African LGBT and Human Rights Advocates Reject Economic Sanctions by Developed Countries

– Mark Canavera, RPCV,
Editor’s Note:

Mark Canavera, RPCV Burkina Faso, has been a frequent contributor to our enewsletters and web site. This article recently appeared in the Huffington Post with a slightly different title. Not in our name: African human rights activists reject UK aid conditionality  

An oft-told African proverb (whose precise culture of origin often changes with the teller) asserts that “When elephants fight, the grass suffers.” Put another way, the powerless are trampled in the clashes of mammoth decision-makers. An elephant match is currently underway between the government of the United Kingdom, which have threatened that it will consider reducing foreign aid to countries that criminalize homosexuality, and the governments of many African nations, who have stridently rebutted the threat. In the process, the “grass”–that is, Africans who support the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people–is suffering. But African social activists are refusing to take the trampling lying down. These are standing up and speaking out.

In October of this year, a coalition of pro-LGBTI African social activists came together, representing 51 organizations and 86 individuals from at least 19 countries in Africa, all four regions of the continent, and the African diaspora. This spontaneous coalition released a strongly worded statement that essentially rejects the UK’s proposed aid conditionality. This “not in our name” statement–by which these activists used virtual tools like listservs, emails, teleconferences, and discussion forums to reach rapid-fire consensus–argues that the UK’s decision would create backlash against LGBTI people across the continent by positioning them as scapegoats for decreases in aid revenue. The UK’s position also undermines the burgeoning LGBTI movement in Africa, the coalition claims.

“We developed this statement for three reasons,” explains Joel Gustave Nana, the Executive Director of African Men for Sexual Health and Rights and the author of the first draft of the statement. “First, we were tired of being collateral damage in international politics. Second, statements by Britain and other Northern countries affect the work that we do on a daily basis to ensure that LGBTI people are protected on the continent. And third, and perhaps most importantly, we needed to say, ‘not in our name.’ If you decide to cut aid to these countries, do not do this in our names.”

Nana explains that the UK government did not consult any African activists before taking its decision and making it public. When I asked the Office of the Prime Minister of the UK about the activists’ concerns, it replied with a statement that reiterates its reasoning: the UK hopes to ensure that its foreign aid contributes to the international strengthening of human rights. The reply does not address the concerns raised by the coalition of African activists, most notably the potential scapegoating of LGBTI people in the wake of the UK’s announcement.

For their part, the African governments that continue to criminalize homosexual acts have responded vociferously to the UK. As collated on the blog Towleroad, the governments of Uganda, Ghana and Malawi responded angrily, with a Malawian government spokesperson calling the threat “unacceptable and provocative” and a Ugandan presidential adviser describing the UK’s position as “an ex-colonial mentality.” (“We are tired of being given these lectures by people,” the adviser is reported to have told BBC Newshour.) A Ugandan newspaper reported additional reactions from Zanzibar, Tanzania, and Kenya, in which officials argued that they would rather lose foreign aid than kowtow to the Brits.

Nana believes that these government reactions were predictable and reflect the very concerns that the coalition of activists laid out in their statement. “African leaders who feel that they are being bullied to embrace values that they don’t believe in feel like this aid conditionality is an attempt to violate their sovereignty,” he says. He predicts that the UK aid conditionality will be more harmful in countries with more heavy-handed rulers, asserting, “The more authoritarian a government, the more strongly it will come out in opposing this conditionality. And the more severe the impact will be for LGBTI people.”

Issues of aid conditionality are always tricky, especially where human rights are concerned. Nana concedes that there are legitimate concerns for donor governments who want to ensure that their citizens’ tax dollars are not blindly handed over to oppressive regimes. Moreover, just last year, some Ugandan activists praised the role that some European countries’ threats of aid reductions played in combating Uganda’s infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill, deemed odious by Barack Obama himself. Nana points out, however, that no human rights or LGBTI activists from Africa have publicly opposed the coalition’s recent statement.

Whether or not the UK’s decision will help or harm the cause of LGBTI people in Africa remains to be seen. The early verbal reactions by some African governments do not bode well. What is evident for now, however, is that the UK government has so far neglected to engage with or to listen to the very people whom its policies purport to assist. The African activists’ statement is a tremendous opportunity to hear the voice of the grass, whispering its crystalline message on the wind, even as it is being stomped by those elephants on high.

You can contact Mark Canavera at mark.canavera@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/canavera

Jopara (Paraguay) Mission Statement

- PCV Paraguay

Jopara is a committee organized by Peace Corps Paraguay Volunteers interested in supporting diversity within the Volunteer community and strengthening contacts with diversity interest groups in Paraguay. The USA is a diverse place, and we feel that it is important for this multiplicity to be represented and supported amongst Volunteers.

Among our objectives are:

  • To provide a support network for Volunteers to discuss the challenges of living and serving in Paraguay while reflecting the diverse face of the USA. Jopara intends to provide support for Volunteers who identify with a range of situations regarding, but not limited to: ability, age, chemical dependency, dietary restrictions, ethnicity, gender identity/expression, marital status, physical/emotional health, race, religion, and sexual orientation.
  • To create a safe space for Volunteers struggling with limitations and challenges due to their diverse identity where they can express themselves freely and obtain necessary resources.
  • To provide resources and information on in-country diversity interest groups.
  • To serve as a resource to Peace Corps Paraguay staff and Volunteers in regards to training and sensitivity issues.
  • To provide resources to Volunteers who want to educate themselves or their community about diversity in Paraguay, the USA, and the world at large.
  • To identify and remove all barriers, whether institutional, attitudinal or behavioral, to the full and meaningful participation of diverse Volunteers.

For more information or a PCV Paraguay contact email lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

Safe Zone Training in Jordan

We recently heard from Peace Corps volunteers in Jordan about continuing Safe Zone Training there. This year’s session had some additional changes to the training script so that it fit better within a Jordanian context. Like Safe Zone sessions in other Peace Corps countries, this was based on the Safe Zone training developed and taught by volunteers in Guatemala a couple of years back (available here). Jordan volunteers conducted their third Safe Zone training this September with the new PCV members of their Peer Support Network and several staff members who had not yet been through the training conducted last year. Two new volunteers will be trained in the coming months as Safe Zone facilitators to take the place of volunteers who are completing their service at the end of 2011. The files included with this article contain an updated trainer script, Power Point slides and a participant packet. Volunteers in countries with similar religious and cultural backgrounds will find this training package a good starting place for developing examples within the context of their individual countries.

Jordan volunteers are also training Language and Cultural Facilitators (local trainers who will train the new volunteers) on American and Peace Corps diversity issues. Included in this training are issues of “covert” diversity and specifically the experiences confronting LGBT and Jewish volunteers. Volunteers who have been involved in Safe Zone and Diversity training for local Peace Corps staff comment on the success of these sessions.

Questions about the Jordanian sessions can be directed to editor, Mike Learned, learned_mike@yahoo.com.

Training Materials:

Call to Action for the LGBT Peace Corps Community

- Charlie Rounds, RPCV, Cameroon 1978 – 1981

It seems kind of crazy that in October I will celebrate 30 years of coming home from the Peace Corps in Cameroon and Coming Out – one followed the other by 23 days. My coming out was facilitated by a fellow volunteer who told me that if I thought I was gay I should go to the Island of Mykonos on the way home, meet someone and … Well I did, and the rest is history. The closet door was not just opened – it came off the hinges.

In 1981 I came home to a gay Minnesota and a gay United States that looked very different from what I see today. Although we have come so far in 30 years – the next 16 months of my life will be consumed with trying to beat back an anti-gay amendment to the Minnesota Constitution. As Bruce Springsteen sings “one step forward – two steps back”, and yet we have no choice but to put everything we can into defeating it – and defeat it we will.

The challenge with this amendment is that it was brought on by an historic shift in the Minnesota House and Senate – a shift that was greatly helped by 3M, Target, Ecolab, and Best Buy. After being confronted about their contributions they all just shrugged and said – ‘this is not anti-gay – it is anti-tax.” Unfortunately in this day and age, you do not get one without the other. So as we move forward, how will we deal with a post Citizens United (the Supreme Court decision that agrees with Mitt Romney that corporations are people) United States? How do we judge a Target that has very good lgbt employee policies and has donated to HRC, and yet openly helps the most virulent anti-lgbt candidates? This week the CEO of New Balance had to “come-out” against the donation of his board chair to Mitt Romney. The CEO openly states that New Balance supports the lgbt community – that’s great – but Mitt Romney still has his $500,000 to try and again ban us from the military and destroy our marriages.

It will be very difficult for us as a movement to continue to win big battles if corporate America decides that profits trump everything else – including our basic civil rights. I therefore am hoping that on a national level, our leaders commit to establishing a plan to work with corporations to make them, as much as possible, stop giving to candidates who would deny us all of our hard earned rights. But even if they do, this strategy can only work, if the majority of our community and allies actually make our voices heard and most importantly shop where we are wanted and don’t where we aren’t. I have discussed this with many people who disagree with me and who most often say “you can’t win against big money.” I think we can and I think as RPCV’s we would not have done what we did with that attitude – we all went to change the world and I think in most cases we did. In this same vein we can change corporate America through constructive dialogue backed up with strong actions that lets them know that what is bad for the lgbt community is bad for America – including them.

At the same time that we help big corporations “see the light,” we also need, as a community to step up our own giving to finish the battle for our rights. There are various studies that show that less than 5% of the American lgbt community gives over $35 or more a year to an lgbt organization. The people on this site might find that extremely hard to believe, but one reason for the disbelief is that we are also “givers’ by nature or we would not have done what we did. We are most likely “surrounded by ourselves” i.e. by other people who give both their time and their money to the causes they believe in. But we are only a tiny minority. Another challenge to our national leaders will be to figure out how to a)  get more money out of those of us who already give, b) get more money from those who don’t and c) establish accost-effective ways to communicate the message to achieve (a) and (b). As someone who has been paid-to-be-gay (worked for companies that only sold to the lgbt community) I can tell you firsthand that we, through lgbt media and company databases, can most likely only reach less than 25% of our community. And messaging to us through mainstream media is just too expensive. Those that oppose us have the advantage of being at a place of worship every week. When the Catholic Church wants to stop gay rights in Minnesota they have access to 800,000 people. I doubt that our statewide lgbt organizations have even 5% of those names on their databases. But that does not mean we can just sit back and not do anything. In the next two to five years we will need to develop a strategy to increase lgbt giving to lgbt organizations 10 fold – it can be done – but we need to start now and not give up until 50% of our community is giving over $35 a year to an organization.

So as we are all aware – we have challenges ahead – but for this group – the glass will always be half full and perhaps we will one day see it full.

You can contact Charlie Rounds at roundscharlie@hotmail.com.

Peace Corps Pride Events 2011

Peace Corps and Pride – 2011

 Peace Corps and LGBT RPCVs were actively involved in many Gay Pride activities in June. We have reports from five cities: Boston, Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, and Washington D. C.

Boston: The New England Regional Corps Office sponsored a recruiting and information table at the Boston Pride Festival. Two staff members presided and eight RPCVs sat with the staff to talk about their experiences as Peace Corps Volunteers. 63 Pride participants stopped by the table, and 27 signed up to get more information about Peace Corps. Although there was some rain and cold, there was great participation from the RPCVs. They came out and helped set up early on Saturday morning and stayed throughout the festival to share their life enhancing experiences with budding volunteers. Peace Corps found the Boston Pride Committee highly organized and looks forward to participating in future Pride events.

Chicago: The Chicago Peace Corps office had a contingent in the Chicago Gay Pride parade. 18 people marched in all: five Staff Members, seven RPCVs, long with six friends and family. It was a great day. The Peace Corps marching group had a huge Peace Corps banner, a flag, and several marchers were dressed in country of service traditional costumes. The contingent handed out lots of stickers and post cards promoting an upcoming Diversity Information Session. Marchers got a great reaction from the crowd. Much of it obviously from other RPCVs, shouting out their countries of service: Paraguay, China, Tanzania and others.

New York City:

 

 
Approximately 30 people walked, carried flags, beat a drum, and lost their voices shouting “50 More Years, 50 More Years!” behind the Peace Corps banners at New York City’s June Pride March. The marching group consisted of RPCVs who had served in countries from Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the Caribbean. Nominees on their way to becoming PCVs as well as family and friends were also part of the group. RPCV, Kat, Suriname, grabbed friends and jumped on a bus with 20 giant country of service flags from Peace Corps Headquarters in DC just to join in this year’s historic Pride March. Onlookers clapped, cheered, and shouted “Thank You!” This being New York there were also lots of cheers from the crowd for the Jamaican and Dominican Republic flags that were carried by RPCVs who served in those countries. 

The New York Office also held an information session aimed at prospective LGBT applicants. 25 people attended. About half of them joined staff and 8 LGBT RPCVs at the Cubby Hole for a happy hour and lots of questions about the lives of LGBT PCVs in the developing world.

San Francisco:

The local Bay Area chapter of LGBT RPCVs held its 20th anniversary Pride Celebration on Bill and Tony’s deck in the Castro, the Saturday afternoon before the Pride March. Several women in the group also were part of the Dyke March at nearby Dolores Park early that evening. About 40 people showed up at the barbecue, many longtime members, other’s there for the first time. Lots of good food, drink and conversation. Hard to believe it was 20 years ago that LGBT RPCVs was founded in Washington D.C. and groups there and in San Francisco had their first meetings.

Washington D.C.:

For the D.C. Pride Parade on Saturday June 11, Peace Corps had a very animated group of around 30 RPCVs and PC staff members carrying their country of service flags. The marching contingent also carried Peace Corps banners and had a very welcoming reception from the estimated 100,000 people watching the parade. On Saturday night the Peace Corps marching group was notified that it had won the “Harvey Milk Award for Best Public Sector Contingent.” The group was called up on the main stage during Sunday’s festival to receive the award. Peace Corps also hosted an information table at the festival on the Sunday where there were an estimated 200,000 attendees. LGBT RPCVs sat at the table along with Peace Corps Staff.

Earlier in the month Peace Corps hosted an LGBT RPCV panel in the Rosslyn, VA recruiting office for about 20 participants. Earlier the same day at Peace Corps Headquarters in downtown D.C., transgendered political appointees appointed by the Obama administration came to speak to Peace Corps employees about transgender issues. There were about 100 employees in attendance. The Deputy Director introduced the panelists and there were lots of Q and A’s.

Later in June, Peace Corps’ Office of Diversity Recruitment and National Outreach sponsored a webinar “Have Rainbow, Will Travel: The LGBT Experience in the Peace Corps.” There were 25 participants and six panelists, two lesbian, two gay, and two transgendered RPCVs. They answered so many questions about the challenges and opportunities for LGBT volunteers. There is another panel discussion planned for the fall.

A Special Thanks: So many people on Peace Corps staff and LGBT RPCVs helped to make these 50th Peace Corps anniversary and Gay Pride related events successful. A special thanks to all who worked to make these such a success, particularly Bill and Tony, Jerry, Jeffrey, John, Kat, Kiva, Shari, Stephen – who all helped organize and coordinate activities.

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