As a gay South African, Tiffany Mugo had to use academia to explore her sexuality, focusing her studies on LGBT rights. She is now a successful writer and runs the digital hub HOLA Africa (Hub of Loving Action), a platform for gay women in Africa and a launching point for events and publications, most recently a safe-sex guide called “Please Her: A Safe Sex and Pleasure Manual for African Women.”
With studies challenging the common misconception in many parts of the world that gay women are immune to the risks of HIV, Mugo wants to raise awareness that women having sex with women can contract many sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including human papillomavirus (HPV), trichomoniasis, herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia. The false sense of security around lesbians and STDs means that symptoms can often go untreated, leading to serious health complications, says Mugo. She spoke to Women & Girls about her mission to get gay women to practice safe sex.
Women & Girls: Why is there a misconception that STDs cannot be transmitted between women?
Tiffany Mugo: It’s because people genuinely believe there is no risk. Sex is perceived as penetrative. And the general perception is that sex includes penis and vagina, and so unsafe sex is penis and vagina without a condom.
Another element is the fact that [with gay sex] you can’t get pregnant, so it is seen as low risk for STDs, too. If you talk to women about having unprotected sex [their main concern] is not getting pregnant. You can live low key with an STD; you can’t live low key with a pregnancy.
Women & Girls: What makes this issue more contentious for African lesbians?
Mugo: There is the added element of African identity. In the West, the stigma around homosexuality is related to ideas of it being unnatural or going against God. In Africa, homosexuality goes against that, too, but also the very idea of what it means to be African. You are told that it goes … against the whole community. There are some identities you can walk away from, but you can’t walk away from being African.
Women & Girls: What’s the response from medical professionals?
Mugo: There is initially the matter of whether someone can even admit to their medical professional that they are queer. Outside of South Africa, doing that can get you into a lot of trouble. In some African countries, there are laws that say if you tell a medical professional you are sleeping with women, they have every right to report you.
Within South Africa, while it is legal and doctors have to deal with it, there is still the stigma – you are likely to get told off by the doctor, told that you should not be queer. And even after that, they are likely to say you don’t need tests and you are wasting the clinic’s time. There is a real lack of knowledge within those spaces, too.
Women & Girls: If doctors can’t help, who can?
Mugo: The onus moves on to the women in the community themselves to be their own guardians of health.
Women & Girls: As homosexuality is illegal or at least highly stigmatized in many of the countries you work in, how are you getting access to these women?
Mugo: It is very important to partner with organizations who have a presence on the ground. The organizations understand the context, so they know how to create a safe space because they have been doing the work for ages. We still have to be careful here [in South Africa]. During workshops, we make sure to ask people if they do not want to be [identified] online.
Women & Girls: What’s stopping gay women practicing safe sex?
Mugo: It’s mainly a lack of knowledge. There are options, ways of keeping safe, it’s not a completely hopeless situation. But if you don’t think about it, you’re not going to explore [them]. The other problem is [the perception] that it’s a lot lower risk … and a lack of knowledge of what could happen.
Women & Girls: A dental dam (a 6-inch square of thin latex or nitrile sheet) seems to be the only tool for gay women to practice safe sex. Is this a problem?
Mugo: There is also clingfilm! That is a huge problem. And considering that dental dams only protect you from one type of safe sex. Let’s be completely honest, if you think about tribbing [when two women rub their genitals against each other], how is that not going to get you into trouble? There is no protection for that. Also, procuring dental dams is difficult. I think the only way you can buy them is if you are a dentist.
Women & Girls: So if sex between women is low risk, do women need to worry about it?
Mugo: I read a WHO report that some strains of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis have become resistant to drugs – that’s awful! If people have a history of being unsafe about everything, it could get completely out of hand.
Women & Girls: What do you think is the most important thing that needs to change to deal with this problem?
Mugo: There needs to be a shift in mindset, both in the medical community and in the LGBT community that this is important and needs to be tackled. This is a serious issue. In the same way that no one was taking sex between two men seriously in the ’60s and ’70s until AIDS became a really big issue, safe sex among gay women is being ignored. More and more platforms are talking about it, but it is still way too few.