Pride Afrique is the first of its kind, a three-day virtual extravaganza celebrating Africa’s diverse, colorful community of sexual minorities. But behind the glitz and glam, participants say, is a very serious need to bring gay Africans into the light, as their lives are threatened on the continent every single day.
Homosexuality is illegal in more than half of Africa’s 54 countries, with penalties ranging from jail time to execution. Even in countries where same-sex relationships and fluid gender identities are decriminalized, they remain culturally unpopular, and often result in discrimination or even targeted violence.
And as if things weren’t challenging enough, the coronavirus pandemic has eliminated the ordinary, daily social encounters that can break down stereotypes and foster understanding.
And so, thought a small group of queer African filmmakers, writers, and artists, in these socially distant times, why not bring queer pride to everyone?
That was the purpose of this year’s inaugural, unusual Pride Afrique festival. The multimedia celebration of Africa’s rainbow of sexual minorities was held virtually over three days this month, amid restrictions across the continent that prohibit large gatherings. About 1,000 people tuned in digitally, on YouTube.
Festival committee member Welcome Lishivha says that while the event may look fun, sexy and glamorous, its underlying message is very serious.
“Seventy-two countries in the world criminalize homosexuality and 32 of them are in Africa. So it is very important to have initiatives like Pride Afrique, where queer people in Africa can come together to reclaim their power, to reclaim their voice and to reclaim their pride," said Lishivha. "Reports still show that queer people are still living difficult lives in relation to everyone else, even in South Africa.”
Lishivha brought up several recent examples, including a continuing epidemic of violence against lesbians and trans women in South Africa, which was the first African country to decriminalize homosexuality.
Over three days, dozens of participants shared their experiences of coming to terms with their gender and sexuality.
Those accounts were important to festival participant Noni Salma, who spoke to VOA via Google Hangouts from her home in New York. Salma, a filmmaker, says attitudes in her native Nigeria keep her from feeling comfortable there.
She is transgender, and her work has explored themes of homosexuality in Africa.
“I think it's important to see African queer people being joyful because I think it's revolutionary. I think this is important as highlighting our trauma and our pain. I think that that's magic," she said. "I don't want to discount what that could do for queer people in Africa who are struggling, who do not see that, wouldn’t even know that that’s a thing. Fourteen-year-old, 12-year-old me would have loved to see that, you know, that, yes, pain exists. But also joy is something that also that we can have.”
Professor Juan Nel, a psychologist and researcher at the University of South Africa, says visibility is the first step towards acceptance. Nel studies violence against sexual minorities and is lobbying South Africa’s government for a new bill that will track and classify such incidents as hate crimes.
He recalled South Africa’s first known pride parade, in 1990, before homosexuality was decriminalized. The 100 or so participants wore brown bags over their heads to conceal their identities, out of fear of retribution.
That’s why, he says, there’s so much power in unmasking — and celebrating — queer Africans.
He says many problems stem from the notion, which he and other academics and historians dispute, that homosexuality is “un-African.”
“In the African context, a lot of the pushback, if you want to call it, would be based on unstated colonial laws, a tendency to scapegoat during political conflicts, and perhaps the religiosity that is quite evident in much of Africa," he said. "We have religious, well, rigid beliefs, in cultural and family values. And then of course, a very strong patriarchal mindset. And I would say all of those things would feed into why some people would indeed say that being LBGTI is un-African.”
Lishivha agrees, but added that this year’s festival gave him something he badly needed in these lonely, socially distant times.
“It really suddenly feels like I have a new family and my personhood, my dignity and my rage against homophobia, transphobia and biphobia has been affirmed by Pride Afrique because I know there are people out there like me. I know people out there like me who are beautiful, who are powerful, who have, you know, powerful, powerful thoughts about making the world a better place,” said Lishivha.
That’s what matters, he says: to be proud, safe, happy and accepted — at home, in Africa.