How Foreign Governments Hurt Not Help LGBTQI Rights

by Chitra Nagarajan

Strong statements against anti-gay legislation intensify backlash. What is needed is listening to activists and asylum reform to help queer people both 'over there' and 'over here.'

First published: 27 February, 2014 | Category: Activism, Civil Liberties, Foreign policy, Gender equality, Homophobia, Inequality, International

On Monday, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act. The law criminalises lesbianism for the first time, strengthens punishment for anyone caught having sex with someone of the same sex and outlaws the promotion of homosexuality. It criminalises those who assist individuals to engage in homosexual acts and requires citizens to denounce those they suspect of being gay. It introduces an offence of ‘aggravated homosexuality’ with those convicted receiving a sentence of life imprisonment.

This move by the Ugandan government followed fundamental retrenchment of rights in India and Nigeria in December and January.

The Indian Supreme Court ruled in December that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalising sexual acts ‘against the order of nature’ was, in fact, not a breach of rights as guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. This overruled the previous 2009 decision of the Delhi High Court that made criminalising homosexuality unconstitutional and ‘completely changed everythingaccording to Anand Grover of the Lawyer’s Collective who brought the legal challenge. Prior to 2009, the Indian Penal Code was used to harass, extort money from and blackmail India’s LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex) population. It had disproportionate impact on those from ‘lower’ socio-economic classes and castes who had little recourse to assistance. Rajnath Singh, president of the BJP, India’s main opposition party, welcomed the  Supreme Court decision sayingwe believe that homosexuality is an unnatural act and cannot be supported.’

This was followed mere weeks later by President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria assenting to legislation that prohibits and criminalises marriage contracts or civil unions entered into by people of the same gender, public show of same sex amorous relationship and registration of gay clubs, societies and organisations. It also criminalises anyone who witnesses or aids a same gender marriage, civil union or operation of a gay rights organisation. Criminalising homosexuality is not new in Nigeria. Section 214 of the Criminal Code Act criminalised ‘any person who has carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature’, with a jail term of up to 14 years. In the northern states which have adopted sharia law, the maximum sentence since the turn of the millennium has been the death penalty for men and whipping and/ or imprisonment for women. Since January, the police in each state are said to have drawn up lists of suspected gay people who they now plan to target. Arrests and punishments have been intensely popular with police having to protect defendants from crowds throwing stones.

The United Nations, human rights organisations and international donors have been quick to condemn these moves. Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement saying ‘Disapproval of homosexuality by some can never justify violating the fundamental human rights of others.’ Amnesty International called the lawa mockery of the rights enshrined in the Ugandan constitution.’ Bilateral donors have threatened to review or withdraw aid, with Foreign Ministers issuing strong condemnatory statements.

Foreign governments think they are taking positive action. These are countries that say they support the rights of queer people and are working to protect them. This is positive. We certainly do not want them to look the other way in deference to the position of Nigeria or Uganda as a strategic ally in the fight against extremism in Somalia or Northern Nigeria or in terms of the world economic markets.

However a bit of strategic thinking, acknowledgement of history and context and joining up rhetoric to reality would be welcome. What is often missing is any consultation with activists to find out the impact of particular courses of action, taking their cue from them in terms of how best to support their work in fighting for realisation of rights and bringing this concern for rights back ‘home’.

‘Over there’

When examining the impact of foreign governments on the lives of queer people, we need to consider change in the formal legislative field and more nebulous terrain of changing people’s attitudes and behaviour. After all, not being imprisoned, not being sentenced to death or even being tolerated, although achievements in and of themselves, fall far short of real success.

Foreign governments have reacted strongly to what has been happening in Eastern European, African, Asian and Latin American countries and in ways that may well not help. Even in terms of legislative change, this has not always worked to stop the passage of regressive laws. In Nigeria and Uganda, the UK, USA, Canada and others have been outspoken (publicly and privately) on this issue for months. Yet as of January, Nigeria had passed the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act but President Museveni had refused to assent to anti-gay legislation in Uganda. At the time, many commentators attributed this to Uganda’s reliance on foreign aid as opposed to Nigeria’s relative independence due to oil receipts. International pressure did lead to the removal of the death penalty from the legislation but recent events in Uganda have shown the fallacy of this analysis and the limit of donor power in the face of endemic societal homophobia and huge electoral popularity. 

Diplomacy evidently does not work (all the time).

There may be a space for private, behind closed doors advocacy but, given so much of the rhetoric around the legislation is of the 'resisting Western imperialism and protecting our [insert country/ ethnicity/ religion/ region] values' kind, are public threats of sanctions, cancelled meetings and withdrawing aid at this point merely playing into the hands of the homophobes?

In India, Nigeria, Uganda and many African, Asian and Latin American countries, much of the debates around homosexuality centre around the narrative of it being a ‘Western disease’ that is being imposed on ‘our’ countries in contravention of ‘our’ culture, history and tradition. Museveni has said, ‘There's now an attempt at social imperialism, to impose social values… Outsiders cannot dictate to us. This is our country.’ Others like President Macky Sall of Senegal have stated, ‘"We don't ask the Europeans to be polygamists. We like polygamy in our country, but we can't impose it in yours. Because the people won't understand it. They won't accept it. It's the same thing." Politicians cast themselves as heroes for resisting this Western imperialism to (mostly) loud applause from their public, all too crucial in election or pre-election years.

Actions by foreign governments reinforce this world view. In Uganda, Denmark and Norway announced they would re-direct its aid away from the Ugandan government and towards human rights and private sector organisations. The Netherlands has suspended its aid. Austria and the US have announced an internal review of its relationship with the country and warned this may mean cutting aid.

This is in the face of numerous organisations and activists from across the continent who have spoken out against the use of aid conditionality. They say imposition of donor sanctions does not result in improved protection of rights and objectives of movements cannot be met if donors withhold aid as:

• donor sanctions reinforce the disproportionate power dynamics between donors and recipients
• they are based on assumptions about African sexualities and the needs of African LGBTI people
• they disregard the agency of African civil society movements and political leadership
• politicians can scapegoat LGBTI people for donor sanctions to retain and reinforce national state sovereignty
• they sustain the divide between the LGBTI and broader civil society movement - emphasising that LGBTI rights are special and more important and supporting the idea that homosexuality is 'un-African' and western-sponsored
• aid cuts affect LGBTI people who are part of the population that benefit from funding

Although I believe that we have to stop solely blaming colonialism for our homophobia, it is worth mentioning that many of these laws were imposed on countries during the time of imperial rule. That is not to say that we were all living in a utopia and colonialism introduced homophobia (and transphobia and patriarchy) to countries that were colonised. However, we need context and historical awareness - and to disrupt the tendency to see white as civilised, saviours and upholder of rights and black as savages, victims and backwards. 

As the group of activists mentioned above conclude,

The history of colonialism and sexuality cannot be overlooked when seeking solutions to this issue. The colonial legacy of the British Empire in the form of laws that criminalize same-sex sex continues to serve as the legal foundation for the persecution of LGBTI people throughout the Commonwealth. In seeking solutions to the multi-faceted violations facing LGBTI people across Africa, old approaches and ways of engaging our continent have to be stopped. New ways of engaging that have the protection of human rights at their core have to recognize the importance of consulting the affected.

In addition to actually working to intensify backlash, others have written and spoken about ways in which action by foreign governments and donors often constructs queer identities in particular (Eurocentric) ways. Even the alphabet soup of the language used is that of Euro-America, disrupting the long histories of indigenous words, such as the mevengu of the Beti people of Cameroon, the yan daudu of northern Nigeria or the gor digen of Senegal, that describe those who lived queer lives. Furthermore, external NGOs and governments often distort and impose priorities on movements by funding particular arenas of work. It seems everyone must follow the linear path of decriminalisation to marriage and adoption, regardless of the priorities of queer activists of the countries concerned themselves. This also pits the 'civilised' developed world against the 'backwards' Third World and follows homonational agendas, the tying of gay rights with a nationalist ideologies such as the ‘war on terror’ or, in the case of Israel, the occupation.

When looking at donor influence, it is useful to distinguish legal change from social change. In some instances, donor pressure may be able to stop legislation from being passed or particular people from being punished. However, in almost all cases, in the way it is being currently practiced, it has an adverse impact on being able to achieve long-term, meaningful, radical and transformatory societal change. The 'homosexuality is a Western disease that they are trying to impose on us' argument, unfortunately, is not only well ingrained but seems to be gaining ever more traction. Given this, any hint that a foreign power is trying to persuade the government to do or not do something is only going to play into this perception and therefore strengthen the arguments of the homophobes. Legal change (or failure to pass regressive change) may be achieved but at what cost to progress in changes in societal attitudes and behaviour?

Over here’

Furthermore, if governments really cared about queer people being persecuted in Africa and Asia they need to put their money where their mouth is. Asylum policies should be put in line with this rhetoric. You cannot try to protect people from oppression in one place but, when they come to you expecting help, send them back for more.

Following passage of legislation in Nigeria, the UK government is now automatically granting asylum status to those they accept as LGBTQI from Nigeria. This sounds great but the operative words in that sentence are 'those they accept as.'

In 2010, campaigners described institutional homophobia in the asylum system that has meant almost all LGBTQI asylum seekers are refused sanctuary. Not much has changed since then. British authorities are notoriously quick to make assumptions about who is and who is not being 'genuine' about their sexuality. There seems to be this idea that if a person has not had (multiple) same sex partners previously and does not head down to Soho to party it up the very second that they step off that plane that they are just making things up to be able to stay in the country. Asylum seekers in 2014 are often interrogated by hours and asked degrading and personal questions such as ‘When x was penetrating you, did you have an erection?’ and ‘What is it about men’s backsides that attracts you?’

A couple of years ago, I worked with others on the case of Betty Tibikawa, a young Ugandan woman who was about to be deported despite the fact that she had been publicly outed in a Ugandan magazine, was wanted for being a lesbian and had been branded on her thighs as punishment. The UK Border Agency just did not believe she was telling the truth about her sexuality. When I visited Betty in Yarlswood Detention Centre, she said to us she thought it was because she had long hair. She observed that those of her friends seeking asylum with short hair and who 'looked lesbian' were much more likely for it to be granted.

The Lesbian Immigration Support Group in January sent an urgent appeal to act in the case of Nadine Ida Ketchakwe to prevent her deportation to Cameroon, where homosexuality is illegal and an imprisonable offence. In Nadine's case too, her claim for asylum was also rejected because the judge did not believe she was lesbian. This is despite the death threats she had received from her husband and brother and the many letters of support she received from lesbians in Manchester. As LISG asks, ‘How do you prove you are a lesbian, if the accounts of other lesbians about you are not accepted?

All recent news coverage has been about the 'awful' things that are happening in places like Nigeria and India. What has been missing, both in the coverage and people's analysis of what is happening, is the conditions that people fleeing persecution face when they try to find sanctuary. 

As Sandhya Sharma writes:

A recent report by Women for Refugee Women highlights the specific trauma women asylum seekers face where their vulnerability exposes them to an underworld of victimisation. Of the women interviewed, 96% had relied on charities for food and 56% had been forced to sleep on the street and 16% having experienced sexual violence while destitute. Unsurprisingly, the figures for mental health distress amongst this group are extraordinarily high with 97% reporting depression and 63% at risk of suicide or reporting suicidal feelings.

In the UK, asylum seekers are not allowed to work while waiting for their case to be decided. They do not qualify for council housing or housing benefit and cannot claim mainstream benefits. A single adult asylum seeker receives £36.62 a week i.e. £5.23 a day. Somehow they are expected to house and feed themselves on this at a time where rising inflation is driving increasing numbers of people to food banks, poverty, homelessness and destitution.

The way forward

Turning away from any human rights abuse is not be the answer. However, action taken should not be the easy fixes of removing aid or issuing condemnatory statements that are likely to inspire further backlash rather than positive change. If foreign governments actually wanted to help, they must stop drawing a sharp dividing line between the ‘civilised’ West and the backward ‘third world.’

After all, the story that is always overlooked is that of activists organising against repressive laws and customs and of their family, friends and acquaintances who support them. It is encouraging that Norway and Denmark have pledged to fund the work of human rights organisations. Supporting the work of the many who are engaged in activist work would make a big difference. Funding for any movement is woefully low and the queer movement is no different. In 2010, organisations empowering LGBTQI people received less than 1/100th of 1 % of total aid donated by major government donors.

Donors need to listen to what activists want, not impose a blanket supposition of their own priorities of what they think should be funded. Activists need long term organisational rather than short term project based support. After all, these organisations may be the only safe spaces around. In Sri Lanka, Equal Ground offices act as a ‘safe zone’ for members of the queer community in an area dominated by militia groups that carry out the death penalty for those who deviate from normative forms of sexuality and gender identity.

Furthermore, if they really care about the lives of queer people, asylum and immigration systems should be humanised to provide real support and succour to those fleeing persecution.

Genuinely working for queer people at risk of persecution requires foreign governments to exert real empathy and care – and to do so by listening to the activists involved and reforming asylum and immigration systems.

Chitra Nagarajan is a co-editor at New Left Project. She is an activist who has worked to promote and protect human rights, particularly those of women, in China, the United Kingdom, the United States and West Africa. She currently works to build peace in Nigeria.

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