The Commonwealth is the international governmental organization of states that emerged from the British empire, and since 2000 it has emerged as a focus for contestation relating to the regulation of same-sex sexualities, gender diversity, and diverse sex characteristics. Following colonial criminalizations focused on same-sex sexual acts, and later formal decolonizations, there have appeared many national movements for decriminalization and human rights in relation to sexuality and gender. The Commonwealth has emerged as a site of politics for some significant actors claiming human rights in relation to sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics. This has been led by specific organizations of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, increasingly with intersex people and allies, but it is also important to consider this in relation to queer people, understood more broadly here as people in all cultures experiencing forms of sexualities, biological sex and genders outside the social structure of heterosexuality, and its associated sex and gender binaries. A range of forms of activist and non-governmental organization (NGO) engagement have occurred, leading to shifts in Commonwealth civil society and among some state governments. This has required researchers to develop analyses across various scales, from local and national to international and transnational, to interpret institutions and movements. The British Empire criminalized same-sex sexual acts between males, and to a lesser extent between females, across its territories. In certain instances there were also forms of gender regulation, constraining life outside a gender binary. Such criminalization influenced some of those claiming LGBT human rights to engage the Commonwealth. Research shows that a majority of Commonwealth states continue to criminalize some adult consensual same-sex sexual activity. Yet the history of struggles for decriminalization and human rights within states in the Commonwealth has led up to such recent important decriminalizations as in India and Trinidad and Tobago in 2018. LGBT and queer activist engagements of the Commonwealth itself commenced in 2007 when Sexual Minorities Uganda and African allies demanded entry to the Commonwealth People’s Space during a Heads of Government meeting in Kampala. Activism has often focused on the biannual Heads of Government meetings that are accompanied by civil society forums. A particularly significant phenomenon has been the emergence of a “new London-based transnational politics of LGBT human rights,” evident in the creation from 2011 of new NGOs working internationally from the United Kingdom. Among these organizations was the Kaleidoscope Trust, which shaped the subsequent formation of The Commonwealth Equality Network as an international network of NGOs that became formally recognized by the Commonwealth. Significant developments occurred at the London Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in April 2018; Prime Minister Theresa May expressed “regret” for past imperial criminalizations while announcing funding for Kaleidoscope Trust and other UK-based groups to use in international law reform work. These developments exemplify a wider problematic for both activists and analysts, concerning how LGBT and queer movements should engage in contexts that are still structured by imperial legacies and power relations associated with colonialism, persisting in the present.
Sharath Srinivasan and Stephanie Diepeveen
From global amplifications of local protests on social media to disinformation campaigns and transformative state surveillance capabilities, digital communications are changing the ways in which politics works in Africa and how and with whom power accrues. Yet while digital information technology and media are relatively new, the role of communication in state power and resistance on the continent is not. The “digital revolution” provokes us to better account for this past to understand a rapidly changing present. From language and script, to print and broadcast, to mobile applications and digital databases, how information is circulated, processed, and stored is central to political power on the African continent. The story of political change in Africa cannot be told without attention to how power manifests with and through changes in the technologies that enable these communication practices. A communication technology perspective on the study of politics in Africa provides a more sober analysis of how power relations circumscribe the possibilities of political change than more normative approaches would. Even so, a communication approach allows for social and ideational factors to mix with material ones in explaining the possibilities of such change. Communication technologies have been central to what political actors in Africa from the precolonial past to the early 21st century can and cannot do, and to how political change comes about. Explorations across time, political era, and technological development in Africa allow us to unpack this relationship. In the precolonial period, across forms of centralized and decentralized political organization, oral communication modalities reflected and enabled fluid and radial logics of authority and power relations. Changes in moral and practical ideas for political organization occurred amid early encounters with traders and Islamic scholars and texts and the movement of people to, from, and within the continent. Colonialism, which heavily focused on narrow extractive aims, required alien central authorities to overcome the vulnerability of their rule through knowledge production and information control. Equally, the same communication technologies valued by colonial authority—intermediaries, print, radio—became means through which resistance ideas circulated and movements were mobilized. In independent Africa, political aims may have changed, but communication infrastructures and their vulnerabilities were inherited. The predicament facing postcolonial governments had a communications dimension. Later, their ability to forge rule through control and allegiance had to contend with a globalizing information economy and demands for media pluralism. A communications perspective on the history of power on the African continent therefore guides a fuller understanding of change and continuity in politics in a digital age by drawing attention to the means and meanings by which legitimacy, authority, and belonging have continued to be produced and negotiated. Transnational configurations of information flows, global political economy logics of accumulation and security, and communicative terrains for contesting authority and mobilizing alternatives have been shown to possess both distinctly new characteristics and enduring logics.