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Nowhere to Turn: Blackmail and Extortion of LGBT People in Sub-Saharan Africa

Edited by Ryan Thoreson and Sam Cook

New York: International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, 2011, 140 pp.

Nowhere to Turn does what no other research on LGBT people has managed to do: it documents with incontrovertible evidence that gays, lesbians, and gender-nonconforming people across sub-Saharan Africa suffer serious persecution, often by people they know well.

The stories told here are so compelling, it is difficult to put the document down. Seven experts on African LGBT culture have contributed new research to document the prevalence of blackmail and extortion in the lives of LGBT people on the continent. It is a common practice in countries where homosexuality is illegal to threaten closeted LGBT people with exposure unless they respond to demands of money, material goods, or other valuables. For example, 26 percent of men who have sex with men in Botswana report being victims of blackmail. Where LGBT people are vulnerable socially, in the nearly forty African nations that outlaw homosexuality, these men and women are targets for exploitation.

Example after example fill chapters covering Zimbabwe, Ghana, Nigeria, Malawi, and Cameroon. The perpetrators are usually people who know their targets personally. In the Malawi study, 95% of victims were acquainted with their blackmailers. Many of the victims are blackmailed by their own relatives, coworkers, or lovers.

The story of "Bola," a Nigerian woman, is unusual in that it demonstrates both extortion (demands for money, goods, or services under threat of violence) and blackmail (a threat to reveal a secret unless demands are met). A co-worker at the high school where Bola taught intercepted some of Bola’s emails to her lover and threatened to “out” her unless she turned over a portion of her monthly salary. Bola agreed, until the co-worker demanded more money. When Bola refused, the emails ended up with the male principal of the school, who extracted sexual favors from Bola for months before she fled the city, changed her name, and started a new life.

"Rashid," a Ghanaian man, ended a short-lived relationship with another man who then became his blackmailer. The man went to the police, claiming that Rashid had hired him for sex but that Rashid had refused to pay. Because the accuser carries the weight of presumptive innocence since he spoke up first, Rashid was put on the defensive with the authorities. In countries such as Ghana, where homosexuality is illegal, the police often become entangled with the blackmailers, using their power to extract a share of the money themselves.

Occasionally the threats, especially from extortionists, turn real, and LGBT people have been beaten, raped, and killed by their tormenters. The murky details surrounding the recent death of the Ugandan gay activist David Kato, demonstrate that even prominent LGBT activists are not immune to this frightening phenomenon.

The report's co-editors also shed light on the cultural context for blackmailing LGBT Africans. In Zimbabwe, for instance, what the researcher Oliver Phillips calls a "lineage-based culture," which prioritizes collective responsibility, clashes with a "modern" culture that values individual autonomy. When a woman marries a man, according to Phillips, the groom makes a "bridewealth" payment to her father or other male guardian. If as a lesbian she chooses not to marry, she effectively denies her male relatives resources and challenges the patriarchal structure in a real, not symbolic, way.

These stories are so disturbing that the report's findings would be heavily depressing had the editors not also included multiple recommendations on how to deal with these violations of human rights. The key leverage point for blackmailers is the threat of both social and criminal sanctions. Although blackmail is illegal in virtually every society, laws against blackmailing gays and lesbians are not always enforced in countries where homosexuality is perceived negatively. According to report editor Ryan Thoreson, the major reform that would stop blackmail of LGBT people is the decriminalization of homosexuality. This would remove the legal threat. However, legal reform alone would not guarantee protection for LGBT people. Social stigma continues to exist long after laws have been changed. African countries face a formidable challenge in re-educating their people about homosexuality.

Holding authorities accountable for human rights violations is another avenue of reform. Many African nations have adopted universal human rights language in their foundational legal documents, and claims that violations of sexual rights are violations of human rights certainly exist in such rights declarations. However, there is a philosophical, maybe even a legal, problem. According to Columbia University scholars Alice Miller and Carole Vance, as referenced in the report, human rights arguments depend on the perception of the victim as innocent and the perpetrator as guilty. Demanding redress is difficult in any culture that labels sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage as inherently noninnocent. Nowhere to Turn highlights this contradiction, as well as the urgency of finding thoughtful solutions to the profoundly troubling pervasiveness of persecution and harassment of LGBT Africans.

--Pam Chamberlain