Celebrating Pride: Reflecting on SOGI Rights in Southern Africa

Every June we celebrate Pride, taking a moment to recognize, and recommit ourselves to, the ongoing struggles of LGBTQI communities around the world. In the spirit of Pride, I was fortunate to attend UHAI-EASHRI’s “Changing Faces, Changing Spaces” (CFCS) conference in Kenya, and to reflect on the importance of the work of our Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) program partners in Southern Africa.

CFCS provides a unique space in which activists from across Africa can come together to share their work, stories, and strategies about how they are supporting their respective communities. With donors in the room, the activists are empowered to share their perspectives and priorities and to drive a spirited conversation about how to advance the rights of LGBTQI communities across the continent.

Pride Flag waving in the sunlight

Resisting the Marginalization of LGBTQI Identities

One of the discussions that surfaced time and time again was how to resist policies and practices that are designed to erase or marginalize the identities and histories of LGBTQI communities, in response to efforts to frame homosexuality as “un-African” or “un-religious.” For many participants, there was no tension in being LGBTQI and African or LGBTQI and religious. In fact, as several pointed out, many African languages do not address gender as a binary and cultures across the continent have historically been accepting of LGBTQI communities. With this in mind, it is worth asking, how homosexuality became framed as “un-African” or “un-religious”?

As many participants noted, citing research by Kapya Kaoma, a Zambian researcher and Anglican Priest, the U.S. religious right has provided significant funding on the continent to promote homophobia. They have worked to frame homosexuality as a Western concept that has been imposed on Africa, that is “un-Christian” and “un-African.” This agenda has been reinforced through relationships with conservative religious leaders across the continent.

Asserting and Reclaiming Identity

Given the promotion of homophobia across Africa by the U.S. religious right and the ways in which religion is being used to marginalize and erase the contributions and histories of LGBTQI communities, much attention was given to the role of faith communities in asserting and affirming LGBTQI identities and narratives. UUSC’s SOGI rights partners have been engaging in such efforts in Southern Africa, working with allies in faith spaces to promote a narrative and create safe spaces that promote the rights of LGBTQI communities.

While the strategy is one of winning hearts and minds is a long-term change, it is necessary to challenge the dominant and incorrect narrative that homosexuality is “un-African” or “un-religious.” Just as no one lives single issue lives, CFCS participants made it clear that no one person has only one single identity. Rather, everyone possesses a wide array of identities that comprise who they are, such as being LGBTQI and African, or LGBTQI and religious.

In this regard, UUSC’s partners Inclusive and Affirming Ministries, Al-Fitrah Foundation (formerly The Inner Circle), and TULINAM have been doing critical work to collaborate with progressive faith allies to promote respect for the rights of LGBTQI communities in Southern Africa. Through collaboration with progressive faith allies, UUSC’s partners are actively challenging the rhetoric of U.S.-based religious conservatives and creating a space for LGBTQI individuals to assert and reclaim their identities. After spending several days with the activists carrying working on the ground to support the rights of LGBTQI communities, I cannot help but feel that the work of UUSC’s partners is as relevant and important today as it ever has been.

Continuing the Struggle

In the true spirit of CFCS, activists working to promote LGBTQI rights have come together to connect and to reclaim their space. By centering their voices, struggles, and priorities at this conference, it was possible to deeply reflect on the way forward. As June comes to a close, it is important to continue this act of deep self-reflection on the contributions of LGBTQI communities in Africa and around the world–not just for one month, but all year long. This way, we are better equipped to support their struggle as allies and partners, moving forward together.

Rights Reading

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading in human rights and social justice! This week’s wrap-up includes select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss: Highlights from the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia; updates on family detention; and the latest on climate-forced displacement. 

‘A miracle happened’: 300 rally for LGBT rights in St. Petersburg, Colin Stewart, Erasing 76 Crimes, May 18, 2017

May 17 marked the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (#IDAHOT or #IDAHOBIT). People all across the world celebrated by  wearing colorful clothes that signify the colors of the rainbow, going to rallies, and being vocal online about their support for and solidarity with the LGBTQI community

There were even celebrations in countries with extremely anti-LGBTQI laws. Colin Stewart shares one story about a rally in Russia, where law enforcement stops pro-LGBTQ protests and detains participants. But this year 300 took to the streets in St. Petersburg, and due to their persistence and some fortuitous timing, received police protection. Organizers of the protest shared their thoughts, “Our strategy is ‘constant dripping wears away a stone,’ and today a little chip of that stone fell off.” This is a marked change from the typical response to LGBTQI rallies and protests in Russia and is a testament to how community organizing and persistence can yield surprisingly happy results.

Immigrants in Detention Centers Are Often Hundreds of Miles From Legal Help, Patrick G. Lee, ProPublica, May 16, 2017

It’s almost impossible for immigrants to win their case to stay in the United States if they don’t have an attorney, no matter how strong their case. There are multiple system-level obstacles that immigrants face as they seek U.S. citizenship, and those barriers can be insurmountable if they are being held in detention centers.

In this article, Patrick Lee provides background and context to the reality of this situation. Because detained immigrants lack the right to an appointed attorney, they must either pay for a lawyer or find one who will take on their case pro bono. However, many lawyers won’t take these cases and many who do lack the necessary time and resources to take on more than a handful of clients from the thousands of immigrants currently in detention centers. On top of this, detention center locations often make lawyers geographically inaccessible, something which Amy Fischer, policy director of UUSC partner RAICES, calls a purposeful move by the federal government to inhibit immigrants’ access to legal resources.

Under President Trump, ICE is ramping up its immigration control policies – arresting more immigrants and making plans for more detention centers. UUSC and its partners, like RAICES, are working hard to ensure that immigrants have the necessary legal resources and protections to plead their case and build their lives in the United States.

Mulling the possibility of a “managed retreat” from climate change, Rachel Waldholz, Alaska Public Media, April 28, 2017

Media coverage and aid are much easier to come by for communities displaced when a natural disaster hits. But refugees who are forced to leave their homes due to the slow onset of climate change are often overlooked, even though rising sea levels, erosion, and other consequences of global warming are expected to disrupt thousands of communities over the course of the next several decades.

The choice to relocate is one that must be made by individual communities, but even but even they make that decision, there is often no financial support from local and national governments or NGOs, who have been slow to recognize the severity of climate-forced displacement. Robin Bronen, executive director of the Alaska Institute for Justice (AIJ), argues that the lack of funding is different from political will, which she feels does in fact exist. “There’s this urgent need to protect populations from climate change, but we don’t have the laws in place to facilitate it,” Bronen said. “[That] means that government agencies don’t have mandates or funding to make it possible to actually implement what everybody agrees is the best long-term adaptation strategy.”

UUSC partners with AIJ and other organizations working on climate-forced displacement across the globe to support their efforts to help communities facing destruction at the hands of rising sea levels and prepare themselves for relocation.