Making Access Real: Coalition of African Lesbians

Who are we?

The Coalition of African Lesbians [CAL] is a feminist, activist and pan Africanist organisation led by radical African lesbian feminists, with members in eleven countries in Sub Saharan Africa. We foreground power and privilege, and surface and address both the structures and systems of oppression, as well as the institutions through which they oppress. Ideas are central to the work we do. We understand the personal to be political – what happens in the private sphere influences how we engage and are perceived in the public domain; while the public sphere shapes, constrains, regulates or enables what happens in the private domain. We believe it is not possible to do work that brings transformatory change without fundamentally confronting, subverting and working with power in all its forms. There are no short-cuts to making such change happen.

What was the issue?

Organising on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression in Southern Africa benefits from strong commitment and leadership of lesbian, bisexual and queer women. Much of this leadership is invisibilised through the gendered way in which labour is divided within organisations which work under the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) umbrella. This gendered labour landscape has men leading, usually men who have sex with men and gay men; but, to a growing extent, we are also seeing transmen in the formal leadership of these organisations. Lesbian, bisexual and queer (LBQ) women work mainly behind the scenes doing unpaid labour, or in paid positions without the decision-making power to steer the direction of these formations. Further, the work of these organisations – to the extent that they address women’s issues at all – is focussed on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. Women’s unequal position in society cannot be dealt with when we focus on simply one aspect of our lived realities. This was an issue for us as we wanted to surface, name, analyse, understand and confront the full range of oppressions, violations, exclusions and marginalisations faced by women. This lack of organising involving and led by LBQ women extended to additional groups of women who face similar oppressions, and even criminalisation, based on sexuality and gender. These included sex workers, women living with HIV, young women, and women seeking abortions. Finally, the framing of our issues exclusively in terms of violence and discrimination was a problem, as we needed to also demonstrate that women are people with agency and power, and not just victims.

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