Out in the World: Lesbian from Niger finds her voice in US political campaigns

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Thursday March 23, 2023
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Aicha Tahirou, who was in San Francisco last month, helped get out the vote in Philadelphia with UNITE HERE during the 2020 presidential election. Photo Credit: Heather Cassell
Aicha Tahirou, who was in San Francisco last month, helped get out the vote in Philadelphia with UNITE HERE during the 2020 presidential election. Photo Credit: Heather Cassell

Aicha Tahirou, a lesbian who was born and raised in Niger, came to the United States for a better life. What she discovered is her political voice.

In the middle of the COVID pandemic, Tahirou found herself unemployed as a hotel housekeeper in Philadelphia and her unemployment check was delayed. She called her union, UNITE HERE Local 274, for help. The union was searching for campaigners to get out the vote for the Democrats for the 2020 presidential election. She jumped at the opportunity. After a bruising campaign, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris won the election and the Democrats were back in the White House, having defeated Republican former President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.

UNITE HERE is the hospitality industry's labor union. The union represents more than 4,000 hospitality industry workers in its Philadelphia chapter. Nationwide, the union has about 300,000 active members.

"Oh, my God, we did something. We did a really powerful thing," Tahirou, 27, said of that presidential election.

Now, she can't wait until the 2024 election, the campaign for which is already underway on the Republican side. (Biden is expected to announce this spring that he will seek a second term.) Tahirou wants to get back out into the field knocking on doors, talking about the candidates and issues, and helping the Democrats win four more years in the White House. She also wants to be fully who she is, something she only feels when campaigning and when she's with her union "family."

"I call them my family because I can be who I am. I can talk about anything. That's the only safe place that I have," Tahirou said. "That's why I love doing political campaigns."

The Bay Area Reporter sat down with Tahirou last month to talk about why it was important for her to campaign for the 2020 presidential election as an immigrant, how being a member of UNITE HERE changed her life, and why she's revved up for the 2024 presidential campaign.

Tahirou was in San Francisco for the National LGBTQ Task Force's 35th annual Creating Change conference in February.

"Coming from Africa, working on a presidential campaign that elected the president of the United States, this is big for me," said Tahirou, whose homeland, Niger, is a semi-presidential republic, meaning the president is head of state and the prime minister is head of the government.

The country's current president, Mohamed Bazoum, 63, is considered to have accomplished the first peaceful transfer of power in the country's 61-year history when he assumed office in 2021, according to the U.S. State Department. Bazoum, the former interior minister, beat Niger's former and first democratically elected president Mahamane Ousmane, 73, in a runoff election, in 2021, reported the BBC.

Considered one of the world's poorest countries, Niger, which is in West Africa and Muslim-majority, has a population of nearly 25.4 million people. It is often confused with Nigeria and borders the country to the north. Niger continues to struggle with human rights.

"There is no democracy in Niger," Tahirou said about her homeland.

In 2016, Tahirou, who had worked as a nurse in Niger, immigrated to the U.S. This was prompted by a family friend who urged her to move to the states to find her voice and live a better life, she said. At the time she didn't know much about the U.S. The American dream wasn't on her radar, but she got a student visa and studied nursing and learned English in New York. (Niger is a French-speaking country.) Uninterested in pursuing nursing, she dropped out of the program after a few months and started working in the hospitality industry, she said.

As a Nigerien woman, Tahirou knows all too well what it's like to feel like her voice doesn't matter, with the expectations for women in her homeland to marry, have kids, and stay home. She also knows the apathy and fear people have about speaking up and what happens to those who do.

"People don't speak up," she continued. "You can't just talk about things."

According to Amnesty International, journalists and human rights activists in Niger were repeatedly targeted for arbitrary arrests due to a two-year clampdown on dissenting voices leading up to 2020. There were a recorded 27 arrests of activists, unionists, journalists, and dissenting voices in Niger, with 17 of them being anti-corruption activists who spoke out about the allegations against the Ministry of Defense.

Samira Daoud, Amnesty International West and Central Africa director, noted the arrests were based on "mostly trumped-up charges" and a violation of the activists' human rights.

In 2021, Nigerien police arrested another 15 pro-democracy activists, reported the World Organisation Against Torture.

The State Department reported that while Nigerien officials have made steps in curbing abuses and corruption by officials, "impunity remained a significant problem" in its 2021 human rights report.

Being openly lesbian was out of the question. Tahirou did not change wearing blazers and vests or stop liking the attention of women, she said, but she didn't act on her attraction to women in Niger.

"People made it out themselves. They just assumed that I'm gay because of the way I dress," she said about people talking about her on social media.

Tahirou also did not speak out against the anti-LGBTQ comments she received in her homeland. It was only after she moved to the U.S. and began posting openly about her new life and being a queer woman on Facebook that she started speaking up, she said.

Living openly as a lesbian in the U.S. she said she receives messages on social media stating it's a shame that she's gay, like "I'm not making their country proud," referring to Niger.

Some of the messages say, "You better stay in America" because Niger is a Muslim country so "you better not come here" otherwise "you're going to see what we do to lesbians" or "we're going to make you straight," she recounted.

Doing something powerful

"I always wanted to do something powerful," Tahirou said. "I wasn't speaking about anything when I was in Niger."

She credits working for UNITE HERE in Philadelphia for helping her find her voice.

While Tahirou knew little about the U.S., she was surprised to discover that some people were attempting to suppress votes and working to take rights away from LGBTQ people, women, people of color, and others. They also spread false information, anti-immigrant and racist rants, and other propaganda, she said.

"I thought America will be safer for people who want to just be themselves," she said about the attacks on different communities. "I was surprised to see that in America."

She didn't know much about unions or U.S. elections either. "I just wanted to work," she said, when she signed on to campaign for the union during the election. "At the beginning, I really didn't know what I was doing."

One thing that she did know, "I really didn't see myself living in this country for four more years with Trump. I'd rather just go back home," she said.

Tahirou isn't a U.S. citizen yet. She doesn't have a green card, a permit that allows foreign nationals to live and work in the U.S. She only recently applied for asylum without any legal support.

She discovered a way to have her voice heard by getting politically involved and campaigning.

"I cannot vote, but I can make my voice heard by going out, knocking on doors, talking to people, making them go out and vote," Tahirou said, talking about American history from the enslavement of Black people to Jim Crow laws to gaining the right to vote. She would say, "I'm not even American. This is your country, so you better fight. You better exercise your right by voting."

Longtime gay activist Cleve Jones, who is UNITE HERE's political and community coordinator, told the B.A.R. that "UNITE HERE was unquestionably one of the most important factors in the Democratic victories in Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Georgia."

He acknowledged the work many organizations and people did campaigning in the 2020 presidential election but UNITE HERE's strategy made a significant difference.

"In this last election, we focused a great deal on reaching immigrant populations where people who had become citizens but had not yet exercised the franchise to vote," he said, adding the union took COVID precautions to keep members and people safe while canvassing.

As for LGBTQ people and queer immigrants, they "had a special motivation and understanding" that recently won rights were "under attack," said Jones.

"In Philadelphia, Nevada, Arizona, and Georgia our members were also up against threats of violence," he said, aware of the risks members, especially LGBTQ members, took. "LGBTQ people are at risk everywhere" especially in a campaign where "raw anger was everywhere."

He credited all members with approaching campaigning with "great determination" understanding the risk they were taking on.

The strategy worked. Biden won the election. "The number of new voters that were turned out by these efforts, it's more than the margin of victory," he said.

Tahirou was impressed. "I just fell in love with political campaigns," she said.

Next move

Tahirou said the next steps are to hold the politicians the union campaigned for accountable to keep promises and do right by their electorates such as better housing, better schools, and other issues.

"We're just hoping that those politicians that we help get where they are," she said, that "they are going to do something for those communities."

As for herself, Tahirou has big plans for her future in the union. She sees herself being a "big activist for working people" by being an organizer making positive changes for worker's rights, especially hotel workers, to have bigger paychecks, better contracts, and safer workplaces.

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

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