By Becky Zelikson
"You can't leave politics out of it. Being a lesbian, being a woman, is politics"
Funeka Soldaat is a South African lesbian activist. In 1995, she survived a group rape by four armed men who attacked her for being a lesbian, in a misguided attempt to “correct” her orientation. "The rape shook my world," she said. "I nearly died in all those incidents. But it would be wrong to die in silence. I would rather die with people knowing [why]." Now Soldaat works to raise awareness about homophobia as well as prevent secondary victimization by police. While Soldaat is undoubtedly an extraordinary champion for lesbian women’s rights, her experiences of violence are unfortunately quite commonplace in South Africa, as well as Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, and Zimbabwe, among others.
Current legal conditions for LGBT in Africa and recent developments
The life-threatening challenges LGBT people face are not just a result of homophobic individuals committing attacks against them. Rather, in many African countries, homophobia is state-sanctioned. Consensual same-sex conduct is illegal in 32 of the 54 African UN member states. 25 of these countries specifically apply this prohibition to individuals of any gender, meaning that lesbian conduct is as illegal as male gay conduct. Moreover, in Mauritania, Northern Nigeria, Southern Somalia, and Sudan, a person found to be engaging in homosexual conduct can be sentenced to death.
However, there are beacons of progress on the continent, with South Africa at the lead of legal protections for LGBT people. South Africa protects LGBT people from discriminatory employment policies, and incitement to hatred or violence against LGBT people is criminalized as a hate crime. South Africa also stands as the only UN member state in Africa to recognize same-sex marriage and allows same-sex couples to adopt children.
In addition to South Africa, Mozambique and Angola have also taken small steps to advance LGBT people’s human rights. In 2015, Mozambique shed its colonial-era “vices against nature” law which condemned homosexuality, in a move that was welcomed but criticized as merely symbolic by the country’s LGBT advocacy group, Lambda. The group called on the government to officially recognize their organization and support their efforts to provide legal and health assistance to LGBT people. In January 2019, Angola followed suit and eliminated its own “vices against nature” provision. Not only that, but Angola also criminalized hate crimes against LGBT people and put employment protections in place.
In addition to legal reforms promoted by grassroots movements and implemented by individual governments, the UN Human Rights Council adopted its first resolution on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity in 2011. The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights adopted a historic declaration condemning violence and discrimination against LGBT people in 2013.
Struggles of LGBT women in Africa
It is not entirely clear how these legal advancements and human rights declarations are affecting LGBT individuals living across the African continent. For instance, in South Africa, despite the progressive legislation, there are high rates of rape and homophobic crime, perpetrated disproportionately against lesbians of colour in poorer townships. This demonstrates that robust legislation does not necessarily translate to societal acceptance.
In part, data collection on such abuses is lacking. With the lack of statistical data, information about discrimination and violence against LGBT people is dispersed through news stories, such the reports of extortion of LGBT people through dating apps in Nigeria or the incident of lesbians chained and raped by families in Cameroon.
At UN-sponsored discussions on the post-2015 development agenda, this issue was brought forth by human rights lawyer Hina Jilani, who called on the UN to collect data on LGBT human rights violations and proclaimed: “We as women know the distress of living these taboos. I, therefore, ask not just women but also the human race to understand what it means to be excluded from the protection of dignity and human rights.”
LGBT women easily fall through the cracks of health systems that promote health with a narrow heteronormative focus-- or even with a half-baked inclusive focus. For example, HIV prevention and treatment programmes have for years acknowledged and focused on Men who Have Sex With Men (MSM) as a “high-risk” beneficiary group. However, transgender women have largely been neglected, as is reflected by the fact that transgender women are 49 times more likely to be infected with HIV than other adults of reproductive age.
Transgender women in Africa also have varied access to legal gender-alignment procedures. In South Africa, where legally changing your gender descriptor is possible, transgender women still have to interact with doctors who are poorly trained on gender-identity issues and who are noticeably uncomfortable treating them.
Lesbian and bisexual cisgender women also face unique health challenges. In Southern Africa, about one-third of LB women report being forced to have sex at least once in their lives. In addition to the risk of forced sex leading to an STI, these incidents have been shown to carry long-term repercussions for women, including higher rates of drug abuse and mental distress, as well as a lower sense of belonging.
Inaccessible health services result in LGBT people having worse physical and mental health outcomes than their heterosexual cisgender peers, partially because they often avoid seeking medical help for fear of discrimination. As the right to health is an international human right, societies have an obligation to repair this gap in health provision.
LGBT people, and especially youth, often experience social isolation in their homes and schools, which has been shown to lead to higher rates of mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicidal ideation in LGBT youth compared to their heterosexual peers.
When school bullying is violent and excessive, LGBT youth often find themselves having to stay home from school for fear of their safety.
Why should women’s organizations care about LGBT?
Given the social isolation that LGBT people, and particularly LGBT women, can experience, it is essential that women’s organizations reach out and include queer women in their organizations and provide support and a safe space for them.
Lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women are at the intersection of both misogynistic and homophobic oppression, which often means experiencing physical and emotional violence for being a woman as well as for being LGBT. These forms of oppression are inseparable, as LGBT women cannot separate their multiple intersecting identities from each other. As a result, women with multiple disadvantaged identities do not experience these disadvantages in separable, additive ways but in overlapping and multiplicative ways. Women’s organizations should step forward and protect this particularly vulnerable segment of our societies as their own.
The inclusion of LGBT women should not be seen as an act of charity. Cisgender and heterosexual women stand to benefit from fighting homophobia as well. For instance, many violent attacks on LGBT women are based primarily on these women’s physical appearance such as “looking like a lesbian”. The attackers may not know or seek confirmation that the woman they are attacking is indeed a lesbian. Rather, they simply rely on narrow definitions of proper femininity to determine whether a woman walking on the street "needs correction”.
This oppression of gender expression affects all women who may wish to dress or wear their hair in more traditionally masculine ways but refrain from doing so in order to feel safe in public spaces. This should not be accepted as the status quo. Collaboration with LGBT women can help shed light on areas of oppression that require strong opposition from women’s movements.
Historically in the U.S, Canada, and elsewhere, LGBT women have been fierce proponents of rights for all women and all vulnerable people. African women’s organizations could boost their work by including LGBT women as active members who can help them promote their causes.
Finally, inclusion and progress can’t happen without all of us. Making every woman count includes lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women, without them having to erase those aspects of their identities -- for their mental health and for the benefit of women’s causes.