Why should there be spaces for queer women, led by queer women? by Heather Tucker

About the author:
headshot 2017Heather is a queer feminist researcher and advocate and is currently a visiting researcher at the University of Amsterdam department of Anthropology, and a PhD Candidate in Gender Comparative Studies at Central European University.


This post was written at the occasion of her presentation at the research seminar of ISS on 16 November 2017


NGO’s which receive funding from HIV interventions as well as international LGBT donors are interested in expanding their diversity efforts, for instance by including queer women in their training on human rights.  However, NGOs underestimate the working of intersectionality and fail to grasp why it is important for queer women to be understood on their own terms, recognizing their specific problems and enabling their separate organizations.


I ask Rebel what it’s like in Ghana for someone to be a lesbian. He explains the situation: “The minister of human rights came out and supported us,” speaking of Nana Luther, the former Executive Director of the HRAC, and previous Minister of Gender in Ghana, a prominent political figure who has been chastised by the media for her support of “LGBT” issues, and was labeled as a “lesbian” for this.  I ask if there is an organization for people like himself, “no organization yet, but we want it for lesbians.” Although Rebel identifies as a man, he is categorized as a lesbian by those around him, and also uses the term to identify politically.

Issues that affect queer Africans are a hot topic in development, with donors and funders interested in providing support for the wave of homophobic backlash, which is oftentimes exasperated by development interventionism. With this new attention on such issues, queers in different contexts are put in a position to perform the labor to form organizations, to become visible, assert their rights as citizens, and to protect themselves against discrimination and violence.  During an 8-month long ethnography in Accra, Ghana, based on the ways in which queer women were involved in NGO processes which focuses on such issues, I came to find that queer women have particular intersectional issues which are not always addressed in broader approaches. At the moment, in Ghana’s NGO and human rights community, there is a call for furthering and funding of LGBT projects, and with it, a naming and calling for the lesbian, or women or sisters (as referred to in NGO spaces) to come forward. Linguistically, the term lesbian seemed to be often used as an umbrella term by those I interviewed who were familiar with NGO spaces (and hence, the English language), and sometimes was therefore used to also include or refer to other terms, and blanketed the variance of gendered experience as well relational experience, including supi for example. In the Ga and Twi language, supi is a term that describes a relationship between two women that is considered a close friendship or an intimacy, and can be sexual, but also platonic, and describes relations, rather than identity. I find it important here to make the distinction between “lesbian” and other terms such as supi. “Lesbian” in particular supposes a fixed identity, and a visible identity, both discursively and via LGBT NGO organizing. Such a notion is not necessarily how female same sex intimacy is constructed in Accra. In fact, Serena Dankwa’s research on supi in southern Ghana explains that “female same-sex passions revolve around the notion of secrecy and are based on tacit but vibrant forms of knowledge” (Dankwa 192: 2009).

Kubura 20151006_140735Furthermore, discretion dominates sexual matters in Southern Ghana. This is mostly due to age hierarches which command respect in the form of silence regarding sexuality in inter-generational communication (Dankwa) As a remnant of the British colonial Criminal Law Amendment of 1885, the penal code section 145 defines sodomy as the act of “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature” or the permitting of a “male person to have carnal knowledge of him or her against the order of nature.” The code remains in the re-written 1965 Criminal Code of Ghana, which focuses primarily on the act of a male person.  The law is vague in regard to female same sex acts.

When discussing the lack of organizations specifically for women, and the lack of participation in NGO spaces with NGO leaders, often the conclusion was that the queer women did not have the same needs and or risks as men. “They don’t come to the events” and “we don’t know why!” exclaimed on NGO worker from a human rights organization, before concluding that “they don’t have the same needs as the men”. This conclusion reflects in part the different needs of queer women within the community, but also the lack of information regarding the needs of queer women in Ghana, including:  intimate partner violence, violence and control of female masculinity in the public sphere, the ways in which queer women are affected by HIV, the criminality of female same sex loving sexual acts, as well as the predominance of male leaders in the NGO community.

African feminist Sylvia Tamale explains that the body is a place of social control, and the idea that “constructing and perpetuating social power relations” is a part of the process of everyday structures of power (Tamale 2011). And more specifically, Black feminist theory highlights that such structures of power can be analyzed through the intersections of “mutually constructing features of social organization”, such as “systems of race, social class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, and age” (Hill Collins 2000: 299). Gender and sexuality mutually inform each other through what African feminist Sylvia Tamale describes as sexualized genders or gendered sexuality. It is therefore critically important that donors who are involved in funding queer projects pay attention to the specific nuances, needs, and desires of those they are trying to support.   Asking individuals to become visible through NGO participation is a huge risk and may cause stigma and material repurcussions for those already at the intersection of power dynamics in society. Focusing on bottom up initiatives which are centered on and led by queer women at whatever stage in their organizing are the most crucial, we must support those who take the risk to organize, in the most effective, sustainable, and dignified manner possible.

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