How African writers are taking LGBT issues mainstream

Ugandan activists gathered for a gay pride rally, celebrating one year since the overturning of a strict anti-homosexuality law. Are attitudes towards gays changing on the continent?

(CNN)In much of Africa -- where 35 out of 54 countries ban homosexuality, and where it's punishable by death in four countries -- being openly gay requires a staggering amount of bravery. So imagine the courage it took to curate and submit to the 2014 LGBT-themed anthology Queer Africa: New and Collected Fiction.

The work was instantly lauded on publication, winning a Lambda Literary Award for best LGBT anthology, and general praise. It was described by poet Gabeba Baderoon as "a collection of unapologetic, tangled, tender, funny, bruising and brilliant stories about the many ways in which we love each other on the continent."
Makhosazana (Khosi) Xaba, who co-edited the book with fellow South African Karen Martin, says that the anthology's publication pointed towards an opening up of attitudes in Africa.
    "There's acceptance, if you like, of our lives, and the tone is beginning to change. That's not to say that all the problems have gone -- there's definite problems, with perceptions and such -- but I feel there's greater acceptance," she says.
    The first volume, published by MaThoko's Books, brought together eighteen authors from six sub-Saharan countries. Now, Xaba and Martin are working on a second volume.

    More countries, more stories

    "We're looking for stories from many more countries, which relate to more experiences," says Xaba, who this year is also accepting stories in translation.
    Co-editors Makhosazana (Khosi) Xaba and Karen Martin.
    She says that she also is hoping for a bigger representation from North Africa, and is considering an Arabic translation of the original anthology. Xaba says she's also looking for stories that address a broader range of experiences, including those felt by the transgender community.
    "(I'm) hoping for a lot more conversations and discussions about being trans in the continent," she says, though adds that addressing "hot" topics isn't a guarantee of inclusion.
    "(if a story) doesn't meet a good literary standard, I'm not selecting it," she adds.
    Mainly, though, she wants to present an alternative to the traditional "African" narrative.
    "(What) wasn't being said enough was the idea that the African experience includes LGBTQI experiences. What was being said about it was more about how it is strange, how this is problematic... and what wasn't being said was that actually, this is normal, held and accepted -- that picture hasn't been spoken about as much," she says.

    The new normal

    The first volume included stories by Ugandan and Nigerian authors -- two countries that have some of the harshest anti-homosexuality laws.
    It's evidence, says Leda Avgousti, Amnesty Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Adviser, that "art is one way to change homophobic and transphobic attitudes that fuel discrimination against LGBTI people.
    "Art has the power to challenge discrimination and violence by bringing the message of equality and human rights into the mainstream. It gives us the tools to create much needed social change."
    When "Queer Africa" won its Lambda Award, Xaba says "that was it." There was no follow through, no further debates. She hopes therefore that the next anthology will inspire more discussion, and bring African LGBTI issues further into the light.
    "Optimism has grown in many countries in the continent. Activism has grown in many countries, even though the laws may not have changed. When there's activism on the ground, the language changes, the attitude changes and the thinking changes," she says.
    Writers who have submitted their stories can expect to hear from Xaba and Martin by April 30, when the final selection will be made. As for the release date: we'll have to remain patient -- with 82 entries to critique and whittle down, the curators have a happy problem on their hands.