Africa, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

AFRICA: Across the Continent, Gays Face Jail Terms, Discrimination

Joyce Mulama

NAIROBI, Jun 23 2006 (IPS) - “We are here in Africa: we live in the mainstream, we pay taxes like everybody else in the mainstream, we relate with people in the mainstream. We are a naturally-occurring phenomenon in the universe,” said activist Donna Smith of gay persons in Africa.

The representative of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women – a black lesbian organisation based in the South African financial centre of Johannesburg – was speaking at the second Africa Conference on Sexual Health and Rights that took place in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, this week (Jun. 19-21).

About 400 delegates gathered for the meeting which sought, in part, to improve policies and programmes on sexuality in Africa. The first such meeting was held in Johannesburg in 2004.

A session on gay sexuality proved one of the draw cards of the conference, with participants scrambling for space in the small room allocated to the proceedings. Many countries in Africa still outlaw homosexuality, including Kenya – where it is punishable with jail terms of up to 14 years.

In addition to repressive legislation, gays face stigmatisation and discrimination.

“I worked in an institution of higher learning. When my friends learnt that I was gay, they all of a sudden left, as if I was a contagious disease,” David Kuria, a Kenyan delegate, told IPS.

“I was forced to leave (my) employment because I was not comfortable with the way I was being treated,” he added. Kuria discovered that he was gay while in high school, in the early 1990s.

At worst, the discrimination manifests itself in violence.

Fikile Vilakazi of the Coalition of African Lesbians cited the example of Zoliswa Nkonyana, a 19-year-old lesbian who was killed by a mob in Cape Town, South Africa, earlier this year because of her sexual orientation. (The coalition, headquartered in the Namibian capital of Windhoek, is a network of organisations supporting lesbian rights.)

Matters are aggravated, said Vilakazi, by the attitude of officials towards gays: “A number of rape and assault cases have been reported to police stations. The police take long to deal with them. When one reports, the police in turn respond by asking why one is a lesbian.”

Discrimination against gays may discourage them from taking advantage of services that are critical for their health and well-being.

“The hostile and discriminatory attitudes from health care staff have made many MSM – men having sex with men – reluctant to access services. This has put MSM at a higher risk of contracting HIV/AIDS,” noted Angus Parkinson of Liverpool VCT and Care Kenya, a Nairobi-based group for HIV/AIDS care and research. (VCT stands for “voluntary counseling and testing”. Liverpool VCT and Care Kenya is associated with the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in Britain.)

“Many MSM have poor knowledge of HIV/STIs (sexually-transmitted infections) and perceive that they are at low risk, using condoms infrequently with inappropriate lubricants.”

For Cary Alan Johnson, a senior coordinator at the New York-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, the abolition of laws criminalising same-sex activities lies at the heart of addressing these ills.

“The gay community across the world is growing and we cannot continue to ignore its rights through the old colonial laws. If governments respect human rights, then the rights of gay persons and lesbians must be incorporated in the wider human rights framework,” Johnson said.

For the moment, however, homosexuality and lesbianism are still viewed by many as products of Western society, and alien to African culture.

Followers of certain faiths also see gay rights as being at odds with their religious beliefs. This was demonstrated when African Anglican archbishops severed ties with the Episcopal Church in the United States over its 2004 decision to consecrate Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire – an eastern U.S. state.

But, says Smith, while a gay person may live a heterosexual life “for the purposes of the law, (they) cannot find peace and fulfilment in a heterosexual relationship.”

She told IPS that from the age of eight, she had fantasised about women, and knew she was different from other girls: “My first sexual experience was with a girl, and I straight away knew what my sexuality would evolve into.”

The session on gay sexuality also saw the launch in Kenya of a book titled ‘Tommy Boys, Lesbian Men and Ancestral Wives: Female Same Sex Practices in Africa’, an account of lesbian sexuality in Eastern and Southern Africa.

This publication was co-authored by activists from six countries: South Africa, Namibia, Swaziland, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Amongst other things, it documents how African lesbians find ways to express their sexuality, the opposition from their communities notwithstanding.

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