“Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires…
Why, you must needs be strangers…”
– The Book of Sir Thomas More.
Just over four hundred years ago, Shakespeare wrote an entreaty against racism and xenophobia, and in sympathy for the plight of refugees. His sentiment resonates in the early years of the new millennium: over the last four centuries, what have we learnt about benevolence towards those who share our humanity if not our birthplace? How do we – as a society and as individuals – treat compassionately the strangers in our midst, a sentient trait that may be older and broader than humanity itself?
Sadly our modern world seems to overlook this natural instinct, particularly when it comes to minority groups such as LGBT people. Some flee dangerous countries as refugees and find sanctuary, while many others find difficulties in their destination countries. The World Economic Forum acknowledges this problem:
In 72 countries, same-sex relationships are currently criminalized. In eight, they are punishable by death. But in many others, social norms, traditions and customs make life for LGBT people equally impossible, even if the law is not officially against them.
This collective human failing to care about strangers – and the world’s indifference to the problem – can be found today, pointedly rooted in a remnant from colonial times. The history of LGBT rights in Africa is tainted by homophobic colonial history. Africa is full of this shameful bigotry akin to the racism endured by their slave forebears, justifying human rights abuse, fueled by ignorant hatred that is spouted by politicians and preachers alike, poisoning families and communities where homosexuality remains illegal and where harassment and persecution are common. Sadly, this discrimination is fueled in part by conservative religious views and actively encouraged by conservative US religious extremists.
Many African LGBT refugees have horrifying stories about difficulties and struggles. One young gay man and a lesbian share some of their background before fleeing as refugees:
I was living …with my mother and uncle. I was studying in … high school. There I was having a friend called James… We used to be together… In the night, homophobic civilians broke into his home and killed him. Some people were thinking crazy about me, for they were not sure if I am also a gay or not. They reported it to my mum and she beat me.
After two days of James’ death, in the morning I was on my way to school. A group of six people held mob justice on me. They attacked me and beat me… that day, I stopped going to school…
(Anonymous gay man – used with author’s consent).
In 2012, when I was 15, I was [told] by my Father to get married. I refused, and when he asked me why I refused, I told him I don’t like men, I don’t feel like it, and am feeling something different. When I told him that, he chased me out of the house. Then I went to my mother’s place because they had divorced sometimes back. I reached my mom’s place and started living with her.
In August 2019 I was called that my mother was in bad condition… When I entered the room to see my mother at the hospital, my father didn’t even allow me to reach the sick bed. He chased me and said a lot of abusive words… my mother was hearing and she continued getting sick with pressures. Immediately she started fighting for her life, and in few minutes she was dead… At the burial, all my family members accused me of killing my mother, that I was the cause. After the burial, I looked around and I had nowhere to go, I decided to go to my father’s place. When I reached it, he … chased me with a machete, and told me that he can’t live with a lesbian.
(Anonymous lesbian – used with author’s consent).
I escaped from my family/Uganda because of my sexuality and the government passed a bill to hurt and kill all gays in Uganda. Same here in Kenya, life isn’t good. The country is too homophobic towards we gay people and refugees. It’s like going from a frying pan into the inferno. The Kenyan locals are more homophobic even than Ugandans. They know refugees from Uganda must be gay because there is no war or famine there, and they consider gays to be bure (useless and worthless). They say our country vomited us like poison, so they will also vomit us the same way our country vomited us.
Here in Kenya it’s more worse. People split saliva on us and beat us on the street, and we have no one to run to. If we go to the police, they blame us for promoting homosexuality in their country. They say they are protecting their youth, which isn’t true. We don’t want their youth. We just want peace.
(Anonymous – used with author’s consent).
Block 13 at Kakuma Refugee Camp is a locus for LGBTQI refugees, presumably to allow them to gather safely and collectively. In reality, it provides a target for violent attacks and ongoing death threats, perpetrated by homophobic neighbours.
Living conditions (right) and collecting bathing water (below) at Block 13 at Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya. Photo used by permission of photographer.
Here are people with incredible courage and resilience; having fled their homes for sanctuary in another land, being denied all but the most cursory subsistence levels of support from UNHCR and other agencies, at the behest of a largely uncaring world. Within our human family, they add fabulosity to a locale filled with scorpions and snakes, homophobes and hunger, malaria and machetes. They are rainbow people who live in a world that still largely fears difference.
One trans woman testifies:
I am a transgender living in Block 13, Kakuma. I have been in Kakuma since October 2019. During [those} twelve months… I have realized that the transgenders are hit the hardest during attacks. We receive discrimination at the hand of our neighbors, the police, and some of the employees of UNHCR and its partners.
I remember the day when a police officer promised to shoot me dead because of the way I dress. It shows that as a transgender you do not expect PROTECTION even from the police officers. On 10th June 2020, I was attacked near Block 13, along with another transgender. We were rushed to a clinic because we were losing a lot of blood. The medical personnel on the duty refused to attend on us because we were not wearing face masks, imagine! When our colleagues complained out fear of our lives, the hospital had them arrested. There is no any place in Kakuma where we feel safe, not even in hospitals.”
(Anonymous – used with author’s consent).
In a world that is distracted by COVID-19, LGBT individuals and groups across Australia and the western world largely face the challenge of acknowledging and responding to great suffering among members of their rainbow family, in places such as Kakuma. Marriage Equality and cable TV specials during lockdown are not the only civil rights issues that should be on our LGBTQIA+ agenda.
For other, more generic human rights and LGBT supporters, the general lack of mainstream advocacy and support diminishes us all. Our humanity is found wanting. The year 2020 puts this in stark context: if COVID-19 reveals deep deficiencies within the economic systems of affluent western countries, how much worse is it for those in less affluent nations?
Elie Wiesel‘s words should both challenge and accuse us out of our complacency: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference. Because of indifference, one dies before one actually dies. To be in the window and watch people being sent to concentration camps or being attacked in the street and do nothing, that’s being dead.”
Has humanity evolved since the days of Shakespeare, when he pleaded for humane treatment of the refugee, of people from other races and cultures, and of the ‘other’? When will we stop ignoring the suffering of those who share our humanity? I long for the day when we finally live up to his hope of four centuries past:
“Commend me to them,
And tell them that, to ease them of their griefs,
Their fears of hostile strokes, their aches, losses,
Their pangs of love, with other incident throes
That nature’s fragile vessel doth sustain
In life’s uncertain voyage, I will some kindness do them…”
– William Shakespeare
‘Timon Of Athens‘ act 5, sc. 1, 225-230.
© 2020 Geoff Allshorn
Public disclaimer: I am part of a group that has been started in response to this human crisis, and I invite readers to contribute to the building of a better world: Humanity In Need: Rainbow Refugees.