LGBTI refugees and Western saviors: Ugandans facing violence in Kenya, and how you can (and can’t) help

Housing in "community areas" of Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, 2010: Photo by Matija Kovac

Housing in “community areas” of Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, 2010: Photo by Matija Kovac

My friend Victor Mukasa, a distinguished Ugandan human rights activist, helped to found Sexual Minorities of Uganda (SMUG) many years ago. Now he’s leading a Kuchu Diaspora Alliance for Ugandan LGBTI people abroad; yesterday the group posted its first videos on YouTube. They describe violence beleaguering Ugandan queers who fled the country and now subsist in a refugee camp in Kenya. They’re based on Victor’s phone interviews with the victims.  I urge you to watch:

… the sequels are here, here, here, and here. This is my summary:

In Kakuma camp, there are 58 known LGBT Ugandan refugees. 23 who came earlier — before the Anti-Homosexual Bill was passed — have moved into the camp’s more permanent sections, which have small, dirt-floor huts. 35 more recent arrivals are in the camp’s “reception” area, where housing consists of tents.  

Other residents have steadily harassed the Ugandans. On Friday afternoon (June 27) a group ganged up on a Ugandan in the reception area and beat him badly, saying “This camp is for refugees, it is not for wild animals.” When he ran, they chased him and started beating other Ugandan LGBT people. Some of the victims went to the camp “security organ” to complain, and were reprimanded: “Why do you show that you are gay?”

All 35 Ugandans decided to march in protest to a UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office near the camp.to demand protection against the ongoing violence. It took two hours. The head of security at the office opened the gates, let them enter, and gave them mats to sleep on in an area that also had toilets and working water taps — scarce commodities in the camp itself. The next morning, though, “UNHCR officials” told them to leave, and turned off the water. When they insisted on remaining for a peaceful sit-in, the officials called in Kenyan government representatives: someone “in charge of refugee affairs,” and the “regional police commander” for the area. These ordered them back to the camp, threatening to use force. One refugee watched the regional police commander make a call to someone, saying “come in and take control of this area.”  At 5 PM, some 70 “military” (it’s not clear to me whether these were police or soldiers) arrived.

After discussions, the refugees decided to go back,; UNHCR officials told them a “safe place” had been prepared. When six got in the truck, the soldiers started beating the rest, throwing them inside and insulting them: “This is Kenya, you shouldn’t have come here! We should apply Kenyan law on you.”

Back in Kakuma, they found their tents in the reception area had been reallocated to others, and the harassment continued. Eventually they were relocated to an area on the margins of the camp, with little water, in a “desert.” They’re still terrified, and they report that the ringleader of the Friday attack — who at first was taken into police custody — has been released. 

Already this year, there’s been huge publicity about LGBTI people fleeing “Africa” (it’s always treated as a single country) to the friendly West to escape persecution. “Will the next decade see Wall Street’s millions build an underground railroad from Lagos to New York, whisking Africa’s LGBT youth to safety and freedom?” a writer asked in a US gay magazine. No. As this story shows, it’s not so easy. I’ve accumulated some experience in asylum and refugee issues over the last 20 years, and in 2009 I worked with regional groups in a successful project to help LGBT Iraqis targeted by death squads leave the country.  Here are my reflections on this disturbing story: what’s the background, and what well-meaning Westerners can and can’t do to help.

L: Kakuma in northwest Kenya (map from UNHCR). R: Google Earth map of Kakuma camp; the "reception areas" are Sectors 12 and 13 (map from Malaria Journal)

L: Kakuma in northwest Kenya (map from UNHCR). R: Google Earth map of Kakuma camp; the “reception areas” are Sectors 12 and 13 (map from Malaria Journal)

1) What is Kakuma camp?

Kakuma (its name supposedly derives from a Swahili word for “nowhere”) is an enormous refugee camp in the remote northwest of Kenya. It’s hellish. An online zine on refugee life published within the camp says stoically, “The area has always been full of problems: dust storms, high temperatures, poisonous spiders, snakes, and scorpions, outbreaks of malaria, cholera, and other hardships. The average daytime temperature is 40 degrees Celsius, or 104 degrees Fahrenheit.” The region is semi-desert — earlier this year, “huge sandstorms … swept through the settlement, which was believed to be the root cause of fire outbreak of which more than ten incidents were reported.” But it can become a swamp: “The camp is near a dry river bed that is prone to flash flooding after heavy rains,” making it a malarial breeding ground.

The site was picked for its remoteness: Kenya wanted to shunt refugees as far from Nairobi as possible. Some 125,000 lived there at the beginning of this year, according to UNHCR. Now it also hosts almost 40,000 South Sudanese who have fled their disintegrating country and reach the dusty mud flat at the rate of nearly 500 a week; by June, the swollen population neared 170,000.

Flooding in the reception area of Kakuma camp, March 2014: Photo by Mats Wallerstedt/Lutheran World Foundation

Flooding in the reception area of Kakuma camp, March 2014: Photo by Mats Wallerstedt/Lutheran World Foundation

Kenya held some 540,000 refugees as of December 2013; with the torrent of South Sudanese, the figure is now closer to 600,000. Almost half a million come from Somalia. Its camps are gorged to overflow; Dadaab, a concentrationary complex in eastern Kenya, is, with over 400,000 inmates, the largest refugee camp in the world.

Till a few months ago, the camps weren’t the only option. Refugees who could support themselves, or who needed special medical care or other attention, could settle in Kenya’s cities. In March, though, Kenya’s government abruptly ordered all refugees to the camps — and began raiding homes and rounding them up. Authorities suspected Somalis in urban areas of aiding Al-Shabaab, the feared terrorist group, in retaliation for Kenya’s military incursions in Somalia. (In this sense, the refugees were victims of indirect blowback against US imperialism in Africa; Obama has prodded US allies into a proxy war against Somali Islamists.) A few refugees, including some LGBT Ugandans, hang on in Nairobi, evading constant police crackdowns in search of illegals. But most are now locked behind camp walls.

The  camps are bad news for women, LGBT people, and others vulnerable to violence. Hugely overcrowded (all the more so since the dual influx of onetime urban residents and South Sudanese), they offer little privacy; security forces patrol the fences, but are inadequate to control what’s inside. An extensive study of sexual and gender-based violence against refugees in Kenya found 530 cases in Kakuma in 2011 (469 against women, 61 against men). While the researchers interviewed LGBT refugees in urban areas, they apparently couldn’t find similar communities in camp environments. Thus nobody has tabulated incidents of homophobic violence so far, but the absence of evidence is mainly evidence of people in hiding. Those who are gender-nonconforming or suspected of being LGBT are targets for punishment. The study did conclude that many available care options for survivors of sexual violence in the camps were easy potential targets themselves, and “were not able to handle serious security issues.”

In the dry season: Tents in the reception area at Kakuma. Photo by James Macharia/Lutheran World Federation

In the dry season: Tents in the reception area at Kakuma. Photo by James Macharia/Lutheran World Federation

2) What does it mean to be a refugee in Kenya?

Both for Western readers and for Ugandans who read this, it may be helpful to explain how the refugee process works.

A refugee is different from an asylum-seeker. To oversimplify, an asylum-seeker goes directly from danger to a safe country, and appeals to its government to stay there. A refugee usually flees to a country that isn’t safe, or will not accept her, because it’s the only accessible place to go; then she appeals to be resettled in another country. Until she is moved from the “second country” to the safer “third country,” she’s trapped in limbo.

Much of the distinction between “second” and “third” countries has to do with wealth. Built into the system is the assumption that poorer countries cannot be burdened with permanently absorbing large refugee populations — it’s an obligation the rich developed world should shoulder. The poorer countries agree to be waiting rooms. Unfortunately, because rich countries admit vastly fewer refugees than our violent world produces, the waiting rooms turn slowly into makeshift homes.

You get refugee status, mostly, through the UN. It’s all about waiting. A Ugandan fleeing to Nairobi would go the UNHCR office to register as a refugee applicant. She would be given a date for a face-to-face interview, the main basis for deciding whether her claim is valid. So she waits for the interview. After the interview, she waits for the UNHCR’s decision — Refugee Status Determination (RSD).  If the answer’s yes, she is eligible for resettlement, but she has to wait while UNHCR shops her file around from embassy to embassy, looking for a country that’s willing to take her. Times vary from one UNHCR office to another, but each stage of the process can take months, even years.

Cartoon on RSD from Kakuma refugee camp, at kanere.org. Woman: "I am so disappointed with UNHCR. Their logo shows protection sign but since I came in camp the year 2004 I still have not gotten mandate [papers]." Man: "I can't return to my home country because there is still war going on. If it's to die I will die here."

Cartoon on RSD from Kakuma refugee camp, at kanere.org. Woman: “I am so disappointed with UNHCR. Their logo shows protection sign but since I came in camp the year 2004 I still have not gotten mandate [papers].” Man: “I can’t return to my home country because there is still war going on. If it’s to die I will die here.”

Egypt, where I am now, has massive numbers of refugees (from Sudan, South Sudan, elsewhere in Africa, and Syria). With so many people to process, it has one of the slowest UNHCR offices anywhere. I know of Syrian migrants newly arrived in Cairo whom the UN assigned an interview date three years away. Some Sudanese have been in Egypt waiting for resettlement since the last century.

Kenya is not that slow. In 2010, though, the wait between arrival and RSD averaged over two years; it’s probably longer now. That doesn’t include the wait to get resettled after you get a positive RSD. After the claimant is recognized as a refugee, she gets official papers that are supposed to give her legal status in Kenya and protect her against being deported. (There’s still bureaucratic confusion about whether these papers should come from UNHCR or the Kenyan government, however.) She’s also eligible for limited material support from UNHCR. Migrants who haven’t been given refugee status yet are largely unprotected, get very little financial assistance, and mostly depend on the charity of NGOs working in the country.

UNHCR is a sluggish bureaucracy which I’m loth to defend, but it has a serious responsibility to protect migrants and refugees. In recent years, it’s become more sensitive to the needs of LGBT migrants, and has dedicated staff in Geneva to address the issue. But its powers are limited. It can’t override the laws and sovereignty of the host country. Kenya’s decision to “warehouse” refugees, confining them to camps, violates human rights law — freedom of movement is protected in Article 26 of the Refugee Convention and other international treaties —  but UNHCR can’t change it. Mainly, they can complain to the host country’s authorities, and I wish they’d complain more loudly; but it’s up to those authorities whether they pay attention. In Turkey, I found that the government regularly put LGBT Iranians (along with other Iranian refugees) in small towns in the conservative eastern part of the country, where they were harassed constantly. Some of them begged us to advocate for camps, because at least they would be isolated from the local Turkish public. UNHCR was sympathetic, but powerless to change the Turkish government’s policy.

Drawing showing policemen beating a refugee in Kakuma camp: From Kanere.org

Drawing showing policemen beating a refugee in Kakuma camp: From kanere.org

From Victor’s account, though, there are some serious problems with how UNHCR dealt with this situation in Kakuma. Calling the Kenyan police to evict refugees staging a peaceful sit-in is dangerous and excessive. You may not be able to change how Kenya’s authorities treat LGBT people, but you don’t need to give them opportunities for abuse, either. (UNHCR should have learned its lesson. In 2005, Sudanese migrants staged a sit-in outside the UNHCR’s Cairo office to protest slow resettlement and the constant violence they confronted. UNHCR eventually summoned the police to break up the demonstration — and they killed at least 27 protesters.)

Aside from not calling in the cops, there are at least two things UNHCR needs to do to protect LGBT refugees in Kakuma.

a) While UNHCR’s powers are limited, they still formally administer the camp. Security is difficult, but with a small, cohesive (and conspicuous) LGBT population, solutions should be available: more available (unfortunately) than for the much larger population of women vulnerable to sexual assault. Segregating LGBT claimants in a protected area may be one answer, though since I don’t know the topography or specific conditions of the camp I can’t say this for certain.

b) In 2009-2010, we persuaded UNHCR to offer accelerated resettlement for LGBT Iraqis stranded in Lebanon and Syria, because the “second country” environment was also homophobic and unsafe. This meant prioritizing RSD decisions for those applicants. It only worked, however, because some “safe” countries were also willing to speed up their own approval procedures and accept them — mainly Norway, Sweden, and the US. The LGBT Ugandans in Kenya are a small enough population that UNHCR could attempt this. But it will require commitments from other states too.

Kakuma as Guantanamo: Cartoon of a UNHCR interview, from kanere.org

Kakuma as Guantanamo: Cartoon of a UNHCR interview, by Elias Lemma, from kanere.org

3) What can you do? Start with this: Don’t give to amateur Kickstarter fundraising efforts for African refugees. So far, these are just part of the problem.

I know of at least three crowdfunding projects on the Internet to raise money for LGBT Ugandans to leave their country. All radiate good intentions and a sincere desire to help. Best-known by far is the “Rescue Fund to Help LGBT People Escape Africa” started by Melanie Nathan, a San Francisco blogger; it got her named a Grand Marshal of the city’s Pride parade last weekend, giving the effort further publicity. Several people in the Kakuma camp, and some in Nairobi, seem to have got there through Nathan’s assistance. Melanie dislikes me (I have an e-mail folder full of long messages expressing this fact), so any criticism I make will undoubtedly stand accused of partiality. I’m not the only critic, though. South African activist Melanie Judge wrote:

Dislocated from Africa-based struggles for social justice these feel-good interventions offer no long-term solution to the systemic issues that drive homophobia. At best they are palliative and patronising, at worst they reinforce the victimhood of Africans and the saviour status of westerners.

There’s a lot of saviorism in these projects; the biggest donors to Nathan’s fund were offered a token “Ultimate Savior” title (though she later changed this to “Total Escape”). A political critique of the initiatives would note how they depict all “LGBT Africans” as desperate not for change but for visas, and that they idealize the US and Europe as Edens of acceptance. I’m more interested in the simple fact that when she launched this project, Nathan seems to have known nothing about the refugee process, and did nothing to prepare her beneficiaries for it.

Masked men: Screenshot from Nathan's first Indiegogo appeal

Masked men: Screenshot from Nathan’s first Indiegogo appeal

The breakdown of expenses in Nathan’s first Indiegogo appeal from March says:

100% of the funds raised will be used for fees for passports, visas, transport out of the countries, and safe shelter and food, pending, in some instances, escape:
$100 pays for passport
$200 pays for a visa
$350 provides food and shelter for a month in Africa pending escape
$800 – $1,600 buys an air ticket 

kakuma sign

Road to nowhere

Nathan seems to have thought that Nairobi would be a quick waystation for LGBT Ugandans in a refugee process that would be short, sweet, and easy: a month “pending escape,” then a ticket out of there. (In fact, UNHCR pays air tickets for refugees it resettles.)  I can’t imagine where she got this idea. Internet research could have told her that the waiting time for RSD alone in Kenya was at least two years. From what I understand — and I’m still reaching out to Ugandans now in Kenya — some people got to Nairobi and found the funds were in no way sufficient for the long wait ahead. With the money cut off, they were stranded. I have reports, not verified, that some resorted to sex work, and were arrested. Some are still hanging on in Nairobi; others were sent to Kakuma.

Two weeks ago, Nathan did an about-face and announced on her blog that Ugandans in Kenya were not spending “a month in Africa pending escape,” but were trapped in Kakuma camp for the long run. She still didn’t realize that driving refugees into camps was now Kenyan government policy –and that she should have told people about this if they sought her aid after March. Instead she wrote, “Some have been forced into the camps, due to their particular circumstances and inability to survive outside the camps.” Nathan added, with obvious surprise: “It seems that the resettlement process can take up to 2 years.” She should have known this, and warned applicants, from the start.

Nathan’s well-meaning fund is drawing people to places like Nairobi, then leaving them in the lurch. There are three deep problems with all these projects:

a) You can’t undertake something like this if you don’t know something about refugee law and the refugee process. Nathan is not even taking counsel from experienced organizations who have done this work. Without that, you can’t give informed advice, evaluate situations and people’s prospects, or make informed decisions about who to support and how. Failing to explain to migrants what they will face in a place like Kenya is unethical and irresponsible.

b) The project is ad-hoc and almost guaranteed to fail to meet migrants’ long-term needs. Nathan promises support without having resources on hand; then goes out and tries to raise money for a first tranche of immediate needs; then, when new needs arise and the money’s exhausted, is left trying to play catch-up with a new funding appeal. For instance, a first round of support goes to get person X from Kampala to Nairobi; but then X is left helpless in Nairobi once the funds run out, and has to wait for a new Kickstarter to kick in. Such skin-of-the-teeth strategies only compound the desperate uncertainties that destroy refugees’ lives. Anyone experienced in refugee work  will tell you that you don’t make promises to refugees unless you know you can follow through; unless you can give them a clear idea of what the future holds depending on their choices; and unless you have ways to assess needs and urgency objectively. These projects have none of that.

c) Nathan et. al. do all this from a distance. You can’t work with refugees without a physical presence in the place where they’re going. The Internet is no substitute for on-the-ground wisdom.

I dwell on these projects, so magnanimous and good, because they reflect an unsettling (literally) side of international activism today: call it the Konyfication of everything. Like the Kony 2012 campaign, humanitarian entrepreneurs drum up viral urgency with emotional appeals, discount cooperation or coalition or local agency or specialized skill, and insist that because something needs to be done, anyone can do it. The world of refugees, by contrast, is intricate and dangerous as the minefields some must cross to reach imperfect haven. You can’t work if you don’t know what you’re doing. The notion that Tom Sawyeresque idealists can step in, rescue, rinse, repeat may satisfy populist American fantasies about knacks and know-how. But it’s wrong.

"Come on boy, it's now time for your rescue." Cartoon (against "warehousing refugees" from Osire refugee camp, from kanare.org.

“Come on boy, it’s now time for your rescue.” Cartoon (against “warehousing” refugees)  from Osire refugee camp in Namibia, from kanare.org.

The harshness of Uganda’s homophobic crackdowns has driven hundreds of people into exile. The numbers are not as overwhelming as the rhetoric of “underground railroads” would suggest. 58 refugees in a camp of 170,000 are the signs of a crisis but not a flood. The US publication The Advocate interviewed activists in Nairobi who counted 102 Ugandan LGBTI refugees there; that number’s certainly an underestimation (among other things, many Ugandans are likely in hiding, or have not registered with UNHCR to avoid the camps) but it still doesn’t unveil a whole population in flight. The fact that relatively few have fled Uganda despite the draconian law (and the promises of money from Western saviors) confirms what I’ve always said: exile is such a devastating experience for most people, such a loss of meaning and value and belonging, that few would undertake it except in the last extremity of need. These refugees deserve to be treated with dignity, not the abuse they face at Kakuma. Their numbers, limited so far, mean that if UNHCR and refugee organizations take their needs seriously, solutions should not be impossible to find.

If you want to help, here are some suggestions:

a) Support established refugee assistance organizations with records of working both in East Africa and on LGBTI issues. The American Jewish World Service and HIAS have both, and you can start by reaching out to them to make sure they understand the urgency of what’s happening in Kakuma, and to find out what they can do.

b) Press the UNHCR to come up with effective answers for LGBTI refugee protection in Kenya, including accelerated resettlement. You can do this by talking to your own government about how they can strengthen UNHCR’s work. Or you can contact UNHCR directly here.

c) If you come from North America or Europe, pressure your government to offer accelerated acceptance for LGBT refugees in East Africa — as well as for other vulnerable groups, such as women who face sexual violence.

 

"Even if you stop me to speak and write, I will still speak and write": Cartoon from Kakuma refugee camp, by Falay Atibu, at kanere.org

“Even if you stop me to speak and write, I will still speak and write”: Cartoon from Kakuma refugee camp, by Falay Atibu, at kanere.org

Eric Ohena Lembembe: Not again, or never again?

2013-07-18-eric-ohena-lembembe-camaroes-assassinato-gay

They found Eric Ohena Lembembe’s body four days ago. He had a title and he had attracted praise before, and more has accrued to him now that it does no good. He was executive director of the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS, and he fought not just for the right to health but for the other rights of people vulnerable to the virus, LGBT folk among them. He was brave, he was visible, he was gentle, he was outspoken. If you have ever seen a tortured body, you know how little this language signifies against the violence of somebody’s flesh being broken.  They discovered him at home; he had been missing for two days. The door was chained, but, staring through the window, his colleagues saw his corpse. His neck was snapped. The murderers had used a clothes iron to burn his limbs and his face. When I think of him I don’t think of his titles or his bravery. I only think of him suffering pain: intense pain, perhaps coming in sharp blows or perhaps in mounting waves, pain large enough to extinguish everything else in the world. The measure of how nobody deserves that is exactly that nobody can understand that. The pain blots out explanation or description. It is necessary to say something, in the end, but first one must think of the pain.

A necessary thing to say, once words restore their hegemony, is: It’s not the first time. I had the same thoughts of pain when David Kato’s body was found in Uganda in 2011. David was a slight, almost breakable-looking man: when he got excited, which was often, his body shook like an aspen with the intensity of expressing himself. The killer had beaten his head in with a hammer. There is a great, long poem about the First World War; toward its end a soldier reflects, in a moment when pain makes time stop, on the shell that has just struck him:

He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering
the fragility of us.

The violence is out of all proportion to our human weakness. Yet the killings keep coming.

David Kato

David Kato

One thing that struck me when David died was that, while human rights defenders and anti-Museveni dissidents in Uganda had faced harassment and persecution for years, he was the first in a long while to be murdered for his pains. Country after country, of course, defenders die in retaliation for all kinds of offenses against the powerful. In Russia, you can be shot in an elevator or murdered on the road for the articles you write; in Egypt, you can be tortured to death for talking back to the police. Still, in much of the world, activists working on gender and sexuality are among the most endangered defenders. I used to say: those who talk about the body and its rights face revenge upon their bodies by those who hate them. Perhaps that’s too pat, but there is something in it. The torture Lembembe underwent is what forensic examiners sometimes call “overkill,” defined aseptically as “wounding far beyond that required to cause death.” In many jurisdictions it seems to typify murders of LGBT people. The standard explanation is that hate drives the surplus violence. But a more excruciating economy than that is probably at work. You make your body support a politics; make your body suffer pain, and die of it. Isn’t that what they were trying to say not to, but through Eric Lembembe?

Lembembe died in Africa, of course. But there was nothing uniquely African about his death. Western press coverage falls back almost instantly on “African homophobia” as an explanation, painting the whole continent as one entity with a single culture that is unvaried, implacable, and impervious to history or distance. It’s “a notoriously homophobic continent.” “Gay rights face an uphill struggle throughout much of Africa,” Time intoned (click Time’s link and you’ll find that Africa is largely about dead gays, mass murder, elephant poaching, and Mandela). This is hardly new. A few weeks ago an American paper was warning of “An African Epidemic of Homophobia” (add epidemics to Time’s list). And so on.

Jayaram, a meti who survived a murder attempt on the street in Kathmandu, 2004

Jayaram, a meti who survived a murder attempt on the street in Kathmandu, 2004

But Lembembe didn’t die of something both diffused across all Africa and distinctive to its “culture,” any more than Mark Carson, gunned down in New York City in May, died of a cultural pathology infecting all the rotten traditional communities of North America. For years reporters have been asking me what is “the world’s worst place to be gay.” The expected answers usually are a) all of Africa; b) all of the “Muslim world”; c) Jamaica. The question isn’t just reductionist, it’s racist. It assumes that all gay people’s experiences in a country are alike and can be assembled for insertion somewhere in a sliding scale. It assumes that homophobia is uniform across particular countries or cultures, and that you can rate the places like the Rough Guide. It takes a picture of monolithic and exclusionary cultures that Russian nationalists, African traditionalists, and American fundamentalists could all go jismic over — and combines it with a nineteenth-century race theorist’s facility in ranking all these on a ladder, leading up to white liberals in pith helmets on top. (There’s even a poll out now asking fools what they think are the world’s least gay-friendly countries, with Iran victorious by virtue of bad publicity.) But any place –Stockholm or Amsterdam or San Francisco — can be terrible if you are gay and poor, or gay and a member of another group that people don’t like. And Kingston, Teheran, and Yaounde are perfectly safe for plenty who have power, position, or money. No “culture” has slapped a copyright on the idea of murdering LGBT people. It happens in Kathmandu and in Montreal.  Eric Ohena Lembembe’s death should not blind us to other horrors, less conspicuous and less known although — or perhaps because — they may be closer at hand.

Moral panic: Stanley Cohen's definition (1972)

Moral panic: Stanley Cohen’s definition (1972)

What’s happened in Cameroon for more than seven years is a moral panic: a moment when social and political anxieties — usually fears about rapid change — grow too intense to find release through argument, and turn to a hunt for scapegoats. Moral panics are not “cultural” eruptions from primeval magma. They’re always political. They enlist political actors (journalists, pundits, religious leaders, intellectuals, police, politicians themselves); almost always politicians instigate them, or try to manipulate them. This is especially true of panics around sexuality and gender. “Panic,” Gayle Rubin wrote a long time ago, “is the political moment of sex.” Sex is a charged question everywhere. It’s an easy way for opportunists to define their enemies. In Cameroon, the furor arguably dates to 2005, when a few newspapers launched a campaign to expose a homosexual “conspiracy” in high places, outing allegedly deviant celebrities. There was obscure political scheming behind the defamations. It created a miasma of public uncertainty and fear, though, in which stripping away secrecies became a civic duty. The ensuing years have seen mass arrests, trials, blackmailing, threats, violence, and now murder.

The most “African” thing about the long panic in Cameroon is precisely its political side. Public figures since Robert Mugabe in the early 1990s have figured out how to wield homophobic rhetoric for distraction, division, and support. Cameroon is only one more country (think Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, Uganda, Kenya, Senegal and more) where whipping up fears of sexual corruption has become a collective sport.

When the first shock of Lembembe’s killing recedes, it’s easy to let the repetitiveness dull you. There’s the recurrence of homophobia: the same political gesticulations and demonizing sounds, the same gibbering scarecrows set up to appal. And there’s the recurrence of death. A lot of us have our private mourning lists unscrolling in our minds: Fanny Ann Eddy, David Kato, Lawrence King, Vanesa Ledesma, Cynthia Nicole, Ebru Soykan, Daniel Zamudio. About now is the time some people get orotund, and say sententiously: “Never again.” Another voice in the mind, though, between exhaustion and despair, wheedles instead: “Not again. Not this again.” As though you know it will be this inevitably, again and again. More death.

Fanny Ann Eddy, Lawrence King, Cynthia Nicole, Daniel Zamudio: RIP

Fanny Ann Eddy, Lawrence King, Cynthia Nicole, Daniel Zamudio: RIP

My question is: What can we do?

That “we” has two sides. LGBT movements worldwide are divided in resources and perspectives. There’s a difference between the groups that say they work “internationally” — mainly meaning they are based in North America or Europe and identify themselves by their synoptic view — and groups that, even if they work extensively across borders, don’t look quite so international because based in the South: Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East. They have different capacities, monies, and power. In preventing violence and murder, they have different responsibilities.

I’m interested in the internationals, because, of course, I’m one of them. I worked for IGLHRC and Human Rights Watch for almost twenty years. I have a fair idea how international groups think. They’re like anybody else: a triumph happens – a sodomy statute struck down, or discrimination banned — and they’re more than happy to assert their share of credit. When a catastrophe takes place – an activist murdered, a bad law passed – they condemn, but don’t guess whether they might have done something different. You know what people say. Victory has a thousand fathers. Defeat is a Russian orphan; the law bars gay groups abroad from adopting it. 

Almost from the beginning of the panic in Cameroon, international organizations descended on the country. (Many had paid limited attention to Cameroon before the gay issue came up.) Human Rights Watch did joint letters with Amnesty, IGLHRC, and other organizations, including Doctors of the World and Physicians for Human RIghts. in 2010 a joint report came out, authored by Alternatives-Cameroun and l’Association pour la défense des droits des homosexuels (ADEFHO), together with HRW and IGLHRC. Earlier this year HRW produced another report, with ADEFHO and Alternatives-Cameroun, and Eric’s organization CAMFAIDS. Amnesty International featured Cameroon in its recent analysis of homophobia in Africa. All Out announced petition campaigns, and praised itself for their impact. IGLHRC has its own roster of letters and press releases on the country. Surely, then, one should be able to say what this accomplished. I stress that I was involved in much of this — I oversaw HRW’s early interventions in the situation, including the research for the 2010 report. So any critique must criticize me.

But has this been a great success? If it were, Eric Ohena Lembembe would not be dead. The murder of a leading movement figure — and the brutal “overkill” with its message of revenge and loathing — means, whatever else we may have accomplished around the edges, we’ve failed at something. Something central.

The questions for me are twofold: how does the discourse change, how does the discussion shift, when you internationalize a situation like this? and what does “security” mean when your whole work is about making human rights stories — and activists and actors — more visible and exposed?

First, international actors worked in Cameroon, of course, at the request and by and large under the guidance of domestic activist groups. The 2010 and 2013 reports in which Human Rights Watch joined were if anything unusually collaborative for an NGO that is used to going it alone. Our partners, ADEFHO and Alternatives-Cameroun, were extremely clear in setting out what they did and did not want us to do. The problem was not with the terms of the relationship (ADEFHO and Alternatives, of course, might disagree), and certainly not with the guidance we got. My question is rather whether international groups’ engagement carries hidden costs — ones that can only be seen by testing whether their agendas, the terms in which they frame things, are really responsive to other realities.

For example, there’s the idea of “equality,” which comes up again and again in the responses to Eric’s murder. “Eric’s activism paved the way for a society based on equality and nondiscrimination,” says Human Rights Watch. “The global movement for love and equality is poorer for the loss of Eric Lembembe,” says All Out. “Equal rights” was an important term in Eric Lembembe’s advocacy, as well. But did it mean the same thing?

Shut up and like it: This is all you need

Shut up and like it: This is all you need

There was a time — as little as ten or fifteen years ago — when the LGBT movement as a whole talked about “equality” in a constellation with other values like privacy, and dignity; when it also talked about specific rights, like expression, association, and assembly, as well as the rights to health or livelihood. That’s over. The big gay gurus now rattle on about “equality” as if it subsumes them all. It’s a master key that explains everything we apparently want, and you don’t have to descend to talking about specific rights at all. In fact, the internationals know what equality means: there’s a road map hidden in the word, with a general understanding that it leads through anti-discrimination laws toward relationship recognition and marriage. Never mind that marriage is exactly the prospect that inflames the intensest opposition in large quarters of the world, and that foreigners throwing around “equality” language in those precincts may be juggling with Molotov cocktails. “Equality” has become the be-all and end-all of LGBT aspirations in North America and Europe.

The US State Department, for instance, has set up a public-private partnership “Global Equality Fund” to govern its giving to LGBT causes. This is christened after the Council for Global Equality, an NGO set up by excellent friends and colleagues of mine to lobby US diplomacy for … well, equality. “Equality” is the only term in which the most powerful government in the world envisions LGBT rights.

Predators don't play in Peoria: Drones for me but not for thee

Predators don’t play in Peoria: Drones for me but not for thee

It would be hard to say that the USG has a vision of global equality, though: at least, one that extends to the percent of the world’s population who, not being LGBT, aren’t eligible for the fund. US foreign policy is not based on reciprocity among global citizens. We have, after all, a world order where the US can send drones to kill Pakistanis unimpeded, while Pakistan certainly can’t do the same to the US. But even if you think (as most people in the US surely do, myself included) it’s a fine thing not to have Pakistani flights laying waste to Peoria, one still might question a global order in which the governments of Pakistan, and Yemen, and for that matter Poland and Romania, are too enfeebled, dependent, and submissive to the United States even to protest when America wants to slaughter their citizens, or spy on their diplomats, or set up torture camps to brutalize victims on their soil.  It may be an orderly and stable world. It may be a grand Pax Americana. But equal it isn’t.

And one needn’t turn to Great Game geopolitics to wonder what “global equality” is about.  Take the question of humanitarian aid from rich countries to poor –which a number of governments and international organizations would like to see tied to whether the poor countries treat their LGBT people equally.  Of course, humanitarian aid is itself a function of an unequal world, a way of palliating its inequalities. Tying that aid to political conditions is a stark reminder of the political inequality between peoples. And enforcing those conditions and cutting the aid will make economic inequality worse. From an African’s perspective, it might look suspiciously as though rich governments are willing to make some people less equal in the name of making others more so.  How did those folks get to be the favored beneficiaries of equality, whereas these aren’t? Obviously some are more equal, or at least more global, than others.  You can understand why most African activists have rejected aid conditionality as a way of achieving rights. But leaders like David Cameron keep babbling about it. And as long as they do, resentment over why the gays get this extra dollop of equality denied to others will multiply: not because of what African activists themselves are doing, but because of how their international friends try to help.

Nor is it just government policies that raise doubts about what “equality” means to the West. Non-governmental organizations create similar confusion. All these groups believe enthusiastically in formal equality before the law. When it comes to economic equality, or even to the social conditions that make legal equality real, they sometimes stare slack-jawed as though they have no idea what one means. Human Rights Watch used to have particular insecurities about approaching economic rights.  In a famous or notorious article, Ken Roth, the executive director, suggested back in 2004 that poverty was not a structural problem at all: “poverty and severe deprivation is [sic] a product less of a lack of public goods than of officially promoted or tolerated policies of social exclusion.” In other words, the difficulty is not with the recipe for the pie, or the men who bake it, or the oven in which it’s made. Nothing about the economic structure in which the pie is produced keeps it small. Other bakers aren’t monopolizing the ingredients. The pie is fine. It’s just that somebody is dividing this mini-pie up wrong, so that one group or another doesn’t get its negligible bite.

It's fine. Fine.

It’s fine. Fine.

The result was that Human Rights Watch committed to dealing with poverty – in rights-ese, the denial of economic and social rights – not as an economic issue, but as a matter of discrimination. Poverty was bad if some people were deliberately made poorer than others. In this model, you could talk about the right to education if certain kids – children of ethnic minorities, for example, or children living with HIV/AIDS—were denied schooling. You couldn’t talk about policies that threatened all, or nearly all, children’s access to education, though: policies like privatizing schools, or the school fees or exorbitant textbook prices that international lending institutions loved to impose on Africa. Because those applied across the board, they weren’t issues of “social exclusion.” The pie was simply made that way, that’s all. In fairness, almost the entire organization tacitly rebelled against this argument. Human Rights Watch’s reports on kids’ education back then, for instance, reveal researchers finding all sorts of ingenious ways to urge that school fees were excessive, or unnecessary, or should be “reconsidered,” or lifted in nearly all cases, without actually writing that school fees were wrong. This kind of casuistry helped salvage the organization’s reputation in many places, including Africa. But the economically uninformed picture of poverty that underlay it hardly went unnoticed. It pointed up the fact that “equality” meant something different to HRW than to almost every activist in Africa. And the problem is that the more your agenda as a local activist got identified with HRW’s, the more your own articulation of equality got subsumed beneath this partial and impoverished one.

I have some experience with LGBT rights activism in Africa. And I find the way its diverse goals are represented, not just in the media but by its international partners, often reductive and distorting. There are a great many LGBT activists who don’t see some broad “equality” agenda as standing for their struggles. They want specific things: the right to privacy, say, represented by repealing sodomy laws; the right to associate, represented by registering an organization; the right to expression, enjoyed when you can give an interview to a radio station without fear of reprisal. The nebulosities of “equality” as Westerners bloviate about it aren’t nearly precise enough. There are activists who see formal, legal “equality” in the Western sense as simply a cover for neocolonial forms of segregation and domination, a substitute (as arguably it’s been in South Africa) for deeper, radical social transformation. There are activists who feel that “equality” in relationships can only be achieved by exempting them from the patriarchal state’s regulation, not getting them a far-off seal of repressive approval. And there are a lot of activists who would say that it’s destructive to talk, for example, about “LGBT equality” in access to health care when nobody has access to adequate health care. “Equality” for them does not mean some particular protection for LGBT people; it doesn’t just mean remedying “social exclusion”; it means changing the rules of the game. It means comprehensively redistributing goods so that all sectors of society can obtain them. It doesn’t imply privileging those groups who can make “discrimination” claims that Western actors will recognize.

Equality, an African view

Equality, an African view

These are only a few of the positions out there. All these disputes take place at a time of extraordinary economic flux and chaos in Africa. What Achille Mbembe wrote (in On the Postcolony) is still true: there is a “crisis of the taxation system, shortages, and population movements,” and it often looks like “simply a struggle among predators.”

Meanwhile, below the state sphere new forms of belonging and social incorporation are gestating, with the formation of “leagues,” “corporations,” “coalitions,” and so on. There is no doubt that most of the religious and healing movements proliferating in Africa today constitute visible, if ambiguous, sites where new normative systems, new common languages, and the constitution of new authorities are being negotiated.

There is a “heteronomous and fragmented conception of the ‘political community.’ The basic question, of the emergence of a subject with rights, remains unresolved.” But exactly because of this ferment and uncertainty, assuming the Western vision of formal legal equality encompasses a solution is both stupid and premature.

However. It’s very hard for this fertility of ideas, which so informs what happens in African movements, to filter into what international organizations do. There’s no mechanism built into their board-governed systems to listen or respond. My fear is that, because the internationals have the discursive power, what African (and other) activists are doing will get further identified with their HRC-sticker agendas. It’s easy to predict two results. The internationals’ interventions will be ignored — unless they grow addicted to relying on Western governments’ economic leverage, which will only discredit LGBT issues still more. And many African LGBT movements will look more isolated from their countries and peoples, rather than more integrated into the collective pursuit of justice. There is still time for the internationals to enter into a dialogue with Southern partners with a view to more open and flexible definitions of a rights agenda. It’s not happening yet. If it doesn’t, I can tell you what the consequences of isolation and stigma will be: More blood. More pain.

Moral entrepreneur: Ghanaian newspaper, 2011

Moral entrepreneur: Ghanaian newspaper, 2011

Second: Visibility leads to violence. It’s a lesson that (to return to what’s happened in Africa) twenty years’ experience should have enforced on everyone. Again and again, the first time somebody came out or was outed or made a public statement about LGBT identity in a particular country, a ferocious backlash followed; lives were destroyed. Zimbabwe! Zambia!  Uganda! Kenya! This didn’t happen (to repeat) just because of some cross-continental cultural pressure for conformity. It happened, by and large, because some players knew how to exploit the spectre of sexual difference, and gin up fears for political ends. They had models for doing this, furnished ready-made from Mugabe on down. The dynamic of panic is reproducible. As with an earthquake, it’s hard to tell exactly when the backlash might break out or the violence begin. But as with an earthquake, you can predict that, precise dates aside, it’s coming.

From the beginning — with Mugabe’s attacks on the Zimbabwe Book Fair and GALZ in the early 1990s — international organizations have largely intervened to publicize these episodes, which started with publicity, still further. That’s the main thing international human rights groups do, after all: their work is predicated on faith that shedding light and telling stories are the foundations of change. A cycle of publicity starts, with exposure leading to more exposure. The victims and the local activists both become more public. I could hardly claim to see this with disapproval. It does, however, place a responsibility on international activists. Having shed the light, they are liable for the consequences. Their obligation is, as far as humanly possible, to ensure the safety of those they work with. It’s particularly salient because most international human rights organizations claim special expertise on issues of security, transcending local knowledges about safety and defense. They talk about it regularly. They raise money for it.

I’ve seen international groups promising to protect the security of LGBT activist partners for twenty years now.  We’ve done a shamefully incompetent job.

Some things improved in recent years — there is more funding for security, there are more experienced organizations involved. Some individuals devote their time to helping with security concerns. But these small marks in the ledger haven’t stopped the deaths. If they had, Eric might be alive. Human Rights Watch used to say that defending the defenders was at the core of its mission. When did this become defending the defenders after they’re dead?

Everybody agrees vaguely that LGBT activists face distinctive dangers in many places. But no one, so far as I know, has even tried to analyze systematically what those dangers are, how they’re different, or what can be done. As for the risks endured by “ordinary” LGBT communities, not just rights defenders: the serious studies of how they could be countered can be counted on one hand.

And there is thinking about this that goes on among local groups!  Just this afternoon I sat with a couple of Egyptians who brainstormed innovative approaches to provide some protection for people who look funny — not “masculine” or “feminine” enough — in downtown Cairo. There’s more imagination there than the big human rights groups have evolved in years. For most of us on the “international” side, the reflex reaction when confronted by an activist in danger is: Get her out of the country. Escape substitutes for protection. The asylum system –unwieldy, prejudiced, deeply flawed — serves as the nearest thing we have to a security plan for the international LGBT movement.

Asylum is so easy

Asylum is so easy

Asylum is necessary. Asylum is a human right. The incessant efforts by governments to restrict it are intolerable. This afternoon I’m also finishing an affidavit for a gay Egyptian seeking asylum in Europe. The contortions the authorities undergo to deny him are amazing; if they could find an expert to testify that the man’s buck teeth proved that he was heterosexual, and thus ineligible, they’d jump at the chance. People who work full-time on asylum and refugee concerns are tottering on the brink of permanent despair. I profoundly respect them.

On the other hand, half the time when I hear LGBT people from North America or Europe talking about LGBT asylum, I want to pound somebody’s head, possibly but not necessarily mine, against a well-built wall. The subject brings out the worst fantasies in Western gays’ imaginations. All too often they feed on the needs of asylum-seekers, for a vampirish, sanguine satisfaction. There is, on the one hand, the dream of being a savior without going anywhere, of staying securely at home while rescuing some helpless subaltern from her own society. There is also the sheer pleasure of seeing one’s own country exalted, as the abode of freedom and the goal of others’ aspirations. The rhetoric can be Dickensian in its mawkishness, and patronizing to the point of racism. “We helped save a 19-year old Iranian!” Or: the poor victim “has NEVER been accused of a crime, except leaving his homeland to come to America. He was shunned by a society that wants to kills gays. He is an orphan and has no one.” Lucky you: “We can give one gay man … the gift of freedom.” That some asylum-seekers are desperate is beyond doubt; that emotional excess can energize an appeal is at least arguable; but reducing them to emblems of abjection only redoubles the humiliation they have already suffered. That this self-indulgence also lets people suppose they are doing something constructive for the security of LGBT movements around the world is hard to bear.

Image from the "Save Pegah" campaign (the asylum-seeker's name was publicized apparently without her permission), 2007

Image from the “Save Pegah” campaign (the asylum-seeker’s name was publicized apparently without her permission), 2007

Particularly self-congratulatory is the rhetoric that asylum for LGBT people — or anybody — “saves lives.” Just for the record, it doesn’t. Asylum can often save biological life: one reason why it’s absolutely necessary. But that’s not the same as saving lives, saving the way people live as connected and implicated beings in their cultures, contexts, communities. It’s exactly this that exile destroys. Asylum can keep your physical existence going at a distance from those who want to kill you, but it can’t give you back that connectedness and system of meaning, that way of living. To the contrary. Almost any asylee will tell you that exile is a social death, and there is no easy way to rebuild a lost vocabulary of values or a syntax of belonging in a new country. Asylum is suffering, not hope. This is why hardly anyone ever seeks it casually or lightly, and why so few claims actually are fraudulent. Who would inflict such an amnesia and amputation on himself with so tenuous a prospect of recovery, unless there were absolutely no alternative?

And it’s this social death that — contemplating the dangers LGBT movements face around the world — we hold out as a security program.

We, and by “we” of course I mean the international segment of the LGBT movement, have to do better. Much better. Eric Ohena Lembembe’s death should make us do more than mourn, and calls us to condemn more than state inaction. We need to examine ourselves, what we’ve done and what we’ve left undone.  International organizations need to return to their Southern partners for analysis and critique, with a much-made and superannuated promise to listen and learn: not just about strategy and method, but about the meaning of rights talk itself, what needs it stands for and how it performs in the open politics of movements as well as in the chambers of law. I’m not too optimistic that this will happen. But the alternative to patiently educating ourselves is either becoming irrelevant, or a lot more pain.