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Activists painted their banners before marching at the Forum
World Social Forum - Nairobi 2007

in KENYA, 26/02/2007

Respect for All! Another world is possible – for African LGBT people, too

As a project manager at ILGA, a worldwide federation of LGBT groups, Stephen Barris was in Nairobi at the end of January to attend the first World Social Forum in Africa, an event that coincided with the coming out of the LGBT community in Kenya.

Please note that this personal report does not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILGA

The World Social Forum in Nairobi has been – at least for me – an African experience, even Kenyan. Not that Kenya particularly welcomed the event; on the contrary, one might say that the country politely turned its back on it.

The media did not explain the event to the public and very few people in Nairobi understood what had brought about 50,000 people to a stadium on the doorstep of their city. Far and discretely enough as if authorities wanted to make sure that the chaotic and polluted capital, all busy with surviving or making business, would not wake up to any revolutionary dream or the sense of any type of social awakening

According to the participants from the previous World Social Forums in Porto Alegre, Mumbai and Caracas, Nairobi was not buzzing with the same energy. The same ingredients were there: the Social Forum was still an incredible engine of ideas, a fantastic "greenhouse where everyone could bring their grassroots to see them grow." However, the Forum appeared to be “off plot”, far from the city but also in a society that seemed to lack a tradition of trade unionism, social protest, and vocal citizens’ movements. From my perspective as an European idealist in his thirties, and with a disenchantment about capitalist society that is only rivaled by my curiosity about other possible worlds, the forum was initially a surprise and an eye opener. In the absence of strong protest movements, NGOs that focus on development occupied a lot of space -first and foremost, the church, dubbed the "first NGO in Africa." I also felt joy, an extraordinary joy... If mass was to be said three times a day at the Forum, all was not said there: the forum was going to be the space for liberty and diversity that I had hoped for.

But we had no tent! The space reserved by the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) was nowhere to be found! Was it intentional? There was no time for controversy this Sunday - the first hectic day of the Forum: we’d squat in the first empty tent we could find! The Forum was particularly important for GALCK and its members: after it was formed by eight gay and lesbian associations in Nairobi and made a first, timid appearance in a march for World AIDS Day on December 1, 2006 behind a banner held by five brave activists, the Forum was meant to be the climax of a campaign, whose first success was the first legal registration of an LGBT association in the history of Kenya.

Judith, Loury, Pauline, Ivy, Peter... approximately forty young people followed the preparation meetings for the Forum led by Annika, an admirable Norwegian volunteer from Queer Solidarity, and Angus, the head of a project for MSM* in a center for AIDS prevention. Are they aware of the impact that they will make? After all, they’re about to organize a national coming out for the Kenyan LGBT community. Their tent, which is called the Q Spot,** will make history. It will be one of the spaces that will be most talked about at the forum, and one of the most visited!

The freedom of tone of the activists invited to participate in debates in the tent is really extraordinary, and the public – who are curious, intrigued, and rarely hostile – are amazed.

Homosexuality is unAfrican? A Nigerian activist remembers how the people of her village spoke of sexuality and pleasure in her youth. She recalls the words that exist for speaking of love between people of the same sex, and explains how the missionaries had forbidden those words to deny that reality. She asks the public: the church arrived here recently, who is it to say what’s African and what isn't?

The participants listen attentively to South African activists who explain the success of the campaign for same-sex marriage in their country. An Indian jurist recounts the history of anti-sodomy laws in the Commonwealth: people laugh as he reads the correspondence between judges who seem to be determined to find the broadest possible definition of sodomy so that the laws cover, with excruciating detail, any acts remotely related to homosexuality. The public also learns that these laws didn’t exist until they were imposed by the British Empire on its colonies.

The presence of the Kenyan Commission on Human Rights is equally astonishing, although it seems to have trouble reiterating publicly and simply, what it had sent in writing to GALCK: that the Commission opposes any discriminatory law in Kenya, including punishing sodomy with fourteen years in prison.

The show was almost stolen by the audience. They came to see with their own eyes those gays and lesbians, black, African, like themselves. The activists improvise and make impromptu circles of chairs. Ten, twenty, sometimes thirty people surround an activist, their questions and comments blurring together: "You're gay? Really?", "That doesn't exist in Africa," "How did you get like that?," "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!," and, always, "How do you do it?” “What?” “Sex...” Once their curiosity is satisfied, it is clear that the young people really want to understand. This also seems to be one the rare chances to talk about sexuality and pleasure, and the freedom of language and tone seems liberating. The groups laugh together with the activists as the young Kenyan activists readily reverse the questions: "And you, how do you make love?"

The level of interest is steady, so it’s hard to ask the audience to leave when we have to paint our streamers and banners and choose our slogans to march around the stadium with the feminists. Together with GALCK, activists from Uganda, Tanzania and other parts of Africa will march no less than three times this week! The joy is real as in a first Pride but the energy is doubtlessly multiplied by the years of fear and silence.

Another emotion is in store for gays and lesbians of Kenya; on Sunday night, GALCK organizes a private party. The discotheque is not big. How many of us are here? Two hundred, maybe three hundred, but my new comrades can't believe their eyes: "We’ve never seen so many people. There are even people nobody knows!" And in the same breath, they add: "We'll have to throw others, definitely!"

At the closing ceremony on Thursday afternoon, the staged speeches sound hollow and fill the pauses between the musical groups which follow each other for nearly six hours. The attendance is disappointing; it’s only a few thousand people for a free concert in a central park, in a city with three million inhabitants. GALCK is present but our banners are barely visible in the crowd. We decide to ask for a speech to be read but the program is already overloaded: someone takes our script, but cannot guarantee that it will be read. In the following minutes, our speech in the name of “the gays and lesbians of Africa” is announced but does not materialize. One hour, two hours, three hours... Kasha, a Ugandan activist, and I decide to go backstage to ask what's going on. Our persistence seems to make the presenter panicked. He would read it, he says, but he can’t find our speech anymore. I look around us and spot the script at our feet, like trash on the ground. I pick it up and press him for an answer: when will we go on stage?

Kasha and I stand and wait. Nervously, she lights a cigarette. An hour and a half passes, and finally comes her moment to shine. I wait behind the scenes: a European – especially a white man – would discredit the attempt by trying to speak in the name of the gays and lesbians of Africa. With a bit of wit and subversiveness, we have decided to begin the speech with "Universal" protest mottos and Kasha warms up the crowd shouting, "Respect for All! Human Rights for All!" The pitch works perfectly.

Kasha continues, "I speak in the name of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya, the Coalition of African Lesbians, the Sexual Minorities of Uganda, the International Lesbian and Gay Association..." Surprisingly, the audience who was dancing in front of the stage falls silent... Fists begin to rise, with some crying "No! No!"

Kasha continues, and the hostility in the crowd grows. The presenter, undoubtedly uncomfortable, tries to take back the microphone but Kasha perseveres... "People, people, if you do not agree, if you do not understand homosexuality, you have to at least agree with me on one principle: we have to learn to live together. Gays and lesbians also have the right to live in peace in Africa!" Before thousands of people, Kasha drops to her knees and improvises: "I beg you, tolerate us!"

My heart beats quickly, my stomach clenches, and I hardly dare to imagine how Kasha must feel. The atmosphere is electric, she leaves the stage, everything blurs together. Two guys chase her backstage with their raised fists, two Rastafarians with dreadlocks and “the right attitude.” "Fire!". Weren’t they the same people who were dancing on stage minutes ago? "Fire on homosexuals!"

Kasha starts to run, I run after her to stop her. A reflexive instinct tells me not to run into the crowd, hers probably tells her to run as fast as she can. I catch up with her and we rejoin our group. Kasha regains confidence while people, shaken, express their support...

Why didn't the organizers come to her defense? Why did they let this happen, after five days of a World Social Forum and five hours on stage, shouting that "another world is possible"?

GALCK’s members meet again the day after the Forum. Fears and hang over. The political outcome of the Forum is mixed. ILGA has had the decriminalization of sodomy included in the Forum’s manifesto, which regardless of the sad episode at the closing ceremony has always included respect for sexual diversity. In the absence of a physical Forum in 2008, groups have been asked to organize their own events around the slogan "In a Diverse World, Equality Comes First." Earlier in the week, Desmond Tutu declared in the presence of other religious Africans at the Forum that "Africa must deal with two evils, the dominance of men and homophobia." On Tuesday, an imam responded by challenging the government and demanding that they arrest us within 48 hours – the ultimatum died quietly.

The journalists hurried to report on the success of the stand, but also began to spread misinformation, writing that gay Kenyans primarily want marriage. Because of the success of the gay and lesbian movement in the West and the same-sex marriage victory in South Africa, the media, politicians, and therefore the public hear “marriage” any time LGBT rights are mentioned. But marriage is way down the priorities of GALCK members, who are aiming for basic rights.

How to work effectively with the media? The activists who granted interviews regret that the media isolated and published only the most sensationalist aspects of their responses, without relaying their political goals. Judith was upset that someone had printed her photo, the name of her school, and her class. The group worried about her safety – should she hide for a couple of weeks?

This week, probably because of the energy of the Q Spot, Loury was especially daring: he came out on national television, and thus to his family. His uncle demanded a public apology: he said that Loury would have to reappear on television, say he was sick, and accept being looked after... or his family would no longer pay for his education. How can the group help him?

The group unanimously decides that members would stop responding to interviews before the next meeting, one month away. The feelings are mixed: people are proud of what they had dared to achieve, but become increasingly aware of the danger and of the responsibility they face with the campaign to come.

Already, the Ugandan activists invited by the Forum are thinking of organising a similar action during the next international meeting of the Commonwealth, in Kampala. I admire their courage. How can you explain the tepidity of the movements in the West and our indifference in the face of injustice elsewhere? Here, there, we're motivated by the same desire for life and liberty, we share the same struggle. How can we not be invested by their hopes?

Stephen Barris, 10 February 2007.
International Lesbian and Gay Association, www.ilga.org

* MSM is an acronym used in AIDS prevention jargon for "Men having Sex with Men."

** The word Queer is synonymous with "different," but also refers to another political approach to sexual diversity that goes beyond sexual identities.

This personal report does not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILGA.

Translation: Ryan Thoreson with some help of Ruth Badalcchino
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