As a way of introducing myself, I am a 21 year old queer individual who was born and raised in South Africa. I am currently a second year business management student at the newly-established African Leadership University located in Mauritius. This university has a grand plan of creating the next generation of African leaders by opening a network of Pan-African campuses across the African continent to provide world-class leadership education. In my life experience, this has to be the most diverse African community I have ever lived in, we have about 25 African states represented through the student body.
It is with no question that my queer identity is of controversial nature in this space because more than 35 African states still view homosexuality as an illegal act and generally the topic of homosexuality is not popular around those who consider themselves as conservative Africans. Prior to joining the African Leadership University, I was a third year student at Rhodes University in South Africa. In the year 2014 and 2015, Rhodes University starting seeing a much stronger call for radical transformation. These conversations were primarily centered around the idea of creating an inclusive university where different marginalized groups could also be able to flourish. As a queer individual, these conversations empowered me to desire to fully occupy the African space and flourish in my identity. Looking at the current media, it is obvious that Rhodes University still has a long journey of transformation to undertake, however, acknowledgements should be given to their students and staff who have committed themselves to this journey.
Having left Rhodes University, I now find myself in a space where the definition of what it is to be queer is not fully understood by the entire community, however, this is reasonably justified because for some of my peers this topic is not even acceptable for discussion in their different home backgrounds. I am in a space where it is not seen as inappropriate to make jokes that perpetuate homophobia, stereotypes and discrimination against queer individuals. It has become a regular trend to see traces of homophobia and sometimes plain out ignorant posts on the social media profiles of my peers speaking about issues of sexual orientation. The past 15 months since I joined this institution have been spent on various social media debates and personal conversations in any attempt to argue against some of these beliefs and stereotypes. As expected, I have lost my temper a number of times and I have also been emotionally hurt in the process, however, it certainly has not dampened my pride. Throughout all these incidents, at the end of the emotions I would always take time to forgive because I am aware of the different contexts that we all come from. But lately I have questioned myself on how much longer can one endure this and even questioned if Pan-African institutions are a place for a queer individual.
I have always considered myself as an activist for queer identities and, in this space, that role has been placed on a much higher level, as I am one of the few individuals among my peers who feels comfortable in expressing their sexuality openly. I have taken it as my responsibility to advocate for the rights of queer bodies in Africa and also to become an agent of change that challenges the pre-set beliefs and views on queer identities. The task has been meaningful for myself because it would be incorrect of me to not acknowledge how some of my peers have indeed learned to challenge their own views through interactions with myself. Others even acknowledge that I was the first queer individual they ever got to interact with on this level and I have proven some stereotypes to be incorrect.
This means that I am constantly being pushed in a corner of trying not to hurt or take offense but to prioritize the education and awareness of my peers. As I reflect back on my first year where a student argued in class that “gay people choose to be gay,” this took me back to the difficult conversation I had with my family in coming out, the pain they felt and the almost rejection I received. I was really close to bursting out and tell her that if I had a choice I wouldn’t have chosen to have my family look disgusted at me and tell me how I will get HIV from sleeping with gays. The challenge is that I have to suppress my own emotions to the hurtful and offensive statements made in order to respond in a way that does not present me as an angry queer. In this space and generally in other societies, there is an assumption that being angry means you do not speak sense and hence, people will not take what you say objectively. In essence, this sacrifice of my emotions for the greater good; to challenge and change people’s minds, is the difficulty of being an activist.
Lastly, I think there is a certain structural support role that pan-African institutions can play in creating an inclusive space for queer individuals. Firstly, an institution needs to have a clear stance on its position relating to queer individuals. Speaking in an African context, simply stating diversity as a value does not necessarily translate to the inclusion of queer individuals because many spaces in Africa claim this value yet we are still being discriminated against. Secondly, the institutions need to take an active role in living up to their stance. If an institution believes in diversity including queer individuals, then the institution should start these discussions amongst their students and should even consider the representation of queer individuals during their staff recruitment. Lastly, these institutions need to go an extra mile in reassuring the safety and protection of their queer students. We come from backgrounds where we are victims of many violations, even within countries like South Africa we are still victimized.
As we create more Pan-African institutions, it is my greatest hope that we consider the culture of the spaces we build and how these spaces can be made more inclusive for queer individuals.