As Violence Rises, Activists Fight to Set Up Gender Nonconforming and Trans Spaces

September 8, 2016

When the Lesbian Life Association, based in Côte d’Ivoire’s largest city, Abidjan, was established in the West African country in 2009, its founder went by the name Diane Ouattara and used the feminine pronouns “she” and “her.”

Now ADO Jr. (ADO stands for Alexis Diane Ouattara) has steered the advocacy organization to include bisexual and transgender men and women, as well as those who don’t identify with any category under the LGBT spectrum.

“I explained that I really am a man,” ADO Jr. says. “There were a lot of people who wanted to know what was happening about both my change and the organization’s. At the same time we noticed the importance of moving beyond the focus on gay men or lesbians.”

“People who don’t conform to a typical gender role need a specific kind of support,” ADO Jr. adds. “For example, they need to be able to go to doctors who are going to actually help them and not just judge them.”

ADO Jr. worked toward LGBT human rights in 2015 in Côte d’Ivoire as well as internationally at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva and African Commission on Human and People’s Rights in Banjul, Gambia.

Although Côte d’Ivoire is tolerant compared with most others in the region and has never criminalized same-sex relations, a 2014 attack against the office of a local LGBT rights group prompted ADO Jr. and other activists to call for the National Human Rights Commission to track violations against sexual and gender minorities.

Religious extremism and state-sponsored homophobia were on the rise across the region, in Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, and Togo, according to a 2016 report We Exist—Mapping LGBTQ Organizing in West Africa.1

At the same time, according to the report, “In the past five years, there has been a notable emergence of organizations led by queer-identified women and gender non-conforming people, and trans*-led activism is gaining momentum—indicating potential for building more inclusive movements.”

A global attitudes survey2 released in May 2016 by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) and RIWI, a Canadian technology company, found that 45 percent of more than 700 respondents from nine African countries3 believed that being LGBTI should be criminalized, compared with 36 percent who did not.

Some 35 African countries currently outlaw same-sex conduct.

“Most of the legal challenges across the continent in recent years have been court victories based on rights and freedoms which should be constitutionally guaranteed and are in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” says Sibongile Ndashe, executive director of the South Africa-based Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa.

For example, Kenya’s high court in April 2015 upheld the right to free association and speech, ruling that the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission could register as an official nongovernmental organization, a status that had been previously denied by the government’s registration body.

“The law shapes how we think about ourselves and limits how far people are able to go in life,” says Zhan Chiam, ILGA’s gender identity and gender expression program officer. “Unless your appearance aligns with your documents, you can’t interact with society legally without being questioned about who you really are.”

In Ireland, a law passed in July 2015 provides a very simple process for changing one’s legal documents for anyone over 18, and Thailand’s Gender Equality Act of September outlawed discrimination against gender nonconformity. The law stipulates fines or jail penalties.

Dozens of countries require evidence of a medical transition before a change of gender on official documentation is permitted, a step that Chiam says is expensive, lengthy, and against the wishes of many who seek a correction to the gender they were assigned at birth.

Click to open an interactive visualization of data from Transgender Europe’s Trans Murder Monitoring project. (Design: ©Emerson, Wajdowicz Studios).

Laws remain on the books in multiple countries, including Finland and Kazakhstan—where the process of legally changing one’s gender requires long periods of in-patient psychiatric evaluation, sterilization, medical tests, mandatory surgery, and assurance that the individual does not have children.4

The World Health Organization is expected to vote in 2018 to remove terminology from the International Classification of Diseases that refers to “transsexualism” as a gender identity disorder, a move that activists have been seeking for years.

“The majority of laws around the world reinforce the idea that gender is static and determined at birth,” says Chiam. “They create permissive environments for transphobia, which not only pathologize and stigmatize us, but also create conditions for acts of violence and hate to be committed with impunity.”

The Trans Murder Monitoring project recorded 2,115 killings of trans and “gender-diverse” people in 65 countries between January 1, 2008, and April 30, 2016—1,654 of them in Central and South America.5

One hundred of those murders were reported during the first four months of 2016, the highest number recorded since the group began collecting the data in 2008.

The Arcus Foundation and Novo Foundation announced a five-year Global Transgender Initiative in December 2015 to deploy at least $20 million toward raising awareness and improving access by trans people to safety, justice, economic security, health care, education, and legal equality.

1Commissioned by the American Jewish World Service, Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, UHAI-EASHRI (East Africa Sexual Health and Rights Initiative), Foundation for a Just Society, and the Queer African Youth Network.

2ILGA-RIWI 2016 Global Attitudes Survey on LGBTI People in Partnership with Logo.

3Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, Zimbabwe.

4Human Rights Watch,; and personal correspondence.

5Joint update by the Trans Murder Monitoring project ( and International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia & Biphobia.