Solidarity with the South Sudanese LGBTQ+ Community

Like anywhere in the world and in history, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender South Sudanese exist. Crimalisiing and stigmatizing their existence means they live in denial and hiding but does not erase their existence. Article 248 of the South Sudan Penal Code terms same-sex sexual acts as “unnatural” and criminalizes it for up to ten years in prison, and the offense can carry up to 14 years if it is non-consensual.  Article 379 (e) also states that “any male person who dresses or is attired in the fashion of a woman in a public place” if convicted under the “vagabond” law shall be sentenced to imprisonment for three months. Despite all the existing evidence that same-sex sexual relations have always existed in African cultures, this reality and knowledge is loudly clouded by the colonial legacy of homophobia as the new “African culture” across the continent and South Sudan is no exception. The above-cited provisions in South Sudan’s Penal Code originate from the English Criminal Law during colonialism. 

In addition to the weaponizing of culture, religion is yet another tool being wrongly interpreted and used to justify prejudice and discrimination against LGBTQ+ South Sudanese. It is heartbreaking to listen to the stories and experiences of LGBTQ+ South Sudanese in South Sudan. They are denied the most basic human rights; to exist, be in community with each other, healthcare services, security, and protection to mention but a few. They are often targeted, harassed, blackmailed, detained, and extorted by individuals from various security organs. Stigmatized, isolated, and excluded in social spaces, disowned and sent away from homes by their families and loved ones. 

“I was arrested for having a soft body and soft voice maybe because I also have a beautiful face which could make some men feel attracted to me, of which that national security man is maybe one of them but no way for him to do such with me that’s why he treated me harshly through imprisonment for 21 days just because am appearing different”.

“Experience in my area of residence makes it difficult to move freely, when minding my own business, I am confronted, saying, such personality doesn’t deserve respect (e.g.) like when you are passing whereby there many boys they will insult you for no reason and even fight you on top but in reality, you have not done anything at all”.

“They chase you away from staying close to them (e.g.) like this gay (nyawo)want to spread his gayism to us here chase him away. Like even when they see you having time playing with their little one they will still proclaim that you are teaching them homosexuality”.                     

In 2021, for the first time in South Sudan, Gender Talk 211 through its social media platforms started to commemorate Pride Month and openly discuss LGBTQ+ rights in South Sudan. Due to the high level of ignorance and misconceptions about sexual orientation amongst most South Sudanese, for the first commemoration, we curated content and hosted a Twitter space on understanding the basics of sexual orientation. In 2022, we published an article that analyzed how colonialism codified homophobia in Africa. 

In 2023, we designed another digital advocacy for Pride Month framed under the theme ‘Peace, Love and Revolution’ dedicated to reminding us about the commitment to ensure equal justice for LGBTQ+ communities worldwide, especially in challenging contexts like South Sudan. Throughout the month, on our social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram), we shared online resources and information on the LGBTQ+ community, movements, and everything one needs to know about the community. Curated threads on the origin of the rainbow flag, facts about the flag and colors, history of pride month, sexual orientation, and gender identity politics. 

Due to continuous noticeable confusion and ignorance especially in online discourses amongst South Sudanese on the difference between sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, this year (2024), throughout June (Pride Month), Gender Talk 211  focused on sharing basic facts about Sexuality/Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Gender Expression.

Gender Talk 211 Pride Month commemoration in the last two years (2023 and 2024) was more challenging than in 2021 and 2022; we received more backlash and threats. While prejudice and discrimination against LGBTQ+ people is a norm amongst South Sudanese, regional and continental political dynamics and influence is something worth noting. The first months of 2023 were characterized by an observable rise in homophobia especially in the region primarily fueled by politicians, religious leaders, and institutions. In Kenya, this was amplified when the Supreme Court ruled that LGBTQ+ people in Kenya have a right to association. Stating that “It would be unconstitutional to limit the right to associate through denial of registration of an association purely based on the sexual orientation of the applicants”. 

The reality for Ugandan LGBTQ+ people was no different, and this ended with the signing into law of the “Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2023” on the 26th of May 2023, just five days to pride month. Beyond the region, similar legislations and echoes of bigotry were being heard coming especially from Ghana with discussions around the proposed “promotion of proper human sexual rights and Ghanian family values bill, 2021 that the Ghanian parliament anonymously passed early this year, although yet to be approved and signed into law. 

In 2023, the threats we received were primarily focused on the “legal implications” of our digital advocacy and the commemoration of Pride Month on our social media platforms in South Sudan. An indication that many South Sudanese were closely following what was happening especially in Uganda with the passing of the bill and unconsciously applying it to South Sudan. These threats were made either as direct comments or as posts with screenshots of our content and page details.  Some of these comments included;
“Your activities are becoming illegal and contrary to South Sudan’s laws.” 
“You will be punished one day.”
“You guys are promoting LGBTQ in the country, and we know you physically, especially the CEO. I didn’t know you’re such a person.”
“Many of your members will rot here in Blue House.” 
“Can we agree that Gender Talk 211 members be thrown to jail for 20 years?” 

Another person took a screenshot of one of our Twitter threads and posted it on Facebook with this caption: “Ladies and gentlemen, that is your Gender Talk 211 Twitter feed advocating for the LGBTQI in South Sudan; our country cannot be destroyed by these so-called feminists and civil society organizations whose undercover works for LGBTQ. Let’s mobilize resources to fight them” in an attempt to share it with a wider South Sudanese online audience for more backlash. While he achieved what he was aiming for, it was interesting to see others who countered the author of this post and expressed that there are more important things to focus on if at all those resources were available, i.e., fighting corruption, etc. than going after people fighting for LGBQT+ rights. 

This year, the backlash was similar, some anchored on “religion and culture” as the basis to justify “South Sudanese homophobia”. With comments on our pride month posts such as 
“The demon is finding a place in South Sudan and people are silent…we need to kill them with their spirit”Another said, “Mentally distorted feminists, trying to please their white masters, we Africans and homosexual is not our culture. Keep that western culture in the west”. 

The majority of the individuals who commented issued direct threats and insinuated taking the law into their own hands in dealing with those seen as promoting LGBTQ+ rights in South Sudan (Gender Talk 211 team members) with comments such as
“Where are your offices located? we can come and share with us the meaning of LGBT failure to do so then it will be bad news.”
“Who ever owns this page if I ever get you in Juba you will be buried alive what exactly are you promoting, out of all the crap in this country for one thing we shall not tolerate is LGBT.”
“The good thing about this country is that there’s no disarmament yet”

One thing that is clear in all of this backlash is the misinterpretation of religions, ignorance of African cultures, and sexual orientation. Centering the safety and security of the South Sudanese LGBTQ+ community remains our core objective in all the advocacy and awareness raising we do on LGBTQ+ rights. We are mindful of the kind of engagement we want to see, and the moment it is more harmful than constructive, we always pause. This is a sensitive topic and issue in South Sudan; no other human rights, women-led/focused, or civil society organizations are open about their solidarity for LGBTQ+ rights in South Sudan. 

Our support and solidarity is with the South Sudanese LGBTQ+ community. We will always follow their guidance, not push boundaries that might cause more violence and abuse towards them. Someone from the community reached out and said: “Every day, you have to pretend and laugh with people at work just to make them not think badly of you. Many talk shit behind my back about my dress code, and it always reaches me, but still, I must always pretend and laugh with them; I sometimes ask myself, God, why me? Why am I this way? This is hell on earth, but I hope one day I will overcome this; thank you for always speaking up on our behalf.” This reminded us to move our attention away from all the homophobes and homophobia and focus on what truly matters: how our voice extends solidarity and humanity to the community. We will continue to focus on this. 

In 2023, we added permanent rainbow colors to our Gender Talk 211 logo, making it clear that Gender Talk 211 is a feminist platform and that there is no liberation and freedom for any of us without that of the LGBTQ+ community in South Sudan and Globally. We are patient with the process and hope this will inspire and encourage other human rights, women, and civil society organizations in South Sudan to be more conscious and inclusive in their human rights work.