World

03.31.14

Why Africa’s Turning Anti-Gay

Western activism is causing more harm than good to a continent making LGBT people into scapegoats for colonialism.

As an LGBT activist, I was always happy to see my picture in the paper. It showed that I was doing my job, getting attention for the cause I believed in—and, of course, getting some attention myself. 

But after a story about George Freeman, director of the Sierra Leone LGBT organization Pride Equality, was published in a local newspaper last year—with photos accompanying it—he was dragged from his car and beaten by two men on motorcycles.

Freeman never consented to the story; the newspaper culled its content from an MTV interview. His assailants were never caught.

There are many stories like Freeman’s, of course, and the situation is steadily getting worse, even as LGBTs have made remarkable progress here—or perhaps because of it.  In fact, the rising tide of anti-gay sentiment in sub-Saharan Africa, as elsewhere, is an ironic brew of anti-Westernism and Western influence.  And well-meaning American activists may be making it worse.

Homosexual acts are illegal in 78 countries. Of these, 21 are small island nations, 20 are in the Islamic world, and 33 are in sub-Saharan Africa. In all three categories, almost all anti-gay laws are a vestige of European colonialism, and date back approximately 150 years.  In several countries, the prohibition against “sodomy” is still known as Section 377, the old British code provision. 

Ironically, anti-gay leaders—politicians, clergy, journalists—in Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone have all, within the last month, called gay rights, and homosexuality itself, a “Western” innovation that must be resisted in order to preserve “traditional African values.”

Last month, for example, Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Koroma, said that “we have to take into consideration our culture, tradition, religious beliefs and all that…  I think the country should be led by what it believes is right for the country and not what is necessarily right for the international community because of the variations in our traditions.’’ 

In fact, pre-colonial African traditions varied widely. Over 20 cultural varieties of indigenous African same-sex intimacy have been recorded by anthropologists. There are Bushmen paintings of men having sex with one another. There are countless examples of cross-dressing and cross-gender behavior. There are instances of female warriors marrying other female warriors, such as in the kingdom of Dahomey, in present-day Benin—unsurprisingly, the Europeans called them ‘Amazons.’  There are even cases of male homosexuality being seen as possessing magical properties, such as the transmission of wealth from one person to another.

And, like the hijras of India, there are examples in several ethnic groups of men who took on women’s roles and dress to have sex with men. These people were not “gay” or “homosexual.” Those are Western terms, laden with connotations of culture and medicalization. They had names of their own: Chibadi (Southern Africa), Mukodo Dako (Uganda), and many others.

The irony would be funny if it weren’t tragic: cultures with rich traditions of sexual diversity now asserting that sexual diversity is Western, and that Western anti-gay bias is a traditional cultural value.

Of course, pre-colonial Africa was not some queer paradise. Many of the gender-variant male types were stigmatized; being regarded as women was hardly an elevation in social status. And some forms of African sexual diversity, such as pederasty, are hardly models for contemporary morality.

By scolding countries like Uganda and Nigeria for getting gay rights wrong, American liberals reinforce the notion that LGBT equality is Western, and, even worse, the patriarchal, colonialist attitude that we Westerners are advanced, and you Africans are backward.

But if the notion that homosexuality is un-African is not historically grounded, why is it gaining such traction now? Because it is a political rhetoric of anti-Western resistance —ironically, abetted by Westerners themselves.

For 300 years, Europeans and Americans colonized much of Africa and enslaved millions of its people. Colonial rhetoric was often virtuous: colonizers would bring civilization to benighted Africans. Even the dismantling of colonialism fit this structure, as now Africans would enjoy the fruits of democracy—conditioned, of course, upon neo-liberal economic policies that continued to maximize wealth offshore. Calling anti-colonialism ‘resentment’ understates its intensity and its moral gravity.

Ironically, both the opponents and proponents of LGBT equality are repeating the colonialist narrative.

First, as extensively documented in the film God Loves Uganda and a series of reports by Rev. Kapya Kaoma, a Zambian Episcopal priest (and, full disclosure, a colleague of mine at the think tank Political Research Associates), “African” ideas about homosexuality are often those spread by American Evangelicals, out to colonize Africa spiritually rather than politically.  Lou Engle, Scott Lively, Human Life International—these are not household names in the United States, and that’s precisely the point. Like has-been basketball players dunking baskets in Europe, the leftovers of the American Evangelical scene have found new life in Africa. 

These Westerners bring (relative) wads of cash and influence, and are gladly met by opportunistic African leaders. Each group is using the other: Evangelicals shift policy and are able to raise money back home, and their African collaborators can posture against Western imperialism and get rich.

At the same time, the notion of gay rights as Western is also reinforced by Western gay rights activists. Who was it who said “fools rush in where angels fear to tread”?  Indeed, the pressure, petitions, and paroxysms of outrage from the West may be having the opposite of their intended effect. By scolding countries like Uganda and Nigeria for getting gay rights wrong—even as the United States itself has only “gotten it right” for about three years—American liberals reinforce the notion that LGBT equality is Western, and, even worse, remind many in Africa of the patriarchal colonialist attitude that we Westerners are advanced, and you Africans are backward. 

I see this all the time on my Facebook feed, but it also appears at the highest echelons of the LGBT movement, in which celebrities castigate "backward" Africans for their “homophobia” while billionaires who profited from colonialism now finance campaigns to save African gays. Each time Americans and Europeans threaten to cut off aid to an African country because of its anti-gay laws, another African leader can “stand up to the West” and look powerful for resisting the pressure. Meanwhile, LGBT people on the ground become victims of the backlash.

The notion that developing world countries should leapfrog 40 years of social history, and the corresponding one that Western sanctions should whip them if they don’t, only feeds the flames of anti-Western sentiment and bolsters the political position of anti-Western posturing.

There are alternatives. Donor nations could support those countries who have passed anti-discrimination laws (Botswana and Mozambique, for example), replacing the Western stick with a carrot. NGOs could support African artists and writers, such as Kenya’s Binyavanga Wainaina, who came out as gay earlier this year. The prospect that Americans who cause hate crimes overseas could be liable in U.S. federal court—as is the contention of Sexual Minorities Uganda v. Livelyis an intriguing one. Most importantly, European and American funders can support a fight for equality in Africa led by Africans themselves.

George Freeman fled Sierra Leone in June, just a few weeks after his picture ran in the paper. With the help of a Spanish LGBT organization, he and two associates made their way to Madrid, where they remain today. The Sierra Leone government, which is reviewing its own anti-gay laws and considering making them even worse, called his attack an “isolated case.” 

Of course, it is anything but.