Browse Category: Thought Leadership


Interview with Omar Thomas, Jazz Composer of Monumental LGBT Civil Rights Hymn, “We Will Know”

I recently got the chance to interview award-winning composer, Omar Thomas, about his new album, ‘We Will Know’, a monumental work of art that breathes new life into the word “movement”.

We Will Know Omar Thomas LGBT Civil Rights

Following the success of his debut release, I Am, Omar secured a grant in 2013 to compose, arrange, and produce an album to reconcile the perceived incongruities between LGBT and Black communities in the United States.

Per the virtual release event, existing at the intersection of black civil rights and LGBT civil rights, “We Will Know” is a historic, first-of-its-kind original work which invokes genres of music unique to the black American experience as a way of underscoring the experiences of LGBT persons in America over the past 90 years.

In Omar’s artist statement, he states: “The beauty and madness of this work is that it is a composition based on juxtaposition, promoting a social movement written in a genre (jazz) pioneered by a group that historically has an aversion to the group for which the piece is created. Though it is written in solidarity with the LGBT movement, it is anchored by styles and songs created by and for the African-American experience.”

Each of the four movements plays a specific role in framing the realities of LGBT persons across the country.

  • The first movement, “Hymn,” is a rallying protest song – that glue which holds together all significant social movements – which the LGBT movement has been without for all these years.
  • The second movement, “In Memoriam,” is a brief elegy that commemorates the lives of those lost and those facing real danger in the face of ignorance and fear.
  • The longest of the movements, “Meditation,” provides the listener a safe place for reflection and catharsis.
  • And, the final movement, “May 9th, 2012,” combines the original hymnsong with Charles Albert Tindley’s iconic black civil rights song, “We Shall Overcome,” to celebrate the day an American president (and also our first black president) first publicly supported marriage equality.

LGBT civil rights are at the forefront of contemporary social and political discourse. The power of music to serve, inspire, and archive movements is a necessary part of that conversation, one that Omar Thomas, a hauntingly talented musician and self-described ‘artivist’ is committed to facilitating through his music.

On Music, Movements, and Identity: Interview with Black and Gay Composer, Omar Thomas

SPECTRA: I’m gonna get right into it… “We Will Know: An LGBT Civil Rights Piece in Four Movements.” That’s a bold title! And, if I must say, such a beautiful gift to black LGBT people, or any of us who live our lives at the intersection. What inspired the project?

OMAR: I got the idea to compose an LGBT civil rights piece after numerous failed attempts at sounding intelligible on an “It Gets Better” video.

SPECTRA: No… Haha! Really?

OMAR: True story. I really wanted to contribute to the message and success of the “It Gets Better” campaign, but couldn’t find the words. I’m not a writer. I’m a musician. So it dawned on me in that moment — that music is a language at which I’m adept, my chosen language of love and protest. I mean, clearly I was failing so miserably in English while trying to make that video. So I decided right then and there that I’d made my contribution to groundswell of awareness and support – “the movement’ – using my natural talent: music.

SPECTRA: Mmm, I love that. It’s a really beautiful thing to witness someone stepping so boldly into their purpose. Did you ever imagine you would release an album like this?

OMAR: To be able to communicate so effectively using music is a gift. It only made sense that my contributions to human rights take the form of a musical statement. And honestly, the creation of this piece felt inevitable, really, as if my growth as a composer, educator, and socially-conscious citizen were all leading to the creation of this work.

We Will Know Banner

SPECTRA: This is your second album. Your first won a Boston Music Award in 2013 for Best Jazz Artist. You’ve called ‘We Will Know’ one of your most important pieces of work to date. What hopes do you have for the EP?

OMAR: From the side of the music, I hope the movements in ‘We Will Know’ highlight the gamut of emotions that have underscored the LGBT civil rights struggle – and triumphs – of the past century. I want the experience of listening to the album to feel like catharsis, of the personally political kind.

SPECTRA: The album is definitely a conversation starter.

OMAR: Music is a commonality we all share. It’s just one of many, many commonalities we all share. And its universality makes it the ideal ambassador for the connections we share across experiences. And its convening power bring us all closer to the ideas of oneness, a singular human story that I truly believe is at the nucleus of the human experience.

SPECTRA: Omar, you teach “Harmony” at Berklee College of Music. (smile). Can you explain – to those of us with a limited jazz vocabulary — what that means? Listening to you talk about music, movements, and unity, it seems fitting as the name of a class you would teach!

OMAR: *laughs* Harmony at Berklee College of Music is the study of contemporary music theory. The study of melody, harmony, and rhythm in popular song. As music mirrors life and vice versa, I always find creative ways to discuss various aspects of life in my classes.

SPECTRA: Speaking of teaching, has your identity as a black gay man influenced or impacted your role as an educator in any way?

OMAR: I’d like to think it has been positive. I have a simple personal mandate: to live authentically and to do the best I can, as an educator, as a musician, and as a citizen, so that those who feel empowered by the labels of “gay,” “black,” and the combination of the two will feel seen, uplifted. I’m not the only gay black musician out there. There are many who came before me, whose shoulders I stand on, and more will come afterwards. I honour them by being visible.

SPECTRA: Somewhat related. On visible black and LGBT icons. Each year during black history month, I see the same names of Black and LGBT leaders mentioned e.g. James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Bayard Rustin etc. Many writers, political activists etc. As a young, gay, black, and aspiring musician, who did you look up to?

OMAR: Billy Strayhorn. Hands down. The right hand man to the great Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington. So great was his talent, his poise, and his presence that literally no one cared about his orientation. Okay, maybe they did but they got over it. Who knows. I’m sure he had his own share of struggle. But he never minced words about his sexuality, nor did her ever hide. In the early half of the 20th century. In America. As a black man. As a gay, black man. What courage! His story has always resonated with me.

SPECTRA: I have to ask… especially given that you’re a black and gay musician who’s just released an EP calling for equal rights. And Macklemore just won a Grammy for Same Love. Where do you stand on musical accolades being about the music vs. the political messages they convey? Can we, actually, separate them?

OMAR: For me, being a musician, or a chef, or a writer, or a painter, or a dancer, is all about authenticity and vulnerability. If one’s art is to ring true, one’s identity must ring true THROUGH one’s art.

Anyone who is using their voice to further ideas of universality and oneness deserves to be commended, but only if they do so with respect to context, meaning where their contribution fits in the narrative of those who’ve come before them in this fight.

That being said, a positive message is a positive message, and good music is good music. These two concepts are mutually exclusive. If a work is to be critiqued based on the strength of its message, then so be it. If it is to be critiqued on its musical strengths and merits, so be it. If both are present and are formidable, all the better.

SPECTRA:Anything else you’d like folks to know?

OMAR: I’m encouraging everyone to start using the hashtag #iamtheintersection to continue the dialog about multiple identities, shared history, and oneness. You can follow me at @omarthomasmusic on Twitter and Facebook/omarthomasmusic to join the conversation.

Do yourself a favour and listen to the first movement, “Hymn” below. (I’m in tears every single time!)

‘We Will Know: An LGBT Civil Rights Piece in Four Movements’ is now available for purchase on iTunes. A limited number of commemorative physical copies, which include comprehensive 4-page timeline of milestones of the LGBT movement over the past century, are also available for order on the official Omar Thomas website,

African Women in Tech: Abake, Lead Developer of SpeakYoruba App

African Women in Tech: Learn More about SpeakYoruba App Developer, Abake Adenle

In my last post about the challenges of learning African languages in adulthood, I mentioned that there aren’t as many resources available to help people (re)learn African languages (as compared to the suites of products available to learn western or eastern languages like French, Spanish, Mandarin, etc).

However, due to innovations in e-learning — including the use of smartphones, this is changing; African language learning resources are becoming more readily available and accessible to not just Africans, but the entire world.

Take for instance a new app developed by mobile content developer AJA.LA: SpeakYoruba is the first in a series of mobile apps aimed at preserving and promoting African languages. According to the site:

“SpeakYoruba is perfect for kids young and old looking to build a basic Yoruba vocabulary, or for anyone with an interest in African culture, music and heritage!”

As the African diaspora continues to expand its borders, the need to promote and preserve African languages becomes increasingly important. Through the SpeakAfrica Apps project, the team aims to develop a series of apps capturing the aesthetic beauty of African culture and providing a modern platform linking Africa’s diaspora with heritage African culture.

I recently interviewed the lead developer for the SpeakYoruba app, Abake Adenle, a Nigerian diaspora living in the U.S. about her motivation for developing the app, including its reception so far.

Side Note: I must say, I was already pretty excited to have discovered the app, but I was even more thrilled to learn a women tech entrepreneur was behind it. We need more e-language-learning tools for African languages in the world, but we need more African women entrepreneurs in technology and innovation, too. #proud

Check out the short interview with Abake Adenle posted below.

SPECTRA: This app has created a way to connect Diaspora to their home countries, namely first generation Yoruba Nigerians for now. How much pressure are you getting from other Nigerians to produce apps for the other languages?

ABAKE: A lot! Before the app launched Techloy (Nigeria’s top tech blog) posted about the app and numerous people on twitter started asking about when a version for their language would be made available. Since the app launched in the Apple App store, I’ve asked users to provide feedback on additional features and updates for the app, and beyond developing a version for Android, expansion to other languages has been the most frequent request.

SPECTRA: Do you have any interesting stats on the users who have downloaded the app so far? Where are they based? Age range? Nigerian or other Diaspora?

ABAKE: The majority of downloads come from the US and UK (with most coming from the US) and only a handful of downloads coming from Nigeria, which is pretty much in line with my expectations and broader app download trends. I think the most interesting “trend” I’ve noticed is interest in the app from what I call the “young adult” demographic. I initially designed the app with children in mind thinking their parents would download the app for their kids, but so far most of the downloads seem to come from “young adults” looking to build basic Yoruba language skills.

SPECTRA: Which other languages are in the pipeline? (Don’t worry, we won’t hold you to it)

ABAKE: At the moment, I am working on adding more cool features and tools to SpeakYoruba, developing a version for Android and hopefully expanding to include more languages popular across West and East Africa :)

SPECTRA: Beyond teaching people the basics of African languages? Do you see any other uses for the app thus far? 

ABAKE: I think SpeakYoruba is a great platform for presenting various aspects of Yoruba culture in a modern way. For example the app’s soundtrack is a Yoruba folk song performed by Baba Ken Okulolo, one of Nigeria’s high-life legends. The song is one of the things people say they like most about the app and I am extremely happy to be able to use a Yoruba song/a piece ofYoruba culture many children may not get the chance to hear in a way that is modern, fun and educational.

SPECTRA: It’s refreshing to see African women in technology. Most power lists in technology coming out of Africa contain men predominantly? Your thoughts?

ABAKE: It is unfortunate that more women aren’t part of the “tech scene”, especially in Africa. However, I think it is important that women who are there now, women like Sheryl Sandberg and Ory Okolloh, should be recognized. Also, there are numerous programs in place outside and within Africa encouraging women to participate in technology. Hopefully, with each new generation, we’ll see more and more women becoming part of the tech scene.

SPECTRA: What are some of YOUR favorite apps? 

ABAKE: My favourite apps are usually news-related (New York Times, Bloomberg, etc.) or just good old iBooks as I have been reading more and more books on my iPad. One standout app for me is BeatSneak Bandit, a fantastic game by Swedish gaming company Simogo; it’s pretty addictive!

SPECTRA: Anything else you’d like people to know? 

ABAKE: I am currently running a promotion where anyone who sends proof of download (a screenshot showing the SpeakYoruba app icon) to will receive a free “I Can Speak Yoruba” t-shirt or tote bag! I am very pleased with the feedback the app has received so far and am looking forward to updating the app with more and more features and expanding to more languages. Download links can be found at!

SPECTRA: How do you say, Love Is My Revolution, in Yoruba? 

ABAKE (taking the hint…): Download the app ;)


Check out the SpeakYouruba App trailer below:

"This is me not caring."

Straight Allies, White Anti-Racists, Male Feminists (and Other Labels That Mean Nothing to Me)

“You only know my name. You don’t know my story…” 

Afrofeminism: The What vs. The How

I’m often asked to elaborate (and in some cases, “define”) afrofeminism. I’ve spoken about how afrofeminism informs my work, explored themes about Love and Afrofeminism series on this blog, and I regularly share afrofeminist perspectives on current affairs and pop culture with my fans on Facebook.

From the work that I do and from the things that I say, I’ve seen quite a number of people over the past year or so been calling themselves Afrofeminists. In fact, just very recently, someone sent me a letter thanking me for offering her a new way to think about her own identity. She asked permission to call herself an afrofeminist because she dug my approach and could relate to most of my commentary, even though she actually had no idea what it meant! It turns out that connecting with people — or even inspiring them — doesn’t start and end with what you are but who you are.

So have I put forth a single definition? No. A single definition (of a single label, among many others I might add) wouldn’t actually help anyone get to know me. I rarely introduce myself using labels; I tell stories, instead… about growing up in Nigeria, about the first time I fell in love, and about the friendships my coming out broke then repaired. I’m so much richer experienced as a complex, whole being than as a cluster of politically correct, ideologically pure sentiments.

“Hi, my name is Spectra, and I’m an afrofeminist”? It would almost feel like cheating: here’s this cute little label that sounds like an amalgamation of afro and feminist, meaning she must have an afro and she must be feminist, and somehow that’s supposed to serve as a shortcut for people to actually get to know who I am. And then, I‘m supposed to gather in large numbers with people who dig the afro and/or the “feminist” and because we totally understand each other, we’ll be better equipped to change the world. Ha! That almost always backfires.

(Don’t believe me? Ask the white “women’s” movement. They still can’t seem to agree on what being a woman means, and are constantly up in arms about which women are being represented, silenced, side-lined etc. Meanwhile, non-women/everybody else is getting away with murder while women are figuring this out).

Straight Allies, White Anti-Racists, Male Feminists, Blablabla

Now don’t get me wrong; labels can be very useful in facilitating initial connections. But people get so hung up on them, activists especially. And as a society, we’ve become so narrowly focused on the theoretical “what” at the expense of the practical “how” of creating change, we’ve forgotten that change happens primarily through our personal relationships, not just passionate rhetoric.

The use of identity labels (the “what”) to build unity and shared understanding often sidelines the need to actually explore complexities and difference i.e. just “how” said identities intersect and manifest in different contexts; since a single word can carry so many subjective meanings for different people, movements are often stumped or stunted the minute they realise that not everyone’s “how” is the same or — even worse — not even functioning.

The Curious Case of “Allies” In General

If my detest for words and definition stems from anything at all it’s the “allies” I’ve experienced in both my personal life and my work as an activist. I’ve met hundreds of “white allies,” for instance, many of who profess their “consciousness” via some digital channel (e.g. an overly serious twitter bio or utopia-inspired vision statement) or, in person, via some self-congratulatory speech masquerading as a relevant anecdote… especially when surrounded by women of color.

“We white allies have so much work to do,” they’d go. “Women of color shouldn’t always have to be our teachers.” When I first heard this tune, it was music to my ears, and oh boy did I fall for it. It worked every. single. time.

“Oh my god, yes!” I’d exclaim, “Wow – truth! You’re seriously my favorite person right now!” (‘Cause it was my turn to offer music to their ears.) In retrospect, I realize that many of my initial responses to white allies were pre-programmed — a socialised reaction to ensuring that white women never lingered too long in their vulnerability without affirming their “goodness.” I resisted any responses that would risk making white people feel wrong–or exposed–in their self-righteousness. In fact, making them feel like they needed to *do* anything at all to earn my trust and respect as a woman of color always felt more like a risk than an opportunity. So I’d find myself dishing out exaggerated, empty, endorsements, couching my emotions in the elation I felt at even just the idea that a segment of white people had taken it upon themselves to give a damn about me.

But, here’s the thing: half the time, I never ever remembered their names, or remembered any of our conversations moving beyond the scope of the burden of racial consciousness they had taken up for themselves as “the good white people.” In fact, it took me quite a while to figure out that most of the “white allies” I’d meet in social change spaces (never – NEVER – at work, or at the grocery store, or in my regular every day life) were only ever “white allies” around women of color, and mainly to seek my/our approval.

I’ll never forget this one time a “white ally” had offered to volunteer at a professional networking event I was hosting for women of color a few years back; she’d insisted that she wanted to “do her part in supporting queer women of color community” by showing up and offering her help. She justified this act of good will with all the right rhetoric too: women of color rarely get this space, as a white ally I’m happy to do labor etc. Honestly, I felt so relieved and grateful for her support. I had no idea that her “help” would become my burden for the entire duration of the event.

It’s as though the minute she walked in, all eager and ready to be put to work, she realised that there’d actually be no more than a handful of white people at the event, and became really uncomfortable. “Oh wow, I’m one of the few white people, here…,” she said awkwardly, as she set down her bag and coat, “So cool.” [Replace with “Fuck! I’m not ready for this.”] So what did she do? This seemingly racially-conscious, well-meaning white ally followed me around like a nervous baby duckling for the entire event.  Yup, the entire event. She was so nervous about being left on her own to mingle and – god forbid – socialize with any of the women of color at the event, that she didn’t give me a single moment to have conversations with anyone else but her. Over 100 women of color attended my event that evening, and I don’t think I was able to really connect with any one of them because I had an over-eager, jittery, nervous white girl all up in my business every single minute.

I learned very quickly that being a “white ally” had nothing to do with how I, as a woman of color, needed them to show support when it mattered. Shoot, it was in a conference room of “white allies” that I found myself on the verge of tears (of anger and frustration), my voice shaking as I tried to explain to a privileged white gay dude that doing community outreach to people of color for a program that claimed to be advocating for diversity wasn’t a “distraction.” The “white allies” in the room sat back and watched the carnage as I pushed, and I fought, and I fell back, defeated. Then the “white allies” came to me after the meeting was over and denounced their brethren — “privileged white guy, he needs to do a lot of work on himself.” Apparently, being a white ally meant reminding women of color that they weren’t “those kinds” of white people, that they had our backs, just only ever in private, conveniently away from any of the actual emotional work involved in standing up to racism.

But here’s an afrofeminist principle for ya… “Relationships Over Rhetoric”

Don’t get me wrong — not all people who identify as “allies” do such a terrible job. I know dozens of self-identifying “allies” who hold themselves to a much higher standard, and actually practice their values. (Stay tuned, I’m running a series of interviews with them in June!). That said, terming oneself an ally doesn’t necessarily imply this standard. Some of my closest friends and family are the fiercest “allies” I have, but they’d never call themselves that. They’d insist, instead, that they’re being considerate, trying to get to know me better, or, as one of my best white guy friends says, “resisting against the default of being an asshole.” And you know what? I prefer it that way.

Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I’d rather experience people–and their politics–through unlikely, awkward, strained, challenging, beautiful relationships built over time. That way, when we do clash or differ, we love each other enough to express the full range of our raw emotions – cry, yell, storm out – and always return to build the deeper, more intimate connections we need to take on the world together, truly united.

When someone fights for me, I want them to do so because they care about me as an individual – or as someone who reminds them of someone else that they care about – not just as some abstract theoretical concept. I’d rather that the “white allies”, the “straight allies”, the “male feminists” of the world do the work to build authentic relationships based on real love and respect, not just politically correct lexicon and rhetoric.

So, despite starting off as an activist who was really excited about the concept of “allies”, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found less use for words and definitions in social justice; labels like feminists, anti-sexists, radicals, allies etc simply don’t mean much to me anymore. Though I certainly see these ideas/concepts as a way of connecting with others initially, ultimately, relationships that last aren’t sustained by what you are to each other, but  how you treat each other.

Falling back on words and phrases that are intended to convey some sort of ideological purity won’t ever trump the transformation you’ll  experience within yourself (and others) if you truly put yourself out there — if you dare to be vulnerable, admit wrongs, take responsibility for your blind spots, hold your damn self accountable, an not for show, but for real.

So, screw the definitions; experience the ideas and world views through the relationships we build with people. Let’s commit to living in principle, and remain mindful of the core values that help us navigate our lives in the gray. Let’s embrace ambiguity, and its potential for unearthing surprise and disappointment in equal measure, because only through the natural bombardment that arises when we converse with strangers, can we learn more about the world, and about each other.

Gay Pride Jozi

A Gay Zulu Wedding and the Danger of a Single LGBT African Story

Male and Married: The Gay Zulu Wedding and the Danger of a Single LGBT African Story

In case you missed it, a few weeks ago, two gay black South African men tied the knot at their 200-guest traditional wedding in KwaDukuza, the first of its kind in the old Zulu capital.

Gay Zulu Wedding LGBT AfricaLove birds Tshepo Modisane and Thoba Sithole, both proudly Zulu and Tswana, have made their union a part of South Africa’s history by deciding to go public with their gay African traditional wedding ceremony, with a few twists:

In place of the customary lobolo (bride price or dowry), via which the husband customarily offer’s the wife’s family money and/or gifts, they’ve decided to opt for gender parity and, instead,  offer gifts to each of their families in thanks for raising them. They also plan to use the hyphenated version of both their last names, Sithole-Modisane, and are planning to start a family soon using a surrogate (though this report says they’ll be adopting.)

In the video report (below), the couple shares, “It’s against this idea that being gay is unAfrican… Being gay is as African as being black. We are a part of our culture. Thoba is Zulu and I’m Tswana. We’re rooted in our culture and very excited about it.”

On paper, South Africa boasts the friendliest constitution, which protects its lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) citizens from discrimination based on race, gender and sexual orientation. Yet, the country’s struggle to shift cultural attitudes towards acceptance for this marginalized group of people, especially in rural areas and townships, remains.

According to this Human Rights Watch report, “Black lesbians and transgender men in South African townships and rural areas face an overwhelming climate of discrimination and violence despite protections promised them in the country’s constitution.” It’s no wonder, then, that the mere optics of the “first gay traditional African wedding,” warrant its celebration as a historical milestone for gay Africans everywhere.

Denis Nzioka, founder and editor of Identity Kenya, a news organization covering sexual and gender minorities in Kenya, remarked in an interview, “The gay Zulu wedding was epic, if not pioneering. Having seen the video and photos and customs I was amazed at how the two mixed their love and celebrated it in an ‘African’ way.” And in response to what’s become a slogan amongst anti-gay African leaders, “Homophobia is unAfrican,” Nzioka insists that “the fact that two African men can fall in love and wed, despite a homophobic society that frowns on same-sex relationships counters what many Africans [have been] saying’.”

The Danger of a Single LGBT African (Male, Middle-Class, and Marriage-Focused) Story

The Danger of a Single Gay African LGBT StoryChimamanda Adichie, a celebrated Nigerian writer said in her famous TEDTalk, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes, is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”

Hence, as the media continues to hail this single occurrence as a milestone, it becomes critical that supporters of the LGBTI African movement for equality consider this single narrative exists within the context of many others.

For instance, the video report states that the two gay black men are based in the metropolitan city of Johannesburg and are working professionals in the fields of financial services and IT. That’s not to imply they’ve been in any way exempt from experiencing the debilitating impact of societal discrimination–far from it; the effects of homophobia (compounded with racism, as the couple is black) on the livelihood of people presumed to be LGBTI can result in workplace discrimination, prejudice in health care, not to mention depression, anxiety, even suicide.

Still, there’s a huge difference between the experience of being a “regular looking” cisgender male employee, at a “Big Four” financial consulting firm, in a  fairly liberal city that boasts the largest gay pride in the country, versus the harsh reality of a trying to make ends meet in a poor township, while also fearing rape for being a lesbian, or murder for being an effeminate gay man.

In a piece written for a South African LGBT publication last year, the author shared comments from a young, black, gay-identified male, who disagreed with South Africa’s reputation as a progressive state (emphasis in bold added by me):

“When you have money, it’s quite easy to set yourself free from discrimination and danger,” Junior says. “Many of the white gay and lesbian people here can afford to reside in a safe and progressive area, but the majority of us live in townships. In openly embracing your sexuality there, you run the risk of getting abused, raped or murdered.” Junior’s statement emphasizes that gay and lesbian equality in South Africa is strongly mediated by race and class, and that sexual freedom is often available to those who have the racial and literal capital to afford them.

In light of the struggles of LGBTI Africans, the desire to celebrate any kind of progress – especially when it comes in the form of a gleeful Zulu wedding – is understandable; the vibrant ceremony presented a sharp contrast to the media’s grim and, at times, gruesome depiction of violent homophobia on the African continent. However, it is dangerous to assign wide-sweeping gains to all LGBTI Africans based on the perceived victory of a few. 

What of gay Africans who view marriage as the least of their problems – young people, for instance, who have been disowned by their families and, above all, seek a stable alternative to homelessness? What about transgender women who experience rejection (and violence) from both gay and straight communities alike? And lesbians–forced to live in fear of so-called “corrective rape”–will marriage mean social acceptance for them, too?

If we’ve learned anything from criticism of the same sex marriage equality movement in the U.S., it’s that too much emphasis on marriage as a pathway to acceptance could only end up benefiting a small segment of the LGBTI community (e.g. gay men, or members of the middle class–while the groups most at-risk e.g. women, youth, transgender people, etc.–are likely to go unheard, and even unfunded.

A Nigerian lesbian activist (who prefers to remain anonymous) remarked on the unwillingness of many global human rights funders to support ‘less popular’ LGBTI programs:

“If you’re not doing HIV/AIDS work, forget it. Funders are mainly interested in gay men because of that. With women, we are not seen as much as being affected by these issues. And there is no research on Nigerian gay women to suggest otherwise, so we are at a disadvantage. Our organization provides a safe haven for lesbians and bisexual women to be out, be themselves, meet other women. We organize social events, movie nights, you name it. I know it is saving lives. But the funders don’t seem to feel that way because we are not in the news.”

Nigeria’s recent move to further criminalize homosexuality has no doubt sent even more LGBTI Nigerians back into the closest, making the need for safe social spaces even more critical. In this country, a publicly staged wedding is punishable by imprisonment for up to 14 years, and in the north, death. Hence, before the media declares the gay Zulu wedding as progress for the LGBTI African movement, it must ask itself, “What does progress for LGBTI people in other African countries (or even different groups of Africans within South Africa) look like?”

LGBTI African Activists Propose a Multi-Country, Multi-Issue Approach to Advocacy

Florence Xhaxas, founder and director of the gender justice organization, Young Feminist Movement, Namibia, warns against zero-ing in on the struggles – and progress – of a single African country at the expense of others:

“As much as I feel [the wedding video] is great for South Africans, the feeling isn’t shared by all LGBT people across the continent. The truth is that [South Africans] have mastered the art of amplifying their voices and documenting cases.”

To Xhaxas’ point, while stories from South Africa and Uganda continue to shape western media’s narrative about the LGBTI African movement, other countries experiencing their own share of hardships and progress go unnoticed. For instance, the murder of Ugandan LGBT rights activist David Kato sparked global outrage while the brutal torture and slaying of a gay Tanzanian community organizer, Maurice Mjomba barely received attention. Similarly, while South African women are perpetually victimized via “corrective rape” coverage, uprisings by lesbians in other countries, such as Namibia, and Malawi, aren’t likely to make headlines.

Says Xhaxas, “How can we improve documentation [in other countries]? How can we make sure that media hype is created for all the struggles we go through? And hold other states in the lime light of the global community’s responsibility to protect all citizens?”

To be sure, the cultural significance of the gay Zulu wedding video — the power of media, itself–cannot be ignored; LGBTI Africans all over the world were able to see their relationships affirmed in the media – a rarity. Denis Nzioka puts it best when he says, “Greater positive media portrayal of LGBT Africans has been proven to change people’s perception. As one of my close friend lesbian friend once quipped ‘Kenya’s often mild acceptance of homosexuality can be attributed, in some small way, to two persons – Will & Grace.’”

Given the impact a single video has had on recent conversations about homosexuality in Africa, among Africans at that, it goes without saying that proponents of LGBTI equality on the African continent, should more intentionally support LGBTI African media advocacy organizations and initiatives – the writers, journalists, digital media producers, and artists that risk backlash for daring to critique the world as it is, while imagining and inspiring the future as it could be.

Jabu Pereira, founder and executive of director of Iranti, a media advocacy organization based in South Africa emphasizes the importance (and threat) of LGBTI Africans using media to influence change:

“We must end the ongoing ignorance of states who continue to encourage systemic violence, we simply can’t afford this. We must not stop documenting the human rights violations we experience as LGBTI persons in Africa.. even when we are threatened…”

The media frenzy around this milestone should in no way serve as a distraction from supporting less visible, less “newsworthy” forms of activism. It should, in fact, galvanize allies to support more LGBT African organizations across the continent – not just South Africa or Uganda – that work on behalf of constituencies who fight for the most at-risk of their communities, and whose victories and milestones comprise the mundane of daily survival.

 Watch the Video Below:

Caribbean Jamaican Feminists

Celebrating Audre Lorde with Jamaican Feminists: Activism, Self Care, and Virtual Sisterhood

Caribbean Jamaican Feminists“What specific things do you do for self-care? What does your routine look like?”

I was asked this question today while participating as a virtual guest at an Audre Lorde appreciation event just outside of Kingston, Jamaica. The event was hosted by SO(UL) HQ, a collective which creates alternative community spaces for discussion and exploration of the arts, culture, spirituality, and social justice.

Each month, SO(UL) HQ invites community members to an informal social activity in physical and/or virtual spaces called HQs–e.g. for film viewings, discussions, creative workshops, etc–then the organizers facilitate a cross-movement conversation with contributions from international guests, who can participate virtually via Skype.

In celebration of Audre Lorde, black lesbian activist, writer, poet and historical icon, who wrote about writing and self-care (including one of my favorite poems, “A Litany for Survival”), I’d been invited–along with Kim Katrin Crosby (activist and co-founder of the People Project)–to speak about my work as a writer and media activist, as well as elaborate on my ideas about using Love and Afrofeminism as a framework for social justice.

From Attempted Suicide Survivor to Media Activist

For my opening remarks, I shared the story about my struggle to come to terms with my sexuality as a Nigerian woman on a very white, American campus. I spoke of the severe depression I experienced as I continually failed at locating any support systems, individuals or information to accept my wholly, as an African women who loved other women. I spoke of the hopelessness I felt when I couldn’t find a single book, or movie, with queer characters or stories that could convince me (and my family) that I wasn’t the “abomination” all the Nigerian/African online forums made me out to be. I spoke of the simple, yet deeply-rooted desire to see myself reflected as a part of society–to feel that I was, in fact, normal, and how that seeming impossibility prompted me to attempt to take my own life, for relief. 

Despite the pain of having to recount that memory often, I celebrate my survival and bold critique of the systems that still put the lives of young queer African girls in jeopardy. My attempted suicide may have been the event that sparked my journey towards becoming a media activist, but it’s done so much more; it’s the reason why mental health and self-care are prominent themes in my work, and my writing, and the reason I choose Love (for self, for others, for community) as my framework for social justice

Sustainable Activism: Self Care and Virtual Sisterhood

Your Silence Will Not Protect You During the event, this disclosure prompted more questions (and conversation) about what it means to build sustainable movements. After all, so many of us have  been spurred to action by painful and, at times, traumatic experiences: how do we continue to drawn from such turbulent beginnings without letting them weigh us down emotionally?

How do we find spaces to affirm that kind of pain–and its overcoming–as victory? How do we hold in our hearts, the stories of others, some similar, some way worse, and maintain principled temperance in our advocacy? And, since the work of an activist is social (especially for the many of us who work outside formal structures, and thus, don’t get to ‘shut down’ at the end of the day), how do we create a support network for ourselves, and for each other that we can access when we need to? 

After participating at SO(UL) HQ’s event today, I’m inspired to create more virtual social spaces for sharing and healing, for myself. I’d been fighting a winter slump for weeks–low energy, writers block, feeling moody and isolated from seasonal depression–thus I hadn’t expected that the experience of participating in a virtual event would end up feeling as rejuventing, as uplifting, and as warm as it did. But it did, and I’m much better for it.

The setup was simple enough: the event took place at a casual community space, where the group watched a short documentary about Audre Lorde, before Skype-ing in the guests. The room radiated the kind of intimacy associated with a sleepover, not a formal event; a few women sat cross-legged on the floor, while others sat in chairs (one with a really cute baby). 

African Caribbean Feminists

It’s no wonder I felt completely at ease chatting about my life and work; I could have been right there with my Caribbean sisters, sitting cross-legged on the floor, or lying stomach-down, propped up by my elbows. Thirty minutes later, I ended my session with the women at SO(UL) HQ feeling so nourished, so joyful, and so inspired that I’ve since been reflecting on the plethora of ways activists can use video conferencing and other tools to more intentionally create on-going support networks for themselves.

As a media activist, I often write about how social media can be used to amplify the voices of marginalized people, combat lack of diversity in media, and offer a means through which people with shared experiences and values can connect. For sure, regularly connecting with others with who we share affinity and can lean on for support (as part of our self-care practice) is included in this, but chances are that if even I–Ms. Self Care Evangelist–forgot, perhaps we all need more regular reminders.

Sharing is Caring: Nurturing Intentional Community–Online or Offline–is Self Care 

I’m grateful for having such a positive experience connecting virtually with Caribbean feminists today–so grateful that I’m newly inspired to rehash my goals for facilitating regular discussions about self-care in my online spaces. I don’t have all the answers, not by a stretch. Still, after today, I’m relishing the comfort of knowing that I’m connected to a number of inspiring activists–online and offline–who are just as committed to practicing self care and sustainable activism as I am. 

This blog, my Facebook Page, and Twitter @spectraspeaks, are part of my virtual self-care support network. A place where I do feel relatively safe sharing my story, my struggle, and my successes. Your readership is a part of that, so thank you for continually encouraging my efforts to foster more dialogue around mental health in our communities. 

Stay tuned for my next post, “7 Everyday Self-Care Principles All Activists Should Follow”, in which I’ll be sharing lessons I’ve learned from my own personal journey. We may not all be in physical space together, but–as my Jamaican feminist sisters at SO(UL) HQ reminded me today–we don’t need to be in order to reach out and support each other.

Do you have a strong support network? Is it offline, virtual, or both? What tips would you give others seeking supportive community online? Have you experienced virtual sisterhood? In what ways does it compare to sister-friend circles offline? 


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