In a period where homophobia and violence against the LGBT+ community is increasing across the continent, campaigning and networking to end discrimination can be dangerous. Social Media provides an outlet and a platform. According to LGBT+ activists in Ghana, their online campaigning is making inroads into people’s prejudices – in social media forums at least.
In Ghana there has been a spike in the homophobic attacks in newspapers, radio, pulpits and in parliament. Alongside the verbal and written attacks there has also been a commensurate increase in physical assaults on lesbians and gay men. One gay rights advocate interviewed recently had to be sneaked out of the national broadcast studios when a hostile crowd gathered at the gates of the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC). The current speaker of Parliament is vocal about his desire for harsher laws against homosexuality and he has the backing of all major religious leaders, the main opposition party and public opinion.
The violence faced by members of the LGBT community is not just from members of the public, but often family members. The situation has deteriorated to the extent that some gay men have asked that campaigning for LGBT+ right cease as it stirs up bigotry in the country.
Human Rights Watch documented the arrests, torture and humiliation of Gay Men in Egypt which occurred when the Sisi government in waged a deliberate assault on the LGBT+ community. Similar events are happening across the continent. It seems to make little difference whether homosexuality is decriminalized or not. Being gay or transgender is not illegal in Egypt, but ever since the military took power in 2013 they have persecuted the LGBT+ community, imprisoning them on the charge of “debauchery”, a charge which can come with a prison term of 17 years.
Uganda, Tanzania and even liberal South Africa have all seen an increase in violent homophobic assaults. The president of Tanzania, arch-conservative John Magufuli, has spoken out against women’s reproductive health rights, calling contraception ‘evil’ and has overseen the closure of HIV/AIDS clinics which distribute free condoms to gay men. This increase in homophobia is widely believed to be fueled and financed by right-wing evangelical churches from the USA as well as populist politicians.
The intense and wide-spread homophobia has led many LGBT+ rights activists and support groups to operate online where there is less likelihood of physical violence and identities can be more easily disguised.
In Ghana a group called LGBT+ Rights has established an active online presence with Facebook pages (public and private). It identifies itself specifically as a cyber-activism blog which is a “platform that uses social media to create awareness on LGBT+ issues in Ghana and also discuss, share and empower the LGBT community in Ghana.”
Ghana’s Humanists (HAG) use social media, open forums and safe spaces to discuss campaign strategies with LGBT+ Rights groups. One campaign debunked the pervasive notion that homosexuality is a ‘Western’ import. They openly challenged the Speaker of Parliament’s broadside against gay rights and his threat to deport or imprison those campaigning for gay rights. The HAG response got widespread coverage, including national newspapers and members of the group were interviewed on radio and invited to take part in TV debates.
A recent collection of essays “Digital Activism in the Social Media Era: Critical Reflections on Emerging Trends in Sub-Saharan Africa” edited by Bruce Mutsvairo explores digital activism in sub-Saharan Africa. The third section of the book, “Gender and LGTB Movements Online: Emerging Debates”, examines how gender and LGBT+ activists are organizing online using social media and blogs to discuss events and ideas, and combat homophobia. As well as around sexuality rights, the LGBT+ community is using social media to provide a community for members who feel isolated.
There is a powerful essay, “A Resilient Unwanted Civil Society: The Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe Use of Facebook as Alternative Public Sphere in a Dominant Homophobic Society”, which describes how members of the LGBT+ community in Zimbabwe migrated from using printed materials to online social media platforms – after the Zimbabwean government banned the use of such literature and prohibited their exhibition at a book fair and homophobic groups burned their literature.
In the same volume, “Digital Strategies and African LGBTI Organizing,” highlights the importance of digital media as a mobilizing tool during campaigns and activities as well as a place where members of the LGBT+ community can get information and find support and solidarity from fellow community members in the security of a shared space and identity.
None on Record (NoR) is a Kenyan LGBT digital media organisation which has produced a bi-weekly, eight-part documentary called ‘AfroQueer’. According to its creator, Selly Thiam, the series “is part of the process of collecting and documenting queer African stories from the continent and creating an archive to show that we do exist, and do matter.” In addition, NoR provides digital training to LGBT groups across Africa.
In his 2016 book “Communication and Social Change: A Citizen’s Persepctive” Thomas Tufte suggests that activists in movements for change found (or developed) new vehicles and platforms to construct “shared meanings and narratives, and to articulate identities in a social process.” As such, these online activists can become powerful ‘voices from below’, communicating shared values and representing identities, values and visions.
Social media is a channel for some of the most abusive homophobic attacks; it is, after all, a platform for bigotry as well as progress. However, the LGBT+ activists of Ghana’s Humanists and LGBT+ Rights report that their online advocating for freedom of sexuality and transgender rights, through engaging with people and combatting bigotry (in social and traditional media) is having a positive effect. In recent discussions with several HAG members, and the founder/organizer of ‘LGBT+ Rights’, they report a (slight) reduction in online abuse and a reduction in tolerance of bigotry in social media forums. They also point to the positive effect of organizing online, and the enabling power of support, sense of belonging and solidarity that it engenders in members.
There is a history of online activism creating a foundation, or forming parallel supports, for collective action. It is entirely possible that the current continent-wide social media activities can become a ‘powerful voice from below’.