A way forward for LGBTI rights in Africa

Their efforts and alliances have resulted in palpable change in legislation, court decisions, health policies and shifting public opinion across Africa. They need support.

The horrific shootings targeting the LGBTI community in the United States sent a chilling message that was heard with crystal clarity around the world. The murders in Orlando triggered a fresh and passionate debate about gun laws in America and shone a light on the ever-present challenges the LGBTI community faces both worldwide and here at home. The events in the United States are no more terrifying than the reality of the LGBTI community in South Africa and throughout the continent.

A glaring example surfaced recently in Ivory Coast. A group of gay men were threatened, terrorized, beaten and forced to leave their homes. The reason? They were identified as being part of the “LGBTI community” in an online photo showing them signing a U.S. Embassy book of condolences for the Orlando victims.

No matter how much progress we think we have made in extending basic human rights to every corner of the LGBTI community, we have an intolerably long way to go. The simple truth is that hate crimes against queer people have increased steadily in South Africa over the past few decades. That is why our Parliament is now considering a Hate Crimes Bill. It is ironic that twenty years after our constitution banned discrimination against the LGBTI community and paved the way for the legalization of same-sex marriage, plus the freedom for same-sex couples to adopt children and the right of gays to serve openly in the military, being LGBTI in South Africa is increasingly dangerous.

Just a few months ago, Lucia Naido, a young lesbian woman, was stabbed to death on the night of her birthday in Katlehong. Her death came barely 4 months after the body of Bobby Motlatla was discovered in his flat. He had been stabbed multiple times, most likely because of his sexuality.

We also can never forget Duduzile Zozo, who was brutally raped and murdered in 2013 because she was a lesbian; Thapelo Makhutle whose body was found badly mutilated in the Northern Cape in 2012; Neil Daniels who was also stabbed and set alight in Cape Town that year; and Nontsikelo Tyatyeka, found dead in a dustbin because of homophobia and hate. The list goes on and on, extending further back to 2008 when the body of soccer star and lesbian activist Eudy Simelane was found near KwaThema. Eudy had been gang-raped and stabbed multiple times.

What happened in Orlando can and does happen here. When I attended the just concluded International Aids Conference 2016 in Durban, this issue of persistent stigma, violence and discrimination was firmly on my mind. Back in 2000 at the first AIDS conference, the focus was on bridging the gap between the level of access to HIV/AIDS drugs and other treatments in the developed world and the lack of resources in the developing world. This combination of having the world’s spotlight on us and the efforts of many brave social justice activists who literally put their lives on the line to fight for access to ARVs had a huge impact.

Sixteen years later, we can take some measure of satisfaction in the largest public health antiretroviral program in the world. This time around, however, we must broaden the discussions. We need to move beyond treatments for HIV/AIDS to a deeper conversation about how to eradicate hate, stigmatization and isolation of LGBTIs. Just as we know that access to treatment does little to change attitudes which fuel marginalization of sex workers, drug users who inject and men who have sex with men, we also know that legislation addressing domestic violence and rape do little to stem the violence directed at women in South Africa. Legislation, essential as it is, has its limits.

What to do? Fortunately, there is momentum for real social change in the air. We should be encouraged by the wave of homegrown leaders, movements and activists that are sweeping across the continent and bringing with them African solutions to Africa’s LGBTI people. Their efforts and alliances with other human rights movements have resulted in palpable change in legislation, court decisions, health policies and shifting public opinion across Africa.

In the past few years, Mozambique has decriminalized homosexuality. In Botswana and Kenya, courts have given LGBTI organizations the right to register and operate. The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights has explicitly condemned violence and discrimination against LGBTI people and granted the Coalition of African Lesbians formal Observer Status. These and many other steps in the right direction should be celebrated. They demonstrate that change is possible and tell a story of pride, dignity and activism that counters the narrative of gloom, doom and hopelessness.

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by Naylor Nicolette

Photo Credits: Lindaikejis blog