Africa needs to hear queer stories



It was something of a rocky start, I’d say. The brief — which I somehow convinced those interviewing me I could pull off — was daunting: putting together stories that examined the experiences of queer people across the continent.

Aside from initially distrusting sources and unrelenting deadlines, there was also the matter of this being new terrain for all of us: editors, subeditors, readers and even queer old me.

There were debates (“Is this headline potentially offensive?”), some head-scratching (“How do we use non-binary persons’ pronouns — ‘they’, ‘them’, ‘their’ — in sentences without confusing everybody?”) and losing of tempers (well, only my own, to be honest).

But we did okay, even though there were some snide digs at our work from the nit-picky woker-than-thou brigade. We took it on the chin, because who could really blame them?

When it comes to covering anything related to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) matters, the media — particularly African-based publications — are known for being unsupportive to the point of cruelty. And not only in countries such as Uganda, where just the mere suspicion of being queer could result in your face being plastered across national newspapers. Even South Africa, with all of its “most progressive Constitution in the world” self-importance, is not exempt.

In July 2106, Shaun Westley laid a complaint with the press ombudsman against a Western Cape-based tabloid, after the paper’s front page headline read, “Maak die moffie vrek”.

His bid to have the newspaper apologise for having “perpetuated the dehumanisation of the gay community” was dismissed. Westley says: “The paper’s argument was that they were speaking the language of their readers. But my argument was that language, in itself, is a tool of violence and that these micro-aggressions ultimately shape people’s perceptions of others and how they classify them.”

Anastacia Thompson, a transgender woman and author, says: “I’ve been the subject of numerous headlines suggesting that I was ‘born in the wrong body’, or a ‘woman in a man’s body’. My body is neither ‘wrong’, nor is it a ‘man’s body’. I’m a woman, and it is my body. It is perhaps unique and different to some other bodies, but it is nonetheless my body.

“Those sorts of phrases strip us of agency over our bodies and serve only to reduce our personal histories and experiences to stereotypical, reductive and inaccurate concepts. Too often, those who are retelling our stories will either twist the narratives to fit their own preconceptions, or will simply be insensitive to the nuances and complexities that surround transgender identity.”

Brian Pellot is the co-founding director of Taboom Media, which has, since 2016, trained more than 150 journalists in Africa on “how to better report on religion and sexual orientation and gender identity and expression issues”.

It provides a good starting point for reporting on a complicated beat. “In our training sessions, we talk about ‘human rights journalism’. And that’s about human-centric reporting, essentially; keeping the individual at the centre of our stories and not losing sight of that.”

This is important in countries where same-sex activity is a considered to be a crime, and journalists sometimes default to reporting through a criminal narrative. Pellot warns: “We can’t lose sight of the fact that people are people and they deserve to have their voices heard. It is not our duty to re-criminalise people or put them in harm’s way. We’re there to tell a story and to help our audiences understand what might be unfamiliar or complicated issues.”

A 2018 scoping study by Taboom Media, which examined the coverage of LGBTI issues in Malawi, Botswana, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, found that “South Africa was by far the best”, followed by Botswana and Malawi, with Kenya and Uganda “at the lower end”.

Pellot adds that journalists often face problems of self-censorship, editorial censorship and sometimes government censorship. “So sometimes … a journalist wants to cover a story but gets worried their newsroom colleagues might think they are gay for doing a story. Or their editors might say the issue is ‘too sensitive … our audiences can’t handle it’.”

“South Africa is doing a great job, comparatively,” he says, “But obviously we can improve.”

Being in a space where we can report is one thing — and we need more of those spaces — but we must do better.

The Mail & Guardian, too, is by no means perfect. After all, it is not as though the former publishers and editors one day realised a need for dedicated reporting on queer people — among the most marginalised people on the continent. My position at the newspaper was funded by The Other Foundation, which approached the M&G and the two entered into a partnership. So there is that.

We occasionally got things wrong. And I have, in the rush to meet deadlines, delivered stories that needed more work done on them. Despite this, we provided a platform for people whose stories might not otherwise have been heard. What greater honour can there be?

Carl Collison was The Other Foundation’s Rainbow fellow at the M&G from August 1 2016 to July 31 2019

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Carl Collison
Carl Collison
Carl Collison is a freelance journalist who focuses primarily on covering queer-related issues across Africa

Related stories

Nollywood demonises queer people

Nigeria’s legislation prohibits same-sex marriages and the film industry helps to fuel sometimes violent homophobic attacks

The things Hollywood taught us to think about trans existences

Disclosure, a Netflix documentary examines the world's transphobic legacy as portrayed in film and television from as early as 1901

What it means to be kitoed

Homophobia in the digital space has violent real-world consequences for Nigeria’s queer community

A queer night in Accra

Queer people in Ghana come up against religious conservatism every day. For one night a month, Yolo Lounge gives them a place to let down their guard and feel a sense of belonging.

Every person’s silence against violence gives perpetrators licence to kill

Ongoing hate speech, whether in person, among people or on social media, that is directed at vulnerable groups can lead to violence and death

A mixed bag for human rights in Southern Africa in 2019

Abuses continued from Angola to Zimbabwe but there were also victories for people’s rights

Subscribers only

Toxic power struggle hits public works

With infighting and allegations of corruption and poor planning, the department’s top management looks like a scene from ‘Survivor’

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

More top stories

Air pollution link in 15% of global Covid-19 deaths

Researchers have found that, because ambient fine particulate air pollution aggravates comorbidities, it could play a factor in coronavirus fatalities

Mboweni plans to freeze public sector wage increases for the...

The mid-term budget policy statement delivered by the finance minister proposes cutting all non-interest spending by R300-billion.

SAA to receive R10.5-billion government bailout after all

Several struggling state-owned entities received extra funds after the medium term budget policy speech

BMW X3 thrives in the M stable

The compact SUV is so at home with its new badge that’s it’s surprising it didn’t happen sooner

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday