Imagining LGBTI Youth Leadership in Africa

March 22, 2016

Stephen Chukwumah is an AVAC collaborator in Nigeria, working on biomedical HIV prevention with key populations. Here he reflects on the need for an African LGBTIQ Youth leadership movement. (This blog first appeared on Alturi).

“Imagine if we had a movement that is led by young LGBTIQ Africans addressing the issues in Africa and doing research on how homosexuality has always been in African cultures,” says Stephen Chukwumah as he addresses his frustrations with the journey towards equality. “Then, a young person would have the right to say that he or she is gay.”

Stephen Chukwumah is a regional and international human rights activist working on issues affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) youth from Nigeria, his home country, and beyond. But in terms of age, how does the international human rights community define a young person, and more specifically, a young LGBTI person? Stephen may argue that this question and the issues at stake for the community need to be primarily addressed by youth like him.

At the age of 19, Stephen began his journey as a youth activist when he moved to eastern Nigeria to help form Improved Youth Health Initiative, an organization concerned with educating key populations like LGBTI youth on issues of sexual health and rights. Stephen grew up in the city of Lagos, to the west, where he was trained as a peer educator by the Lagos state government through their National Youth AIDS Program. He quickly began to develop an understanding for the needs of LGBTI people at home and felt that LGBTI Nigerians in the eastern part of the country, particularly young people, were facing a lack of resources in support of the same type of trainings and advocacy present in Lagos and the capital city Abuja.

While Stephen got his start as an activist for sexual and reproductive health rights at the local level in Nigeria, he has used his platform and knowledge to advocate for LGBTI youth at the regional and international levels as a member of the Global Forum on Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) & HIV’s Youth Reference Group and as an International Youth Activist for Advocates for Youth. One of the most pivotal moments for youth activists in Africa happened at the 2015 Changing Faces, Changing Spaces Conference in Kenya, where Stephen was invited last-minute to sit on a panel discussing issues affecting young LGBTI people. During this panel, young LGBTI Africans decided that their community needed a formal organization that could be a collective voice on a wide-range of issues affecting their youth-centric movement.

A major discussion point during the panel was the need to “change the narrative that is happening in Africa where they are saying that young people are being influenced into homosexuality,” says Stephen. “To let them say that no, that is not the case, young people are not being influenced into homosexuality, they are just now being given the opportunities, support and the space to talk about the issues that affect them.” The African Queer Youth Initiative, the organization formed as a result of these discussions, hopes to rewrite the painful and often dangerous narrative surrounding LGBTI youth across the region.

The initiative’s advisory board members and newly engaged young activists will hold their first organizing meeting on the margins of the Pan Africa ILGA Regional Conference in May 2016. While a main goal of the meeting will be to establish an organizational structure, Stephen says that it will also act as a forum for young LGBTI Africans to express the community’s greatest adversities. “Young people are turned away from their homes because their parents reject the idea of homosexuality, or they don’t feel comfortable staying home because it affects their mental well being,” says Stephen, addressing a multitude of intersecting factors. Stephen also says that it is important to remember that these issues become magnified if a young person is largely dependent on his or her family for economic survival or is HIV positive.

In addition to issues of homelessness, Stephen expects his fellow advocates to address how LGBTI youth in Africa are dealing with a wide-spread, multi-front battle against discrimination at school and in the home, HIV/AIDS, free access to condoms and lube, and drug addiction.

An overarching challenge faced by the African Queer Youth Initiative will be to dismantle the pervasive myth within the LGBTI community that young people are not responsible and professional enough to operate successful organizations and campaigns in their home communities.

“On a regional or local level, there is a competition for the little funds that are available to LGBTIQ communities in Africa,” says Stephen. “So activists already working on these issues don’t want the youth to interfere.” Stephen believes that young people need to be supported by the rest of the LGBTI community so that the movement as a whole can work towards securing fundamental human rights in Africa.

Stephen says that there is a popular saying in Nigeria: “It’s he who wears the shoe that knows where it hurts.” The LGBTI community at large may possess the willingness to work with their younger counterparts, but they must begin to build an inclusive atmosphere that gives the up-and-coming activists the space and encouragement they need to lead their grassroots movement, he believes.