9 LGBTQI+ Africans from across the continent tell us about their lives in 2020
We went looking for people who could tell us about LGBTQI+ life across Africa in 2020. What we found were a wide array of stories from a crusading gay publication in Liberia, out and proud celebrities in Nigeria and South Africa, representation in Kenyan films and TV, an outspoken Rwandan public health advocate, a defiant Botswanan trans leader, a radical queer Nigerian fashion mag, budding pride marches and queer brunch. The multiplicity of stories that our interviewees told about their lives felt a world away from the single story of trauma and pain found in so many past depictions of LGBTQI+ life in Africa.
Of course, the rosy picture is not, in itself, accurate either. In 2020, 34 out of 54 African countries still have legislation that make it illegal to be in or associate with LGBTQI+ communities. While these laws put a chill on queer expression across the continent—criminalizing the very essence of what it means to be a free individual—LGBTQI+ communities are surviving and often thriving across the African continent. As each generation moves closer to living authentically with the freedom to be who they are, there will be many more stories to tell.
As an African myself, I thought I had an idea of the circumstances that LGBTQI+ Africans often find themselves in. This project both confirmed and challenged my preconceived notions. Africans are headstrong, passionate, warm, welcoming. But, on the other side of the coin lies strongly held prejudices, deeply ingrained beliefs and sadly, far too much violence. This project highlights all of the above and more.
Queer Africans deserve to be listened to. Their stories are African stories. Their voices are African voices. The LGBTQI+ experience is an important part of the African experience—something we hope to share with OkayAfrica readers.
If you have a story to tell about LGBTQI+ life in Africa, please fill out this form and we’ll contact you for a potential interview.
Some names have been changed. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Click to read their story:
(Photo: Nichole Sobecki)
“The reality of being queer is real. It is not a foreign thing. It is as Kenyan, as African as it may be, and it is ours. I remember I did an interview anonymously for the BBC back in 2006. And I told them, maybe within 50 years, I will see movement, it has happened so much faster. And not just in Kenya, but I’ve seen very many countries across Africa. And I am so, so happy that that is happening.”
I was a church boy for a good part of my life. So, I was sometimes whore by night, Christian by day, if I can put it like that.
I had just come back from the UK where I did my masters and I knew I was not going to go back into the closet. I went to therapy and after going for over a year, I just got to accept myself for who I am. And I realized that I’m okay and I didn’t want to come back and go back into the closet. I figure that closet stays in the U.K.
I was trying to find my space and a friend invited me to a group meeting. It was people talking about formalizing a movement or a way of coming together and it was fascinating. It just blew my mind. There were these people in the room and I’m like, “Fuck, these are all Kenyans.” These are all Kenyans and I knew that I’d be fine.
And, along the way, being a journalist, I made sure that I would use the platform that I have to make sure that LGBTQI+ people are well represented. So I used to cover those stories shamelessly. People in the office wondered, ‘Why is Kevin always doing the queer stories that no one wanted to touch?” I really didn’t care. I figured I’m going to represent my people in the best way that I can.
But, Kenya is a lot more open now. It’s amazing. I mean, it’s fantastic to actually think that you can live a reasonable level of queerness here. Younger people are coming out, because it is possible. There are a lot more resources. There’s a lot more support from what we had. There’s a lot more, in some cases, visibility. There’s community, there’s a movement. There’s, to some degree, health services. The internet has helped. There’s visibility on TV and online.
But, we’re not even out of the woods – far from it. But, there is light we’re seeing. We’ve seen trans women being attacked, we’ve seen people being attacked in clubs. People being kicked out of their homes by landlords, there is still that. We’ve seen pushback in the arts. There was a movie called Rafiki which featured a lesbian couple – that got banned. And then we had Stories of Our Lives and that also got banned. I’m like, ‘You motherfuckers!’ They’re silencing voices of not just queer people, but of talented Kenyans who want to see themselves represented in content created by Kenyans for Kenyans.
In 2011, there was a clinic in a town an hour away from me in a town called Mtwapa. Like a ‘sexual productive’ clinic that was targeting men who have sex with men, sex workers, etc. And they were very open about that. And then the community turned on them. Last year, I met one of the people who was at the forefront of this attack and they’ve made a total turnaround saying, “We acted on ignorance, these people are also a part of the community.” These were Christian and Muslim faith leaders. And these same individuals are now engaging with other religious leaders to try and to ask them to be more accepting of the community so there is that. So for me, it’s important that we recognize the good work that’s been done, but also recognizing that we are far from out of the woods.
A key driver for me with my activism is to make sure that no one ever has to go through that feeling of loneliness as a queer person. No one has the right to go through that. No one. And I feel really sad when I hear of both the young and old killing themselves because of their sexuality. That shit should not be happening. That shit should not be happening anywhere in the world and should not be happening in Africa. I hope to work a lot more with young queer people, queer Africans, because I really want to show them and that it is possible to be black, African, and queer or just African.
Kevin has recently been accepted into Amnesty International Kenya as their first openly gay board member. He has gone on to publish Invisible: Stories from Kenya’s Queer Community, a collection of stories from Kenya’s queer community, spoken at TEDx Programs and launced his own podcast Nipe Story (Tell me a Story).
Wonder Woman*, student [Nigeria]
“Being terrified came after the then president, Goodluck Jonathan, signed a law that said you can go to prison for 14 years if you’re gay. And I thought to myself that this is a bad thing. They were saying “Who you love is a crime.” I knew that it wasn’t really accepted, but it wasn’t a part of my life at that point. Even though I knew from a distance who I was. The same way you know the sun rises, even when you don’t see it – you just know that it’s there.”
I’m not really involved in the community personally. My parents are super religious.
I’m terrified of being caught I guess. Well, ‘caught’ isn’t correct because I don’t think I’m doing anything bad, but it’s just that I’m terrified. I’m out to a few people. People I trust, but not enough to go places with, just talk on the phone and chat.
Social media is where I feel the most ‘free’. I think I found a community there, so I’m active on Twitter. I check it every morning and every evening and sometimes in the afternoon. I’m kind of obsessed.
It’s because there’s no judgment there. Everybody’s just as weird. It doesn’t feel like I stand out. I’m a part of something and safe in that space.
Nigerians don’t like people to stand out. Like the celebrity Bobrisky. If you look at her comments on Instagram or just scroll through her Snapchat or just type her name into Google, it’s a great example of how Nigerian people view people that are different from them. On one hand, they are attracted to her and her way of life and being, but they’re also disgusted by her.
I think a lot of the portrayal of LGBTQI+ people focuses on their trauma. Like, “Oh my God, being gay, lesbian, bisexual, every word that’s inside, comes with so much pain and suffering and you’ll never find love and there’s nobody to hold your hand and you’re always alone.” I feel like those portrayals send a message of a lifetime of disappointments – because that’s how I felt. When you feel these things constantly, everybody constantly telling you there’s no joy, there’s no happiness and to just give up now. But if we turn our focus away from the sadness and look at the joy, the community, the people that you surround yourself with, that’s where I see love.
It’s been like this for a while. I don’t think in general it has changed because queer people are still being killed every day, but I think a lot more younger people, younger than me, feel more comfortable being themselves. The younger generation feel more open being themselves because the internet has made it a global village sort of.
I wish I were hopeful about where Nigeria is going, but I don’t think that’s wise.
I want things to change, but wanting and having are two very different things.
Marc Lottering, comedian, actor [South Africa]
(Photo: Via ERM Stars)
“When people know you, they respond to you very differently when they meet you. And so your journey and existence is very different from the journey of a person who they would not know, of somebody who is not famous. So it’s been great for me. And particularly because I’m a comedian, most of the time people’s faces light up when they see you. And even if they’re going through a horrible time, they see you, and a lot of people just want to tell a joke. They just want to smile, even if it’s for a minute or so.”
And that has framed my existence, and it’s framed my life as a result, as a gay South African as well. Because I’m in the entertainment industry, I’ve always been surrounded by friendly gay people. And that just changes everything for you. It almost makes life a bit easier. Not that you ever think about it.
But then you do open the newspaper, and you turn on the news, and suddenly there’s a report of a gay woman having been stabbed to death simply because she said, “I’m a lesbian.” And that’s just 30 minutes away from where I stay. So then you go, “Wow. This is happening now in our country.”
But, because of who I’ve always been, and who I’ve surrounded myself with, you almost forget what the harsh reality is for other gay people in South Africa, and the rest of Africa as well. Being well known makes your journey different.
I do remember being in the closet in my teens and my early 20s. I was even engaged to be married to a woman because I grew up in a church. But I think every gay person has that kind of story to tell, especially my generation, where you felt you needed to conform.
The interesting thing is, when I started my comedy at 30, and I first walked out on stage, I was with my partner. In fact, I think that was our first year together. I met him through a gay ad in a newspaper. There was a gay organization you could go to, and you could meet other gay people, and you could say, “I want to meet someone intelligent.” etc.
That kind of advertising was happening in South Africa 22 years ago already and nobody went to jail.
I wasn’t out yet, but, I didn’t consider myself to be in the closet either, because everybody engages with you like you’re a gay person. But, I didn’t go and stand behind a microphone, with a rainbow flag behind me, and a pink feather boa.
But, at some point, I decided that I was just going to be.
One of the directors I was working with wanted me to ‘come” out in the show – just casually. And my manager fought it saying, “That’s going to be a bad move because most of your audience is heterosexual. It’s going to change everything.”
But, I did it. And when I did make a reference in the show as to me being gay, it was almost like a moment of boredom from the audience, because they were like, “We know. Are you really thinking about announcing this? We know you’re gay. You dress well, you smell great. Obviously you are not straight.”
And Nelson Mandela had just come out. The constitution was being written, and Madiba was all about gay rights. He didn’t even make a thing about it. So, suddenly, the government didn’t make a thing about it. And it’s like, “Oh, no, of course, it’s got to be in our constitution.” And just like that, it happened. And there it was, “Gay Rights”. And then in 2006, which I Googled before I spoke to you, we were allowed to get married as gay people.
There’s still a lot of work to be done though. And essentially, it’s in the mindsets of people. It’s about what’s going on in your family home. We’re still struggling with gender based violence. It’s the same story. That goes back to what kind of conversations are being had at home and in public. I think if that doesn’t change, we will always have these problems. Not only in our country, but in the rest of the world as well.
But I still feel protected in the sense that I know, if someone is going to want to smash my face in because I’m gay, I know that there’s a legal route to follow. I know that I’m going to be protected. I know for a fact that there will be an outcry.
As much as there are people who hate gay people, there are many people in our country who go, “This is the constitution. And these are human rights.” So I do know that there are people who will fight for me. And that makes me feel okay about existing as a gay man in this country.
And that’s what I would like people to remember. If you are gay, but you feel that you’re in an environment where you can’t express that, where you know there’s going to be more than just resentment, find the one or two people who you know love you for who you are. Regardless of all the gay bashing that will come your way, you must never lose sight of the fact that there are people who love you. Gay people kill themselves because there’s the inner thoughts, “If I can’t be myself, then I can’t be alive, and everybody hates me.” Find the people who love you, know who they are, and you’re not carrying this alone. Even if you’ve got to reach out to people who you’ve never met, you don’t have to sink into a dark hole by yourself.
Njeri Gateru, Lawyer, LGBTQI+ activist [Kenya]
(Photo courtesy of Njeri)
“I work for an organization called the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. Basically, our work is to use the law to create the possibility of equality, to create access for queer people in Kenya to redress violations that have occurred, based on people’s sexuality and based on their gender identity or expression. We’re trying to create a space that allows or that imagines or that affirms the ability of queer people to be happy in this country.”
Immediately after university, I started working for an organisation that provided durable solutions for refugees in Kenya. It was just conversations about the things that led to people having to flee their homes. Then imagining that I lived in a country that could probably end up that same way. So we created the commission. I think the thought was to make certain that we put things in place that that would never happen, that no queer person would have to leave their country, would ever have to leave Kenya because Kenya wasn’t safe or because Kenya didn’t have solutions or Kenya didn’t have any intentions for providing them with equal protection and access.
The Kenyan attitude towards queer people depends on who is asking and who’s responding. I think points of difference often have to do with political and religious views. I don’t know, a heteropatriarchal view of family and what that represents.
Ten years ago, we were talking about our members of parliament saying that there’s no gay people in this country, and that the people who are gay have been paid and probably a lot of other ridiculous things. Even within homophobic conversations, it’s so much of “you shouldn’t be allowed to do this or that”, and understanding why there’s this Kenya queerness. There are people who are Kenyan and who are queer, and those people have rights.
I can say with certainty that there’s been such a growth of understanding. It touched on expansion of interaction with queerness generally within the country – positively or negatively. I think conversations now of queerness are more nuanced than what they were 10 years ago.
So it’s very different. I would say, though, that if you looked at it socially, there’s more places, more spaces that are open and welcoming of queer people, that are very intentional about how they treat all of their patrons, including making certain that all kinds of people feel safe within spaces. So you would walk into bars and restaurants and find notices about “We do not discriminate on various grounds, including sexual orientation or gender identity.” That wasn’t present five years ago.
There’s a multiplicity of stories within the public sphere.
So 10, 15 years ago, I think there were only stories of gay people who were dying of HIV or two gay men who got in trouble for doing something in public. There were very negative stories. Now, there’s such a multiplicity of stories. People know that queer people are activists and they’re artists and they’re mothers and there are people who are non-binary and etc, etc. They’re not the single stories anymore. In every story that has been sensationalised or in every three stories, there’s probably one that’s actually quite factual.
When I imagine Nairobi’s intellectual topography, queerness is so embedded in that. It’s so richly intertwined with everything else, with the arts, with the architecture, with shopping, with an avant culture, with people’s expression of dress.
The people who came before us, who were brave and bold and were open about who they were, made it safe for people like me. For younger people who are coming out in their compass years and doing phenomenal work like being loud on social media, taking up action, participating in democratic processes and taking part in civic action.
It’s one of the things that give me pride that when people are protesting in the streets and marching in the streets, queers will march, and we’ll march with flags. This is not a thing that used to happen before. I think that a lot of people have begun to understand what it means to have a conversation about intersectionality. So that queerness is no longer a side conversation or a side topic by itself. It’s in everything. It’s in us discussing county budgets. It’s in us figuring out what the political theme looks like. It’s part of the questions that they ask when they’re trying to appoint magistrates and judges, and there’s that traction that has happened in the last 10 or so years.
But, with every patriarchal society, specifically middle class urban demographics, are so heavily laced with double standards and bias because it’s easy for, especially men, to criticize lesbian love because one, it’s not valid if they’re not included and if they’re not included, then it’s not really a thing.
So they still get to objectify you. And that’s the complete opposite with gay men.
One, they don’t understand how you would willingly disrobe yourself of the privilege of being a heterosexual man. Outside of that, why would you want to stir up the order, the hierarchy, as it were?
That order changes in different spaces. But I think we’ve seen over and over again, that it’s easier for lesbian women, lesbian couples to navigate spaces than it is for gay men. Even in the more accepting spaces that we go to, say, like bars or markets or whatever, where the queers will go and socialize and brunch. It’s very easy to see women showing each other love. They will hold hands. They will kiss, as any other couple. But I think it’s a much more of a sight to see that kind of expression of love between two men. It’s not for nothing. It’s because, as a society, we’ve had to teach gay men that they can only love each other away from our view.
However, I think the growth that we’ve had over the last five years has been much deeper, more intentional. It has been everything that I would have wished for. I’m completely hopeful.
There’s signs that things are definitely changing. Pride month was an interesting month for me to just watch, because for maybe not the first time, I visibly saw people who consider themselves allies of their own volition, do things that they think that allies should be doing. A lot of them are very messy. But, it was interesting for me to see that this is you doing a thing because you think that this is the kind of thing that someone that occupies this space that you do, has to do.
So in terms of growth, yes, there’s growth. It’s far from perfect, completely far from perfect. But it’s the steps that we’re taking. I feel they’re not the kind of steps that we take three steps ahead and four steps back. They’re slow, but they’re certain, and we’re moving somewhere.*some names have been changed
Vincent Desmond, culture editor, Editor-in-chief of A Nasty Boy [Nigeria]
(Photo courtesy of Vincent)
“When you are a part of a marginalized community in a place like Nigeria, either you’re trying to push for your freedom or for freedom of people like you, or you’re satisfied with the oppression. So I kind of fell into it because obviously I wasn’t satisfied being marginalized or being oppressed simply because of who I am and because of where I was born.”
In Nigeria, activism looks like different things. At the moment, a rich part of the activism is based on the internet because it allows us to go around the existing laws that criminalize meeting up and queer people coming together for a common goal. So the internet allows us to go past that. It also allows some of us to be anonymous. It gives us the kind of intangibility whereby we don’t stand a risk of being harmed by the government or non-state actors in varying ways.
I find that a lot of the activism that’s taking place at the moment is being done by younger people, they’re more likely to be out and proud in Nigeria. Which I think is a really good thing because according to the numbers, at least 70% of Nigerians are considered youths. So that makes us very optimistic about what the future could look like or be like for them.
Of course there are people doing a lot of offline work as well, so it depends on who you’re asking. For me, my activism kind of takes the shape of archiving queer people that we see at the moment, how it looks like, and trying to speculate what our future could look like.
Offline tends to be harder because Nigerians are largely homophobic and conservative.
There’s a reason why Nigeria is top three most homophobic countries on almost any list you check right now. Nigerians are very homophobic, but a lot of the research and statistics are showing that attitudes in general are changing. Let’s say in 2017, about 70% of Nigerians would say they would not be accepting to a family member coming out as queer, but country stats from last year at least the number has gone fro 70 to 50, so we see that the attitudes are changing. We are still not moving as fast as we would want it to be, or as much as we would want it to be, but it’s changing.
For me, I feel like on one hand, being out in Nigeria forces me into a box. People automatically label me as queer. That’s all I’m good for. Like, the opportunity that people would give to me is now made ‘political’ and there is the risk of, ‘Are you willing to attach your brand to someone who’s queer and out? How will it be perceived by the more conservative Nigerians?’ It comes with the territory, if you’re out in Nigeria, a lot of brands will not want to attach themself to you. At the same time, there are many business opportunities that I have gotten because of being queer and Nigerian. I’m in a very unique position to write certain stories on African insights, so there are a lot of publications that I’ve written for and I know it’s because of my identity. So in that way, it has helped me.
But, more people are out now. More people are willing to come out now. I didn’t really ‘come out’. I came more forward and I identified myself as a queer person. There were maybe one or two people that I knew that were out and officially out on the internet and online. But at the moment, at least everybody that I follow on social media, is out. It’s almost like a common thread of people who are out and more willing to at least talk about their queerness and their identity online. So that has been a shift. Other than that, honestly, there’s not been as much change as I had hoped there would be. If you actually do know, it’s still there, it’s still a lot to be done in Nigeria. But at least we have these conversations about the world and possibly get accepted.
I believe that ultimately we will get to a place where I think acceptance is common – and we’re not far from there. I genuinely think we will get to that place. I’m not sure when, but I would 100% think that it will happen eventually. I’m just hopeful it’ll happen while I’m still alive.
Leone Kakazi*, Mental Health Advocate [Rwanda]
“Once people in my community came out as different – as gay, as lesbian, as trans – they were shackled. They were kept in little hot, tin houses in the backyards. And sometimes they did go a little crazy because of that treatment that they got. There was also conversion therapy that was done on people. I remember having a panic attack and a nurse gave me CPR and it broke my rib. And I remember thinking, “Hey, this is a panic attack. It’s not asthma, I’m not losing breath.You should be equipped to know what’s happening to me.” And there was severe gaslighting because you knew that you were experiencing something that, you were depressed or you were anxious, or you were sad and they tell you, “Hey, that’s in your head. Don’t be like that. We are Africans, we don’t get those white people diseases.”
Growing up with all those identities being gaslit and being hurt just for being different, it occurred to me that I would… It didn’t occur to me, I literally attempted suicide twice. But, the second time I was like, “Hey, clearly, I’m not doing a good job in dying so I might as well just do something about it.”
So I came home to Rwanda, I found that we have 11 or 12 psychiatrists working in the public sector for a population of 13 million. I found that, despite that, there’s relative support and you’re not going to be killed for being gay, which is what Uganda, the country I was in, did. And so I sought help, I joined an organization called Yanco Rwanda, which is religious-based of course, but supports mental health, does a little peer counseling. And from that, I found my goal and I found my passion and that’s why now I advocate for mental health in a wider context, but some of my deepest, deeply held passions are mental health for minority populations that include LGBTQ and women, black women. I’m very passionate about black women.
For the LGBTQI+ community in Rwanda, it’s the same as elsewhere. People don’t understand, so they demonize. Some people have it worse than others. I will not say it’s like levels of oppression but I would say that people who are lesbians, bisexual women, or are assigned female at birth, do not get the same level of oppression because Rwandan culture is very touchy and they have a really strong sort of homoerotic relationship. So people don’t really catch on until you maybe make a move or explain that that’s what you do or that’s who you are. But for men it’s not the same. And for trans women, it’s worse. They are the worst afflicted worldwide, but not in Rwanda.
They don’t kill them, but they refuse them everything. I was on a bus and they threw her out or kids taunt you as you walk or they call you your dead name, things like that. These things still exist and are a big part of daily life.
The thing is, women are not safe regardless, whether you’re lesbian or trans or straight.
And of course, the reason why we probably get some leeway is because it pleases men to objectify you. “So are you the man or the woman? How does it do, you guys want to threesome?” Things like that. That’s always going to be there. And then when you refuse, then they get violent. So it’s not that you’re safe. It’s just that presenting in public, you can come off much easier. That’s basically it.
I’ve not even come out in my professional career, at all. It’s interesting because the repercussions are not direct. It’s not, “I’m gay and so I’m oppressed.” The thing is people here conflict ‘feminist’ with ‘gay’. So, regardless of whichever one, it’s like, “I’m not going to respond to your advances and harassment”, and so I must be gay.
I’ve said, I don’t want children. And then I got called into the HR’s office, they’re like, “You’re disruptive at work.” Things like that and it’s not directly because of my sexuality but it’s because you don’t conform to what they think a woman should be. You stand out whenever you differ from the norm.
It has hindered my opportunities for growth. In some organisations, I’ve stayed assistant for three years while others get promoted, and that’s because the women just navigate the situations better. Or once they get married, they’re like, “We’re doing this for your husband. We are promoting you.” Or, “You’re getting these parts because you have children and that’s something important to us.” And so it’s like, ‘if you’re not on your back, then you don’t really need money.’
Not much has changed in Rwanda, it’s always been gently oppressive.
You don’t realize it’s happening, because it’s not outward, it’s not like they’re going to attack you or they’re going to arrest you. It’s just that your options are always going to be limited.
As I grow older, I’ve just been realizing how much I can’t grow. It’s like, you are growing, you’re fully embracing yourself, you’re fully embracing what makes you unique. You just realize that, while you think you are living a good life, there are very many avenues blocked for you that you will never fully experience.
I got into my first relationship two years ago and I realized then more than ever, how taboo it was. It’s like, “I will hold your hand, but I can’t kiss you. I will live with you, but I can never marry you. I will never have children with you because no one is going to…” There’s no options for adoption as a gay couple, as soon as we say you are a gay couple, you’ll never get the baby.
And I don’t have much hope for the future because a problem has to be revealed for it to be solved, right? For example, in Uganda, there’s open homophobic ideologies there. And so we know that that’s a problem and we can start tackling that problem, but here in Rwanda it’s, “No, we treat people the same”, and then continue to do these injustices to you and still believe that they’re being righteous. I think the problem here is much more deeply held and rooted than the problem in Uganda, even though the problem in Uganda is more violent and has claimed lives. I don’t know, I think there has to be progress made, but in order for that progress to be made, there has to be open discussion. We don’t have that yet. So we’ll see. I’m a bit pessimistic.
Sibs Matiyela, Broadcaster, Founder of podcast network offtherecord.fm [South Africa]
(Photo courtesy of Sibs)
“I would say that I’m involved in LGBTQI+ advocacy in my home country. I always make a point of being an advocate and representative of queer folx and bodies in most spaces I occupy (depending on how safe I feel) and because I am a broadcaster, advocating for queer rights and constantly challenging heteronormativity on mainstream media and on a national platform, I’d say it’s one form of engaging in activism.”
Professionally, I don’t think being queer has helped or hindered, but rather irritate some and uplift others with my very obvious queer agenda. I’ve been straight passing throughout my life and career so when people see and speak to me they just assume I’m straight. Passing as a cishet at work comes with benefits. You get to see who the problematic people are because they don’t bother to hide their homophobia from you and then you just know who not to interact with or even to report.
You know what’s hindered my professional life? The fact that black women are not paid nearly enough of what they deserve, even now in 2020. Black African women are the most vulnerable in the workforce and we eat the gender pay gap for breakfast, lunch and dinner so in this regard, my sexuality is the least of my problems when it comes to work.
Legally speaking, LGBTQI+ individuals enjoy the same rights as every other cishet person walking the streets of South Africa but I get the feeling that that really annoys the cishets for some reason. There is often a palpable discomfort and disdain when queer people unapologetically take up space. As if we’re supposed to be grateful for having the right to exist but not push it by trying to enjoy the same privileges heterosexuals have like kissing in public, holding hands, dressing how you want to, styling your hair a certain way, walking, talking even breathing. Such acts of being come with consequences. Nasty stares, name calling, spitting, yelling, unwarranted touching, or worse sometimes kidnappings, beatings, rapes, murders.
Or the worst – being rejected by your family on grounds of morality.
So much unpleasantness just for being different. Not always and not everywhere, but often enough.
I think queer people have to very carefully create and curate safe spaces for themselves for a reason. That reason is because on the other side of merely being tolerated in society or worse, being used for entertainment purposes or the appropriation of queer creativity and genius to profit off of but never give credit to or for, is bitter anger, hatred and violence. If as a society South Africans didn’t hate queers, it would be deplorable to treat us so wickedly. Similarly, if it wasn’t culturally “acceptable” here to murder women en-masse, our femicide rates wouldn’t be so high. It all sounds rather grim but once you grow a thickish skin and figure out where it’s safe and comfortable enough for you to just be you, then it’s all back to regular human race stuff.
I think social media has really helped us along, it’s a massive role in making queer identity, queer possibility and queer realization more visible.
Visibility and representation are everything to me.
They enable a celebration of the queer body and experience and that’s SO important. Social media has also connected queer individuals and communities who provide an alternative home, family, network, culture, kinship and just a place of belonging for those without.
People don’t have to be lone wolves or outcasts and be misunderstood or so isolated and alone anymore, and I think this makes it easier to just be yourself.
It’s become incredibly difficult to shame and bully and manipulate someone out of being themselves or convince them that whoever they are is not worthy or enough or acceptable or beautiful or lovable. This is why representation and visibility and all the mediums that promote and priorities this are important to me.
I am hopeful because like any form of injustice I have to have hope that with time and enough work, justice can prevail. Especially with this generation of youths that are so much more comfortable in their skin and sexuality, and less afraid to be visible and be open. Their visibility has the effect of equipping those that may have been in the closet with the courage to “come out” or even just be themself. And that ultimately I think that’s going to allow for a more open, accepting and diverse society in the somewhat near future. And, ultimately, : “To live without Hope is to Cease to live” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Gboko Stewart, journalist and writer at journalRAGE, activist [Liberia]
(Photo courtesy of Gboko)
In some circles at the bottom level of society, LGBTQI+ people are shunned – sometimes violently. Last November, a group of people gathered for an HIV testing party, but it was labelled as a “gay wedding”, and people were beaten and nearly killed. The general attitude towards the community is, at best, not encouraging or accommodating. I’ve heard, read and written about stories of folks being beaten, denied justice, lack of access to healthcare, etc.”
Quite simply, the government needs to do more in protection of sexual minorities – much more needs to be done towards making the society an inclusive, wholesome and functioning one.
Last month, a model said in an interview that “99% of Liberian men are gay”. He’s had to go into hiding for fear of his life when he simply meant homophobic men. It’s a total violation of his right to free speech. No one has stood up for him or anything like that, which is pretty common. I once reached out to a few local celebrities to collaborate with to try and get more exposure or representation for the fighting that LGBTQI+ activists are doing, but they all turned me down. I wasn’t asking them for money or anything more than to make a post or something like that but they assumed that I was looking for ‘clout’ and had bad intentions. People in upper classes don’t tend to help or support at all.
I got involved in writing about LGBTQI+ activism after I did a course in Cape Town, South Africa on writing about minority groups. After returning home, I read a newspaper story bashing and spreading falsehoods against Lesbians in Liberia and I remember being so angry about it and thinking, “How can they just do this?”. At that point, if there were any stories about any gay men or queer people, they were sensationalized and made out to be something so much worse than it was. And then readers believe the stories because they don’t typically engage with queer people. Or atleast, they don’t know who they are. After that article, I spoke with some friends and we created Journal Rage – an online news magazine dedicated to queer stories and telling them the right way.
This has been a huge step and dedication for me. I’m someone who’s very uncomfortable with privilege because of my background. However, I’m glad that it’s been used for the greater good of humanity. In a way it has helped me understand the issues lying beneath and affecting the sexual minority community which isn’t paraded by colleagues in the mainstream media. People in the journalism industry are choosing to ignore these stories and they are willfully homophobic.
Since starting journalRage, I’ve been bombarded with issues on the status of my sexuality by friends and family. However, I believe – and my response to those queries has been – one doesn’t have to be straight or gay to determine that bashing and ill treating sexual minorities are wrong and constitutes human rights violation. I was trained in human rights reporting by Journalists for Human Rights also. It’s like people don’t have conscience at all when they ask you these questions about the intent of focusing your reportage on queer issues.
Honestly, Liberia isn’t becoming better for LGBTQI+ people. Irrational fear, tradition and culture, miseducation or poor education and illiteracy are some of the underpinning factors. Liberians need exposure and education on all matters queer in order for them to truly understand. But, people act like gay people don’t exist here or are being paid to say that they are gay, so the conversations will likely not happen.
Since starting journalRage, I’ve received lot of threats online and sometimes in person. However, I’m not perturbed. I watch my surroundings carefully and try not to venture in places I don’t feel comfortable. I’m hopeful for the younger generations as they have shown time and time again that they are unafraid and willing to fight the fight. I just don’t see any major changes happening in my lifetime.
Katlego K Kolanyane-Kesupile, ARTivist, Development Practitioner and Cultural Architect [Botswana]
(Photo via Neo J Mokgosi)
“If you don’t know what or who you’re trying to become then you won’t realize when you’ve lost yourself. And that’s when my activism moved from being predominantly an art to then being brought into human rights spaces through entities like The World Economic Forum, where I am a global shaper. And as the only queer identifying Global Shaper in Botswana at the time, and then being asked to go and sit in high level meetings, I said, “Well, I’m not going to not be myself.” My colleagues will not deny the fact that I will cut a bitch, if you try to say anything. But, they won’t stop me from cutting you because they know I will cut you in a way that educates you but also puts you in your place. You’ll never try it with anybody else again.”
By the time I moved to Botswana, Kofi Annan had already told me that he felt I could be the UN Secretary General when I choose to be. So I was like, “Okay cool, I’ve got the endorsement of the former UN Secretary General and my dreams are valid. So if he could meet me and believe in me, who are you to ever try and dim my shine?” And so, that’s how my public facing advocacy and activism work really started, but it’s all still rooted in figuring out things that people can inherit.
In one of my talks, I speak about developing the nerve to possess yourself. And for me, possessing yourself means you understand the complexities and the dynamics of your existence in the world that you’re in. But, you also don’t think that those things aren’t the reason why everyone should bow down to you.
For me, “passing” is such a… It’s a toxic thing but I also understand that it is refuge for some people. And so as a result, I don’t think that I’ve really been a person who disturbs people’s presence. So, people will be happy to see me, they’ll be like, “Oh yeah, that one’s pretty.” And then I open my mouth, it’s like, “Oh God, you’re pretty and opinionated and intelligent.”
So, I’ve always loved expressing myself to the fullest. And in such precise terms that there is no ambiguity. But again, the problem comes with the way the world is set up, people need you to beat them in order for them to be able to credit themselves with your successes, your accomplishments or whatever. And I’ve seen that a lot with the Botswana government. People in Botswana generally think that.
There was a time when I was trying to be impactful in the country, so that people here could recognize that or could see that it is possible. And in 2011, I sort of became a national sensation, I was on Botswana’s version of Idols. And it went from newspapers covering the competition to newspapers covering me. And it was this creation of a public figure, and I was like, “Okay cool, this is great, it’s fine, it’s wonderful,” because it was all positive light.
In 2013, I got invited to perform in New York. And I said to the Botswana government, “I am the only young Motswana performer who is presenting among some of the world’s best performers, I just need you to put me on a plane. It’s 8000 bucks return, could you do that for me?”
And they were like, “No, sis.”
And then in 2014 again, I founded the Queer Short Showcase Festival, which is a social justice festival, which focuses on creating characters or presenting stories with characters that are LGBTQI+ identifying. And we’re not necessarily pro-queer or anti-queer but we give that sense of representation. Saying, “I’m not going to tell you that homophobia is terrible, but I’m going to put on a show where you see how it affects people internally.” So, I applied for funding, both public funding from the government and private from corporates. And at that time, Botswana still had criminalized consensual same sex activity. And everyone’s like, “This is a great idea, but we’re not going to touch this. We’re not coming anywhere near there.” And I was like, “Okay, I’m going to fund it myself.” And so, over and over and over again, they’ve been moments where I have done things myself. And the audience that has come to appreciate it is the global audience.
When I stopped trying to be impactful in Botswana, I realized that I can be impactful across the world anyway and Botswana will catch up. Because again, we have this wonderful complex of the compliment that the state likes to pay which is “our very own … “, and I’m like, “What do you mean our very own? You don’t pay attention to me when I’m in the country but when I leave it’s a different story.”
I’ve gone out of the country to deliver keynotes but no one in this country ever acknowledges me, and I’m like, “Just talk to me. I am here. I’ll do your gender sensitization training for you.”
And the reply is always, “No, we don’t like to talk about sexuality at work”, and I’m like, “But, there is a law that says you may not discriminate against people based on gender identity and sexual orientation. If your employees do not know this, then they will not feel secure to transition at work if they want to transition at work. They will not feel secure to talk to HR, they will not feel secure to be open about their partners at work. And what that does is, your bottom line is being affected because an unhappy worker is going to lose you money. An unhappy worker is not going to live for you and then go and live their life somewhere else. You are losing money if they can not be their full selves at work. And even when you present such cases they think, “oh yeah, that’s great, we’ll talk to you”, and then they never do.
In our fight for decriminalizing consensual same sex activity, it was a fight for everyone’s sexual rights, not just the sexual rights of queer people. But people never understood it that way because the messaging wasn’t given that way. So, the social temperature hasn’t really changed because it was more of a legal fight, rather than a cultural advocacy. And that’s also been the space that I’ve dedicated my activism, not towards the courts.
And so in that, I still think we need to develop a much stronger cultural advocacy plan. Because some will suffer abandonment by their own families, but for the most part, you’ve got queer people who are still part of their families. They are outwardly queer at weddings, they are outwardly queer in church, and they’re outwardly non-conforming in so many spaces, at the office. All of these things are there, but it’s always the hate that gets more volume.
And I guess, it’s tolerance. I think that people are tolerating queer folk. It’s “I don’t have a problem”, as opposed to, “I appreciate or I love or you’re deserving of love.” That’s the temperature that we’re at right now. I think a lot of LGBTQI+ people who fully possess themselves are constantly walking around accruing trauma because of public space occupancy.
But, in the words of Harvey Milk, “You’ve got to give them hope.”
I’m actively working towards creating a world where ignorance isn’t an option. So, if I didn’t have hope, I would not really have a reason to be doing the work that I’m doing.
I think there’s so much more value in understanding how in our own cultural inheritance, as queer folk. We must take an active hand in making sure that we are represented the way that we want to be. And I hope I inspire others to want to take part in the documentations of their lives. I hope to inspire others to want to be able to speak to people, far, far away from them in ways that don’t require language.