- Out in Africa: LGBT Organizing in Namibia and South Africa by Ashley Currier
In the past few years, human rights abuses and political homophobia targeting LGBT people in Africa have garnered heightened international media coverage. This reporting has exposed efforts to pass a bill in Uganda that would make homosexual acts punishable by death, the shocking murder of leading Ugandan LGBT rights activist David Kato, the brutal rapes of black lesbians in South Africa, and the initial prison sentencing of a same-sex couple in Malawi to fourteen years of hard labor,1 among other examples of abuses against Africa's gender and sexual minorities. The international media has also highlighted Western governments' responses to African state-sanctioned homophobia such as the US and UK governments' threats to cut aid to governments that do not embrace LGBT rights.2
While this international reporting on gay rights in Africa is welcome, its dominant narrative is often incomplete. We seldom encounter in-depth profiles of burgeoning African LGBT rights movements. What is the historical background of these social movements? What strategies do they pursue to realize African LGBT peoples' claims to full citizenship despite treacherous political waters? On what occasions do African LGBT activists make strategic decisions to retreat from public view due to safety or other concerns? How do they confront dubious yet persistent intra-societal claims that homosexuality is inherently un-African, a Western concoction and an outside imposition?
Enter Ashley Currier's Out in Africa: LGBT Organizing in Namibia and South Africa, one of the first studies of its kind to grapple with these questions. Through the lens of social movement theory, Currier examines "how, when, and why" LGBT rights movements in post-apartheid South Africa and Namibia cultivate intentional [End Page 517] public visibility or invisibility as strategies to achieve LGBT equality. Currier defines strategic public visibility as making "a particular item visible to one or more target audiences so that the audience responds in a desired manner."3 She argues that intentional invisibility allows "movement organizations temporary respite from repression, prying gazes, or unfavorable media coverage."4
Currier does not assume that South African and Namibian LGBT movements always desire public visibility as an organizing strategy. Instead, her ethnographic observation of four South African and Namibian LGBT organizations, interviews with dozens of individual advocates, and probe of thousands of media articles and organizational files reveal how these movements strategically pursue both visibility and invisibility at different junctures depending on political and other considerations.
Currier's study of the cultivation of visibility and invisibility in social movement organizing "centralizes activists' agency." And it is this focus on agency that makes Out in Africa such a refreshing read. It is always energizing to encounter studies that present Africans as actors and not simply as people forever acted upon. Too often in journalism, fiction, and non-fiction, writers and authors still portray African communities as bereft of agency. But in this well-researched, methodologically sound book, agency pours through the pages. Currier's focus on South African and Namibian LGBT activists as actors struggling to determine their own social and political fate through strategic choices, squares with my own experience working with marginalized groups on the continent organizing for their rights. It is an important story to tell, and Currier, an assistant professor of women's, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Cincinnati, uses the visibility strategies of LGBT organizing in post-apartheid South Africa and Namibia to do just that.
In Chapter 1, Currier presents a historical overview of South African and Namibian LGBT organizing. She chronicles how Namibian political leaders' public anti-gay declarations in the 1990s had the unintended effect of igniting the young Namibian LGBT movement as it sought to cultivate public visibility in response to political homophobia. But it is Currier's historical examination of how apartheid South Africa's racial dynamics influenced LGBT organizers' strategic visibility decisions that is particularly fascinating. In the 1960s, white lesbians and gay men in apartheid South Africa "emerged from positions...