ask the ANC leader his attitude to gay and lesbian rights. "He gave an assurance that gay and lesbian people are part of the oppressed in South Africa, and therefore there was no way he would reject them."

But following Mandela's retirement and the Aids denialism of his successor Thabo Mbeki, followed by the anti-gay nods of Jakob Zuma and the failure to do anything about an epidemic of so-called 'corrective rape' of lesbians, things have looked bleak.

South Africa voted against gays in the first vote in November to not be out of step with other African countries, to not appear critical, in a similar way to how it has publicly engaged with Mugabe's Zimbabwean regime. Its logic was tortured but consistent with its other votes on the international stage.

Backing down and reversing its vote in December they specifically mentioned the constitution as a reason for change.

South African lesbian activist Melanie Judge says that the vote showed that the government was now part of "building a narrative and public discourse" against violence on the basis of sexual orientation: "It is about changing the language of prejudice, which is deeply embedded in the South African psyche."

Zackie Achmat of the Coalition to End Discrimination says that the mobilisation of civil society - which "went across race, class and religious lines" - contributed to the change of heart.

Achmat believes that it bodes well for a a campaign, beginning this year, for the summit of the African Union, which represents the whole of the continent, to "not to take a position that undermined equality for all."

For Westerners, a vote not to kill gays sounds obvious and would get unanimous support. For African gays it's one big step along their long road to freedom.
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