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Following the recent publication of the report “Do Not Wake up a Sleeping Lion: Mapping the legal environment of LGBTQ persons in Francophone West Africa,” AWID spoke with Pierre Meyer, Legal Advisor of Queer African Youth Network and author of the report, to learn more about the aspirations and challenges faced by LGBTQ people and activists in West Africa.
By Mégane Ghorbani
AWID: What needs does the Queer African Youth Network (QAYN) address? How is the network composed and what are its activities?
Pierre Meyer (PM): We realized that there were a number of organizations in the region with the mandate to protect “vulnerable” groups or “key populations” in the fight against HIV and AIDS. These groups constituted mostly of gay men whose activism focused primarily on health issues, in particular the fight against HIV and AIDS within male populations. Nothing was done for others within the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Tran* and Queer (LGBTQ) community – who were not represented in these movements – and issues other than the health of these populations were not being addressed. QAYN was thus created in 2010 to respond to two needs: representing other groups within LGBTQ communities, that is to say, not exclusively gay men, and broadening LGBTQ issues beyond HIV and AIDS.
QAYN is a network of organizations working in West Africa – namely, Burkina Faso, Togo, Benin, Mali, Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal – but also in Cameroon. The majority of our members are activists under 30 years old, because one of the particularities in West Africa is that LBGTQ mobilizing at the community level is relatively new. Which is not to say that sexual orientation is connected to age or that LGBTQ people have not always existed, but that such an LGBTQ community and its mobilization is the result of youth activism.
QAYN’s work is thus mainly focused on community mobilizing and sociological, medical and legal research. The network also includes advocacy at the inter-African level within the framework of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, at the domestic level among national authorities, and at the community level among religious and cultural leaders.
AWID: QAYN decided to collaborate with Francophone LGBTQ movements as a priority. Why?
PM: QAYN was initially composed of Francophone as well as Anglophone organizations in the region, but during international and regional advocacy meetings we realized that Anglophone LGBTQ communities were much better organized and had experience in advocacy that wasn’t found in Francophone countries; with a gap between countries in training and activism. QAYN prioritizes LGBTQ movements in Francophone countries because the need for training is more visible in these countries, where movements are less structured and the practice is more recent and less dynamic than that which we find in certain Anglophone countries. There are also big differences in community activism and mobilizing across different West African Francophone countries, between for example an Ivorian LGBTQ movement with experience in observing human rights violations and legal advocacy and the absence of such experience in Mali, Togo, Benin or Burkina Faso.
AWID: What type of discrimination/marginalization are LGBTQ people facing in Francophone West Africa? How are these more significant for lesbian, bisexual and queer women?
PM: Discrimination and stigma is found at all levels, from familial – with reactions that can be quite violent – to social, be it in terms of education, health or work. Even for people who belong to organizations, there is a certain invisibility of their sexual orientation in their social and familial life to avoid stigma. It is difficult to understand specific discrimination against women because, apart from Cote d’Ivoire, where there is an observatory charged with collecting data on discrimination faced by LGBTQ people, there are no such institutions in the other countries. So it is difficult to establish statistically the lesbophobic violence. That said, in general, it is extremely common in society to hear people talk about lesbian women being raped, as a so-called “corrective” measure, which proves that extreme violence is socially widespread. Moreover, among LGBTQ communities, women were totally excluded and rendered invisible by the gay community which works within the framework of fighting against HIV and AIDS. Trans* people are, by far, those who suffer the most discrimination and stigma.
AWID: What does your latest report “Do Not Wake up a Sleeping Lion: Mapping the legal environment of LGBTQ persons in Francophone West Africa” address?
PM: The purpose of the study was to describe the state of legislation in terms of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, both from the point of view of the penal system, as well as the civil, economic and social liberties and rights, in five West African countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali and Togo. Based on analysis of the legislation, the report analyses implementation by public officials, that is to say tribunals or security forces, as well as private actors within for example the family, the work environment, or the neighbourhood.
In general, with the exception of Togo, the legislation is not explicitly discriminatory, rather, it is in its implementation that we see social discrimination at all levels. For example, as soon as an organization is formed and makes its LGBTQ advocacy public, it is denied State registration, which shows how organizations face legislative discrimination. We must ensure equality of civil, economic and social liberties and rights, not only in texts, but also in practice. In the legislation of these different countries, there are civil and political rights protections from discrimination, where for example, race and sex are listed, but never sexual orientation or gender identity. The first recommendation is therefore to modify legislation to expressly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity among all guaranteed liberties and rights within judicial texts.
Another recommendation is to create an observatory on violence and discrimination against LGBTQ people in all of these countries and to provide legal training to a number of people within the LGBTQ communities of these countries to report rights violations; as well as train judicial and police officers anti-discrimination.
AWID: What are the obstacles to realizing the common aspirations of LGBTQ movements of Francophone West Africa?
PM: One of our common aspirations is to raise the LGBTQ issue in a transversal way across these countries in light of the emergence of an LGBTQ identity in Francophone West Africa. One obstacle is the fact that a large number of human rights organizations in these countries refuse, or are reluctant to integrate LGBTQ issues into their advocacy. In Togo for example, there are even human rights organizations that call for reinforcing the criminalization of same-sex relations. In Burkina Faso, Balai citoyen was a pro-democratic movement at the forefront of the fall of the Compaoré regime and the fight against the Putsch in September; yet, when we held a national meeting, in March 2015, on the emergence of a homosexual identity in Burkina Faso, this organization declined the invitation to participate.
At the State level, there are no policies structured around LGBTQ issues; how these issues are received is unpredictable and depends on the person to whom they are addressed. To justify the absence of a fight against LGBTQ discrimination, States often resort to a perverse argument, including in spaces like the Human Rights Council, suggesting they cannot do anything because of public opinion in their countries. But at the same time, they do nothing to reduce the stigma or hostility and there are no awareness campaigns. To the contrary, the only discourse publically authorized on the LGBTQ issue is from religious or traditional authorities, a discourse founded on moral convictions. Thus, not only does the State fail to reduce stigma against LGBTQ people, it also prevents organizations who could, from doing so.
AWID: Within this context what are the risks and dangers that activists among your network might face in conducting their work?
PM: The risks are different across countries. In Cameroon, there is repression of LGBTQ activists, while in Burkina Faso it is more a matter of intimidation. QAYN applied for an association registration according to the law on associations. When our coordinator paid a visit to the administration office to enquire about the application, she was threatened by the officer in charge of the registration file of “corrective rape” and the registration was never processed. The police also came to question the founders of the organization to intimidate them.
At the social level, it is common that during meetings there is violence and attacks committed by people in the neighbourhood and often enough, security forces do not intervene to ensure that people are protected.
AWID: Could you tell us about the idea of creating a LGBTQ West Africa fund?
Currently, international funding for LGBTQ organizations is administered mainly from abroad and in particular the United States, which hinders local organizations in terms of professionalising their own financial management. Moreover, because finance is only received from external sources, organizations have a tendency to accept funding even if the related project does not really correspond to a community priority. QAYN and other organizations want to create a finance mechanism administered directly by LGBTQ organizations in West Africa to strengthen community mobilizing and to create professional communities in the region. The Fund should be managed by a group of West African organizations. It will definitely not be operational before end of 2016 and we will meet this month to continue discussions.
 Read the reports “Struggling Along: The lived realities of women who have sex with women in Burkina Faso, Ghana and Nigeria” and “Between Us: The complexities of Lesbians, Bisexual and Queer Women’s Organizing in Francophone Sub-Saharan Africa” to learn more about the challenges of LBQ women in Francophone West Africa.