Eamonn McCann - Not coming out in Uganda and Nigeria

Listening to the quiet, powerful voice of Kasha Jacqueline at the opening of Pride in the Context Gallery, I was suddenly reminded of African football.

Kasha had come from Uganda to outline the dreadful position LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) people find themselves in the east African ex-colony. Mainstream Ugandan newspapers carry front-page pieces openly urging attacks on gays, publishing photographs of gay men and women beneath headlines warning “Perves out to get your children” and giving prominent coverage to claims by senior churchmen and politicians suggesting that tolerance of gays will not only displease the deity but “drain” citizens of their “life-force”.

To support gay rights is to “poison the soul of the nation”, apparently.

Kasha’s talk will hopefully have reminded us all that while Pride here is an occasion for joyous celebration, there are places where it’s impossible for gays to admit their identity, much less sing it out on the streets.

In Ireland, North and South, gay sex has been decriminalised and civil partnerships introduced,. In Derry, Belfast and Dublin, crowds line the pavements wreathed in smiles as the Pride parade passes. Which suggests on the face of it that all’s well.

But it’s not. It is still common in both parts of Ireland for young people to stay silent about their sexuality for fear of the reaction of parents or friends or classmates at school.

The incidence of suicide among gay young people is significantly higher than the average for their cohort. The incidence of suicide among transgendered people is higher than among any other category of citizen.

In other words, for all the exuberant celebration of gay sexuality during Pride, there are some who would literally rather die than come out from the closet. We may have come a long way, but we have a longer way to go.

Which brings us to the case of the Nigerian footballers.

The team was eliminated from the Women’s World Cup in Germany and Austria a few weeks ago after a tame performance in their final group game, going down 1-0 to Germany. The management’s excuse was that the Super Falcons had had their wingers clipped by lesbians.

Coach Eucharia Uche said she had warned from the outset of the danger of the squad being “drained of spirit” by lesbians in their midst. (What’s with all this “draining”, I wonder?) She conceded she hadn’t actually seen any of the players indulging in lesbian activity, but insisted that she knew from “rumours, speculation and media reports” that lesbian behaviour had been rampant among Nigerian footballers prior to her appointment. She found the possibility that such “dirty practices” had continued into the tournament “very worrisome”.

Ms Uche assured the ‘New York Times’ that she had striven to eliminate practices which were “spiritually, morally very wrong.”

Former technical boss James Peters stepped in to support Ms. Uche with an announcement that during his tenure he had dropped a number of players “not because they were not good players, but because they were lesbians”.

Ms Uche said that she had brought in Pentecostal ministers to counsel the players. Bible readings and prayer had been part of the squad’s routine. But all to no avail.

The comical nature of this nonsense shouldn’t blind us to the fact that it’s no laughing matter for those on the receiving end. Gays in a number of African countries - including South Africa as well as Uganda - risk death if they come out. The fact that South Africa is one of the most dangerous places in the world for gays, despite a constitution containing a ringing endorsement of gay rights, demonstrates with shocking clarity that what’s written in legislation or constitutional documents is not enough: changing attitudes in society is more important.

What’s FIFA’s attitude to homophobia in the game in Nigeria? The federation is dead set against racism and religious bigotry. Racist or sectarian chanting from the terraces - even if roundly denounced by players and officials - can result in the suspension of club or national sides or restrictions on home matches. What reason could there be for taking a more easy-going attitude to homophobia?

Nigeria should be sanctioned for the statements of its most senior officials. A move in this direction by FIFA would send a clear message and give heart to opponents of hatred, not just in Africa or solely in relation to football.

A campaign to bring this about would give practical expression to last week’s declarations of solidarity with Kasha and her cause.

Read more from Eamonn McCann in his regular column in Tuesday’s Journal