Wanted For Love, But Not Here: The Travelling Rights of African LGBT Activists

In the Netherlands, the at­tempt by the “Wanted for Love” cam­paign to sup­port LGBT act­iv­ists in Africa renders “Africa” the “ho­mo­phobic Other” of Dutch homonationalism.

Wanted for Love

One of the dangers of aware­ness cam­paigns centred on so­cial media is that they risk being on­line pop­ularity con­tests. The [Dutch] na­tional “Wanted For Love” cam­paign — a col­lab­or­ative ini­ti­ative of Hivos and Human Rights Watch aimed at drawing at­ten­tion to the plight of les­bian, gay, bi­sexual and trans­gender (LGBT) people in “Africa” — welcomes the like-​tivist spirit with open arms.

While ar­gu­ably an honest pro­ject powered by good in­ten­tions, there are a number of knotty as­pects (sen­ti­mental slackt­ivism aside) to the cam­paign that need to be dis­en­tangled. I’d like to focus on these and some other as­pects that are not in­cluded in the campaign’s happy narrative.

Even though this is not a direct cri­tique of Hivos or Human Rights Watch [HRW] — despite my ges­turing to­ward their re­spective prob­lem­atic as­pects — it is im­portant to ad­dress is­sues re­garding their focus and funding. In The Bias of Human Rights Watch in­de­pendent journ­alist Garry Leech ad­dresses Human Rights Watch’s skewed pri­or­ities. Leech’s cri­tique is that by priv­ileging polit­ical and civil rights over so­cial and eco­nomic rights Human Rights Watch [HRW] in­ad­vert­ently pro­motes capitalist-​individualistic values.

One of the major donors/​strategic al­li­ances of Hivos is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, which states on its web­site that “[I]ssues of peace and se­curity, good gov­ernance and human rights, trade, poverty, the en­vir­on­ment, and mi­gra­tion are all closely in­ter­con­nected.” The good­will of the Dutch gov­ern­ment is, ar­gu­ably, part of its larger in­ter­na­tional policy.

Moreover, through its stra­tegic al­li­ance with Hivos, which works in 26 coun­tries loc­ated in the Global South, the Dutch gov­ern­ment can exert con­trol and reg­u­late the world beyond its bor­ders. With this in mind, one cannot di­vorce the Wanted For Love cam­paign from the global flows of bodies, in­form­a­tion, cap­ital, af­fect and the “rights dis­course,” which posits gay rights (and tol­er­ance of ho­mo­sexu­ality) as im­portant markers of “mod­ernity,” and “Westernization.”

Although the Wanted For Love web­site states that there isn’t a con­tinent where LGBT people are not op­pressed, they point to “Africa,” in par­tic­ular, as a site where LGBT people en­counter the most in­tense res­ist­ance. The Wanted For Love cam­paign, then, func­tions as a tool to fur­ther a pinkwashed/​homonationalist agenda, which not only presents Europe as better than anti-​gay (African) na­tions, but also up­holds the Netherlands as an exemplar.

The cam­paign dis­curs­ively con­structs a spe­cific image of “Africa,” rights, and cul­ture which it, then, ex­ploits for rhet­or­ical pur­poses. Contrastingly, it con­structs the fantasy of “Europe” as a bas­tion of freedom for LGBT people. In its bid to sup­port act­iv­ists in Africa Wanted For Love ends up jux­ta­posing a “ho­mo­phobic Africa” with a “lib­eral Europe.” Thus, “Africa” is made to serve as “ho­mo­phobic Other” for Dutch homonationalism.

fleeing-homophobia-voorzijde_tcm22-197489

The 2011 pro­ject Fleeing Homophobia. Seeking Safety in Europe, which was funded (among others) by the European Refugee Fund and the Dutch Ministry of Security and Justice, makes the same con­cep­tual move — which makes one beg the ques­tion, is Europe really a safe haven for LGBT folks? Well, no.

A re­cent survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights has re­vealed that LGBT people in the EU (and Croatia) “ex­per­i­ence bias-​motivated dis­crim­in­a­tion, vi­ol­ence and har­ass­ment in dif­ferent areas of life, in­cluding em­ploy­ment, edu­ca­tion, health­care, housing and other ser­vices.” Moreover,

The find­ings show that many hide their iden­tity or avoid loc­a­tions be­cause of fear. Others ex­per­i­ence dis­crim­in­a­tion and even vi­ol­ence for being LGBT. Most, how­ever, do not re­port such in­cid­ents to the po­lice or any other rel­evant authority.

Wanted For Love softens through its use of lan­guage and im­ages the on­going op­pres­sion that LGBT people in the EU face. It presents a tidy ver­sion of a com­plic­ated nar­rative in “easy-​to-​digest” imageries in order to “get more people to care.” Ironically, this cam­paign ul­ti­mately fore­closes the ques­tion of what it would mean to show genuine solid­arity (or, at least, a solid­arity that goes beyond cre­ating one’s own Wanted For Love poster) with African LGBT people — whether they are in Africa, or in Europe.

Undocumented African LGBT people face an enormous amount of vi­ol­ence in the Netherlands—where they are not “wanted for love,” but wanted for de­port­a­tion. A Ugandan LGBT act­ivist, Kalanzi Marvin Richard, was de­tained in Rotterdam awaiting his de­port­a­tion — a gross vi­ol­a­tion of his human rights. What does it mean to pro­mote “gay rights as human rights” in “Africa” when the “human rights” of the very same people who are being tar­geted in Africa for being gay, are vi­ol­ated in Europe?

The global human rights dis­course (which is prob­lem­atic) and the Dutch im­mig­ra­tion and border se­curity policies in­ter­twine, offset and com­ple­ment each other. And this tur­bu­lent dy­namic cre­ates a ten­sion between “the sov­er­eign com­pet­ence of states to reg­u­late mi­gra­tion” and “the human rights of the mi­grants.” As stated be­fore, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs views se­curity, human rights and mi­gra­tion as in­ter­de­pendent, which makes it easy for the gov­ern­ment to jus­tify prac­tices (e.g. de­ten­tion) that vi­olate the basic human rights of un­doc­u­mented migrants.

A fur­ther ef­fect of this dy­namic is that it is ex­tremely dif­fi­cult for the Dutch gov­ern­ment to de­velop, es­pe­cially as re­gards LGBT people, a co­herent asylum policy that also hon­ours the human rights of un­doc­u­mented mi­grants. As it stands, it has be­come in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult for LGBT people from cer­tain “non-​Western” na­tions to ob­tain asylum. According to the “Fleeing Homophobia” re­port,

In the Netherlands, the ex­ist­ence of en­forced crim­in­al­isa­tion in Iran was suf­fi­cient for a policy rule to the ef­fect that LGBT ap­plic­ants from Iran will in any case be granted asylum on do­mestic law based, hu­man­it­arian grounds. Decisions and case law re­jecting LGB claims be­cause in those coun­tries there is no evid­ence of en­forced crim­in­al­isa­tion against LGB people sug­gest that LGB claimants from coun­tries where crim­in­al­isa­tion is en­forced would qualify for asylum.

What does it mean to offer a legal pre­sump­tion that makes it easier for LGBT asylum seekers from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and, re­cently, Uganda to claim asylum in the Netherlands? What does it mean to allow LGBT people from these coun­tries — and not others — to settle in the Netherlands while im­pov­er­ished people, either from the “ap­proved” coun­tries or else­where, cannot? What does having “gay rights” mean when asylum seekers need to “prove” that they are LGBT be­fore their re­quest is granted?

While Wanted For Love draws at­ten­tion to the plight of African LGBT people, it sim­ul­tan­eously limits, through its em­phasis on love, the scope of as­pects that af­fect LGBT people from Africa. Consequently, we are left to worry only about the plight of LGBT Africans “over there.” The plight of LGBT Africans “over here,” how­ever, is seem­ingly irrelevant.

Under the banner of “caring and showing sup­port” cap­it­alism and ra­cism in­ter­sect with sys­temic state-​violence (com­mitted by the Dutch state through its im­mig­ra­tion policy) against the very same queer bodies we are called to care for. For in­stance, on the Wanted For Love web­site it says that, “Erwin Olaf pho­to­graphed the act­iv­ists in a beau­tiful, un-​African way,” which has left me won­dering what “un-​African” signifies.

“Wanted for Love” poster com­pet­i­tion. One with most “likes” wins VIP spot at Gay Pride

The role that for­eign cap­ital plays in the “ho­mo­phobia in Africa” nar­rative is sig­ni­ficant. On the one hand, anti-​gay sen­ti­ments are being fanned by moneyed Christian fun­da­ment­al­ists from the US. On the other, the Dutch gov­ern­ment, through its funding of or­gan­iz­a­tions like Hivos, ex­erts in­flu­ence on local politics. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs baldly states that its in­ter­na­tional policy — which the pro­mo­tion of “human rights” is a part of — serves to ad­vance Dutch prosperity. “It is,” as its web­site states, “the re­spons­ib­ility of the gov­ern­ment to create global con­di­tions that fa­vour Dutch interests.”

We need to ask ourselves what kind of work these acts of care through cap­it­alism are per­forming — both do­mest­ic­ally and abroad. “The politics of care,” Miriam I. Ticktin writes, “main­tains a ra­cial­ized post­co­lo­nial nation-​state, ren­dering im­mig­rants vis­ible [in French so­ciety] primarily in the form of gendered and ra­cial­ized vic­tims — they can never be equal.”

At the same time, a con­ser­vative, con­sumerist gay main­stream cul­ture has moved gay pride away from its rad­ical po­ten­tial. Instead, gay pride has be­come a cor­porate cap­it­alist spec­tacle. Capitalism, as Kenneth Cimino citing Bob McCubbin ar­gues, has re­dir­ected the call for gay lib­er­a­tion “into safe busi­ness net­works, like ad­vert­ising in magazines, mar­keting of gay con­sumer products, and/​or trying to make gay pride marches into in­noc­uous cel­eb­ra­tions.” When gay pride does in­cor­porate a pressing polit­ical issue, like solid­arity with LGBT act­iv­ists in the Global South, it takes on a form that doesn’t con­test the dom­inant nar­rative, but sup­ports and per­petu­ates it.

The African LGBT act­iv­ists, who were vis­iting, were in­vited to par­ti­cipate in the Tears of Pride Walk—a walk against vi­ol­ence against LGBT people. The walk is a highly prob­lem­atic event. It started last year and the walk is from Amsterdam West, a ra­cial­ized space with a large Muslim/​Moroccan pop­u­la­tion, to the ho­momonu­ment, a symbol of gay eman­cip­a­tion. I’m sure they didn’t know the sym­bolic nature of that.

The LGBT move­ment has shifted strongly to the right these past years. In an on­line poll con­ducted by the news­paper Gay Krant in 2010 the anti-​Islam and anti-​immigration PVV re­ceived al­most a quarter of the votes. Much an­imus is dir­ected par­tic­u­larly to­ward “the Moroccans.” This myth­ical group of people that Dutch politics keeps re­fer­ring to is struc­tur­ally po­si­tioned as Muslim and there­fore ho­mo­phobic.

What does it mean to mo­bilize an Islamophobic, ra­cist LGBT com­munity to “save African gays”? What does it mean to mo­bilize an (de­pol­it­i­cized) LGBT move­ment whose uni­ver­sal­izing gay (pride) dis­courses seek to render all same-​sex de­sire in­tel­li­gible on Western neo­lib­eral cap­it­alist terms? (re Gay Imperialism)

Queers of colour have to face much more than just ho­mo­phobia, and taking on the label “gay” goes beyond em­bodying a “trans­gressive” iden­tity — es­pe­cially, in a world in which “being black” already rep­res­ents trans­gres­sion. In ref­er­ence to her work Zanele Muholi once wrote,

I need to un­der­score that naming ourselves and ‘being’ is more than a fashion state­ment or a re­search topic. Rather, it is a polit­ical con­scious­ness that we do not have a choice about. To be black, les­bian and African is by its very nature polit­ical in a world that is still over­whelm­ingly heterosexual.

And “fear,” to quote Rosemary Hennessy, “is only one of many palp­ably vi­olent con­sequences of a vast sea of het­ero­sexual prescriptions.”

Support, ad­vocacy, and transna­tional act­ivism, in this con­text, can offer much needed morale boosts. Moreover, transna­tional act­ivism can also be in­valu­able in seem­ingly local struggles, e.g. the plight of LGBT asylum seekers from the Global South in the Netherlands. However, in order for these transna­tional al­li­ances to be fruitful we need to un­pack them first and re­frame the con­text of the human rights struggles of sexual minor­ities in the Global North and Global South. “We cannot,” as Tarso Luís Ramos citing Kapya Kaoma writes, “un­der­stand — never mind win — either struggle without un­der­standing their interrelation.”

Egbert Alejandro Martin is a cul­tural critic based in the Netherlands with an in­terest in rep­res­ent­a­tions of race and gender in media and pop culture. Tweets: @wearebots; Blog: Processed Life

  2 comments for “Wanted For Love, But Not Here: The Travelling Rights of African LGBT Activists

  1. Sam the poet
    11 September 2013 at 2:14 pm

    Am caught between ap­plauding the com­mentary and also slightly ques­tion the motives as well, the biggest problem al­ways being that from both the wanted for love site and this critic, we still do not have the African, im­mig­rant or local, con­trolling the voice.

  2. 11 September 2013 at 3:20 pm

    Thank you, Sam, for your comment.

    I agree, that the voice of the “African” is usu­ally sorely missing from the de­bates on LGBT is­sues, or when it is in­cluded — as was the case in the Wanted For Love cam­paign — it is used as polit­ical cap­ital in the global eco­nomy of gay rights, which is some­thing that I dis­cuss at length in my piece.

    As re­gards my motives, as a di­a­sporic Dutch Caribbean self-​identified queer cis­gender Black man who has en­countered ra­cism in White queer spaces, I felt com­pelled to offer a cri­tique of the Wanted For Love cam­paign. Especially, since bodies of colour are con­stantly (if not con­sist­ently) used to signal “di­versity,” or “in­clu­sion.” In ad­di­tion, queer people of colour are sys­tem­at­ic­ally being por­trayed as being in need of res­cuing and our com­munities more often than not being cast as in­her­ently ho­mo­phobic. I simply wanted to talk back and offer an ana­lysis that ex­poses (some of) the work that cam­paigns such as Wanted For Love performs.

    Regards,
    E.

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