Why you never hear about African LGBTI rights in social media

The right to express both identity and sexuality is far from obvious. Just under half of the UN member states see LGBTI as a human right. It is a divided matter and for some controversial. There is also little to read about African LGBTI rights in social media. Although, digital strategies are being used by local LGBTI movements in southern Africa, but they seem to be failing. What harm can digital activism do to their cause?

TRIGGER WARNING: This text includes descriptions of homophobia, violence, oppression and hate crimes of LGBTI persons in sub-Saharan Africa.

That uncomfortable matter of LGBTI activism

LGBTI stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender/Transsexual and Intersexed. The LGBTI activism is probably mostly associated with Pride parades by the global northerners. But it takes a different approach in the global south as the contexts are different and so are the associations.

Read more, transnational LGBTI organisations: OutRight Action International (former known as International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, IGLHRC), International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA)

Amnesty Finland activists marching for those who can’t at Helsinki Pride 2011. Photo: Jesse Pasanen

The intersectionality of LGBTI rights

The globalisation of sexuality has helped shape the image of the “global gay”. You might think of a happy cheering man/woman with extravagant clothing and a rainbow flag. This image makes LGBTI rights a northern phenomenon in the eyes of many countries in the global south. LGBTI activism is associated with Western imperialism and progressive enlightenment for many.

Leaders of the global south has publicly positioned themselves against it calling homosexuality “Un-African” by former president Mugabe and against “Asian values” by the Singaporean government.

As you can see, LGBTI intersects with other types of issues such as religion, ethnicity, class, gender, citizenship. Naturally, so does the counter-activism. This is why LGBTI activism becomes complicated on the global arena. it clashes values with rights as if the right smears the value.

On a side note: The problem with northern frameworks

The most common main objective for LGBTI movements is trying to make an impact by changing laws. Through Human Rights framework (using a Human Rights logics), LGBTI activists are using universal values to apply to their local context. There is a popularity in trying to advocate for hate crime legislations for example. This approach is mostly called transnational LGBTI advocacy. It transcends from Northern contexts and with some help of new media and ICT solutions, spread to the global South.

The problem, however, is that before any laws are changed, the dominant culture must accept these LGBTI groups as a sub-culture (minority culture) in their society. Otherwise there is a risk for matters being taken in their own hands – despite any laws being changed. South Africa is an example of that. Having a very generous legislation for LGBTI groups (gay marriages are allowed), gays, lesbians and transgender are being assaulted or killed on almost a daily basis. There is a huge problem with correctional rape of lesbians in the townships, protected by law but not their neighbours.

Global Sexual Orientation Laws by ILGA.

The ignorance of the media and the knowledge gap

Besides the need for cultural and political changes I’m talking about above , there is a huge knowledge gap in LGBTI rights in countries where homophobia is the norm. That knowlegde gap needs to be attended. The gap adds on to the confusion of what LGBTI stands for and includes. And how are we going to tackle an issue without getting our facts right?

There is no policy on how to address LGBTI topics in media reporting in the global south and the knowledge amongst the journalists is very limited. Journalists are constantly mixing up sexuality with identity and not knowing the correct terms.

The journalists also feel fear and pressure from peers and government officials of writing an article that addresses the issue in an objective way. Perhaps, (spoiler alert!) this is something Tendai Huchu tries to aim at in his book Hairdresser of Harare.

Social media is harmful too

LGBTI activists in southern Africa risks their lives and wellbeing every day. They are living in an (and now I’m going use a very academic term) “hegemonic homophobic political system” where they are and unprotected by legislation (with exception of South Africa). Despite the risk, there are several LGBTI movements in the southern regions of Africa.

Read more: LAMBDA, Mamba, Triangle project, Luleki Sizwe, CEDEP (Facebook link), GALZ (Facebook link), Legabibo.

Many of these movements have attempted to make use of new media in their fight for LGBTI rights. That’s not surprising as new and digital media has been used by many social movements before and can be a powerful tool. New media can strengthen movements’ organising and protests. Or help spread awareness and information. But it can also be harmful and used against the causes these groups are fighting for. This is called the “negative radical flank effect” – when unpopular movements’ attention and support is being eroded due to bad publicity.

Strategies that’s gone wrong

One specific example of this is how Zimbabwean members of LGBTI group GALZ withdrew from participating on the groups Facebook page as they started to receive threats in the offline world. Another example comes from West African nation Côte d’Ivoire. Staff members of the LGBTI friendly organisation Alternative-Côte d’Ivoire uploaded photos from a signing ceremony with the French Embassy to their personal Facebook accounts. Ivoirian journalists then downloaded the photos and used them in a smear campaign against LGBTI rights. This then spread nationwide, fuelled homophobia and prompted the Ivoirian president to follow the same stance.

Critics has also been made to the Luleki Sizwe campaign in South Africa where images of a beaten women were being spread globally to increase awareness of violence against LGBTI persons. This approach went against other tactics by South African organisations in trying to prevent objectification and dehumanisation of African women.

What will work then?

Digital strategies become complicated since LGBTI rights are intersected with religion, ethnicity, class, gender, citizenship. The more attention the cause gets, the more its resistance starts to grow. It wont work to copy the strategies that are used by LGBTI movements in the global north.

What is the correct digital strategy in advocating LGBTI as a human right in the global south? Does it start with a cultural acceptance in the local context? Perhaps through media trainings and small-scale awareness campaigns locally. Or through other media channels, such as Tendai Huchu attempts to do in his book.

References for this text:

Currier & Moreu 2016: Digital strategies and African LGBTI organizing. In Mutsvairo, B. 2016: Digital Activism in the Social Media Era-Critical Reflections on Emerging Trends in Sub-Saharan Africa. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Thoreson 2014: Transnational LGBT activism. Minneapolis: University of Minneasota Press.

Mhiripiri & Moyo 2016: A resilient unwanted civil society: The gays and lesbians of Zimbabwe use of Facebook as alternative public sphere in a dominant homophobic society. In Mutsvairo, B. 2016: Digital Activism in the Social Media Era-Critical Reflections on Emerging Trends in Sub-Saharan Africa. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

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