Africa / Europe

Why lesbian groups boycotted African LBT workshop

Edinedi d'AFTA Togo tenant la toile confectionnée par les participantes pour les partenaires. (Photo par Erin Royal Brokovitch)

Edinedi Essiomle of AFTA Togo holds a banner that workshop participants made, expressing their thoughts about the struggle for recognition and acceptance. (Photo by Erin Royal Brokovitch

By Colin Stewart and Erin Royal Brokovitch

Four organizations of lesbian, bisexual and queer women last week boycotted a workshop in Cameroon organized by two LGBT associations — one based in France and the other in Cameroon. Their objections, which were rejected by workshop participants, were “the imperialist, paternalistic and patriarchal nature of this project” and the lack of participation by women at “the head of the organization of this workshop” and “all the women who initiated the project in 2012 and 2014.”

The workshop, which was held in Yaoundé from Feb. 20 to 24, was aimed at improved networking among lesbian, bisexual and transgender women in French-speaking Africa. It was funded by the Paris-based organization Solidarité International LGBTQI. The workshop was facilitated by Humanity First Cameroon, an LGBT rights organization in Yaoundé with a unit dedicated specifically to lesbian issues.

Objections from AVAF

Logo de Solidarité Internationale LGBTQI

Logo de Solidarité Internationale LGBTQI

On Feb. 11, the Cameroonian group AVAF (Association for the Promotion of Women) took the first step in the boycott, announcing that it would not participate. The statement was distributed to gay, lesbian and LGBT networks.

The controversy grew and became international. Workshop participants raised security concerns because public statements had revealed the timing of the workshop. In the turmoil, the workshop proceeded on schedule, but accomplished less than its backers could have hoped.

In Cameroon, several LBT associations and activists proceeded with their plans to attend the workshop, including Lady’s Cooperation, Yaoundé, Cameroon; AFTA Bisexual Section, Togo; Ladies Voice, Togo; Femmes Espoir, Mali; and activists from Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Douala, Cameroon.

Excerpts from the AVAF press release:

We all march together!

Logo d'AVAF

Logo of AVAF

Dear community, dear beneficiaries,

Our organization was asked to participate in a workshop organized by Solidarité International LGBTQI from February 20th to 24th in Yaoundé on the “development of mechanisms to improve the visibility of Francophone feminists in Africa” in their relations with national, regional and international political institutions.

Our association regrets to decline the proposal that it participate in this project, which was not conceived through the widest possible collaboration of the lesbian movement in Cameroon and Francophone Africa.

We recommend closer ties with the networks and organizations already in place in French-speaking Africa, such as the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL) or The Queer African Youth Network (QAYN).

As activists, in the noble sense of the word, we work for our lesbian community with all who want to support us!

However, we want to put an end to initiatives that are off target and do a disservice to activists on the ground who are working to advance their rights. We do not want to endanger them. It is our responsibility.

— AVAF, seeking solidarity in a large, growing movement

— Sandrine ATEH

On Feb. 18, the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL) published this communiqué:

Boycott of the workshop organized by Solidarité International LGBTQI (France) on the theme: “Together, let us support LBT women’s movements in French-speaking Africa”

Dakar, Douala, Ouagadougou, Yaoundé, 18 February 2017 –

“From February 20 to 24, 2017, a follow-up workshop will be held in Yaoundé, marking the beginning of a project whose aim is to facilitate the networking of Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans * women from French-speaking Africa. Despite our immense interest in such an initiative, we lesbian, bisexual and queer women’s organizations represented here, namely QAYN (Queer African Youth Network), AVAF (Association for the Promotion of Women), ELLES Cameroon and Sourire de Femmes have decided to boycott all participation in this workshop.

Three main arguments motivate our decision:

First, the imperialist, paternalistic and patriarchal character of this project. The project has been entirely designed and is managed by Solidarité International LGBTQI (SIL), a French association run by men. Then, a Cameroonian association was chosen, after SIL suffered several rejections of its attempts to provide a local face for its implementation. We think it is quite pretentious for a northern organization, disregarding local activists, to put forth such a project that seeks to reflect and define the priorities for the movement.

Lesbian, bisexual and queer African Francophones exist. Our movement is already constituted. Designing such an initiative  without their involvement at the grassroots level and then asking them to join it is part of a colonialist and arrogant vision. Improving the visibility of francophone LBTs cannot be done without regard for the work already under way.

Secondly, this workshop contradicts its own objectives. How to improve the visibility of LBT if they are relegated to ranks of invitees? Should they not be at the head of the organization of this workshop? Do not these actions conceal aspirations for increased visibility and prominence within the gay and lesbian “market” in French-speaking Africa? We oppose attempts to use our bodies, our struggles, our ideas and our work for these ends.

Finally, we denounce the fact that all the women who initially proposed the workshop in 2012 and 2014 have been removed from the project. They have denounced the colonialist and patriarchal way that the project was implemented. As queer feminists who are committed to promoting women’s leadership in the struggle for the recognition of LBT human rights, their absence is unacceptable. In solidarity for these pioneers of the movement, we decline our participation in this workshop and call for a boycott of this project.

Logo du Queer African Youth Network

Logo of the Queer African Youth Network

It is absolutely important that the LBT movement be constructed in an inclusive and participatory way, and from the bottom up. Far from wanting to create any division, we call rather for reflection, dialogue, a true participatory process coming from the grassroots — that is to say, from the first women was were involved. From us. “Alone we go faster, but together we go further”.

AVAF, Cameroon
ELLES, Cameroon
QAYN [Queer African Youth Network]
Sourire de Femmes, Senegal
Coalition of African Lesbians (in solidarity)

Boycott and workshop

In this atmosphere, ELLES, signatory of an earlier press release on the workshop, changed its mind and joined the boycott. In addition, the decision by Sourire de Femmes in Senegal confused the organizers, because they had received travel confirmation from the Sourire de Femmes participant on the same day when the joint statement by CAL was published.

In spite of the boycott, 13 participants attended the workshop, which started as scheduled on Feb. 20 at the Toungou Hotel in Yaoundé. Workshop participants decided to issue a response to the boycott at the end of the week.

In discussions with workshop participants, they said that the objectives of the workshop are important. They also stated that they did not necessarily recognize their concerns in the statements of the boycotters, but also expressed solidarity with the boycotting activists. One of them, Edinedi Essiomle, president of ATFA in Togo, explained her approach as follows:

“I am a bisexual woman, before being an activist and visual artist. I did not know the genesis of the problem or its history. I was invited after I completed a registration form last year. When the controversy arose, I wrote to the workshop organizers, who reassured me. Why not contribute to the emergence and development of future generations of LBT through our current commitment? As an activist, I am ready to work with everyone who shares my struggle, the cause that I defend.”

La toile qui sera exposée au Togo. (Photo de Erin Royal Brokovitch)

Workshop participants inscribed their thoughts about the struggle for LBT rights on this canvas, which will be displayed in Togo. (Photo by Erin Royal Brokovitch)

Essiomle, a prominent participant in the workshop, helped the attendees create canvases expressing their thoughts about the struggle. (She and one of the canvases are shown in the photo at the top of this article.)

On Friday, the workshop ended on schedule, but questions remained:

  • What are the appropriate relationships that would allow organizations in the Global North, such as SIL, to work with LBT organizations in the Global South?
  • Can organizations for lesbians work with LGBT organizations, in particular those led by gay men, but also representing lesbians?
  • Could the dispute among QAYN, its partners, SIL and Humanity First have been avoided during or after the preliminary discussions between QAYN and SIL about the workshop?
  • How much of the controversy is connected to competition for leadership of LBT networks in Francophone Africa?

Future discussions and the participants’ statement at the end of the workshop may provide insights into these issues.

Despite the tension surrounding the workshop, Humanity First Cameroon kept a cool head, protected the safety of all the participants, and kept the workshop running smoothly.

Erin Royal Brokovitch, a co-author of this article, is an activist for LGBTI rights in Cameroon writing under a pseudonym. Colin Stewart, the other co-author, is the editor/publisher of this blog.

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