The UN, seen from Khayelitsha: Guest post

Khayelitsha, Western Cape, South Africa

Khayelitsha, Western Cape, South Africa

On June 30, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva passed a resolution establishing an independent expert (a special investigative mechanism, a slightly weaker title than the more usual “special rapporteur”) on sexual orientation and gender identity. Although you wouldn’t know it from most of the news reports, this move was controversial within LGBT movements. Some pressed for UN action against a wider range of abuses, for a recognition that issues of sexual and bodily autonomy are difficult to disentangle or to fit into convenient identity boxes. The final outcome occasioned celebration even as it raised questions. What are our movements’ relations to power? When are we agents, when are we patients, when are we acted upon and when are we actors in our right? What happens to us and our own autonomy when we derive our power from the agendas of “friendly” governments vastly and more malignly powerful than ourselves? How will the power we experience in the rarefied air of Geneva actually help those outside?

A post by Gabriel Hoosain Khan, a South African human rights activist and artist, dealt with some of these questions. I am publishing it here with his permission.

I am bewildered by the myth of Cape Town. As I drive on the N2 towards Khayelitsha – I know that the pretty green boulevards and the old Victorian houses will soon erode into an endless plain of informal settlements. I forgot that truth (again) during the previous night as I ate Bobotie and sipped wine in Observatory – the truth that Cape Town is not that pretty city on the southern tip. It is easy and gross privilege that allowed me to forget. Cape Town instead runs far up along a spine towards Somerset West, with dirty lungs on either side of the highway – letting the city inhale a poor black workforce every day, and roughly exhaling these workers every eve.

It is this binary which tints my perception of the recent vote at the UN on SOGI. This binary between the facades we sell about cities and processes and resolutions; and the realities of the communities on the ground that don’t taste the pleasures of the façade. In Cape Town, Camps Bay, Claremont and Seapoint are pretty and some of the safest areas in South Africa; while tens of kilometres away Gugulethu, Khayelitsha and Nyanga have limited access to sanitation and remain some of the most dangerous areas in South Africa (and the world). In Geneva it might be possible to celebrate a human rights gain – but that gain seems far removed from the room in Khayelitsha where I met three LGBTI youth groups last week. The beautiful paneled ceiling in Geneva (which I have seen in pictures) is unimaginable from the crèche where we meet – a zinc structure with no electricity, little furniture or flushing toilets.

Main meeting chamber of the Human Rights Council, Geneva

Main meeting chamber of the Human Rights Council, Palais de Nations, Geneva. No one has ever explained to me what the ceiling, an apparent emanation of the Borg, is supposed to mean (SL)

In writing a reflection on the latest resolution on SOGI at the UN – I in no way seek to denigrate the good work of colleagues and comrades engaging that space. I acknowledge that work at the UNHRC and with other international bodies is needed. The hard work of colleagues, the self-reflexive strategies, the guidance given to me and others by those working at the UNHRC, and their patient willingness to engage that space is acknowledged. That being said, I have been uneasy: uneasy with quick celebration, unconvinced with activist praxis at the UNHRC and other international spaces, uneasy with an LGBTI-politic which is not truly intersectional.

While I acknowledge the importance of being visibly queer at the UNHRC – foregrounding particular and unique experience as LGBTI people – I wonder what it means to separate that from the rights of women, sex-workers, the unique challenges associated with race, and class – or the realities of culture, geography and poverty? For example, what does an independent expert mean to a black gender non-conforming woman tortured by police in Zimbabwe? How do we separate out a colonial era law from contemporary arbitrary detention; how do we separate out practices of torture from the unique gendered violations?

While I acknowledge the standard-setting power of international bodies, I wonder whether these standards ever trickle down to states, and more so whether domestic standards ever trickle down to those communities who are most vulnerable. For example, how has UNHRC resolution 17/19 [the first UN Human Rights Council resolution devoted to sexual orientation and gender identity, passed in 2011] affected change at a domestic level on the African continent – do we have evidence that it made things better? If these resolutions and even treaties are not binding – what is their utility? What is the relationship between a document approved by states at the UNHRC and an individual who may not have knowledge or understanding of that council?

While I acknowledge the need for an international standard which protects the basic rights of humans (as manifest in the UN declaration of human rights), I notice how this standard is used in a manner which is unbalanced. For example, while much focus of the UNHRC often lingers on states in the global South, the actions of states like the USA, UK and others remain unscrutinised and their leaders not held accountable for their gross human rights violations. How do we hold to account states in the north with equal vigour for their contemporary and historic crimes (cough: reparations for slavery and colonialism).

In a strange way, the human rights context is similar to the myth of Cape Town. Whilst we may celebrate a human rights gain which mandates an independent expert to maintain focus on SOGI at the UNHRC in Geneva — in the same breath, in Baghdad, two hundred people die in a car bomb attack. I wonder what our wins at the UNHRC mean in the context of Syrian refugees, or landless Palestinians, or the 10 years of violence in Iraq. What do our SOGI/LGBTI/queer/trans strategies (as linguistic, interventionist and economic practices) achieve at the Palace of Nations, when the constituencies we work with (in Khayelitsha, in Gugulethu, in Nyanga to name just 3 localities) remain in circumstances largely unchanged? I remembered this poem:

amidst the new-fangled fallacies
of sexual and racial freedom for all
these under-informed
self-congratulating
pseudo-intellectual utterances
reflect how apolitical the left has become
– Staceyann Chin

Asiyi eKhayelitsha (We will not go to Khayelitsha), 1985 poster protesting forced removals. CAP Collection, UWC-Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives.

Asiyi eKhayelitsha (We will not go to Khayelitsha), 1985 poster protesting forced removals by the apartheid regime. CAP Collection, UWC – Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives.

I might be a little cynical here – we have seen positive changes on the continent – but these have been slow. I guess I am keen to reflect on the political implications of human rights strategies which centre efforts in a language palatable to the global North. I muse on Fanon’s words — “Europe is literally the creation of the Third World” —  as a guide: to the way human rights as employed reinforces the metaphorical normativity of “Europe” or “the west” or “the global North” as a white, liberal and civilized measure of humanity. I guess I am trying to examine SOGI/LGBTI/queer/trans strategies as practices (linguistic, interventionist and economic) which do not trouble the normativity of a human rights discourse that leaves colonialism, racism and global north exceptionalism largely unchallenged.

In using human rights without examining the racist/colonial/exceptional manner in which it is employed:

  1. we too divide our struggle through employing SOGI/LGBTI/queer/trans as a singular palatable thing – rather than a queer, feminist and anti-colonial resistance; and
  2. we continue to reinforce an expensive international system which does not help those who most need these mythological human rights.

In a way this myth of human rights has little to do with the messy colonial, racial, gendered, sexualized, classed realities of humans.

It says we deserve a piece of this myth whilst only affording this myth to a few bodies, and leaves largely unchallenged the global colonial/racist systems which perpetuate gross human rights violations (on and beyond LGBTI bodies). I wonder if we can challenge this normative trap of human rights . A normative trap which allows states like the US to talk loudly about human rights, whilst the indigenous peoples of that state and their leaders still do not have representation in that same UNHRC space? A trap which allows the Syrian government to have space and power at the UN whilst that same government has killed 12044 civilians in 2015? A trap which led me to think about SOGI/LGBTI/queer/trans issues in Khayelitsha as somehow separate from access to sanitation, electricity, quality education, public safety and street lights? I find this all very troubling.

Cape Youth Congress (CAYCO), June 16: Viva the Youth. Ca.1986commemorating the anniversary of the Soweto uprising. CAP Collection, UWC - Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives.

Cape Youth Congress (CAYCO), June 16: Viva the Youth. 1986 (?) poster commemorating the anniversary of the Soweto uprising. CAP Collection, UWC – Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives.

I take a sip of my caffeine-filled cappuccino and feel a little guilty (I am meant to give up caffeine for Ramadan). Last week in Khayelitsha I met with youth groups using creative methods to empower LGBTIQ youth. One group used drama to document the history of local words and stories about LGBTI identities. Another, called Cape Inspirations, was a choir – they used song to build confidence in LGBTI youth and build community among vulnerable youth. Ikhewezi youth group used theatre – they performed a play inspired by the violence in Orlando; their play explored local experiences of homophobia and violence against women. In Mannenberg, I met two groups providing safe space for LGBTI people in a neighbourhood with high unemployment rates, plagued by gang-related violence. The Reach for Life Foundation provided much-needed shelter and psychosocial support to LGBTI youth; Behind the Red Door highlighted the prevalent and interconnected struggles of drug and alcohol abuse, HIV and homelessness among LGBTI youth. I visited both on the day the vote at the UN was being negotiated. Neither knew about the resolution, neither engaged the UN in any manner and neither had strong opinions about the vote. More importantly, neither were consulted by LGBTI organisations about what they wanted.

This highlights a limitation when it comes to our praxis as SOGI/LGBTI/queer/trans organisations. In attempting to engage with these international bodies – what do we lose? Lose in our purpose and mode as civil society actors; actors who unlike states should be giving voice, opportunity and space to those who are most vulnerable? If these positions do not represent the groups or ideas of those who are most vulnerable – or even engage those who are most vulnerable – whom do these positions represent? I wonder about this practice of negotiating at the top (for things we supposedly need or don’t need; for language we supposedly use or language with limitations) in a manner which does not engage the modes and ideas of those we still position at the “bottom”?

In South Africa – we too were easy to celebrate: our new constitution in 1996; which enshrined non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and the laws which followed (in quick succession) moving LGBTI from identities criminalized before the law – to legal equality. Even with these changes – I wonder who enjoys that freedom – the suburbs which have always been safe and affluent cupped in the bosom of Table Mountain – do enjoy some semblance of freedom that is coloured white and affluent and gay. But those in Khayelitsha and Mannenberg live a reality in many ways similar to before those laws passed. LGBTI people in Khayelitsha and Mannenberg complain of the same issues thet faced before the first SOGI resolution passed at the UNHRC in 2011. I am trying to make sense of this binary.

The Bagdad bombing — when over two hundred people died in a commercial district in Baghdad — marked a somber closing to the month of the 32nd UNHRC sitting, but also to the month of Ramadan; a month marked by violence, from the attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, to the bombing of Istanbul’s Ataturk international airport. It is in this context of gross violence that I locate the actions of the latest UN Human Rights Council. It is in this context that I would locate the broader struggle for the rights of LGBTI people. It is here that I ponder about the resolution on SOGI.

for all the landmarks we celebrate
we are still niggers
and faggots
and minstrel references
for jokes created on the funny pages of a heterosexual world

the horizons are changing
to keep pace with technology and policy alike
the LGBT manifesto has evolved into a corporate agenda
and outside that agenda
a woman is beaten every 12 seconds
every two minutes
a girl is raped somewhere in America

and while we stand here well-dressed and rejoicing
in India
in China
in South America a small child cuts the cloth
to construct you a new shirt
a new shoe
an old lifestyle held upright
by the engineered hunger and misuse of impoverished lives
– Staceyann Chin

Medu Art Ensemble (designer: Judy Seidman), The People Shall Govern, screen print poster, Botswana/South Africa, 1982.

Medu Art Ensemble (designer: Judy Seidman), The People Shall Govern, Botswana/South Africa, 1982.

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

On choice

Cynthia did not put adequate thought into the ramifications of her words

The Cynthia Nixon scandal roils on. I’ve stopped keeping count of who’s blaming her for what these days; the last I heard, she was responsible for kids being electroshocked in Tennessee. Loose lips sink ships; but it seems that Cynthia’s, like a Helen of Troy in reverse, have torpedoed a thousand of them. It all reminds me a bit of G.W. Bush’s press secretary, in the chilly first days of our War of Terror, warning critics that “people have to watch what they say and watch what they do.”   I am not sure that Guantanamo has a cage or two for loquacious actors, but I gather some folks wish it did.

In discussing the affair, Andrew Sullivan graciously linked to my own post, and the question of what would happen if we treated sexual orientation like religion, “a decision so profoundly a part of one’s elected and constructed selfhood that one should never be forced to change it.” He added:

Of course, I don’t actually experience my faith as a choice, in the usual sense of the word. It feels as deep a part of me as my orientation.

Those two sentences rang true, and they pointed me to a basic question. What do we mean by “choice,” anyway?   There are certain cultural horizons that define people as much as any biological ones do.  And thinking about these things can make the concept of “choice” seem inadequate as a way of grasping how human beings act, decide, and are.

It’s inadequate, at least, if taken in the way we moderns tend to treat it, as a pure act of untrammeled freedom, occurring on an abstract plane vacated of constraints or pasts.  Andrew has stuck with being a Catholic despite the Church’s best efforts to make people like him pariahs. Is that courage, or acceptance? I would bet at some point he has expressed this as “I choose to be a Catholic because” … But I would also bet he has expressed it as “I can’t imagine not being a Catholic because…” Both seem to me equally valid ways of saying much the same thing – equally true pictures of the same situation, only seen from different aspects, like the blind men groping the elephant. We don’t always choose by making pure, existential leaps in the dark, like Kierkegaard or Lord Jim. Sometimes our freedom consists in staying rather than in going, though to stay means embracing the conditions that formed us and limit us. Sometimes we choose by being, not deciding.

For myself, though I am certainly not a practicing Christian, though I was not raised in an especially devout family, and though I believe virtually nothing of Christian dogma, when I’m asked about my religion I almost always describe myself as Christian – because certain aspects of a religion that in other ways I loathe form my horizon still. The myths of resurrection and redemption are deeply if inarticulately ingrained in me,  frames of hope and mercy through which I understand the world. (I have tried telling people I’m an “agnostic Christian,” but it nearly always makes everybody terribly mad.)  I confess to a mild, instinctive mistrust of people who convert from one whole religious tradition to another: Muslims who become Christian, or Christians who become Hindus, switches like that.  (I make something of an exception for Buddhism, since it is less a religion than a philosophical stance.)  At some gut level I feel you can lose your religion and become an atheist, but you can’t just take on a completely different tradition, with all its weight and taboos and cultural baggage. Such converts appear to me at times like followers of Gilbert Osmond, the cold-blooded collector of culture in James’ Portrait of a Lady, who said that if you happen to find yourself one day without a tradition, it’s incumbent on you to purchase a new one as rapidly as possible. But that won’t work!  I feel like shouting. You can scrap your original one, but that doesn’t mean the new one you try to own will own you.

Objectively, I realize this is completely silly. To change your beliefs in one compartment of your life doesn’t make you a luftmensch (a person of the air, as the Nazis called the supposedly rootless Jews). Anyway, there’s nothing wrong with being a luftmensch.  Air is healthy. My point is that I feel a weight, a drag, of resistance to the idea that choice is unconditioned, and I feel it in areas completely apart from the putatively destined, determined realms of sexuality or desire. There’s not some simple antinomy where genes decide a part of who we are, and all the rest is up for grabs. Everybody has their arenas where they feel freer, and others where they feel fixed. Our histories decide them, not just some biological allotment.

Another instance: I know I am and will always remain a middle-class American. Being rich or being poor, moving to another country, even changing my passport wouldn’t alter that. Wherever I’ve lived outside the US borders,  I’ve always eschewed the American expatriate scene. You don’t go abroad in order to make new American friends.  But from time to time, every couple of months or so, I found I needed to talk to my fellow countrypeople. Not to share political chat, or explore our economic interests, or voice some gross contempt for the locals: But because there was a subtler if more trivial common horizon of pop culture, of gestures comprehended and jokes understood, of TV commercials we watched when we were kids.  I needed that to remind me of who I was. Living in Romania, I might have a lover who was Romanian, and we might understand each other better than anybody else in the world did. But he still didn’t know why the silly rabbit could never eat Trix. Sometimes I needed to talk to people who knew that Trix was for kids.

It’s strange I should feel this about religion or nationality, by objective standards fairly contingent things, when I firmly believe we can change our genders. But gender, when it’s assigned to us at birth, isn’t given us with a history. As we grow up, it takes on all kind of symbolic meanings, but doesn’t necessarily acquire a past.   Being a “man” doesn’t require associating yourself with the whole history of manhood (some model figures, yes, but manhood itself doesn’t have a story). It’s forward-looking. You will become a man, fathers tell their sons, you will grow into manhood. Gender is a project, a perpetual becoming. It’s easier to abandon a future than a past. By contrast, faith and class are part not just of our personal histories, but of the immensely longer history behind us. Some people can liberate themselves from that history to greater or less degrees; some don’t want to.   But whether any one area of your life has been thus liberated as against another is, perhaps, a morally neutral question. What Kant called the project of autonomy, the task of ridding yourself of the vast weight of the given, is necessarily partial. No one can ever denude herself altogether. Recognizing that you can never place all your life under the dominion of choice, you must choose where you will strive to exercise your choices.

Our language around “choice,” and “freedom,” is terribly impoverished. By “ours” I mean “us Americans”: but also parts of the LGBT movement in many places around the world, which have got their vocabulary and a fragment of their worldview from an American definition. This is one consequence of being from a place where choice is so valorized, so elevated as the sole intent of life, that no one bothers to define or interrogate what it means. We either imagine that choice is completely free, untrammeled,  taking place in a vacuum –or that we’re completely constrained, controlled,  defined, overdetermined creatures of an implacable destiny. It’s obvious, and yet hard to articulate, that neither is true.  It’s telling that one side in the most extended U.S. political battle of the last forty years couches its advocacy in terms of the “right to choose.”  It’s never the right to choose something – to have an abortion or not, to carry a child to term or not. All that’s elided, as though “choice” summed up that and everything else that could be said. Certainly, this rhetoric was field-tested for palatability and persuasiveness, and I cringe to cavil at it. Equally certainly, controlling reproduction opens up for women a whole repertory of other choices that would otherwise be closed.  But insistently reiterating a right to unlimited choice must turn many a listener’s mind to all the things she never had a choice over: the hand-me-down clothes in childhood, the crappy carpet that came with the house, the job, the husband. And with that comes resentment, a feeling such choice is less a right than an invidious privilege.  Has this whole strategy worked out the way we planned?

The truth is that we choose; and we choose from a repertory that our pasts have given us; and we choose as beings who are already endowed with histories behind us, not sprung fresh and new from Jupiter’s head or the half-shell.  We bring our lives to our choices. What would they be worth otherwise?

Being in love is a bit like what I’m talking about.  There has to be an element of free will in it, otherwise nobody would want your love. To be sure, nobody in love feels entirely free. Nobody deludes themselves they’re in full command of their feelings. Yet who would wish to be presented with an attachment that’s just a bundle of involuntary drives? Who would like to be told, “Honey, my hormones selected you,” even if they get a bouquet of roses into the bargain? From one side it’s an unstoppable passion, but that’s not the only aspect. The side from which we can say we chose the loved one represents our respect, not just for them as deserving objects of desire, but for ourselves as reasonable beings who deserve to be desired back.    And yet, of course, it’s a determined choice. And of course, love opens up a Pandora’s jewelry box of further choices everyday: To stay or to go, to accommodate or argue, to speak or be silent, to share or not to share.  In our intimacies where we struggle most to be ourselves, choice and compulsion are inextricably intertwined.

Nixon in "Wit": The bald truth

Maybe we in the United States need a bit more Edmund Burke, to ground our sense of freedom in a context.  Burke understood that when we vote our ancestors vote with us: that we are inheritors of history, not just its inhabitants and masters.   But that knowledge is not just a property of the Right. Marx too grasped that our consciousness is conditioned, that history makes us before we can make it.

Nor do philosophers map the only road to realizing this. A poet or two has been there first. These days Cynthia Nixon is reading John Donne on Broadway (the New York Times, which exposed her heresy on “choice,” gave her a glorious review to make up for it).   Perhaps, in her private moments when the audience is gone, she also whispers to herself some lines from Auden:

Wandering lost upon the mountains of our choice
Again and again we sigh for an ancient South,
For the warm nude ages of instinctive poise,
For the taste of joy in the innocent mouth. …

We envy streams and houses that are sure:
But we are articled to error; we
Were never nude and calm like a great door,

And never will be perfect like the fountains;
We live in freedom by necessity,
A mountain people dwelling among mountains.