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‘Creating an Experimental Space for Queer People in the Global South’: An Interview about the African Queer University Programme

15 SEP 2020

Queer University founder Xiaogang Wei in Accra, April 2019

(photo credit: Xiaogang Wei)

The following interview about the African Queer University Video Capacity Building Training Programme (African Queer University Programme for short) (2017-2019) was conducted in August and September 2020 between Hongwei Bao and Xiaogang Wei, founder of Queer University. For more information about the programme, see ‘The Queer Global South: Transnational Video Activism Between China and Africa.’ Global Media and China 5:3 (2020), 294-318. DOI:10.1177/2059436420949985

Bao: As a founder of Queer University, could you please talk about how and why did the African Queer University Programme start?

Wei: The idea of running the Queer University programme in Africa came from my own reflections on the LGBTQ movement. In China, we usually look to the West for queer activist ideas, experiences, and strategies. The discussion of queer theory has made me critically reflect on what is invisible in a movement. Such a reflection was also an important reason for me to participate in the LGBTQ movement in China. I entered China’s LGBTQ movement through queer filmmaking, first as an actor, then as a director. I also participated in the organisation of the Beijing Queer Film Festival. These were all done to address the low media visibility of LGBTQ people in China, and in Asia overall. Later I found out that queer people in Africa also enjoyed low media visibility. When I talked about films and videos with African friends, we realised that we had never seen each other’s works. At that time, South-South collaboration was a hot topic internationally. The Chinese government was actively promoting collaboration with countries in the Global South. We were even invited to speak on the Queer University African Programme at several international conferences on South-South collaboration in which representatives from the Chinese government were also present. At those conferences, we did not dare to talk about LGBTQ rights because of the presence of representatives from the Chinese police. Previously, the police had frequently visited our offices. Therefore, even if we were allowed to speak at international conferences, we could only talk about the project from the perspective of gender and sexual diversity education. 

In 2015, the Ford Foundation organised a workshop on gender and sexuality in China at an African AIDS Conference held in Zimbabwe. I met some African queer organisations there. They expressed interest in the Queer University programme which we ran in China. We communicated with each other at the conference and later at an international AIDS Conference in South Africa. Later, we were lucky to get some funding from the Ford Foundation. With the funding support, we were able to collaborate with queer organisations in Africa running the Queer University programme together. By that time, we had run Queer University in China for many years, and we saw the positive role of Queer University in encouraging and promoting local queer film and video production. I also liked the way of engaging in the LGBTQ movement with filmmaking and video production. I hope to share this art-based programme with African friends, establish connections with each other, and increase visibility amongst each other. 

Bao: What was your collaboration with African counterparts like? Was the collaboration smooth and enjoyable? Did you encounter any difficulty in communication or different ways of working, and how did you resolve these issues?

Wei: Our key partners included an LGBT organisation with thirty years of history in Zimbabwe and a young feminist group in Ghana. Our collaborations were very pleasant, and the workshops were successful. This was an art-based project; and the group from Ghana happened to have rich experiences in working with art – they added a lot of their own ideas and experiences in organising the workshops. We completed some films and videos together and learned a lot from each other too. I also used some of the ideas I learned from the African counterpart in our Queer University programme in China. In our collaboration, we tried our best to avoid the attitude of being a teacher; that is, reproducing our work from China and apply it directly in an African context. We shared our work experience with local partners in Africa and encouraged them to develop their own curriculum and modes of delivery. In this way, local groups in Africa could make the best use of their own resources and teachers. The Queer University programme developed in this way could also better represent African queer cultures and speak to African issues.

The biggest challenge we had was that we were not able to invite African queer filmmakers to China to attend queer film festivals and screenings every year as we had planned to. In the second and third year, we made every effort but none of them worked. From this, we can see that China’s openness to Africa is conditional.

Bao: What have you learned from each other?

Wei: I have learned a lot from our African partners – from the rich and diverse gender cultures in different parts of Africa, to the different trajectories of LGBT movements in each country. For example, a Queer University participant from Ghana was born in a tribe where women take charge of the household at her coming of age. He showed me a group of photos that he took of the tribe, in which these young, bearded, and topless women looked straight into the camera. I was shocked to see these images and that was a revelation. In our life, we seldom see such representations of gender diversity in Africa. We made the decision to support this student’s proposed project on his tribe, and we hope to see the film completed soon.

Bao: How could the workshop have been done differently, if given a chance?

Wei: The idea of the Queer University came from my experience of a similar programme held in Marseille, France. The programme was open to all. At the workshop, I met people from all walks of life: students, unemployed people, bus drivers, librarians, among others. We organised an animation workshop. There are all sorts of different events and activities, such as workshops, seminars, performances, and screenings. I wish that the time length of the Queer University programme could be extended longer, and that we could add different forms of topics and art workshops, to create an experimental space for queer people in the Global South to exchange their ideas and share their art practices. 

Bao: Thank you for sharing with us!