Women Out Front
For Aswat, the organization behind the Palestinian online forum for lesbian women that Zoie Ha frequents, activism is not about pride parades and coming out. They are still working to create a language amongst themselves in a society where even talking about sexuality is taboo. As a group, they are breaking taboos very carefully. The faces of members do not appear in the photo section of their website, and their recently published anthology does not reveal the real names of writers. They actively work to hide the identity of members while, as a collective, they struggle to make their rights visible.
In Burkina Faso, lesbian rights activist Mariam Armisen created an online network similar to Aswat’s forum, called the Queer African Youth Networking Center. Its purpose is to unite lesbian gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex youth so that they can connect and provide support for each other.
“The image of gay people in Africa is very caricatured,” she said. She founded the center in 2010 to provide what she calls “real” information about gender identity and sex education to youths in Africa. “It was not a choice for me to be open in Burkina Faso. You learn very fast as you come out that you also have to stay in the closet.”
While no law in Burkina Faso criminalizes relationships between two women, Armisen says society does. “Women are often assaulted or sexually abused to rid them of lesbian urges. You get called sir more than ma’am, and it’s very common for men to take a lesbian to church and rape her.”
The level of violence can debilitate those who live amidst it. But like Armisen, Prudence Mabele, the South African activist, wasn’t going to be silenced. After Sizakele and her partner were killed, Mabele threw herself into the details of the memorial service to honor their lives. And today, her activism continues to pay tribute. “If you’re going to nurse your feelings now you are letting the perpetrators victimize the struggle. You’ve got to be out there and do what you have to do,” she told World Pulse. “And then you fall apart later.”
These courageous women are part of a movement of LGBT activists across the globe who are fighting back. And they are finding safety—and success—in numbers.
In December, Luleki Sizwe, a small group of South African activists, started a petition against corrective rape—the rape of lesbian women in order to “cure” them of their sexuality. In just three months the campaign gained 170,000 supporters from 163 countries, jammed the Ministry of Justice email system, and drew international media attention to their cause.
Backed by global allies, they marched on South African Parliament and successfully convinced the same officials who had for years ignored their pleas to commit to developing an action plan to address hate crimes against the LGBT community.
In Kyrgyzstan, the organization Labrys—named after a double-sided axe used by Amazon warriors and later adopted by lesbians as a symbol of power and independence—provides shelter, employment, and counseling for the LGBT community. As their country, which once outlawed homosexuality under Soviet rule, becomes more democratic, Labrys has started reaching out to LGBT communities in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where governments still exert strict control over personal freedoms.
Regional publications such as Africa’s Behind the Mask, and the Lebanon-based English/Arabic language publication Bekhsoos, are giving LGBT activists a collective voice strong enough to counter the silence of local media. And with the protection and support of a globally expanding movement, individuals all over the world are finding the freedom to express their demands for dignity and justice.
Back in Israel, Zoie Ha holds out hope that her family and community will find a way to support her decision to continue her studies and to live independently with her girlfriend. But she knows this best-case scenario isn’t likely. For Ha, the stress of her double life and the pain of alienation from her family and community are eased only by the knowledge that her Aswat friends—her adopted family—will always be there for her. And as they work together to fight for their basic human rights and freedoms, they are speaking the same language, in a strong and unified voice.