Selly Thiam’s Digital Media Organization Is Committed To Documenting Stories of Queer Africans

In 2004, Selly Thiam was working as a teacher in Chicago when she read about the murder of Sierra Leonean lesbian activist FannyAnn Eddy. Thiam, a Senegalese-American, was shaken by the news and also by how little she knew about LGBT activism in Africa.

Harsh anti-LGBT laws across the African continent have kept many LGBT Africans deeply hidden, but Thiam became determined to chronicle their existence so future generations would know they were here. In 2006, she founded None on Record to document the stories of queer people throughout Africa.

“A lot of times people would say, ‘Queer Africans don’t exist,’” Thiam says. “Or there’s no such thing as a lesbian African. It’s not part of our culture, not part of our societies.”

She began traveling across the continent and recording interviews to prove otherwise. Her subjects, she says, were eager to share their stories. “It’s important everyone sees themselves represented. It gives us all a great sense of peace to know we exist, we matter, and we belong.”

None on Record has grown significantly since its inception as an oral documentation project. Now based in Kenya, the team makes documentaries, hosts journalism and digital media trainings for other activists, throws the Tamasha Festival every two years to celebrate African LGBT art and culture, and produces the AfroQueer podcast, hosted by Thiam.

The podcast discusses a wide range of topics, from a gay wedding that went viral in Nigeria, to whether Grindr does enough to keep African users safe, to a police raid at a Ugandan Gay Pride event, to a film banned in Kenya for “promoting lesbianism.”

In January, AfroQueer beat thousands of other applicants to become part of the first Google Podcasts Creator Program accelerator, which is working to help increase diversity in the podcasting industry.

None on Record has also recently partnered with the United Nations Free and Equal campaign to produce a four-part documentary series on LGBT allies in Africa.

Thiam’s goal with None on Record is to celebrate African queerness. She doesn’t want to focus exclusively on sad stories, but she also feels a duty to be authentic to the experiences many queer Africans have. “We set out when we did Afroqueer to tell happy stories and love stories,” she says. “We couldn’t always get those stories.”

Still, Thiam is proud of the work she is doing and the stories None on Record tells. “I think it means a lot to a lot of people to have these kinds of stories being told about them and their communities,” she says.

Of course, there are risks in putting these stories out there, but Thiam says her team does a thorough risk assessment before revealing a person’s identity or showing their face in a story.

When starting None on Record, Thiam says her biggest challenge was getting others, particularly potential funders, to understand her vision. People struggled to grasp what a company solely dedicated to telling queer African stories would look like.

“I had to talk to people who had no concept of what was going on in terms of LGBT on the continent and convince them this was an important thing to invest in,” she says. “So that was something I learned really quickly, how to talk to different types of people to support this work.”

Thiam’s biggest piece of advice to other entrepreneurs: Don’t change to please a funder. “As tempting as it will be,” she says, “Do not change or shift what you’re doing to fit into what a funder would want you to do…When you’re starting a business and it’s the beginning and it’s tough and there maybe isn’t enough resources and capital to go around, it’s very tempting to do that. But once you start doing that, it becomes what you do.”

By this, she doesn’t mean don’t accept feedback, but rather, ensure you really trust the people you listen to.

Thiam has also learned to have thick skin, to be assertive, and to never stop believing in her ideas. “There’s always this moment where you stop listening to all the static, and you just have to be singularly focused in a lot of ways,” she says. “I think that’s a good skill to develop, particularly as a woman here on the continent doing anything that is new or different or against the norm.”

Thiam does believe the state of LGBT rights in Africa is slowly improving. More people are coming out, she says, and, thanks to an increase in community activism, more conversations are being had about queer identities.

“In a lot of ways I think there’s a tide,” she says. “There’s a change. Something’s happening here.”

I profile queer, female-identifying entrepreneurs, from their products and innovations, to the company cultures they strive to create, to the challenges they work to overcome.
by Molly Sprayregen
Source – Forbes