When the Coalition of African Lesbians was formed, the dream was to create a public political space for lesbian feminist voices to emerge, be visible and influence the ongoing private and public debate about our sexual and gendered lives as lesbian women in Africa.
We were angered and exhausted by the dominance of masculinist voices in the sexuality and gender debates globally. We fiercely claimed and created our space against the political tide of what I now call ‘queer masculinities’ – that is masculinist power disguised as freedom from heterosexualisation and genderedness. This form of male privilege and power is different from heteropower but similar in the form of expression, influence, domination and control.
Our vision was clear: we wanted justice, freedom and transformation. Africa needs to be transformed into a place where lesbian women, in all our diverse sexualities and genders, are treated with dignity and respect as full and equal citizens of our countries and continent. We are embedded in, while critical of, our various African cultures and heritage.
We were determined to ensure that this transformation is felt both in the private and public spheres of our lives: our homes, our schools, our shopping centres, our streets, our neighbourhoods, our faith-based centres, our jobs, our clinics, our hospitals, our police, our judges, our courts and our governments, among others.
We wanted this impact to be felt not just in Africa but in the rest of world. In our view, everyone needed to know that African lesbian women exist. We are here, we breathe the same air, we have a pulse, we are human. And we are African: born, raised and at home in Africa. Firstly, we committed to telling everyone that we exist, including our friends, families, communities, leaders and decision makers nationally, regionally and internationally. Most of our governments have continuously tried to convince the world that there is no such thing as ‘lesbian women’ in Africa. Secondly, we committed to writing about our experiences, so that everyone can read about us and our experiences as lesbian women in Africa. Of course it is not easy to write about our intimate lives.
Where does one begin to place the camera, pen and paper: under the pillow, next to the bed, on top of the table or on the roof top? We needed to learn where and how the equipment (camera, pen and paper) should be positioned. This sounds so sexy, I love it!
Thirdly, we committed to building a lesbian women feminist movement. We knew that in order to achieve our dream, we had to be an organised force. This meant that we must identify, support and work with lesbian women organisations and individuals in Africa and the diaspora to build a network of committed and willing voices to take up the struggle and spread our revolution. We knew that our power lies in being a collective, a movement. So, this is the dream that formed the Coalition of African Lesbians.
In 2013 we celebrated the tenth anniversary of our dream. We have succeeded in setting up an agenda for our sexual and reproductive rights revolution, centering on the rights of lesbian women to bodily integrity, autonomy and choice. We have and continue to assert ourselves in the different spaces regionally and internationally, including the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the United Nations Human Rights Council and the Commission on the Status of Women.
We have also entered and engaged progressive international civil society spaces such as the World Social Forum, the Sexual Rights Initiative, the Feminist Dialogues, the Reproductive Health and Rights Advocacy Network for Africa and the African Feminist Forum, amongst others.
We were able to support some of our member organisations, particularly in Eastern and Southern Africa, in times of serious human rights violations through violence and the tabling of punitive legislation against people in same-sex relationships. We were there to support Victor Mukasa’s court case and legal victory in Uganda, stood by the activists there during the trauma of David Kato’s murder, and collaboratively strategised on how to fend off the political backlash that came through the punitive Bahati Bill. In Rwanda we were able to support the civil society alliance that successfully engaged with the revision of the penal code. We need to strengthen this area of CAL’s work through more such strategic interventions.
Ideologically, the dream has been driven by an African radical feminist philosophy, based on the idea that women and men must be free to confront and resist patriarchal constructs of gender and sexuality and redefine their own constructions of gender and sexuality outside of the ‘traditional’ and postcolonial patriarchal norms. We have adopted an intersectional analysis of sexuality, gender, class, race and other markers of our multiple identities in our politics and activism over the years.
The point of reference has been to confront the power of patriarchy and the way that it plays itself out through sexuality, gender, class, race, ethnicity and culture. We are aware that even though the power of patriarchy is expressed through human beings, particularly hetero men and women, transmen and queer men, the problem is systemic. So, our fight and struggle is not primarily against individual people but the system. At the same time, because individual people position themselves as custodians of the system, we often find ourselves at loggerheads with various people as well as institutions in the fight against patriarchy embedded in class, race, gender and sexuality.
The first ten years had been about ‘building lesbian feminist voices for the 21st century’. This was the theme of the Third Feminist Leadership Institute in Maputo, Mozambique in 2008, and it continues to be part of our vision to build lesbian feminist voices on the continent and in the diaspora for the years to come.
Can and should the dream be defended?
It may be surprising to suggest that we have only touched the surface of the struggle for justice in the last ten years. At least the world knows about us, our voices are heard in national, regional and international spaces, but there is still more to be done to deepen our fierceness in the struggle for lesbian women justice in Africa.
We need to be smarter and more decisive about which battles to fight and how. We cannot fight them all, neither will we win them all. So, we must calculate clearly and be more focused and strategic in our approach. This is very important because this dream that we have all created depends on us to make it happen. It needs us as people, our strength, our capabilities, our passions, our commitment and courage, our energies and anger, our fears and sacrifices.
At the same time, we need to take care of one another and be mindful of our well-being. Our solidarity must be built on the culture of ‘active critical care’, ‘active critical respect’, ‘active critical trust’ and ‘active critical reciprocity’ as a fundamental aspect of our feminist movement building.
Secondly, we have not written as much as we thought we would have by now about our own lives in Africa. This must still happen. I am reminded of the words of a South African feminist poet when she said ‘tell your story; let it nourish you … some demons walk with you to bind you, but some demons walk with you to free you.’
(Lebo Mashile, In a Ribbon of Rhythm).
We must write and develop knowledge about ourselves. Our knowledge is our power.
Thirdly, patriarchal violence and homophobia have not stopped yet. Lesbian women continue to be killed, raped, assaulted, hunted, stigmatised, humiliated and treated as non-citizens in Africa. Our dream is about sexual and gender freedom and justice. We dream of a world where all people are free to determine their own sexualities and genders inside and outside of traditional binaries of women and men, female and male, vagina and penis, positive and negative. Our struggle recognises and asserts that sexuality and gender are fluid social constructs. They change and evolve with time in specific historical and cultural contexts. Sexuality and gender thus cannot and should not be determined by society because these are individual and personal issues that can only be determined by individuals for themselves. So, people must be free to choose who and what they want to be sexually and in their gender without any constraints and impositions from society. This is the freedom we talk about, dream about and claim.
We have learnt through our own experiences that there are multiplicities of sexualities and genders. The first ten years had been dedicated to actively engaging with the intricacies and delicacies of these issues and we must continue until all human beings are free sexually and with their gender, and accept that freedom is relative, it can ultimately only be defined and determined by an individual who experiences it.
Power in the dream
The essence of the dream has been to make power visible in its various forms and assert that power is everywhere in our lives. It must be surfaced, confronted, challenged, claimed, shared and used for the benefit of everyone and not just a few individuals and groups. This is the fundamental aspect of feminist thinking in the dream of CAL activism. We must challenge, question and confront power, particularly the power of patriarchy, hetero-normativity, homophobia, sexism and injustice. This process must happen everywhere, in our own personal and political lives.
The one thing that I would recommend CAL to focus on in the next couple of years is writing. We have a wealth of knowledge that we must make public to claim our space about our existence, our sexualities, our genders, our livelihoods and our being. Let us do research. Let us write and publish. Let us have our own journal and recognise lesbian feminist writers in Africa. Happy 10 years CAL. I am really proud of what you have become, a true African feminist lesbian women voice in the world. The world has seen you, felt you and touched you. You are real. You have fought a good fight. You have weathered the storms and you are standing tall. Go on, rise and prevail!