When LGBT+ people took to the streets last year for the first ever Pride march in eSwatini, formerly known as Swaziland, some hardly believed they could celebrate the event in a country where stigma is rife, and gay sex remains illegal.
Now gay rights activist, Melusi Simelane plans to go further by timing Pride events to coincide with independence anniversary celebrations in September, to draw attention to the country’s colonial-era law against sodomy.
“We are looking at the history of colonisation and the common-law offence, which is a hangover of colonisation,” Simelane told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of the One Young World forum, in Britain.
“We want to celebrate our Pride in September to say, ‘While you guys are saying you are free to be who you are because you are now an independent country, we also want to be free and let go of all those colonial laws’,” he said.
A spokesman for the government of eSwatini could not be reached for comment on Friday.
Governed by Africa’s last absolute monarch, eSwatini is an impoverished, land-locked nation of 1.5 million people that borders South Africa and Mozambique.
It gained independence from Britain in September 1968, and is among a number of African countries to retain colonial-era laws against consensual gay sex, though it does not enforce them.
Conservative attitudes against LGBT+ people are widespread in eSwatini. [Advocacy group, ILGA] says they face pervasive discrimination and violence.
Stigma and prejudice are “rampant”, said Simelane, ranging from family life to jobs, healthcare and housing, while there is no legal protection from discrimination for LGBT+ people.
“If I wake up and am feeling ill and I go to a hospital, the fact that I have dreadlocks, the fact that I’ve got an earring, the fact that I’ve got nail polish – that’s an issue for the nurse because now they are thinking of my sexual orientation.
“Because there is no legal recourse for that kind of stigma or discrimination or prejudice, it makes it easier for them to continue persecuting us,” he said.
He added that despite pledges from officials they would not enforce the law on sodomy, its existence created fear.
“It is like a gun that is pointing at us and (the government is saying) ‘Our policy is not to shoot at you but we are going to keep the gun there’,” he said.
Former British Prime Minister, Theresa May, said last year that she regretted Britain’s role in anti-gay legislation across its former colonies, saying such laws “were wrong then and they are wrong now”.
Commonwealth countries, Botswana and Mozambique, have dropped colonial anti-gay legislation in recent years.
The plan to move eSwatini’s Pride rally to September is a departure from tradition. Such events are usually held in June to honour the Stonewall riots in New York in June 1969 that are popularly hailed as the birth of the modern LGBT+ movement.
Simelane was a driving force of the country’s first Pride march two years ago, and founded the new LGBT+ rights group eSwatini Sexual & Gender Minorities this year.
He said he was frequently the target of abuse and lived in fear, but remained hopeful for change and increased rights for LGBT+ people.
“I am afraid – obviously, we have to live in fear. But I am not afraid in a sense that I would then just pack up,” he said.
“I am going to stay here as far as it is safe for me … Because if I run, then who will do what I do?”
-Sonia Elks @soniaelks – Thomson Reuters Foundation