When LGBT people took to the streets last year for the first-ever pride march in Eswatini, some hardly believed they could celebrate the event in a country where gay sex remains illegal.
Now rights activist Melusi Simelane plans to go further by timing such events to coincide with independence anniversary celebrations in September to draw attention to the country’s colonial-era law against sodomy.
“We are looking at the history of colonization and the common-law offense, which is a hangover of colonization,” Simelane told reporters on the sidelines of the One Young World forum in Britain.
“We want to celebrate our pride in September to say: ‘While you guys are saying you are free to be who you are because you are now an independent country, we also want to be free and let go of all those colonial laws,’” he said.
A spokesman for the government of Eswatini could not be reached for comment on Friday.
Governed by Africa’s last absolute monarch, Eswatini is an impoverished, land-locked nation of 1.5 million people that borders South Africa and Mozambique.
It gained independence from Britain in September 1968 and is among a number of African countries to retain colonial-era laws against gay sex, although it does not enforce them.
The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association says that LGBT people face pervasive discrimination and violence.
Stigma and prejudice are “rampant,” said Simelane, ranging from family life to jobs, healthcare and housing, while there is no legal protection from discrimination for LGBT people.
“If I wake up and am feeling ill and I go to a hospital, the fact that I have dreadlocks, the fact that I’ve got an earring, the fact that I’ve got nail polish — that’s an issue for the nurse, because now they are thinking of my sexual orientation,” he said.
“Because there is no legal recourse for that kind of stigma or discrimination or prejudice, it makes it easier for them to continue persecuting us,” he said.
Despite pledges from officials that they would not enforce the law on sodomy, its existence created fear, he said.
“It is like a gun that is pointing at us and [the government is saying]: ‘Our policy is not to shoot at you, but we are going to keep the gun there,’” he said.
Former British prime minister Theresa May last year said that she regretted Britain’s role in anti-gay legislation across its former colonies, saying such laws “were wrong then and they are wrong now.”
Commonwealth countries Botswana and Mozambique have dropped colonial anti-gay legislation in recent years.
The plan to move Eswatini’s pride rally to September is a departure from tradition. Such events are usually held in June to mark the Stonewall riots in New York in June 1969 that are popularly hailed as the birth of the modern LGBT movement.
Simelane was a driving force of the country’s first pride march two years ago and this year founded LGBT rights group Eswatini Sexual & Gender Minorities.
He said he was frequently the target of abuse and lived in fear, but remained hopeful for change and increased rights for LGBT people.
“I am afraid — obviously, we have to live in fear — but I am not afraid in a sense that I would then just pack up,” he said.
“I am going to stay here as far as it is safe for me... Because if I run, then who will do what I do?” he said.
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