You may have heard about the guerilla warfare near Goma, DRC.
Despite the increased coverage and genuine urgency surrounding the fighting, if you ask a local in Goma about the battle, this is the response you will get:
C’est seulement la guerre. (English Translation: It’s only the war).
In Goma, there’s poverty, corruption, internally displaced persons facing cholera, HIV/AIDS, unemployment, a multitude of discrimination, lack of infrastructure, and the list goes on. A battle between rebel forces approximately 20km away is too distant of a concern. Within Goma, everyday life is a battle all its own.
This past weekend, a fellow coworker and I went to visit IPHR’s partner organization in Goma. This partner organization is called LiCoProMa (Ligue Congolais pour laProtection des Personnes Vulnérables et Marginalisés) (English Translation: Congolese League for the Protection of Vulnerable and Marginalized Persons).
– About LiCoProMa –
LiCoProMa works with youth, pygmies, people with albinism, people with disabilities, and the LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex) community in and around Goma. LiCoProMa’s specific mission is to ensure that members of these vulnerable and marginalized communities can practice their right to live free from targeted discrimination and injustice.
Within the LGBTI community, LiCoProMa provides a space where people are accepted, where they can exchange knowledge that is not found elsewhere in society, and where they can mobilize and learn how to actively stand up for their rights.* In the future, LiCoProMa hopes to also open a community center where it can begin providing trainings for LGBTI members on entrepreneurship, financial stability, and the importance of personal acceptance.**
While in Goma, Amani (my coworker) and I sat down with three members of the LGBTI community who are working with LiCoProMa to stop the brutal discrimination of LGBTI members in DRC.
– Barbara, Carine, and Franck –
Barbara is a 28 year old hairdresser in Goma who is transgender. She has been open about her sexual orientation since the age of 14 and has consequently faced much discrimination. For example, Barbara recently opened a restaurant on festival grounds (this festival is only open for about a month during the school holidays). During these past few weeks, Barbara has been chased away from her restaurant because she is attracted to men. Two pictures of her have also been posted on Goma’s Wall of Shame (hosted by a local radio TV show, this wall displays all that is considered to be terrible about Goma – including mangled dogs, street beatings, political corruption, etc.).
Barbara is an educated woman with a modest dream of one day working in an office. But, as things are now, this dream will never be realized. Because Barbara is something that society refuses to accept, her ability to live her dream and to be a valuable contribution to Goma’s community is forbidden.
Barbara in front of her restaurant that she was chased away from just days before.
Carine is a lesbian. She also owns a restaurant on festival grounds. Just last week, a local attacked her with a glass bottle, shattering it on her hand and leaving deep wounds.
Franck also identifies as transgender and is attracted to men. As we talk, her listless body lacks any sort of strength or hope for the future. Like Barbara, Franck too is very well educated. She wants to be a teacher in Goma, but she knows this is not a possibility. She has tried time and again to use her education to educate others, but no one will hire her. She is transgender and, therefore, perceived as an outcast without any societal value to offer.
The type of discrimination and violence endured by Barbara, Carine, and Franck is common. In fact, just a few days ago one of their dear friends was branded (with hot iron) for being gay. The word branded on this man’s back: “Pédé” (English Translation: “Fag”).
– Discrimination in Society –
According to the members of LiCoProMa, there are approximately 3000 self-identifying LGBTI members in Goma that they are aware of. No one talks about alternative sexual orientation though – not even most of those who self-identify as something other than heterosexual. Instead, they hide themselves, internally trying to reconcile who they are with who society forbids them to be.
Sexual orientations other than heterosexual are taboo in Goma. If you live in Goma and want to survive, not only can you not be LGBT or I (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender or Intersex), but you also cannot associate with anyone who is LGBT or I. According to the members of LiCoProMa, ex-patriots (many of whom come from countries that respect the human rights of all persons) are told that if they are seen associating with a gay person, they can be sentenced to two years in prison.
Overlap between the warfare and discrimination against the LGBTI community does exist. In fact, according to members of LiCoProMa, neighbors have threatened that, if the warfare enters Goma and all measures of social accountability are withdrawn, then they will kill those identifying as LGBT or I before the soldiers can reach them.
LiCoProMa itself has also endured severe backlash for its work with the LGBTI community. Just last month, its office was burned down.
– Prohibition on Personal Growth –
In addition to the blatant discrimination against the LGBTI community and its supporters in Goma, another severe concern is Goma’s prohibition on the education of LGBTI issues. Because society persecutes anyone who is not “normal” (read: heterosexual), education on other types of sexual orientation is nonexistent. And, thus, those with characteristics falling outside the stringent parameters of heterosexuality are left defenseless and confused.
Imagine having feelings that no one in society will address or will even acknowledge to exist. Imagine the isolation you would feel and the confusion over how to deal with these feelings. Imagine the struggle, desperation and self-torture you would experience over who you are.
This discrimination in Goma against LGBTI members is not only demonstrated through external, brutal violence. This discrimination extends well into a person’s soul – mutilating one’s sense of truth and stunting one’s personal growth.
Left to Right: Nadia – a Leader of LiCoProMa, Carine (see her right hand), and me
– The Wall of Shame –
During our meeting with the Barbara, Carine, and Franck, crowds surreptitiously began to fill the restaurant stalls beside of us – possibly spying in quest of knowing what a white person is doing talking to LGBTI members. Furthermore, as we left the festival area, some Congolese having a drink at a nearby table stopped us to ask how we liked the photos posted on the Wall of Shame (mentioned above).
I didn’t respond. However, if I could go back in time, I would have told these Congolese people that, in many ways, I think the Wall of Shame is very good. It shows that people are keenly aware of their community and the injustices present in it. However, I would also tell them that, in many ways, the Wall of Shame is a destructive abomination and catalyst of injustice. It goes beyond constructively promoting better human welfare to lacerating human life.
And, specifically regarding the photos of Barbara that are posted on the Wall of Shame, I would emphasize this to the inquisitive individuals:
Human rights are human rights. Every individual belonging to the homo sapien species is entitled to the right to live one’s life in a manner that does not thwart another from doing so.
*Human rights here are defined as the right to live one’s life as one chooses and in a manner that does not inflict serious harm on another person or prevent another person from pursuing their own life path.
** The realization of LiCoProMa’s future goals is dependent on financial means and support. If you would like more information about LiCoProMa and/or how you can help, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted By Mallory Minter
Posted Aug 8th, 2012