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Beyond Uganda: Global Solidarity for Africa Should be Louder

val kalende

By Val Kalende

Last week, Ugandan gay activists announced February 10 as a Global Day of Action against the Anti Homosexuality Bill. In phenomenal world-wide outrage, the draconian proposed law has almost equaled Idi Amin and Joseph Kony in tainting Uganda’s image. So much that in 2012, the Ugandan government paid over $1 million to an Ireland-based public relations firm in a campaign to “whitewash” the country’s image abroad. While I still meet people who think Africa is a country, I meet many more who know about an East African country where “gays are killed.” While people may have flawed assumptions about Africa or what it means to be gay in Africa, these responses point to an undeniable fact: global solidarity is becoming one of the most powerful weapons against Africa’s homophobia.

I believe, as Dr. King believed, that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Solidarity is not a sympathy-seeking, charity-seeking project calling for White messiahs to save the world. Solidarity, as I understand it, speaks to a hidden desire in every human being to be human. Simply stated, solidarity is the African concept Ubuntu. To stand in solidarity with a cause for which one is not directly affected takes more than recognizing it as a problem of the other.

At Kuchu Diaspora Alliance, a network of Ugandan LGBT people in the Diaspora, we are “amplifying the collective voice of our movement,” a slogan that is representative of the collective power of solidarity. With an African LGBT Diaspora beginning to emerge, we are organizing—in partnership with activists on the ground—for global action.

In the United States, the campaign against Uganda’s anti-gay bill has redefined what it means to stand in solidarity with LGBT struggles abroad. When Hilary Clinton made a historic statement in support of LGBT people everywhere, “LGBT rights are human rights and human rights are LGBT rights,” the importance of global solidarity began to resonate with most activists. In fact, there had been discussions on how to diminish harm should similar laws be proposed in other countries. And, as witnessed in the past four years, gay rights have come under attack in Malawi, Zambia, Cameroun, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, and Russia.

In Cameroun, activists are under attack, and some have been killed. In Nigeria, the outcry of LGBT people is loud. And yet, only a handful of cases are reported. From current trends of events, backlash against HIV/AIDS interventions can be predictable. Witch-hunts, blackmail, arrests, and murder will continue to rise. One thing all these countries seem to have in common is the influence of religion and the pushback against Western imperialism.

In Russia, global solidarity and the Olympics have shed light on the country’s anti-gay “propaganda” law. In Uganda, politicians are beginning to respond to international criticism over the right-wing sponsored “Jail all gays” bill and are now turning to the Church to be at the forefront of the campaign against homosexuality. The church in Africa has become a safety net for homophobia mainly because it is safer to bash gays with the bible than it is to bash gays with politics.

Clergy in Uganda are mobilizing for a 2016 ballot on homosexuality whereby winning an election will be determined by a candidate’s stand on homosexuality. There is likelihood of growing fractions in the Anglican Church as African Archbishops move to respond to Canterbury’s recent communiqué on its stand on homosexuality.

But while Uganda’s upsurge of homophobia has provided reasons to investigate anti-gay laws elsewhere in Africa, I believe it is time for global solidarity against homophobia to move beyond Uganda. As a community organizer who has worked on the ground, I understand that words of encouragement from afar bring hope, even in hopeless situations.

Uganda’s anti-gay bill has galvanized global solidarity for gay rights on the continent. That is not a bad thing. Because while conservative evangelicals hail Uganda for “showing leadership” for its anti-gay law, Uganda has become the spin of Africa’s new gay rights civil rights movement because of its unique situation. My fear is that we seem to be using one country’s story to understand a continental problem. In the process, not much is known about the situation in other countries. The “global day for action” campaign can be applied to other countries where anti-gay laws are being debated or have been sanctioned. It should become a worldwide campaign with activists protesting anti-gay laws at embassies around the world. These actions can be coordinated with activists in African countries affected by such laws such that meaningful outcomes can be achieved.

Change is happening albeit not ostensibly. It is those small ripples of change that can be harnessed to long-term gains. A global day of action beyond Uganda might be just what needs to happen.

There is a Voice that is Silent from Africa

By Leigh Ann van der Merwe, Director, S.H.E.

There is a voice that is silent from Africa… a voice no one hears, despite its loud scream. There is a faceless person, despite standing in a crowd of millions. That person has a name, a face, and an identity. These are the transgender women in South Africa. Strides have been made for the rights of transgender people in South Africa, yet many of the issues affecting black, impoverished transgender women go unattended. This is where the idea of a feminist collective dedicated to addressing the issues of transgender women in South Africa originated and S.H.E. (Social, Health and Empowerment feminist collective of transgender and intersex women of Africa) was established.

Leigh-AnnSmUnlike our white privileged counterparts who may navigate and transition due to their economic statues, Black Transgender women are often poor and marginalised. Access to hormone treatment is generally perceived as a privilege instead of a human right to treatment. There are many barriers to gender affirming services in the public health service in South Africa. Only two public facilities provide care of this nature. Both currently have a 26-year waiting list. Private medical practitioners only treat on a pay-for services basis.

Knowing your rights are intrinsically linked to privilege is painful for us and divisive for our movement. We can’t hide or choose a particular type of privacy as we endure stares, harassment and violence within the public systems of South Africa. In post-colonial, post-apartheid South Africa, we must talk about these differences across race and class divides.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that transgender people of colour in South Africa are at heightened risk of experiencing violence and hate crimes. The violence transgender woman of colour experience in South Africa is broad and varied. We’ve read articles and seen videos documenting physical violence. But, systemic violence is silent, invisible, and violates transgender women as they try to access services. Often, transgender women are categorised as men and included in MSM/ HIV research and services. This prevents many transgender women from accessing health services. Transgender women face increased barriers to finding employment, which often leads them to sex work. There they are subject to arbitrary arrests from police. It is within this vicious circle that they become vulnerable to sexual violence and rape. And, it is heightened when, in police custody, they are locked up with cis-gender men (i.e. individuals assigned as male at birth and identify as male).

As we advocate for recognition, we face both internal and external challenges. S.H.E has chosen a feminist framework in which to organise. Our struggle plays against the backdrop of a racially challenged South Africa, and, as underprivileged South Africans, we fight many isms (classism, racism, chauvinism, patriarchy). The feminist maxim of equality in substance and process is of paramount importance to our work. Yet, still we must justify using a feminist framework for our analysis. We must justify a womanist approach2 to our work, and we have to explain why we want to advocate for our rights within mainstream women’s efforts. Some argue that transgender women cannot use a feminist approach to organising, based on the notion that we enjoy male privilege. But the violence and discrimination that we suffer is based, precisely, on the gender stereotypes we transcend. These conceptual difficulties are part of why it is not easy for projects such as ours to raise the resources to function effectively. S.H.E runs programs informed and led by transgender women. The leadership of the organisation is comprised mostly of transgender women from the continent. We strive to make our employment policies transgender women specific. These ideals support a mission and vision, underpinned by human rights, equality and freedom for the very people we wish to serve. To implement this mission requires adequate resources.

Well-meaning researchers, and scholars who take for granted that transgender women can be producers of knowledge, but not subjects of our own struggle, compound the challenges of South African transgender women. Many come to South Africa to research and document the experience of transgender women, but do not link these studies to advocacy strategies or for change rooted in our communities. When they leave, nothing is altered in advancing the rights of transgender women. I am that transgender woman featured in so many Ph.D dissertations, HIV research, and documentation of violent experiences. I have a face, I have a name, and I have an identity. There needs to be a better effort at forging relations between activists and those supporting our efforts from the West, based on the understanding that African problems have to be solved by African people, with African solutions. We transgender women must be seen in our racial, class, and other diversities. Ultimately, it is we who are the relevant stakeholders in our struggle for equality and rights.


S.H.E Coordinator and Founder Leigh Ann van der Merwe was born in Ugie, Eastern Cape of South Africa. Growing up as a gender questioning person, she struggled to conform to typical male gender codes and as a result always felt left out both in family life and at school. Leigh Ann’s first gender challenge was attempting to play on the Ugie High School Netball team. Netball is a female sport code in South Africa. She struggled through high school and graduated from Blackhealth High School in 2000. She enrolled for an LL.B degree with the University of the Western Cape in 2001 but did not complete due to financial difficulty.

Through another trans woman that Leigh Ann was introduced to trans activism in 2007. Her experience of activism includes being a candidate in the Transitioning Africa Exchange Program from 2010 to 2011; She was a fellow in the Open Society/Austrian American Foundation/Transgender Centre of Excellence program in Salzburg, Austria, October 2011 and presented at a transgender consultation at UNAids in Geneva, November 2011. She holds a seat on the United Nations steering committee for transgender people in the Global South.

Leigh Ann reviewed a number of gender literature resources produced by other NGO’s and was part of the study team on a UNFPA report on the challenges of sex workers in the East London area. She is actively involved with NGO’s dealing with gender & women’s issues, HIV and public health. She is the secretary of the board of an East London based NGO working with orphans and vulnerable children. She presented two papers at the first ever IGLHRC sponsored, Gender Dynamix Transgender Health and Research Conference  November 2011. In 2012, Leigh Ann received an award from the Masimanyane Women’s Support Centre in recognition of her work as a Women’s Rights Defender. She holds a certificate in Community Journalism from the University of South Africa. She is passionate about feminism and women’s rights.

End Sexual-Orientation and Gender-Identity Discrimination in Guyana

By Sherlina Nageer

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (“CEDAW Committee”), meeting this month at United Nations headquarters in New York City, will review the human-rights record of several countries that are signatory parties to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In recent years the CEDAW Committee has increasingly included the rights of lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LBT) women in its deliberations. During the week of July 9, Guyana will be reviewed. There has been strong engagement by LBT activists in preparation for the hearing. In the case of Guyana, an LBT-specific shadow report, “Human Rights Violations of Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (LBT) People in Guyana,” was jointly drafted and submitted by three human-rights organizations: Guyana RainBow Foundation (GuyBow), the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), and the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD). I had the privilege of making an oral presentation of this report to the members of the CEDAW committee on July 9 at the UN.

There is a glaring gap in Guyana’s anti-discrimination policies and practices on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity: There is no specific protection for LBT people in Guyana’s constitution, or in existing legislation. While the argument may be made that certain articles of the constitution offer general protections against all kinds of discrimination, Guyana has retained archaic, colonial-era legislation, such as laws that criminalize cross-dressing and specifically penalize gender-nonconforming individuals. Retaining these laws reinforces discriminatory, heteronormative stereotypes, creating a de facto climate of intolerance for LBT people and negatively affecting their quality of life, mental health, and economic circumstances.

Continue reading “End Sexual-Orientation and Gender-Identity Discrimination in Guyana”

Argentina Adopts Landmark Legislation in Recognition of Gender Identity: It’s the ‘talk of the town’ from South Africa to Argentina, from the Philippines to the U.S.A.

Human rights advocates worldwide are celebrating the passage of the most progressive gender identity law in history in Argentina on May 9, 2012. The law gives self-identified transgender people access to critical services without the need for medical intervention and provides for specific human rights protections. Argentina’s Senate passed the law on May 9th with 55 votes in favor, one abstention and no votes against. Activists from around the world are talking about the passage of the legislation.  We’ve seen reactions  Argentinean activists directly involved with the work to activists in South Africa who are celebrating this new law. The following are a few we would like to share with you:

Jessica Stern, Acting Executive Director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) enthusiastically hailed the legislation:

“Argentina has set a new benchmark for protecting and recognizing the human rights of transgender individuals.  We owe this triumph to the efforts of courageous transgénero and travesti Argentineans and activists along with coalitions of allies. This work — carried out over many years, with sustained strength, careful strategy and diverse unity — is what has made this legislation a reality.  We congratulate all of our Argentinean colleagues.”

“All too often, transgender people are subject to violent hate crimes and denied education, housing, healthcare and employment,” Stern continued. “Governments around the world should follow Argentina’s lead and implement progressive legislation to protect the rights of trans people everywhere.”

Continue reading “Argentina Adopts Landmark Legislation in Recognition of Gender Identity: It’s the ‘talk of the town’ from South Africa to Argentina, from the Philippines to the U.S.A.”

Thai Police Dismiss Murders of 15 Lesbians and ‘Toms’ As ‘Love Gone Sour’

grace poore

By Grace Poore

This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post »

On Feb. 24, 2012 in Loei province, Thailand, a 14-year-old girl reported to police that her 38-year-old father, who had sole custody of her since 2008, had been raping her continuously for four years because she “liked to hang out with toms” and wouldn’t listen to his instructions to stay away from them. She told police that the most recent rape had been on Feb. 11, 2012.

On Jan. 15, 2009 in Chiang Mai province, 17-year-old Orn-uma Wongprachit and her tomboy partner, 17-year-old Marisa Srisawa, were found dead. They had been stabbed over 60 times. Orn and Marisa worked at a karaoke bar to support their families. Police said they were killed by a man who was “attracted to one of the women and felt disdainful of the lesbian relationship.”
Continue reading “Thai Police Dismiss Murders of 15 Lesbians and ‘Toms’ As ‘Love Gone Sour’”

UPDATE: VICTORY! Seoul Student Rights Ordinance Passed with Sexual Orientation Gender Identity Clauses Included

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission received  good news in the following letter  from Jihyye Kim  telling us of victory for LGBT Students in Korea.

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

 “We won the Seoul Student Rights Ordinance with all Sexual Orientation Gender Identity (SOGI) related clauses in the original draft included! 

…It happened after the 6 days of protest of LGBT young people and activists, day and night. This is a significant progress in our LGBT history, because we fought face-to-face against the homophobic individuals and groups, including many members of the Council…   The Council had serious debates on sexual orientation/ gender Identity  (SOGI) issues in their plenary session for the first time in our history. One of the Council members read out UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s recent speech…  That was the moment that the voices of LGBT people began to be heard, and LGBT people’s human rights recognized…

Continue reading “UPDATE: VICTORY! Seoul Student Rights Ordinance Passed with Sexual Orientation Gender Identity Clauses Included”

Trans Day of Remembrance: Advancing the Human Rights of Trans People across the Globe

From Latin America, to the Middle East, from Africa to Asia, we remember….

“The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) today honors the memory of the many trans men and women whom we have lost across the globe. From Latin America, to the Middle East, from Africa to Asia discrimination, ignorance, transphobia and violence have unduly taken the lives of innocent trans men and women who sought to live with dignity and respect. In remembering their lives and their sacrifice, we also honor the courageous work activists and allies around the world do each day to advance the human rights of all trans people.”

Cary Alan Johnson, Executive Director, IGLHRC

Trans Day of Remembrance: Africa · Indonesia · Latin America · Turkey

Trans Day of Remembrance: Focus on Turkey

“While we remember and mourn the loss of Turkish trans women whose lives were brutally taken from us this year, we must recognize too, the courage of the activists who tirelessly work to advance the human rights of trans people in the Middle East.”

Hossein Alizdeh, IGLHRC Coordinator Middle East and North Africa Program

During the past twelve months, the Turkish trans community has continued to be the target of fatal hate crimes. On April 19, a 36-year-old trans woman identified as R.B. was shot in Izmir, Turkey. She was rushed to the hospital, but she passed away before reaching the hospital. Two other trans women were injured during the shootout. On July 31, Didem, a trans woman, was brutally murdered in Istanbul, Turkey’s most populated city. The assailants cut the throat of this 21-year-old trans woman. On October 6, a woman was shot to death in Gaziantep, one of the southern cities of Turkey.

Continue reading “Trans Day of Remembrance: Focus on Turkey”

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