05.05.12

Could an African LGBT Activist Win the Nobel Peace Prize?

The message of gay rights may have gone global for young people, but for their elders it’s often lost in translation. The result, writes Jay Michaelson, is murderous rhetoric and violence.

Could a gay-rights activist win the Nobel Peace Prize? It hasn’t happened yet, but this year could be the tipping point. Last month, when the prize committee prepared its top-secret short list of possible candidates, it chose from a pool that included the names of several activists submitted for consideration. What’s interesting is that the names are not those of Europeans or Americans, but Africans.

Why? Because activists from Africa are on the front lines in a way few of their compatriots elsewhere are. Thanks largely to the Internet, the message of “gay rights” may have gone global, with young people in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East plugged into contemporary gay cultures. But when it comes to their elders, the message seems to be lost in translation.

Consider last week’s vote by the General Conference of the United Methodist Church to maintain the doctrine that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Most North American leaders voted to remove that language, but African leaders at the same conference compared homosexuality to bestiality.

Or consider last month’s United Nations Human Rights Council debate on LGBT issues. This debate received little coverage in the American press, yet it was both a watershed moment and an international travesty. On the one hand, the debate was the fruit of years of effort to get the issue on the agenda. On the other hand, it was, in the words of Sebastian Köhn, an observer from the Open Society Institute, a “circus.” The so-called Human Rights Council includes such beacons of liberty as Mauritania and Pakistan, where “sodomy” is a capital crime. And in the shadow of honor killings and state-sanctioned torture of LGBT people, nothing whatsoever was accomplished. 

The standard explanation of this culture clash is that developing nations have just not caught up with the West. The reality, though, is far messier. For example, American organizations in Africa have entered a cultural war between Christians and Muslims, each seeking to appear more pious (read: more intolerant) than the other. For example, American missionaries wrote and promoted Uganda’s nefarious “Kill the Gays” bill, introduced yet again this year, which would make being gay a capital offense, and supported a campaign of media-orchestrated violence, including one newspaper displaying photographs of LGBT people and calling for their murder. In at least one case, that of Ugandan activist David Kato, they got what they wanted; Kato was murdered early last year. Some may cluck their tongues at these “backward” nations, but the hatred they evince is actually as American as Coca-Cola.

Nor is the gay-rights time lag entirely geographical in nature. In Iraq, “emo” kids are routinely targeted for harassment and, in at least 60 known cases, execution by religious and governmental authorities. These are young adults who probably know Western pop culture better than you do. They know that wearing mascara or tight jeans isn’t necessarily “gay” anymore, and many (if not most) are heterosexual. But tell that to the imams. For them, funny hair equals gay equals Western equals evil. Disturbingly similar developments have been reported in post–Arab Spring Egypt.

Which brings us to the Nobel Prize. What’s needed now is bold action to counter the myth that equality is some kind of Western plot and recognize non-Westerners risking their lives to do this work. Two such activists are Frank Mugisha and Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera in Uganda. Both are living in peril, afraid for their lives in the shadow of Kato’s murder. They have been honored before—Mugisha with the RFK Award, Nagabesera with the Martin Ennals Human Rights Defenders Award—but many believe that a Nobel Peace Prize would be a huge step forward for this increasingly global movement.

Bestowing this most Western of prizes on non-Western activists would shine a light on the global nature of this struggle, just like last year’s award to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakkol Karman showed that feminism—and women’s leadership—is a global phenomenon. The struggle against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity (“SOGI” in international parlance) is as well, and merits being recognized as such.

While some may cluck their tongues at these “backward” nations, the hatred they evince is actually as American as Coca-Cola.

It would also rectify an ironic, and tragic, distortion of history. While homosexuality is decried as a Western innovation, the actual innovation is homophobia. Not only is recent African homophobia promoted by Americans, as in Uganda, but the whole concept of homophobia is a remnant of colonialism. Prior to the 19th century, for example, traditional Islamic societies widely tolerated behavior that Christian colonizers later identified as homosexual and sinful. But try telling that to the imams.

Globalization has brought new hope to sexual and gender minorities around the world, as well as a violent and bitter backlash from conservatives. A Nobel for a non-Western LGBT/SOGI activist would help ensure that the message—along with more lives—doesn’t get lost.