Hidded in Plain Sight: Africa’s quiet LGBT revolution.

 

By FRANKIE EDOZIEN

Sometimes, it’s enough just to be seen.

And other times it’s just a start. Get yourself seen. Then heard. Then assert yourself as part and parcel of the community that’s been blind to you forever. Surely, the tone-deaf comments and embarrassing situations will begin to be chipped away as you are seen and heard?

Maybe even the kidnappings and beatings? Once people realize you are everywhere all around them?

Sometimes, it’s enough just to be seen.

And other times it’s just a start. Get yourself seen. Then heard. Then assert yourself as part and parcel of the community that’s been blind to you forever. Surely, the tone-deaf comments and embarrassing situations will begin to be chipped away as you are seen and heard?

Maybe even the kidnappings and beatings? Once people realize you are everywhere all around them?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I got a bird’s eye view in how visibility goes a long way in changing perception. I saw, not just crowds grow from one June to another at New York’s annual Gay Pride festivities, but how it seemed the entire region got in on it.

Today, mayors, senators, wanna-be politicos, their families, police officers, everyone, it seems unfurls a rainbow flag and dances down Fifth Avenue on Gay Pride day.

Decades before, brave queer folks—as they were dubbed then—had to angrily fight back to stop the violence directed at them, often chanting “We’re here. We’re Queer. Get used to it.” That anger helped open the door to today.

Pride celebrations commemorating the full spectrum of the human family—LGBTs and the friends and families who support them—are now de-riguer in global cities. And marriage equality is now legal in much of the Western world and Latin America.

Yet in many parts sub-Saharan Africa, we’ve got a ways to go. But we are making slow progress.

It’s been longer than a decade since I’ve attended the Big Apple’s Pride events, as I’m often in Ghana for the American summer.

But from my flat in Accra, I beam when I see my fellow Nigerians proudly marching in New York, a bold act of defiance that could lead to long term imprisonment and entrapment back home and, indeed, in much of Africa.

Despite having the cradle of humanity on the African continent, we remain behind most of the world in embracing our LGBT families. Homophobia forces many LGBTs in Africa to flee and build up other societies where they are left alone and finally appreciated.

Many of our leaders gin up antigay sentiments for political gain, after all when electricity, pipe-borne water, and sound healthcare are tough to provide—one can simply demonize gays to distract.

It is routine. And sometimes borders on the absurd. As Kingsford Sumana Bagbin, the deputy speaker of the Ghanaian parliament did when he recently claimed homosexuality is worse than an atomic bomb.

Even though gays have been the fabric of society in Ghana for eons, political leaders and their religious counterparts would like you to think they were an anomaly or just pure evil.

Nonetheless, in the face of such onslaught, in many parts of Africa, the mentality of “retreat and be quiet” to save LGBT lives is finally becoming a thing of the past.

In South Africa, they may have laws protecting all—and legalizing same-sex marriage—citizens but still some want to silence anything perceived as gay. Earlier this year when the acclaimed South African film Inxeba (The Wound) was released, local censors fought to keep it out of movie theaters. The film tackles Xhosa manhood rites and is a tender love story that depicts wonderfully complex African men on screen.

It was controversial because it displays homosexual love in a heterosexual, hyper-masculine rural mountainside setting. I beamed with pride when this film—shortlisted for an Academy Award, and the first South African film to stream on Netflix—was allowed back in regular theaters, after the courts sided with the filmmakers’ legal challenge.

In Nigeria, I’m also often beaming with pride knowing that even with the relentless attacks and assaults on writers, poets and others who dare speak and write their truth, the works keep coming to critical acclaim.

These brutal attacks have spawned new voices, homegrown operators demanding representation in culture and politics with zero tolerance for homophobia. They’re fighting back daily and staying visible; some have even formalized their struggle through the very public #HowIResist campaign, which chronicles their struggles for survival on social media.

We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.

In Kenya, gays are resisting government humiliation and marginalization by challenging their continued victimization in court even though the president, Uhuru Kenyatta, continues to claim to the world that their rights are a nonissue.

“I will not engage in a subject of ‘no’ … it is not of any major importance to the people and the Republic of Kenya. This is not an issue, as you would want to put it, of human rights, “ he told CNN’s Christianne Amanpour in April.

But his LGBT constituents are staying visible and not cowering. And, they are winning court challenges against humiliating injustices—most horrifically, Kenya’s anachronistic “anal exams.” Most of these activists are homegrown, but some like Nguru Karugu are folks who lived abroad and returned to do the work they were doing in America for the homeland.

He’s now a director with Public Health Innovations, and engaged with marginalized communities. “The Kenyan LGBT movement has continued to exert itself … groups have gone to court to challenge these laws on their own determination to secure their rights.”

So their first step? End those brutal anal exams. Next step, end criminalization of their relationships, which are currently punishable by 14-year jail term.

I’m beaming.

And when the Kenyan Film Board, bans Rafiki (Friend) a Kenyan love story between two women from playing in movie theaters because they say it has a “clear intent to promote lesbianism” it is sad. But then the film goes on to become the first Kenyan film invited to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

I’m beaming with pride, knowing that Kenyans and Africans all over will ultimately see this film, regardless of censorship.

We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.

In Kenya, gays are resisting government humiliation and marginalization by challenging their continued victimization in court even though the president, Uhuru Kenyatta, continues to claim to the world that their rights are a nonissue.

“I will not engage in a subject of ‘no’ … it is not of any major importance to the people and the Republic of Kenya. This is not an issue, as you would want to put it, of human rights, “ he told CNN’s Christianne Amanpour in April.

But his LGBT constituents are staying visible and not cowering. And, they are winning court challenges against humiliating injustices—most horrifically, Kenya’s anachronistic “anal exams.” Most of these activists are homegrown, but some like Nguru Karugu are folks who lived abroad and returned to do the work they were doing in America for the homeland.

He’s now a director with Public Health Innovations, and engaged with marginalized communities. “The Kenyan LGBT movement has continued to exert itself … groups have gone to court to challenge these laws on their own determination to secure their rights.”

So their first step? End those brutal anal exams. Next step, end criminalization of their relationships, which are currently punishable by 14-year jail term.

I’m beaming.

And when the Kenyan Film Board, bans Rafiki (Friend) a Kenyan love story between two women from playing in movie theaters because they say it has a “clear intent to promote lesbianism” it is sad. But then the film goes on to become the first Kenyan film invited to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

I’m beaming with pride, knowing that Kenyans and Africans all over will ultimately see this film, regardless of censorship.

We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.

In Kenya, gays are resisting government humiliation and marginalization by challenging their continued victimization in court even though the president, Uhuru Kenyatta, continues to claim to the world that their rights are a nonissue.

“I will not engage in a subject of ‘no’ … it is not of any major importance to the people and the Republic of Kenya. This is not an issue, as you would want to put it, of human rights, “ he told CNN’s Christianne Amanpour in April.

But his LGBT constituents are staying visible and not cowering. And, they are winning court challenges against humiliating injustices—most horrifically, Kenya’s anachronistic “anal exams.” Most of these activists are homegrown, but some like Nguru Karugu are folks who lived abroad and returned to do the work they were doing in America for the homeland.

He’s now a director with Public Health Innovations, and engaged with marginalized communities. “The Kenyan LGBT movement has continued to exert itself … groups have gone to court to challenge these laws on their own determination to secure their rights.”

So their first step? End those brutal anal exams. Next step, end criminalization of their relationships, which are currently punishable by 14-year jail term.

I’m beaming.

And when the Kenyan Film Board, bans Rafiki (Friend) a Kenyan love story between two women from playing in movie theaters because they say it has a “clear intent to promote lesbianism” it is sad. But then the film goes on to become the first Kenyan film invited to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

I’m beaming with pride, knowing that Kenyans and Africans all over will ultimately see this film, regardless of censorship.

In Uganda, home of the botched “Kill the Gays” bill, pride commemorations—albeit small ones—are already happening; though each year like clockwork, the government clamps down on LGBT cultural events (or really any cultural event they deem has a gay component). But year in year out, the events keep happening and more and people take their first public baby steps.

In Tanzania, the brutal onslaught by the government continues as they bully prominent activist—even as it impacts their own society’s health needs, particularly around HIV/AIDS.

Over in the tiny southern nation of eSwatini (Swaziland), where the absolute monarch has been known to deride gays, the LGBT citizens are beginning to come out of hiding and are planning a Pride commemoration to coincide with New York.

Will we, in Sub-Saharan Africa, have our pride moment? I’d say despite all it all, we are already having it. Marches may come and go, but we keep moving forward. And I beam with pride at every small step.

This story is part of our series on Global Pride. To read more please click here.

TIME TO MARRY? OR NOT?

By  CHIKE FRANKIE EDOZIEN

 

 

 

Growing up in Lagos, I don’t remember our contemporary leaders ever conceding that perhaps they just might have got something wrong. Often our leaders prefer to focus on what they feel are their positive contributions to Africa’s largest economy.

So when Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria’s most recent ex-president showed up in London in June 2016 to defend his governance record to the international community, I only expected a spirited defense of his stewardship of the country.

And of course more bluster from his surrogates. After all, his successor, Muhammadu Buhari accused Jonathan and his team of leaving behind an empty treasury.

As I watched Jonathan go on about how that was not possible at a roundtable organized by Bloomberg News, I started to reminisce about how I found my métier. Story telling.

It seemed like just yesterday I was crouched on floor of the old English colonial in Ikoyi, reading a stack of newspapers. I devoured them every time Dad returned from work carrying the bunch. The newsprint had a stale smell that I couldn’t get enough of.

In truth it was four decades ago that I was asking mum what those words in the Daily Times meant. I knew big words before my classmates knew the complete alphabet. So naturally I wanted to write stories. I wanted to be a journalist.

Like many Nigerians I abruptly found out telling stories could be fatal when I was sixteen. Dele Giwa, a writer for Newswatch, had a letter bomb sent to him at home. My folks talked about it for days and fear gripped the city. It was 1986.

Few years later, I left that increasingly politically charged climate and gallivanted abroad, holding on to my love of storytelling, particularly the African ones. As the years passed my frequent visits to Lagos provided occasions for me to write about us. But, as I was no longer a young man I would steel myself for the inevitable question.

“When are you getting married?”

I didn’t always know how to answer truthfully. Do I open up a can of worms with strangers and say ‘I’ll get married when marriage equality is the law of the federation?’ Or do I continue with my boilerplate response; ‘when I find the right one I’ll let you know.’

One of my Nigerian pals, Dike, is over 40 and gay. He now lives in London and it’s unlikely he will ever move home for good. But on his last visit to his hometown, Owerri, he told me how an aunt worried so much that he hasn’t brought home a bride. He thought he’d escaped the dreaded question until he went over to give her money before departing and she fell on her knees wailing.

“Please, please find a wife. Please I am begging you in the name of God, please.”

Dike replied: “Please Aunty, get up. I have heard you. I will see what I can do.”

Suddenly hopeful she says: “Oh, are you looking for one over there in England?

“Ah, ah Aunty, does it matter where she comes from?” Dike said.

“That’s true but it is better if she hails from these parts,” she replied.

“But aunty at my age, I don’t think I want to get married any more.”

“Eh?!” she screamed;

“Don’t say that oh. There is a 70-year-old man in the next kindred, who is looking for a young wife. You are a man. You can even marry at 70. I have been praying for you. I prayed for you this morning that a good woman will come your way, In Jesus Name.”

I feel Dike’s pain.

Recently a friend from secondary school called me up to ask I that donate to a fund to refurbish the school’s kitchen. He expected a substantial donation and said: ‘you are not married and you have no kids.”

His reasoning was I ought to have more to give since I’m only responsible for myself. I was flabbergasted since my friend knew of my long-term relationship and I had to gently remind him that my male partner of close to a decade is my family. And no, I may not be conventionally married, but I’m not single.

Sometime ago I decided to try and tell the story of folks who are either burdened by the weight of the dreaded question or work around it by jumping into unhappy matrimony. I began researching in Accra, Ghana. I found, men who were so in love with each other but then married women because it was what was expected. I found women who were routinely dating other women who were married to men.

Was this clandestine living the best they could hope for?

“This is Africa. Why are you asking questions you know the answers to,” one told me. I moved on to Lagos, where I wanted to get answers to the same questions.

But earlier that year, January 2014 to be precise, the president, (Goodluck Jonathan) had signed into law a bill criminalizing gays, adding even public displays of affection.

Clearly it was an Election Year gambit that while popular, yielded few votes for him. He lost by a landslide. But his actions opened the floodgate to beatings and harassment by police and unscrupulous citizens. Just the suspicion alone could land one in trouble. And who wants to risk a 14-year-jail term?

So even though I’d had high hopes for good reporting, my writing was stalled by the paranoia in Lagos and the sheer refusal of folks to speak on the record, or even off sometimes. Those who did were so afraid, it seemed that shadows freaked them. I could barely hear their whispers.

Still I found men and women in love or looking for love despite the cultural anchor on their necks. Jonathan’s action spurred open homophobia and shaming in spaces that ought to have been safe. Violence spiked and it was easier to be scornful and derisive of sexual minorities in polite company. All of this in a country that often condones pre-pubescent brides marrying elderly men.

No Nigerian space was truly safe.

In 2015 my sister had a milestone birthday party and all my brothers and a trove of cousins gathered to celebrate. My cousin Henry was there with his wife. I’d never met her but knew of her. I eagerly asked him introduce me.

“I’ve heard about you, she said. I smiled big and said ‘Good things I hope.’

But all that came my way was a small, tight, cold, smile that ended at her lips: ‘Not really.’

Then she laid into me.

“Where is your family?”

“Where is your wife?!”

“Where are your children?!”

It was aggressive. Menacing even.

In full view of my siblings and even my mother, she tried to shame me. I was dealing with an angry emboldened homophobe. (Thanks to Goodluck Jonathan, women of her ilk feel no compunction to go on the attack in public and I wish I could say it was an isolated incident but others have told me similar tales) So I smiled and said my partner was at home. ‘He couldn’t make it.’ And I left her company.

So I was truly caught off-guard when Jonathan, in the middle of his defending his government from corruption allegations and bilking the Nigerian treasury he told Bloomberg that the anti-gay bill he signed into law may have to be revisited.

“When it comes to equality, we must all have the same rights as Nigerian citizens,” Jonathan said at a forum at Bloomberg’s European headquarters. “In the light of deepening debates for all Nigerians and other citizens of the world to be treated equally and without discrimination, and with the clear knowledge that the issue of sexual orientation is still evolving, the nation may at the appropriate time revisit the law,” Jonathan said.

That only took thirty months. But from 2015 to 2016 he may have evolved but being out of office he’s not in a position to stop carnage.

Days after his pronouncement there was a grisly massacre of 49 gay people by a deranged gunman in Orlando Florida. Jonathan, who as president ignored his gay constituents, sent out a condolence message to the grieving families via twitter.

I condole with the victims and I pray that Almighty gives us the wisdom to deal with terror whether in #Florida or in any part of the world – Goodluck E. Jonathan (@GEJonathan)

But even that message also prompted controversy from the Nigerian ‘twitteratti.’

Jonathan cannot undo the damage caused by that law, but stories from those affected matter, and could change the reflexively antagonistic environment in Nigeria. Every Nigerian story will be told. And I have to do my part to tell our collective story. And that includes those who some want to shame and shunt aside.

I can start by answering the marriage question honestly. When will I get married? Maybe when we have marriage equality in our federation. Or maybe just when Scott, my partner wants to.

To read more, click here