Lesbian refugees in Kenya teach us that the fight against homophobia and transphobia is a global struggle
Nakafeero Swabulah and her lesbian activists in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya teach us that pro-LGBTQA rights activists face similar challenges all over the world, as their opponents are using similar arguments and tactics.
Transgender World has published an interview with Nakafeero called “A lesbian refugee from Uganda is doing her best to assist LGBT people living in a refugee camp in Kenya.”
In this interview Nakafeero talks about her escape from Uganda — where her mother and sister were killed by homophobes coming for Nakafeero — and about what she and her lesbian crew do for LGBTQA people in the refugee camp.
They are trying to get funds for medication, shelters, food, baby formula, sanitary pads, detergents, clothes, clean water and more, anything that can increase the quality of life of the LGBTQA refugees and their kids. This is not easy, though, as there are homophobic and transphobic thugs in this camp, as well.
Related anti-LGBTQA narratives all over the world
I am not saying that the challenges faced by a Black lesbian woman in a refugee camp in Kenya are the same as those of a white lesbian woman in Germany. They are not. Most queer people in the US and Europe have resources and privileges Nakafeero and her friends can only dream of.
But what I do see is that the homophobia and transphobia found in countries as diverse as Uganda, Kenya, the United States, Russia and Sweden have commonalities. They draw energy from similar psychological, cultural and political forces.
The similarities between Ugandan and American anti-LGBTQA propaganda are, for instance, many:
- Being queer or trans is either seen as a sexual perversion or a sin (or both).
- They claim you can be “cured” of homosexuality and being of trans (leading to a promotion of conversion therapies, “repentance” and detransitioning)
- Gay and trans people are “groomers” who, with the help of their “ideologies”, seduce and harm children. The “pedophilia” narrative represents the logical endpoint of this moral panic.
- A tolerance of LGBTQA people is seen as part of a sinister “liberal” or “socialist” campaign in the USA and as an effect of “Western colonialism” in Uganda. This amounts to more or less the same thing, though: Pro-LGBTQA policies reflect “foreign” thinking in violation of “local traditions”.
- Anti-LGBTQA activists in both the US and Uganda are using legislative campaigns to harm and exclude gay and trans people. This is reflected in the new anti-gay law of Uganda, which strengthens previous anti-LGBTQA legislation. Gay sex is banned, as are gender identities outside what they see as “the binary categories of male and female”. The over 500 bills proposed by Republicans in the USA are mainly targeting trans people, but the rhetoric and logic underpinning them are the same as in Uganda. Indeed, the anti-groomer campaign of the party is targeting all LGBTQA people.
Anchored in local culture
Nakafeero is very clear about the violent homophobia she has experienced (and is experiencing) has deep roots in the local culture. The leader of her village organized a posse that went to her home to kill her, because she is lesbian.
It is true that the homophobia found in Uganda has been strongly influenced by British colonial “anti-sodomy” laws. These laws were originally created by British men sharing the sexual anxiety of the Victorian era.
It is also true that American right-wing Evangelicals have been actively feeding Ugandan policy makers and anti-LGBTQA activists homophobic and transphobic propaganda. (For a horrifying glimpse into the work of American missionaries in Uganda today, see the documentary God Loves Uganda).
In pre-Christian times at least some local cultures in what is now Uganda were very open to diverse sexualities and gender variance. Mudoko dako was considered an “alternative gender status” in Lango, where transfeminine people were considered women and were allowed to marry men. Similar customs were found among the Iteso. But that does not necessarily mean there was no homophobia in Uganda before the British took over.
The seduction of “normalcy”
It seems to me that both pro- and anti-LGBTQA people sometimes fall into the trap of believing that this is only a battle of ideas. The intensity of the hatred displayed tells me that there is something more fundamentally human in play. I would argue that this is the human need to find scapegoats to blame when life becomes too hard and frightening.
Being human is to face the existential threats of social exclusion, violence, disease, poverty and death. We may, for some periods of time, feel safe, in which case the need for simplistic explanations and narratives is less urgent. But under pressure, many start looking for someone to blame.
At this point the idea of “normalcy” becomes totally dominant. “Normalcy” represents social order, predictability and being one of the protected insiders.
“Normalcy” gives people a cultural script that saves them for having to reflect on the real complexity of life. Indeed, for a while they may feel protected from death itself. “Normalcy” strengthens the feeling of belonging to a strong tribe, a collective that can defeat all those who threaten the desired social stability.
Finally, the war against the threatening outsiders provide emotional release. You can take out all your fear and frustration on someone who, in this setting, deserves it.
The manipulation of bigotry
The concept of “normalcy” is a human creation, however. Homophobes and transphobes want to make this to a question of “nature”, but given that same-sex relationships and gender variance are found in large part of the animal kingdom, it is clear that what we are facing here are cultural taboos.
Evil men and women can use these taboos to gain power and influence. They can manipulate local bigotry, by presenting themselves as defenders of the natural and god given order of things.
These men and women pretend to provide the protection vulnerable people are longing for. What they really are doing is to make up the perceived threats they offer protection from.
The main tactic here is to reinforce already existing prejudices against marginalized groups (Jews, people of color, immigrants, foreigners, gay men and women, trans people etc.). They need to make sure that members of these groups are never offered the protection of being seen as “normal”.
The reason that it is so much harder for the extremists to attack gay men and lesbian women in Europe and North America right now, is that this group has become a more visible and accepted part of these societies.
Most people know someone gay, lesbian or bisexual and they can see that they are not perverted monsters. They are no longer seen as outsiders. They are now seen as part of “normalcy” who deserves the protection of the ruling tribe.
This is why American anti-LGBTQA activists are focusing the attacks on trans people, who are not yet offered this kind of protection. They need to stigmatize trans people first, before they try to to push gay and lesbian people out of the “normalcy” category.
What to do about it
In many ways the anti-LGBTQA activists provide us with the answer to the question: “How do we create an accepting and inclusive environment for marginalized people?”
It is the “normalization” and “humanization” the homophobes and the transphobes fear. We need to create a cultural acceptance for this kind of diversity, where queer and trans people are seen as regular people.
That creates a positive feedback loop where it becomes harder and harder for the bigots to attack them, because attacking them is now seen as a threat to the ruling social order.
All of this might sound a bit cynical. Some might even argue that this tactic can be destructive, as the strive to be seen as “normal” may cause the outsiders to suppress “offensive” parts of their own culture or identity. This is definitely why some gay people want to throw the drag queens out of the Pride Parade. They are making an attempt to please the oppressors by not provoking them.
I get that, but I am still more of an optimist. I think the multicultural diversity we find in many urban areas tells us that even if you cannot always hope for complete understanding and acceptance from all, you can at least achieve the kind of tolerance that gives queer and trans people a room to live their lives in peace. And that is so much better than living in a world rule by the Trumps, Putins and Musevenis of the world.
What we are facing is — as the homophobes and the transphobes have understood– a political struggle. Legislation is key. Education is essential. Media and art are important. This is, indeed, a culture war — a war declared by Republicans, Putinists, TERFs and many African leaders, and it is a war that threatens many more than members of the LGBTQA community. We need to fight. All of us.
A lesbian refugee from Uganda is doing her best to assist LGBT people living in a refugee camp in Kenya. You can help her.
African sexuality and the legacy of imported homophobia
Uganda’s new anti-LGBTQ bill grew out of a poisonous American seed
How U.S. Evangelicals Helped Homophobia Flourish in Africa
Lesbian Refugees Escaping the Homophobic and Transphobic Policies of Uganda