As I write, the African Union (AU) Summit is taking place in Kampala, Uganda. The country is now the centre of the undeclared war between state/religious homophobia and human rights.
Two related actions show that in the eyes of many, human rights do not include LGBTI rights. First, Uganda refused to grant the Coalition of African Lesbians observer status, repeating the tired mantra that homosexuality was ‘unAfrican’. Then, Egypt proposed a special amendment to a summit agenda item which would further impede violations of LGBTI rights across Africa.Then, Egypt proposed a special amendment to a summit agenda item which would further impede violations of LGBTI rights across Africa.
This is clearly a state-backed case of homophobia. Add to that religious and other public institutions, and the urgent need to fight legalized homophobia becomes obvious. However, I suggest we change our approach and transfer the focus from the international arena to community levels.
It is clear that real change in Africa lies with its people. Why else would political and religious leaders try to silence independent thought? How does intimacy between two consenting adults end up being hated more than the act of stealing billions in state funds, which contributes greatly to poverty and lack of development in our countries? Why the focus on consensual intimacy and NOT on violence against women?
Misogyny, sexism, violence against women and homophobia/transphobia are all interconnected. Violence against women, directly related to their condition in society, is one of the ways patriarchy maintains control over them. Recognize the mocking ‘lesbian’ taunts by men towards women who do not respond as required to their advances? Being attacks in defence of gender normativity and sexual conformity, the ‘mocking taunts’ are just the beginning. The continuum includes touching, name calling, beating, rape and finally murder.
As much as we can speak of an ‘Africa’, the need for children, particularly male children, to sustain families and communities is often emphasized. Thus, same sex desire and gender variance are seen as ‘an offence to culture’, and the myth that LGBTI rights will lead to the end of heterosexuality, and thus reproduction, is a powerful gun. (Many African societies have, however, also provided a space for alternative non-conforming sexual desire to take place, often through, for example, largely invisible ‘spiritual’ and / or ‘warrior’ spaces. But what is happening today is that same-sex desire is taking place outside of these spaces and is becoming increasingly visible. In a world shrinking through 24/7 media, there is a struggle to maintain the status quo which does not allow for difference, for independence of thought or knowledge production unless it is generated by those in privileged positions of power (think heterosexual men).
I believe that the way to address homophobia in communities is to personalize it and highlight the problems it creates. Homophobia rips families apart; it dehumanizes both the perpetrator and the victim; it empowers patriarchy and thereby weakens women; it acts as a distraction, enabling political and religious leaders to avoid those issues that really do impact on the quality of people’s lives.
At a workshop on gender and militarism in Accra, Ghana, I was appalled to see many women express fear of being called ‘feminist’, as that would ‘condemn’ them to being labelled as ‘lesbian’ with all its negative implications. This is homophobia working side by side with sexism and misogyny. Insisting on making one’s own decisions, choosing a partner, demanding equal pay are all threats to male dominance.
I understand that this connection between violence against women, local patriarchies and homophobia is not easy to establish. Undoubtedly, we have to continue the struggle for LGBTI rights through legal processes, but at the same time we should focus on the more personal level of the community and, ultimately, the family.
Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/-marlith-/ under a CC licence.