MAVERICK LIFE ESSAY

Africa on the Pink Line

By Mark Gevisser 4 August 2020

Mark Gevisser ((Photo supplied)

...Thus was the Pink Line drawn: between those places increasingly integrating queer people into their societies as full citizens, and those finding new ways to shut them out now that they had come into the open.

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Two weeks ago, Sudan announced that the whip and the noose would be removed as penalties for sodomy, amidst a raft of human rights reforms. The crime itself remains on the books, with prison time rather than lashings or the death sentence as punishment. But the move was an important symbolic gesture of the new government’s intent, as articulated by the US-educated justice minister, Nasreldin Abdelbari: “We are keen to demolish any discrimination that was enacted by the old regime and to move toward equality of citizenship and a democratic transformation.”

In fact, the Sudanese state uses public order laws rather than the hard-to-prove sodomy law when it wants to control queer people. But by adding this symbolic reform to others giving women new rights, the government of Abdalla Hamdok signaled its wish to migrate across what I have called The Pink Line: a global human rights frontier around sexuality and gender that has come to divide, and describe, the world in an entirely new way in the 21st century.

For Hamdok and his reformers, taking Sudan out of the “death camp” of countries that mandate capital punishment for homosexual sex telegraphs that modernity is their lodestar, and that they wish to bring their country back into a global consensus on human rights. The intended recipients of this message are not only the progressive young Sudanese who brought down Omar al-Bashir’s government last year, but those international backers – state and private – whose support and investment the flailing country so desperately needs.

In 2013, the same year that the United Kingdom passed its Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act, Nigeria countered with its Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act. This was meant to provoke the former colonial oppressor, and the title was cynically preemptive, drawing a rhetorical line in the sand by promising to inoculate African society against future infection from the West. Nigeria’s is the harshest anti-homosexuality law in the world outside of Islamic Sharia: it prescribes mandatory sentences of fourteen years not just for sex, but for any kind of “homosexual behaviour” or advocacy, including attending gatherings.

Thus was the Pink Line drawn: between those places increasingly integrating queer people into their societies as full citizens, and those finding new ways to shut them out now that they had come into the open. On one side of this Pink Line were countries that had undergone social changes due to their own women’s rights and gay rights movements; these countries supported “LGBT Rights” as a logical application of the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On the other, were those that condemned the idea as a violation of what they called their “traditional values” and “cultural sovereignty”.

From Robert Mugabe’s notorious homophobia in the 1990s through the vicious public homophobia in Uganda and Nigeria, to recent anti-gay crackdowns in Tanzania, conservative Africans have long drawn a Pink Line against the West.

At the United Nations, the Africa Group of countries – together with Islamic nations – have led the (unsuccessful) charge against the recognition of “LGBT rights”. They argue that to extend the concept of human rights to people who are sinners and criminals is a violation of their own religious and family rights. In 2011, South Africa staked its own progressive position along the global Pink Line by insisting that the UN’s Human Rights Council deal with the violation of LGBT peoples’ rights, but by 2016 it had shamefully turned tail, ostensibly because it was doing ‘internal’ lobbying, but actually because it wanted to maintain its geo-political authority on the continent.

Finally, due largely to pressure back home, the South African ambassador to the UN separated from the Africa Group: “Discrimination has torn South Africa apart for the past 350 years,” Jerry Matjila said. “We will [therefore] fight discrimination everywhere. We cannot discriminate against people who are LGBTI.”

In response to the African and Islamic states’ sustained position, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously declared, at the United Nations in 2013, that “gay rights are human rights”. Her statement was bold, and shifted the debate dramatically. But one of the seemingly insoluble problems of the Pink Line debate is the way that any statement such as this, coming from a Western leader, merely serves to confirm the African position that “gay rights” is a neocolonial imposition: in Africa, of course, such dynamics get grafted onto the way the rest of the continent perceives South Africa, which goes some way to explain our diplomats’ diffidence on the issue.

Leaders such as the former British prime minister David Cameron do not help matters by stating – as he did in 2011 – that British aid should be conditional on the decriminalisation of homosexuality. This caused a devastating backlash against African queer people, now doubly blamed for their countries’ woes. More recently, the openly gay Donald Trump-supporting US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, announced a White House-backed campaign to decriminalise homosexuality globally. Apart from the rank hypocrisy of this gesture, given the way the Trump administration is rolling back rights back home – including those of transgender people – the move was a naked attempt to demonize Muslim countries, especially Iran. If, from the one side, the Pink Line is drawn to assert sovereignty against the old colonial oppressor, then, from the other, it is sometimes staked to find new ways of delineating the civilized “West” from the barbarous “rest”.

Something similar has been happening in Europe: In Western Europe, LGBT rights have been staked as a Pink Line against the influx of new migrants: right-wing leaders like the Dutch Geert Wilders or the French Marine Le Pen baldly state that their anti-immigrant policies are, in part, to defend gay people against Islamic homophobia. At the same time in Eastern Europe, leaders like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Orban and, most recently, Poland’s Andrzej Duda, have a Pink Line against decadent Western liberalism. In both instances, queer people themselves came to be instrumentalized politically as never before. In Europe, in Africa, and everywhere, queer people have acquired political meaning far beyond their own claims to equality and dignity. They have become embodiments of progress and worldliness to some, but stigmata of moral and social decay to others.

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The irony, of course, is that the law most often used to criminalise homosexuality, in former British colonies, is a product of the colonial order. The proscription of “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” was borrowed from the colonial Indian and Queensland penal codes. It arose out of two very particular colonial preoccupations, the legal scholar Alok Gupta has written: the fear of “moral infection” from the natives, and the mission of “moral reform” among these new subjects. In 35 countries of the Commonwealth, these laws are still on the books; eleven of these are in Africa, and include Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

In most of these countries, the law is seldom used against consenting adults, and only started being wielded again – or buttressed with new legislation, as in Nigeria and Uganda – as a Pink Line move, in response to the perceived new threat of the LGBT rights movement. This is how Tiwonge Chimbalange, the transgender woman I wrote about last week in Daily Maverick, came to be arrested and sentenced to fourteen years’ hard labour in Malawi, in 2010, for having held a public engagement ceremony with her fiance Steven Monjeza.

But the map is changing dramatically, particularly in southern Africa.  In January 2019, Angola followed Mozambique and decriminalised homosexuality.  Last year, too, LGBT activists in Kenya failed to use the courts to decriminalise homosexuality there, but in Botswana they succeeded.

The plaintiff was a young man named Letsweletse Motshidiemang, who had filed the case as a twenty-one-year-old university student, with the help of a law professor. Interviewed at the time of the judgment, Motshidiemang’s words echoed what Tiwonge Chimbalanga had told me: in the small rural village where he was reared, “people knew I was different, but I was surrounded by people who loved me. I was never taught to hate myself”. That job was done by something else: “It was the laws.”

As in neighboring South Africa, in Kenya, and in several Latin American countries, activists were following a deliberate, incrementalist approach, as courts and the societies they adjudicated got used to the changing world. In Kenya, the negative judgment had actually cited a 2003 Botswana decision: “The time has not yet arrived to decriminalise homosexual practises.”

In June 2019 the Botswana judge, Michael Leburu, offered his riposte: “As society changes, the law must evolve.”

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With our exemplary constitution and human rights dispensation, we South Africans know better than most the awkward dance between legal change and social reform. This is exemplified in a discrepancy between the rights enjoyed, on paper, by queer South Africans, and the reality of life on the ground. Just last month, the talented trans choreographer Kirvan Fortuin was stabbed to death in Macassar on the Cape Flats in an alleged hate crime by a thirteen-year-old girl.

For years, butch-looking women and effeminate men or transgender women in urban townships have been vulnerable to attack – rape, and even murder. This is, of course, a function of the unacceptably high levels of gender-based violence in our society anyway. But it is also a backlash against the space these queer people have claimed in recent years, buoyed by their legal rights, the country’s human rights dispensation, and, of course, a connection to the global movements for LGBT rights – or black lives – thanks to the digital revolution.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has made the point, in his recently inaugurated crusade against gender-based violence, of noting how it impacts on “people with diverse sexual orientation [and] gender-conforming or non-gender conforming” ones too.  But while he was correct, in the context of the televised lockdown address he made last month,  to focus on how “South Africa is one of the world’s most unsafe places to be a woman”, he and his government have not yet grappled, specifically, with the huge gap between law and practice when it comes to queer South Africans.

Until last year, most Home Affairs offices in South Africa declined to conduct same-sex marriages, given that marriage officers could refuse to do so on the basis of conscience. This was changed due to the initiative of an opposition MP, COPE’s Diedre Carter. And even though our laws permit legal gender change (albeit after medical certification), the experience of transgender people who have attempted to do this is the brick wall of ignorant or hostile Home Affairs officials. Far more seriously, our criminal justice system fails to protect queer people from violence and discrimination, or grant them access to justice. A recent study by the University of Cape Town’s Gender Health and Justice Research Unit has found that most bias-related crimes against LGBT people go unreported because of safety concerns, lack of family support, and – most of all – “negative experiences” with the police, “including homophobia and transphobia”.

A 2016 survey on attitudes towards homosexuality and gender-nonconformity painted a complex portrait of South Africa. Of those polled by the Human Sciences Research Council, 72 percent said they disapproved of homosexual activity. Nonetheless, 51 percent felt that homosexuals deserved the same rights as all other South Africans, and should not be discriminated against. The Other Foundation, which commissioned the research, consequently named its report Progressive Prudes, as if to suggest that we South Africans carried the Pink Line inside us: even if we accepted that these people deserved rights, we disapproved of what they did.

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At the other end of our continent, Egypt imprisons more people on the grounds of homosexuality than any other country on earth: at least 92 in 2019 alone, and another dozen, that have been recorded, during lockdown. Imprisonment in Egypt these days generally means torture. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s military government has used the rights of LGBT people in exactly the opposite way to what Abdalla Hamdok is trying to do, just to the south, in post-revolutionary Sudan. Al-Sisi wants to draw a Pink Line against the “debauchery” that comes with too much Western-style freedom, and that was manifest during the chaotic years of the Egyptian revolution following the Arab Spring.

Although sodomy itself is not illegal in Egypt as it is in Sudan, the state uses the nebulous crime of “fujur” (“public debauchery”). In my Egypt chapter in The Pink Line, I write about a lesbian couple, Amira and Maha, who came out on Tahrir Square and started a relationship during the Arab Spring, and set up an extraordinary sidewalk sheesha café that was the hub of Queer Cairo. Like almost all Egyptian LGBT activists, the couple is now in exile – in the Netherlands. I also write about a young woman named Sara Hegazi, who was also charged with conspiracy against the state, when a video of her waving a rainbow flag at a Cairo rock concert went viral in 2017. Hegazi was tortured during her several months in jail, and fled into exile while on bail. Last month, in Toronto, she killed herself: her friends and fellow activists say she received vicious hate messages daily on social media.

Noor Sultan, the head of Bedayaa, a human rights organisation in Cairo that deals with LGBT issues, told me that in the aftermath of Hegazi’s death, at least five women in her immediate circle were hospitalised after suicide attempts. They were driven to this, in no small part, by the deluge of hate on social media following Hegazi’s death. Most of this happens on Facebook, omnipresent in Egypt, and Bedayaa joined a dozen other organisations from the region to write to the company demanding action. At a subsequent meeting, the activists shared at least 55 hate posts relating to Hegazi, some of which say she should have been raped and murdered. Weeks later, none of these – nor hundreds of others pointed out to Facebook during the meeting – have been taken down.

Public homophobia has not been activated the same way in Sudan. Will the legal reforms be a trigger? Noor Sultan, who is Sudanese and whose organisation works in both countries, told me that “frankly, it is perfect” that the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy offenders has been “slipped in” under the cover of broader social reforms. Right now, she tells me, “queer people are occupying public space as never before in downtown Khartoum, and it seems acceptable…” How different this is from the situation in the worldly megalopolis to the north, where a queer Cairene public life that thrived during the short revolution is now deeply underground – and where most LGBT activists have gone into exile.

In both Egypt and Sudan – as in across Africa and the world – “LGBT rights” has become a dog whistle for encroaching neo-colonial secular decadence for some, and a symbol of modernity for others. In both instances, these ideas are carried by the winds of globalisation, especially the digital revolution. This has disseminated new ideas about identity and rights – but also provided the mobilisation tools for new resistance to these very ideas. In Egypt, an ever-resourceful vice squad now uses hook-up apps such as Grindr to entrap gay suspects.

The new rights that women have in Sudan are profound: to be in public without a veil, to travel with their children without their spouse’s permission, to be free of the violence of genital mutilation. It will, thankfully, be very hard to push back on these (although the last will be difficult to enforce).

But queer people are a more marginal constituency, and the courageous reformers who lead Sudan today can be sure of one thing: if they fail and the men with guns and Qu’urans come back into power, one of the first ways they will demonise the Sudanese revolution will be by tarring it with a pink brush, as has happened in Egypt. DM/ML

The Pink Line: Journeys Across the World’s Queer Frontiers is published by Jonathan Ball (R280).

Photographs by Ellen Elmendorp / Composite: The Reading List
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