On a recent Saturday night, about 35 African men and women gathered to break bread, down some booze, dance, and generally have a fun night out. Many had come to this Manhattan soiree with their checkbooks for the organizers and it is a safe bet to say all were gay or lesbian.
The African Gay and Lesbian community in New York is shifting more and more from its barely visible position under the radar to a front and center role in African lives.
And yet, for some Africans their increased visibility is incredulous. "There is one?" a gay Nigerian artist asked the other day. "I had heard of one or two people but not an entire community," she said.
The dinner was a success from the standpoint of the organizers who raised a few thousand dollars to resettle two Ugandans in Canada who escaped persecution solely based on their sexual orientation.
In 1999, Ugandas President Yoweri Museveni, urged his security forces to round up and "lock up" homosexuals. A recently formed gay association, the Right Companion, was targeted for arrests, and five of its members were detained.
While in detention, they were beaten, tortured and the women were sexually abused. The Right Companion had been created to provide counseling, support and advocacy to the increasingly visible gay community in Uganda. The post apartheid constitution of South Africa, which expressly forbids discrimination to homosexuals, spurred many African gays to seek more visibility in their countries.
Pressure and condemnation from the West, forced Museveni's hand and the five were freed. All fled to Tanzania first, and then to the U.K. One remains in Dar-es-Salam and the other just landed in Canada.
The money raised that April night will go to his resettlement while an effort to relocate the last man is underway.
This months massive Gay Pride Parade along NYC downtown streets will include many African participants, but none will be marching under an African banner.
A few years ago, an organized gay African group - Wazobia - met regularly for socials and exchange of ideas. It disbanded for reasons that remain somewhat murky.
But what is clear from a random sampling of stories, is that with or without an organized group, these men and women have made a commitment to themselves, their continent, and see their sexuality as an integral part of them.
THE NAIROBI ACTIVIST:
Nguru Karugu, one of the organizers of the fundraiser is 36, with flowing shoulder length dreadlocks, irascible and always in a big hurry.
He serves as the Coordinator of the New York State Black Gay Network which focuses on health and advocacy issues.
There are always groups to meet, safe sex talks to give, events to monitor and of course funds to raise.
"Oh, I dealt with my sexuality in Kenya," Karugu said nonchalantly. A chance encounter with an admirer at a Nairobi rail station led him to discover an underground Kenya, populated by same gender loving men who gathered in tea rooms.
"Through that, I stopped the conversation as to whether I needed to change or not," Karugu said. "Once I stopped the internal struggle, I began another struggle. I quickly joined organizations that were gay and black."
Karugu, who relocated to the Big Apple in 1988, embraces his gay life and his activism unapologetically, and with gusto.
When he boldly told his family his path would lead him to eventually settling down with another man, the reaction varied.
One brother said, "Did you go to church yet?" another "Please dont tell my wife."
"The bottom line is they all love me but if I make a joke like I'm still looking for a man there is complete silence," Karugu said.
Despite the burgeoning visibility of gay couples in Kenya, Karugu does not anticipate ending up there. "People used to say are you in the life or are you in the family but now young Kenyans now just call themselves gay" Karugu said.
"My reality is that I would not go back to Kenya. I will return to Ethiopia or somewhere else in Africa."
He said former South African president Nelson Mandela's staunch support for the gay community as well as that of Archbishop Desmond Tutu spurred many gay Africans to end their moral dilemmas. "The whole conversation about this being a western thing is moot," Karugu said.
THE LEONE COSMOPOLITAN
Lawrence Abayomi Harding, is a professor and physical therapist and all around intellectual.
The son of a diplomat from Sierra Leone, Harding is tall lean and muscular with flowing dreadlocks. His imposing presence is often broken with a smile.
While he had been educated on three continents and now lives in New York, he is most comfortable on the continent. Harding said he gets a feeling of ease and comfort deep inside as soon as he gets off a plane unto African soil. It was in his native Freetown that he first noticed his feelings for other men as objects of fascination and desire.
The mild mannered Harding, who just returned from his hometown where he hopes to set up a community based do-it-yourself program said Sierra Leone has its slice of gay life even with the last few years of a civil war.
"That word in itself has a hard time translating [but] Im aware that there are groupings," the 37-year-old said. He along with Karugu and about 30 others were part of Wazobia.
"Now, when I want a social gay and lesbian gathering I create my own. Fifteen people are all I need for a gathering," said Harding who opens up the Manhattan apartment off Central Park West that he shares with his boyfriend.
He has lived in New York since 1984 and said Wazobia's demise was in part due to a question of identity.
"A lot of Africans have a hard time defining their own lives and by joining an organization that automatically places a definition on you as a member, a lot of [them] who are attracted to the same sex have difficulty with that."
Hardings diplomat father was more accepting of his son's sexuality and did not have the heart attack his distraught mother felt he would when he disclosed that information in his 20s.
But for a while it was an unspoken scenario in the household. It just became this pink elephant sitting in the room.
Harding who will march under the Housing Works banner at this months Gay Pride parade knows it is dangerous right now to live an openly gay life in Sierra Leone but there are many situations where two men can live together.
"I'm not American, I wasn't born here, this is not home, I don't think of this place as home, I think of it as where I live," Harding said. "I really do see myself sooner rather than later going back home."
This article was first published in the June 2001 issue of The AFRican.