04/12/2017 15:00 SAST | Updated 04/12/2017 15:00 SAST

A United Africa Means Uniting With Queer People Too

The truth of the matter is that empowerment of all Africans must include all bodies, identities and groups.

Edward Echwalu / Reuters
Members of the LGBTI community parade in Entebbe, Uganda, August 8, 2015. The community was celebrating one year since the Anti-Homosexuality Act was annulled by Uganda's constitutional court, which previously carried a death sentence.

LGBTQ+ people across the continent continue to face many forms of persecution, discrimination, inhumane violations and disempowerment. Utterances and laws propelled primarily by homophobic, queerphobic and transphobic leaders, governments and religious groups has meant many queer Africans still navigate oppressive spaces and battle against inhumane treatment.

Continuous dehumanisation has clearly precluded many queer people from making the claim to an 'African identity' in many countries. At the same time, the call among some African leaders for "unity" and striving for greatness reverberates across borders.

But when so many queer Africans are being excluded, oppressed and discriminated against, do leaders who call for unity but don't take ongoing dehumanisation seriously really strive for true unity, or are they satisfied with unity against queer people?

The ideals of pan-African unity have, once again, spurred growing debate among many young Africans and leaders alike, and a growing movement. The discussion usually centres on empowering young Africans and finding ways to foster the collective through economic and social empowerment, political stability and solidarity for the benefit of Africans across states and social strata.

Whilst this discussion is a step in the right direction, many questions remain: How are we supposed to work with states and leaders who actively endorse -- or silently sanction -- sexism, misogyny, homophobia, queerphobia, transphobia and xenophobia? Whose laws may either promote violence and exclusion of some people or simply turn a blind eye to the scourge?

Unity, through mutual empowerment, is clearly incomplete without social justice. And this is the next step.

Homosexuality remains illegal in many African countries. Some 33 have laws which stipulate that an individual may be imprisoned if they are caught 'practising', 'promoting' or 'endorsing' homosexuality. In some countries, the punishment can be as extreme as the death penalty.

Recently, 12 human rights activists, including South Africans, were imprisoned in Tanzania for allegedly "promoting homosexuality" even though they were simply advocating against Tanzania's plans to close HIV centres. This resulted in an outcry from various activists and Africans demanding the 12 activists to be released from prison. According to The Advocate, only 12 African countries have no laws against homosexuality, South Africa being one of them.

In addition to the legal positions regarding the LGBTQ+ community, there are also moral, social beliefs or views which disempower queer Africans. Queer bodies already feel less empowered, confident and comfortable in many spaces since in light of domineering heteronormativity.

In addition to this, there is extreme pressure from family, friends, religious groups and influential individuals to be heterosexual and cisgendered. These pressures can affect queer individuals mentally and emotionally.

Thus, it was outrageous and upsetting that a decision made by Kenya's censors to ban cartoons on DStv that have LGBTQ+ content. This decision forced DStv to ban these shows in other African countries too. As a result, many LGBTQ+ individuals lost more access to content that they can enjoy, connect with and relate to. Although many of these cartoons and shows are made in Western countries -- which on its own is insufficient and should be complemented by African-made queer content as well -- it was some form of content that gave LGBTQ+ individuals a space to be seen in a positive light on television.

The truth of the matter is that empowerment of all Africans must include all bodies, identities and groups. The best solution is for African countries, leaders and activists who support or are LGBTQ+ individuals themselves to become the allies and agents of change by engaging with problematic leaders and using the values of unity, equality and ubuntu as motivating forces of change.

This will be a concerted step towards deeper, inclusive unification of (and on) our continent.