My thoughts on the representation of LGBTI Issues in African Media

Interview as requested by an African MA International Journalism student at City University, London.

1. What is your view about the representation of gay issues in African media?

Media reporting on LGBT issues in Uganda has changed compared to what it was about ten years ago when the movement started. There is a new breed of journalists who are coming to understand these issues because of the manner in which we have engaged them. For instance, The Daily Monitor, The East African, Nation, The Independent, and The Obsever, are some of the newspapers in East Africa whose reporting on LGBT issues is not influenced by personal prejudice toward homosexuality but clear understanding of what sexuality is. Even with these, there is still more work to be done. The Uganda government newspaper, The New Vision, seems to take a “neither for nor against” stance on homosexuality which in my opinion is as dangerous as the tabloids because it closes up spaces for dialogue. Most of what we know as press homophobia is promoted by tabloids which in my opinion make sales out of sensationalism even on other issues not related to sexuality.

There are online LGBT media resources such as Behind the Mask (South Africa) but these are not mainstream and their readership is mainly limited to LGBTs and their allies.

The visibility of LGBT movements on the continent has a significant contribution to how media portray LGBT people but on the other hand I also believe that African gay rights activists still have to work on their narrative. By emphasizing negative stories, we diminish the media’s ability to see us as human beings who simply deserve to have the same rights as everyone else. Rather than promoting the thinking that “Uganda is one of the worst places to be gay” we need to change our narrative by telling stories that acknowledge the goodness of our countries; how we manage to survive amidst oppression. For me, these are more inspiring stories to read than dwelling on negativity all the time. We need to become part of other freedom struggles such that we don’t isolate ourselves as a special kind of minority demanding for special rights.

The question that keeps haunting me is: Why are African LGBT movements not addressing issues such as child sacrifice and child abuse, when we clearly know that the anti-gay movement is demonizing us as enemies of children?

I once gave an interview to the Daily Monitor (the paper I used to write for) and it completely changed some people’s attitude toward homosexual relationships. One of my friends who is also a journalist told me that an anti-gay pastor called the newsroom after reading the article and said, “I didn’t know homosexuals fall in love!” It’s a story that touched many lives.

Such stories humanize our struggle and it is our duty as LGBT leaders to sell this idea to journalists. If people begin to see us as real people with real responsible lives to live, their perceptions of us will change. But we can’t change these perceptions if we don’t tell our stories but instead let the media tell it as they wish.

3. Do you think that the representation of homosexuals in African media is a contributing to homophobia in the continent?

Anything that is reported from the media definitely has an effect on society. People will believe a story not because they know the facts but because they have read what someone has written. It works for celebrity gossip in the same way it works for stories on homosexuality. When tabloids and anti-gay pastors portray us as rich young activists receiving big donations from the West and using those donations to “recruit” children into homosexuality, they are practically telling people to raid our houses, break into our offices (as has happened many times this year), or even murder us (as happened to activist David Kato). For whatever reason people incite violence against LGBT persons, it is deeply rooted in homophobia and the media is in part responsible.

When I talk about media reporting on LGBT issues I tend to dwell on criticizing our movement for lacking an aggressive media strategy that would for instance train journalists and help them understand these issues better than dwelling on the weakness of the media. Still, very few of our journalists do research on issues on which they report. So, it is not just a problem with how they report on LGBT issues. They are clearly misinformed on several other issues, especially those which society considers controversial.

4. Some have argued that homosexuality is alien to Africa and that it is a case of orientalism in trying to make Africans see things from the Western perspective. What do you think?

The remnant of colonialism is that it robbed Africans of the power to write our own history. Homosexuality existed in pre-colonial Africa. I have personally spoken to officials in the Buganda Kingdom and they say same-sex relations have always exist for instance among the royal clan! This knowledge was erased from our school curriculum for a reason- so Christianity would be promoted without questioning. In my opinion, Western religion is the biggest enemy of African culture.

When Africans brand homosexuality a Western imposition, they rob themselves of initiative. It is as if they are saying that one cannot be African without the influence of the White People!

5. Personally, what are the challenges you have encountered as a gay activist in Uganda?

My biggest challenge, before I came to the U.S for graduate study, was safety. Yes it was difficult for me to stay in the media as an openly lesbian activist, I was in many ways abandoned by my family, I was on many occasions verbally insulted on the streets, but nothing got to me as worrying for safety. When I was arrested with two of my colleagues in 2008, I came to believe that the worst could happen. The day I realized that it had become difficult to have a choice on where to rent a house is when it dawned on me that I had given up my life as a sacrifice for freedom. I feared for random disappearance and even rape after a mob of motorcyclists threatened to teach me how to be “a woman” on my way back home at 11pm in the night.

I think that for most activists working in environments where their safety it constantly threatened, their biggest fear is if they will live to see tomorrow. That is why most radical activists fight each day as if it is their last day to make a difference.

6.  How big is the gay community in Uganda?

The community has grown since I left Uganda about 15 months ago. We have more organizations established which means that we have more of us finding confidence to be part of the community. Finding fellow lesbians eight years ago helped me gain confidence so I believe it helps other people too when they realize that they are not alone. I don’t know how many we are and it is difficult to tell because most people are still closeted. What I know is that the anti-homosexuality bill and the murder of David Kato have created a kind of urgency that emerges among oppressed people when they understand that they will never be free in silence.


8 Comments on “My thoughts on the representation of LGBTI Issues in African Media”

  1. Judith says:

    I don’t know what to make of the newspaper listed above as newspapers whose reporting of gay issues are not prejudice. During this year’s Bayimba Festival of Arts when I was giving a talk to a group of Ugandan journalists and gave an example referring to my gay rights play, a journalist from The Observer threaten to walk away ‘if we did not stop talking about gays’. But this could be an individual’s case. But some of the journalist were shouting randomly that I should have a plane ticket on standby once my play becomes public knowledge.

    And yeah while my LGBT rights play was being read in New York, a New Vision journalist was trying to get a story about it published but some editors would hear of it and apparently one of them said, they would run the story if in the play the anti-gay MP’s son did not turn out to be gay.

    But I do sincerely hope things are a lot different like the article seems to suggest because I do want an opportunity to stage my play here, home, in Kampala without unnecessary press sensation.

  2. Judith says:

    Sorry, what I meant in the second last paragraph was that some editors wouldn’t hear of it….

    • Val Kalende says:

      Judith- Your play sounds interesting. I think someone I know attended your play reading in NYC. I am not sure if the Amakula Film Festival is still in business in Kampala but that would be great space for people to watch it. Still, with the current mood in Uganda over homosexuality, it will be difficult to showcase it.
      That said, the newspapers I mention in my interview are not necessarily agreeable to LGBT rights but their editorial policies seem liberal as to allow open-mindedness on the subject of homosexuality. They value having conversations and I have read a few sober-minded articles that make me believe that change is possible but it won’t come as fast as some of us wish. I have been informed that Nation Media has a policy against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. I will have to dig deeper into what it says exactly if that will be helpful. I believe that as journalists, our role is to eliminate personal prejudice from what we write for public consumption. As individuals, we have our own prejudice and that is okay, but when we use our prejudice and power to harm others, we abuse the principles of our profession.
      I would like to know more about your play and future projects. Let me know how.

      • Judith says:

        Yes Val, Amakula does exist but I don’t believe it is the best space for my play. It is film focused and in my opinion, other live shows are only done as those high school ‘interludes’ I remember. I would want my play to have its own space where focus is on it as it raises very crucial points of discussions.

        I know it is not going to be easy to showcase it here in Uganda but that won’t stop me from trying! It is the first target audience for whom it is meant so even when I have shared it in London and New York with the international world, my writer’s vision will only be fulfilled when it stages in Uganda!

        We should inbox each other so I can share more with you in camera…

  3. Susan says:

    Thanks for sharing this dear. The fight that the activists are putting up is humbling. You are special people for being selfish enough to make it better for others. You have seen the hardships you face and hope to make it better for the whole community. Thanks for the sacrifice, A luta Continua

  4. LadyGodiva says:

    Yes, I agree its important for the LGBTI community to own and tell our own positive stories. I believe the time has come for us to come out, not necessarily out of the closet but out of hiding, people need to see us, we need to answer their questions and allay their fears! We can’t let ourselves be ‘othered’ any longer!

    • Val Kalende says:

      I absolutely agree LadyGodiva.The power of storytelling is undeniable. Every social justice movement that I have read about had storytelling at the core of its strategy for liberation. Come to think of it. Was Rosa Parks really the first Black woman to refuse to give up her seat to a White person? My Professor who was so involved in the civil rights movement has still not given me an answer to this question. What he believes like I do is that that story changed so much about the future of the movement because of the way they turned it into a turning point. Still, movements do not break into freedom out of fragmented moments. Stories do not operate in isolation. In the case of the Ugandan LGBT movement, more stories will have to be told but they must be truthful and authentic.

  5. susan says:

    I have been following these comments and I like the trends of thoughts.

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