In a world that often rejects them, this site offers queer African women a place to belong
In her early twenties, Tiffany Kagure Mugo was confused about her sexuality, but found little information online that helped her feel understood, and even less from African sources. So, she started her own platform
29 April 2017
My early twenties were a turbulent time. I was a Kenyan living in South Africa and, as well as having a career crisis, I was struggling to come to terms with my sexuality. One day, I asked Google “What is the Xhosa word for sexual orientation?” Nothing useful came up, because there isn’t one. I had never had any trouble finding out other information – “how to put in a tampon,” “how to make chapatis” or even “how to format your hard drive”; there’s plenty of information out there if you’re a menstruating culinary tech whiz, but not if you’re an African woman trying to explore different facets of your sexuality.
The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in Africa all too often faces violence and persecution, and it’s obvious why. A recent report on LGBT laws by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) found that 45% of respondents in Africa agreed “being LGBTI should be considered a crime”.
Some progress is being made: in June, former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan said his country may revisit the 2014 anti-gay law he signed banning same-sex marriages, declaring “we must all have the same rights”; and in July 2015, Mozambique decriminalized homosexuality in its new penal code. But much more needs to be done to ensure that queer people in Africa are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.
For a while, I used academia to get a handle on the storm that was brewing inside me. At the University of Cape Town, I began to scratch the surface of same-sex practices in pre-colonial and contemporary Africa, but information was sparse and I couldn’t take what I was learning to heart. Much of it was coated in Western academic theories (see: Queer Theory and Foucault) and it was difficult to root abstract theories, created in far off places, in my own life and experiences.
I realised I couldn’t academically cite myself into existence. I tried to find out where all the queer people in Kenya hung out, to find groups and Facebook pages for queer people based on the African continent, dying of excitement every time I even saw another gay person in real life. My world became a vortex of intense conversations with friends about the possibility of “going back to being straight”, a somewhat tumultuous first relationship (as any first relationship is), and work with sexuality-based organisations. Eventually, after much self-reflection, I managed to make peace with my sexuality.
“Africa’s LGBTQI communities needs to feel like they belong and know that their existence can be multi-faceted”
But I still wanted to see more people like me in the public sphere – not in an American public sphere, but in mine. It’s why I co-created HOLAA! (Hub Of Loving Action Africa), an online feminist community for queer women in Africa. LGBTQI people on my continent, and those who live in one of the 77 countries around the world where same-sex practices are criminalized, need to feel like they belong and know that their existence can be multi-faceted. They need to see people like them out in the world so they can figure out what is going on inside themselves. All of HOLAA!’s content is published and written by queer African women living on the continent and in the diaspora.
In 2014, I decided HOLAA! needed to be part of a larger framework and movement to get the voices of women out there, but in a more practical way. I launched the Afro Queer Digital Media Project to give queer African women the space to tell their stories and the tools to create their narratives with videos, podcasts, tweets, Instagram selfies, and blog posts. The project is more than just a tool for individual empowerment. It also helps dismantle the dominant narrative around the LGBTQI community in Africa, which is made hideous by horrible stories of “corrective rape”, subjugation and violence.
We seek to replace those stories with our own lived reality as women share their perspective on everything from sexual experiences, race, mental health and gender to identity, Pride, politics and their professional lives. They write poetry, short stories, diary entries and erotica. They’re using their stories to build a community. And with every retweet, or thumbs up on Facebook, or double-tap on Instagram, they’re clearing the path for the young women behind them, making sure the next girl who googles the Xhosa or Kikuyu word for sexual orientation will know that someone else did exactly that before her. Even if there still isn’t a word, the search for the word is powerful enough.
Tiffany Kagure Mugo is a youth fellow at the Open Society Foundations and co-founded HOLAA!, an online feminist community for queer women in Africa.