Between sexuality, gender and rights: A story from Sub-Saharan Africa

sub-saharan africa

Both the majority of worldwide countries  (38 out of 76) criminalizing same-sex sexual activities and the one with the first constitution in the world to explicitly prohibit unfair discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (South Africa) belong to the African continent.

Last month the first ever African Same Sex Sexualities and Gender Diversity (ASSGD) conference took place in Pretoria, South Africa. A country that in these matters has carried out some other legal steps that constitute records world-wide. In 2006 it became the fifth country in the world –and the first in the continent- to legalise same-sex marriages and it is one of the few countries where it is explicitly permitted to change gender on official documents (the others are Australia, New Zealand, Spain and Argentina).

“The reality on the ground is very different from the laws”, says He-Jin Kim, the representative at the conference of GenderDynamiX, a South African Human Rights organisation dedicated to promoting the rights of transgender people and one of the organizers of the event.

“The so called ‘corrective rape’ of lesbians is very common in black townships in South Africa. Besides, while the law allows changing gender without the need for actual surgery its implementation is lacking and it is rare that transgender people succeed in accessing this legal provision. There is also little access to transgender related healthcare and in light of the gravity of the HIV epidemic in South Africa, it must be noted that sexual health services are for the most part inaccessible to transgender people due to prevailing stigma and ignorance”, she says.

The aims of the conference, that saw over 80 gay rights activists, human rights defenders and scholars from 20 African countries, were to promote understanding and further study of same-sex sexual practices, identities, communities and of expressions of gender diversity in Sub-Saharan Africa, to explore how social and structural factors affect the well-being and health of persons engaging in same-sex sexual practices or with gender diverse backgrounds and to identify ways of enabling the social environment and reducing their vulnerability. Finally, the conference aimed at supporting capacity building in research and advocacy and to strengthen the development of MSM (men who have sex with men) WSW (women who have sex with women) and transgendered communities.

“There are very specific cultural and political considerations that make issues of gays, lesbians, transgender and intersex people in Africa not necessarily similar to the rest of the world”, He-Jin Kim points out. “One example is the argument often used by conservatives on the continent that same sex practices are ‘un-African’. While the modern concept of homosexual identity is a fairly new one and western, same sex practices have been present in Africa since before the arrival of white settlers. Yet this argument shapes the reality in which LGBTI activists do their work”.

The idea that homosexuality is a “white disease”, “a threat located outside the bounds of culture and the nation and therefore excluded and without any claim to moral proximity” is also strongly present in the report “Nowhere to turn” that the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC, see blogroll), another of the organizers of the event, recently released and presented at the conference.

The report is the first research on the blackmail and extortion “perhaps the most prevalent and least visible of all the violations LGBTI people in Sub-Saharan Africa deal with”.

While the same report suggests that blackmail and extortion can plausibly threaten anyone who is marginalized, fear of disclosure due to illegality or, where absent, to stigma attached to particular behaviours or identity and a general state of vulnerability of LGBTI people are the key ways in which sexual orientation, gender identity and other aspects of sexuality increase their vulnerability as potential victims. These have purchased homes, cars of other goods, are coerced into unwanted sexual activities and virtual servitudes, have quit their jobs, dropped out of school or fled their town and changed their names to escape blackmail and extortion based on the threat to disclose their sexual orientation or gender diversity either to friends, family, neighbours and other ‘intimates’ or to the police.

IGLHRC commissioned research in five countries. Cameroon, Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, all areas in which MSM is not legal while WSW is either legal everywhere (Ghana and Zimbabwe) only in some areas (Nigeria) or also illegal (Cameroon and Malawi).

Sodomy laws serve as license to carry out blackmail and extortion and give same-sex practicing people reason to fear disclosure. As the cases in the report show, police in Ghana, Malawi and Zimbabwe have all pursued simultaneous prosecutions under sodomy laws when LGBTI people approached the legal system for protection.

Independently on the law “it is often those who are female, poor, gender non-conforming, HIV-positive, or otherwise marginalized who have the least recourse to the police and the protection of the law”, says Ryan Thoreson, editor of the report.

The stories from Ghana show how blackmailers falsely accuse their victims of infecting them with HIV or other sexually transmitted infections and use that threat to extort them repeatedly.

The stories from Nigeria, on the other hand, show that lesbian and bisexual women rarely reported being targeted by police. Instead, they were threatened by those they knew in the private sphere and in some cases were forced to grant sexual favours for extortionists and blackmailers.

Perpetrators can in fact be virtually any person with knowledge of a secret that somebody else is desperate to keep private and in practice, LGBTI people are often blackmailed by their friends, family, lovers, even by other LGBTI people.

“Even if the high premium that victims place on non-disclosure may be less of an issue for those whose gender expression is transgressor but public”, the report points out, “transgender victims of blackmail and extortion have been targeted by police and other officials in a number of cases, particularly when they become aware of any discrepancy between their victim’s gender expression and what is listed”.

The laws against same-sex activity, too, can be used to target transgender individuals, whether or not those allegations are true.

The report highlights a tension that exists between our treatment of sexuality and our treatment of rights. “Publicly articulating and exercising sexual desires, particularly outside marriage, brings private sexual relations into the public sphere and makes it very hard to claim innocence, thereby obstructing an easy claim to rights. A critical reconfiguration of sexuality and notions of guilt/innocence is needed to establish a more effective platform from which to combat sexual violence and the transmission of HIV and should also foster the experience of sexuality as pleasure”.

The report suggests that NGOs can be a powerful force in raising awareness and encouraging victims to bring their cases forward.  In Ghana, the LGBT community has launched a website called Fakers2Go which posts the photos and tactics used by well-known blackmailers and equips the community to recognize and avoid serial perpetrators.

“A measure that might be undertaken immediately is for blackmail and extortion laws to be strengthened through limiting the opportunities for blackmailers”, Thoreson adds. “In Africa and elsewhere, human rights defenders also have an important role to play in highlighting how blackmail and extortion directly limit the dignity, privacy, and autonomy to which everyone is entitled under human rights law”.

“A rights-based approach was clear during the conference to move forward”, He-Jin Kim points out.

One of the main issues discussed in Pretoria was HIV.

“Unfortunately it was addressed mostly in terms of MSM while the vulnerability of transgender individuals and lesbian woman was barely addressed”, she says. “There is an assumption that interventions dealing with issues for MSM automatically address the needs of transwomen (those who start their life with a male body but whose gender identity is female) and that interventions dealing with issues for WSW (women who have sex with women) automatically address the needs of transmen (those who start their life with a female body but whose gender identity is male).

Transwomen are therefore considered, even inside the LGBTI community, as ‘effeminate gay male’ and transmen as ‘butch lesbians’ while transgender is about gender preference, not about sexual preference”.

Transgender individuals, notably transwomen, “have been shown to be particularly vulnerable to HIV, sexual assault and punitive rape”, He-Jin Kim adds. “Such vulnerability is fuelled by their marginalised position in society, poverty, stigma and incumbent related higher rates of sex work”.

While the conference was supposed to address gender diversity “and it is urgent that the sexual practices and vulnerabilities of transgender people are examined and programmes developed for them as a self determining group”, only three people including her where there to represent trans and intersex.

“Despite that, we managed to bring a strong gender element into the conference, through our presentations (one for instance addressed cross dressing practises in Ghana) and making comments as to the absence of transgender issues and criticising the concept of MSM”.

“Since so much money goes to public health and so much of that money focuses on MSM, in many conferences they get more attention than women, transgender and intersex people”, Ryan Thoreson says. “But what I think was great of this conference was the attention that was drawn to transgender and intesex. People who had not necessarily thought about their specific needs were encouraged to think about ways their groups could do work for them”.

Of what came out of the conference they both highlight the need to build coalitions with other groups, such as women’s movements and to look for points of convergence.

“There is a need to see overarching issues such as human rights or gender based violence instead of staying comfortable in LGBTI, MSM or WSW”, He-Jin Kim points out.  “I think in general sexual rights provide the platform to come together and show how repression on the basis of same sexuality and gender diversity affect a broad range of people and not only specific communities”, Ryan Thoreson says. “At their core, issues of sexual and body autonomy, shame and dignity go beyond any group of people and so do assumptions about the relationship of human beings with their government and the community around them”.

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