It was at the Johannesburg International Airport that a seemingly disparate group of women gathered on 22 August 2004. Initially scattered, warm greetings and hugs brought them together as they recognized one another from previous forums and meetings and spoke to the issue that brought them all there that day, that which they had in common: they were all lesbians. This was the contingent from South Africa and from other African countries, all on their way to Namibia for what was to be a seminal meeting of African lesbians under the umbrella of the African Lesbian Association.

Five days later we would leave the Conference Centre in Namibia, united not by mild consensus but by robust and often emotional debate, by challenging and informed input, and by a serious consciousness of radical African lesbian feminism. Those of us who were there knew we had only planted a seed, but it had solid roots as the future has proved.

My partner, Marian Nell and I, strategic planning consultants from South Africa, had been asked to facilitate the meeting. We were eager to be part of what was happening but our experience warned us that it was going to be challenging, with few comfort zones for anyone.

There were delegates from West Africa, Central Africa, Southern Africa, and East Africa, nearly all representing organisations in their home countries (14 countries in all): Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Rwanda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Everyone had a story to tell – everyone carried the hope that here they would nd a space in which to create pan-African lesbian sisterhood.

Elizabeth |Khaxas, one of our Namibian hosts and resource people, could barely contain her excitement at the reality of such a group coming together, here in Africa, a hotbed of homophobia. She quoted from a poem she had written in the early nineties when she felt there were no other, or very few, lesbians in Africa: Tell me your name and I will come to you.

The other resource people were Patricia McFadden, a Southern African Feminist Activist, Anjana Tang Suvarananda from the Asian Lesbian Network, and Liz Frank from the long established Namibian feminist organisation, Sister Namibia. Madelene Isaacks of the Namibian LGBTI organisation the rainbow project opened the meeting/conference/workshop – it was all of those things.

The meeting started with a bang when Patricia McFadden challenged those assembled to “imagine the world differently”. She quoted Audre Lorde: The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. She saw this workshop as being linked to the creation of new political spaces in the region and spoke of the impact of patriarchy, its link to nationalism, the importance of class thinking, and asked us “What does it mean to be a citizen, to live with dignity and to make choices in the face of the state as a ‘vicious war-making machine’?” She said that for feminist lesbians, it is important to start with oneself, not to deny lesbianism the power and vitality of feminism, and to af rm that vili cation is a weapon that is not more powerful than self-love.

Patricia made the point that, in choosing as a woman to love women, in a society that requires heterosexual conformity, we “leave the reservation” and cross boundaries that put us beyond acceptance of any kind of heteronormativity – this is both frightening but also exciting and liberating.

We see the world differently and search out tools to make “the master” confront us as equals. This was a new understanding or “world view” that went beyond simply saying we were “lesbian women” but made a statement about asserting our space in the world in the face of antagonism. This was a challenging, even a provocative place to begin shaping an alliance of African lesbians.

As facilitators we were excited about the prospect this held for this group of lesbian women attempting to shape an organisation that, in its very being, was “outside the reservation”. We would need passionate, brave, articulate and visible people to lead the way. Leaping forward ten years and looking at what CAL has achieved, it seems to us that, while the mighty tree is yet to be, the seed is growing and has made itself visible, unavoidable, it is occupying space with determination, engaging sites of political struggle.

During those ve days, sisters spoke from all parts of Africa south of the Sahara. They spoke of a context of self-identity denial, fear in a hostile environment, the stigma of expulsion and rejection, the lack of role models, the in exibility, injustice and paralysis resulting from the biased legal system. And they all spoke of the dark force of patriarchy which denied women, and particularly lesbian women, the right to choice, the right to freedom.

We had the tools to establish an organisation: we needed a vision, a strategy, a plan and an infrastructure and resources to bring that plan to fruition. The rst step was to give this organisation a name with which everyone felt comfortable, that encompassed what it was. Most important was the agreement on the importance of feminist ideology as a founding pillar of the organisation. This discussion was tough and passionate – women it seems are afraid of neither erce debate nor emotional tears – and decisions are the better for it. In the end, the women present agreed to the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL) – not just for the sake of consensus but as something to which they could commit themselves.

After that the ideas owed. But they could probably all be encompassed by a coalition that produced visionary, radical, feminist lesbian leaders in strong organisations that claimed their rights across the continent and in world debates and discussions. The vision that came out of this is clearly re ected in the current CAL vision and philosophy. This has provided the basis for strategy and practice. It encompasses, at national and continental levels, the removal of stigma and discrimination, visibility and voice, feminist analysis, leadership building, organisation building, research of herstory, personal growth and the provision of lesbian friendly and lesbian-oriented services. Out of this also came a commitment to certain values, and the voice of the meeting said clearly that “we expect our leadership at national and continental levels to be inspiring, innovative, strong, yet humble, and in touch with theoretical and contextual issues.” With this base established, the meeting was able to bring forth a clear set of aims and objectives that should still today form a reference point for those who are taking CAL forward.

The aims and objectives of the Coalition of African Lesbians were agreed as follows:

  • To advocate and lobby for political, legal, social, sexual, cultural and economic rights of African lesbians by engaging strategically with African and international structures and allies
  • To eradicate stigma and discrimination against lesbians in Africa
  • To build and strengthen our voices and visibility through research, media and literature and through participation in local and international fora
  • To build the capacity of African lesbians and our organisations to use African radical feminist analysis in all spheres of life
  • To build a strong and sustainable lesbian coalition supporting the development of national organisations working on lesbian issues in every country of Africa
  • To support the work of these national organisations in all the foregoing areas including the facilitation of the personal growth of African lesbians and the building of capacity within their organisations.

Most of the women assembled represented organisations and there was agreement that CAL would be a coalition of organisations rather than individuals, and that the leadership would be elected from member organisations. With regard to regional representation it was agreed that this could become a priority at a later stage when there were more member organisations in all regions of the continent.

The meeting then established a Steering Committee to take the organisation forward to its launch and beyond. The rest, as they say, is herstory. CAL is now a very special part of not only a growing LGBTI movement but also of a growing radical feminist movement. It is saying what needs to be said at a national, continental and international level. We who were there at the beginning are proud to have had some part in what has been a forceful trajectory. We wish CAL strength for the future – you carry our hopes and dreams with you. You don’t just occupy the space, you grow and enhance it!

 

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