As it stands, some 38 of Africa’s 55 countries still criminalise homosexuality, with South Africa being by default, the most accepting country within the African continent towards LGBT individuals, having outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation back in 1996. Before then, like in many countries in Africa, homosexuality was punishable by up to seven years in prison for men. LGBT women were not given as strict a punishment, however this was due to their sexuality not even being recognised, in line with the laws of other British colonies (yay England). In spite of its comparatively progressive nature, it is still estimated that as many as one in ten LGBT South Africans with the means to do so will leave the country for more liberal destinations such as the US, UK, and Australia.

To put things in perspective, an article published last year on the Global Post website looked at the nightmares of Africa’s LGBT refugees. Receiving death threats and persecution is normal for LGBT individuals living countries across Africa, making it a matter of survival to keep their homosexuality hidden.

(Left)Mbonimpa, 27, a gay man from the Democratic Republic of Congo shows one of the death threats a friend of his, a Ugandan LGBT refugee named David, has received on his cell phone. Image source: Jake Naughton/The GroundTruth Project
(Right)South Africa sends a message to parts of Africa at 2014 Gay Pride in Cape Town. Image source: Corinne Gans

These individuals faced such persecution and torment from their communities, and even from their own families, that the safest option was for them to flee to neighbouring countries.

“Raj, a gay teenager from Kampala, Uganda, was found kissing a boy in his high school locker room and the principal called an all-school assembly to shame him. The principal then ordered teachers to beat him. Afterward Raj’s father drove him to jail and asked police there to further punish him. After several days of beatings, the police released Raj, and he fled to Kenya.”

When Uganda announced its plans to further criminalise LGBT behaviour in 2014, there was a wave of gay Ugandans who looked to Kenya as a safe haven while they seeked asylum in other countries. However, this has turned out not to be the case. The Kenyan government announced an anti-terror security operation called “Operation Usalama Watch in March 2014, which directed all refugees to leave Kenya’s cities and instead were either jailed or forced into refugee camps.

While some LGBT individuals may still attempt to relocate to Kenya, for many this is just not an option. They must find a way to survive in an environment that remains intolerant and, at times, even hostile. And even though there have been changes to the legal atmosphere in many countries in Africa, homophobia is still rife across the continent.

Johan Meyer, health manager at Out, says that "When laws change, it doesn't mean that attitudes on the ground do. It often takes a bit of time for people to catch up." The strong religious component to African societies means that many people still view homosexuality as a sin, and as such it will take a long time for people’s opinions to change. If they ever do.

LGBT safe houses in Africa

Hostility towards homosexuality is fairly constant and consistent across the continent, making safe places for LGBT individuals to stay few and far between. The iThemba Lam LGBTI safe house was recently established by the Inclusive and Affirming Ministries on the outskirts of Cape Town in South Africa. In the local Xhosa language, iThemba Lam means “my hope,” and that’s what this safe house represents for many LGBT individuals. The two-bedroom centre provides refuge and counselling for at-risk sexual minorities from across the continent, as well as a safe place for residents to integrate their religious beliefs.

Cape Town pride 2014. Image source: Stephen Bekker Productions

Having first opened its doors in 2006, iThemba Lam was more of a safe shack rather than a safe house. With incidents of abuse, rape and being kicked out of their homes all too common in sub-Saharan Africa, current manager Bulelwa Panda began opening her home to affected individuals before iThemba Lam was established.

In Nigeria, the House of Rainbow organisation established a safe house for those LGBT individuals facing persecution in Nigeria. This safe house was opened in 2012, long before Nigeria enacted its latest repressive anti-gay law in January 2014. Since then it has provided shelter for those who needed somewhere to stay when they have faced violence within their own communities based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. They work to support those fleeing physical abuse or harassment, fear of being ostracised or being made homeless by their families. The House of Rainbow safe house also provides free counselling, welfare, support and free sexual health information, all for less the US $1 per person per night.

Unfortunately, many of these safe houses are closing down across Africa as they lack the support and funding to continue their work. If you, like us, feel that no individual should feel threatened or endangered due to their sexual orientation, get involved with our latest architecture competition. The Ugandan LGBT Youth Asylum is a chance to create designs for a youth centre that will act as an asylum for those young people who are no longer welcome in their own homes; a place where LGBT youths can go if they have been hurt or abused in any way, are looking for help or even just a place to meet other similarly affected individuals.

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