Lusaka, 25 July: My palms and arms are splattered with paint and my fingertips tinged red, blue and green. I have just completed an Art for Activism workshop with young Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex (LGBTI) people. The workshop aims to explore their experiences, foster leadership, encourage expression and build capacity through art and visual advocacy.
In Zambia, like many other countries in Southern Africa, where LGBTI people face raging homophobia, and where the society and constitution permits this discrimination, art is one of the few, yet powerful platforms for activism and the expression of their identity and lived reality.
Zambia criminalises homosexuality and the punishment for engaging in any homosexual activity is imprisonment of up to 14 years. Many queer people live in silence, fear and despair. There is also resistance from the Zambian government to allow and register organisations advocating for non-discrimination and equality for queer people in the country.
In April, police arrested Paul Kasonkomona, an activist for the decriminalization of homosexuality, for “inciting the public to take part in indecent activities”. In May this year a family members of a young gay couple reported them to the police for living together in the northern town of Kapiri Mposhi. Their trial is still ongoing.
Homophobic legislation is not only limited to Zambia, and in most SADC countries homosexuality is illegal. While Madagascar and Mozambique do not explicitly outlaw homosexual activity South Africa is the only county in SADC that recognises same-sex relationships, same-sex marriage and bans all forms of discrimination and hate speech on the basis of sexual orientation.
Hate crimes perpetrated against the LGBTI are widespread across the region, the continent and the globe. Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato Kisule was murdered in 2011 after shortly after winning a lawsuit against a magazine which had published his name and photograph identifying him as gay and calling for him to be executed. Last week, Eric Ohena Lembembe LGBTI activist and journalist from Cameroon was found tortured and murdered in his home. Despite South Africa’s progressive constitution, homophobic men continue to victimise, rape and murder lesbian women. Duduzile Zozo was raped and brutally murdered just two weeks ago.
Young people in Southern Africa face many challenges in a world of rapid social changes, economic recession, religious fundamentalism and a widening gap between the wealthy and the poor. Although young LGBTI people share these same hardships, they also experience additional problems related to their sexuality, such as exclusion from education, discrimination in the workplace and unemployment.
Art for Activism is part of a project lead by Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA), which is a South African NGO currently facilitating art and citizen journalism workshops in Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and Lesotho. The purpose of the project is to strengthen the rights of LGBTI youth in Southern Africa by building skills and confidence and encouraging within communities of queer youth.
The art produced by the 18 to 25 year old youths I with during these workshops, exhibited a number of striking themes: family, the pressure to conform to sets of gendered values as well as the threat and experience of families disowning them.
The youth compared family to a ‘box’; a hollow object that society forces them to fit into. The square shape is distinct as it allows this box to fit into the larger ‘boxes’ in society, like religion, tradition, culture and nationality. The binary agents being the woman and man, the mother and father, each take on the responsibility to manage and make certain the boxes are in ‘order.’
For me, society’s general perception of fatherhood, motherhood and parenting reflects a specific gendered order. I was born into this world as the eldest son and immediately associated and socialised by soccer, the colour blue, plastic army men and short hair. In my culture, the eldest son is a leader who slaughters the animal, takes care of his sisters and sits with his father at the head of the table.
The eldest son and the father are linked by the custom of inherited power, and as the eldest son, I am also expected to enforce the gendered orderliness of the family ‘box’. However I was a little boy who did not like soccer, preferred different colours, refused to slaughter the animals and enjoyed lip syncing Whitney Houston music videos.
My attraction to people of the same sex and my refusal to change who I was, led to a lot of tension between my father and I. My divergence as the queer son ruptured the orderliness of the family ‘box’, which did not accommodate my difference, and this led to my exclusion.
The tension and exclusion I experienced is not unique. This narrative is common among the queer youth I work with and it is part of a larger problem: a heterosexist and homophobic society, which constructs itself according to patriarchal and heterosexual norms. The tension extends into adulthood and excluding queer people from having their own families and parenting children.
How do we usher in new ways of understanding the family that challenge the heterosexist family ‘box’?
Our greatest challenge and personal struggle is the ongoing creative process of reclaiming the family space, resisting heterosexist-gendered order, rebuilding relationships and re-forming the notion of family into another shape, beyond a square box and into a shape that embraces diversity, love and equality.
The creativity of these Zambian youth reflects this process. They are forming authentic family networks with likeminded peers, lovers and family members who are open to adapting the notion of family. This is one of the deepest roots of activism: if we start at home by challenging our own family to embrace diversity and oppose inequality, we might eventually change the inequality that exists within larger structures of our society.
Gabriel Hoosain Khan is a human rights activist and the Youth and Education Project coordinator at Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA). This article is part of Gender Link’s Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh views on everyday news.