NEW YORK — African LGBT activists on Monday called upon the international community to do more to support the continent’s gay rights movement.
Friedel Dausab, a Namibian HIV/AIDS advocate, said during a briefing in lower Manhattan that the U.S. and other governments can create spaces where LGBT rights activists “can actually come and speak to our own governments.” Gift Trapence, executive director of the Centre for the Development of People in Malawi, added embassies should engage with local advocates on the ground.
“They need to get the information from the people on the ground so they’re informed,” said Trapence.
Activists from Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Cameroon and Zambia also took part in the briefing the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission held a day before the 65th anniversary of the U.N. General Assembly’s ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
They urged the U.S. and other countries to hold African governments more accountable for ongoing LGBT rights abuses.
British Prime Minister David Cameron in 2011 said his government would consider withholding foreign aid to commonwealth countries that ban homosexuality. President Obama in the same year announced the administration would consider a country’s LGBT rights record in the allocation of foreign aid.
“We’re not asking the U.K. or foreign governments to cut aid to Africa,” said Juliet Mphande, executive director of Rainka Zambia, during the IGLHRC briefing. “LGBTI individuals are also Africans, so ultimately we all benefit from that aid.”
Mphande said the U.K. and other European nations should instead begin to address the lingering effects of colonialism that brought anti-sodomy laws into African countries. These include Namibia’s law against homosexuality that has been on the books since 1927.
“What the conversation we need to start having is how the U.K. and foreign governments can start cleaning up their own mess,” said Mphande. “These penal codes that we inherited in most of the African countries are their laws.”
Rev. Kapya Kaoma of Christ Church in Hyde Park, Mass., who is from Zambia, questioned whether it was effective for President Obama to criticize the criminalization of homosexuality during a June press conference with Senegalese President Macky Sall in his country’s capital. Obama’s comments came a day after the U.S. Supreme Court found a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and struck down California’s Proposition 8.
Kaoma said the strategy of western LGBT rights advocates to pressure government officials to publicly speak out against “what they perceive to be homophobia” does not necessarily work in Africa.
“President Obama would have achieved a lot of good if he had called the president of Senegal, brought him into a room and had spoken to him,” he said. “In the Africa context it just reinforces the myth the western world is the one which is exporting homosexuality into Africa.”
Senegal is among the more than 70 countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain illegal. Homosexuality remains punishable by death in Mauritania, Sudan and portions of northern Nigeria.
Obama and the State Department have repeatedly spoken out against a Ugandan bill that sought to impose the death penalty upon anyone convicted of repeated same-sex sexual acts. The administration has also criticized Cameroon, Zimbabwe and Nigeria over their government’s LGBT rights records.
South Africa in 1994 became the first country in the world to add sexual orientation discrimination protections to its constitution. It is also among the 15 nations in which same-sex couples can legally marry.
A 2003 South African law allows trans people to change the gender marker on their identity documents without undergoing sex-reassignment surgery.
Liesl Theron, co-founder of Gender DynamiX, a South African trans advocacy group, said during the IGLHRC briefing the statute has not actually been applied. She further noted the one public hospital in the country that provides sex-reassignment surgery has a 36-year waiting list for those who want to undergo the procedure.
“As much as we have the best constitution and we have every other type of law and thing that is on the side of the citizens of South Africa to have an equal life and a better life, it’s just not the same reality for transgender people,” said Theron.