From Persecution to Pride—Fighting LGBT Oppression in Africa


From Persecution to Pride—Fighting LGBT Oppression in Africa

October 5, 2009

On National Coming Out Day, we celebrate the lives and human dignity of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in the United States and around the world. We are also reminded that too many LGBT people in the developing world are still in hiding and living in fear.

The United States has made great strides in advancing civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans: same-sex marriage is now legal in four states, and on October 11, Americans throughout the United States will gather in celebration of the 21st annual National Coming Out Day—a civil awareness day to honor the lives of LGBT people and increase the visibility of LGBT issues worldwide.

Members of CEPEHRG at a training to promote the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Ghanaians.

As Americans celebrate the impact of LGBT advocacy within U.S. borders and around the globe, we are reminded that for many LGBT people in the developing world, hiding remains a means of survival. For Gloria, a closeted lesbian living in Ghana, having a National Coming Out Day in her country could mean no longer enduring the pain of hearing homophobic banter from her high school teacher. It could mean no longer living in fear that her family would discover her sexual orientation and throw her out of the house. For Peter, a gay Nigerian, National Coming Out Day could mean going to a bar with his friends and not being arrested for his perceived sexual identity.

Although National Coming Out Day is observed outside of the United States in Switzerland, Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, it is not a day that is recognized in the developing world, where LGBT people are rarely treated with dignity or respect. Thousands of people in Africa—people like Gloria and Peter—are arrested, attacked, expelled from school or fired from their jobs because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. In many countries, coming out as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender is a criminal act.

Ghana and Nigeria have some of the worst LGBT discrimination laws in the world. In northern Nigeria, Shari'ah (Islamic law) criminal penal codes stipulate that sodomy be punished with death by stoning, and under Nigeria's national criminal and penal code, consensual same-sex conduct between adults is punishable with 14 years of imprisonment. Ghana criminalizes homosexuality as well. HIV/AIDS prevalence rates among Ghanaian men who have sex with men (MSM) are four times higher than the general Ghanaian adult population's HIV/AIDS prevalence rate, yet Ghana's national strategy for addressing HIV/AIDS neglects to recognize MSM as a vulnerable group.

All of these prohibitions and criminalization measures reinforce prejudicial attitudes and foster a sense of impunity for those who perpetrate abuses against LGBT people worldwide. State-condoned stigma and repression further reduces LGBT individuals' access to basic social services, including health, education, security and income-generating opportunities.

Building a safe and equitable world for all people

AJWS is committed to supporting the work of grassroots NGOs in Africa that are advocating for the rights of LGBT-identified people. The Independent Project (TIP) for Equal Rights—an AJWS grantee in Nigeria—provides legal assistance to individuals who are being prosecuted for their sexual orientation. TIP partners with local and international organizations to assist victims of homophobic abuse in emergencies. AJWS provided TIP with seed funding early in its development and has since connected the organization to additional funding sources as TIP has grown.

In Ghana, the Centre for Popular Education and Human Rights (CEPEHRG) runs a drop-in health clinic for men who have sex with men (MSM), where they receive counseling and referrals. To combat the stigma that prevents people from accessing such services, CEPEHRG trains peer educators and conducts community outreach through an interactive theater project. CEPEHRG has received AJWS support for three years. In 2008, AJWS nominated CEPEHRG for a "Red Ribbon Award for Community Leadership and Action on HIV/AIDS," which enabled CEPEHRG representatives to attend the International AIDS Conference in Mexico.

"AJWS's primary core value is the essential dignity of every human being," said AJWS president Ruth Messinger. "In the spirit of b'tselem elohim—the understanding that each person is made in the divine image—we recognize that every human life is of equal value. We are especially reminded of this in supporting the work of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities around the globe. AJWS is committed to being a leader in the Jewish community and in the global community to ensure that all people—regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity—can realize their full, true selves. No one should live in fear."

As National Coming Out Day approaches, we can recommit ourselves to celebrating LGBT rights in our own communities while also recognizing the work of organizations like TIP and CEPEHRG in helping people like Gloria and Peter—and so many other LGBT people in the developing world—live honest, dignified lives.