May 23, 2007 -- Earlier this May, 2007 more than 60 Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) activists from 15 African countries gathered in Johannesburg, South Africa to discuss ways they could consolidate their movement and further progress in self organizing on a regional level. ILGA, a 29-year old world federation of 560 groups, co-organised its first-ever Pan African LGBTI conference, together with a series of African groups including Alternatives Cameroon, Behind the Mask, the Coalition of African Lesbians, Sexual Minorities of Uganda and The Lesbian and Gay Equality Project. The Swedish Lesbian and Gay Federation, RFSL facilitated funding from the Swedish Foreign Office.
The conference began on a tragic note with the death of LGBTI activist Roger William Nowokap. The Cameroonian activist was traveling to the conference to represent the organization Alternatives Cameroon, when his plane crashed. Participants to the conference decided to dedicate the event to his memory.
A major focus of the conference was on enabling African LGBTI activists to self-organise on a Pan-African level. Organizing on a continental scale for African LGBTI activists has seen various unsuccessful attempts in the past. One major obstacle to LGBTI organizing in Africa is the prevalence of state-sponsored homophobia. As of April 2007, 38 African countries have laws criminalizing homosexuality.
“In Africa, homophobic laws were either imported by colonial empires or the result of legislations culturally shaped by a conservative interpretation of religious texts” said Rosanna Flamer Caldera and Philipp Braun, Co-secretaries generals of the International Lesbian and Gay Association , in the introduction of a report on State-sponsored Homophobia in Africa launched at the conference. “Although many of the countries listed in the report do not systematically implement those laws, their mere existence reinforces a culture where hatred and violence are somehow justified by the State and force a significant portion of the citizens to hide from the rest of the population out of fear.”
An activist, who asked to remain anonymous, from the Senegalese LGBTI group And Ligeey, a support group for gay men, said gay men faced discrimination in many spheres of society though he applauded the recent inclusion of this group in a government HIV/Aids prevention plan. "Our struggle is about being visible and claiming our rights," he said on the sidelines of the meeting. "Many gays in Senegal are arrested and given unfair trials because what is judged is not their crime but their sexuality."
African Lesbians are also particularly at risk as they suffer multiple discrimination not only because of their sexual orientation but also because of their gender. The Coalition of African Lesbians, a group composed of 11 lesbian and feminist organizations coming from 14 different African countries, played a key role in ensuring that lesbian issues were high on the agenda of the conference. During the plenary session a panel was organised and managed by several lesbian organizations on “Feminist Ideologies, its role and impact in advancing LGBT activism in Africa.” The aim of the session was to make some of those abstract concepts more understandable and accessible and have gay men more involved in gender issues.
Another challenge faced by African LGBTI activists wishing to organize on a regional level is language barriers. Efforts at this year’s conference to bridge the gap between English and French speaking activists in Africa were successful, with delegations from French-speaking countries, such as Morocco, Cameroon, Algeria, Burundi and Senegal, attending the conference and networking with their counterparts in other English-speaking African nations.
Despite these challenges, activists at the conference made significant progress in establishing an African regional LGBTI federation. African activists at the conference created an 11-member, interim board to govern the newly formed Pan-African LGBTI federation. The activists set up five regions in Africa – North, South, East, West, and Central – and elected two representatives from each region. Special attention was paid to the issue of gender parity and it was decided that each region should be represented by one male and one female representative if possible. The final seat on the board was reserved for a Transgender activist.
T he following members were elected to the board (Because of homophobia and violence perpetuated against LGBTI people in their home countries, several board members asked that their identities remain confidential).
Representing the Northern Region:
· Anonymous – Morocco
· Anonymous – Abu Nawas - Algeria
Representing the Central Region:
· Anonymous – Horizons - Rwanda
· Anonymous – Alternatives Cameroon – Cameroon
Representing the Eastern Region:
· Anonymous – Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya - Kenya
· Anonymous – Spectrum Uganda Initiative - Uganda
Representing the Western Region:
· Rev. Rowland Jide Macaulay – House of Rainbow - Nigeria
· Anonymous – And Ligeey – Senegal
Representing the Southern Region:
· Linda Baumann – The Rainbow Project - Namibia
· Danilo da Silva – Lambda Mozambique - Mozambique
The conference thanked Dorothy Aken’ova and Juliet Victor Mukasa for their work as board members representing Africa on ILGA’s World Board and asked the newly elected interim board to choose two representatives amongst its members. Linda Baumann and Danilo da Silva were chosen for this position.
There was no transgender activist available to take the final seat on the board, so Liesl Theron , Director of the first African Transgender organization, Gender Dynamix, has agreed to serve in that role while she actively searches for a transgender activist to replace her.
The interim board was charged with an important mandate towards which it will work until the next African regional conference. Specific goals of the interim board include:
- Creating a legal entity for the African regional federation, to be based in South Africa;
- Fundraising for both the organization and the next regional conference;
- Drafting a constitution to be submitted at the next conference; and
- Facilitating access to information for LGBTI groups throughout Africa.
In agreement with Behind the Mask, the conference chose to have the South African organisation act as secretariat. The organisation, well known for its website www.mask.org.za , will hold a seat on the board as ex officio.
Activists at the conference were unable to agree on a name for the newly-created organization but the interim board will continue to consider possible names and will propose possibilities at the next conference. For now, the organization will be known as the Pan African ILGA, but activists are hoping to agree upon a more Afro-centric name which uses African words to describe the LGBTI movement in positive terms.
Despite the tragic death of Robert Nowokap and the various challenges facing the African LGBTI movement, the conference was an undeniable success. According to David Kato Kisule, secretary of Integrity, a faith-based organization located in Uganda, “It [the African Region of ILGA] will show that homosexual people do exist in African countries and not just something happening in countries with white people.”
“Communities have grown and become stronger in their respective countries” said Linda Baumann from The Rainbow Project, Namibia and co-chair of the board of the new federation. “The formation of the Pan African ILGA is living proof of the strength and unity of gay and lesbian organizations onour continent”.It will work to help all current and future LGBTI organizations and will also be instrumental in lobbying government bodies”.