In Out of Africa: LGBT Organizing in Namibia and South Africa, Ashley Currier explores the inner workings of LGBT movements as they target state and social change. She shows that LGBT organizations navigate their visibility, remaining acutely aware of the audiences that they engage and the contexts in which they operate—a phenomenon that will resonate with many LGBT people on a personal level. Beyond the “visibility matters” assertion present in much social movement research, which has treated the concept as an attribute of movement relevance, Currier demonstrates how—depending on time and place—movements consciously use both visibility and invisibility strategies. She argues that visibility matters to movements in a variety of ways. It enhances the movement’s social and political relevance and the activists’ ability to disseminate demands and ideas. Visibility also offers movements the credibility necessary for improving their standing with the target audiences they wish to influence (p. 1). At the same time, invisibility can also be good for movements when (a) “political circumstances become hostile to organized resistance” and (b) “activists must withdraw from public visibility to respond to internal crises” (p. 1). The cases of Namibia and South Africa provide the appropriate foil with which to make these claims, since Currier’s rich ethnographic work demonstrates that organizational strategies had varied trajectories in these countries.
The most impressive aspect of this text is the rich description with which the empirical chapters (1-4) guide the reader through the political history of LGBT rights in these two states. How LGBT politics intersect with race politics is a particularly important aspect of the book. Moreover, Currier’s insights on the privilege of public visibility enjoyed by certain groups (in this case, white LGBT groups) relative to others (black LGBT groups) are useful for theorizing on LGBT politics, generally. The same is true of the complex relationship between other political movements, such as the African National Congress and issues related to homosexuality (p. 39). The fact that the “public face of the movement remained white until the 1980s” in South Africa (p. 32) is just one example of how multiple marginalizations meet in international LGBT politics. Furthermore, the notions of “disappearing acts” and “safety in invisibility,” and how they also vary as movement strategies according to intersectional identities are relevant to contemporary LGBT politics far beyond Namibia and South Africa.
Currier’s discussion of the opposition’s counter frame (particularly in Chapter 4)—which painted homosexuality as un-African—also adds international and regional dimensions to how we understand movement politics. Throughout the book, Currier describes how homosexuality has been portrayed as un-African by movement challengers and how LGBT organizations in both countries—in hopes of dispelling the myth of LGBT rights as a white/Western phenomenon (p. 148)[i]— carefully approached the issue of shedding light on the black African leadership and constituents of LGBT organizations, while accepting financial aid from northern donors. In doing so, Currier vividly shows how movement strategies vary according to context. Activists do not always preside over intentionality in their (in)visibility strategies, since these are often dependent on the socio-political and cultural contexts within which activists find themselves.
In many of these respects, Currier leaves us with insights that, though they are unique to Namiba and South Africa, also manifest themselves in other world regions. For example, related to research in Central and Eastern Europe, debates around the type of visibility—where the hypervisibility of Western gay pride performances are often viewed suspiciously by local organizers—are reminiscent of the organizational debates that Currier describes, as are the framing of the issue as external and challenging to cultural sovereignty of the nation (Ayoub 2013: 298–303). The same is true for the honeymoon periods that LGBT movements sometimes experience following independence (like in Namibia) that are subsequently met with backlash after opposition movements argue that national values are being encroached upon. In other aspects, some of Currier’s findings may play out very differently in other regions. In contemporary Europe, for example, where regional systems of knowledge are very different than those at the disposal of African LGBT groups—since LGBT rights are often considered to be part of a bundle of “European values” that come with membership in the European Union or the Council of Europe—invisibility may be less preferred when domestic “political circumstances become hostile to organized resistance” (Currier 2012: 1). Much more present in Europe is Currier’s observation that “political homophobia [can create] a political opportunity for LGBT movement visibility” (pp. 49-50), since visibility in the face of mobilized resistance can be strategically useful for groups in that it enhances the political salience of the norm. In many of the respects mentioned above, Currier’s work opens the door for valuable cross-regional comparisons that will help us to better understand LGBT politics. By taking us to the global south, she adds a great deal to our existing knowledge of LGBT movements.
This timely book thus comes highly recommended for scholars of social movements, not least due to the popular attention that the unfortunate proliferation of political homophobia in Africa (e.g., recent legislation in Uganda and Nigeria) currently holds on the global stage. The rich quotations that bring to life the story of activists on the ground, will also make the book particularly accessible to undergraduate audiences, alongside the more senior readers of Mobilizing Ideas. It is a wonderful read.
[i] Indeed, colonialism introduced anti-sodomy legislation to Africa.
Ayoub, Phillip M. 2013. “Cooperative Transnationalism in Contemporary Europe: Europeanization and Political Opportunities for LGBT Mobilization in the European Union.” European Political Science Review 5(02): 279–310.