Global Gaze: South Sudan: New Country, Same Old Discrimination?
This past weekend, the international community witnessed a rare event: the birth of a new, independent nation. After years of fighting, bargaining, and voting, South Sudan has officially split from the rest of Africa’s geographically largest country, becoming the continent’s 54th state. Amidst all the celebrating and speculating, however, there’s one group in South Sudan whose future is unclear: lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals.
Some might be tempted to subsume the needs of country’s queer population beneath the other challenges the fledgling state faces — most of the country lives on less than $1 a day, only 25% of adults are literate, and less than 90% of children survive beyond the age of 5. But, in the spirit of Georgette Heyer’s observation – that “there are more important things than clothes. But not when one is getting dressed” – for queer members of Sudanese society, these questions are literally a matter of life and death.
Sudan is one of the countries in the world where the punishment for homosexuality is death. This policy, however, is part of the Islamic Sharia law that has been implemented by the government in the north. One of the main reasons for the split is because the residents of southern Sudan are primarily animist and Christian, so, with the break, there’s theoretically a potential for change.
And that’s where the hope lies: Whenever a new state is formed – or an existing country emerges from internal conflict – there’s an opportunity to start fresh and make a break from the past. While scholars like Christine Bell have pointed out that, “matters which address underlying issues of discrimination, domination, respect for human dignity, and improvement of physical, social and legal security are often addressed as second to the central issues of power and territory, and sometimes left unaddressed altogether,” others, like The New York Times, note that in the case of South Sudan, “building a functional new country will take decades of hard work,” and will hopefully include brand-new opportunities for progress as well.
As I’ve pointed out before, LGBT rights in Africa is a mixed bag. At first glance, however, the prognosis for South Sudan looks bleak. The country’s first president, Salva Kiir Mayardit, made it clear last year that he believes homosexuality will never be welcome in his country: “It is not in our character [...] it is not there and if anybody wants to import it to Sudan [...] it will always be condemned by everybody.”
It’s this idea of “importing,” however, that may work in the LGBT community’s favor. The future of South Sudan, perhaps more than any other country in recent memory, will be heavily shaped by foreign governments and international actors. In an article for the Times, Jeffrey Gettleman points out that, in the case of South Sudan’s independence, there were some unlikely factors at play: “American celebrities and religious groups teamed up with policy makers and helped a forlorn underdog region.”
As long as these outside influences keep working in the region, there’s a chance they might have an increasingly large impact on how things play out in South Sudan. Whether this will be to the benefit or detriment of LGBT individuals, however, has yet to be known. For now, the world will have to wait and watch.
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