Part Way There: The agony and joy of being gay in Africa

By Frankie Edozien

Pride parade. (Reuters/Rogan Ward)

At an international conference on Black portraiture, imagery and depiction in Johannesburg, South Africa last November, I gave a presentation about the state of LGBT rights across the African continent. I told participants that I’d just come from New York, where, at the UN, the African bloc had spearheaded an effort to torpedo the work of the first-ever independent expert investigating violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

They wanted to halt the work of Vitit Muntarbhorn of Thailand, a human rights expert who had completed a tour of duty in Syria, and was appointed to the post of Special Raconteur in September. He had already begun his work, but the group objected to his mandate, which was to investigate abuses directed against LGBTI people. With so much state-sanctioned abuse on the continent this wasn’t exactly a big surprise. However, the African nation bloc said it wanted a delay because “there is no international agreement on the definition of the concept of ‘sexual orientation and gender identity.’”

This assertion was so off the mark that the American ambassador at the time, Samantha Power, described it as patently false. She would later assert that violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity are “well established,” and have been referred to repeatedly in UN statements and resolutions, including in the General Assembly and Security Council. “In reality, this amendment has little to do with questions around the definition of sexual orientation and gender identity,” she said. “Instead, this amendment is rooted in a real disagreement over whether people of a certain sexual orientation and gender identity are, in fact, entitled to equal rights.”

During my presentation, I posed the same question to the scholars and participants in the room that Botswana, on behalf of the African group of nations, had posed to the UN General Assembly: “Should sexual orientation and gender identity be included in broader issues of human rights concerns?” Then I gave them the unsatisfying response that Botswana’s ambassador, Charles Thembani Ntwaagae, gave to the UN: “Those two notions are not, and should not be, linked to existing international human rights instruments.”

I told the audience that while the African bloc’s response was totally unsurprising, what stung was South Africa not raising an objection. I said that being in South Africa, with its great constitution that outlaws discrimination, was bittersweet at the moment because they had not done anything to halt this, but instead had gone along with their reactionary neighbors.

A month later, at a second hearing, and in a second attempt to quash the appointment, the African bloc, with their supporters in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, saw their efforts dashed for good as more nations rallied round to vote in favor of it, particularly countries from South America. The defeat was a clear sign that, while divisions remain, the world is coming to the view that discrimination has no place in the 21st century.

And this time South Africa broke ranks with the African bloc and made its position very clear to the world. Jerry Matjila, the South African ambassador said, “We will fight discrimination, everywhere, every time. We cannot discriminate against people because of their own lifestyle or intention. That we cannot do in South Africa.”

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Excerpted from Lives of Great Men (Team Angelica Publishing). Copyright 2017.