Both north and south of the Sahara, Africa's gay, lesbian and trans activists are fighting for their rights … and for many, that means returning to a much earlier history.
Ten years after Tunisia's pro-democracy revolution, activists are continuing to fight for the rights of all … and that increasingly also includes members of the LGBTQ community. Like Tunisia, other African countries are confronting the challenge of overcoming conservative attitudes and the legacy of colonialism that too often still stands in the way of providing equal protection and dignity to gay, lesbian and transgender citizens.
History might surprise you
Back in 19th-century Tunisia, it would not be surprising to overhear a popular song referencing same-sex love or stumble upon a book with an LGBTQ love scene — or even hear gossip about the sexually diverse makeup of the Prince's court. Abdelhamid Larguèche wrote in his historical novel, Les ombres de Tunis, that pre-colonial society in Tunisia was "less repressive," as Ottoman penal codes did not mention homosexuality or sodomy. Today, however, even after the 2011 "Jasmine Revolution," homosexuality is a punishable crime.
Homosexual sex became illegal in Tunisia in 1913, with the passing of Article 230 while the country was under French proctorate. Since then, LGBTQ people have been subject to invasive anal probes used for ‘evidence" for arrests and eventual imprisonment. Yet several civil societies have emerged since the revolution to push for LGBTQ rights in the country. Their first goal: getting rid of the colonial era law, Article 230.
The organization Mawjoudin - We Exist, which began in 2014 is among the leaders in the battle. Ali Bousselmi, their co-founder and executive director, told French newspaper Le Monde that since the revolution, "there have been fewer arrests and the use of anal probes. But with article 230, we remain threatened."
Along with awareness campaigns aimed at repealing Article 230, Mawjoudin works to create a safe space for members of the LGBTQ community. Since 2018, the organization has successfully put on an annual queer film festival. After being canceled last year due to coronavirus, the festival will be back on from July 16-19.
For activist Rania Arfaoui, also a member of Mawjoudin, these measures are crucial for showing that activists are on the ground and leading the charge in their own communities. She told another French daily Liberation that "It is essential to make our struggle visible and to show that the movement for queer rights and feminism is not just the prerogative of Western activists. There are communities in the Global South who are fighting!"
National Women's Day in Tunis, Tunisia, 2016 — Photo: Chedly Ben Ibrahim
Tunisian activists are not alone in their fight to repeal colonial-era legislation and show how African communities are reclaiming their histories. Some 3,000 miles south of Tunisia, LGBTQ activists in Angola celebrated earlier this year when the portion of the 1886 Penal Code that outlawed "vices against nature" was officially repealed.
Though it was not frequently enforced, the colonial-era law effectively banned homosexual conduct in the country and allowed for greater harrassment and discrimination against LGBTQ people. Like Tunisia, Angola also has a prior history of acceptance toward the LGBTQ community, as its Ovimbundu tribe was known for having had traditions which involved homosexuality and cross-dressing.
Carlos Fernandes, an LGBTQ activist, told Híbrida magazine that the decision this year "removed barriers," and has given their organization a greater ability to dialogue with the government. Now, Fernandes is focusing on creating community spaces for mental health and well-being, as well as addressing the spread of HIV.
Another country with a history of LGBTQ acceptance prior to colonization is Botswana, which has also seen the repeal of discriminatory legislation. The country's high court overturned anti-sodomy laws in 2017. The presiding judge, Michael Leburu, later told the The New York Timesthat the laws were a "British import," and that they had been developed "without consultation of local peoples."
Activists were excited to see the overturn: Anna Chalmers, the CEO for Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana told France 24 that the decision "goes a long way towards giving us our freedom."
Phransisko Kumedzro in Accra, Ghana, for British Vogue — Photo: Stephen Tayo
Activists in Ghana, another former British colony, are still struggling to see homosexuality decriminalized. Same-sex relations have been outlawed since the colonial era, and the current criminal law uses similar wording to that which was enacted during the 19th century. LGBTQ activists in Ghana have made international news multiple times this past year, notably when law enforcement shut down the office of a rights group in February, and when 21 activists were arrested in June for "unlawful gathering."
Yet, despite these setbacks, activists have not given up. VOA Afrique reported that the organization, LGBT+ Rights Ghana, launched a fundraiser to "help them get out of prison." The hashtag #ReleaseThe21 has also been trending on social media. But the rise in homophobia, coupled with the President's outspoken opposition to decriminalizing homosexuality, has forced activists to be less vocal in their calls for complete legal decriminalization. Efforts instead have focused on education and legal challenges in the court system.
Like others, Ghana's activists are increasingly using the internet to create an safe spaces for the queer community. In reflecting on ways progress has been achieved in her country in recent years, Tunisian activist Ali Bousselmi said that "talking about it broke a taboo in society, and this has allowed the community to gain allies." Activists across the continent are following a similar path, one step at a time, even though they are rightfully ever impatient for change.