Are there signs of hope for LGBT people in Africa?

The possibility that there might be signs of hope for LGBT people in Africa seems unlikely in the context of the violence in Kenya and elsewhere and the proposed legislation in Uganda and Nigeria.

On Saturday gug blogged about the Barzai in Kampala, the forum he attended and tweeted from. He reports that he stood and spoke, but not as gug. His closet, he said, is wide open and he just needs a little nudge to come out and flower. But the forum wasn’t the place.

Gug got me thinking. In the month following the publication of the Anti-homosexuality Bill in early October, there were signs that it might lead to the introduction of similar legislation in other African countries. For some time, I feared that it might lead to the introduction of a wave of similar punitive Bills. Many African members of the Commonwealth already have draconian ex-colonial legislation on the statute book so that any new legislation is really unnecessary and looks simply vindictive.

The future looked bad for some weeks, with the probability of increased public hostility, prejudice, intolerance and aggression, which has indeed happened in Uganda and Kenya. It looked (and may still look) as if an increased risk of public humiliation, arrest, imprisonment and death is the inevitable outcome for LGBT Africans. But the multiplying of Bills didn’t happen and it has become more than a possibility that the Uganda Bill itself will not be enacted.

All of the above risks to LGBT people are ever present risk and may yet become reality. But I think that another scenario is unfolding at the same time as the potential for punitive legislation and a diminishment of safety and dignity for LGBT people.

What difference would the Uganda Bill make in reality? Would priests and bishops, for example, refuse to listen to and talk with LGBT people and report anyone they knew to be gay to the police? In Nigeria, what difference would the anti-gay marriage act make? No-one was proposing to legalise gay marriage in the first place so the bill was always an attempt to play on prejudice and pre-empt moves to acknowledge the presence of LGBT people in society.

At the moment, it looks likely that neither bill will be enacted. There was strong international condemnation of the Nigerian Bill by LGBT organisations and the Ugandan Bill has created huge international political condemnation with economic sanctions threatened. Martin Ssempa’s display of pornographic gay images in church has made him a figure of derision. The Million Man March so loudly trumpeted by him never materialised.

Both bills have mobilised opposition to LGBT people in their respective countries, using conservative Christian teaching (labelled traditional and orthodox) to mobilise Christian support.

But I think there is good news as a by-product of the various anti-gay initiatives.

LGBT people in Africa may have been intimidated by the anti-gay hysteria but some of them have also been motivated to work for change and stand up for themselves and their human rights.

International networks and relationships between pro-LGBT groups and individuals have been activated and strengthened. This is certainly true for Changing Attitude and our links across Africa. The internet is proving to be a huge influence in disseminating news and information and creating effective alliances.

A public discourse in each of the countries concerned has been started – not, perhaps, what the homophobes anticipated. Lesbian and gay attacks and anti-gay campaigns are regularly reported by the media. This means that people are learning about the real presence of LGBT people in their culture even if their prejudices are being fuelled at the moment. But people will also ask questions, especially if they suspect that someone in their own family or social network might be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Pro-gay arguments are also being articulated and the subject is now irrevocably on the agenda – it will never go away.

Even were the Ugandan or Nigerian bills to be passed, this process will continue. I suspect that far more positive progress has been made in the past 4 months since the Anti-homosexuality Bill was published than is as yet obvious in the public domain.

I prophesy that the anti-gay campaigns will be counter-productive and will eventually bring about the very thing they are set up to eradicate – the acknowledgement and acceptance of LGBT people in African societies.

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