- How Sexual Minority Rights Activism Got Its Groove in Southern Africa
Anxiety about “queer imperialism” or “the gay international” has been a feature in the scholarship on same-sex desire, identities, and activism in Africa for some time. The suspicion is that Western donors and activists are promoting a culturally specific vision of what constitutes authentic queerness. African LGBTI people must conform to this model of authenticity if they want donor funding, refugee asylum, and moral support from the West in their sundry struggles for rights and dignity. Among the markers of approved identity and activism is full public disclosure of sexual orientation, that is, individual coming out.
Much anecdotal evidence supports this suspicion, including evidence of the lack of tolerance shown by Western solidarity groups for more subtle or ambiguous forms of identity expression among African LGBTI people. Failure to respect the voices of African activists, who have repeatedly cautioned against the kind of confrontational political tactics that have proved somewhat successful in the West, is another grievance. Threats to withdraw donor funding from countries whose regimes abet homophobia have been explicitly opposed by African LGBTI people out of fear that they will intensify a popular backlash against them.
Surprisingly little scholarship closely investigates the anecdotes and accusations. Out in Africa is thus a welcome contribution to understanding tensions that can arise between Western and African sexual rights movements, and within nascent African associations themselves. The author applies a sharp ethnographic eye to several of the principal sexual rights associations in South Africa and Namibia during a formative period of organization (mid-1990s almost to the present). The focus is on how the different associations used visibility as a political strategy or chose instead to use more discreet forms of organization and argument at specific moments in their various struggles. How did those choices translate [End Page 581] into effective responses to various types of homophobic reaction in the context of economic malaise, rapid cultural change, and burgeoning rates of HIV?
The introductory chapter sets the book up with a solid overview of the existing historiography and theorization of key analytic concepts deriving from the history of activism and sexuality rights transnationally. The chapters that follow provide the historical origins of LGBTI associations in South Africa and Namibia; a comparison of the divergent strategies adopted by two lesbian-oriented associations (the Forum for the Empowerment of Women and Sister Namibia); a comparison of cases of “missed opportunities” when LGBTI groups chose not to engage in public debate over legal reforms; and a comparison of ways used to counter the accusations that African LGBTI groups were promoting a Western cultural imperialist agenda or were in it for purely opportunistic reasons—“gay for pay” in the commonly expressed stereotype.
The concluding chapter draws several lessons from the evidence, notably, that strategic decisions about when and how to become publicly visible were extremely important (and sometimes quite divisive or painful) to the various organizations under study; that success or failure in specific campaigns was contingent on many factors, often rooted in local histories of racial conflict, sometimes idiosyncratic, and rarely predictable from the Western paradigm of gay liberation; and that what worked in one context might not work in another, notwithstanding strong surface similarities. Following this, Currier meticulously documents how she gained access to (and the trust of) her informants; who they were by race, gender, and sexual orientation; how she analyzed other sources such as newspapers and archives; and how she determined her choices of terminology so as to avoid the appearance of promoting Western gay or queer identity migration.
Currier was a direct witness to some of the key discussions within the nascent movement, and interviewed many of the main decision makers during important moments of controversy or public debate: the Jacob Zuma rape trial, the same-sex marriage debate in South Africa, outreach initiatives to East Africa, presentations to the African Commission on Peoples’ and Human Rights, the establishment of the Behind the Mask (the now-defunct, pan-African sexual rights website), and more. A...