What we Learned from LGBTQI and human rights activists from Africa

A team of our OpEd Project teachers was in South Africa when Caitlyn Jenner made her debut on Vanity Fair. And since then the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the equal right to marriage for all.

Mama CashIn South Africa, we led a group of LGBTQI and human rights activists who had travelled from all over the continent for a two-day training with myself and OpEd Project facilitators Deborah Douglas and Zeba Khan. The participants came from different countries, including  Egypt, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe. And while many celebrated Jenner’s debut they knew that in their countries the reaction would be different. The focus would not be on how she looked or what she said. For them, the consequences of coming out are much more serious.

In 38 African nations it is illegal to be gay. They shared stories that to be gay means you could be arrested, jailed, tortured or even killed. Some of their fears included:

“Being ignored

Losing friends and family

Being rejected by society

Being attacked, raped and killed

Being dead.”

One participant told us that his best friend had been hacked to death for being gay. And the perpetrators said, “Good. We got rid of another one.” Another participant, who is transgender, spoke of the difficulty in even finding doctors who will give the medical treatments they need. Some of the lesbian women who had children worry that they could be sued and their children will be taken away from them. And some of the women in the group from Egypt spoke of how difficult it is for a woman to even walk out of the house alone. She could face severe harassment or even rape.

We gathered in South Africa because the laws there are more progressive. In 1996 it became the first country to approve a constitution that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation. Still that doesn’t stop harassment or even killing.

In 2006, a lesbian Zoliswa Nkonyana, was stabbed and stoned to death in Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s largest township. In 2012, four men received prison sentences for her murder. This was the first time a South African court acknowledged that a victim had been murdered because of her sexual orientation. In Gambia, being gay can result in a life sentence under the rule of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh. Uganda and Kenya propose the same.

Despite societal and governmental obstacles many of the activists we work with run nonprofits to advocate for their communities.

They also shared some of what motivates them:

“To promote equal rights, to stamp out patriarchy, homophobia and xenophobia.”

“I am placing a brick in the creation of a LGBTI movement in Kenya leading to East Africa, leading to Africa. The ideas are like notes in a song that become more sensible when arranged.”

“Because every single life matters.”

I offer their powerful words as a point of reflection for us in the U.S. who have much more freedom to speak out than most people in the rest of the world. Please use your voice in the service of others as we live in times where so much must be said, so many stories need to be told.

We also share this poem by one of our participants Moses Devine.



I’m young,

I love life,

I love everything around me,

I love everyone around me,

but I’m not sure if they love me too.

I’m different not because I asked to be but because

I do not fit the standards my society has set.

I love but my love has been rendered an abomination.

My friends have been deemed unworthy because they are more like me.

My hangout places have been demolished and burnt down because they accept people of my kind who have been rendered outcasts.

I’ve been made an outcast in my own home and in my own country

 just because I am different.

Some say I’m a curse while others say am just a result of globalization and immorality but to those that know me, I am just a normal teenager trying to pass

through life and its everyday challenges.

I’ve been chased and spat on by on lookers, snared at by neighbors,

turned against by friends and judged by those that hardly know me.

I’ve been a victim though many think I’m the perpetrator

all because I’m different from what society deems normal.

But how abnormal am I?

When I’m beaten don’t I cry?

When I’m spat on don’t I hurt?

When I’m stubbed don’t I bleed?

When my friends are persecuted don’t I worry?

When my friends are killed don’t they die?

So if I’m an outcast, why do I feel the same things you feel?

Post by OpEd Project Journalist Facilitator, Teresa Puente.

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