From 17 May to 4 August 2013, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Hivos carried out a national campaign in the Netherlands called "Wanted for Love”. The campaign, supported by funds from the National Postcode Lottery, drew attention to the plight of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBTs) in Africa. It kicked off on the International Day against Homophopia and closed festively during the Gay Pride parade in Amsterdam.
All over the world, LGBTs are forced to deal with hate and discrimination. There is no continent where gay people are not repressed. The resistance they encounter is particularly intense in Africa. It is under these difficult circumstances that many brave activists fight for the right to be themselves and love whom they wish. They refuse to stay silent despite risking assault, arrest or imprisonment by speaking out and standing up for themselves.
On August 2, Human Rights Watch and Hivos organised an inspiring evening on LGBT rights in Africa at De Balie in Amsterdam. The events included a debate with the activists Lame Charmaine Olebile, Zanele Muholi, Adrian Jjuuko and Anthony Oluoch and experts from HRW, Hivos and Mama Cash. Hivos’ Klaartje Laan sat down with two of the activists to ask them what it is like to be a gay rights activist in their respective countries.
The 'Western agenda' of Adrian Jjuuko
Adrian Jjuuko is a Ugandan lawyer and human rights activist. He provides legal support to LGBTs, as well as sex workers and farmers struggling for land rights. He also fights against laws in Uganda that restrict the rights of LGBT people.
"My first experience with LGBT rights was an article I wrote. Here I argued that what two adults do in the bedroom is none of the government’s business. I got a lot of reactions, mostly negative. To defend myself, I decided to make sure I was well informed on the subject. Since then, I’ve been closely involved with this issue. During my research, I came across lots of prejudice and ignorance even amongst highly educated people. Once I even had to escape on a boda boda (motorcycle taxi - ed.) from a group of students who reacted aggressively to a presentation I had given. The more I learned about LGBT rights, the more I realised that the work I was doing was very badly needed. "
"I made many sacrifices for my work. I’m accused of promoting a ‘Western agenda' and am supposedly getting loads of money from foreign governments to promote homosexuality in Uganda. My house was broken into, my family and I are threatened every day. Many of my countrymen think that I'm fighting for LGBT rights because I’m homosexual myself, but for me these are just human rights like any other. Sometimes it can get very lonely doing this work; I’m caught between different groups but belong to none.”
A delicate balancing act
"Being in the Netherlands for the ‘Wanted for Love’ campaign is both a curse and a blessing. Homosexuality is still seen in Uganda as a Western problem. This is a misconception, but it’s widespread. By being here I have the chance to talk to representatives of the international community, whose organisations can put pressure on our government. But at the same time, people will say I’m here to get inspiration and money to promote a sexual diversity that does not belong in my country. There is a delicate balance that I have to maintain.”
“One of the biggest challenges for my organisation, Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF), is reaching and educating people," says Adrian. We have to be careful about the topics we discuss in the media. In general, we can’t talk about LGBT issues directly or steer the conversation in that direction if we want media attention. But we can communicate with people in more general terms about human rights. LGBT issues as such are usually discussed within the LGBT community. "
Public opinion formed
Adrian won the 2011 Human Rights Defenders Award for his fight against the Anti-homosexuality Bill (also called the "Kill the Gays Bill") that further criminalises homosexual relations in Uganda. "The good thing about this bill for us," says Adrian, "is the visibility it has brought. The LGBT movement is now better organised, and Ugandan citizens were challenged to form an opinion. Suddenly the man on the street had an opinion about homosexuality. "
Lame Charmaine Olebile
Lame says she has known she was a a lesbian for as long as she can remember. And the fact that this has brought her her share of problems is too obvious to warrant repeating. She says she has always been interested in human rights, but it was the humiliation and discrimination she suffered in Botswana that made her combative. And this is why she is here in Amsterdam to participate in the Gay Pride parade for the ‘Wanted for Love’ campaign. She prefers not to talk about her own experiences, which she feels are irrelevant in comparison to her work. "I focus on the bigger picture of LGBT rights: access to health services and insurance, safety at home and at work."
Putting a human face on LGBT people
However, she is proud to be part of ‘Wanted for Love’. "It's an honour to be here. I have a platform where I can speak about what’s happening in my country. I think it's important to put a human face on this issue. My experiences are personal and real. Being at Gay Pride also gives me the opportunity to network with other activists, learn from them and work together. It's great to know that the Dutch people sympathize with LGBT rights and support events like this that keep the issue on the international agenda. "
Support at all levels is needed
"One of the difficulties that I come across is that we’re working simultaneously to change people’s mentality and to pass laws that guarantee LGBT rights. My organisation LEGABIBO (Lesbian, Gay and Bisexuals of Botswana) works with hospital staff, police, community leaders in the countryside, and also with members of parliament," says Lame. “We must have support from all these layers of society. In South Africa we see that gay people have all kinds of rights, but because there is no social acceptance of gays and lesbians, they are still not safe. It scares me when I think about what could happen in Botswana if a phenomenon like corrective rape were to take root. I was hoping that South Africa would take more responsibility and would stand up for gay rights throughout our region. Maybe they are embarrassed because they’re unable to guarantee in practice the rights LGBT people have according to the law."
Keeping her sights on reality
Lame was looking forward to sailing on the Hivos boat during Gay Pride. "It's great to be able to talk to people from other regions about gay rights. But for me, it’s always just as important to keep my sights on reality in Botswana. Things like gay marriage are so far removed from Botswanan society. I mean, I can’t even get my organisation registered!"
Portraits by Erwin Olaf.