Opinion
2 min

To help LGBT advocates in East Africa, Canada must start by listening

Every country and community requires a tailored, specific approach

From left to right: Kenyan LGBT activists Martin Kyana Ong’ara, Erastus Ndambuki Ndunda, Penninah Wanjiku Mwangi, Douglas Simiyu Wechuli Masinde and Peter Njane. Credit: Arshy Mann/Xtra

Despite what some think, Africa is not, in fact, a country.

Made up of 54 sovereign states, two sort-of-sovereign states, six autonomous regions, about a dozen colonial possessions, more than three-dozen territories with contested claims and one territory that no one claims at all, Africa is home to a few thousand linguistic groups that overlap with a few thousand ethnic groups who practise all of the world’s major religions and most of the minor ones.

In short, it’s a big, complicated place.

There is no single African story. And there is no single African LGBT story.

Instead, the experiences of LGBT people vary drastically between countries and regions, intersecting with many other factors.

That was incredibly obvious when I sat down with 12 LGBT activists from four different East African countries to talk about progress and persecution in their respective nations. They were in Toronto at the invitation of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, visiting Canada from Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.

And despite the interconnected histories, economies and politics of those four countries, the struggles they recounted were very different.

In Rwanda, there are no explicitly anti-LGBT laws on the books. Because of the country’s strong state and relatively-low crime rate, targeted violence against queer and trans people is relatively rare. But LGBT Rwandans are subject to police harassment, and queer men aren’t given the supports they need in the health-care system.

The situation in neighbouring Tanzania is very different. Under President John Magufuli, the Tanzanian government has been engaging in a systematic attack on LGBT people and institutions for the last four years. It’s part of a larger crackdown on civil society, but queer and trans people have been some of the hardest hit.

Like Tanzania, both Kenya and Uganda retain the homophobic colonial-era laws brought in by the British. And while Kenyan LGBT people have also been experiencing persecution from elements of the government, many queer and trans Ugandans have been fleeing into Kenya, fearing for their lives.

There were similarities, of course — the violent legacies of colonialism, the increasing power of western-backed evangelical homophobes, the resiliency of LGBT people and movements.

But the one message they could all agree on was that when western countries like Canada are pushing for LGBT rights, every country requires a specific, tailored approach that is created through constant communication with LGBT advocates on the ground.

The Kenyans were very wary of any public denunciations by Western countries of the Kenyan government’s approach to LGBT rights, favouring backroom discussions and working through already-established multilateral processes. But when it comes to Uganda, activists said that sometimes a public statement is needed to push back against immediate harms. But even 24 hours later, public hectoring might do more harm than good.

The tension between the possible benefits and dangers of publicly drawing attention to abuses against LGBT people is a theme that often comes up in discussions with international queer and trans activists. If western countries are too public about supporting LGBT rights, it can actually give ammunition to bigoted politicians who can frame the push for queer and trans rights as a western plot.

If the Canadian government was to lecture the Barbadian government during a meeting of the Commonwealth, it may hurt the efforts of LGBT activists who have been trying to create alliances within that country. But it’s hard to imagine how denouncing Saudi Arabia — an absolute monarchy that executes gay men and has no LGBT civil society to speak of — could do any more harm.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, the approach needs to be tailored. The interests of actual LGBT people in those countries must be at the forefront.