In the last week of June, LGBT activists in Swaziland hope to make history by holding the African country’s first ever Pride march and festival.
Advocacy group The Rock of Hope told The Daily Beast it is in the process of submitting an application to march and then hold a picnic or gathering in a park in the city of Mbabne.
If it goes ahead, the history-making event will take place around the same time as many other Prides around the world, marking the anniversary of New York City’s Stonewall riots of 1969.
Male homosexuality is outlawed in the southern African country. An anti-sodomy law is still on the statute books, a British-rule hangover. LGBT couples cannot marry or adopt children.
Swaziland is Africa’s last absolute monarchy, ruled by King Mswati III, who has reportedly described homosexuality as “satanic.” Prime Minister Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini has described homosexuality as “an abnormality and a sickness.”
There are no LGBT bars or LGBT-specific gathering places in the country. The June event would be the first time LGBT people gathered together en masse.
“This first event is small scale, but we cannot hide forever,” Melusi S. Simelane, communications manager for The Rock of Hope, told The Daily Beast. “We cannot do advocacy if we are not visible. One of the key aspects of any form of advocacy is ensuring visibility: to say, ‘We are here, we exist.’”
The June event would be called Swazi Pride or Pride Swaziland, said Simelane.
“There are no gay bars here,” he said. “Owners would be too scared of a backlash, but there are places we feel safe to go where we aren’t hassled. That’s why we are holding this first Pride—so we can gather together as people, businesses, artists—and do something as a community. We want to integrate and we also want to have a safe space for ourselves. It all starts here, with visibility.
“We need to show numbers, statistics. We want to push our visibility to the government and other institutions. That is why Pride is so important: to show this is what the LGBT community looks like. The prime minister thinks LGBT people don’t exist in Swaziland. Pride gives us the opportunity to say: ‘What are you talking about? Here are the people.’”
The festival part of the event would likely take place in the city’s Coronation Park or Prince of Wales Park, Simelane said. He hopes that about 5,000 or 6,000 people would attend. “We want to be big,” he said, “but not too big for the first one.”
Simelane said he did not “honestly foresee” attendees experiencing any trouble. The police would be expected to provide security to protect attendees from homophobes or other troublemakers. If city authorities turned down The Rock of Hope’s application to hold Pride, the country’s new Public Order Act means they would have to explain why, he added.
“We want to ensure that this looks like a family fun day,” Simelane said. “People have seen Prides in other countries, with people demonstrating, and dressed up in stunning costumes. We don’t want that. The idea is that it should be celebratory and a festival, but have a quietness to it so it doesn’t scare people away, considering Swaziland’s population.”
“Further, opportunities for the larger Swazi society to interact with the LGBTI community in a positive way are rare,” Simelane added in an email. “In contexts around the globe, annual LGBTI Pride events have proven successful at providing safe spaces for LGBTI communities to congregate and celebrate their identities in public, as well as introduce the larger society to non-normative sexual and gender identities through a positive, celebratory environment.”
The idea for Pride came, said Simelane, after he was invited by the U.S. Ambassador To Swaziland to celebrate Pride Month, two years in a row. “It started to really make sense sleeping on the idea.” An American activist, Evan Doyle, helped Rock of Hope draft a proposal.
“We employ just under 10 people, who are all expected to pitch in on this endeavour,” said Simelane. “As the date draws closer, we will be looking at getting volunteers.”
Matt Beard, executive director of All Out, told The Daily Beast: “Swaziland is often overlooked. Its big brother or sister neighbor, South Africa, often has the limelight when it comes to the LGBT community, donors, and activists. It has a very LGBT-friendly constitution and legal framework, even if things on the ground are less positive.
“Swaziland’s activists are very conscious of co-existing with their big sister of South Africa, against a backdrop of having a real hunger for justice and equality, which they know they deserve. They’re very clear about the pathway Pride offers: Visibility leads to awareness, which leads to acceptance, which leads to change in the legal framework and improved lived experiences for LGBT people.”
Paul Jansen, senior adviser for global advocacy for the campaign group OutRight Action International, said: “The lack of protective laws and negative social attitudes has made life for Swaziland's LGBT community difficult. However, the community is trying to overcome these obstacles and trying new things by organizing their first Pride event. Hopefully the event will be received with the respect it deserves, as is the case in neighboring South Africa and Mozambique.”
Swaziland is landlocked kingdom made up of four regions. Its two largest cities, Mbabane and Manzini, comprise much of the country’s population of 1.34 million people. King Mswati III has final say over all laws passed by Parliament.
“LGBTI people often experience social discrimination, as there is no explicit legislation protecting the rights of non-normative gender and sexual identities,” Simelane told The Daily Beast. “As a result, LGBTI peoples are rarely open in their public lives for fear of rejection and discrimination.”
Speaking in 2014 about gay relationships, Prime Minister Dlamini was quoted as saying: “Church clergy say this is not biblically acceptable. It is just now that some countries and communities allow it. It is still scary here in Swaziland when we see it happen. The country’s laws do not allow this.”
Of marriage equality, Dlamini reportedly said: “People of the same sex cannot even go to regional offices to get married. It will take time before we allow this to happen and include it in the country’s laws. We are not even ready to consider it.”
Simelane said LGBT people in Swaziland had reconciled themselves with possibly having to live with the country’s anti-LGBT laws for a long time. “On the bright side, the anti-sodomy law is not used to prosecute consenting adults,” he said. The police used the law to prosecute those accused of raping underage males.
Simelane said that when a new law, enshrining “gender-neutral rape scenarios,” came into force, activists would focus attention on doing away with the sodomy law. His group is taking advice from international advocacy group the Human Dignity Trust on how best to achieve that.
Simelane said, “The minister of justice has said repeatedly that their policy is not to prosecute consenting adults. However, that is not the issue for the gay man walking on the street, knowing that it is illegal for same-sex activity.
“To us, it sounds like holding a gun and saying your policy is not to shoot. Well, you still have the gun on your hand, and that poses a problem—a much bigger one societally, as many people will experience prejudice, since they are doing ‘illegal’ activities anyway. Until we fight this through the courts, I personally see no political will to repeal these draconian laws.”
Simelane is “very optimistic,” but things do not change easily. A debate in Parliament on LGBT access to health care devolved into name-calling, laughter, and crude mockery of gay sexual practices, he said. “It showed a state of unreadiness and unwillingness on the part of legislators to talk about LGBT matters. And we have a prime minister who is an utter homophobe.”
Change will most likely not happen politically, Simelane said. Instead, activists intend to use the courts to effect change. Swaziland, for example, is one of the signatories to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
“There is a contradiction there with how LGBT people are treated,” said Simelane. “Swaziland’s own constitution talks about protecting the dignity of the citizen. We are arguing: ‘Where is our dignity if the state claims I am committing a crime if I am in a loving, consensual relationship with another male?’ We want the opportunity to challenge and argue against this. We will continue to fight.”
In 2017, the United Nations Human Rights Committee considered Swaziland’s adherence to the ICCPR. Swaziland signed the covenant, which protects private adult consensual sexual activity, in 2004.
The committee subsequently reported that it was “concerned that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is not clearly prohibited under the Constitution, or in the State party’s domestic laws.
“It is also concerned at reports that reveal that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons frequently face discrimination, particularly in accessing adequate housing and employment.
“It is further concerned about reports of violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons, including the murder of two individuals directly linked to their sexual orientation and the rape of a gay man in detention.
“While noting the State party’s position that the common law criminalization of same-sex relations between men (sodomy) is not enforced in practice, the Committee is concerned at the State party’s current intention to retain the law, and at the law’s continued discriminatory effect on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons.”
The committee said the Swazi government “should revise its laws to clearly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, in all contexts, and take the measures necessary to ensure that such persons can fully enjoy all the human rights enshrined in the Covenant.”
Swaziland should also, the committee recommended, “vigorously combat stereotypes and negative attitudes towards persons on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity; train and sensitize police officers, prosecutors and members of the judiciary to identify discrimination and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons; adopt legislation explicitly prohibiting hate crimes against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons; and adopt robust measures to effectively prevent acts of discrimination and violence against such persons and ensure that all acts of violence against them are effectively investigated, perpetrators are brought to justice and punished with appropriate sanctions and victims are compensated.
“It should also collect comprehensive data on cases of violence against persons on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity; and criminalize the rape of men and repeal the common law crime of sodomy.”
When it came to HIV/AIDS, the UN Human Rights Committee recommended that the Swazi government “continue and step up intervention to address the needs of key populations, in particular women, youth, sex workers and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community, including persons in rural areas; redouble its efforts to combat the high level of HIV/AIDS-related stigma and discrimination among the general population; and ensure that discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS is legally prohibited in all contexts and that such laws are enforced effectively in practice.”
Within Swaziland, “homophobia knows no bounds,” said Simelane. “It exists even in places where you least expect it. It is saddening indeed. It is a sight for sore eyes. I wish this was not the case, but it is. There are many other stories of homophobia that turn violent.”
A 2015 Afrobarometer survey, whose results were contained in “Canaries in the Coal Mines,” a wide-ranging report surveying LGBTI activism in southern Africa conducted by The Other Foundation in 2016, found that 26 percent of Swazis said they would be OK with having a homosexual as a neighbor.
In 2015, a 26-year-old Swazi lesbian was axed to death by a man who was reportedly enraged by her homosexuality.
“The murder was frightening indeed, not just for the LGBT persons, but as a country, as a people,” Simelane said. “We are not a very violent people, and to hear about a murder is always shocking. For LGBT people here, there are not a lot of murders. But one murder is one murder too much. Violence is also not too common. Usually harassment happens a lot. But I would be comfortable saying the situation is not as bad as one gets in other countries.”
In several southern African states, The Other Foundation found, “cross-dressing is criminalized as ‘concealment’ and this is used as a form of intimidation: in Swaziland, for example, LGBTI individuals are usually detained for such but then not charged. Transgender women are similarly victimized through laws criminalizing sex-work and soliciting.”
Rock of Hope volunteers are currently helping a lesbian who has reportedly suffered “corrective rape” at the hands of a man.
The Other Foundation reported that in a 2013 needs assessment survey conducted by The Rock of Hope, 43 percent of the lesbian and transgender respondents said they had attempted, or thought of, suicide in the previous year, and 78 percent said they took “intoxicating substances” regularly, “to feel normal and forget.”
There are some encouraging signs of change, Simelane said. The supportive mother of a gay child had recently gotten in touch with The Rock of Hope to offer her services for other parents in the same position in Swaziland.
The Other Foundation reported that in 2016 a senior Swazi police officer publicly communicated a non-discrimination message in direct response to an LGBT community advocacy project.
Simelane did not have a problem coming out to his family. “They discussed sexuality issues when I was young. Obviously I was who I am. I was different. Everybody around me knew. It was an open secret. I never had to talk about my sexuality: It was my life. But the reason I wanted to be involved in the movement was knowing how hard it was for people to come out.”
Any fight for legal change in Swaziland should be “twin-tracked” with a battle to change hearts and minds, said All Out’s Matt Beard.
“Pride can do that. If people reading this share our view that Pride has an incredible tradition across the world of raising visibility and creating change, they should support the Swazi activists. It will give this community a precious opportunity to come together in solidarity with each other and share strength and visibility in ways they would never otherwise have.”
Globally, Simelane asks that LGBT people who want to support Swazi Pride and the LGBT community there should attend the June festival “and be ready to hear our stories. I traveled in America last year, and it was great because I learned about the LGBT struggle and what people had done to campaign.
“Gone are the days when someone from the West had to come and help us. Shared experiences are the best, because we do live in a global village.”