LGBTIQ Rights in Africa: One Step Forward, One Step Back

While the recent Ugandan and Kenyan court rulings are two victories to celebrate, we know there have been many battles quietly lost.
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In September, government ministers in Chad voted to criminalize same-sex relations. The bill will become law if Chad's President ratifies the decision.

In late August, the National Assembly in The Gambia passed a bill that punishes people with life in prison for the crime of so-called "aggravated homosexuality." Already gay people can go to jail for up to 14 years for having sex. It seems likely The Gambian President Yahya Jammeh will pass this legislation any day, making the punishment even harsher. In February on state television he said, "We will fight these vermins called homosexuals or gays the same way we are fighting malaria-causing mosquitoes, if not more aggressively." And in news yesterday, religious leaders in Liberia are now blaming homosexuality for the Ebola pandemic. Yup.

Being an out member of the LGBQTI community can be challenging and dangerous worldwide, but especially in Africa where homosexuality is currently illegal in 38 out of 54 countries. LGBQTI individuals in these countries can face life-long prison terms, public outing, shaming, harassment, and vigilante justice including "corrective rape", a charming term for sexual violence perpetrated against a suspected lesbian to cure her of her sexual deviance.

The past 12 months have been particularly difficult for LGQBTI individuals across Africa. Countries like Nigeria, Burundi, and Uganda passed laws that criminalize same-sex marriage, LGBQTI advocacy groups, and public displays of affection. Politicians in even more moderate African countries, including Kenya and Tanzania, are voicing aspirations for similar legislation. A 2013 Pew Research Global Attitudes Project report found that 98% of Nigerians are extremely homophobic; if you are gay in Nigeria, or any of these nations, prison is the last place you want to be.

Most alarming, in December 2013, the Ugandan government passed a controversial bill dubbed "kill the gays" because of its discussion of the death penalty for LGBQTI people. According to LGBQTI rights activists I met with in Kampala a few months ago, the passing of this bill has manifested as one of the darkest periods for gay rights activists and allies in the country. We are talking about months of escalating persecution, disappearances, surveillance, outing with photos in national newspapers, and homophobic violence that is sponsored by both the state and community.

But in a happy twist of events, in early August 2014, we got a victory when a Ugandan court overturned the bill. The news was marked by a street parade, attended by over 200 LGBQTI Ugandans and allies. But it's not over. In a potential step backward, a few days ago, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said he favored a debate in the assembly on the re-introduction of the law, but, he wants to remove penalties against gay sex between two consenting adults.

For optimist-activists like me, we'll take the win.

In July we saw one of the most positive steps forward. Transgender Education and Advocacy (TEA), a Kenya-based NGO, funded by Urgent Action Fund-Africa, where I work, was handed an incredible landmark victory in Kenya's high court.

A few years ago TEA had been denied the ability to register as an NGO by the Kenyan NGO Co-ordination Board. The Board based its decision on several factors, including that the three transgender women listed in the application, Audrey Mbugua, Maureen Muia and Annet Jennifer, did not have names that "reflected their birth gender."

In response, TEA took the Kenyan NGO Co-ordination Board to court for discrimination and violation of their fundamental human rights. On July 24, 2014, the organization won a major victory when Justice George Odunga stated that in failing to register TEA, the Kenyan NGO Co-ordination Board had acted in a manner that is, "unfair, unreasonable, unjustified and in breach of rules of natural justice." He further found that Mbugua, Muia and Jennifer had provided sufficient evidence that they had legally changed their names through a deed poll. The judge ordered the Kenyan NGO Co-ordination Board to register the organisation immediately and provide compensation for costs incurred over the three year-long legal battle.

Though little research exists, we know that the transgender community in Kenya, and across much of the African continent, face systematic and extreme legal and societal hardships making it difficult for them to, among other issues, have their names changed on legal documents including educational qualifications, or seek medical support during and after their gender transition resulting in extreme poverty, ill-health, heightened HIV risk and socioeconomic exclusion.

TEA's win sets a precedent for transgender Kenyans and other marginalized groups seeking recognition in the country, and also sets a timely, and much needed positive example for the entire region. "This is a watershed moment for the transgender community in Africa and a show of the capabilities of the transgender community to extricate themselves from state sponsored discrimination and marginalization," said Audrey Mbugua, the Chairperson of TEA. "We pray that transgender people across Africa will be able to access more resources to build firm architectures to eradicate transphobia and discrimination."

While the recent Ugandan and Kenyan court rulings are two victories to celebrate, we know there have been many battles quietly lost. We also know that there are numerous battles ahead, including repealing anti-gay legislation in The Gambia, Chad and slew of other African countries. My hope is that whilst we work to advocate against each new piece of legislation that criminalizes love in Africa, we also celebrate in the spaces where transgender people are seen just as people, and LGBQTI citizens are afforded the same rights to live their lives in the way that their heterosexual peers enjoy.

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