The global North LGBTI and Human rights groups have heralded Zambia’s First Lady Christine Kaseba’s “positive” statement on homosexuality. But if you read her full remarks in context, there’s isn’t anything praiseworthy about it.
At a reception hosted by UNAIDS on November 5, 2013, Dr. Kaseba told a group that “Silence on men having sex with men should be stopped,” and added “no one should be discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation. .. Personally, I am concerned about the vulnerability of our women married to or in intimate relations with men who also have sex with men.” On this basis, she joined many Human rights defenders in calling on Zambians to have an open and civil discussion on homosexuality which, as she argued, is the key to fighting HIV and AIDS. Because of the demonization of LGBT persons across Africa, many Africans gay persons are forced to live a lie—married to women during the day, and gays at night. Her statements made global headlines, and many international human rights organizations lavished her with praises for standing up against homophobia.
However, the international community seems to have missed the rest of the First Lady’s speech (posted below). Like many African politicians, Dr. Kabesa falsely claimed that young people are “enticed” or recruited into same-sex relations—the same claim used by Scott Lively and other anti-gay figures both in the United States and Africa to promote widespread prejudice, discrimination, and violence. In the very same speech to UNAIDS, Dr. Kabesa says, “We have anecdotal evidence especially in colleges where young men are enticed into having sex with men but at the same time also have young girlfriends on the side.”
As a Zambian national and human rights defender, I found her statement misleading, and a major distraction to the plight of LGBT persons in Zambia and the rest of Africa.
When I first heard about Dr. Kaseba’s statement, I wanted to know what Zambian LGBT persons thought of her position on homosexuality. I read a short post from an outspoken Zambian LGBT advocate (I’m withholding her name because of threats of violence she’s received), questioning the logic of Dr. Kaseba making such a statement while two LGBT Zambians, James Mwape and Phillip Mubiana sit in Zambian prison simply being gay, and Paul Kasonkomona is facing charges for speaking openly about homosexuality on TV.
I think the Zambian LGBT author rightly interpreted the First Lady’s statement as little more than nice words mean to entice donor’s dollars. In fact, the Zambian media reported that Dr. Kaseba made these remarks at the international donors “reception”—which happened to be UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board Reception with Key Partners.
Dr. Kaseba knows that her husband, President Michael Sata, who sees nothing wrong with Africa’s longest reigning dictator Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, needs something big to win him donor support. Is the First Lady’s statement on homosexuality the key to new dollars?
Regardless, the statement sought to distract international attention from the systematic persecution of gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans*, and inter-sex persons in Zambia.
Combatting HIV/AIDS within the LGBT community is crucial to human rights, but so does the freedom to work, expression, association and live peaceful lives—which Zambian LGBT citizens are currently denied. So in as much I applaud the good portion of the First Lady’s statement, I find it insulting that those who heard her speak failed to ask her to declare her position on her husband’s administration’s persecution of LGBT citizens, failed to ask that something be done about the LGBT Zambians sitting in prison, and failed to ask why she was perpetuating the blatantly false lies about “gay recruitment.”
The celebration of the First Lady statement in international circles and the down-playing of the same by local activists suggest the lift between wealthy global North activists and poor African activists. Western activists continue to fail to seek guidance from Zambian activists when getting involved or commenting on local stories. They cannot ignore Zambian voices, assuming “we know better.”
Press statements alone do not translate into human rights—actions do. Dr. Kaseba is not new to Zambian politics and knew very well her husband’s policies on LGBT persons—she is aware that Human rights defender Paul Kasonkomona is fighting his case in court; she is aware that James and Phillip were snatched from the privacy of their home in April, dumped in prison and denied bail.
If the International community needs to celebrate Dr. Kashiba’s courage, they should ask her to step up and do something. Ask her to have the charges against Paul Kasonkomona, Phillip Mubiana, and James Mwape dropped immediately and release them from prison. Ask her to work with her husband to stop the persecution of LGBT persons in Zambia. Only then can I, and I believe many LGBT rights advocates in Zambia, join the world in celebrating her courage.
As for now, her statement is meant to deceive the world that LGBT persons have a home in Zambia, so she can collect donor money.