Just because I’m not like you, does not make me less human!

I can distinctly remember the first time I saw a TV news article on Gay rights. The year was 1988 and it was a short report on Sweden’s recognition of same-sex unions aired on ‘Voice of Kenya’ (now The Kenya broadcasting Corporation). I must have been 12 or so. What I realised then and was struck by the most were the images of the Swedish LGBT community, openly and proudly professing their orientation. More so, the sight of drag queens in full regalia was especially a revelation to me. I observed the contempt expressed by the News anchor, which brought home the reality of being gay in an African country. I swore there and then that I would address the prejudice associated with Homosexuality.

10 years later (1997), I started ISHTAR a Community Based Organization Working with Men Who Have Sex with Other Men (MSM) on HIV, STIs and Reproductive Health Rights. Obviously, I could not openly address Gay rights, so I disguised our group as a theatre troupe. Our crowning glory came when we performed CLEOPATRA, Kenya’s first full drag act! The Egyptian ambassador was even present on opening night!

I moved to the Netherlands in 2001 and quickly realized that despite the legal freedom and an amazingly tolerant attitude towards homosexuals, there was a serious issue of homophobia and intolerance within the African migrant community. There also did not seem to be any counter measures against this. It took a while, but in 2008, Stichting African Gay Youth Foundation was born.

It was of course not easy to start-up and I must admit that we almost gave up a few times on the way. Eventually, hope came in the shape of the ICCO, who approved our project proposal on promoting Community dialogue and partnership in late 2009. One of the issues we had identified as group, was the lack of visibility of  Black/African LGBT community, and we went about addressing this. We decided to participate in events dominated by the migrant communities e.g. Summer Carnivals, Festivals and such. Since the inception of the African Gay Youth Foundation, I had been actively pursuing our participation in the Amsterdam Canal pride, but that seemed like a long shot.

After a stack of polite “We regret…” letters, we finally got an email from PROGAY requesting a meeting, as ‘They’ were interested in the idea, of an African boat in the 2010 Amsterdam Canal pride. We were thrilled at this opportunity, although there were some doubts about such generosity – few mutterings of the phrase “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”.

I am not one to look at gift horses in the mouth and, the real drama of presenting African homosexuals to the world started in earnest. It came as a big shock, to me to discover that the normally vocal activists and members of the Foundation, were not willing to be on the boat! Sex is a taboo subject in African societies, making Homosexuality, definitely not to be seen or heard.

I realized that there was a big chance of violence, from within our community, if they saw it as “airing our dirty laundry in public”. It is fine for others to discuss homosexuality, but not Africans. A member of the Foundation succinctly put it, as we will be attacked as “traitors” and “un-African”. We will be accused of promoting homosexuality, though it is not our intention what-so-ever.  “We are not promoting homosexuality, we are promoting human rights.

Through our network (pleading, begging, shameless flattery, guilt trips, etc), we were able to round-up an amazing contingent of 78 individuals, who were willing to brave the expected backlash from the African community. We also had an amazing team who coordinated the PR – I was busy doing print, radio and TV interviews in the run-up to the pride event, and for the first time, I was able to voice my feelings on the situation in Africa, within our community here. There was also the small issue of costumes, makeup, transport, first aid, music, etc. I do not think I actually slept properly for a month!

The day of the pride dawned and it was wet, cold and raining with a vengeance. It seemed that our hopes of making history as the first African group at the Amsterdam pride were destined to remain that – hopes. Therefore, it was with trepidation that the small group of hard-core activists made our way to the Boat. I cannot describe to you what I felt when I got my first glimpse of the boat… It was utterly packed and despite the miserable weather, there was a party going full blast! I must admit that it was not just the rain that made my face wet!

The theme was African warriors – with suitably brief loincloths and spears and beautifully painted shields. I was naturally, the warrior Queen. The actual parade was a blur to me – it felt surreal to have the support of so many people. At the time, I felt that all the trials we had gone through in the preparation of the event were nothing.

The first African presence at the Amsterdam Canal pride was definitely a success. The press had glowing reports of our participation. A few links can be found on our webpage, while more pictures can be found here.

For those who made all this possible, I say a big THANK-YOU, or ASANTE SANA, in Swahili.

Sincerely Yours, Toni La Tegola (2011).

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