Zambia: How Do LGBTQ Zambians Deal With Bigotry?

Same-sex sexual relationships are outlawed in the conservative southern African country and punishable by up to 14 years in jail (file photo).

LGBTQ Africans are facing more challenges across the continent. DW speaks with queer Zambians and activists about how they navigate identity in a country that denies them human rights and protection from discrimination.

Mary identifies as a transgender woman, but presents to society as a gay man.

"I am forced to be gay in Zambia because it isn't as dangerous as being trans," Mary told DW when we met at a Lusaka restaurant.

"Gay people are at least tolerated in Zambia, even if they are not accepted," Mary explained.

But that would depend on how far the definition of tolerance is stretched. In some public spaces, insults and threats are part of everyday life, added Mary.

And while her family "tolerates" her, she presents to them as a gay man because she doesn't feel safe coming out as transgender to anyone outside of the LGBTQ community.

LGBTQ community remains underground

Many Zambian LGBTQ people feel that their family spaces are far from safe.

Growing up, Anold Mulaisho wasn't allowed to play with other children because of behavior his family considered "effeminate."

Eventually, when he was 14, his father threw him out after attempts to change him failed.

"The only people that would come and visit me were pastors [...] so that I'm able to be delivered from the demon," he told DW.

Zambia is among the African countries with the lowest levels of acceptance for LGBTQ people, alongside Uganda, The Gambia and Senegal, according to one survey by Afrobarometer.

The vast majority of the Zambian population is intolerant of non-heteronormative sexual and gender identities -- with only 4% expressing tolerance.

Over the last decade, Zambian authorities have cracked down more on the LGBTQ community and its allies who demand rights for LGBTQ people.

In early March, four women were detained for allegedly promoting homosexuality at an approved march against sexual and gender-based violence organized by the Sistah Sistah Foundation.

The organization's representatives declined to comment because of ongoing legal proceedings.

The latest arrests and subsequent vitriol against Zambia's LGBTQ community left Mary on edge.

"I've decided not to go out until this whole thing dies out," she said.

Who dares to speak up?

Zambian LGBTQ individuals fear speaking out, pushing the community and its activism mostly underground -- unlike in countries such as Uganda and Kenya.

Until a decade ago, Paul Kasonkomona was one of Zambia's most outspoken gay rights activists.

While not a member of the community, he became an ally when gay men asked him to advocate on their behalf for more access to treatment for HIV and AIDS.

In 2013 Kasonkomona was arrested after saying on television that Africa needed to recognize gay rights to come up with an adequate response to the AIDS epidemic. He was detained on charges of promoting homosexuality.

Kasonkomona's trial was watched closely internationally -- but some LGBTQ people did not welcome the increased attention.

"[After the arrest] I remember people saying the noise was actually becoming a risk to the LGBTQ movement," Kasonkomona said.

So he found himself sidelined by some LGBTQ community leaders.

One seat at one table

The attention around Paul Kasonkomona's trial coincided with the release of a groundbreaking study on sexual minorities in Zambia.

The report by the NGO Panos Institute Southern Africa showed how their sexual behavior had a wider impact on society, providing evidence that men who have sex with men also have sex with women.

Recognizing non-heterosexuality and its potential role in the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Zambia led to some change.

In 2016 it may have contributed to the inclusion of a representative from the LGBTQ community on the board of the National AIDS Council -- one of the country's most powerful health authorities -- said a source who preferred to remain anonymous.

As a result, some sexual health clinics have become more LGBTQ-friendly, Mary said.

Is leaving the only option?

Yet public discourse about the LGBTQ community is becoming more hostile in Zambia and other parts of Africa, according to US-based researcher Kapya Kaoma.

And that makes it difficult to have an honest dialogue about LGBTQ rights.

"You have to understand the shift in how the messaging is, [that] gays and lesbians are not human," Kaoma explained.

"They become things. And not just things, but evil things to be destroyed," he added.

Religion -- which is a big part of everyday Zambian life -- plays a major role.

"It's interesting that the fact that Zambia is a Christian nation is used to crucify the LGBTQ+ community," Mary told DW.

Religious leaders spread vitriol and dehumanize queer individuals, according to Kaoma, which leaves many LGBTQ people with only one option: leaving.

Anold Mulaisho fled Zambia in 2017 after his boss found him kissing a man at work and reported him to the police.

"She had evidence, she saw me and with the rumors that were going on [...] she reported me to the police," he said.

Mary won't be sticking around either.

"I don't see myself in Zambia in the next five years," she told DW.

Mary is part of the name the protagonist wants to use if allowed to fully express their gender identity, and she wanted DW to use it in this article.

Edited by: Keith Walker

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