Homophobia in Africa

“Homosexuals are worse than pigs and dogs” said former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe during a community event in Zimbabwe’s Midlands region. “It is condemned by nature. It is condemned by insects and that is why I have said they are worse than pigs and dogs.” he further asserted (Zambian Watchdog 2011). In Gambia, president Yahya Jammeh declared to a cheering crowd, “We will fight these vermins called homosexuals or gays the same way we are fighting malaria-causing mosquitoes, if not more aggressively.”(Smith, 2014). As evident in these statements, homophobic narratives in Africa are pervasive and propagated openly even by leaders in high ranks.

Homophobic narratives in Africa are dangerous, discriminatory and have no rational or scientific basis. Many are founded on fear, myths, assumptions and a need to control and dictate human behaviour. There is a great need to debunk and counter these narratives as they impose life threatening risks to individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ), their families, friends and those who associate with them.

LGBTQ communities across Africa face high levels of violence, discrimination and oppression.  According to the findings of a national survey of LGBTQs in South Africa, queer South Africans experience alarming rates of violence and hate crimes. 41% of the LGBTQs  involved in the survey revealed that they know someone who had been murdered due to their sexual orientation, 39% indicated that they had been subjected to verbal insults, 20% revealed that they had been threatened with physical violence, 7% revealed that they had been kicked, punched or beaten, while 6% revealed that they had been raped or sexually abused due to their sexual orientation (Out LGBT, 2016). 

Being openly gay in many African countries is considered a western-influence, a taboo and a disgrace to the community. Some parents subject their children to ‘corrective rape’ in order to turn them into heterosexuals or prove that they are capable of being with the opposite sex. As a result, many closeted and openly gay individuals feel threatened and live lives of quiet desperation (Lurink & Maurick, 2016; Fletcher 2016).

Homosexuality is criminalized in 34 out of 54 states in Africa. In Sudan, Nigeria, Mauritania, Somalia and Somaliland, homosexuality is punishable by death. In Sierra Leone, Uganda and Tanzania, those found engaging in homosexual acts can be subjected to life imprisonment. In Nigeria, legislations such as the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act criminalizes LGBTQ families, friends and allies “who administers, witnesses, abets or aid” any form of gender non-conforming and homosexual activities”.  Similarly, this law provides that “any person who registers, participates or operates any gay related organization, society or club directly or indirectly is liable to a term of 10 years imprisonment” (Centers for Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2015).

In Kenya, individuals convicted of engaging in consensual same sex relations can be sentenced up to 14 years in prison. Individuals can also be imprisoned for 7 years for attempting to have same sex relations and 5 years for committing “acts of gross indecency”. These vague stipulations are often levelled against people who identify as LGBTQ. Men suspected of engaging in same sex relations can also be forced to undergo invasive anal testing to determine their sexual orientation. Generally, these homophobic statues brand people who identify as LGBTQ undeserving of protection dignity and empathy. Some these statues dehumanize the LGBTQI community and puts them at risk of discrimination, violence and harassment (Cooper 2015). 

In 2014, the Ugandan government introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Act which included a provision for the death penalty. Although the Act was declared unconstitutional by the courts, it emboldened and legitimized homophobic narratives, acts of violence, discrimination and oppression. Individuals suspected to be homosexual were publicly shamed, ousted and threatened. Some newspapers even published the identities of those considered to be homosexual on their front pages. Following this publication, a prominent Ugandan gay activist, David Kato was brutally murdered (The Guardian, 2014; Banner-Lover,2017).

Dominant Homophobic Narratives

One of the dominant narratives that emboldens homophobia in Africa is the notion that, homosexuality is a ‘western’ concept and “un-African”. This narrative is commonly used within the context of LGBTQ rights. Proponents of this narrative argue that LGBTQ rights originate from the West therefore, they are a reserve for western cultures and not for non-western cultures (WILPF 2013). Semugoma et al (2012) notes that, although many African governments consider LGBTQI rights as an imposition of their former colonial masters, laws criminalizing homosexual behaviour were established during the colonial era.

Postcolonial theory provides a suitable theoretical framework of examining narratives based on this premise. Post-colonial theory explores the interactions between European nations and countries that they colonized in reference to representation, identity, language and history. This theory acknowledges the effect of colonialism and its aftermath. Frantz Fanon, one of the earliest and most prominent postcolonial theorists, considered homosexuality a psychological distress, exclusively experienced by people from the West—mainly Caucasians. Fanon argued that people from non-Western cultures were free from the “disorder of homosexuality” (Schwenz, 2014).

Schwenz (2014) notes that, some postcolonial theorists, have developed mythologized depictions of their cultures prior to colonization. Their depiction tends to paint native cultures prior to colonization as completely antithetical to Western culture. As a result, they label things considered as immoral and inappropriate as a characteristic of the Western culture. For instance, in one of his speeches former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe portrayed homosexuality as an import of morally degenerate Western cultures that was not present among indigenous cultures prior to colonization. This narrative emboldens homophobia as it provides the connotation that eliminating homosexuality will help purge the ills brought about by colonial influence (Schwenz, 2014).

Although, many claim that homosexuality is an import from Western countries, a majority of homophobic narratives in Africa were inherited through colonialism. In this regard, Alimi (2015) argues that, “while many Africans say that homosexuality is un-African, the African culture is no stranger to homosexual acts and behaviours.” Alimi further argues that in the Buganda Kingdom, which is currently part of the modern-day Uganda, King Mwanga II was openly gay yet he faced no hate until British missionaries arrived in Uganda, set up Christian churches and begun condemning homosexuality. He further notes that although King Mwanga is the most prominent African known for being openly gay, he was not alone (Alimi 2015).

Similarly, Kalende (2014) notes that before colonialism many African traditional cultures were tolerant of different sexual orientations and gender relations. There is ethnographic evidence of same-sex relationships in pre-colonial Africa among the Beti of Cameroon, the Azande of the Congo, Nama of Namibia and Pangwe of Gabon.  In their book “Boy-Wives and Female Husbands”, Murray & Roscoe (2001), find numerous depictions of homosexuality before the colonial era in African Bushman artwork particularly those involving men engaging in same-sex sexual activities.

Another dominant narrative against homosexuality is that it is “unnatural”. This narrative is sometimes referred to as the ‘Simple Natural Law’.  Natural law theorists argue that sexual acts among same sex partners frustrate the natural purpose of the sex organs— i.e. reproduction.  The natural order of things is for male and female to have sexual relations therefore, homosexuality is unnatural, unhealthy and immoral.  In reference to the natural law theory of morality, Bolatito (2013) argues that acts of homosexuality are morally wrong mainly because it is contrary to their human nature. She further notes that it is morally right for individuals to behave in accordance to their inherent nature and that homosexuality runs contrary to the natural order of things such as marriage and procreation that are highly valued in many African societies.

One of the key weaknesses of this narrative is that it is based on an unstated assumption that anything unnatural is wrong or immoral. Secondly, it is unclear what aspect of homosexuality is unnatural. The term ‘unnatural’ is rather used ambiguously (Meyers 2015). In this regard, Meyers (2015) notes that behaviours are often described as ‘natural’ when they come easily to someone whereas unnatural behaviour are those that are forced or counterintuitive. Certain behaviours such as running, or singing may come easily to some people while for some people these behaviours may be a struggle. In this sense, therefore Meyers (2015) argues that homosexuality may be very natural to some people and not to others. People who are gay might find engaging in same sex relations very natural and may struggle with heterosexual relations. Therefore, the concept of natural/unnatural is relative and may vary from one individual to another (Meyers 2015).

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