African Activists Fight Homophobia, Seek Protection from Violence

May 12, 2015
Recent landmark legal victories for LGBT organizations in Kenya and Botswana are being welcomed by activists as heralding greater recognition of the existence and human rights of LGBT populations more widely across Africa.

Kenya’s High Court ruled on April 24, 2015, that an LGBT rights group must be allowed to register with government authorities—and that the denial of this right to Kenya’s National Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission had violated the constitutional right to free association.

“The court decision is a significant victory for the LGBT community, not only in Kenya, but elsewhere in Africa where LGBT groups have faced similar obstacles to registration,” said Graeme Reid, director of Human Rights Watch’s LGBT program.

The ruling followed on the heels of a similar court victory won in November 2014, by Legabibo, the principal lesbian, gay, and bisexual group in Botswana where, like Kenya, “carnal knowledge…against the order of nature,” interpreted as homosexual acts, remains criminalized.

By overcoming a ban in Botswana’s High Court on the group’s registration as an official entity, activists “realized that we can be more proactive,” says Lame Charmaine Olebile, who was coordinator of Pan Africa ILGA1 during 2014 and is a former coordinator of Legabibo.

“We’re always reacting, and reacting to violence, from community, from our government, from different places,” says Olebile, noting that 2014 was a turning point: “We realized we can challenge homophobia in a very structured way.”

Legabibo’s victory followed the toppling, on a procedural technicality, of Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law, in August 2014, after the country’s LGBT and human rights activists formed a partnership to bring a judicial review.

“Reports show LGBT people face a lot of violence and homophobia in Uganda,” Olebile says. “But even in that space they were able to stand up and challenge a law intended to criminalize and persecute them further…It set a standard across Africa to say that we can actually do it.”

As short-lived as the law was, the day after it came into force on February 24, Uganda’s Red Pepper tabloid targeted a number of activists under the headline “Exposed: Top 200 Gays in Uganda.” It was just one of numerous outings by the country’s press.

Some 162 incidents of persecution of LGBT people, including violent attacks, kidnappings, arrests, blackmail, eviction, and media outings were reported to the Kampala-based watchdog Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) from December 2013 to May 2014, compared with 19 such incidents during all of 2013.

“We saw a high flux of people leaving the country for neighboring Kenya,” says activist and SMUG researcher Richard Lusimbo, who himself steers clear of public transportation, declines alumni invitations from his Christian university, and has had to change his home address for personal safety.

Although the law in Uganda was scrapped, anti-homosexuality legislation was enacted during 2014 in the West African countries of Nigeria and Gambia, triggering a fresh round of homophobic hostilities and LGBT departures across national borders.

Individuals with resources tend to travel directly to the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, Belgium, or Norway, where they may spend many years without clear residency status, says Neil Grungras, executive director of the San Francisco–based Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration (ORAM).

ORAM has run programs in refugee-receiving countries such as Kenya, where in the past year it has trained 300 refugee staff, such as registration clerks and refugee-status determination caseworkers, of the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) and other partner agencies, to sensitize them to the extreme risks facing their LGBT clients.

With the exception of Libya, Niger, Nigeria, and South Sudan, all African countries are signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, under which they must provide safe haven to those who have crossed international borders and can demonstrate a “well-founded fear of persecution.”

Homosexuality was illegal in 35 African countries during 2014 and punishable by death in four: Mauritania, Sudan, Nigeria, and Somalia.

In Kenya, which has seen an influx of LGBTI people from neighboring Uganda, UNHCR has registered these individuals in three locations, with the majority in Kakuma refugee camp and in Nairobi, where there is no camp settlement. Approximately 200 new cases were registered in 2014.

“In the course of 2014, staff became more familiar and sensitive to LGBTI asylum seekers, giving people space to explain their circumstances beyond the usual documentation,” says Alizée de Lacoudraye of UNHCR’s Nairobi office.

“LGBTI people may face protection problems and therefore are considered vulnerable refugees with specific needs, along with unaccompanied children, women at risk, disabled, elderly, and sick refugees” who require expedited registration, status-determination, and resettlement processing.

Fewer than 1 percent of the world’s 17 million refugees will eventually be resettled, and ORAM is also working with governments in refugee-receiving countries to ensure that the most vulnerable reach safe haven swiftly.

In Nigeria, the January 2014 anti-homosexuality law, still pending implementation in 2015, unleashed a wave of beatings and killings, and exerted a “chilling effect” on LGBT groups, according to Human Rights Watch.

After Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh in October 2014 signed into law a bill that punishes certain homosexual activities with life imprisonment, the U.S. government suspended its special trade arrangement with the country in protest at the legislation.

Against this backdrop, both the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC), which includes 13 countries from Africa,2 and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights took historic steps against anti-LGBT persecution during 2014.

The HRC in September adopted a fresh resolution that calls for the U.N.’s human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, to publish and disseminate a report on discrimination and violence worldwide based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The U.N.’s Universal Periodic Review of nations’ human rights progress has opened doors for dialog with government officials, according to Olebile. “When we were in Geneva, we talked to Botswana’s ambassador to Switzerland, which was a great opportunity for us,” she says. “[The process] opens a space where we can speak to our government and show we exist without fear of reprisals or the other common negative experiences.”

Olebile says that discrimination and stigma are often justified by leaders and politicians on the grounds that Africans are part of a culture where homosexuality or gender nonconformity are absent, which makes it difficult to come forward as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans.

“Gay and lesbian people existed in our cultures before we were even called by those names,” she says. “The Legabibo ruling placed us visibly as part of the continent’s civil society.”

Kenya’s High Court ruled in July 2014 that a nongovernmental organization, Transgender Education and Advocacy, could formally register, reversing a 2010 government decision, and the African Commission on April 25, 2015, granted observer status to the South Africa–based Coalition of African Lesbians.

As this report was published, the Botswana government was challenging the High Court’s decision and Legabibo remained unregistered.


1International, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association

2The votes by African states included a “yes” from South Africa; abstentions from Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Namibia, and Sierra Leone; and votes against the resolution by Algeria, Botswana, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kenya, and Morocco. Benin was absent from the vote.