As the executive director for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, Cary Alan Johnson is a leader in the fight against queer discrimination worldwide. The Brooklyn-born author and organizer recently returned to New York City after living and working throughout Africa for the past two decades. On Oct. 15, he'll provide the Atlanta Queer Literary Festival's keynote address with Ana Božičević at the Auburn Avenue Research Library.
In your time in Africa, would you say that you've seen any changes in human rights conditions for queer communities on the continent?
In the five to six years that I have been directly involved with promoting LGBT rights in Africa, the progress of African LGBT movements has been astounding. Movements are more professionally run, politically smarter, more accountable and transparent, and more diverse. In almost every country, there are emerging organizations and political spaces for queer women, transpeople, those who want to be political, those whose interests are more social. Community centers and safe spaces are emerging continent-wide. In the face of much adversity and homophobia, it's actually quite a heady moment.
As executive director of IGLHRC, you challenge "arrests and abuse in countries such as Cameroon, Nigeria, Uganda and Senegal." Since the breaking of news surrounding the proposed Ugandan death penalty bill, has the attention helped those efforts?
The thus-far successful efforts to prevent the passage of the anti-homosexuality bill have been led by a grassroots coalition based in Uganda, consisting of feminist-, HIV- and LGBT-rights groups. The international pressure that IGLHRC and other groups have been able to create has included condemnations of the bill from a broad range of international leaders, including Secretary Clinton, President Obama, and the heads-of-state of South Africa, Canada, Norway, Sweden and the U.N. Secretary General. That's what works: grassroots movements supported by international partners. That's our approach.
Some of the talk about the Ugandan death penalty bill has been about the role that fundamentalist Christians from the U.S. have played in supporting such efforts. Is there a role for folks from the U.S. who would want to work for queer human rights and against those criminalization efforts?
When the Lou Engles, Rick Warrens and Eddie Longs of our country get on planes to trumpet their broken-down homophobia in Africa and other parts of the world, we have to hold them accountable at home. Demonstrate, write letters, challenge. And if you are a member of their congregation or have friends or family to whom they minister, your responsibility is even greater. First Amendment rights here in the U.S. and commitments to freedom of expression in Uganda and elsewhere say they can promote a view that homosexuality is "unchristian." But they can't incite violence, which many of these U.S. homophobic leaders do — usually with some level of deniability. It's a shame really.
Is the frequency of talk about such criminalization and arrests overshadowing positive progress? Are we focusing on the right issues related to queer human rights in Africa?
Great question. Certainly the continued criminalization of homosexuality in two-thirds of African countries and in more than 80 countries worldwide, and the almost complete lack of protections for transgender people worldwide can't be ignored. It undergirds all kinds of discrimination, violence, stigma, blackmail, etc. But the backstory — the hopeful story — is that there are LGBT organizations in almost every country these days, or at the very least, loose coalitions of queer people becoming increasingly visible, outspoken and demanding of equality.
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