About two weeks ago, Boksburg – the city notorious for re-introducing petty-apartheid in the 80s and an erstwhile far rightwing stronghold – was host to the first pan-African lesbian and gay conference of the International Lesbian and Gay Association.

Around 40 activists spent the week moving around the hotel precinct with the words “lesbian and gay conference” brazenly affixed to its walls. Loud and clear, this was some testimony to how a place like Boksburg can change. But what struck me was the paradox that this ‘visibility’ of LGBT African activism represented in reality.

The conference organisers cautiously guarded against the potential of a media onslaught– rightfully so. We know only too well that a bunch of moffies, dykes and trannies easily attracts a horde of journalists, especially when we are marching down the street in (or out of) our finest. But there was none of that in Boksburg. The gathering was a serious if not sombre affair for the most part.

Inside the conference room, the majority of delegates sported bright red dots to signify that they couldn’t be photographed: prudent safeguards to minimise the risk of being outed and harassed back home. This paradox of visibility underscores the reality of being LGBT in Africa, where for the most part we continue to experience systematic victimisation and harassment by state organs.

Many of the organisations in the sector cannot use names that alert the authorities about the kind of work that they are doing. Others cannot register as the law forbids it. However, despite these circumstances, close working relationships have been fostered between such organisations and in-country HIV/AIDS and gender organisations that hold a broader human rights mandate.

In South Africa, such cross sector partnerships tend to be fragmented. As LGBT organisations in South Africa, we have only more recently started to practically align our issues with broader struggles around health, gender and socio-economic rights. We talk with much vigour about the fact that human rights are indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated. We should entrench these core principles further in the way we work and with whom.

During the conference there were times when our differences seemed to override our commonalities, as disparities in context and experience are immense. As a case in point, the idea of legalised same-sex marriage is inconceivable across the continent. It may even pose a threat to activists mobilising around more fundamental issues such as the de-criminalisation of same-sex sexuality. We know there has been a tightening of homophobic laws in Zimbabwe, Cameroon and Nigeria. This is partly linked to the mythology of ‘homosexuality as unAfrican’.

While this discourse is nothing more than a smokescreen for bigotry, it deserves our attention none the less for it seeks to render LGBT people invisible. Simply put; “if I can’t see you, I don’t have to deal with you”. The psycho-social impact of this makes it even trickier to open closet doors. It also thwarts the public expression of same-sex behaviour, as well as disrupts sustained and coordinated LGBT activism. In some ways the conference in itself was an act of defiance as it rendered visible our struggles. But, at the end of the day, a gathering of brave souls in Boksburg is not going to make it any easier for a gay man to have a drink at a bar in Cameroon, or for a lesbian woman in Nigeria to come out to her family.

I was humbled by the bravery of the Algerian gay boys, the dykes from Namibia, and the clear strong voice of a Rwandan sister. It was a process of social witnessing, of making visible our personal and political struggles and seeing where our realities converge.

“…the penal codes that criminalise same-sex sexuality in African are essentially a colonial hangover.”

French, Arabic, English and Portuguese abounded, as we aimed to find common cause across countries that are for the most part hostile to our sexualities and gender identities. Amidst our discussions, what struck me were the myriad tongues of so-called African identities. Which makes the question “who and what is African?” all the more perplexing.

The question itself warrants interrogation, as it is all too often a crafty tool of political and economic intention behind the ideology of nationalism. I believe we should resist these conscious efforts to define Africans as a homogenous lump. Rather, there is a need to interrogate forms of nationalism that ignore us, or that reproduce a patriarchal and gender blind approach that is openly hostile to our equality and dignity.

The space for heightened activism across the continent is expanding, but in the face of great resistance. That is the nature of social change; there is always resistance. And it seems to be fiercest when that change challenges what we understand to be African.

As part of the process of (re)defining ourselves as sexual and gender minorities, we face the task of balancing notions of ‘sameness’ and ‘difference’. We often proclaim “but we are just like the straights” when we advocate for equal treatment before the law. But we may be emphasising this to the detriment of celebrating our “difference”. We represent a political alternative for identities, sexualities and life choices. And these disrupt the hetero-normative order. Our “otherness’ is a powerful tool to challenge the conformism of heterosexual stereotypes of sex and relationship.

A report recently released points to the fact that 80 countries worldwide, of which 38 are in Africa, still criminalise consensual same-sex acts among adults. Institutionalised prejudice against LGBT people is not an exclusively African phenomenon. And herein lies the irony, for the penal codes that criminalise same-sex sexuality in African are essentially a colonial hangover.

Boksburg was a place where human dignity was once destroyed. In stark contrast, the gathering of African brothers and sisters – gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex – was a deeply humanising experience. Whatever identities we craft in the post-colonial landscape – in their ever-changing and multiple forms – we must be sure that discrimination is not perpetuated in the name of being African.

By Melanie Judge

Melanie is the Advocacy Manager at OUT LGBT Well-being. She writes in her personal capacity.

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