Africa, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

HUMAN RIGHTS-SOUTHERN AFRICA: Mixed Response as Gays Come Out

Stephanie Nieuwoudt

NAIROBI, Feb 22 2007 (IPS) - The issue of lesbian and gay Africans’ human rights again came to the fore this week as Anglican Church leaders met in Tanzania amid the continuing row over the consecration of a gay US bishop in 2003.

An ultimatum was sent from the conference in Dar es Salaam to US bishops to make a commitment that same-sex unions would not be blessed. African Anglicans have opposed the American Gene Robinson’s consecration as bishop on the basis of his sexuality.

The meeting follows the World Social Forum held in Nairobi, Kenya, in January 2007 where hundreds of people flocked to the so-called Q-Tent in a country where homosexuality has been criminalised.

In the tent, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people from all over the continent and the globe shared their experiences of discrimination. They also spoke about the progress being made towards realising human rights for LGBT minorities.

The Anglican Church’s discussions in Tanzania this week took place in a country which criminalises homosexuality. Zanzibar has recently passed a law punishing people who engage in homosexual acts with prison sentences of up to 15 years. Lesbians found guilty of ‘‘improper conduct’’ can be sent to prison for seven years.

Tanzania is one of several African countries where lesbians and gays are being denied their human rights. These measures seem to be in reaction to advances in lesbian and gay rights made in southern Africa.

In Nigeria the parliament is considering a bill to prohibit gay and lesbian people from marrying or even politically organising themselves. Rwanda and Zimbabwe are another two countries which have strengthened their anti-homosexual legislation. In Uganda and Kenya a ‘‘homosexual act’’ can land someone in jail for 15 years.

After police harassment of lesbian and gay activists in Uganda, a campaign was run to ‘‘out’’ lesbian and gay individuals by publicising their names. Numerous activists, including the leader of Sexual Minorities of Uganda Juliet Victor Mukasa, have fled Uganda fearing for their lives.

In southern Africa the lesbian and gay movement has made great strides. In South Africa, the rights of lesbians and gays to marry were recently entrenched in a new law.

A pilot project to sensitize children in secondary school about homosexuality is being considered in South Africa’s Gauteng province. Administrators in the province of KwaZulu Natal have indicated that they too are looking at the possible introduction of this programme.

In neighbouring Namibia an active gay and lesbian community has through persistent campaigns managed to start a conversation with the religious sector.

The nongovernmental organisation The Rainbow Project, which fights for lesbian and gay human rights in Namibia, has organised meetings between religious leaders and the LGBT community.

While many lesbian and gays become alienated from organised religion because of homophobic statements made by clergy, there are religious leaders who promote the rights of sexual minorities, said Ian Swartz, chairperson of The Rainbow Project. As example, he stressed that the Anglican church is divided on the issue of Robinson.

He told IPS that many lesbian and gay Africans remain religious, making it necessary to talk to religious leaders about the acceptance of sexual diversity.

‘‘They want to go to church because they still identify with the religious values that they grew up with. For many the church is the place where they find answers to life’s questions,’’ said Swartz.

Liz Frank, a former chairperson of the Coalition for African Lesbians (CAL) and editor of the magazine ‘‘Sister Namibia’’, told IPS that the advances in South Africa and Namibia had a lot to do with the spirit of democratization that swept through these countries from the late 1980s onwards.

‘‘South Africa, where the rights of all people are protected in the constitution, undoubtedly sparked change which is influencing the rest of Africa,’’ Frank said. This is especially visible in the proliferation of civil society groups which are organising around lesbian and gay issues.

One example is the Coalition for African Lesbians (CAL) led by the South African Fikile Vilakazi. It represents 13 organisations in 11 African countries. CAL does feminist research, analysis and documentation. It also lobbies for women’s rights at local and national level.

According to Frank, ‘‘South Africa is more than an example to the rest of the continent. The many activists and organisations who have struggled so hard for sexual minority rights have been a resource to us. People have been assisting us in Namibia with strategic planning, organisational development, lobbying and advocacy.

‘‘They have helped us to break the silence and respond to hate speech. Through this we have begun to build the African LGBT movement,’’ Frank pointed out.

While civil society is organising to claim human rights for LGBT people, politicians still enjoy playing the homophobic card when it suits them. ‘‘It usually happens when the government faces some kind of crisis that they want to cover up,’’ Swartz told IPS.

‘‘After homophobic statements have been made in public by church or political leaders, one can feel that a few steps backwards are being taken. We then usually see an increase in verbal and physical attacks against the LGBT population,’’ Swartz continued.

‘‘Some political and church leaders are fond of denouncing gays and lesbians as ‘causing’ moral decay. But the fact is that some of these leaders are the very people who promote aggression and discrimination.’’

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