Kinshasa — The editor of a well-known Canadian queer magazine once expressed to me his interest in running more articles on homophobia in Africa. He was bored of writing about Toronto's exuberant gay nightlife, he said, and wanted to look into some LGBT issues in Africa, namely the shady phenomenon of anti-gay crime.
His willingness to look across the Atlantic and address important issues was no doubt well-intentioned. But at the same time, his equating of homosexuality in Africa with homophobia in Africa betrayed a disturbingly commonplace view: that the world is polarised between a largely progressive Euro-America and a unilaterally anti-gay Africa.
This is perhaps understandable given that the stories of gay Africans that make international headlines are invariably tragic and often chilling. Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato bludgeoned to death in broad daylight. Cameroonian campaigner Eric Lembembe found dead after being tortured in his home in Yaoundé. Governments pushing for every more draconian punishment of anyone found out to be gay.
The image this creates of Africa is of a place of torment and terror for gay people, a continent in which brutal homophobia is the norm and where homosexuals have to hide to survive, in stark contrast to the activism and mobilisation possible in the progressive West.
There is of course a kernel of truth behind some of this - homophobia and homophobic attacks are serious problems - but to suggest Africa's gay communities are cowering in fear and constantly on the defence could not be further from the truth.
"A dropped napkin bearing a phone number, a particular hand signal, that's all it takes to announce yourself as gay to others in a bar or restaurant," confided a bisexual friend, describing the codification of same-sex cruising in Nairobi's public spaces. In Kinshasa meanwhile, expressions such as 'of the family' are used to covertly introduce acquaintances as gay.
These are just a few examples of 'strategic invisibility', a concept used by Ashley Currier, a sociologist from Texas A&M University, to describe sophisticated but discreet forms of LGBT activism she found being used in Namibia, South Africa and Malawi. Strategic invisibility differs from big confrontational protests in the style of the famous 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York, but this more hidden form of mobilisation is not necessarily any less significant.
I recently attended a diverse gathering of Congolese HIV/AIDS workers, bloggers, and advocates, who were discussing how to best gather social and economic support to combat homophobia. As the debate lingered on the issue of lubricant and condoms, it became clearly apparent that strategies such as taking to the streets would not make any sense, and that popular prominence and visibility were poor measures of this activist network's zeal and level of mobilisation.
When I shared this thought with the lead organiser of the meeting, a razor-sharp young woman, she agreed and told me that they were indeed trying to organise quietly in the long-term and gather social support in the form of local political allies and activists in neighbouring countries rather than cause a stir.
The first priority as she saw it was to establish a protective environment composed of sympathetic friends in political, legal, and medical spheres, all of who could assist LGBT individuals and organisations in times of need.
She further stressed the importance of informal gay networks and collaborative schemes, some as simple as accumulating emergency pools of money to buy condoms and put on parties. Political and public spheres may not allow advocacy, she explained, but that doesn't prevent measures being taken in intimate safe spaces.
She also warned against overstating the prevalence of hate crime in the DRC. "If a policeman beats me in Kinshasa, it might not necessarily be because I'm a lesbian. It might be because I'm a woman. It might be because such is the state of the law and order in Kinshasa."
Below the surface
The following Saturday night, I was invited to a safe space - two conjoined tables at one of Kinshasa's innumerable patios bars - where I joined a group of gay Congolese men who had missed the meeting but wanted to meet over beers and grilled beef brochettes to exchange views and meet some new queer faces.
Part of the discussion revolved around a secret online social network group on which they'd chatted long before meeting in person. The moderator of the online group, a white collar professional in his 40s, chided the others for being more interested in the racy photos of nude men than reading the critical articles posted on the forum. Some countered that it was only natural, aesthetic pleasure generally being more fun than discourse.
Most of the men present - some still in the closet, others as out as the sun at noon - had personal stories of workplace discrimination, family exclusion, and even sexual assault. Even so, each man gave the impression that he viewed himself not as a victim but as a living triumph in the face of homophobia.
This sense grew even stronger as the hours passed and the semi-serious tone of the early evening gave way to a entertaining night out, pointing to the fact that under the difficult conditions gay communities find themselves in, the line between activism and play can be faint. After all, under strategic invisibility, building solidarity between LGBT individuals is the basis of all other forms of mobilisation.
I would be remiss to suggest that homophobia is not a serious problem in much of Africa, and at some point, protests and marches may be the right tool for grassroots activists to combat homophobia. But for now, just because we can't see mobilisation happening, and just because the most famous LGBT Africans are murdered campaigners rather than proud, living and loving homosexuals, doesn't mean that activism isn't happening or that there aren't large communities of happy gay Africans living their lives below the surface.
In fact, for the time being, below the surface is exactly where activists want to be.
Valérie Bah is a Haitian-Canadian freelance journalist who focuses on marginalization and human rights with a particular interest in gender and LGBT equality. She works at the UN's refugee agency in Kinshasa and secretly plots a debut in creative non-fiction.