Tag Archives: Discrimination

Rift Valley:  Embracing a More Common Cause, Dr. Robert Zuber

3 Nov


Never confuse a clear path with a short distance. Daren Martin

The pendulum never swings one way.  Audra Lambert

Everything seems simpler from a distance. Gail Tsukiyama

The rules say that to tell a story you need first of all a measuring stick, a calendar, you have to calculate how much time has passed between you and the facts, the emotions to be narrated.  Elena Ferrante

I’m going to distance myself until the world is beautiful.  Tao Lin

This has been an extraordinary if unsettling week for the world.  From Algeria to Chile and Iraq to Hong Kong, and from the insistence on good governance to calls for climate sanity, people in large numbers are taking to the streets to make their demands heard, their skepticism of governance and its structures tangible.  The unmet needs, the denied aspirations, the betrayals and broken promises, all of this and more has pushed people into places of protest that they might never have imagined themselves occupying.

This is not to ascribe uniformity to their motives or deprivations. Political considerations may be driving much of the protest, but many protesters have also made personal commitments to a deeper engagement with the world they want, the world that is still possible, the world they were once promised by political elites and their cohorts.  All of the personal stories that helped give form to the protests, all of the wounds and fears that must be accounted for by whatever structures and leadership will in the end emerge, all of this reflects longings for safe, healthy and prosperous spaces for which the protests themselves are merely the most visible expression.

The UN is not immune to the need for such intimate reminders. In this robustly political space, we seem perpetually in danger of privileging the distant and the categorical to the neglect of the immediate and personal.  It is indeed our “occupational hazard” that the “political eye” with which we see the world is inclined to “essentialize” much of the reality we seek to legislate, creating categories out of personal narratives and imposing stereotypes on constituents and adversaries to combat stereotypes imposed on us by others.  We work a bit too hard at times to keep our distance from people and problems in the hope that we can maintain sufficient “simplicity” and clarity to get our resolution-related work accomplished, to somehow convince ourselves that we can contribute to a more beautiful world from an intentionally remote location.

In the process, we have misplaced the truth that “distancing” represents positioning that must then be defended from alleged “attacks” by those who neither understand what we’re doing nor appreciate the essential “goodness” of the path we’ve chosen.  One of the more toxic phrases in play at the UN these days – especially in the context of recent Women, Peace and Security (WPS) discussions – is the admonition to “pushback against the pushback.”  There is truth in this, of course.  The pendulum does indeed “swing both ways,” and some of the current “swinging” is clearly a mean-spirited, stubborn, misogynistic effort to restore privilege to its full masculine glory.

But the assumption that “pushback” is inevitably misguided and hostile is itself so.  Such a posture presumes instead that we are invariably “on the right path,” that our causes and working methods are fully just and effective, that we are somehow avoiding the creation of new “rifts” under the guise of eliminating old ones, that we are not guilty of “patting ourselves on the back” for our attention to agendas that could well have been pushed much further, agendas that have been useful for political purposes but that have fallen far short of implementation seriousness, let alone of securing pathways to that still-elusive social and economic inclusiveness we repeatedly say we desire.

As already suggested, Women, Peace and Security was once again on the agenda of the UN Security Council this week, an agenda so popular among delegations (often more in rhetoric than performance) that the UK (November president) will be hosting another session tomorrow to accommodate all of the delegations still seeking to share views.  Such enthusiasm is surely not without its complementary insight. This includes the important concerns expressed by FemWise-Africa and several delegations that so long as women’s voices are excluded from peace processes and negotiations there is the very real danger that, as in places like South Sudan and Central African Republic, women’s rights will be “bargained away” as a concession to armed groups who seek to maintain patriarchal structures or avoid accountability for abuses of sexual violence in conflict, and with whom the governments in question “need” to negotiate if a viable peace agreement is to be reached.   Any such “bargaining” must be fully interrogated by diverse women participants and, as circumstances require, resolutely rejected.

Canada also made an interesting and welcome point regarding the need to “reach across silos,” to be more “intentional about inclusion,” and place additional burdens on the “excluders.”  One is left to wonder, however, why after 19 years on the UN agenda, we haven’t seen more progress – on participation of course, but also on the willingness to tie the wholly-legitimate inclusion demands of women to other demands by persons (surely also including women) discriminated against by race, ethnic background or religion;  persons marginalized by disability or disease; persons forced to flee their homes once farms have been scorched or water supplies have been rendered toxic; persons hanging by a thread from economic margins that are inexorably receding from contact.

We have long ago stopped expecting WPS debates to address this (“other”) inclusiveness with any regularity nor make references to discussions elsewhere in the UN (including the 3rd Committee discussion on racial discrimination going on at the same time) where other key lenses of inclusion and exclusion are in focus, lenses as critical to peace and security as any, lenses about which women also have a clear and compelling stake.  That there is so little discussion in the long hours of WPS engagement regarding the multiple strands of exclusion that impede peace and security progress is discouraging at best, more it seems to us about branding the rifts than actually overcoming them.

This post is clearly not a referendum on the WPS agenda nor is it an indictment per se of its discourse. Indeed, we honor the multiple groups worldwide that have helped many thousands find their voice.  But it is important for us to point out that there are also more nuanced “gendered” discussions happening elsewhere around the UN.  For instance, my mostly-female interns are often excited by UNFPA discussions that smartly understand reproductive health and rights as gateways to the empowered choices of women and girls in many global regions.  And they were also inspired this week by two events – one a well-deserved celebration of ten years of the office of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict and another focused on integrating “gender” into counter-terror activities and responses, especially its panel on “drivers of female radicalization.”  Here, speakers (especially UNCTED’s Dier) cited the multiple incarnations of women’s associations with terror movements – including as victims and perpetrators of violence – and urged the audience to remove our “blind spots” regarding the diversity of women’s motivations and impacts. On that same panel, USIP’s Erdberg counseled the audience to resist overly-simplistic “tropes” that deny the complexity of women’s values and roles.  And Interpeace’s Simpson warned against romanticizing young women and their peacebuilding roles, urging momentum instead towards more nuanced strategies (and complex and compelling stories) of empowerment.

In our power-obsessed policy frameworks that are often more about politics than personhood, this was refreshing sharing.  Like the rest of us, women express a complex range of values, aspirations, needs and commitments.  They travel along different paths, including on the quest for meaning and interpretations of the obstacles, abuses and opportunities they encounter.  Their full inclusion suggests multiple positive (and even planet-saving) valuations – as is true for other inclusions – but there are no hard promises of such. As Angola noted this week, discrimination lies “deep in our mentalities where it is challenging to confront.” The path to full inclusion may be clear to us, but the road is frustratingly long: too long for us to navigate with a playbook full of essentialist certainties that substitute neat categories for multi-faceted persons.

The Chair of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination noted in 3rd Committee this week that “hatred is the true danger facing our world,” a hole both deep and seemingly spreading, spewing racism, sexism and other discriminatory and isolating energies like an active volcano.  We must, he insisted, focus our attention and resolve on solutions to hatred not on denials of its still-potent force.

Most who participate in the women’s groups with which we are honored to be associated see that hole clearly.  Their individual and collective responses represent a tapestry not a monolith. In our various spaces of cause and concern, it is this diversity that we must continually honor and that is best suited to fill the holes that still threaten us all.

Tension Headache:  Attending the demands and aspirations of those who still “don’t matter,” Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Jul

This morning on Twitter, we were alerted by Brian Stelter of CNN (a network I rarely watch) about the contents of the front page of this Sunday’s New York Times (a paper I rarely read).  What was remarkable about that front page is that all of the significant pieces of journalism were focused, in one way or another, on the “above the fold” headline:   America Grieves, Tense and Wary.

We rarely in this space venture into “domestic affairs,” though the nonsense emanating from this presidential election season is sometimes so very tempting.   But today is different – the confluence of anger, confusion, discrimination, weapons access, media bias and more has created a situation that some find predictable but many more find intolerable.  The murders of the Dallas police officers have largely stolen the national headlines, and one doesn’t have to accept the recently-offered narrative of “domestic terrorism” to acknowledge the massive pain inflicted on both families and the reputation of a police department that seems at least to be trying.   But in many news services (not the Times per se) Dallas has become both a watershed moment and a bit of a diversion from a season’s worth of mass demonstrations and senseless shootings by and of police, some of which had their own moment in the media, others merely taking their place on a still-lengthening roster of incidences involving people who are more than weary from the many implications of lives “on the margins.”

This aptly designated “tense and wary” scenario is directly related to activities taking place across the street from where I’m sitting, preparations for tomorrow’s important opening of the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) of the UN’s Economic and Social Council.

The agenda and assessment activities for this HLPF are clearly focused on one objective:  “leaving no one behind. “  A noble and hopeful objective, to be sure, though one requiring much and strewn with obstacles both identifiable and unforeseen.

As we have written previously, the UN community is doing due-diligence in getting out in front of the massive responsibilities incurred through the goals and targets of the 2030 development agenda: reducing poverty, ending inequalities of economic, educational and political access; saving ourselves from our own relentless assaults on our forests, oceans and climate; and promoting forms of governance and security that offer inclusive participation and rights-based protection.

Despite these welcome UN efforts, we are currently far from these goals, in some cases farther than we dare acknowledge.  Even if we have articulated and assembled the right goals to pursue; even if we are sincere in our financial pledges and fidelity to agreed indicators of success; this 2030 agenda is a daunting business.  It will require sustained commitments by national governments, vigilance by the HLPF and diverse UN agencies and then some; for it will also require more of each of us.  Slogans such as “leave no one behind” can galvanize some measure of our collective responsibility, but their overuse can deaden us to tasks that will, if we are to overcome our current epochal violence and planetary disregard, require greater self-scrutiny and more reliable attentiveness to others than we have so far in our collective history demonstrated.

The discouraging events of this past week are hardly unique but certainly offer yet another reminder of how many people in our world are still left behind, still on the margins, still don’t matter.  From Baton Rouge to Juba, from suburban St. Paul to Gaza, people struggle mightily for respect and relief, for justice and stability.  Tension and suspicion are partially understandable responses to what we see and read about so many human struggles at home and abroad; but these are the reactions that prompt us to seek out stronger locks for our doors but also for our souls.  These are the reactions concerned less about reaching those left behind and more about not getting “dragged” by them ostensibly towards some uncertain and indeterminate bottom.

We can identify the collective mood as the Times and others have done; we cannot give in to it.   The challenges of inclusion characteristic of these times imply that our routine forays into petty self-distraction are not so petty after all.   From the physicist Stephen Hawking to the man in the local Bodega who sells me beer and dish soap, many and diverse voices are wondering if we collectively have what it takes to extricate ourselves from this “tense and wary” swamp of our own making.

The hope of the 2030 development goals is that we do indeed have what it takes but only as a grand and collective endeavor that invites and integrates far beyond those currently on the world’s VIP lists.  In this, it will be especially important to keep at bay all those “locksmiths” seeking access to our personal, cultural and community contexts.

The young (mostly black) men who work alongside our church folks in the food pantry each Saturday morning in Harlem are not at all immune from the tension that now routinely flares into discrimination and violence.   These men work hard early on Saturdays when most of their peers are sound asleep, carrying and stocking huge quantities of provisions, providing service to people who don’t always treat them with the greatest of respect.

But they also know that they need to watch their back.  The news splashed all over this week’s media was not news to them; neither the killings, nor the arrests, nor the tension and suspicion that are so-often and inappropriately hurled in their direction.

These young men have much to contribute perhaps currently more in potential mode; but potential is also inspired by invitations to participate and opportunities to practice — and a commitment from the rest of us not to leave them behind.

We’re going to see what we’re made of over these next 15 years as our 2030 development promises take shape.  Transforming rampant tension and suspicion might well be our species’ next major test.

Disabling Inequality:  Establishing Conditions for a Healthier, Less-Conflicted World, Dr. Robert Zuber

6 Dec

Korean Artist

On December 3, the UN commemorated the International Day of Persons with Disabilities with day long displays of art and film along with some stirring and inspirational panel discussions led by senior UN officials, influential diplomats and leaders of disabilities-focused organizations.

No fewer than seven Ambassadors followed presentations by the Secretary-General, ASG Bas and NGO leaders on disabilities, affirming their “commitment to action” in relation to the day’s theme, “Inclusion Matters:  Access and Empowerment for People of all Abilities.”   Among the highlights of those presentations was Kenya Amb. Kamau’s call for “inclusive education” to increase options and empowerment for persons with disabilities while also highlighting the degree to which such persons are disproportionately victimized by armed violence. Spain’s Amb. Oyarzun noted that it has been a decade since persons with disabilities “were no longer ignored in policy,” but also cited the long road ahead until equality of access is assured.  Amb. Yoshikawa of Japan and Amb. Bird of Australia highlighted the high mortality rates of persons with disabilities affected by humanitarian disasters and called for greater sensitivity in disaster risk planning.  And the current president of ECOSOC, Amb. Oh Joon of Korea, cited disabilities as a “cross-cutting” theme, the recognition of which by the UN has allowed it to better “lead by example.”

In a week when diplomats and activists in Paris were trying to stave off a climate disaster, the Security Council was trying to make sense of escalating violence in Burundi, other diplomats were wrestling with ways to make the Council’s sanctions system more fair and effective, and officials in the US were attempting to draw lessons from our latest mass murder rampage, it might seem that there are far more important things to focus on than the plight of persons with disabilities.

I think not.

One of the things that policymakers need to do more, and often fail to do, is to look beyond current crises to the societies left in their wake.   If we are somehow able to disarm our weapons and clean our waterways; if we are able to restore the ice caps and reverse species extinctions; if we are able to end mass atrocities and settle restless populations, then what?   How do we best lay the ground for societies that have some chance of consolidating the gains from crisis resolution in ways that minimize the risk of new crises taking their place?

The uncomfortable truth is that, sometimes, the burdens of our current crises often shield us from exercising this larger policy responsibility.  Discrimination against persons with disabilities surely seems less “existential” than climate and mass atrocity violence until we recognize the degree to which inequalities foment such threats and, indeed, impede their successful resolution.

This recognition is similar to comments made by Guatemala’s Ambassador Rosenthal during his review of the Secretary-General’s recent Peacebuilding report.   Echoing comments from others, Rosenthal noted that peacebuilding has been largely restricted to post-conflict settings.  And while the goal of eliminating recidivist violence is noble, the best way to ensure this is to work more creatively and “further upstream,” to breathe fresh air into our policy structures so to prevent the inequalities and discriminations that are the “first principles” of a dangerous planet.

The presence of wheelchairs, walking sticks and sign-language interpreters in spaces normally filled by persons lacking visible limitations reminds us of how carefully scripted and stubbornly “fashioned” life in our corridors tends to be.   We speak when protocol determines our right to speak.  We dress according to “western” business models even though many of us are not “western.”  And we mostly walk independently from one meeting to the next.   We see with two eyes, hear with two ears.  Our brains have been schooled to grasp the intricacies (and tolerate the tedium) of our policy discussions.  At the same time, we outwardly show little joy, share little of the emotional space that houses our own hidden “disabilities.”

And we have established social structures defined too much by competition and too little by kindness and respect: competition that is based largely on criteria that is both school-driven and limited in scope, with “winners” largely confined to persons with multiple formal credentials, conventional incarnations of beauty, aggressive ambitions, or well-sculpted physiques.  In most every instance, these are persons without recognizable “flaws,” such being determined by the very same people who have managed to avoid having, or at least showing them to the rest of us.

But of course there are manifold skills, talents and contributions beyond our socially-sanctioned ambitions, ones which we need both to solve our greatest challenges and to create those “peaceful, inclusive societies” to which we so often point, hoping that such societies can be successfully crafted such that they can somehow ward off another generation of existential threats.

Nowhere during this day of events was this any more clear than in the art exhibit “Like Wildflowers, Like Stars,” from the Korean artist Kim Geun-tae.  The faces he renders – children living with disabilities – show a range of emotions from confusion to joy.   Some faces appear remote while others are delightfully engaging.  Some of the children appear sick, others are physically incomplete, but few could walk this UN corridor and conclude that these renditions do not represent a veritable cornucopia of potential contributions to the societies that we need and want.

The lessons in the paintings are both simple and numerous, but two stayed with me.   One of the panels asks, “Does this child have cerebral palsy or polio?”  The answer comes:  “I am Min-june.  I am not palsy or polio,”  reminding that none should be defined by our limitations, the visible nor the hidden.  And the second lesson may have greater poignancy.  In a panel that depicts children with disabilities in obvious distress, the artist proclaims, “The harder we feel our lives are, the more firmly we have to grasp each other’s hands.”

Indeed, the more important it is for hands to be extended.

In reflecting on the beauty of the artist’s panels, on the often-wise content panels earlier in the day, as well as on the many grave responsibilities found daily on our policy plates, I cannot but wonder about my own “disabilities” — out of sight for the most part, but not without consequence for others.  For many of these “others” worldwide including persons with disabilities, life is hard now, and our collective response is not with hearts and hands fully extended.  Our crisis reactions are overly militarized; we are too dismissive of each other’s talents and contributions; we are inattentively sending species to extinction and threatening to do the same to ourselves; we do not “step up” often enough with understanding and welcoming hospitality; we allow ourselves to be distracted too often by so many things that just don’t matter.

Thankfully, these are all things we can do more about, some primarily in the realm of policy, others within our private dwellings and local communities.  In the end, as we were reminded this week, one of our best, most sustainable antidotes to social and political crises is to humanize the cultures of discrimination and inequality that now lie at their roots.

Opening the Closet:  The Security Council addresses violence affecting LGBT persons, Dr. Robert Zuber

30 Aug

This past week, with peacekeeper abuse in Central African Republic and the first meeting of states parties to the Arms Trade Treaty commanding much attention, it was the Security Council that took pride of place in the UN.

A particularly hopeful development took place on Monday as the US and Chile hosted an Arria Formula event to highlight discrimination and abuse suffered by LGBT persons in diverse cultural contexts, with a particular focus on abuses concocted and perpetrated in Syria and Iraq by ISIL.

As one would anticipate given the speakers, which included persons who had been directly affected by violence and threats of violence merely for their sexual expressions, some of the testimony was gruesome.  Reports were numerous of alleged violators of ISIL’s interpretation of Islamic moral codes being tossed from the roofs of buildings and then stoned to death by onlookers if the fall failed to kill them first.

And while efforts were made (perhaps excessively) to keep the spotlight on ISIL’s abuses, there was also acknowledgement of a deeper problem.  As one speaker put it, if ISIL didn’t get me, my own family would.  LGBT persons continue to experience discrimination in many forms, in many cultures, and with many unwelcome consequences.   DSG Eliasson noted during the event that “there are no exceptions to human rights protections,” regardless of circumstance or, in this instance, preferences.   But some states and communities clearly failed to get this memo as people worldwide continue, as reinforced by a Syrian refugee speaker, to be “terrorized by intolerance.”

Indeed, our capacity for discriminating against others, and for enforcing discriminatory patters through violent means, seems to have no bounds. Too many of us have still not evolved from needing to create hierarchies, to feel superior, to adopt normative frameworks for our own lives and then seek to impose them on others.   The US is often cited (and chided) for its claims of national exceptionalism, but many societies and social movements have tendencies to claim superiority and enforce “in group – out group” discrimination. And as we have seen from Syria to Myanmar and in several African states, these collective (as Lithuania called them) “excuses for gross violence” have grave implications for international peace and security, certainly for our ability to build and maintain stable and peaceful societies.

In listening to the challenging narratives of this Arria Formula, it was good to have those “excuses” called out by Council members, to be reminded by Chile and others that silence on LGBT violence simply emboldens those seeking to perpetrate it.  And while France may have over-reached a bit in using this particular session to invoke International Criminal Court jurisdiction with respect to ISIL, it was reassuring that states seemed to interpret this session as something more than what the US referred to as “an historic step” of bringing the Council together to condemn crimes against LGBT persons.  As France, the US and the other Council members know full well, condemnation has little effect without effective follow up measures.

A few other things occurred to us while listening to the statements:

First, as is too often the case, the Council diminished what was a largely successful incursion by failing to acknowledge other efforts within the UN to call attention to abuses perpetrated against LGBT persons.  While the ISIL abuses are certainly grotesque, they should properly be seen as aberrations of already aberrant behavior by some states and communities, aberrations that should largely remain the province of General Assembly and Human Rights Council, especially once states demonstrate their inability or unwillingness to provide domestic remedies for abuse.   For those wondering if, indeed, there would have been just cause for Council members to cite the LGBT-related efforts of other stakeholders in the UN system, please visit http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Discrimination/Pages/LGBTUNResolutions.aspx .

Secondly, and we hesitate to make this point again, while it is important to take stock of abuses committed against persons and communities, and there are so many to choose from in this discouraging time, stories of abuse do not in and of themselves suggest a remedial framework.   That such stories can (or at least should) create urgency is beyond doubt, but urgency in what form?   What is the most effective response strategy going forward?  How do we address such abuse within the limitations of the UN Charter, the will of key member states, certainly the requirements of international human rights law?  It is most important, as noted by New Zealand, to put a “human face” on violations, by ISIL or any other abuser.  But faces of pain are the motivation for thoughtful, effective policy, not a stand-in for it.

Finally, we wonder about the use of Council time and energy on these particular ISIL violations, aside from the important matter of highlighting an issue of discrimination that is massive in some states and present in almost all, albeit one that is most likely to be resolved through other UN forums.  If an objective of this Arria Formula was to highlight the breadth and venom of ISIL abuses in Syria and Iraq, we alredy have more than sufficient evidence in hand.  Jordan aptly highlighted the degree to which “ISIL trades in fear,” as Colombia noted that ISIL violence denies core UN Charter provisions.  But for Council members all of this is old news that may have actually diverted a bit of the focus from the specifics (and pervasiveness) of LGBT-related discrimination itself.

For those who think it callous to question any aspect of Council efforts to call attention to this serious pattern of discrimination and abuse affecting LGBT persons, I would refer you to a series of briefings this week in Security Council chambers focused on events in Syria, Central African Republic and South Sudan.   In each instance, the escalating levels of violence, discrimination and displacement reported simply stagger the imagination.   All of these crises are already on the Security Council agenda and all have resisted some or all of its efforts to address the violence and the humanitarian crises in its wake.   Seemingly with each briefing, the vast numbers of reported abused, neglected and forsaken continue to grow.  Frustration with Council responses – rightly or wrongly – increases as well.

Argentina was perhaps the most “vocal” of the states to speak at this Arria Formula, using the opportunity to link LGBT violence to “femicide” and many other discrimination-related abuses that now occur frequently even in times of “peace.” Argentina also, to the amusement of some in the room, urged the Council itself to “come out of the closet.”  Amb. Percival was referring specially to the fact that the Arria meeting was closed to the press – which was actually a concession to the fact that testimony was offered by a gay Iraqi activist who himself faced grave threats of violence at home.

But there is meaning here that might add value going forward.  “Closets,” after all, keep in as well as keep out.  They are useful, even metaphorically, in protecting conversations and behavior from outside scrutiny.  They help preserve the private sphere, important for those “terrorized by intolerance,” but much less so for the governments and multi-lateral agencies seeking to build passion and capacity for addressing broader discrimination-related violence that causes so much misery in our contemporary world.

If this Arria Formula is indeed to become that “historic step,” it needs to be taken in full connection with those addressing intolerance across the UN system and beyond.  The “closet” door must be swung open to provide better access for all capable and relevant stakeholders – not only on LGBT matters but on the many other forms of discrimination and related abuse that seriously impede peace and security progress worldwide.

Nigerian-American Artist and LGBT Activist Addresses Nigeria’s Criminalizing of Gays

24 Jan

Editors Note:   This piece by GAPW’s Lia Petridis Maiello, originally written for The Huffington Post, represents another effort to explore the ways in which state-sanctioned discrimination violates human rights obligations but also poses security threats — specifically to those being discriminated against, but also to others who might find themselves the next to be ‘singled out.’   

As an immediate reaction, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry deplored the “Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act” in Nigeria, signed into law this month by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, calling it a “dangerous” restriction on freedom. “The United States is deeply concerned by Nigeria’s enactment of the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act,” Kerry explained. “Beyond even prohibiting same-sex marriage, this law dangerously restricts freedom of assembly, association, and expression for all Nigerians.”

Ever since, arrests have risen quite dramatically in Nigeria where dozens more people that have been under the suspicion of being homosexual have been herded up and interrogated. In the last few days, more than 30 people were arrested, with a higher number coming from the Southern states of Nigeria that are predominantly Christian. So far prosecution of gay people had largely been centered on the Muslim North, where gays can get lynched and beaten to death under Shariah law.

Nigeria’s more than 160 million citizens are almost equally scattered in the North and mainly Christian South, with a widespread damnation of homosexuality all over the country. “Under the Islamic Shariah law that prevails in nine of its 36 states gay people can get lynched and beaten to death, or legally executed by stoning for the offense. Sodomy was already illegal, but the bill signed into law January 7 bans all gay associations and gay marriage, with penalties of up to 14 years’ imprisonment for marriage”, AP reports.

Nigerian-American artist and LGBT activist Ade has been residing in Lagos on a Fulbright scholarship when the law came into effect. Her project AfroOdyssey IV: 100 Years Latercaptures some of her impressions and feelings related to queer life in Nigeria, impacted severely by religious fanaticism, equally practiced by Christians and Muslims in Nigeria. “I just completed an experimental short-film entitled AfroOdyssey IV: 100 Years Later, which plays with images, figures and objects that help us critique religion’s subtle and/or overt machinations within Nigerian society,” Ade explains.


Picture: Ade from AfroOdyssey IV: 100 Years Later

What was your first reaction to the “Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act” that was signed into law by Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan this month?

My first reaction to the signing of the bill was pure rage. I felt as though someone had just doused my body with boiled water. I also felt wildly perplexed, like someone who had suddenly been transported back in time to the Middle Ages. In the year 2014, Nigeria’s 100th birth-year (it was amalgamated in 1914 by the British), this country decided to move backwards in its evolutionary process. What a shame! The same country that just allowed a senator to marry an innocent fourteen year-old girl, has now criminalized homosexuality under the false disguise of same-sex marriage. Whose rights are they planning to go after next?

History teaches us that the target criminals next in line are women, after innocent children and gay people. Especially if the Bible and the Koran guide the law. So if you are an unmarried woman, beware! If you are married but have no children, beware! If you have ever cheated on your husband, beware! If you dress a little too sexy, beware! If you have your own opinion about anything as a woman, beware!

What were the immediate consequences for the gay/lesbian community in Lagos?

The queer community is keeping a low profile. The streets have been rendered unsafe by this bill. Anyone who even looks like he or she may be queer could be subject to violent mob action, talk less of jail. The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERS), a human rights organization based in Lagos, has created a 24-hour hotline for people to call into in case of an emergency.
There are scary stories coming from Northern and Eastern Nigeria of police targets and gay-lists being used to round up members of the community. We have also heard that people are being arrested in Oyo and Ibadan. Gay people are terrified and thus playing it safe should the same start happening in Lagos.

Have you been personally affected by it?

I started getting sick. Since the bill was signed into law I have had diarrhea, headaches, sleep deprivation and low-appetite. I did not anticipate the physical reactions to my emotional and mental states. I choose to treat myself at home, because a trip to the hospital would mean I would have to tell the doctor why I started getting sick in the first place.

As soon as he or she hears that I was stressed out by my opposition to the bill, they could refuse treatment or worse, report me to the police. On the other hand, my sickness doesn’t even come close to the problems of those who have been picked up by the police and whisked off to jail simply because they were born gay. I don’t envy those whose parents recently kicked them out of the house so that their gay child doesn’t bring shame to the family, rendering their child homeless. The list goes on.

You have been in Nigeria for several months now. How have you experienced gay/lesbian life so far?

I have attended community meetings, gay parties, LGBT film screenings, but most importantly made a few good friends. This has allowed me to watch how the queer community supports each other on a daily basis. I truly feel like they are now part of my family. During this stressful time, we have constantly been checking on each other’s well-being.

Apparently, I am not the only one who has gotten sick! An entire community exists underground that most Nigerians are not aware of, and it mirrors the same experiences in mainstream society to a large extent. Lately, the gay community is feeling traumatized. While some people are looking for a way out of Nigeria, others are contemplating suicide. The community is in a lot of pain.

How do homosexuals meet or organize under these circumstances?

When physical space is threatened, virtual spaces takes over. Virtual sites have become the stage for debate. It is the place where friendships become null and void and when new alliances can be formed. This is what is happening within the queer community here. Gay people have already been operating largely underground for years now. And I am talking about those who accept themselves as gay and live a gay lifestyle. There are others who hide their sexuality behind a spouse and five children. I suspect there are many of them in the federal government.

For openly gay people, meeting up will become even more secretive than it was before. Organizing is a totally different story. Organizing would require the emergence of a leader or several leaders, who can rally the community in a way that inspires them to stand up and challenge authority. While there are several individuals doing important human rights/gay rights work in their own way, I have not yet come across anyone who is actively bringing all the different sub-groups of the queer community together to come up with a clear strategic plan for action. That does not mean this person or organization could not emerge in the coming months.

In what way has your sexual orientation impacted your artwork so far and how does this oppressive situation in Nigeria impact it currently?

To some degree, I can relate to the loss of family ties based on sexual orientation. I came out of the closet as an adult after being married previously to a man. My experience with family was largely governed by “what the bible says.” It was and still is very hard for me to accept or swallow that religion is the basis of ignorance. I could not have a reasonable, logical conversation with certain family members because of how literally they interpreted the Bible and their inability to put it in historical context. I find the same problem among Nigerians and here in Lagos, it is even more magnified. Religious institutions play a major role in all aspects of people’s lives and are the site of moral teaching on everything from marriage to entrepreneurship.

So of course, it was rather easy to convince the masses to accept this oppressive bill. Because of my personal experiences prior to coming to Nigeria, my research focused mainly on how queer Nigerians navigated though the antagonistic worlds called spirituality and sexuality. I just completed an experimental short-film entitled AfroOdyssey IV: 100 Years Later, which plays with images, figures and objects that help us critique religion’s subtle and/or overt machinations within Nigerian society.

The mosquito is a metaphor for the corrupt nature of government, which continues to suck the blood of its citizenry. The interpretative dancers speak to emotions within day-to-day queer experience, against the backdrop of traditional drummers, traditional church bells, and organ music. Throughout the film the church is both the site of struggle as well as warmth and embrace. Outside of the church, an underground scene thrives in Lagos.

The gay scene is not in mainstream view just as traditional Yoruba spirituality has to hide from the damnation of mainstream religious institutions. There are churches in Lagos that actively burn “wooden idols “(that is, traditional Yoruba sculpture) in front of thousands of people. This film challenges such beliefs/practices and attempts to educate viewers on contemporary queer life in Nigeria. It will screen in several countries in 2014 including the United States, Spain, Germany and Nigeria.

You are of Nigerian decent, but were raised in the U.S. I am assuming that you strongly identify with both countries. How would you define your role or obligations as a Nigerian at the moment?

I am torn between wanting to fight for a new Nigeria, and disowning it all-together. My family left Nigeria during the military dictatorship in the mid-eighties, just like many middle-class families that created a brain-drain across the country. Having been born in New York, growing up in the United States, yet having ancestral roots here, I came to Nigeria because I wanted being Nigerian to mean more to me than simply loving the taste of jollof rice and fried plantain. I have been having much fun while researching and in fact, my pidgin is getting better. This bill has nearly erased all the joy I have experienced since coming here. Before the bill, I used to wake up early, call a bike-man to take me to Obalende or call a driver to take me to the movies at Ozone.

Now, I have to force myself to leave the house. The energy I once had to go out and explore is now being used to write this very response/article. The bill nearly zapped all my motivation, and I can clearly see how any brilliant, hardworking Nigerian can easily lose motivation in a country that calls him or her a criminal. However, I do feel a sense of duty to speak truth to justice at times like this. People need to be seriously educated on what it means to be homosexual, before accepting draconian laws into their country. My late uncle used to say, “when a man is tired of learning, he is tired of life.” Is the federal government of Nigeria filled with a bunch of walking zombies?

And on the other hand, how is your U.S.-American identity affecting your thoughts and actions?

In America we like to say — Freedom ain’t free! America has many good lessons Nigeria can learn from when it comes to the fight for civil rights. I keep this in mind while I am here. What Nigeria is attempting to do to its people is set the stage for mass incarceration of homosexuals.

Ask yourself — why wouldn’t the government do this, when they have never apologized for the genocide of Biafra? History should not repeat itself. But it seems Nigeria, whether it realizes it or not, has laid the grounds for another disastrous situation which will affect millions of people.

Lia Petridis Maiello, GAPW Media Consultant