Africa: Everyone has a Role to Play in Ending Abuse Against LGBTQI+ Africans


Johannesburg — In April 2022, the Centre for Human Rights (CHR) and the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS, and Gender (CSA&G) at the University of Pretoria together with the Center for Gender Studies and Feminist Futures (CGS) and the Center for Conflict Studies (CCS) at the Philipps-University Marburg launched the first edition of the Pretoria-Marburg Queer Conversations. The conversations come from common interests in work on LGBTIQ+ and queer identities among the centres.

This six-event series, themed Scholarly and Activist Perspectives on LGBTIQ+ Lived Realities in Africa, creates a monthly space for in-depth discussions that bring together scholars and LGBTQI+ activists.

On May 19, at the second event of the series focusing on Threats to Human Rights for LGBTIQ+ Communities: Hate Crimes and Conversion Therapy – Khanyo Farise – an Africa advocacy officer at OutRight Action International led a conversation focused on conversion practices in Africa.

But what are conversion practices? It can include “beatings, rape, electrocution, forced medication, isolation and confinement, forced nudity, verbal offence and humiliation and other acts of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse” … because their sexual orientation or gender identity do not fall under what is perceived by certain persons as a desirable norm”, says Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the United Nations Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. More simply put, it means trying to force people who identify as LGBTQI+ to conform to a heterosexual identity.

“All of them really depict any and all treatments, practices, or sustained efforts that aim to suppress or change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. It is rooted in the rejection of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer considering them as needing to be cured, or repaired to gain their presumed heterosexual identities,” says Farise.

There is still widespread opposition to the rights of queer Africans in many countries. Kenya’s Film and Classification Board banned the documentary I Am Samuel, which officials said was intentionally produced to promote lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people as normal. This as queer refugees in the Kakuma refugee camp have faced often brutal attacks. While in Ghana, where gay sex is punishable by up to three years in jail and persecution of queer people is common, an Anti-Gay Bill will make it illegal to be queer or to advocate for LGBTQI+ rights. In South Africa, where the community’s rights are enshrined in the constitution, the daily reality is often starkly different.

The recent rise in anti-queer sentiment in Africa has it’s roots in part to the influence of American evangelical churches. openDemocracy reported that at least 20 U.S.-based Christian right-wing groups have poured million of dollars into the continent since 2008 to oppose sex education, contraception, abortion, and LGBTQI+ rights. But the origins of anti-queer violence dates as far back as colonial times.

Farise’s discussion focused on the lived realities of LGBTQI+ people in Africa. She shared data gathered through research in three focus countries – Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa. The research started in 2019 and was done in collaboration with local organizations to understand the nature and extent of conversion practices in Africa. “We wanted to build a body of localised knowledge of exactly what these practices look like in Africa and in particular in these three countries, especially because of such a lack of such data. There’s just not enough of it and where it does exist. It’s not localised. It’s not by us, for us,” Farise said.

Another goal was to raise awareness about the existence of these practices in African countries and to show the profound harm they cause to LGBTQI+ people all over the continent, especially young people. “As we know, the continent is majority youth and so many young people are affected by these practices. So it was important for us to try to raise awareness of what these look like and then also to build a broad base of support from various stakeholders including policymakers, government actors, civil society, people in the African Union, the African Commission, and various other platforms to build a body of support to say these practices must be eradicated,” she said.

“It is already difficult to live in a world where everyone thinks you are different and need to be fixed. We are also human beings and did not choose to be who we are. As much as a zebra did not choose it stripes, black and white. It is not by choice. It is by birth, love us or hate us we will forever remain queer. Love that child. Love him unconditionally, and they will conquer the world with your love and support.”

“So this quote really stood out for me because I think it shows a lot of the pain that many LGBTIQ people in Africa, carry with them and live with because of being subjected to these harmful conversion practices. And also just living in fear of being exposed to them,” Farise added.

One of the local partners in South Africa called their campaign against these practices inxeba lami. This translates to my wound, which Farise says really speaks to the deep pain that so many LGBTQI+ Africans live with. “We were celebrating International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia recently, and unfortunately in many countries in Africa, there are still frameworks that are discriminatory and actually fuel these harmful practices that many young people, young and old, in fact, are at risk of experiencing” she said.

The research showed that out of the 2970 LGBTQI+ respondents surveyed, more than half of the respondents had undergone some form of conversion practice.

“We also found that frequently, several forms of conversion practices are combined. Most respondents in the survey indicated that they endure more than one form of conversion practice. We also found that they increase in intensity from the time a person is outed or is discovered to be a member of the LGBTIQ+ community. First, it would start with family talks, and then it escalated to counselling by church leaders and community leaders, and then it gets into violence in many cases and duress, ostracising, starving, torture, and various other forms,” said Farise.

The survey showed that some of the respondents were subjected to these practices since their childhood and it continued over many years. Often it included some form of “talk therapy”.

“An example here is a quote from one of the respondents who said: “I was caught in the act having sex with my boyfriend, and I was taken to our local counsellor in Machakos hospital. I was forced to be screened for mental health issues, later to be subjected to daily counselling sessions by my counsellor. My dad would like to scare me that they would kill me if I don’t stop being gay and out into the whole community.”

Another method which was very often found in all three countries was prayer and laying on the hands for ‘healing’. “I was told that thinking was demonic and that I missed a ritual intervention to cure the homosexuality spirit. I went through many prayers and at some point, I contemplated committing suicide. I almost lost myself”, a respondent said.

“So this person is also showing some of the impacts of being at risk, of being subjected to these conversion practices, where people have a lot of mental health consequences. Another example is false imprisonment by locking persons in homes, churches, or camps. We also saw cases where people were forced to fast and basically deprived of food for a long time,” adds Farise.

Respondents also spoke of sexual assault and being coerced into sex, relationships, or marriage. “I’m a Muslim. So when the parents realized I am gay, they went and paid dowry for a girl they wanted to marry me. She would later be brought to my room for me to sleep with her.”

Another respondent said: “When my parents realised I was queer, and I love girls’ clothes. I was taken to a pastor. When my mom used to go to church they used to pray for me, and at some point, I would be beaten by my brother and father to change and man up.”

The survey also showed numerous cases of medical interventions by health professionals. “The research found that in all three countries, religious leaders mental health practitioners, and certain family members were the main perpetrators of these conversion practices, whilst family members were the initiators who once they discovered someone’s sexual orientation. They now initiated and approach various actors to try and place this person back,” said Farise.

In some cases members of the queer community sought out these practices themselves. “So we also concerningly found that there were many cases where people sought out these practices, where people took themselves to these spaces and that just showed the need for advocacy and affirming services and awareness-raising for people to understand that they’re perfect the way they are, and there’s no need for them to seek these practices. But it was concerning that there were all these pressures and all this discrimination that actually results in many people going to seek out these harmful practices,” adds Farise.