Highlights African LGBTI conference
There is a strong religious and spiritual experience among African LGBTI persons. While in practice integration is not always smooth, same-sex sexuality and religion/spirituality are not mutually exclusive. The importance of collaborating with religious- and faith-based leaders, and traditional healers to improve the lives of LGBTI persons was emphasized.
Over 85 people participated in Pretoria, South Africa, coming from all over the African continent, including countries such as Burundi, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Togo, Uganda and Zimbabwe. The late David Kato, brutally murdered in Uganda, was scheduled to speak and was deeply missed during the conference.
A need was expressed for African persons with same-sex sexual desire and gender variant experiences to not automatically adopt Western labels, models and strategies. Historical, cultural, economical, and political conditions require a liberation paradigm that is contextualized and resonates with African life.
There is a strong need for the acknowledgement for the diversity of same-sex sexual desires and practices as well as gender variance, and the interaction between both. While unity and solidarity are crucial to promoting change, too much would be lost if it results in singular prescribed ways of being LGBTI.
For the first time a series of portraits of 10 African transgender activists was exhibited on African soil. The exhibition, “Proudly African and Transgender,” is a collaboration of the artist Gabrielle Le Roux and several transgendered persons. Intended to create more understanding and awareness, the portraits tell moving stories of pain but also show strength and pride in the face of adversity and oppression.
It was the first time that research was presented at a conference about sex between men from Guinea Bissau and about the lives of lesbian women in Ethiopia. The study from Guinea Bissau showed that many MSM (men who have sex with men) engage in sex with men and women as well as in transactional sex, increasing the chances of HIV transmission. The presentation from Ethiopia among lesbian women illustrated the challenges they experience from fundamentalist religious beliefs and repressive laws, but also their fluidity, their sense of strength and pride.
Most presentations highlighted the plight of HIV and AIDS among gay men and other men who have sex with men (MSM). The criminalization of same-sex sexuality in many African countries as well as the social climate of prejudice and stigma and its negative consequences that promote the spread of HIV was discussed. They result in ignorance about HIV among MSM, the unavailability of condoms and water-based lubricants, not getting tested for HIV, and avoidance of health care because health care workers usually reject the men’s same-sex behaviors. Several initiatives have been implemented that do reach out to MSM, but these initiatives are not enough to reach all diverse groups of MSM that are out there. Educating and training health care workers to deliver unbiased services is urgently needed as well as a value change in the health care system, to avoid negative health consequences for MSM. It was acknowledged that attention for health issues among lesbian and bisexual women as well as transgendered and intersexed persons, should receive more attention.
Conference participants heard stories about blackmail and extortion of LGBTI persons from Ghana, Malawi, and Nigeria. The illegality and the lack of social acceptance of same-sex sexuality make LGBTI persons particularly vulnerable to these crimes. Victims rarely know that extortion actually is a crime and for a variety of reasons they never report their experiences to the police. There is fear of not being believed or of aggravating the situation. Strategies were discussed to educate the LGBTI community about blackmail.
Furthermore, a tendency of conflating issues related to gender variance with homosexuality was observed, as if it is all one and the same thing. While the importance of solidarity and collaboration among LGBTI persons was stressed, it is crucial to acknowledge the existence of transgendered and intersexed persons as well as the diversity of gender expression within lesbian, gay and bisexual, and heterosexual persons.
In South Africa, it was noticed that despite all legal changes promoting LGB equality, there are still issues to be addressed, such as the unequal age of consent regarding heterosexual and homosexual interactions. More importantly, there is a huge gap between what has been accomplished legally and the social situation. While the law hardly discriminates based on sexual orientation, socially same-sex sexuality is only marginally accepted.