Rethinking the issue of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in Africa: The Struggle for Equality

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Rethinking the issue of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in Africa: The Struggle for Equality

The Struggle for Equality in Africa by LGBT

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity is one of the main topics that has recently been central to many debates. While the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community has made great strides in advancing their rights in some countries in the global North, full equality remains elusive in the global South. The term “sexual orientation” refers to an individual’s physical or emotional attraction to the same or opposite gender. Meanwhile, “gender identity” refers to a person’s innate, deeply felt psychological identification as a man, woman or some other gender, which may or may not correspond to the sex assigned to them at birth. The issue of  sexual orientation and gender identity in Africa is seen to be more reminiscent of colonial repression than of post-independent freedom. As of July 2015, seventy two countries have laws criminalizing homosexuality, and most of them are located in Asia and Africa.

The lack of research on the LGBT population in Africa has further worsened the situation and resulted in criminalization and subsequent fear of negative repercussions from participating in such research. The discrimination of the LGBT in Africa has been in the form of institutionalized homophobia and diminished access to health care as well as education. Meanwhile, the violations of human rights which LGBT people are subjected to, have led to psychological stress among the victims and have constituted a basis for poverty. Factors that contribute to high levels of poverty among LGBT communities include vulnerability to employment discrimination, lack of access to marriage, and lack of family support.

Moreover, the discrimination of the LGBT community has led to human trafficking and migration of the LGBT victims. In connection to this, there have been cases of migration and human trafficking of LGBT people that included African victims found in Europe, particularly Scotland. Some African LGBT victims have also been used as sex slaves in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Additionally, civil society in South Africa has identified instances of traffickers coercing LGBT children to remain in prostitution under threat of disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity to their families. Due to the hidden nature of same-sex prostitution and the stigma associated with  LGBT, human trafficking is less likely to be reported than trafficking of heterosexuals to local authorities. This, therefore, creates a perception that LGBT human trafficking is an issue outside the community or only affecting the “Western world“.  There are also reports that indicate that LGBT people are often targets of organized abuse from religious extremists or paramilitary groups.

Of recent, issues concerning LGBT rights are discussed within the framework of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR proclaims “inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world”. However, the African perspectives, with value systems generally sacrosanct to the philosophies of communitarianism, are underlying the mainstay of traditional African communities at large. The African ideas of “Ubuntu” (humanity to others) and identity, as well as the self being developed through social relations rather than individual consciousness, are the most important aspects values of the African tradition. In essence,  human rights notions tend to be seen as  highly individualistic in so far as they prioritize the interests of the individual at the expense of the autonomy of the community.

Furthermore, the analysis of sexuality by the French Philosopher Michel Foucault is important when discussing ‘otherized’ and stigmatized sexualities. Foucault’s work examines the link between sexualities, power and knowledge in time and space. He articulates how understandings of sexuality can vary across time and space, in an attempt to argue for the permissibility of homosexuality. His analysis exposes that sexualities are not given or natural, but evolve over time. According to him, social power is used by the dominant groups to define acceptable and illicit sexual acts. This forms the repressive hypothesis characterised by censorship, severe control of individual sexuality by institutions. The analysis of post-colonial governments’ reactions to homosexuality benefits from the application of Foucault’s theorizingThere has been a marked trend in many African countries to institutionalize the discrimination of the LGBT community. In countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Rwanda attempts to criminalize homosexuals are under way, while countries such as Uganda and Zimbabwe do not exactly accommodate homosexuality. In South Africa, where the Constitution protects LGBT people, reports of hate-crime have been on the rise, especially the “corrective rape” of   lesbians in townships. 

Legalizing homosexuality in many African societies has further failed, despite the growing consensus on the tolerance of homosexuality among globalizing and democratizing societies of the world. The criminalization of the LGBT  may deter individuals from seeking health services for fear of revealing criminal conduct, and results in services, national health policies not reflecting the specific needs of LGBT persons. Furthermore, given that millions of Africans are infected with HIV/AIDS, research shows African gay men have high rates of infection and frequently have female partners as well. Denying LGBT sexual rights is dangerous to the society as a whole, not just sexual minorities. Moreover, LGBT youth frequently experiences violence and harassment in school, which leads to high school dropouts rates amongst them. Confronting this kind of prejudice and intimidation requires concerted efforts from school and education authorities and integration of principles of non-discrimination and diversity in school curricula and discourse. In many countries, transgender persons are also unable to obtain legal recognition of their preferred gender on state issued identity documents which makes it difficult for them to apply for employment or state benefits and increases levels of poverty and organized crime.

In conclusion, without gender-sensitive research and an improved understanding of gender identity among researchers, governments and Non-Governmental Organisations, it is likely that the LGBT community will continue to be overlooked and  this may result in them being the most economically and  socially disempowered population in the African continent .

Image Source: Ramesh Lalwani

Cheludo Butale
Cheludo Butale is currently a PhD candidate at Cyprus International University. Her main research interests lie in the area of International Security, Global Governance, International Political Economy and International Development. She is an Authorial Board member of A Different View , mother body International Association for Political Science Students based in Netherlands, and has previous work experience from Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Botswana and the Botswana Government.

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