Sexuality Policy Watch

A call for critical reflection on queer/LGBTIA+ activism in Africa

Originally posted at Pambazuka. Available at:

By Liesl Theron, John McAllister and Mariam Armisen  

This essay looks at the complex relationship between the personal and the political in queer/LGBTIA+ organizing in Africa. It considers how current modes of organizing impact the connection between professional activism and grassroots participation and explores some of the consequences of these two intersecting factors for activist praxis.

  1. Introduction

In the informal discussions that happen at the margins of African queer/LGBTIA+ workshops and conferences and in activist social spaces, we increasingly hear acknowledgments that “something” must shift in the movement. There is a widespread feeling that, despite impressive growth in the numbers and capacities of organizations promoting queer/LGBTIA+ issues, there has been little impact on the everyday lives of African queer/LGBTIA+ individuals and communities. Discriminatory laws and policies remain stubbornly in place in almost all countries, and the hostile public perceptions of queer/LGBTIA+ identities that sustain these laws and policies seem as pervasive as ever, and are increasingly vitriolic in many places.

At the same time, stories of heartache, frustration, ennui, and burnout are rife within the activist community, while competition and antagonism between individual activists and among the diverse groups subsumed under the LGBTIA+ umbrella, together with stories of mismanagement, favoritism, and outright corruption, bedevil attempts to create effective collaborations.

This essay (also in French ) is intended as an exploration rather than as a manifesto. We hope to provoke a more focused discussion of the malaise in current queer/LGBTIA+ organizing and encourage more research and reflection on what lies behind it, and especially on ways out of it, by bringing together some of the key questions and complaints we keep hearing from activists and funders.

In this essay, we first look at the fraught (sometimes productive, sometimes destructive) relationship between the personal and the political in queer/LGBTIA+ organizing. Next we consider how current modes of organizing impact the connection between professional activism and grassroots participation. Finally, we explore some of the consequences of these two intersecting factors for activist praxis, focusing on the specific issues we have heard activists raise most often.

As this essay is intended as a call for contributions to a planned collection of essays on the current and future state of queer/LGBTIA+ organizing in Africa, we close with a series of additional questions that we hope will give potential contributors a better idea of the range of issues we are interested in. We address a number of issues in this essay but do not attempt to discuss any of them exhaustively. Our aim is to clarify the issues and provoke reflection and discussion rather than to deliver a manifesto. This is also why we conclude with further questions that we did not cover in the essay. We do not expect potential contributors to respond to every issue we raise and, in fact, would prefer responses that address a particular issue or set of closely related issues in more depth than we have been able to do here.

  1. On personal and political agendas

There are many factors driving the political engagement of queer/LGBTIA+ activists in Africa. Motivations are rarely simple, nor can they ever be completely altruistic. Self-interest, egotism and ambition are always parts of the mix, and the recognition that these can be as important (for both good and bad) in the work of promoting social justice as in any other human endeavor is what lies behind many of the administrative checks and balances in the funding and monitoring of African queer/LGBTIA+ activism.

Nevertheless, social justice activism in Africa, particularly around sexual and gender rights, is not an obvious route to personal success. The work attracts considerable social stigma and official hostility in environments where it can be difficult to protect oneself against the animosity of both private and state agents. At the same time, the financial rewards are usually much less than equivalent positions in either government or the private sector.

One of the most important motivators of activists, therefore, is personal experience of rights violations. This is particularly important for the initial decision to get involved in social justice work. Almost all activists can relate a story of discrimination or abuse directed either at themselves or someone close to them that first made them angry or concerned enough to participate in a protest, join or start a group, attend a meeting, or otherwise begin their journey into the activist life. Later, the emotions growing out of personal experience are often what keep activists going despite the sacrifices and hardships of the work.

Most do not begin with the intention of making a career out of activism. We get involved in a particular project or organization out of concern with the way we or a friend or family member has been treated, find we have a talent for the work, get the chance to attend conferences or courses, make connections with other activists and with funders, and gradually become “professionalized” in the movement. Along the way, other motivations inevitably enter the picture and may even supersede the element of personal commitment, but no activist can sustain the work for long without that personal commitment.

For queer/LGBTIA+ activists, therefore, the personal is very much political and is always at least the underlying driver of our work. This is well recognized. It is an important (if not always explicit) factor in assessing funding applications, for example, and is a key aspect of most activists’ self-image and self-presentation. Thus, the impact of personal experience on the political work is usually clear. What is less documented is how the political impacts the personal, especially over time, and how this process of adaptation (or complexification) of motives affects, in turn, the work of social change, and can sometimes compromise it.

As activists who have initially gotten involved for personal reasons grow in the movement, our commitment inevitably becomes tied to other factors, especially through the opportunities to travel, enhance qualifications, and build a career that activism provides. By developing our skills, building our confidence, and expanding our networks, these opportunities potentially make activists more effective leaders. However, the same opportunities can also disconnect us from grassroots community members, most of whom are underemployed or unemployed, are at best semi-literate in the colonial/official languages (such as English or French), and will never be able to access such opportunities. As activists learn and adopt the academic theories and professional jargons of social justice work, we can sound increasingly “foreign” to grassroots community members, and by spending more and more time in middle-class, professional contexts, we may identify less and less with the grassroots and lose touch with its interests and needs.

The opportunities provided by activism may also create new motivations. When we make our living from activism, especially in resource-poor environments where other jobs are scarce, we may be more vulnerable to outside pressures and demands, particularly from donors, at the expense of the needs of our communities. Stories abound of donor pressure to change priorities and strategies or risk losing support. Such pressures, though usually subtle, can be difficult for activists to resist when our own livelihoods depend on donor goodwill.

Increasingly, activists are talking about these realities privately, but we have yet to engage in an open discussion to unpack systematically the complexities of our professional lives and the implications for our political work. We need to document honestly our journey as activists and as a movement, take stock of how we are doing and what we are learning, and document our failures as well as our successes. Our hopes for the future need to be set beside our disappointments and disillusionments with the work and its politics. We are very good at documenting rights violations, compiling training manuals, writing shadow reports, and so on, but much less thorough or creative in developing the multi-layered knowledge, including the self-critique, that should be an embedded practice in the movement.

  1. On the professionalization of organizing work

Historically, most queer/LGBTIA+ groups and organizations in Africa, like their counterparts in other places, evolved from informal community-building, and this is still how most new groups get started. Individuals motivated by personal experience of stigma, discrimination, or abuse join together in response to some particular event or concern such as a homophobic statement by a public figure, a discriminatory new law or policy, an attack on a member of the community, a legal case, and so on. They then decide to form an organization in order to raise funds and carry out activities and projects more effectively.

In theory, this should mean that queer/LGBTIA+ groups and organizations will maintain strong ties to the grassroots and to the informal, spontaneous organizing out of which they emerged. In practice, however, many evolve to have either no or weak roots in their communities. The disconnect between grassroots realities and needs and professional activism, and the resulting difficulties that queer/LGBTIA+ groups and organizations have in growing or sustaining their membership, developing a collective ownership of political organizing, recruiting volunteers, and encouraging community participation in support groups, boards, workshops, trainings, marches, and so on are a constant theme of discussions among activists.

In our view, there are two main factors behind this disconnect:

1)  at a structural level, the almost universal adoption of a top-down organizational model in which managerialism and accountability (to donors and sponsors) take precedence over the needs and interests of the grassroots

2)  at the strategic and tactical levels, the predominance of donor-driven agendas focusing on the promotion of legal and policy reforms through formal, bureaucratic interactions with state agencies.

The two factors intersect and mutually reinforce each other. On the one hand, donors seem to see managerialism and accountability as essential markers of a credible organization. It is extremely difficult for any initiative to access funding without either having these markers already or committing itself to acquire them (sometimes with donor help in the form of training and other “organizational development” support). On the other hand, managerialism and accountability, which focus on reporting to donors and satisfying their expectations for efficiency and measurable results, push organizations toward adopting the donors’ interests, agendas, and modes of work.

The specific consequences of these two factors – which activists themselves are increasingly aware of and frustrated by – are summarized below.

An unquestioning pursuit of one basic model of institutional structure. Almost all existing queer/LGBTIA+ initiatives in Africa have adopted a broadly similar organizational model based on global-north, non-profit management practice. The model takes a variety of specific forms depending on the norms and legalities of different countries, but its basic characteristics are common across the continent:

  • a corporate structure of governance and leadership involving a professional management team that reports to a board of trustees or similar body
  • a grassroots base that, in theory, oversees the management team and determines long-term policies and strategies democratically
  • corporate standards of financial and human resource management
  • continuous professional monitoring and evaluation of programs and activities.

The formality and bureaucracy of this model encourage managerialism, the essence of which, according to David Lewis, is the idea that progress can be measured by increased productivity and that “managers – as distinct from other elements of the organization – hold the key [to progress]” (Lewis, 2001:16). Moreover, managerialism rests on the “seldom tested assumption that if things are better organised they will improve … [and] that, when new challenges or problems arise, solutions can always be found from within the status quo” (Lewis, 2001:16). In social justice work, where progress is inherently hard to measure, the easiest way to demonstrate increased productivity is to multiply the number of short-term activities, meetings, and reports. Thus, managerialism has a tendency to inflate bureaucracy and create busy-work.

The managerialist approach became dominant in development and advocacy organizations in the 1990s as part of the North’s concern with “capacity-building” in African civil society, a concern that was one aspect of the neo-liberal push for structural adjustment, privatization, downsizing, and “good governance” in African public services (Howell and Pearce 2001, Harvey 2005, Roberts, Jones, and Froehling 2005, Claeye and Jackson 2011). Although intended to ensure good management and accountability, managerialism, at least as applied to the social justice sector, has had several unintended consequences that do more harm than good. As Christopher Pollitt argues, the managerialist ideal is based on principles that are taken to be unarguable and accepted as the default option (Pollitt 1993).

Without necessarily advocating the abandonment of the model, we argue that its uninterrogated adoption for queer/LGBTIA+ organizing in Africa – its unexamined status as the default option that all initiatives are expected to conform to – does not help either to stimulate the creativity or to build the capacities of queer/LGBTIA+ activism. Both of these goals would be better served if nascent groups and organizations critically examined their management and organizational options in relation to the needs of their communities at the start-up stage before adopting any particular operating structure. Instead, what usually happens is that, very early in the process of seeking advice and mentorship on how to move forward, the only available options arise from other organizations already shaped by the managerialist model. By the time a new initiative reaches the stage of critically questioning its organizational structures, it is already trapped in a bureaucratic and legal web – registered with a constitution, bylaws, board members, board portfolios, organigrams, policies regarding signatories, etc. Legally undoing such structures when they are already in place would usually require de-registering the organization and, in effect, dissolving it and starting from scratch.

As much as donors might want to argue that they are open to supporting all kinds of organizational structures, the “tools” used by donors – application processes, due diligence forms (including monitoring and evaluation requirements), the whole reporting cycle – do not, in practice, allow for innovative alternative structures. Application forms typically require information on the board’s terms of reference, the professional backgrounds of board members, signatories, monitoring and evaluation policies, strategic plans, objectives, outcomes, and outputs, staff capacity and appraisals, and, of course, a tidy-looking organigram. This leaves little room for thinking or working outside the managerialist box.

A shift away from base-building actions. The top-down model of organizing makes donors virtual members of the leadership teams of groups and organizations and encourages the pursuit of donor-driven agendas. Increasingly, these agendas tend to focus on policy and legal reforms rather than engagement with the grassroots. At the tactical and strategic levels, activism is drawn away from base-building through community-led activities towards strategic litigation and higher-level, formal advocacy through shadow reports, meetings with state officials, participation in UN platforms, workshops with “opinion-shapers,” and so on. The current focus on gender markers and engagement around the International Classifications of Diseases (ICD) as top priorities for nascent trans* and intersex organizing is a prime example of how a movement finds itself adopting donors’ agendas from the get-go in order to stand any chance of gaining support and getting off the ground. Similarly, groups and organizations, in particular MSM and gay-led ones that are fairly well established, are drawn into the pursuit of legitimacy in existing structures such as the Country Coordination Mechanisms (CCMs) of the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, for instance. In the process, they have little energy or inclination to analyse what it means, especially for grassroots members, to belong to a “key population” in a funding structure that continues to deny trans women’s agency and erase the sexual health needs of same-sex loving women.

The shift away from base-building creates a distance between queer organizers and their communities. A hierarchy develops in which professional activist leaders and the donors, officials, and opinion-shapers with whom they mostly interact occupy the top and shape the direction of political work. Volunteer or underpaid staff occupy the middle (and do most of the community outreach and tedious paperwork), while members of the queer/LGBTIA+ communities, as the recipients/beneficiaries of activities (even sometimes referred to as clients), occupy the bottom, where they are periodically “consulted” through poorly attended support group meetings and annual general meetings or occasionally used as research informants for project evaluation and proposal purposes.

Prioritization of legal registration over grassroots engagement. The default model of organizational structure also makes legal registration/recognition a priority for any emerging queer/LGBTIA+ organization that wants to access funding from conventional sources. However, in the current legal/political environments of most African states, registering an explicitly queer/LGBTIA+ organization is a highly sensitive, potentially dangerous, project. Many organizations opt to disguise their true identity in order to clear the legal hurdles of registration, which can then make reaching out to the grassroots more difficult, besides introducing an element of pretense that arguably reinforces the very stigma the organization was formed to combat. Other organizations become involved in time-consuming legal battles with the state, as in Kenya and Botswana.

As with the adoption of the default organizational model, there has been little opportunity to interrogate the prioritization of legal registration or think through the implications of pursuing it to the possible disadvantage of other organizational or program needs. Indeed, it is the adoption of the default model that makes legal registration seem so important. To be fully implemented, the governance and administrative conventions of this model require a formal, independent, legally recognized operating structure. If queer/LGBTIA+ initiatives were empowered to consider alternative organizational models, the need to commit resources or compromise credibility in the pursuit of a registration certificate could be much less compelling. More innovative and diverse – and possibly more effective – modes of organizing and working might then emerge. However, this would require donors to be more open to at least seed-funding of alternative and experimental modes of organizing.

Counter-productive administrative demands. The managerialism encouraged by the default organizational model places onerous financial reporting and project reporting obligations on the shoulders of leadership teams. Most groups and organizations receive support from several donors, each of whom requires regular financial accountings and progress reports on ongoing projects, as well as proposals and budgets for new projects. Funding is normally project-based and short-term (up to one year), so that working up new funding proposals is an almost constant task. Inevitably, management teams become overburdened with paperwork, yet, ironically, few donors cover overhead costs, even partially. Despite donors’ elaborate administrative and reporting requirements, there seems to be a paradoxical assumption that administration and overhead do not contribute fundamentally to the cause (Pallotta 1993). The constant administrative demands, which usually have to be paid for by finessing already scarce program funds, disconnect activists from the communities they are supposed to be working with and serving by taking up huge amounts of time and energy that could otherwise be spent engaging with (and learning from) the grassroots.

Professionalization of activism. The bureaucracy and managerialism of the default organizational model require leaders and officers trained to professional standards in accounting, documentation, human resource management, public relations, and corporate communication. Although donors pay lip service to the goal of building grassroots capacity, in practice the skills required by the default model, mean that, increasingly, those who gain leadership positions in queer/LGBTIA+ groups and organizations overwhelmingly come from more privileged social layers. The required language, numeracy, and corporate-style networking skills belong with a level of education that very few members of African queer/LGBTIA+ communities have any realistic hope of acquiring. As a result, the vast majority of visible and “successful” activist leaders are individuals with professional and/or tertiary qualifications.

In such an elitist organizing space, the skills and contributions of activists who are not formally educated or who do not speak one of the dominant colonial languages are further marginalized. The nature of the activism itself becomes increasingly focused on higher-level official and semi-official interactions, since this type of organizing is seen as more prestigious and important. Moreover, to fill leadership positions, groups and organizations often recruit from outside their own communities and sometimes pay straight and/or cisgender staff more than queer/LGBTIA+ staff. This is usually justified by arguing that leadership ability is about skills and qualifications, not sexual orientation, gender, or gender identity.

But what does it mean for queer/LGBTIA+ activism – especially intersex or trans* or lesbian-led organizations, whose members tend to be even more marginalized and disadvantaged than gay men – to recruit mostly formally educated staff while the majority in their communities have little access to education, often due precisely to their gender identity or expression? The pursuit of institutionalized models of organizing arguably marginalizes the very communities that these organizations – and particularly the intersex or trans* and lesbian-led organizations – were formed to support.

Reproduction of existing structural inequalities in groups and their work. Queer/ LGBTIA+ groups and organizations emerge from, and operate within, our own broader societies and are not immune from the effects of structural inequalities in these societies. This section examines some of the areas in which queer/LGBTIA+ activists and organizations are most vulnerable to unthinkingly reproducing such inequalities in their governance and work.

Patriarchy and sexism – A recent study of queer/LGBT organizing in West Africa identified one of the most serious gaps in that region as the disproportionate representation in leadership positions of MSM and gay men and the underrepresentation of queer women, and trans* people (Armisen, 2016). Although no similar survey has been done in other African regions, anecdotal evidence suggests that a similar gap prevails elsewhere as well.

One reason for this imbalance is the historical channeling of HIV funding in Africa mainly toward MSM and gay men’s groups and organizations due to the much higher HIV prevalence rates in this demographic. Because of this, preventing HIV infection among MSM and gay men became an important wedge strategy to introduce queer/LGBTIA+ issues to societies which it was assumed would otherwise have been unreceptive. As a result, much of the initial activism around queer/LGBTIA+ rights in Africa was done by gay-led or MSM-led groups and organizations working on HIV prevention for key populations. The continuing dominance of MSM and gay men in activist leadership is a hangover from this organizing history.

More worrying, however, is the way in which the disproportion in leadership both reflects and perpetuates the patriarchal culture of the wider society. In African civil society in general, undercurrents of sexism are common, and so we should perhaps not be surprised that a queer/LGBTIA+ organizing culture dominated by MSM and gay men is not much different. Despite supposedly working to challenge dominant ideologies, queer/LGBTIA+ organizing as a movement has yet to engage in a thoroughgoing gender analysis. Homonormativity is the biggest challenge facing intersex and trans* organizations within the queer/LGBTIA+ umbrella, and until this is dismantled, their full inclusion and participation in queer/LGBTIA+ organizing will remain only a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. With the exception of lesbian and queer women’s groups and organizations, and nascent trans feminist groups and organizations, gender justice does not seem to be an embedded issue in the queer/LGBTIA+ movement in Africa.

Class privilege – A certain hierarchy has emerged in queer/LGBTIA+ organizing space whereby the work of activists with structural privileges tends to get more support and visibility. Such activists are able to tap into their backgrounds and connections to recruit “experts” from academia, the Diaspora, the corporate sector, and mainstream NGOs to sit on boards of trustees and/or provide consulting services. In many cases, these activists are no longer – or never were – genuinely connected to community-based struggles but, together with their allied “experts,” have become disproportionately responsible for defining the directions of organizing work. This creates an environment that tends to value contributions to the movement on the basis of a person’s socio-economic and educational background and perpetuates the myth that those most impacted by the issues cannot develop their own solutions.

Gatekeeping and the use of power to erase others – While solidarity and collaboration remain some of the most frequently used words by queer/LGBTIA+ activists, in practice, a model of organizing that foregrounds the role of managers, coupled with fierce competition for limited resources, has created an organizing space that can be oppressive and exploitative. The use of power and privilege by some activist leaders for careerist or self-aggrandizing purposes has made it more and more difficult for new groups to access the space, support, and other opportunities that are especially important in the formative stages. Even within organizations, few leaders model their use of power in ways that allow other staff or volunteers to grow in the organization. Instead, many activists leave existing organizations to form new ones due to authoritarian leadership styles or other questionable uses of power by Executive Directors or other leaders. Having been initiated into the movement in this way, they then tend to reproduce the same management style in their new organizations. The result of this pattern over a number of years is a serious sector-wide leadership problem that has the potential to undermine the sustainability of the movement as a whole.

Subtle and overt examples of exploitation abound. The role of queer women, gender non-conforming, and trans* people is tokenized and intersex people are silenced or “non-existent” in most mainstream queer/LGBTIA+ groups and organizations. Tokenized inclusion is mainly used to show donors that the organization covers all the LGBTIA+ bases. Unemployed, semi-literate volunteers and/or activists in rural and semi-rural areas are used as community outreach resources, but their contributions are rarely acknowledged and poorly compensated. Queer/LGBTIA+ groups and organizations seldom recruit intersex or trans* persons into management positions, and boards rarely have intersex or trans* members, especially in portfolio positions. Even when queer women are elected to leadership positions in mainstream queer/LGBTIA+ groups and organizations, their work tends only to support the agendas of MSM and gay men.

The realities of queer women continue to be subsumed into general LGBTIA+ issues, while the particular issues of underage and older queer/LGBTIA+ persons and issues of violence against trans men, along with their sexual health and reproductive rights, remain largely invisible in discourse and program activities. Our overwhelming adoption of a globalized queer/LGBTIA+ rights-based framework has contributed to invisibilize the lives of previous generations, as well as the realities of indigenous same-sex loving communities who do not recognize themselves in our terminologies and strategies. Moreover, by defining “activism” mainly as formal organizing and high-level advocacy, we have inadvertently contributed to the erasure of the important work of those “just doing their own thing” for their communities and the movement.

Influence of donors – On both sides of the funding equation, there is a perception that missions and visions, organizational strategies, activist agendas, and entire movements are unduly shaped by donor interests and trends that may have little to do with the interests or needs of communities. A prime example, as noted above, was the shaping of the early African queer/LGBTIA+ movement around the risk management of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in gay male and MSM communities. Now we are seeing a similar co-optation of emerging trans* activism. On one hand, the levels of injustice, prejudice, and ignorance experienced by trans* Africans cry out for a broader base of support and allyship than current trans* groups and organizations can muster by themselves. On the other hand, trans* groups and organizations are bound to be disadvantaged when competing for the same limited resources with larger and better-established LGBTIA+ groups and organizations. The same thing is happening in intersex organizing, but intersex-led groups and organizations face an additional obstacle.  They tend to be subsumed under the same category as their trans* counterparts and have to struggle simply to claim their own authenticity and autonomy of existence and struggle.

Reproduction of structural inequalities in relations between activists, donors and allies

Numerous structural inequalities in the relations between Africa and the North impact negatively on relations among queer/LGBTQIA+ activists, donors, and allies. We highlight three of the most pervasive below.

Language. As well as locking out grassroots activists and reinforcing the divide between “prestige” advocacy and grassroots work, the need to interact mainly in colonial languages with donors, researchers, officials, and “opinion-shapers” reproduces the same neocolonial imbalance of power as does the hegemony of these languages in the larger society. As in African societies as a whole, colonial languages are associated with modernity, progress, authority, and “universal” values. Their supremacy in the official, documented work of African queer/LGBTIA+ activism inevitably imposes a Northern, universalizing (or homogenizing) point of view on the work. In particular, it means that the concepts and terminologies used to understand and express queer/LGBTIA+ identities have to be borrowed from the North, even when here and there an indigenous term is adopted for cosmetic effect (as with kuchu in East Africa). Specifically Northern cultural and political artifacts, especially connected to Northern gayness, are “naturalized” into African queer/LGBTIA+ cultures and activism. In the process, developing (or preserving) authentic, grassroots-based African queer/LGBTIA+ self-understandings, cultural expressions, and political agendas is stifled.

The mere fact that we decided to use the awkward construction queer/LGBTIA+ in this essay needs to raise questions. The expanding and contentious “alphabet soup” of queer/LGBTIA+ nomenclature testifies to the ongoing debate over who decides how many more letters, and which ones, will be added. Of course, in any debate over identity politics, it is impossible to represent every single identity and its agenda; the competition for attention, among other things, leads inevitably to a proliferation of distinctions. One of the latest distinctions within the larger trans* identity is GNC (gender nonconforming), and again, in African contexts, the utilizations of this term differ from those of the North. In Southern and Eastern Africa, for example, “trans diverse” and “gender diverse” seem to be gaining ground as alternatives to trans*. It should also be acknowledged that in its most progressive form, queer is not an umbrella term or shortcut for LGBTIA+, but has its own meanings in academic discourse and movement politics. We hope contributions to this call will also elaborate on questions of the terminologies of identity, especially in African contexts.

Glorification of individual success. Access to conference platforms and international capacity-building scholarships, together with the subsequent exposure to international media, help build the profiles of local organization and draw attention to their challenges. To a certain extent, such opportunities also position the organization better and create access to donor networks. However, in many cases, a small number of activists from certain countries and organizations, who have acquired passports and international travel experience (often through great personal effort, it must be said), become default representatives for the entire queer/LGBTIA+ movement at every regional or international meeting. A handful of activists continually receive media coverage, awards, and a few days of special treatment abroad, and then return home, further removed from their grassroots communities and alienated from their colleagues.

Development. Along with Northern concepts of sexuality and identity, colonial languages are also the vehicles for Northern concepts of what development means, not just economically but also politically and culturally. Development and companion concepts like democracy, good governance, accountability – and, for that matter, activism – are presented as universal, objective values but, at bottom, may only mask a modern version of the colonial “civilizing mission” that represented “darkest Africa” as backward, ignorant, and in need of saving by the North. Donor officials and development consultants are often individually aware of this to one extent or another and may even try to mitigate it in their work, but what Teju Cole calls the “White Savior complex” is built into the system and exerts a continuous pressure on African activists to conform to its “universal” values. The result precludes or erases any alternative values that could emerge, especially from indigenous, grassroots experience.

  1. On missed opportunities

The almost universal adoption of the default organizational model (and its underlying neo-liberal principles) by African queer/LGBTIA+ groups and organizations intersects with the glorification of individual effort and success to produce a “perfect storm” of pressures that stifle the potential to create or maintain genuine, strong relationships between activism and the lived realities of the grassroots or to recognize grassroots needs that do not fit easily into the frameworks and practices imported from the North. To conclude our discussion, we glance below at three issues (and opportunities) that in our view are most urgent at the present time.

Defining a collective understanding of how change happens Genuine, productive collaborations (as opposed to notional, paper ones to attract donor funding) are extremely rare in current African queer/LGBTIA+ organizing space. Work is happening in silos, and when the potential for collaboration emerges, mistrust, self-interest, and turf wars get in the way of developing strong, trusting relationships. The African queer/LGBTIA+ movement has yet to connect the dots between the various theories of change developed at organizational level to create a collective picture of how the movement as a whole envisions change and how to achieve it. Existing regional networks and coalitions have enough knowledge and experience to do this but instead have become gatekeepers fighting for funding and influence among themselves. Many international organizations and regional networks and coalitions pretend to consult the movement only in order to polish their credibility; they do not seem to feel obligated to be accountable to the movement that they expect to be accountable to them. The disconnect between the various networks and coalitions, between grassroots members and leaders, and between activists and donors prevents or sabotages coordinated collective actions that could be transformative in both scale and scope.

Aligning politics and values in organizing. Most groups and organizations with online resources or other public-facing presence have a set of documented values and principals that are supposed to ground and guide their political work. We believe the time is right, in fact overdue, for developing a Pan-African manifesto or charter (similar to the Charter of Principals for African Feminists) to agree and formalize our common core values and principals as a movement, as well as to define a specifically African cultural and political basis for queer/LGBTIA+ organizing and activism on the continent. This would not, of course, guarantee that the values and principals would be followed or that collaborations would become more genuine and productive, but it should at least strengthen and sharpen the movement’s self-concept and could also function as a symbolic “declaration of independence.”

Neglecting the need for healing. As we have argued, current ways of organizing “invisibilize” indigenous African categories of queerness that have always been there but do not recognize themselves in Northern terminologies or feel comfortable in NGO-style organizing spaces. Ironically, this reinforces and complicates the damage already done to African queer identities and cultures by straightforward homophobia, yet very little of the work we do creates space for (re)imagining identity or for healing. Due to homophobia and discrimination, the rates of alcohol and substance abuse, dysfunctional relationships, emotional illness, burn-out and suicide in African queer/LGBTIA+ communities are alarmingly high (Reddy 2002, Polders et. al. 2012), but these issues are hardly addressed by activism except in a human rights/access to health services context. We do not seem to know, at least in our roles as activists, how to value ourselves as ourselves and relate to one another respectfully and non-competitively. As one activist recently told us, “we are dealing with communities that don’t know how to heal themselves,” yet healing and coping initiatives are rarely part of the work we do.

The stress faced by activists and organizations attempting to comply with donors’ reporting and M&E requirements, especially in the context of non- or underfunding of overheads by the same donors, is a further burden. Most activists, even in leadership positions, are too poorly paid to afford proper health care, including mental health care. Health insurance, staff wellbeing programmes, pension schemes, and fair severance packages are unheard of for most activists.

  1. On the way forward

Despite all the problems discussed above, we know that African queer/LGBTIA+ activists have more power and resourcefulness than many of us may realize. As we started this essay by noting, there is widespread disaffection with the current state of organizing, and none of the problems we have discussed above will come as a surprise to anyone involved in the movement. Everything we have raised is common currency in the off-the-record discussions that take place wherever activists gather. However, they are hardly ever raised in official, on-the-record discussions. Is this because activists, especially when we rely on activism to make a living, are afraid of offending donors and losing the livelihoods that depend on donor support?

However, many donors are as aware of the malaise in the movement as activists are, and would be open to honest discussions. In any case, the power flow between donors and activists is not a one-way street. Like activists, donor organizations and officials depend on being able to raise funds and justify their spending, which in turn depend on showing results. Over the past few years, there has been increasing criticism of donor funding for African queer/LGBTIA+ activism for lack of results and even for doing more harm than good. Activists therefore have power that they can use to begin to shift the conversation, and ultimately the practices of organizing, in a more productive direction.

  1. Call for contributions

With that in mind, we present this essay, as we said at the beginning, not just as a discussion paper, but specifically as a call for contributions to a proposed collection of essays on the issues we have raised or on related issues we have not had space to discuss in this essay. Contributions are welcome from both activists and academics on any of the issues or questions we raise in this essay as well as on any other issue to do with the current or future state of queer/LGBTIA+ organizing and activism in Africa. Some of the questions we are interested in hearing your views on include:

On agency and Ownership

  • With whom should queer/LGBTIA+ groups and organizations be working with? And for whom?
  • What should be the roles of queer/LGBTIA+ organizations in our communities? What roles do they play now?
  • Who are being left behind by current ways of organizing? What can be done to include them?
  • Do our current ways of working deconstruct or reinforce the stereotypes about the political homogeneity and vulnerability of queer/LGBTIA+ Africans? Who are we alienating when we use these stereotypes?
  • When queer/LGBTIA+ organizing is mainly led by young, educated people in urban areas, how can organizing be done in ways that cross generational, class, geographic, ethnic, and, in some contexts, race divisions?
  • When advocacy is primarily done in one of the colonial languages, what messages are we sending to those who do not speak those languages?
  • What space, if any, are we creating to develop indigenous languages to frame and foster common understandings of our struggles?

On organizational or movement praxis

  • Do our organizational structures and practices accurately reflect and promote our politics or betray and undermine them?
  • Can we redefine good management and accountability to make our organizing more inclusive and creative, and less bureaucratic, without encouraging anarchy and waste?
  • How do we develop the capacity and commitment to deal with deep-rooted differences and tackle vested interests among us?
  • How do we create an organizing practice in which we are proactively engaged in identifying and discussing the challenges involved in our activism and work?
  • How do we develop new approaches to knowledge production that will galvanize a new majority?
  • A movement with a soul – how can our organizing address the human needs of both activists and community members? How can we ensure that care, compassion, empathy, and mutual support are embedded values of the movement?

This is obviously a far from comprehensive list of pertinent questions that can be asked. We hope to receive contributions on other issues we have never considered.

The issues are varied and complex, and we have had space in this essay to discuss only a few, and those only briefly. As we noted at the beginning, our aim is to open up the field for discussion by others. We welcome responses on particular issues or questions from academics, activists, grant-makers, and anyone interested in the movement for queer/LGBTIA+ rights in Africa.

Please send a brief email outlining your proposed contribution to: by June 1, 2016.

Contributions are welcome in English or French by August 1, 2016.


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