From Pride marches in Entebbe to legal battles in Lilongwe, the struggle for queer liberation in Africa has intensified over the past two decades. This has given rise to diverse formations of queer activism and organizing across the African continent and, in turn, to a burgeoning academic literature on the politics and practices of queer African activism. From a legal perspective, this period has seen progress in the status of queer or LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) rights in some parts of the continent. Elsewhere, this has paralleled a rise in forms of state-sponsored homophobia. The Ugandan government’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill is one prominent example, which garnered international notoriety in 2009. Focusing on waves of political homophobia in countries like Uganda, some Western media commentators have characterized Africa as homophobic, a continent where queer individuals face violence and persecution. Yet heightened international concern over the plight of queer Africans has not always been accompanied by an understanding of the movements, alliances, organizations, and activists working on these issues on the ground, nor has it incorporated the voices and experiences of queer Africans themselves. Thus, narratives of “homophobic Africa” belie the multiple, far-reaching ways Africans are coming together to contest homophobia, unsettle heteronormativity, and assert their rights. Among this growing array of activist groups are the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya, Freedom and Roam Uganda, the Association of LGBTI People in Zimbabwe (GALZ), and LEGABIBO (Lesbians, Gays & Bisexuals of Botswana), to name just a few. In the academic literature, scholars have converged around a key set of issues and debates in an attempt to document and understand the character of contemporary queer politics and activism in Africa. This includes debates over language, naming practices, and terminology and discussions of political and religious homophobia, processes of globalization, the impact of HIV interventions and international aid funding, and the political economy of development. The complexity of these issues defies generalization and necessitates a concern for specificity: for an understanding of the shifting social, cultural, economic, and political contexts in which struggles over queer liberation and LGBTI rights are taking place in Africa; of the historical legacies of colonialism and uneven patterns of global development; and of the opportunities and constraints shaping queer activism in each setting. Against this background, scholars engaged in the study of queer activism must interrogate whose experiences, voices, and priorities are being heard (and whose are being excluded) and seek to center those activists at the grass roots who are leading the struggle for queer liberation and erotic justice on the continent.
The human rights of LGBTI persons are being contested across the world—both within states and across regions. Despite decades of incremental change, in many states, LGBTI activists are beginning to rapidly advance their normative agendas, particularly in the context of protection against violence and discrimination. However, consistent backlash and opposition to LGBTI advocacy remains. Notwithstanding decades of silence on LGBTI rights, international institutions are also beginning to rapidly include sexual orientation and gender identity in their work as well. Institutions that consist primarily of independent experts and that focus on narrower human rights issues have been especially active in including sexual orientation and gender identity in their work, either formally or informally. At the same time, largely political institutions have generally lagged behind their counterparts. Scholarship on both sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) advocacy and contestation have also lagged behind political and legal developments at international institutions. Although a few works exist, particularly on the UN Human Rights Council, there are numerous other institutions that have been understudied. Further, research on the implementation of international SOGI policies has also been largely absent. SOGI advocacy and contestation continues across nearly every major international institution. Research agendas, either qualitative or quantitative are sorely needed to help better predict and explain the advancement or retreat of SOGI in international institutions and within domestic contexts.
In recent decades, the efflorescence of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) movements has created powerful inroads for sexual rights in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa. While conditions for LGBTI people vary considerably between and within countries, activists across the region are reshaping political, legal, and social understandings of gender and sexuality through their advocacy, both by seizing opportunities and navigating periods of backlash and repression. Over the years, activists have established domestic movements and have expanded their reach to articulate demands in regional and international forums. Their work has challenged the universality of models developed in other parts of the globe and has generated new tactics to respond to religious, familial, and state-sponsored prejudice. At the same time, questions of representativeness, accountability, and strategy have been raised by constituencies and longtime activists alike, inviting critical assessments of movement politics in the region.
Jocelyn M. Boryczka
Capturing the nuanced attitudes toward LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people and rights in Africa involves examining them from within and outside the African context. Constructions of the entire African continent as holding negative attitudes toward LGBT peoples and denying them any rights remain quite commonplace across the Global North. However, closer analysis of specific nation-states and regions complicates our understanding of LGBT people and rights in Africa. Advances in the global study of LGBT attitudes through tools such as the Global LGBTI Inclusion Index and the Global Acceptance Index survey African peoples’ beliefs about LGBT communities. These measures locate African attitudes about LGBT peoples within a comparative context to decenter assumptions and many inaccurate, often colonialist, constructions. Attitudinal measures also expose the gap between legislation securing formal rights and the beliefs driving peoples’ everyday practices. These measures further specify how African governments can, often in response to Western political and economic forces, leverage homophobia on a national level to serve their interests despite a misalignment with the population’s attitudes toward LGBT peoples. Nongovernmental organizations and advocates raise awareness about LGBT rights and issues to impact socialization processes that shape these attitudes to generate political, social, and economic change. A rights-based approach and research on attitudes emerging from the African context represent shifts critical to better understanding how LGBT peoples and rights can be more effectively advanced across the continent.