By Anna Wettstein
About a month and a half after my return from The Gambia, my thoughts about my trip are split in the most profound way. And so maybe my ruminations can only be expressed by a cliché and overused quote:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…
I suppose any life-changing event in a person’s life is sure to elicit these sorts of emotions. I met some people who were the most gracious and welcoming I have ever met, yet at the same time some days I couldn’t muster up the courage to leave my apartment because of the dozens of men who felt entitled to my words, my time, and my thoughts. I felt, at once, supreme isolation, and a very real connection to certain people around me. I felt pride and hope about the work I and my institution were doing, and sometimes I felt our work was so hypocritical, counterproductive, and self-congratulatory that I couldn’t believe I had ever considered it worthy of changing the world in even the smallest of ways.
Now that I’m back and, with a bit more distance, truly reflecting on human rights work, I can’t say I’m less conflicted. But it’s important to channel that critical eye into something positive and productive, no matter how daunting that task seems to be.
One of the greatest moments of dissonance for me was hearing my colleagues speak about LGBT rights, same-sex marriage, and the infamous case of the American baker who refused to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple. I knew going there that this was a very touchy subject – homosexuality is criminalized in The Gambia, and certain acts can land you in prison for life. Generally it’s as if it doesn’t exist there, as if the famous words of Iran’s Ahmadinejad: “We don’t have any gays in Iran” actually ring true in The Gambia. So the only time I heard anyone talk about it was when the US Supreme Court decision was published, and I heard my colleagues make some (to put it nicely) very disappointing remarks.
Just a few months earlier, the Coalition of African Lesbians was granted observer status at the African Commission after a 7-year battle. When their application for Observer Status was first rejected, the Commission provided as a reason that “the activities of the said Organisation do not promote and protect any of the rights enshrined in the African Charter.” The reversal of opinion was promising for the possibility of countering discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity in Africa as it seemed to signify that the Commission was open to recognizing that the rights of homosexuals are enshrined in the African Charter. Yet just a few months later, their observer status was rescinded. One step forward, two steps back? If you’re a glass-half-full kind of person, it’s heartening to imagine that the Commission would grant such status at all, even if just for a few months.
Yet a colleague of mine was there during the debates at the Commission. He told me he heard some prominent human rights activists referring to ‘gays’ as rats or vermin – I’m not sure on the exact terminology he related, but it was something equally vile. He heard some of the most educated and progressive lawyers fight to deny even the rights to life and to be free from torture based on a person’s sexual orientation. A respected friend of mine said some equally hateful things. This dissonance was striking, but I was used to it at this point.
So in my eternal naiveté and hope, when my Institution tasked me with drawing up an internal memo on litigating sexual and reproductive rights, I decided that this was my prime opportunity to argue that we should be litigating discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The arguments are solid – it would make a great case. Do I think they are ever going to do it? No, not in the foreseeable future. In fact I’m not sure my arguments and research will lead to anything positive at all because they seemed to fall on deaf ears. But I’m glad I tried.
I wish I could end this post on a positive note, but the hate I encountered left too bitter a taste in my mouth. Maybe the silver lining can be found in my surprise at my colleagues’ responses to the issue – that in almost every other way, their dedication to human rights, openness and tolerance taught me many things.
I suppose I think it’s unfortunate more than anything. At the very least, if my colleagues worked on such a case, I think their minds would be changed. I think they would be less apt to dehumanize gay people and others ostracized, beaten, and killed for their sexual orientation or gender identity on a regular basis. But maybe that would be too difficult to them – it’s hard to step out of your comfort zone, after all.