Let Africa’s queer voices speak in the movement for climate justice

As the climate crisis intensifies in Africa, LGBTQIA+ people will struggle the most, ORTHALIA KUNENE, a South African writer and grass roots activist, writes in this guest post

Climate change affects every one of us on the planet but the burden of its consequences are vastly unequal.

While climate impacts are devastating for everyone, inequalities such as those between the rich and poor, and between different genders and sexualities, widen in times of crisis. The impacts are experienced in varying depths and extremes within – and between – communities.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), people who are already the most vulnerable and marginalised will experience the greatest impacts of the climate crisis. The lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and ally (LGBTQIA+) community is one such group, which, because of its social vulnerability, is a hidden victim of climate changes.

In Africa, LGBTQIA+ people are already more likely to live in poverty, have less access to basic human rights – such as the ability to move freely – and to face systematic violence, that escalates during periods of instability. There are more and more instances of violence and state repression, and as climate change intensifies, LGBTQIA+ people on the continent will struggle the most.

The Pride festival in Soweto, South Africa, in 2014. Photo by Siyachamer Ntuli

In the past two years, climate disasters have rampaged through the African continent, washing away homes, bridges, schools, and entire neighbourhoods. In Mozambique, since Cyclone Idai in 2019, there have been three more cyclones.

When Cyclone Idai hit landfall in Beira, Mozambique, it killed more than 1000 people across Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe, and left 2.6 million people in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. Catastrophic damage, caused by strong winds and extensive flooding, wiped away harvests and destroyed seed stocks. Millions lost their homes and livelihoods. Two years on, more than 8.7 million people do not have enough food or water, and over 100,000 people in Mozambique are still living in temporary shelters.

While devastating for all the communities impacted, those affected who are LGBTIQIA+ are even more vulnerable – because of pre-existing challenges based on the continuous fight for equal rights and freedom from discrimination and violence. There was a reminder of these challenges earlier this year in Cameroon, where more than two dozen people were arrested between February and April on charges of homosexuality, according to Human Rights Watch, and several of those arrested were subjected to beatings and other forms of abuse.

In the aftermath of the storms, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBTQI+) people found themselves at risk and were more significantly impacted. Having already lost their homes, food, possessions – and, in many cases, loved ones – these groups now faced increased sexual violence. Often, they were unable to reach medical centres. And because of  lack of data on these impacts, LGBTQI+ people, find themselves excluded from relief efforts, which further damages their ability to recover from shocks.

According to Silindile Mchunu, an activist from The Pink Panthers, an ecofeminism movement in South Africa, focusing on the intersection between gender and climate: “Marginalised people are always hit the hardest in the case of climate disasters. In Beira, a city that was decimated by Idai, the worst affected were lesbians who were living in poorly constructed shelters, vulnerable to sexual violence and corrective rape.

“Globally, LGBTQIA+ individuals are uniquely vulnerable to exclusion, violence, and exploitation because of the intersecting impacts of social stigma, discrimination as well as climate change. According to a recent legal survey, homosexual acts are punishable by death in 10 countries and are illegal in another 61.

“Eighty-nine other countries discriminate against LGBTQI individuals and families in other ways”, Silindile continued. “Same-sex couples and families are excluded from legal recognition, prevented from adopting children, or denied housing, employment, and services. Transgender people often face extreme discrimination and are even targets of corrective rape.”   

The effects of climatic changes already affect us all differently based on various factors – primarily, social and economic differences resulting in varying degrees of difficulty. LGBTQIA+ individuals are uniquely vulnerable to exclusion, violence, and exploitation because of the cumulative impacts of social stigma, discrimination, and hatred – especially in Africa. The social stigma around the LGBTQIA+ community also makes many social opportunities and infrastructures unavailable.

The Pride festival in Soweto, South Africa, in 2014. Photo by Siyachamer Ntuli

The most recent storm disaster in Mozambique was in January this year: Tropical Cyclone Eloise, which made landfall in Sofala Province. Previously the storm caused wind damage and flooding in parts of Madagascar, where at least one fatality was reported. In Mozambique, Eloise caused severe flooding in parts of Sofala Province but also affected Zambezia, Inhambane, and Manica provinces as it made its way west.

Mozambique’s National Institute for Disaster Risk Management and Reduction reported that more than 175,000 people have been affected by the passage of the storm.

During the storm, LGBTQI people were on the front line. They were among the hardest hit by the cyclone aftermath, too, as most LGBTQIA+ communities in Africa already faced homelessness because of discrimination and abuse from their families.

The roots of the climate crisis are intrinsically wrapped within the roots of multiple oppressions. Climate impacts have been demonstrated to have a direct and indirect impact on the effective enjoyment of a wide range of human rights, especially the rights of LGBTQI people who are often among those most adversely affected in an emergency. The catastrophic result is a sustained and disproportionately higher rate of morbidity and mortality among communities already burdened the most.

Silindile Mchunu of the Pink Panthers said: “LGBTQIA liberation must be held up as a core concept of climate justice organising. The African queer community has struggled for the longest time for their rights and visibility. Hence, they should be part of the climate change movement.”

To achieve climate justice for the LGBTQIA+ community, climate justice should not be a different struggle in the queer community. Queer voices and their liberation must be lifted in movements that address environmental crises.

The climate justice conversation lacks sufficient voices from marginalised groups. An intersectional approach to the impacts of environmental and climate crises is imperative to highlight how different marginalised groups define, relate, and respond to their realities.

More about Africa on People & Nature

South Africa: communities remember anti-mining activist Mama Ntshangase, and organise. By Hali Healy

South Africa: climate change intensifies gender-based violence. By Orthalia Kunene

2019: a year of record climate disasters in Africa. By Nnimmo Bassey

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Rains have displaced millions in Africa. Photo by Vadim Petrakov/ Shutterstock

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