On 11 November 2015 the Afrikahaus hosted a panel discussion on LGBTI project work. Organized in conjunction with the Hirschfeld-Eddy Foundation, the panel used examples from different African countries and focused on the question: “How is postcolonial work for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) possible?” The panelists were independent scholar Dr. Rita Schäfer, Uta Schwenke from the board of the Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany (LSVD), and Naana Lorbeer from Queeramnesty Deutschland. The moderator was journalist Pascal Thibaut.
Discussions of hostility and violence against lesbians, gay men, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI) differ based on the country in question. South Africa, for example, has one of the world’s most progressive constitutions, yet sees considerable violence against lesbian women. Many African countries criminalize homosexual relationships. Almost all of these laws were introduced during the colonial period. In light of this background, how is it even possible to pursue postcolonial project work for LGBTI rights?
Dr. Rita Schäfer began by sketching the historical context and examining the long-term effects of colonialism especially in connection with persecuting homosexuals. Germany and other European countries need to devote more attention to this context. She observed that the panel’s central question is only now being developed. As she put it, “We’re just getting started.”
Taking concrete examples of LGBTI project work, the panel discussed the following questions: How can we develop a more nuanced view of postcolonial work from a distance? How can commitment be combined with self-critique in the project work done in these countries? What does this mean with special reference to LGBTI?
Uta Schwenke presented the “Masakhane” project, which seeks to network and strengthen lesbian women in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Zambia. Launched by the Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany (LSVD) and filia.die frauenstiftung, this multiple-year project receives 90% of its funding from the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). Schwenke directs it together with filia managing director Sonja Schelper.
In answer to the question of what makes good project work, Schwenke emphasized “modesty” on the part of the German project partners. The actual knowledge and skills are located in the countries themselves, in Masakhane’s case with the Coalition of African Lesbians in Johannesburg in South Africa. “Our African colleagues in LGBTI human rights operate on high professional levels both nationally and internationally. It is a privilege for us to support their work with our possibilities. However, working with funding from the federal ministry (BMZ) also places high demands on the supporting organization.” Schwenke emphasized how much she herself had learned, both about the potential in this type of cooperation for human rights work and about the racism that inevitably comes up in joint North-South efforts. In her view, a great willingness to listen and learn is crucial to the ability to work well together.
Naana Lorbeer presented the activities of Queeramnesty. This organization works with different activists like Alice Nkom, a lawyer honored by Amnesty International in 2014, in countries such as Cameroon where homosexual acts are prosecuted.
What makes joint projects successful?
For Lorbeer, the key lies in working on an equal footing. That, however, depends on the different political, economic, social and cultural conditions which form a key part of cooperative efforts, especially in light of economic dependence on the funding organizations. Country-specific conditions also need to be taken into account. For Queeramnesty, it is important to work with local African LGBT organizations as well as various other groups in each country. Lorbeer notes the necessity of getting to know their often different concerns and modes of operation, and of pursuing a joint process to develop good forms of cooperation.
“It’s also important to learn as much as you can about the countries themselves, and even then to assume you know essentially nothing. Often the creativity, resources and strengths of local activists and organizations are not recognized in hostile environments. Their actions on the ground are colorful, diverse and committed.” As part of her work, Lorbeer tries to examine her own entanglement in postcolonial relations and to engage in self-critique, yet to take action despite that.
The panel agreed that the often perilous and life-threatening risks to LGBTI people need to be addressed, particularly in countries that criminalize homosexuality. To achieve this, European countries need to engage more strongly with their own colonial pasts and especially with the colonial roots of criminal law in many African countries. Many African cultures had and still have their own local and different understandings of homosexuality, which suffered under the homophobic colonial laws and church influence that continue to fuel discrimination to this day.
The question of how to pursue a postcolonial course of action needs to be discussed with everyone involved. It is essential to listen to the activists themselves, because they know best what needs to be done to improve the precarious situations of LGBTI people in their respective countries. In addition, greater engagement with the African Diaspora needs to be launched about this aspect of development cooperation. Because that is one result of the evening – regarding this question, we are just getting started.
The Crossings & Alliances series will hold additional events on this topic.
LGBTI Platform for Human Rights
Photos of the event
Further Articles about the Crossings & Alliances series of events