Invisible Leash: Realities of Living Abroad as a Queer African (Pt 2)

The fear of suddenly and unceremoniously being jerked homeward is a concern that we Queer Africans in China share. While reaching out to friends from the continent I have made in China to share their experiences as Queer Africans in as different a space as China, many of them declined to be quoted despite the promise of anonymity. People whose struggles I know personally, whose stories would serve to provide greater insight into the plight of the Queer Africans abroad, are silenced by the fear of discovery and subsequent retribution, whether abroad or upon their return home. Like an invisible leash, it is something one is tethered to, and constantly turns your thoughts, your decisions, your plans, and your terrors homeward, despite being thousands of miles and a different life away.

“I’m afraid to be my real self there; having to pretend to be someone I am not ‘because I am scared to go to jail,” admits a Senegalese friend on the possibility of having to return home permanently. “I’d be scared to be beaten on the streets, or lose my peace and relationship with my family.”

“You cannot call an abnormality an alternative orientation. It could be that the Western societies, on account of random breeding, have generated many abnormal people.”
– Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (2014)

According to the Senegalese penal code, Article 319 states the following: Without prejudice to the more serious penalties provided for in the preceding paragraphs or by articles 320 and 321 of this Code, whoever will have committed an improper or unnatural act with a person of the same sex will be punished by imprisonment of between one and five years and by a fine of 100,000 to 1,500,000 francs. If the act was committed with a person below the age of 21, the maximum penalty will always be applied.

“I plan to visit home every once in a while but until gay people can live in peace in my country I don’t plan on settling there!” insists my Senegalese friend, a sentiment shared by many Queer Africans living abroad. Being Gay is still illegal under the law in Kenya, though the law isn’t as actively enforced as it is in countries like neighboring Uganda, and West African counties like Nigeria, Cameroon, and Ghana, all of which have passed anti-Homosexual legislation in the recent past. Such laws, while claiming to want to preserve the moral fabric of society, are instead used as a tool for the persecution of sexual minorities. Without any real protections under the law, LGBTQIA+ members of society are open to violence, police brutality, and even death.

“As a nation and government we will not accept foreign misdemeanor because we have never known same marriages of a man to man or woman to woman and the Bible does not allow. We will not sit back and watch man marrying man, or woman and woman. We will arrest them and deal with them accordingly.”
– Zambian President Edgar Lungu, speaking in 2013 when he was home affairs minister

Prominent advocates fighting for the rights of African LGBTQIA+ individuals, both foreign and domestic, have done little in the way of convincing the vast majority of Africa’s population that their hatred toward Queer members of their societies is indeed misplaced, and their pleas for tolerance have gone largely unheeded. The recent death of civil rights campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu brought back to the fore his ardent stance against Homophobia, as he reiterated that he would never serve a homophobic God, sparking renewed ire in the deeply religious African continent. Tutu’s stance against homosexuality is hardly novely, most especially in the west, where numerous religious leaders have increasingly come out against homophobia.

The Anglican church’s decision to ordain Gay priests was heralded by many in Africa as a recognition of the full humanity of LGBTQIA+ persons as those whose very existence has been ordained by God. But this created a sharp rift within the Church in Africa, with the majority of Anglican and other denominational leaders decrying the shift as part of a progressive western malady. Pope Francis, the current pope of the Roman Catholic church has also faced similar backlash in recent days, after coming out in support of LGBTQIA+ individuals, and now stands accused of not being a good Catholic or Christian despite being the actual pope. As religious grounds have been used as a legitimate reason to object against extending basic human rights to African members of the LGBTQIA+ community, one would imagine that a shift in policy by the church as a whole would see a softening of attitudes in the continent, but anything aside from Christian tolerance has been shown to these individuals, as more and more countries seek to tighten or introduce Anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation across the continent.

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A few months back, my Instagram timeline was flooded with messages of condolence after the tragic death of Erica Chandra, a transgender woman and sex worker who was allegedly murdered and her body dumped in a ditch. In what can only be described as an ironic and tragic twist of fate, Chandra had been a member of the JINSIYANGU organization whose slogan is “Creating safe spaces for the existence of Intersex, Transgender, and Gender Noncoforming (ITGNC) individuals”, a safe space that was ultilately unable to save her from the horrible fate that befell her.

Shunned from society, sex work often becomes the only avenue for sexual minorities to make a living, who face the inherent dangers that come with the territory, along with those that come with being LGBTQI+. As if her fate wasn’t horrific enough, first-hand accounts from activists and members of the LGBTQIA+ community who personally knew Chandra were horrified but unable to intervene when Chandra’s family refused to honor her life as a Trans woman, and instead insisted on performing all customary funeral rites while addressing Chandra as a man.

“Give me their names … My ad hoc team will begin to get their hands on them next Monday.”
– Paul Makonda, governor of Tanzania’s economic capital Dar es Salam, at the launch of an anti-gay crackdown in which urged reporters to identify homosexuals (2018)

Such scenes aren’t uncommon across the African continent, when members of the LGBTQIA+ community meet untimely deaths and their chosen families, often other members of the LGBTQIA+ community are unable to intervene and honor the deceased member in the way they lived their lives. Pushed aside, they watch helplessly as families “sanctify” their dead counterparts’ lives, overlooking orientations, relationships, and entire lives lived.

Kenya continues to be one of the countries with a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment for acts of sodomy and gross indecency which are considered felonies under the Kenyan Penal Code of 1930, revised in 2006, in sections 162, 163, and 165. So, while this nearly hundred-year-old colonial law provides for the arrest and prosecution of members of the LGBTQIA+ community, it is unlikely that Chandra’s killer will ever be brought to book, and she will be yet another statistic, joining an unknown number of fatalities from homophobic attacks in Kenya alone. The Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) has, in recent months, also commented on the increased violence against the Queer community in Kenya. Those who are in the closet are routinely catfished and blackmailed on dating apps like Grindr, and either face extortion, violence, or possible imprisonment.

And while it would be fair to say that most anti-homosexual laws tend to predominantly be aimed at homosexual – male on male – sexual acts in Africa, it does not mean that Queer African women are not a part of the exodus from the continent to places like China. Cases of “corrective rape” against lesbians across the globe highlight the hurdles that Queer women have to surmount. Not only is there the stigma that comes with being Queer, but also their sexual identities are tied to the male heteronormative gaze which believes that only through intercourse with a “real man”, would such “deviance” be corrected in Queer women. The Queer women’s plight, including those from Africa, has been conflated with those of Gay and Bisexual men, who often hold court when it comes to conversations regarding discrimination.

“Worse than pigs and dogs.”
– Former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe (2010)

Talking to a Queer Female Zimbabwean friend, I realized that I actively don’t consider Queer women to be under any immediate threat in African countries. Never mind the fact that the common response to Lesbianism is, “She just needs a good man”, giving rise to avenues of “justified” sexual violence. In China, the Queer African community enjoys levels of relative security, comfort, and social mobility. Even though there are issues of racism that one must, on occasion, contend with, the threat of violence based on sexuality is not an immediate concern. As my Zimbabwean friend put it, here she can ride a bicycle down a random street in the middle of the night and not fear that someone might jump out at her from the shadows. It is this level of comfort that has lured some, including myself into a false sense of security, into almost forgetting that the worlds from which we come can be violent, vicious places with no room for those of our kind. And nothing works quite as well to remind us of this fact than the notion of returning home.

“Being beaten and/or raped and having to hide parts of myself,” my friend says of her fears connected to a return home. Former Zimbabwean president, the Late Robert Mugabe could be accused of writing the African playbook on the weaponization of LGBTQIA+ issues to enrage a nation and consolidate power under the guise of a moral panic, as is happening now in Uganda and Ghana.

“Our men got wind of the wedding and stormed the venue where they arrested 11 young women, including the bride and the groom … We can’t allow such despicable acts to find roots in our society.”
– Abba Sufi, director-general of the Islamic law-enforcement agency in northern Nigeria, the Hisbah, referring to a raid on a lesbian wedding. (2018)

The active onslaught against Queer Zimbabweans where Anti-Homosexual legislation has been a part of the country’s penal code since 1891, started in 1995 with a series of government-sponsored campaigns which saw a mass migration of Queer Zimbabweans predominantly to South Africa, the first country in Africa to legalize same-sex unions. Zimbabwe stands in contrast with neighboring countries like Botswana and Mozambique that have decriminalized same-sex relationships. “I don’t want to go back into the closet, which is why I don’t plan on going back until the law around homosexuality changes,” declares my friend, who nonetheless plans an exit from China, probably to Botswana, where she is guaranteed protection under the law as a Queer woman.

It is these, the invisible leashes – that a trip to one’s own embassy will have one rethinking one’s fashion and accessory choices, that the gaze of my fellow countryman can unnerve me, that I shrink myself in the presence of my people to avoid suspicion, that their mere presence threatens violence or promises the same, that a message from my mother tens of thousands of miles away is liable to reduce me to a terrified, inexperienced, inarticulate teenager – these are the inescapable realities of living abroad as a Queer African.

Photos: Unsplash

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