On February 17, experts gathered at NYU School of Law to discuss the recent increase in the targeting and criminalization of LGBT individuals throughout several countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. The event, “Policing Sexuality: Law, Society, and Homosexuality in Sub-Saharan Africa,” was jointly hosted by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ), the Dean’s Workshop on LGBT Rights, and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC).
Professor and CHRGJ Faculty Director Smita Narula moderated the event, leading the panelists in a conversation that covered a wide range of issues, including the influence of Western visitors and increasing local media coverage of LGBT issues on perceptions and policies in Africa; the relationship and interaction between feminist groups and LGBT activist groups; and the impact of LGBT rights issues on public health campaigns, most notably efforts to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Ryan Thoreson, Scott Hitt Research fellow at IGLHRC, said that the unprecedented media attention paid to LGBT issues in recent months cuts both ways. On the one hand, African LGBT rights and issues have become a larger part of public discussion in Africa and abroad, with public figures like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking out against Uganda’s proposed anti-homosexual legislation, for example. But media coverage has also contributed to homophobia and even spurred violence in several countries.

Reverend Kapya Koma, a project director at Political Research Associates, discussed the influence of Western bishops and religious leaders in Africa, and the misconceptions about LGBT people that are rampant in many Sub-Saharan countries. One problem, Koma said, is that some countries use LGBT issues as a scapegoat for larger troubles. For example, he said that some “…use LGBTI to organize people to stand by their dictatorial government.”
Senegalese journalist and activist Codou Bop suggested that groups like feminists and LGBT activists with similar goals—and similar struggles—should work together more closely. “The first thing to do is to break the isolation, so that [LGBT] feel like they have people around them…. They might believe that they don’t have help in their home country,” Bop said. “People only talk about [LGBT issues] when there is a crisis. It should be more common to talk about…so that people are not afraid of it.

Posted on February 22, 2010