Reports from the West African nation of Senegal say that the government has arrested 11 people accused of homosexual acts. If convicted, those accused—who were rounded up at a “celebration of a gay marriage”—face up to five years in prison.
Incidents like this are rare, but not unprecedented, particularly in West Africa. Similar arrests have taken place in Nigeria, Gambia, and Cameroon. But it may be, in part, a backlash against American efforts.
In 2013, in what was seen across Africa as an overbearing attempt to influence policy, President Obama raised the issue of LGBT equality with Senegalese President Macky Sall. But President Sall doubled down, saying that Senegal would decide its own laws—and adding that it had banned the death penalty, thus putting it ahead of the United States on at least one human-rights issue. In March 2014, Senegal sentenced two men to six months each in prison for the crime of homosexuality.
Again in 2015, during Obama’s trip to Kenya, leaders from across the continent warned the president not to lecture Africans on human rights, especially same-sex marriage. Zimbabwean despot Robert Mugabe jokingly said he would propose to Obama himself.
And earlier this month, The New York Times published a controversial and error-filled account of LGBT issues in Africa under the headline “U.S. Support of Gay Rights in Africa May Have Done More Harm Than Good.” That piece quoted a Nigerian human-rights activist who described Nigeria’s 2014 anti-gay law as “blowback” against American intervention.
So, with President Sall still in power and “blowback” underway in West Africa, is U.S. policy responsible for the 11 people now rotting in a Senegalese jail?
Not so fast.
First, Senegal is an unusual country. It is over 90 percent Muslim, but predominantly Sufi. Meanwhile, it is surrounded by more extreme iterations of Islam: Boko Haram in Nigeria, and its neighbor, Gambia, recently declared itself an Islamic state. It’s possible that Senegal’s doubling down on anti-gay laws is part of an effort to legitimate itself and its version of Islam.
This has occurred around the world as religions vie for supremacy, often by attempting to outdo one another on matters of social conservatism. Often, this takes the form of anti-Western rhetoric, but the real enemies are closer. In Russia, for example, the Russian Orthodox Church has defined itself against the West, but largely as a response to the inroads of evangelical Christianity. In Uganda, much of the country’s rabidly anti-gay Christian rhetoric is, in part, an attempt to outflank Islam.
Likewise, Senegal’s relatively moderate Sufism—which is seen as heresy by large swaths of the Muslim world—is threatened by more conservative forms of Islam. Cracking down on homosexuality is one way to stave off the threat by appearing as morally “pure.” (Similar developments have taken place in Malaysia and Indonesia.)
Second, it’s hard to correlate specific anti-gay actions with any particular pro-gay initiatives. In fact, anti-gay attacks and arrests have taken place for decades with little need for prompting from the U.S. And although the Times article quoted one Nigerian human-rights activist and one HIV activist on the “blowback” effect, as well as two anti-gay Nigerian activists, it did not include anyone with a contrary point of view.
Davis Mac-Iyalla, a Nigerian activist who founded the LGBT Christian organization Changing Nigeria in 2005, is one such person. “Obama raising the LGBT issue was marvelous,” Mac-Iyalla told The Daily Beast. “The African LGBT struggle could not have come this far without the support of the West.”
Mac-Iyalla also points out that the real turning point in terms of African perceptions of homosexuality as “Western” resulted not from U.S. foreign aid, but from the Anglican Communion’s evolution on the issue, beginning at the 1998 conference in Canterbury and culminating in the 2003 ordination of the first openly gay bishop, Bishop Gene Robinson.
“The very first bill to further punish Nigeria homosexuals was an executive bill sponsored by the government in 2006, with the full blessing of the Church of Nigeria Anglican Communion.”
That, of course, was when George W. Bush was president, and what was then called “gay rights” was anathema to U.S. government policy.
Finally, the Times article radically overstated the amount of U.S. spending in the area, citing a figure of $700 million. That claim was duly repeated by anti-gay organizations like the Family Research Council (which, in a nice leftward turn, accused the U.S. of “cultural imperialism”) and websites like Breitbart.
But that figure includes the total amount spent on all “vulnerable populations” for public health purposes, not just LGBT people. According to Andrew Park, director of International Programs at the Williams Institute, which studies issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity, the actual figure is closer to $7 million—two orders of magnitude off.
In fact, the only thing the Times got right was its impersonation of African anti-gay activists, who routinely say that homosexuality is a Western invention, a Western sin, or a Western value. They are the ones who link the justified rage at 300 years of Western depredation of Africa with opposition to contemporary Western policies. In what is now a series of articles, the Times has endorsed this view.
In fact, said Mac-Iyalla, “homosexuality is not a Western import to Africa—homophobia is.” Of the 34 African countries with laws against homosexuality, 30 are colonial-era laws from European colonizers. In the case of British Commonwealth countries, many of the laws even share the same citation, Section 377. That includes the African nations of Malawi, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Ghana, Gambia, Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Nigeria.
In other words, the Western export here is not homosexuality, but the laws against it. Anthropologists have recorded over 20 distinct cultural forms of indigenous African same-sex intimacy. None of these were mentioned in the Times.
So, are the arrests in Senegal a backlash against Western pressure? Possibly, but only as part of a mafe (stew) of religious strife, cultural resistance, anti-colonial sentiment, and, ironically, colonial sentiment.
And, of course, power. In 2008, after a violent attack against him, Mac-Iyalla fled to the United Kingdom, where he now lives as a refugee. “African government and religious leaders are not speaking the truth about their homosexual citizens,” he said. “And now, neither is The New York Times.”