Invisibility and its advantages: Why LGBT rights activists in Africa sometimes strategize to remain hidden.

A snapshot from a gay pride parade in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2006.
As Ashley Currier demonstrates, Namibia and South Africa have complicated
histories with leaders’ contradictory stances on LGBT rights.
Photo from Creative Commons.

Assistant professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at University of Cincinnati

When people learn that I study lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) organizing in southern Africa, their eyes usually widen with interest.

“You mean, there is LGBT activism in Africa?,” they ask eagerly.

I tell them that in fact, LGBT activism is quite vibrant in many African nations. Typically, interlocutors go on to explain that what little they know about the situation of African LGBT persons is mostly negative. They will cite the 2011 murder of David Kato, a fearless LGBT rights defender in Uganda; the rapes and murders of black South African lesbians; or the frequent anti-gay rhetoric from some African state leaders whose ranks have swelled in the past few years to include the late Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Gambian president Yahya Jammeh, alongside leaders like Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who has been making anti-gay threats since 1995.

Western news media contribute to the perceptions that life for queer Africans is hopeless and that queer Africans are powerless to mount campaigns against anti-gay threats issued by politicians. In rushing to catalog the indignities suffered by African LGBT persons, they overlook the hard work of local African LGBT activists. Out in Africa: LGBT Organizing in Namibia and South Africa pushes back against this manufactured invisibility by documenting the energies that Namibians and South Africans invested in LGBT organizing. In 2005-2006, I observed the daily activities of four LGBT movement organizations—two in Johannesburg, South Africa, and two in Windhoek, Namibia—to trace the visibility strategies that LGBT activists devised in response to their sociopolitical environment. I selected Namibia and South Africa because citizens in both countries endured apartheid rule, but after the demise of the white apartheid government, each country’s leaders took different positions on LGBT rights.

In 1996, the African National Congress-led government in South Africa permanently enshrined a sexual-orientation nondiscrimination clause in the constitution. In the same year in neighboring Namibia, then-President Sam Nujoma publicly condemned homosexuality for the first time, initiating an anti-gay campaign that continued for a decade. How did these political developments influence LGBT movement organizations’ strategies? More specifically, in these differing sociopolitical environments, how, when, and why did LGBT movement organizations seek or eschew public visibility? Although it may be tempting to assume that a hospitable environment in South Africa enabled LGBT movement organizations to launch unfettered visibility campaigns and that a hostile environment in Namibia forced LGBT activism underground, the visibility strategies of LGBT movement organizations in Namibia and South Africa responded to more than developments in government policy. When creating strategies, activists also reacted to trends in transnational LGBT organizing, to foreign donors’ demands, and to ordinary constituents’ basic needs.

One important lesson I learned about activists’ visibility strategies was that invisibility sometimes emerged as a politically effective option. Invisibility surfaced as a strategic possibility immediately when activists faced hostile counter-protestors; withdrawing from the encounter kept activists safe. In addition, although delaying the launch of a campaign resulted in activists’ invisibility, sometimes this was the best option for activists who were debating the merits of different actions. Rushing into action prematurely could generate unwanted consequences, such as negative publicity for the LGBT movement, which faced considerable opposition in both Namibia and South Africa. In these examples, invisibility was a choice that LGBT activists made, albeit a choice that activists wish that they did not have to make, but alternative pathways were even less appealing.

Where we look for Namibian and South African LGBT activism also affects the possibility that their campaigns might be invisible to us. For instance, we might expect to see new African LGBT activist organizations demanding the decriminalization of sodomy in the form of a national campaign. Yet LGBT activists may have other priorities that precede launching a decriminalization campaign; a more pressing priority may be collecting material and nonmaterial resources that can sustain several LGBT rights campaigns.

Thus, if organizations are in the early phases of coalescence, activists may focus on forging transnational ties with foreign donors capable of investing time, money, and expertise in African LGBT political operations. As a result, these activists are largely absent on the national stage, as they direct their energies elsewhere.

What else might we miss if we only look at African LGBT organizing in one particular way?


Ashley Currier is assistant professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Cincinnati and author of Out in Africa: LGBT Organizing in Namibia and South Africa.

“Out in Africa is an extremely important book. Ashley Currier broadly addresses factors influencing mobilization of LGBT movements within sub-Saharan Africa at the local, national, and international level.  She further extends existing literature on social movements, identity, and development by examining the prospects of mobilization among disadvantaged groups within newly democratized developing countries.”
—Kathleen Fallon, author of Democracy and the Rise of Women’s Movements in Sub-Saharan Africa

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