The Problem with Anti-Gay Africa

Beyers de Vos

I am a South African book-sniffing pants-wearing coffee-drinking scarf addict and journalist. I believe that everyone has the right to be exactly who they want to be and no one should be anyone someone else has told them to be. I awkwardly try to marry nerdy with rock 'n roll. Sometime I get it right.

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So it’s official: Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill, a bill that has existed in some form or another for eight years, but has never been passed, will be signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni. The bill introduces a life imprisonment sentence for what it calls “aggravated homosexuality” (which in my mind sounds like something very very dirty). It also proposes prison sentences for any person or group that provides counselling for gays or lesbians, or encourages and supports a homosexual lifestyle, apparently to stop “Western homosexuals” from “recruiting” Ugandan children.

The Ugandan president had at first vetoed the bill because of a legal technicality: there hadn’t been a quorum in Parliament when the vote was taken. He did however maintain that homosexuals were sick people, asking “what do we do with an abnormal person? Do we kill him/her? Do we imprison him/her? Or do we contain him/her?” and suggested that perhaps legislation was not the right way to deal with “abnormal people” because homosexuals would simply “go underground and continue practicing homosexuality or lesbianism for mercenary reasons”.

But now, on the back of a “scientific” study that he commissioned he states he has found that homosexuality is a social construct, a lifestyle choice, and has seemingly reinforced his government’s claims that homosexuality is a Western import, a side-effect of colonial rule. He has announced he will sign the bill into law. This comes just a week after Nigeria passed its own bill imposing more severe punishment on people daring to have gay sex, as well as any society or organisation which advocates gay rights (a punishment extended to any foreign nationals in the country as well, presumably to curb help from international LGBT rights groups), all while protesters gathered to throw stones at 11 men accused of belonging to pro-gay organisations.

And this is just the tip of a rather large iceberg.

Homosexuality, or at the very least sodomy, is illegal in 36 other African countries as well, though in might not carry the same heavy sentences. Even in countries where it isn’t officially illegal, gay men and women aren’t necessarily protected and LGBT individuals living in those countries often have no rights and are not protected from discrimination.

The anti-homosexuality problem in Africa has at its heart an interesting irony. For many Africans homosexuality is considered a consequence of westernisation, colonialism and imperialism; decadence, a disease: homosexuality was brought to Africa by the West and it has infiltrated African society. Homosexuality is un-African; eliminating it is an act of reclaiming pre-colonial African culture. At least, this is the dominant argument.

But this is just simply not true. The history of homosexuality in Africa isn’t as well documented as, say, the homosexuality practised in ancient Rome. But there are fairly well-documented and accepted reports of lesbian relationships in tribal Lesotho, for example, as well gay relationships in the northern Congo, in which older warriors took on younger men to help with household tasks and engaged them in sexual relationships. These kinds of practices had died out by the time they were first reported in the late 20th century and are based on oral histories researched by academics, but there is also a host of new anthropological evidence suggesting there existed a much more fluid, diverse attitude to homosexuality in Africa before colonial interference than was previously assumed.

It is far more likely, in fact, that colonialism brought with it not homosexuality, but homophobia. The arrival of Christian Europe, and more recently the arrival of American evangelicalism, not to mention the continued influence of Islam, is what is actually at the root of the anti-gay attitude in Africa.

But even if this irony were to be unequivocally proven and shoved under the noses of African leaders, there are still two problems.

The first is that the dominant narrative present in the response to this blatant, disgusting homophobia spewed by countries like Uganda by Western countries has been laced with a whiff of colonialism itself. Western heads of state have been condemning Uganda (and others) left, right and centre, and threatening to withdraw the financial contributions they make to these nations. Germany has in fact already withdrawn aid from Uganda. But this kind of response, this kind of Why Doesn’t Africa Do as the West Does, of how can Africa be so backward, so barbaric, so unwilling to invest in our Western value system, is the kind of response that will only alienate Africans further. By telling African nations that you will no longer give them money just because they doe not subscribe to your model of what society should be, by using your financial power to make Africa do things your way, you get dangerously close to a kind of colonialist argument that will not get a response from African leaders, and it certainly will not change the reality for gays and lesbians on the ground. That is not the way to combat this problem.

Secondly, this is not a minority view, it is not an attitude you can dismiss as something on the fringes of the conservative right. No, this is what the majority of the people want, this is popular: the people will not elect leaders that endorse homosexuality. President Yoweri Museveni gets elected in part because he opposes homosexuality; that is part of his mandate and the mandate of all his contemporaries that share his political and cultural beliefs.

No, the problem of moving past anti-gay sentiment in Africa is a nuanced and intricate thing and it will take a powerful shift of mind and a lot of time and effort in order for homosexuality to become accepted practice. It is a problem that requires much more subtle diplomacy than what is currently being employed. If the West is going to keep responding with rhetoric that has faint whiffs of colonial mastery, nothing will get solved.

This is a deplorable state of affairs and no government has the right to moralise sexuality or control what goes on between two citizens in the privacy of their bedrooms. This hate is a great and evil thing that exists in Africa and the attention that it is getting is a good thing. The more awareness there is the better. I am optimistic (against all evidence) that there is a solution for the people affected by it every day of their lives on the horizon somewhere, but in the mean time I hope that somewhere in the back of an office, someone who has real power and influence is sitting down and trying to come up with a way to really and truly slay this dragon, instead of just talking about it loudly in the media or threatening to cut the purse strings.

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