In a country where clerics use the pulpit for anti-gay slur, anti-corruption homilies, and political campaigns on behalf of their preferred politicians, advocacy on the relationship between environmental justice and human rights is neither a priority for most civil society groups nor a point of concern for most faith-based groups in Uganda. Usually, we talk of protecting the environment and we miss the fact that environmental justice and human rights are co-dependent. Whereas most human rights activists would agree to the interconnectedness of all forms of oppression and human rights abuses, LGBT activists are yet to join the global campaign for what is evidently one of biggest human rights challenges of our time. Are we chanting on the side of “LGBT rights are human rights” more than we are on the side of “Human rights are LGBT rights?”
While struggling to find an explanation to why most sexual minorities in Uganda (this includes LGBTs and sex workers), some of the world’s most endangered populations, live in slums – usually in the suburbs of big towns and cities, it was not until much later that I came to a conviction that this happens for two reasons. First, because of communal living most often characterized by rural life wherein it’s a neighbor’s business to know if a neighbor’s daughter is married and to whom, we are experiencing an exodus of LGBTs persons from the countryside to big cities. Second, most LGBTs, even those in the middle-class, face multiple-tier discrimination while seeking employment.
Reacting to Rolling Stone’s outings in 2011, Ugandan activist Frank Mugisha reported that several members of the community lost employment due to the “name and shame” absurdity of the tabloid which, until a high court ruling in Kasha Jacqueline et al Vs The Rolling Stone (Uganda), continued to haunt LGBT persons.
Both explanations for why most members of our community are either homeless or inhabit some of the country’s worst slums, imply that LGBT persons are victims of poor and life-threatening housing conditions. For many members of our community, the most affordable housing they can find is in slum areas which are characterized by poor garbage collection systems (if any), poor sanitation, lack of safe water and most commonly found in flooded areas. Rampant use of environmentally unfriendly substances such as nicotine and marijuana among LGBT and sex worker communities as caused by increasing homophobia is crucial to the campaign for environmental justice. As such, our community is part of the big environmental justice debate which largely weighs in on why the world’s oppressed usually turn out to be the world’s poorest and the world’s environmentally oppressed thus lending credence to my observation that LGBT rights are off the map of the global campaign for environmental justice.
In most human rights debates, it is common parlance for activists to miss the fact that the rights of sexual minorities are fundamentally indispensable as far as environmental justice is concerned. Even within mainstream human rights NGOs, it’s not uncommon for human rights advocates to simply gloss over issues of environmental justice or even completely ignore them as the responsibility of the state-managed National Environmental Management Authority. The lack of recognition for human rights and the environment, as maintained by our civil society is, in my opinion, developmentally bankrupt. And of course this bankruptcy also takes flight from traditional hierarchical and patriarchal dispositions of society, the mainstay of oppression against non-hetero and non-gender compliant human sexualities. Out of a seemingly somewhat stretched observation but one that is consistent with feminist and human rights principles, environmental injustice is in many ways a function of homophobia as it is of all forms of injustices committed against humanity.
It is therefore almost impossible for recognition of LGBT rights as human rights to be fully achieved if we ignore the relationship between the human and the environment.
In the book Hope’s Edge, Frances Moore Lappe and Anna Lappe offer a useful approach to making inter-linkages between women oppression and ecological oppression. Lappe and Lappe narrate that the women of the Green Belt movement led by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Mathaai, felt liberated from societal chains which confined them to being housewives. One woman notes that before the Green Belt, they (the women of the Green Belt), “belonged to their husbands.” “There were hardly any trees,” she says. “Now they are my trees.” The question is, how much of addressing the effect of homophobia on the environment a question of addressing the relationship between environmental injustice on LGBT rights?
If the Green Belt’s feminist sense of awareness for ecojustice and radical response to the crisis can be borrowed by sexual minority advocacy groups and if each of those groups committed to establishing an environmental project as their resources permit, the world will be ecologically transformed. Similarly, as the world moves forward with “Green advocacy,” we need to address the environmental needs of LGBT communities as well as what we can do to equip LGBT communities with resources they need to manage the ecological challenge of our time.
Understanding the interconnectedness of environmental degradation and human oppression is crucial to understanding what our role as LGBT advocates of this generation should be in ensuring that the environment is safe from oppressive human practices leading Earth to near destruction. The rights and freedoms of LGBT persons and the struggle for environmental justice are co-dependent human rights issues. For there can be no peace among the peoples without peace with the Earth.