The visibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) Africans remains largely, under the radar. In spite of South Africa’s inclusion of LGBT rights in its relatively new constitution, homosexuality is still taboo in the country. However, historically documented same-sex relations were or are socially sanctioned in many cultures, such as the motsoalle relationships between women in Namibia or the relations between Azande warriors of the Congo and their young male lovers during pre-colonial times, which are often overlooked. In fact, the first recorded homosexual couple depicted in history is displayed by the image of two men in ancient Egyptian art’s most intimate pose. Nonetheless, the “homosexual” identification generally remains stigmatized throughout the Continent.
Because of lack of acceptance at best, and threat of legal punishment or death at worst, LGBT Africans continue to stay undercover, hidden from society and “in the closet.” Yet there are individuals, groups and organizations working diligently to give voice and visibility to queer Africans. One of these organizations is Behind the Mask (BTM), based in South Africa. Launched in 2000, BTM, staffed by seven and a host of interns and fellows, uses journalism and activism to provide a platform for LGBT and intersex (LGBTI) Africans. The organization produces a news web site that equally serves as a forum for discussion and exchange between LGBTI people, groups, activists, and allies. BTM also publishes an online magazine and even trains ordinary LGBTI African citizens from all over the Continent with basic journalism skills, thus empowering these everyday people to tell and share their stories and learn from others just like them.
BTM is considered the prime source of LGBTI issues on the continent, it conversely remains an easy target for homophobic individuals, religious leaders and governments, forcing the organization to do much of its work underground. The resistance and reaction to BTM’s LGBTI awareness raising can be witnessed by the tightening of laws in countries from Algeria to Zimbabwe that criminalize homosexuality. Furthermore, with hate crimes in the form of murder, rape and so on presently spiraling out of control in South Africa, and with the “justice” system “dragging its feet with regard to such cases,” BTM, in solidarity with its supporters and other like-minded organizations, continues to function as a “mouthpiece of the marginalized,” holding discriminatory malpractices against LGBTI Africans accountable for human rights violations, mainstreaming LGBTI issues and concerns, and advocating for change.
Stories of Queer Africa
In 2004, FannyAnn Eddy, an LGBT activist from Sierra Leone was murdered. The news of her murder gained international coverage, and also struck a personal chord for Selly Thiam, a Senegalese lesbian living in the United States. Realizing that there were other Africans out there just like her, Thiam, who had also been inspired by the resources she previously discovered at Behind The Mask, decided that it was time to start honoring queer and LGBT (QLGBT) Africans living on the Continent and in the Diaspora.
Hence, Thiam set out on a journey to document the personal stories of her peers. Here first interview was with Canadian resident Notisha Massaquoi, originally from Sierra Leone. Her next interview was in her hometown of Chicago, with a Nigerian priest. It was during this interview her project was named. Thus began the foundation, None on Record: Stories of Queer Africa (NOR), an audio-based oral history project created to archive the spoken stories of QLGBT Africans all over. Today NOR has grown to a six-person production crew working to bring these important testimonies to the world. Currently, NOR has collected stories in Canada, South Africa and the United States.
At NOR's web site, visitors can listen to interviews from South Africa's first openly gay music group, 3SUM, and Trans Playwright, Nick Mwaluko. One can also listen to the story of Pape Mbaye a 24-year-old pop star from Dakar whodue to being outed in a gossip newspaper, is now seeking refuge in New York. In 1990, Bev Ditsie and a group of activists organized the first (LGBT/Gay) Pride March on the African Continent, which took place in Johannesburg, South Africa. In this None on Record interview, Bev talks about giving a speech at that Pride March and what happened after that day.
Insisting that "QLGBT Africans are not everywhere--within the neighborhoods of Dakar, Toronto, Nairoba, New York City and London and in the small towns and villages of African countries," NOR's mission is simple and direct: to document the hopes, struggles, challenges and joy of being a QLGBT African. With tremendous support from fundraisers, allies and QLGBT communities in the Caribbean, Europe and all over the world--NOR continues its global reach by airing and sharing stories on public radio, at universities, panels and conferences. Currently NOR is preparing to gain entry into East and then West Africa, while remaining aware of the sensitive issues around visibility and language barriers.