It is an all familiar situation where more than 75% of African countries’ laws and/or people’s attitudes prohibit, frown upon and criminalise same-sex relations and activity – Zambia not excluded. Despite the common denial trend in many African countries about the existence of gays and lesbians, the fact remains that they exist and remain part of the victimised and marginalised social group.
So much has happened in Africa in the recent past and yet so much of the dreaded is likely to be experienced. This article intends to describe the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) scene and activity in the Southern African nation of Zambia from the lenses of an individual who has traversed the Zambian LGBTI landscape firsthand in the past six years. This article is also intended to serve as an introductory overview of this rather small community and movement in Zambia.
The LGBTI movement in Africa is not a new set of events but a long confusing and agonising journey of many highs and doldrums. This struggle came to the fore after the introduction of multi-partism in the very early 1990s. One such group that sought to galvanise and forge a strong LGBTI movement is the defunct Zambia Independent Monitoring Team (ZIMT), with a claim that a population of 500 000 gays and lesbians existed in the country then.
ZIMT advocated for the registration of an LGBTI association known as LEGATRA in 1997, having mooted the idea of forming the group the same year. However, this idea was met with harsh resentment and threats from the state institutions and other non-state actors including traditionalists and religious bodies. Consequently, the group never saw the light of day in the list of registered NGOs in Zambia. In addition, the then Programme Manager of ZIMT and other members of LEGATRA fled the country. As a result, between 1998 and 2007, the LGBTI community remained seemingly mute, underground and scattered.
The common arguments by the government and a host of other non-state actors against the this community include the all too familiar ‘unAfrican’ ‘unnatural’, ‘cultural imperialism’, ‘importation of Western values’ and ‘against the Bible’ clichés. In such cases, autonomous government agencies and sympathizers that seek a neutral and objective position are always vilified and demonised.
A case in point is the Zambian Human Rights Commission (HRC). It is trendy in Zambia to want to rush to the press and state your position even on matters that are ‘personal’ and in the process, meticulously calculated strategies of reaching out to the public have always been to threaten supporters and sympathisers of the LGBTI community.
In the past decade or so, the media’s adherence to media ethics has been questionable. Frankly, one would wonder if indeed some media practictioners and journalists are a product of a well organised and executed media and journalism curriculum and training programme. The state media has always been in the forefront of spreading misinformation about homosexuality and its relationship to the Zambian situation.
Many media and political analysts have drawn similarities in the anti-gay rhetoric in sub-Saharan Africa. For instance, the weakened economies and diminishing popularity of incumbent presidents have often preceded intense condemnation of the LGBTI community. In most instances, the ignorant masses have been drawn into the one-sided debate to rouse public anger and create a sense of common and imminent invasion of the public space by the ‘gay agenda’ wielding minority. Surprisingly though, the word ‘gay’ is always only synonymous to men who are sexually attracted to other men in the dark, secretive places haunted by evil and social decay. These further points to the lack of understanding of what homosexuality entails and thus has unfortunately led to both heated debates and anger.
Nonetheless, the current environment and political climate remains awash with many instances of misinformation and propaganda with the aim of diverting attention from the urgent socio-economic problems and also to score easy political marks. Furthermore, this trend has not only driven the LGBTI further underground but paradoxically also raised their profile. Nonetheless, the movement in Zambia remains hidden in the shadows of the past failures of LEGATRA as it gathers ground by ensuring it picks the momentum from the exit point of the first unregistered lGBTI organization.
The history of LEGATRA not only left behind valuable lessons but also gave birth to a more cautious LGBTI movement that believes in quiet diplomacy [for the time being].
Because quiet diplomacy thrives on the understanding that two or more parties have an equal footing and space on the negotiating table, the current underground LGBTI movement remains constrained in its quest to call the government and other non-state actors to compromise and come to action. Hence, the only way to engage the government has remained the need to remind the government to consider key populations in the fight against HIV and AIDS.
This tactic has not helped much because no public debate on LGBTI recognition and acceptance has gone smoothly without the government quickly shutting down the space for engagement and dialogue. Generally, those that have endeavoured to bring into focus, sexual orientation and gender identity and expression as human rights issues have been met with public outcry or backlash. This has been so because there has been a misunderstanding that the LGBTI has been advocating and demanding a different category of ‘special rights’ misleadingly termed as ‘gay rights’. These ‘gay rights’ advocacy has also been linked to external funding sources and support from the West, which in turn has angered the government about the West’s sinister agenda.
To this end, there has been little discussion on how else to engage the government and non-state actors opposed to legal reform and the sensitisation of the masses on the issue of homosexuality and human sexuality in general. Of course, education remains an important tool in dispelling the myths and ignorance surrounding human sexuality in Zambia and yet the space is almost non-existent. Surprisingly though, gay friendly places of the night can be found dotted in major cities and towns, pointing to the somewhat tolerant nature of the Zambian populace from all walks of life – rural, urban, religious, intellectual, youth etc. If this is the case, what then discourages discourse and conversations after dawn? Some have pointed out to societal attitudes reinforced by the disinclination of the church to engage on the taboo issue of human sexuality and gender identity and expression while others point at the legal standing of homosexuality.
Ironically, government agencies or contributors to media publications that write or discuss homosexuality in the negative are never questioned or arrested for such and yet those that seek to start conversation from either a human rights platform or contemporary humanitarian values platform in the positive, are always charged with trying to ‘corrupt public morals’. This type of selective application of the law serves the anti-gay lobby right and perpetuates the misinformation about a defenseless section of society while simultaneously cementing instutionalised homo-/transphobia. To say that the LGBTI is a persecuted section of society is an underestimation, rather it is also a sought after section of the population for all manner discrimination and prejudicial treatment. This not only feeds into the diversionary attitudes of reigning politicians but also politicking games of the shrewd lot.
The existence, recognition and acceptance of the LGBTI community in Zambia remains a delicate balance under the banner of a Christian nation declaration of the early 1990s. It is a cry for breathing space and yet it feels premature to inhale more air than is available for fear of self-inflicted psycho-social suffocation. The advocates for quiet diplomacy remain challenged by the upcoming activists that seek a drastic change to the current ‘underground-comfort zone’ stance. By and large, it remains a ‘live and let live’ daily struggle and at the mercy of the unpredictable nature of the Zambian warmth. This status quo does not exclude the underground NGOs and their allies.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly mine and do not reflect or seek to reflect an organisation I am affiliated to, implicictly or expressly.
Educator, budding Blogger, analyst and (lgbti ) activist from Zambia.
(Reuben Silungwe) – Country Correspondent